In the early hours if the morning of April 29th, 1942, German bombers attacked York. 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. In retaliation to the British bombing of the historic city of Lübeck in 1942, Germany launched a series of attacks on English cities which came to be known as the Baedeker Raids.
This was York’s turn to suffer as the mainly “soft” targets were selected from the German Tourist guide of the same name. A young French pilot, Yves Mahé, was to play a key role in the defence of York.
Yves Mahé was born in Nantes, Loire-Atlantique, France on 21 November 1919. He qualified as a civilian pilot and then joined the French Air Force. During the Second World War, as German troops advanced and the French Third Republic signed the Armistice with Germany on 20 June 1940, Yves refused to accept his country’s defeat. He joined the Free French Forces, a body of troops under the French government in exile, led by Charles de Gaulle, who refused to accept either the French surrender to the Nazis or the Vichy government of Marshal Pétain in France. Travelling on a stolen plane, first to Gibraltar then on to England, he was reunited with his brother, also a pilot.
By April 1942, at the age of 23, Yves was serving with 253 (Hyderabad) Squadron, RAF Fighter Command which had returned from the Orkneys in late 1941 to be based in Lincolnshire, flying convoy protection off the East Coast.
The young pilot was to play a key role in the defence of York on April 29th 1942. 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. The remains of the church still lies 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 Yves Mahé. The young French pilot was on patrol 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 timely. Had the bombers scored their prime target, believed to be the Rowntrees Main Factory, the result would have been catastrophic. At the time the factory was engaged in manufacturing military high explosives.
Mahé 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.
In 2014, a Plaque was dedicated to his memory in Coney Street opposite the entrance to St Martin’s church.
His Excellency Bernard Emié, the French Ambassador, accompanied by Air Attaché Col. Nicolas Chambaz, unveiled the plaque to Yves Mahé in York on 2 May 2014, referring to Yves Mahé as ‘the stuff of legends’.