A last sortie? Montreal D-Day pilot returns to France for Legion of Honour award
Typhoon pilot Dr. Peter Roper, 93, wants honour to go to French villagers who saved his life on June 7, 1944
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
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.
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'
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.
The captain was killed in a later stage of the fierce Battle of Normandy, and Roper always makes a point of visiting his grave.
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.
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?
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."