Martin Maxwell remembers the night of June 3, 1944 quite well. With D-Day, the Allied attack on Nazi-occupied Europe, only days away, Maxwell and other glider pilots were summoned by Lt.-Gen. Frederick Browning, commander of I Airborne Corps and deputy commander of First Allied Airborne Army.
The general pulled no punches in his message to the men. “Some of you won’t be coming back,” he told them, advising them to write letters to their loved ones while they still had the chance.
It was a sobering message and good advice. On the night of D-Day, June 6, 100 glider pilots would die, along with 600 airborne troops and another 600 who were reported missing.
Maxwell knew what he’d be up against. He’d be landing an unpowered glider seven miles behind enemy lines, attacking German soldiers guarding three crucial bridges, taking on a garrison of German support troops and hoping that potential German reinforcements would stay out of the fight.
On a partially moonlit night, he landed his glider without crashing, and he, his co-pilot and the 30 commandos on board were part of the contingent that took the bridges that led to the beaches where Allied troops would land on D-Day.
Maxwell’s wartime exploits have not gone unnoticed. For years, he’s spoken publicly about his experiences, and recently they were brought to the attention of French officials. That led to his most recent honour. Late last year, Maxwell received a letter from Nicolas Chapuis, France’s ambassador in Ottawa, informing him that he had been given the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest national order in France.
The distinction “is awarded in recognition of your personal involvement in the liberation of our country during World War II. Through you, France remembers the sacrifice of all your compatriots who came to liberate French soil,” the letter stated.
Maxwell displays the handsome medal and ribbon, but he still hasn’t pinned it on his navy blazer. Finding room for it among his other medals might prove a bit of a problem. He expects that sometime this year, an event will be scheduled to formally award him the medal.
At 91, Maxwell is still sharp as a tack, fully mobile and still hard at work at the bandages business he started back in 1952, shortly after coming to Canada.
He remains busy lecturing at schools and he’s made a point of attending gatherings of veterans both in Canada and around the world, particularly in Holland, which was liberated by Canadian forces.
In addition to the action he saw in Normandy, he also fought and was wounded in Holland.
Originally from Vienna, Maxwell was born Max Meisels and changed his name so that, if captured, the Germans would not know he was a Jew.
One of five children, his family was left bereft when both his parents died six months apart of natural causes. Placed in an orphanage, Maxwell was part of a kinder-transport of Jewish children sent to England in December 1938. There he was adopted by a British Jewish family, whom he recalls with great affection.
Maxwell enlisted in 1942 and after requesting to see action, he joined the glider unit.
He describes his participation in D-Day rather nonchalantly. “My target was the Pegasus Bridge,” he said. “We had to land and kill the people who guarded the bridge, the sentries. We couldn’t use our guns. It would wake up everybody. So we used bayonets and knives.”
His unit held the bridge for two days until land forces moving up from the beach relieved them.
Returning to England, his unit was prepared for its next major mission, Operation Market Garden. That was the bold stroke envisioned by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery to land forces behind German lines, take bridges in Arnhem and open the door to a quick invasion of Germany in September 1944.
The mission failed. British forces were decimated, and Maxwell barely escaped death. He had been ordered to leave a trench and make for headquarters to tell the commanding officers that the soldiers were about to be overwhelmed. But after he’d trodden about 20 feet, a bombardment wiped out everyone in the trench. He was hurled by the shock wave into a tree and knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he was in terrible pain. His hand was close to cut in half, he had broken ribs and his hip was jutting out at an unnatural angle.
He was captured by German forces and put in the care of conscripted Dutch doctors, who nursed him back to health. While wounded, he saw a gruesome sight that attested to the barbarity of the Nazis. The Germans had hung Dutch civilians – men, women and children – from a wire in the middle of the street with a notice indicating that such was the fate of collaborators and traitors.
He survived internment in a POW camp near Hanover. His adventures continued after the war when he worked with Allied forces to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Now he feels it’s his duty to tell the world about his experiences.
As to the French honour, Maxwell said, “I’m very proud. When it’s given to me, I will say I will share this medal with those who landed and never made it. They deserve it just as much, but they never lived to see it.”