WATERLOO, Ont. — Peter Carl Reiber has never been to Canada. But he has a deep connection to this country that he yearns to explore.
His father, William Carl Reiber, was a Canadian soldier from Waterloo, sent to England in the Second World War. William was killed in action in 1944 when Peter was nine months old.
From his home in England, Peter wonders today: Are there any war veterans in Canada who remember his father and can tell him what he was like, as a soldier and a young man?
And so he is reaching out across the ocean for answers he may never find about a foreign father he never knew, killed in a battle that haunts us still.
“There’s a little hole that needs filling,” he says.
Cpl. William Reiber served with the local Highland Light Infantry. He was killed on July 8, 1944, in the village of Buron, France.
Liberating the village from the Nazi enemy, a key victory, cost the regiment 62 dead, 200 wounded. In a daylong battle, the regiment lost half its assaulting force.
“It was a baptism of fire and blood of the harshest kind,” says historian Terry Copp of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.
Sixty-five years later, the regiment’s first and greatest battle still casts its shadow over families who lost sons, and over veterans who survived.
Kitchener’s Don Matthews was 19 when he ran through whistling bullets to help dislodge the Nazis from Buron. He did not know William Reiber.
“It was actually horrible,” says Matthews, 85. “Guys were falling all over, right, left. It was tough.”
Irene Reiber, William’s British war bride, was pregnant with the couple’s second son when a war telegram announced her husband’s death. Peter’s younger brother was born four months later. Irene named him William.
Peter knows little about his parents’ wartime romance. It is shrouded in secrets lost to time.
Irene met William Reiber in England. She was a civilian, about 19. Her parents had moved her out of London earlier in the war to keep her safe from German bombs. He was around 21. They married in 1943, a few weeks after Peter was born.
In documents and letters, William emerges as a young man in love. He faced the uncertain future of a soldier at war. But he seemed keen to launch a family. And he was willing to do the right thing by his bride.
Irene was always guarded with details about her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, likely scandalous at the time. Three months after Peter was born, William named himself as the father on the birth certificate. “There was probably an adoption and he gave me his name,” Peter says.
After William was killed, Canada gave Irene a small pension. She never moved to Canada, but always displayed a photo of her husband in her living room. She died last year at 85.
Growing up, Peter knew his father had been a Canadian soldier. He cherishes a fading picture of his mother cradling him as an infant, husband William by her side. He has his father’s cap badge from the Highland Light Infantry.
He keeps a letter William sent to his bride from a battlefield in France. “Give Peter a big hug,” William wrote.
He often wondered how his life might have turned out had his father survived. “I’d always say, if things had been the other way, I’d have been a lumberjack today,” he says.
When Peter was a young man, he had William’s sense of duty in mind when he joined the British army. Later, he worked the docks and drove trucks. Now 66, he’s mostly retired, a married father of two.
He could never afford to visit Canada. But over the years he has kept in touch with curious cousins in Waterloo and nearby Cambridge. They sent family pictures. A Canadian cousin visited him in England. But they could not provide many insights about his father.
Family records and documents reveal William Reiber attached soles in a shoe factory, possibly in Waterloo, before he enlisted and left for England, likely in 1942. He was the only son of a family of limited means and had two older sisters.
He embarked from England on June 4, 1944, and landed in Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, after the beaches were secured.
On July 8, he was launched into battle against ferocious SS troops and fanatical Hitler Youth. The Nazi enemy had spent a month after D-Day digging in on the outskirts of Caen. They did not yield ground easily.
A published account indicates William served with B Company, 12 Platoon. His squad, armed with rifles and grenades, was ordered to charge and destroy two German gun positions. The enemy guns turned on them.
Cpl. Reiber “ran into a machine-gun nest. He was killed — the whole damn section was killed,” Sgt. Jimmy Kelly later recalled, in a battle account titled “Bloody Buron.”
William Reiber was 23. He is gratefully remembered today as a Son of Waterloo. His picture hangs on a memorial wall at Waterloo City Hall.
After the war, his grieving sisters and parents never wanted to discuss his death. They are all now deceased. “I know he was very, very treasured,” says Helen Stillaway of Waterloo.
William Reiber was her uncle. Stillaway, 68, was two when he was killed. She has never met William’s two sons, her cousins in England, but has kept in touch with Peter across the Atlantic, and she hopes he finds some answers.
“Even as a child, I kept wanting to know about these two boys in England,” Stillaway says.
Peter has seen his father’s grave in France. It was hard to do.
“You can’t talk to anybody because you’d make yourself look silly,” he says. “You’ve just got to walk away, take a few deep breaths, and then come back to normality.”
Now, he hopes to glean a few personal details about his lost father, understanding it may be too late. The few remaining veterans of the Highland Light Infantry held their final reunion last year.
But perhaps someone knows something that can help span the decades to reunite them again.