The Yorkshire Air Museum’s Hawker Huricane exhibit returned to the heart of York On Monday 29th April to mark the 71st Anniversary of the York Blitz, during which the City was saved from catastrophic destruction by the chance intervention of a lone French RAF fighter pilot, Yves Mahé.
On learning about this dramatic story, pupils from St. Wilfred’s School in the City commenced a project to study more about the raid. They decided that it would be a good idea for the City to honour Yves Mahé with a Memorial, and, by the class writing individual letters explaining how they felt, the pupils lobbied the Lord Mayor, and were rewarded with a visit to the Mansion House! Perhaps in the fullness of time, this project will come to fruition.
On Wednesday 29th April 1942, 40 German Luftwaffe bombers flew to Britain with their sights set firmly on the historic City of York. This was York’s turn to suffer its own Blitz, in what became known as the ‘Baedeker Raids’, as the historic targets were those shown in the famous 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.
Over 95 civilians died, 212 were injured and 579 homes destroyed and it is estimated that about a third of all the homes in the city were damaged. The total of casualties does not include service personnel who were killed at Clifton Moor Aerodrome when a direct hit destroyed the Guard House and other buildings.
The medieval Guildhall was largely destroyed, along with St. Martin le Grande Church in Coney Street, which still lay’s in ruins. The legendary Rowntree chocolate company’s North Street Factory, was burnt to the ground. The railway station, an obvious target, was hit and badly damaged, as was the London to Edinburgh express 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 were also badly damaged.
Meanwhile, more bombers were still approaching and the damage could have been much worse but for the intervention of a lone French fighter pilot, 23 year old Yves Mahé, serving with 253 Squadron RAF Fighter Command, who 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 He111 bomber, shooting it down in flames into the River Ouse in the City. One of the bombers, a Dornier Do17, later crashed near Castle Howard.
Yves Mahé’s intervention was just in the nick of time, as the bombers were lining up to attack Rowntrees Main Factory which, unbeknown to anyone, had a secret ammunition filling area containing hundreds of tons of high explosive. The outcome would have been catastrophic to the whole northern part of the City.
The young French pilot was later given a Civic Reception at the Mansion House. 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 British Gloster Meteor jet nightfighter 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. All in all, a heroic character.
The Hurricane will be in York until Sunday 5th May, when it will return to the Museum. However, its presence inthe City has given the people of York and our visitors a chance to reflect upon and learn more about this aspect of the City’s history.