Kingstonians being honoured by France

By Sue Yanagisawa, Kingston Whig-Standard

Seventy years later and there is no ‘official’ casualty figure for D-Day — June 6, 1944 — the day allied troops, mainly from Canada, the U.S. and Britain, fought their way across the beaches of Normandy.

But that was just the beginning. The battle of Normandy went on into August before that one region of France — less than a third the size of Ontario — was wrested from an occupying German army.

This year, the 70th anniversary of that feat, two of Kingston’s own are being honoured by France for their part in the liberation.

Kingston developer A. Britton Smith, 94, and former Royal Miltary College Commandant Brig.-Gen. William Turner, who is slightly younger, have both been awarded the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour (Chevalier dans l’Ordre national de la Legion d’honneur), effective March 27.

A date for the official ceremony at the French Embassy in Ottawa has yet to be decided and they only learned of the honour in a letter from French ambassador to Canada, Philippe Zeller, earlier this month.

The ambassador also advised them that he’s secured permission from the Canadian government, allowing them to accept the foreign decoration.

Smith observed that was thoughtful of him, chuckling that it saves him having to decide, as did Conrad Black, whether to surrender his citizenship.

Smith insists that the main reason he was chosen is. “I’m still alive. There aren’t many of us left,” although he allows that being severely wounded in the Battle of Normandy might also be factor.

At the time, he was a major and Artillery Officer with the Royal Hamilton Light Artillery. “I got promoted right after Dieppe,” he said, because “we lost two captains at Dieppe — one killed, one captured.”

However, an anti-tank tellermine shattered his right leg in Verrierres, requiring multiple subsequent surgeries to repair and he was also shot in the neck.

“In the dark, several machine guns opened up on the (land mine) flash,” he explains. “I was crawling, dragging my wounded leg,” at which point Smith indicates with his hand the side of his neck where the bullet caught him. He remembers that the medics initially used his rifle to splint his leg, and being given a hand-knitted sweater with a Canadian Red Cross label, as he was being loaded onto a boat shuttling the wounded back to England. He hung onto that sweater for a long time afterward, he said.

He was also awarded the Military Cross on the British hospital ship Aba during the trip back to Halifax and remembers the matron sewing it on his uniform. He was all of 24.

Turner insists he was never even wounded, dismissing a bayonet through his hand on the grounds that he didn’t report it.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” he said. I got all the way through (the war) without being killed or wounded.”

Even younger than Smith, he was in the last class at Royal Military College before it closed as a school for the duration of the war. Turner shipped out in early 1943 as a lieutenant with the 23rd Field Regiment and was among the reinforcements after the invasion launched.

“I went over after D-Day on a liberty boat,” he recalls, on a sunny day when the water was so calm “I landed on the beach” at Courseulles-sur-mer, “without even getting my feet wet.” He remembers being told they’d have a day or two to orient themselves, but “we went straight into action that night.”

By the time Turner got to Holland he was promoted to captain, serving as forward observation officer with the 15th Canadian Field Regiment RCA.

He went on to serve “40 something years in the military, including a two-year posting to Germany as Brigade Major in command of the 3rd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and “a couple of jobs in Ottawa.”

He also served from 1973 until 1977 as Commandant of his alma mater, Royal Military College, and saw his cadets parade on Parliament Hill for the college’s centennial in 1976.

And if that was all that two veterans contributed, it would be plenty.

But Smith returned to Canada, entered law school, practising for 50 years in Kingston even though he admits he hated going to court. He’s a life member of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

He also founded Homestead Land Holdings Ltd., growing the company from a sideline that started with a single A-frame on Park Street to an enterprise that now employs about 780 people, responsible for the creation of about 24,000 housing units in 13 Ontario cities. He remains president and sole owner, with his children, and still goes to the office daily.

Along the way, he also served three terms as a Kingston alderman in the 1950s; joined and was eventually made honorary colonel of the Princess of Wales Own Regiment; and headed up the Kingston and District United Way, among other things.

Turner, after leaving the military, spent five years as a vice-president of the Urban Transportation Development Corporation and eventually went to work for Homestead, before retiring at 65.

Both men say they’re pleased to accept the French honour. “Delighted” was Turner’s word.

But they’re clear they represent a whole generation of young men, who by today’s standards were just kids, when they went “over there.”

Many didn’t make it back and time has been picking off those who did ever since.

Smith and Turner are now among the oldest members of the RMC Club’s elite Old Brigade. And at last year’s reunion, Smith said he was the only member of his class whose continued good health allowed him to attend.