The forthcoming Remembrance Services at Elvington and the Yorkshire Air Museum will reflect on the 70th Anniversary of the repatriation to France of Elvington’s French Squadrons. This departure from the area saw a final, tragic loss of life from amongst the French aircrews.
Following the end of World War II on 8th May 1945, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris had allowed the French squadrons within the RAF to continue to patrol the skies over Germany, to ensure there were no pockets of resistance. He also allowed the RAF bombers to transport crews back to France, for brief periods of leave in their recently liberated country. Finally, the time came for the French Squadrons to depart Elvington, with their Halifax bombers, to return to France as the basis of the new French Armée de l’Air.
On the 16th October, 1945, a ceremony was held at Harrogate Cemetery, honouring allied aircrews, including the 59 French airmen, buried there. Then, on 20th October, came the big event at RAF Elvington to mark the return of 346 Guyenne Squadron, to Base 106 at Mérignac, near Bordeaux. Amongst other dignitaries, the ceremony was attended by Air Chief Marshal Bottomley, then Chief of Bomber Command. He proudly took the Salute and addressed the assembled Squadrons in French, acknowledging the contribution of both air and ground crews in the Liberation of Europe. With the words “AU REVOIR! VIVE LA FRANCE” ringing in their ears, the airmen of Guyenne Squadron guided their aircraft into the skies over Elvington for the last time.
Shortly after this, on 29th October, with scarcely any ceremony at all and in poor weather conditions, the second French squadron at Elvington, 347 Tunisie, took to the skies. Then came the final, ironic tragedy. At 11:56hrs, Halifax RG561 of Sous Lieutenant Wellard came into difficulties, lost altitude and crashed in a field near Escrick, just 15 miles from Elvington. German and Italian prisoners of war, working in the field came rushing to the rescue. Six survived, but Wellard and Sergent Prades were killed in the impact. So, it was with heavy hearts that the squadron finally returned to France that day.
Two French veterans, Jean Billaud and André Hautot, will be amongst the Groupes Lourds contingent attending the Remembrance Sunday ceremony to lay wreaths remembering their compatriots. The Service takes place at 11am at the French Memorial Elvington Village and another service will take place at the Allied Air Forces Memorial & Yorkshire Air Museum at 13:30pm with military representatives from Britain and allied nations, and up to seven British veterans of the Normandy Campaign will receive France’s top award, the Legion d’Honneur at the event.
One of Britain’s most unique memorials:
As is the tradition amongst Royal Air Force Squadrons, the French veterans formed an association, to preserve the bonds formed during the time spent together at Elvington. One of the first challenges of the Amicale des Anciens des Groupes Lourds was to instigate the building of a Memorial to Groupes Lourds, to be sited in Elvington village. The idea was initially discussed in 1947, but met with a considerable degree of British bureaucracy that almost led the war weary Lieutenant Colonel Venot to abandon the idea. However, Commandant Puget was appointed as French Air Attaché in London in 1955, whereupon he took control of the project. Triumphantly, the Memorial was unveiled on 28th September 1957. The assembled veterans of Groupes Lourds along with notable other British counterparts, including Air Commodore Gus Walker, watched as the Tricolour draping the Memorial, was removed and wreaths laid.
Since that time, there have been regular gatherings of French veterans at the memorial in Elvington and the Annual service of Remembrance, which has always been supported by large numbers of local residents and Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies who Parade proudly to the ceremony, keeping this connection with France alive and meaningful.
The contribution of the French Groupes Lourds to the eventual outcome of the war can be summed up in the message sent to Elvington from Bomber Command Headquarters, shortly after the German surrender.
“Please convey to all French personnel who have served in Bomber Command, my admiration and gratitude for their unfailing co-operation, their outstanding gallantry and efficiency. To all those brave Frenchmen who carried on the fight in our ranks, the warmest salutations of Bomber Command.”
These words of praise do not imply that the French airmen were any braver than any of their Allied counterparts, but they do subtly recognise that the French, particularly in the early stages of the Battle of Normandy, showed courage and a resolution above and beyond the normal call of duty. The need to carry out their missions with the greatest accuracy was instilled in the French during these early raids and this became the distinguishing trademark of their service.