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A last sortie? Montreal D-Day pilot returns to France for Legion of Honour award

On June 6, 1944, Dr. Peter Roper was a young RAF pilot with an injured foot, shot down in France ahead of the Allied invasion. In recent years, Roper's gratitude has led him to France almost every year to spend time in the company of the people who rescued him and their descendants.

Typhoon pilot Dr. Peter Roper, 93, wants honour to go to French villagers who saved his life on June 7, 1944

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)

As a Royal Air Force pilot flying almost daily missions against Nazi targets in Europe, Dr. Peter Roper never really expected to live past his early 20s.

It didn't help that he flew Typhoons, the RAF's lethal ground attack fighter-bomber with a grim habit of trapping pilots as they tried to bail out.

Roper said the life expectancy for young pilots in some Typhoon squadrons was about three weeks.

"We knew it was going to happen to all of us, at least we expected it to," he recalled recently.

"We were lucky to be alive a month — so we made the most of it."

"Making the most of it" has been the mantra of the 93-year-old Montreal resident ever since.

Back to France

Peter Roper joined the RAF on his 18th birthday on Aug. 8, 1940. He was 22 when the war in Europe ended in May 1945. (Courtesy of Dr. Peter Roper)

In recent years, that make-the-most-of-it spirit has led him regularly to France for the D-Day anniversary to pay tribute to the French villagers who saved his life in the days after the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944.

This year will be no exception. At 93, it may be his last Normandy hurrah, he says, so he's making sure this visit is one to remember.

"I don't think I'll get to France again, so we have to make this as good a trip as possible. Not for me so much as for the local people, because a lot of them helped me at great danger to themselves," he said.

Legion of Honour

The trip's highlight will be the presentation of France's highest award for military or civilian achievement, the Legion of Honour. All Typhoon pilots who took part in the Battle of Normandy are entitled to the award for the key role they played in the campaign.

Roper will receive his at the chateau where he was taken after being shot down while hunting German tanks near the Allied beachhead on June 7, 1944.

Roper managed to get out of his burning Typhoon despite a foot that was almost severed by an anti-aircraft shell.

He parachuted safely into a farmer's field and was taken in by villagers in Monts-en-Bessin, who snuck him through German lines in a horse-drawn cart to a doctor in a town nearby.

Dr. Peter Roper photographed on June 8, 1944 - the day after being shot down over Normandy. He is pictured at Chateau Haute Fecq near Monts-en-Bessin with Ghislaine D'Huart, daughter of the Baron D'Huart who helped rescue him. (Personal collection of Dr. Peter Roper)

His rescuers are long since dead, but Roper is determined to receive the honour in front of their descendants and his Montreal family.

Roper can think of no better setting for the ceremony than the old, battle-scarred chateau that's been semi-officially renamed Chateau Peter Roper by its owner, whose father, the Baron D'Huart, played a key role in the wounded pilot's rescue.

"I had this idea that it would be nice if the French could see it being presented. If it could be presented in France, particularly if it could be presented in Normandy in the chateau where the Germans kept me prisoner," he said.

'They saved my life'

Peter Roper photographed with his Typhoon in Holland, 1945. He returned to action after being wounded and taken prisoner in Normandy. He was liberated by American forces on August 4, 1944. (Personal collection of Dr. Peter Roper)
"I thought that would be great — great for them, because they're the ones who deserve it. I was just there — they saved my life! And they did it at great risk. They could have not only been shot by the Germans, but their whole families could have been shot, too."

Roper still marvels at the risks they took to save him and at their kindness.

"They were just ordinary people, ordinary farmers, people who lived there. They weren't Resistance. They did something for which they had no instructions to do, no advice to do — they did it out of the goodness of their hearts."

"Their families will appreciate the fact that their ancestors did a great deal for the cause, our Allied cause," Roper said.

If possible, Roper said he would like to leave his Legion of Honour medal for the people of Monts-en-Bessin to share.

Roper attributes his deep appreciation for the risks the villagers took in part to being wounded and "the great deal of feelings of resilience, strength and appreciation of others' help" that comes in such moments.

He extends that appreciation to a German army captain who saved him from an SS lieutenant who wanted Roper executed.

The captain ordered the pilot sent to an SS hospital instead, where Roper was given much-needed blood and a welcome shot of morphine.

"I didn't mind [the SS blood]. I felt a lot better at the time. I don't think it changed my personality, and it's circulated out by now," Roper said.

Eternal thanks

The captain was killed in a later stage of the fierce Battle of Normandy, and Roper always makes a point of visiting his grave.

Peter Roper with the model of the RAF Typhoon fighter-bomber that he'll be presenting to the museum in Tilly-sur-Seulles, France. (Stephen Smith/CBC)

Giving the Legion of Honour to the people of Monts-en-Bessin would only be the latest symbol of Roper's eternal thanks.

His first gesture was saving the life of Baron D'Huart in the waning days of the war in 1945.

Accused of collaborating with the Germans, the baron was facing execution in Caen when his daughter contacted Roper for help.

Roper quickly found his way back to Normandy and secured the baron's release with the story of his good deeds on the wounded pilot's behalf.

On a more recent visit, Roper arrived with a plaque thanking the people of Normandy who helped rescue him and other Typhoon pilots shot down during the Battle of Normandy.
The model of Peter Roper's Typhoon, made by the Aviation Museum in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que. Roper and his family will be presenting it to a museum in Normandy, France, around the D-Day anniversary on June 6. (Stephen Smith/CBC)

It now has a place of honour in the yard outside the museum in nearby Tilly-sur-Seulles, which counts the engine from his downed Typhoon among its collection.

This time, Roper and his family will bring a model of his Typhoon, custom-made at the Aviation Museum in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., to present to the museum while he's there.

A last sortie?

A plaque presented by Dr. Peter Roper to the people of Monts-en-Bessin now offers his eternal thanks to the villagers who risked their lives to help him after he was shot down on June 7, 1944. (Philippe Bauduin)

With the Legion of Honour, and the various other gestures he's made over the years, Roper hopes they'll stand together as an enduring reminder to the people of Monts-en-Bessin of their ancestors' courage.

As to the idea that this could be his last visit, Roper's something of an old pro at dealing with such thoughts.

"I don't feel sad about it. It's like going on a show, a sortie during the war."

"You make the most of it. You have fun."

Montreal resident Peter Roper tells CBC about the moment his RAF Typhoon fighter-bomber was hit over Normandy on June 7, 1944, forcing him to bail out. 1:08