For many people living in Great Britain, the 5th of November is a date of spectacular bonfire and firework displays as we remember the Guy Fawkes plot to assassinate King James 1 in 1605. However, for The Allied Air Forces Memorial here at Elvington, the evening of the 4th and 5th of November is one we recall with special significance. On this night in 1944, RAF Bomber Command were deep into the offensive masterminded by “Bomber” Harris to destroy German industrial capability. That night the steel producing city of Bochum was the target. The location was of high importance to the Nazi war machine and it featured regularly in Bomber Command’s “Battle of the Ruhr” offensive. Indeed, it was the 150th time the city had been visited by RAF Bomber Command. The night did not end well for the French 346 Guyenne Squadron.
RAF Bomber Command launched a raid that evening with 749 aircraft from Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 8 Groups, comprising 384 Halifax bombers, 336 Lancaster’s and 29 Mosquito fighter bombers upon the city. RAF Elvington, part of 4 Group, put up 25 aircraft from their two French Squadrons: 346 “Guyenne” and 347 “Tunisie”.
For “Guyenne” Squadron, the night was to be particularly horrific. Bringing up the final wave of the attack in the early hours of 5th November, their 16 Halifax bombers were the most vulnerable to attack by enemy fighters. After an evening of attacking the incoming bomber stream the German air defences were fully alert and totally familiar with the likely route taken by the Halifax crews. Consequently, “Guyenne” Squadron lost 5 aircraft, each with seven aircrew aboard, amounting to 35 men (all close friends), on this fateful night. Of these, 11 were taken as Prisoners of War after bailing out. Another one successfully evaded capture but the rest lost their lives, often is catastrophic circumstances. Interestingly, there was also a ‘passenger’ on board the aircraft of Commander Robert Baron (on his 26th and last scheduled operation), this being Lt. Col. N. Dagan from the Free French Air Force HQ in Whitehall, who also lost his life. He was ironically undertaking an assessment of a typical mission and the hazards encountered by aircrew.
In the early dawn light, the losses of these French Squadrons were becoming all too clear. For base Commander Puget, it must have been the longest of nights, as he paced the floor of Elvington’s Control Tower, until it was clear that these aircraft were not coming home. It was the worst night of losses that the French were to endure during their entire service with RAF Bomber Command.
One of the crews which were lost that night included Sgt Henry Martin who had just been married to his girlfriend Pat Woodgate, only 6 weeks earlier. Unbeknown to Henry, Pat (originally from Jersey) had been a special courier for Winston Churchill, being parachuted into Occupied France several times, and had moved to York from Liverpool. Their extraordinary lives are shown in a special film “Flightpaths – Henry & Pat” by Genevieve Monneris, which is shown every day in the Museum Cinema. In 2013 Genevieve Monneris & Ian Reed helped unveil a memorial to Henry in his home town of Cancale on the coast of Brittany.
The original RAF Elvington control tower still resides in the grounds of the air museum and has been fully restored to give visitors an insight into the environment and daily life of the Squadrons based here. Our Halifax Friday the 13th on display in the main hangar has her starboard side painted in French “Guyenne” Squadron markings with the distinctive “White Rabbit” logo.
Each year, The Allied Air Forces Memorial & Yorkshire Air Museum are represented at the annual service commemorating this fateful mission, which takes place at the Cathedral of St Louis in Les Invalides, the National Military Hospital and Museum in the heart of Paris on 4th November. Ian Reed, Museum Director, makes the journey to join members of Groupes Lourds, the French Guyenne & Tunisie veterans association, for the unique ceremony.
Ian Reed commented: “The memory of this raid is one of the additional factors that makes the following annual Remembrance Sunday Service at the French Memorial, Elvington, so important and poignant and draws a significant contingent from France every year, gathering with the hundreds of villagers, Yorkshire Air Museum Members, diplomats and military personnel from various nations, who come to pay their respects to the fallen of all the allied air services across the world.”
The Allied Air Forces Memorial service of remembrance takes place every year. The Service takes place at 11:00am on Remembrance Sunday each November, at the French Memorial, York Road, Elvington, with a later Service at the Station Chapel at the Yorkshire Air Museum at 13:30pm, which all our visitors are welcome to attend. Full details can be found on our calendar here.
In the period that the French heavy bomber Squadrons were based at RAF Elvington, they lost 50% of their aircrews as they fought to free their homeland, from this airbase in Yorkshire. As we gaze skywards on the evening of the 5th of November, spare a moments thought for all those young men who set out across the North Sea that night, never to return home.