Cyril Epton has met some memorable people in his life. He’s served as an escort at an official function for the then-governor general of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, and he’s chatted pleasantly with the Queen of England – but he had to risk his life to earn the privilege.
It was Epton’s wartime experiences in the Royal Air Force (RAF) that earned him the distinction that brought him into the presence of the two leaders – meeting both at 60th anniversary memorials honouring those who fought in D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
More recently, it was the government of France that recognized Epton’s role in liberating that country by presenting him with “The Knight of the French Legion of Honour” insignia, the country’s highest decoration.
Epton, now 94, proudly wears the award around his neck, but it is nearly lost among the many medals and decorations that festoon his Royal Canadian Legion blazer.
Though he’s now somewhat stooped over and slow afoot, photos from the era show Epton as a strapping young man who saw service in Scotland, as well as in Normandy shortly after the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, near Caen, as Allied forces sought to take that Normandy town, and then all the way north through Belgium and Holland and into northern Germany, ending the war in May 1945 near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Epton is modest about his service and about the efforts he and his fellow soldiers took to help survivors of the camp. It’s with some difficulty that he allows himself to recall that, yes, he was shot at by a German plane while on duty in northern Scotland, and yes, there were others who fired at him in France, and yes, it was dangerous only a few miles from the front.
“There’s nothing I did by myself,” he said. “I was part of freeing France from the Germans. It was not an individual thing. It’s something we all did.”
In all, Epton served in the Royal Air Force for six years and rose to the rank of sergeant. Like others of his generation, a military career was not one he envisioned growing up.
Epton was born and raised in Manchester, England. On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the RAF, hoping to become a pilot. However, he was found to be colour blind, which put an end to that ambition. Instead, he settled for other duties. He was trained in aircraft instrumentation, and his job was to make sure they operated according to standards. He was attached to Squadron 48, an air-sea rescue unit posted in various locations in northern Scotland. His duties included helping keep the air fleet’s Avro Ansons flying over the North Sea.
“I got sent to the most remote islands and places around Scotland,” he recalled.
One was Stornoway, where he spent six months, and then Islay Island, also in the Hebrides. “There was nothing, nothing. No young people. They’d all gone to the mainland.”
“They couldn’t find any places further north to send us,” he quipped.
Prior to joining Allied troops in France, the British military, realizing how Germans treated captured Jewish servicemen, changed his dog tags to say he was a member of the Church of England, Epton recalled.
Epton’s duties changed drastically after D-Day. Arriving in Normandy shortly after the invasion, he was part of the RAF’s 422 Aviation Fuel and Ammunition Park of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, assigned to a truck unit that produced oxygen used in aircraft, welding and hospitals.
Epton’s unit disembarked at Arromanches, part of the Gold Beach landing zone in Normandy. He was sitting atop a truck as it left a landing craft and plowed through the shallow water to the shore and then moved inland to join the fighting, which was heavy.
“It was terrible,” he said, “but you’re young and you take it in stride.”
Returning to England after six years in the air force, Epton married his wife, Ann, after meeting her at a synagogue social. Trained during his service in electrical engineering, he found life difficult in postwar Britain, where, he said, “there was a lot of anti-Semitism.”
Joining his brother in Canada, Epton worked as an audiologist and later in various capacities in a company that made candy.
Sixty years after D-Day, he brought Ann back to the beach where he had disembarked. “I showed her the hill with the gun emplacement. It was still there,” he recalled.
During that 2004 visit, he escorted the governor general and exchanged pleasantries with the Queen.
“The Queen said to me, ‘Is this where you landed?’ Epton recalled. “I said ‘No, I landed at Arromanches,’ and we chatted about that. She was very nice.”
As were the people of France. “People don’t forget. They come up to you, hug you and kiss you, shake your hand,” he recalled.
Epton joins more than 600 Canadian veterans to be named Knight of the French Legion of Honour.