Repairing a wartime injustice: A son honors his father’s D-Day saviours

WEEKEND READ | As the world prepares to commemorate VE Day, Montrealer Harvey Engelberg will be thinking of the unsung heroes who saved his father from him.

Article content

For decades, Harvey Engelberg sought a way to honor the Canadian pilot and French farmers who saved his father’s life.

advertisement 2

Article content

He traveled to France 30 years ago to find descendants of the Duhamel family who took his father in after his plane crashed during the D-Day invasion of 1944. Their bravery would cost them a son.

He scoured war records to find relatives of Flying Officer Harvey Edgar Jones, who died in the crash landing, but nothing turned up.

It was a burden that weighed heavily on Engelberg, a Montreal businessman, now 69 years old.

“This was a story of the man who actually created my existence by saving my dad,” Engelberg said. “I mean, I got his name from him. I got his name from him. It was really tough to live with the fact he was unknown.”

Then, on March 7 of this year, a handwritten letter arrived at his Dollard-des-Ormeaux home. It was from Thérèse Férey, owner of the farm where his father’s plane crashed 78 years ago.

advertisement 3

Article content

“We’ve found pieces from the wreckage,” she wrote. “Would you like them?”

Less than a month later, Engelberg was on a flight to France.

As the world prepares to commemorate VE-Day Sunday, marking the end of the Second World War, Engelberg did so by sharing the stories of the unsung men and women who gave him life.

Harvey Engelberg's father, Cobby Engelberg, survived D-Day thanks to the heroism of a French farm family and pilot Harvey Edgar Jones.  “This was a story of the man who actually created my existence by saving my dad,” Engelberg said.
Harvey Engelberg’s father, Cobby Engelberg, survived D-Day thanks to the heroism of a French farm family and pilot Harvey Edgar Jones. “This was a story of the man who actually created my existence by saving my dad,” Engelberg said. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Cobby Engelberg was a 24-year-old air gunner and wireless communications officer with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), flying aboard a Dakota KG 356 that set off from England in the early hours of June 6, 1944.

His aircraft was among hundreds in Operation Tonga, an advance party organized by the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) to drop paratroopers and ammunition behind enemy lines in the hours before Allied forces were to launch their D-Day dawn offensive on the shores of Normandy . The paratroopers’ job was to bomb bridges and German artillery batteries to hamper the Nazis’ ability to mount a counteroffensive.

advertisement 4

Article content

Engelberg’s No. 233 RAF squadron had a daunting mission, delivering British, American and Canadian paratroopers deep into enemy territory.

“They were among the furthest out, technically, moving the furthest into France,” said historian Alex Fitzgerald-Black, executive director of the Juno Beach Center Association in Canada. “It felt like a big honor, because in theory it was one of the most difficult tasks.”

Flying Officer Harvey Edgar Jones, from Canadian Virtual War Memorial archives.
Flying Officer Harvey Edgar Jones, from Canadian Virtual War Memorial archives.

Engelberg’s plane was piloted by Harvey Edgar Jones, a 26-year-old from near Niagara Falls, Ont., with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and a new fiancée. Jones and Engelberg had flown numerous missions together.

Coming in low at 600 feet, the plane was hit by anti-aircraft munitions and caught fire. Jones ordered the 22 British paratroopers to jump, along with the plane’s navigator and second pilot, but declined offers to take a parachute. With Engelberg knocked unconscious, Jones tried to land in a field in Basseneville, about eight kilometers inland.

advertisement 5

Article content

“Harvey had to make the choice. Put on the chute and jump and my father dies, or try to land,” Harvey Engelberg said.

Jones was killed instantly on impact.

Villagers found Engelberg beneath one of the plane’s wings. The plane was burning so fiercely the munitions inside were exploding as they dragged him away. He was tended to at the Duhamel farm for five days before an Allied unit picked him up. He awoke in England 10 days after the crash with a fractured skull and no memory of the previous two weeks.

