Why The Mirage IV was gifted to Elvington?
The Yorkshire Air Museum is based within the original grounds of former RAF Elvington in North Yorkshire. The base was the wartime home of the only two French Air Force Heavy Bomber Squadrons. They flew the British Handley Page Halifax 4-engined bomber on missions over occupied Europe. The location at Elvington is held with special affection by many veterans and the descendants of those brave airmen and the Museum has enjoyed a unique relationship with the people of France and the French Air Force and Government for over 30 years.
In 2007, the French Government of Nicolas Sarkozy generously offered a superb and iconic Dassault Mirage IV nuclear bomber to the Museum at Elvington in special recognition of its wartime connection. The aircraft is the type flown by the same French Squadrons that flew from RAF Elvington during World War Two.
In October 2008, Museum Director Ian Reed and the head of the RAF’s Joint Aircraft Recovery Team met French diplomatic representatives and British Embassy staff in Paris to discuss the logistics of the transfer of this huge aircraft to Elvington.
This exceptional and rare aircraft has had pride of place on display in Europe’s largest science Museum “Cite du Science” in Paris and was part of France’s airborne nuclear deterrent.
Transferring an aircraft with its obvious implications under international defence treaties was not easy, especially from a sovereign NATO country to a private museum in another country.
Following 9 years of negotiation which has included gaining support from HM Queen, 3 Prime Ministers and many cabinet ministers and MPs, the Museum eventually negotiated directly with the French Government, bypassing conventional routes and using its own reputation as the former French base and as the acknowledged Allied Air Forces Memorial of Europe, to agree to a direct transfer.
Thus on 27th July 2016, the French Minister of Defence signed a unique formal Agreement to transfer this 77 foot long aircraft to the famous Museum and Memorial near York.
As part of the French nuclear deterrent of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s this sleek and beautiful aircraft only had enough fuel for a one-way ticket to Russia. The pilots were a very special breed and their connection with their WW2 counterparts is intriguing.
During WW2 the exiled young French airmen at Elvington were first asked to bomb their own country where their families and loved ones still resided under NAZI control. They were all clearly told by the RAF that they also only had a 50% chance of survival. The personal stories of both these generations are remarkable and are a testament to human endurance and resolve under extreme circumstances.
Once transported and on display, the Mirage IV will sit alongside our Handley Page Halifax bomber as a continued memorial to the aircrews and also complement the Museum’s significant Cold War Jet collection, which also includes the much smaller Mirage III fighter – also the only one in UK.
The Early Years and the Mirage IIIE fighter.
The original Museum opened in 1985 and had only a handful of aircraft to display. In these early years, volunteers were concentrating on recovering the central buildings of the original wartime site as well as focusing on restoring an original Halifax bomber – the famous type used at Elvington during WW2.
The French veterans, who, 40 years after the war were still very active, were anxious to help and to ensure their history within RAF Bomber Command was not forgotten.
On 18th February 1988, Général d’Armée Aérienne Jean Thiry, former wartime Elvington airman and then President de l’Association des “groupes de bombardement lourds” (346 & 347 Association) wrote to the French Defence Minister requesting a Mirage IV for the recently formed Yorkshire Air Museum. The French Minister refused the request as the Mirage IV was still in service and those which had been withdrawn were being kept in storage. However, the Minister of Defence had used the phrase “for the moment” in his letter, and this was picked up immediately by Groupes Lourds General Sectretary M. Jean Bogaert (former wartime Elvington airman and father of the present Presudent of the Association, Paul Bogaert) – some hope remained!
Unfortunately by 1991 it was made clear by the French Government that the Mirage IVA was too important and still useful to France and the Museum could not expect an example of this huge (31 tonnes – 77’ long) aircraft. But by 1992 the idea of a French aircraft for Elvington had been taken up by Colonel Denis Turina whose father had been a pilot at Elvington and Colonel Robert Nicaise, also a former Elvington veteran.
They both began sounding out their various contacts within the French Ministry of Defence. Eventually their persistence paid off and in February 1995 the French Government of François Mitterand agreed to donate the smaller (9.6 tonnes / 49’ long) Mirage IIIE No. 538 fighter jet. Interestingly the aircraft was flown in service by Denis Turina and carries his name to this day.
At 11:30 am on 4th August 1995 the Mirage IIIE arrived at Elvington and within 48 hours it had been re-assembled. It had been dismantled at French Air Base No. 279, Chateaudun, by a team of YAM Aircraft Engineers and transported through the newly opened Channel Tunnel – which had only been opend to passenger traffic, 9 months earlier.
A grand unveiling took place at the Museum on 16th September 1995 for the Mirage III fighter, which still remains the only example in Britain. Despite this success, French veteran Col. Robert Nicaise still had his sights of the bigger Mirage IVA nuclear bomber!
By 1999 a completely new and dynamic Museum structure had been developed but which still had the “French Connection” at its heart, and in 2002 Col. Nicaise received a hint that a Mirage IVA could become available? This soon died away unfortunately as international events, changes in personnel and governments made it impossible to maintain any continuity.
By 2005 a futher initiative by the Museum following their Anglo/French events and a greater emphasis on relationships with the French Embassy in London and the French Ministry of Defence in Paris, led to a conditional offer being confirmed to Col. Nicaise for a Mirage IVA. The Museum then began the detailed formalities and discovered that the iconic Mirage IVA No.45, which was central display at Cite des Sciences in La Villette, Paris, was the aircraft on offer to the Museum.
Although concerns about asbestos, logostics and Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties began to slow the discussions almost down to a standstill, saying “no” to Yorkshire folk is always a risk, and the Museum continued to press the issue. It drew in its contacts and appealed for help to RAF Chiefs of the Air Staff, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, MP’s, Cabinet Ministers, Prime Ministers and even H.M. The Queen.
This constant pressure of hundreds of letters and telephone calls, meetings and networking led to an agreement in 2007 by the Minstry of Defence to “scope out” the idea of moving a Mirage IV from Paris to Elvington. This was not the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning. Eventually RAF help was not forthcoming and there followed a further 9 years of negotiations directly with the French Government which has now come to the culmination of this exciting and unique project.