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Helmet fits: Pride of family of Dieppe raid survivor

“I am very proud of him,” said 14-year-old Leandre Marsolais as he and his mother Genevieve — her eyes wet with tears — held the helmet worn by his great-grandfather 80 years ago during the disastrous 1942 Allied raid on Dieppe in northern France.

Gerard Audet, a seven-foot (2.15 metres) giant known as “Big Red” because of his shock of red hair, was among the 6,000 mostly Canadian troops sent on the suicidal assault on the German-held port at the height of World War II on August 19, 1942.

“Operation Jubilee” was a catastrophe, with one in six Allied troops killed within a few hours, and Audet, then 22, among 2,000 taken prisoner.

But it was only the beginning of the nightmare for Audet and his brother, who was also captured.

– Death march –

After surviving two and a half years in a prisoner of war camp in Poland, he had to carry his sick brother on his shoulders during a death march back towards Germany as Soviet troops advanced.

Marsolais only knew his great-grandfather, who died in 1989, through the stories he was told.

But even as a small child he was fascinated by them and the large trunk of Audet’s personal effects which his great grandfather had hidden under his bed, and which the family “never knew the contents before his death”.

Then the family were contacted out of the blue in 2017 by Herve Fillu, a French collector of militaria specialising in the raid on Dieppe, who had found Audet’s helmet in the Normandy town and was trying to authenticate it.

Introduced by a Canadian who knew of Leandre’s interest, Fillu was able to verify the serial number during a video call.

It was then that Marsolais — who has inherited his ancestor’s height — first saw the helmet, filmed in the very place where his great-grandfather first stepped on European soil.

“It was very moving, I’d been preparing for that for a long time,” he told AFP.

The helmet and other long-hidden treasures from the raid are now on display at an exhibition called “From Dieppe to Juno” at the Canadian museum further up the Normandy coast at Courseulles-sur-mer, behind the beaches where Canadian troops later landed during D-Day in 1944.

– ‘All the suffering’ –

“It’s important to bring history to life through objects, (to remember) those men who were only a few years older than me who fought for a better world,” Marsolais told AFP.

His mother Genevieve Audet said she was “very moved” to learn more about her grandfather’s story.

“When watching war films, my granddad would sometimes tell me about a raid and how terrible it was… that the sea was red with blood, his comrades died beside him, that he felt the Germans were waiting for him but that he couldn’t hide.”

But Audet told his family little more — especially about his time in captivity.

“My granddad came back very ill with mental and physical health problems, depression, diabetes,” said Genevieve, 53, a librarian originally from Montreal but now living in Ottawa.

“We are aware that we are in a lull in history, but we are alarmed by what is happening nowadays with Taiwan and in Europe, to see the rise of dictators.”

Her son shares her outlook.

“When we see all the suffering endured by the soldiers who served (in World War II), we hope there won’t be another war,” said Marsolais.