'For the freedom of others': Montreal D-Day pilot receives France's Legion of Honour

The awarding of France’s Legion of Honour to Dr. Peter Roper, 94, was marked by three generations of his family and the consuls-general of France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany.

Now 94, Dr. Peter Roper hopes to get to Normandy in June to share Legion of Honour with rescuers' descendants

Peter Roper returned to active service in a Typhoon squadron in 1945 following his liberation from a German hospital by American forces in August 1944. (Personal collection of Dr. Peter Roper)

Montreal D-Day veteran Dr. Peter Roper is now officially a Knight of France's Legion of Honour, though it's a distinction the 94-year-old insists he doesn't deserve.

As he sees it, he was just "a parcel" that fell from the sky when his Typhoon fighter-bomber was shot down over Normandy on June 7, 1944; the French villagers who rescued him took the real risks.

Presided over by France's consul-general to Montreal, Catherine Feuillet, the awarding of France's highest honour to Roper in Montreal this week brought together three generations of his family and saw Feuillet joined by the consuls-general of the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany.

The French government granted the award to all living veterans on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014.

The French government announced it would give the Knight of the Legion of Honour medal to all living veterans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

"There were many times during that experience in Normandy when he did not think he was coming back, so it's quite amazing that he's here, he's still standing, he's refusing to sit," his daughter, Gillian Roper, said at the ceremony. 

"He's very resilient, tenacious, and that must have been how he survived the whole thing."

During the reception, German consul-general Walter Leuchs approached Roper to thank him for the invitation. As was the case all evening, Roper insisted that the gratitude was all his.

The veteran had personally invited Leuchs to represent a German officer who played a key role in his incredible tale of survival.

Dr. Peter Roper and French consul-general Catherine Feuillet after she presented him with France's Legion of Honour medal. (Stephen Smith / CBC)

A fountain pen, calvados — and the SS

With his foot nearly severed by the anti-aircraft shell that hit his plane, Roper managed to bail out of its smoking cockpit at around 150 metres and parachuted down hard into a farmer's field near the village of Monts-en-Bessin.

Losing blood, Roper knew he had to act fast. With the silk scarf all fighter pilots wore and a fountain pen, he improvised a tourniquet above his shattered shin.

Then he waited to see who came.

The first to find him was the farmer, who gave Roper a carafe of calvados. Thinking it was water, the pilot gulped it down.

They were eventually joined by a lower-ranking officer from the SS, whose Hitler Youth Division had murdered 11 Canadian prisoners at nearby Ardenne Abbey that same day.

Roper says the SS officer likely took one look at his wounds and left him to die on his own.

Villagers later snuck the pilot through German lines to a doctor's clinic, where his shattered leg was bandaged.

He was then taken to the local baron's chateau, where the SS officer he'd encountered soon after he was shot down caught up with him once more.

And that's where Herbert Voges came in.

Peter Roper, fifth from right, with members of 198 Squadron. In January 1944, 198 was the highest scoring squadron in Fighter Command, with 50 enemy planes shot down. (Courtesy of Dr. Peter Roper)

'An officer's sense of duty'

The SS wanted Roper shot, but Voges, a senior officer, intervened and had him sent to an SS hospital instead, where his leg was treated and he received badly needed blood.

"I was given SS blood, but I don't think it changed my character," Roper quipped during the ceremony.

Roper was a flight lieutenant, a rank that was equal to Voges' rank of captain. Roper believes a sense of honour compelled him to save a fellow officer.

"He was very important. He had an officer's sense of purpose and duty," Roper said.

Voges was killed in action days later.

Roper was freed in August 1944 by advancing American troops and returned to England for treatment. 

He resumed flying Typhoons at the start of 1945 despite his injury. As late as 2014, surgeons were still removing shrapnel and bone fragments from his leg. 

Peter Roper photographed on June 8, 1944, at the chateau where he was taken after being shot down the night before. (Personal collection of Dr. Peter Roper)

Legion of Honour 'belongs to them'

Roper has visited the German officer's grave on a few of his many return visits to Normandy.

The old pilot has been back more than 20 times to meet his rescuers in Monts-en-Bessin and, in more recent years, their descendants. He was back again last June at the age of 93 with the hope of receiving his Legion of Honour in their presence, but it didn't work out as planned.

He's now motivated to get back there in June so he can see them hold the medal in their hands.

"It feels like it belongs to them, because I didn't do anything," Roper said. "It belongs to the people who helped me; I was just a passenger, and they took great risks to look after me."

A plaque presented by Dr. Peter Roper to the people of Monts-en-Bessin now offers his eternal thanks. (Philippe Bauduin)

A nation's gratitude, and a grandmother's, too

Roper's claim that he did nothing for his Legion of Honour was disputed by Feuillet in her opening remarks at this week's medal ceremony.

Speaking in French, she welcomed those gathered to "justly recognize" Roper's contribution to the Battle of Normandy and to ending the Nazi occupation of France.

"You have vowed to recognize those who saved your life in June 1944, and you have returned to Normandy numerous times, but it's France that is proud of you, your courage, of your role in the liberation of our country," she said.

"In naming you a Knight of the Legion of Honour, France's highest distinction, France offers you its greatest recognition, because there's nothing greater than what you did — to have fought for the freedom of others."

Peter Roper says his rescuers in France are the one's who deserve his Legion of Honour medal, which is France's highest distinction. 0:15

And it wasn't just France that was proud of Roper, Feuillet said. Fighting back tears, she thanked him on behalf of her grandmother, too.

"She can't be here to thank you herself for allowing her children to resume their lives. You allowed me to be born and grow up in a free country, as well as my children, who carry in them the legacy of your actions," she said.

Feuillet also offered one last acknowledgement before presenting Roper with his Legion of Honour medal.

"I would also like to pay homage to those who didn't come back and their families, who suffered such terrible loss."

"You are — they are — part of our lives forever."