The Yorkshire Air Museum’s Hawker Hurricane aircraft arrivied in the centre of York at St. Sampson’s Square at 6am on Monday 28th April for its now annual visit to the heart of the city to mark the 72nd anniversary of the famous ‘Baedeker’ Raids. It will be on display, along with an accompanying exhibition and Living History re-enactors, until the evening of Sunday 4th May.
Often referred to as the York Blitz, the attack took place at 2:36am on Tuesday 29th April 1942, when some 40 German Luftwaffe bombers crossed the East coast of England between Flamborough Head and Hornsea, with their sights set firmly on the historic City of York. This was York’s turn to suffer as the mainly “soft” targets were selected from the German Tourist guide of the same name.
For over 90 minutes, the attacking German bombers rained down 84 tonnes of Incendiary and High explosive bombs, setting the historic city ablaze. The air raid sirens in the city sounded at 2:42am, some minutes after the attack began.
The medieval Guildhall was largely destroyed, along with St. Martin le Grande Church in Coney Street, which still lay’s in ruins in what is now one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. The legendary Rowntree chocolate company’s North Street Factory, storing tons of sugar, was burnt to the ground. The railway station, an obvious target, was hit and badly damaged, as was a King’s Cross bound train, carrying soldiers and other service personnel amongst its passengers. Clifton Aerodrome along with St. Peters, Queen Anne’s, Nunthorpe, Bar Convent and Bootham Schools.
95 people died, 212 were injured and 579 homes destroyed and in all, about half the homes in the city damaged.
The damage could have been worse but for the intervention of a lone French Fighter pilot, 23 year old Yves Mahé, serving with 253 Squadron RAF Fighter Command, who happened to be in the area and saw the city ablaze from a distance. He immediately dived in with his Hawker Hurricane, with all 8 machine guns blazing and quickly set his sights on a Heinkel H III bomber, shooting it down in flames into the River Ouse that winds through the city. He then targeted a JU88, but this, along with the rest of the attacking force decided it was time to leave and turned away with the cover of smoke to assist their exit. A Dornier Do17 crashed near Castle Howard.
Yves Mahé’s intervention was just in the nick of time, as, had the bombers scored their prime target, Rowntrees Main Factory, which was manufacturing ammunition filled with high explosive, the result would have been catastrophic.
The young French pilot was later given a Civic Reception at the Mansion House, with the French Flag flying over the city. Yves had escaped from occupied France to join the RAF and this was his first “kill”. Later, general de Gaulle presented him with the Croix de Guerre. He went on to fly with French Squadrons fighting with the Soviet Air Force and was shot down over Smolensk in August 1944. He was captured by the German’s, condemned to death but, miraculously escaped and eventually returned to France a year later. He served with the French Air Force until 29th March, 1962, when he was killed flying a Gloster Meteor Nigtfighter in Belgium. He was 42.
Yves had joined the French Air Force in 1939, but following the Armistice in June 1940, he stole a plane and escaped, despite the threat of execution, with other French airmen to Gibraltar, to join the Royal Air Force.
Ian Reed, Museum director Commented: “It is very fitting that as the City prepares for the Tour de France Grand Départ, our Hawker Hurricane is making this now annual pilgrimage into York to celebrate the day a French airman saved York from what could have been catastrophic damage had the raid continued for much longer. This year, that airman, Yves Mahé will be fully honoured with a plaque to be erected in his memory.”