I have spent six months in England and another 18 months in Canada rehabilitating. A Golden Gloves boxing champion at the age of 17, he was never quite the same after the war, people said.

He wrote letters to the Duhamels to thank them, and find out what had happened.

advertisement 6

Article content

The day after he left the farm, Nazi forces arrived at the door, Mrs. Duhamel wrote in English, in elegant cursive longhand. They arrested members of the family. Her 16-year-old son was executed in retaliation for the family’s assistance to Engelberg and several other Allied soldiers.

The family buried Jones on their farm, and tended to his grave. He was re-interred years later at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in nearby Ranville.

Harvey Engelberg visited his grave site a few years ago to pay his respects. He had gravestones for Jones and his father placed at the RCAF Memorial Museum in Trenton, Ont., Too.

Harvey Engelberg, centre, with Thérèse and Ghyslaine Férey, who took over the Duhamel farm 45 years ago.
Harvey Engelberg, centre, with Thérèse and Ghyslaine Férey, who took over the Duhamel farm 45 years ago. Photo by Harvey Engelberg

Thérèse and Ghyslaine Férey took over the Duhamel farm 45 years ago. Over the last years, as Ghyslaine began tilled the soil, pieces of metal surfacing. Their 90-year-old neighbour, who remembered the crash, told them that’s where the plane had gone down. Thérèse started researching, but a misspelling of Cobby Engelberg’s name kept her from finding his family de ella. She kept trying.

advertisement 7

Article content

“We are the last witnesses of the Second World War,” she said in an interview with TV station France 3 Normandie. “My husband’s grandfather went through the First World War, and he didn’t talk about it. He was there, but there was an absence. We suffered from things left unaided.

“In some ways, with Harvey Engelberg, we are repairing an injustice. It’s terrible that Jones was buried neither seen nor known, in anonymity. It is terrible the loneliness of the fighter.”

Three generations of the Férey family were awaiting to greet Engelberg when he arrived on April 3. Forty-two remnants of his father’s plane were laid out on the dining room table. A television news crew was there, arranged by Engelberg and Fitzgerald-Black.

advertisement 8

Article content

An emotional Engelberg told the Férey family they were unsung heroes as well.

Engelberg chose to donate the pieces along with his father’s log books and other memorabilia to the Juno Beach Center museum located in nearby Courseulles-sur-Mer, where they will be put on display. The center receives 100,000 visitors a year. Engelberg kept only his father’s military dog ​​tags.

Jones’s squadron leader had recommended him for the prestigious Victoria Crossbut it was denied by England’s Air Force Ministry on the grounds many other pilots made similar sacrifices.

“This may have been one of the greatest acts of bravery on D-Day, but hardly anyone knows about it,” Fitzgerald-Black said. Engelberg and the Fereys are righting that wrong, he said.

Advertisement 9

Article content

Remnants of the Dakota KG 356 found in the farmer's field in Bensenneville, France.
Remnants of the Dakota KG 356 found in the farmer’s field in Bensenneville, France. Photo by Harvey Engelberg

The bravery of young Canadians who signed up to liberate France resonates strongly today, Juno Beach Center director Nathalie Worthington told France 3.

“Harvey Engelberg’s father and the pilot who saved his life were volunteers, like the young people who are involved today in Ukraine,” she said.

In the muddy field where the plane went down, Engelberg said a Kaddish prayer for the dead in Hebrew, his voice choking with emotion. Thérèse Férey said a prayer for her family from her.

Cobby Engelberg went on to have three children, seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, Harvey told them.

“The Duhamel family, and this pilot — they created a whole family of Engelbergs. Now we are more than 25 descendants,” he said. “And nobody knows about them.”

“I told them I would do anything to make sure this story gets told, because this story should be out there.”

[email protected]

advertisement 1


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user follows comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your e-mail settings.

Leave a Comment