It’s hard to think of someone who has survived 100 years on this earth as a warrior.
It’s often difficult to see, in the stooped frame of a man of such years, someone who once donned the uniform of Canada and was ready to do his part for his country in some of the darkest days of the early 20th century.
It becomes a little bit easier when you’re talking to someone like Les Jacques, a resident at Rosemary Heights Seniors Village, who seems to wear his years as well as the row of campaign ribbons he held to his chest for a photo during a recent visit to the apartment that he shares with his wife Anna.
As we pause today, on Remembrance Day, to think of the sacrifice of those who served, South Surrey veteran Jacques and his family will also be celebrating his 100th birthday (when he was born, on Nov. 11, 1916, the date had not yet acquired its subsequent significance).
In his wry smile and the twinkle in his eye – even to this day – it’s not hard to detect the humorous spirit that made him one of the cheekier RCAF wireless operators attached to the RAF for a series of crucial operations during the Second World War.
A look at his logbook – carefully preserved by daughter Margy Rushford, along with a scrapbook of photos and memorabilia – also shows he was part of a five-man aircrew in an Armstrong Whitworth Albermarle that dropped a small group of paratroops near Marny sur Mer just east of Normandy on the night before D-Day (June 6, 1944).
Special missions by such squads that night paved the way for the successful invasion of Europe by Allied troops based in England, and the ultimate fall of Nazi Germany.
“Their job was to set up radio stations to guide the rest of them in,” Jaques recalled.
All during D-Day itself, he added, his and other Albermarle crews towed troop-carrying Horsa gliders to their landing spots, in spite of fierce flak from German troops below, bringing in reinforcements the next day as well.
“They had to get all these troops over to Normandy as quickly as they could,” he recalled. “We had 50 planes out on that trip and only one was shot down.”
That’s not to say there weren’t a few close calls, Jacques remembered – even though the Germans had been deceived by British Intelligence to expect the main invasion force elsewhere.
“When we were going in on D-Day we’d just dropped our glider off and all of a sudden tracers (streams of phosphorescent-coated bullets) were coming up. I hollered in the intercom “Skipper, let’s get out of here – they’re shooting at us.”
At other times the Albermarles flew missions low and at night, dropping supplies to the French Underground, he recalled.
And during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden – in which an attempt to boost the momentum of the invasion unfortunately bogged down at Arnhem in Holland – Jacques and his comrades were once again in the air, towing Horsa gliders loaded with men and weapons.
Jacques had been assigned to 297 Squadron RAF, which flew the Albermarles – a twin-engined aircraft originally designed as a medium bomber, but repurposed for paratroop transport (it could carry seven to nine men) and glider towing (a glider usually held some 29 men).
(The Wikipedia entry for the Albermarle, in fact, is illustrated with a picture of Jacques’ own aircraft becoming airborne from an RAF station in Oxfordshire while towing a glider – a duplicate of the shot preserved in his own scrapbook).
The plane, which on the ground – and during take-off and landing – sported a distinctive ‘tripod’ landing gear (with nosewheel as well as the two main wheels beneath the wings), has long been dismissed as an undistinguished design with a number of technical flaws against it.
But when men had to be transported quickly from England to operations on the Continent the Albermarles played a key role – and the men to crew them, like Jacques, were also vital to the war effort.
Jacques, who grew up on a farm in southwest Saskatchewan – a place called Cabri was the nearest settlement that could be counted, officially, as his hometown – had joined up on Nov. 6, 1941 (he chose the air force like his brother Alan, who spent the war rigging telephone lines for fighter squadrons).
After training in Calgary and in Manitoba, Jacques was assigned overseas as part of urgently-needed manpower to augment aircrew in RAF squadrons.
“We landed in England the week before Christmas in ‘42,” he recalled. “We came over on the Queen Elizabeth.”
Jacques, who was technically classed a wireless operator/gunner quickly found out that operating the radio was a minimal part of his responsibilities.
“It was always a real joke,” he said. “I spent eight months learning to be a wireless operator and on the first briefing we got on our first flight over France they told us ‘don’t forget, it’s radio silence as soon as you’re up.’”
Maybe it was that irony that brought out the dry, droll side to Jacques in intercom exchanges, particularly as a reaction to some more ‘hairy’ experiences – such as the time when his ‘Skipper’ – the pilot – forgot to put the wheels down when coming in for a landing.
“He managed to land it on its belly,” he said. “I said ‘Skipper, you know that was the smoothest landing we’ve ever done – we didn’t have a single bounce. He didn’t appreciate that too much.”
A great camaraderie developed between himself and crew mates – including bombardier Bob Richardson and navigator George ‘Scotty’ Scott – Jacques recalled they were infamous for going on ‘air tests’ as soon as they were assigned to a new station, a cover for scoping out all the pubs for miles around.
Fortunately, both Richardson and Scott survived the war and all three happily relived old times in a 1997 reunion in Africa – and that’s also a proud part of his scrapbook memorabilia.
Jacques, who returned to farming after he was repatriated 1946, was also active in campaigning for farmers’ rights, travelling to Ottawa in 1959 as part of the Western Farm Delegation to plead the case before prime minister Lester Pearson.
After his first wife died in 1968, he moved to the West Coast and worked with his brother’s electric wholesale company in New Westminster until he retired in 1981.
Looking back on his war exploits, he said he finds it difficult to recall now whether there was a strong sense of heroism or significance about the role he and his comrades were playing.
“You thought differently then. Everybody thought differently. You lived day to day. When you’re young and doing something like that, you’re totally focused on the operation. The rest of the time you were just beating time. You couldn’t really think about what you wanted to do. You were happy to get posted to an op.”
But there were also sad times, he acknowledged.
“I lost a lot of good friends over there. If it was someone you were really close to you you mourned him. If it was someone you didn’t know as well, you went to the pub and toasted him, and got on with life.”
But he does recall another time that he and another chum from Medicine Hat went up to London.
“We met some girls and made a date to meet them back in London the next weekend. During that week, I had to call one of the girls up and tell her I didn’t think we were going be able to meet them next Saturday after all.
“She was silent for a little while, and then she said ‘Tom’s dead, isn’t he?’ I guess she could tell from my voice.”