Barbara Harper-Nelson (née Rigby) 1925 – 2016
It is with deep regret that we announce the death of Barbara Harper-Nelson in Lesmurdie, Western Australia on 29th May.
Barbara’s extraordinary story is the subject of the book «The Bright Squadrons » recently re-published in paperback in French and English as « The French Squadrons », about her relationship during World War ll with Sergeant Francis Usai, a mid-upper gunner with 347 « Tunisie » heavy bomber squadron based at RAF Elvington.
Born in Liverpool in 1925, Barbara was studying for a degree when war broke out and, like many of her generation, immediately set to work to help wherever she could. As a young 19 year old and with the ability to speak French, she helped the British Council with their welcome centre for allied troops arriving at Liverpool Docks to join the war effort alongside Britain.
In 1943/4 French Air Force personnel, released from North Africa following the Allied Landings in Algeria, were arriving by ship to re-train and join the RAF.
At one of the regular events for French servicemen, a young airman from Marseille caught her eye and began a close friendship which was recorded by daily letters from him and daily diary entries by Barbara.
The young French airman was Francis Usai who was to join his countrymen at RAF Elvington, near York in the only two French Heavy Bomber Sqaudrons of World War Two. He was to take part in many dangerous missions over Germany, where he saw his comrades and friends killed around him almost everyday. The love and friendship which he had with Barbara supported him throughout this intense and incredibly stressful period and their love grew for each other.
In 2009 whilst helping research for a new film by Genevieve Monneris, the daughter of another French veteran from Elvington, the Museum came across an old letter from Barbara. They managed to get in touch with her, then living in Australia, and was astonished to discover that she still retained the letters and her diaries from that period – amounting to well over 1000 pieces of correspondence.
The letters themselves were donated to the Museum which, in turn were put on permanent loan to the French National Collection in Paris, becoming the largest such collection of it type in France.
Meanwhile Barbara worked closely with Genevieve Monneris and also Michel Darribehaude, Senior Lecture at the Toulon University, and the son of another Elvington veteran, to translate and edit the diaries and letters into a fascinating two-way conversation during the dark days of the War.
In 2014 the Australian theatre director and actress, Jenny Davies was astonished at the content of the letters and diaries and wrote a play based on the book called « Cis & Barbiche » (the couple’s pet names for each other), and following a tour of the play in Australia, the Yorkshire Air Museum commissioned it to come to York Theatre Royal during the Grand Départ of the Tour de France.
The timing was very significant. 2014 was the 70th anniversary of the French squadrons being in York, and in 1944, Francis wrote :
« In 70 years, they will talk of “Barbara” who saw England invaded by all these odd foreigners who stole the hearts of all the young girls.” Thus his 70 year old prophesy was fulfilled.
Barbara passed her BA in 1946. She taught and was involved in market research and opened a library and information centre for the Merchant Seaman College in Liverpool, organising postal education courses.
In 1952 she joined Women’s Voluntary Service, doing welfare for British servicemen
in Malaya during the Emergency, and in 1954 she joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps as a staff officer and served in Hong Kong, Malaya, Edinburgh and HQ London District, joining the Colonial Service in 1954. She was posted to do community development work for African woman in Kenya.
In 1960 she married Major John Harper-Nelson, King’s African Rifles in Nairobi, who was then posted to Uganda. Her husband’s ADC was a certain Sergeant “Idi Amin”, who Barbara was well acquainted with and who later became the notorious President of Uganda.
Barbara emigrated to Australia in 1962 where she served on the West Australian Council of Social Service, and became an archivist for Kalamunda and Districts Historical Society.
It was indeed an honour to know such a fine and honourable lady, a true and selfless example of the British Empire generation at its finest. She spent most of her life working for the betterment of others and it was a privilege to know her for six and a half short years.
We will miss her dearly.
Ian Reed FRAeS