Dr. Peter Roper may be 91 but he’s only just getting started when it comes to paying tribute to the French villagers who risked their lives to save his in June 1944.
Last month, the Montreal psychiatrist was back in Normandy to visit members of the family that helped him after his RAF Typhoon fighter-bomber was shot down on June 7, 1944 — the day after D-Day.
A plaque in the yard of a small museum in the Normandy town of Tilly-sur-Seulles now offers his eternal thanks to the people of nearby Monts en Bessin who came to his rescue.
“The local people, they weren’t part of the resistance, or acting in any sort of official capacity. They just did it out of their own generosity and bravery. And a lot of the pilots got back because of them. These people have never been recognized, I don’t think. After the war, they sort of faded into the background,” Roper told CBC News.
His tendency to emphasize the bravery of his rescuers has long overridden any impulse to share his own incredible story of bravery under fire in the days after the allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
In fact, he’s never told his story to a journalist until now.
Typhoon a "thrilling" experience
At the time of the D-Day landings, Roper was a 21-year-old flight-lieutenant serving as the operations officer with the RAF’s No. 84 Group based on Thorney Island in West Sussex, England.
He was already almost four years into his RAF service, having enlisted at 18 as the Battle of Britain broke out in August 1940. After training in Rhodesia and an operational spell in Aden awaiting a Japanese attack that never materialized, he returned to England and in 1943 was assigned to his first Typhoon squadron.
Flying the powerful fighter-bomber was “thrilling,” Roper recalls. With a speed of more than 400 miles per hour, the Typhoon was the fastest fighter plane in the RAF. It would also develop into one of its most lethal with its arsenal of armour-piercing rockets, bombs and 20mm cannons.
Through 1943 and the first half of 1944, Roper put the Typhoon through its paces, escorting bombers, dive-bombing German ships and, as D-Day approached, attacking German radar installations and transportation hubs.
He says his favourite assignment was hunting German planes at their bases just across the English Channel.
“It was more fun going at low-level with another aircraft and going to enemy aerodromes when they were coming in and going out. We’d get them during the daytime when they were practicing for their bombing runs on London at night,” Roper said.
He's never revealed how many planes he shot down, and likely never will.
"I never tell anybody. I keep it closely guarded," he says.
It was this hunger for action that eventually got the young RAF pilot into serious trouble on June 7, 1944.
On D-Day, Roper was helping coordinate air support for the Canadian landing at Juno Beach. Technically “on rest,” he nevertheless couldn’t wait for a break from his duties to get in on the action.
That opportunity presented itself on June 7.
At first light, Roper joined a Typhoon squadron on a search-and-destroy mission on the eastern flank of the new allied beachhead.
The Typhoons came up empty.
“No enemy aircraft, no enemy tanks. No enemy activity at all. It was very quiet,” he recalled.
His next chance came that evening, and Roper convinced a friend to join him for another go, this time to the west of the beachhead.
As they came in low and fast near Caen, Roper finally spotted what he was after — a line of German tanks.
“Just as I saw them and went to get down on them to shoot at them, I was hit [by light anti-aircraft fire] and I had to bail out,” he said.
It happened so fast that Roper never had time to radio in what he saw, a fact he regrets.
“These were the tanks the held up the British army at a place called Villers-Bocage, a crucial spot for the encirclement of Caen,” he said.
Had he been able to call in their position, it might have helped the allies take Caen as planned by the end of June. Instead, such tanks helped stall the allied advance and the battle for Caen raged until August.
No time for second thoughts
Shot through the ankle by an anti-aircraft round and his plane on fire, Roper struggled out onto the Typhoon’s right wing.
His ankle shattered, he tried to find his balance on the wing of the burning plane, which was still going more than 100 miles an hour.
With his weight on his good leg, he jumped as high and as far away from the speeding Typhoon as he could in order to avoid the plane’s rear rudder.
“If you hit it, it would be like being cut in two,” he said.
The Typhoon’s rudder sped past Roper and the roaring wind helped fill his parachute, allowing him to float safely to the ground only 200 feet below while his plane nose-dived into a nearby field.
Roper credits his training and an earlier crash-landing in a Typhoon for the quick thinking that helped save his life.
“In an emergency, make a decision and do it. Don’t have second thoughts. If you have second thoughts, you hesitate, and it may be too late,” he said. “It’s amazing how in an emergency things become very clear and you become very efficient.”
“If you’re terrified, you can’t do anything,” he says.
Once on the ground, Roper quickly fashioned a tourniquet for his smashed ankle with his silk scarf, which he tightened with a pen from his pocket.
He still marvels at his instinct to make a tourniquet, a procedure he says he’d never been trained to perform. And the pen that proved crucial to it was something he normally didn’t carry because regulations said you had to empty your pockets before operations.
A French farmer found the downed pilot and gave him a belt of homemade calvados, which Roper mistook for water and gulped down. A German SS lieutenant arrived soon after.
“He wanted me to tell him things - what plane I was flying and that sort of thing. But I refused to answer. I only gave him my number, rank and name,” Roper said.
With his rank the equivalent of a captain, Roper also demanded to speak with a German officer of equal rank. Insulted, the SS officer soon left alone, but not before threatening to execute the wounded pilot.
That the French villagers openly helped him despite the danger of punishment by the SS is something that sticks with Roper to this day.
“They took great risks to look after me. They didn’t hide me because if they did, they would have all been shot.”
Hiding the injured pilot did become necessary at one point in order to get him to a village doctor in nearby Villers. To do so, his French rescuers hid Roper under straw in a cattle cart and ferried him past German sentries.
The doctor plugged Roper’s ankle with bandages, some of which stayed in the wound for more than three months.
After seeing the doctor, the pilot was then taken to the chateau of the local baron, Baron D'Huart, whose family looked after him until the Germans took him into custody.
Roper attributes the fact he wasn’t executed to a German army captain who helped to ensure that he was sent to a prisoner-of-war hospital instead.
Roper was liberated from the hospital by advancing American forces on August 4, 1944.
He returned to England, where he underwent rehabilitation and had a starring role in a propaganda film called Diary for Timothy.
He returned to flying Typhoons at the start of 1945 and was with a squadron in Holland when the ended in May.
Roper was never decorated for his courage.
He moved to Canada in 1959 after accepting a position in the psychiatry department at McGill University.
Roper still sees patients.
Today, he will join fellow surviving Typhoon pilots for an Ottawa event in their honour in the company of Governor-General David Johnston.
But his thoughts will be with the brave people of Monts en Bassin.