Seventy years ago, Roy Rushton peered through a hole in the floor of his vibrating aircraft as it swept over the Normandy coast. Just below, he saw German flak ripping the sky apart.
It didn’t look good; and Roy’s day was just beginning.
Rushton was heading into his first battle, in his first war. There would be more of each. Wherever Roy Rushton turned up, exciting, noisy, dangerous things always seemed to happen.
It’s tough to imagine a soldier who’s been through more perilous moments than Roy Rushton. But he is neither a brooder; nor a gasbag. He’s a level-headed, laid-back fellow, with a wry sense of humour, but with no sense at all of self-importance. Quite the guy.
At 11 p.m. on the 5th of June, 1944, Rushton and ten other Paratroopers in that plane, watched England receding into the darkness behind them. Two hours later, they would be fighting for their lives. As members of the elite 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, they were being dropped behind German lines, to help disrupt and distract the enemy until the main Allied invasion force hit the beaches at dawn. By 1 a.m., Rushton and his buddies leapt from their planes into the night, and were among the first allied soldiers to land in France on D-Day.
“We had to dodge enemy aircraft, and we got the rivers mixed up,” Rushton remembered to a local newspaper recently. “We ended up landing all over the place. Our Protestant padre’s parachute didn’t open.” The Germans quickly counterattacked with tanks. “We had no artillery, no tanks” he says. “But our commanding officer was able to contact a battleship out in the English Channel. The shells sounded just like a big freight train coming in. There was quite a bit of hand-to-hand fighting after that.” Within two months his battalion was down to almost half its men. But Rushton survived.
Next … on Christmas day, 1944, in dreadful winter weather, and in an operation normally thought of as exclusively American, Roy and his Canadian Parachute Battalion were rushed into the line in ferocious combat in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes.
Next … three months later, Roy dropped from the sky, again, along with 16,000 other paratroopers, across the Rhine into Germany itself.
It was the largest airdrop in history. Within a half hour of being on the ground, he was hit in the thigh by a Nazi sniper. Roy’s war was over … this one at least.
Next … as if all this was not enough, restless after he returned home to peanut-sized Salt Spring, Nova Scotia, in 1950 he went off to join the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry (the soon-to-be famous 2PPCLI of Kapyong), a new special all-volunteer unit created to be Canada’s first combat force in the Korean War.
Roy fought with great distinction in a series of savage hill battles. During one such attack, on Hill 419, with his platoon lieutenant wounded, Roy — a corporal — took the officer’s weapon, binoculars and field message book, and pressed on, leading the attack himself. Casualties mounted and the assault was finally abandoned. Years after the war, Roy discovered the lieutenant had survived his wounds, and Rushton returned his field book … complete with two bullet holes and blood stains.
Roy’s amazing life as a fighting soldier came to an end in late 1951 when he was deemed no longer medically fit to serve in combat, was given a medical discharge and send home. Today he lives in an apartment with his wife Margaret (and their pet chihuahua) in Pictou County, Nove Scotia, where they first met over 60 years ago, at a local dance.
Rushton’s been back to Normandy several times, but at 96, bad hearing and arthritis kept him from the 70th anniversary this past D-day. He followed the ceremonies on television. His memories are still out there, among the deadly Normandy hedgerows.
The French remember all this, incidentally. The French government has sent him a letter saying it will give him a Croix de Guerre … a Thank You, for helping liberate their country from the Nazis.
And that German sniper’s bullet? “It’s still in there,” he jokes. Quite the guy.