Torontonian Robert Sterling is a man of few words, but his actions in World War II spoke volumes.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) veteran served as a navigator on bombing and supply runs over Nazi-occupied France during the height of French Resistance efforts in 1943-44.
And because of that, the French government this year awarded him its highest recognition by making him a chevalier of the French Legion of Honour.
In letters sent to him in September by the consul general of France in Miami, Gaël de Maisonneuve, and the French consul general in Toronto, Jérôme Cauchard, Sterling was heralded as being instrumental in the liberation of France.
“The solidarity you lent our people and country as a flying officer… will never be forgotten, and be assured that we are eternally grateful. On behalf of our government and people, a heartfelt congratulations for your induction into the Legion of Honour,” de Maisonneuve wrote.
Cauchard congratulated Sterling in a separate letter, writing that his “heart was filled with gratitude and respect for what Mr. Sterling and all veterans have done.”
Reached by phone at his home last week, Sterling told The CJN it’s “wonderful” to be recognized in this way.
“I was with the RCAF but on loan to the RAF. Our squadron, 624, was [considered] special operations. We were the only all-Canadian crew on the squadron. The other crews were all RAF from England,” he recalled.
Sterling said his crew’s orders consisted mainly of dropping supplies to underground cells in France, Italy and Yugoslavia.
“We also dropped in members of the underground into those same countries who participated in disrupting and destroying [enemy installations],” he said.
In all, Sterling said, he and his flight crew flew 72 sorties over enemy territories.
Asked to define how he felt as a Jew fighting the war while the Nazis were trying to implement the “Final Solution,” Sterling said his feelings were “difficult to explain.”
“I felt that I was doing my best to help destroy the Germans. Normally, you were sent home after 30 operations, and then sent back to the squadron. But we decided to continue flying in order to do as much damage as possible,” he said.
This is not the first time Sterling has been decorated for his heroics in the war.
In 1945, he received two medals: the French Croix de guerre medal for his efforts in the liberation of France, and Britain’s Distinguished Flying Cross.