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Monique Keiran: Veteran dodged danger in wartime skies

More than 70 years ago, Marcel Croteau, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 425 Alouettes Squadron and my uncle, was flying nightly bombing raids over France.

More than 70 years ago, Marcel Croteau, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 425 Alouettes Squadron and my uncle, was flying nightly bombing raids over France.

Because of his role in those long-ago missions, Croteau is being inducted as a knight (chevalier) in France’s Order of the Legion of Honour today. It is the highest honour the French government confers.

It is one of many ceremonies taking place this year in which the French government is paying tribute to Canadian veterans who participated in the 1944 D-Day invasion to liberate France from Nazi Germany.

This event is taking place in Sechelt, where 91-year-old Croteau, a former Victoria-area resident, now lives.

The smiles and congratulations of the 100 friends and family who will gather today will provide a marked contrast to the nighttime tensions experienced during the D-Day-related raids.

“We would fly out once, twice, sometimes more, each night,” Croteau says. “By the end of May 1944, we were bombing railroads, bridges and German supply routes into Normandy, as well as V1 and V2 missile sites and the German front lines.”

Croteau’s 39 missions included several close calls. He was awarded a Distinguish Flying Medal in June 1944 as a result of one of them. On a mission near Karlsruhe, Germany, a Luftwaffe fighter engaged his aircraft. As rear gunner, Croteau’s job was to protect his plane and crew from attacks by enemy fighters. He shot the enemy down.

In another incident, he and his crew barely made it back to base. A group of 300 bombers approached a target near Le Mans, France, at about 3 a.m. on May 22, 1944. The master bomber was having trouble locating the target and ordered the planes to circle while he searched. One bomber failed to follow instructions and collided with Croteau’s plane, sending it spinning out of control.

The pilot ordered the crew to bail out, but shortly after, regained control, averted a stall, and cancelled the order. The crew reached their target, dropped their bombs and turned toward home.

“The aircraft kept lurching and shuddering,” Croteau says. “The pilot was having trouble holding altitude. Daylight was coming, and a Messerschmidt [enemy aircraft] crossed our path at about 8,000 feet above — luckily, he didn’t see us. Then, as we passed the French coast, the enemy’s anti-aircraft defences opened fire. There were explosions all around. Some of the flak hit the aircraft.”

By the time they approached their Yorkshire base, the plane was almost out of fuel. The pilot called mayday and was given clearance to land.

The bomber came in with engines off to reduce speed, but the right wing hit the runway, and the plane looped. Despite a broken nose and a badly bruised back from the crash, Croteau says he was “so happy to be on the ground and alive, the injuries didn’t seem important.”

Two days later, the crew was in the air again, even though the nightmares and emotional trauma would last for decades.

Overall, Croteau says he found his 32-month RCAF service intense, but physically easy compared to his previous life. He grew up on a cattle ranch and farm, and by age four, was driving horses and hauling water by hand. By age seven, he raked hay with a team of horses.

In his early teens, he and his brothers were breaking land, driving eight-horse teams and putting up haystacks in the fields. He dropped out of high school to work the farm when his dad went to work in the lumber camps, and then worked in the camps himself.

It was great training for the military, he says. He enlisted at age 19, and after the unending, back-breaking work on the farm, “flying missions almost felt like a holiday.”

Our lives today stand as testament to the sacrifices made by the women and men like my uncle. For most of us, even our most difficult days are rarely so arduous that dodging anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters would be considered a holiday.

Félicitations, Marcel. Nous sommes fiers de vous. Merci.

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