More than 60 years ago, the Groupes Lourds Association was founded in France to remember the sacrifice of the French aircrew who flew Halifax III Bombers from RAF Elvington near York on missions to liberate Europe between 1944 and 1945. The museum enjoys a great bond of friendship with the association and we work together to remember the young airmen and tell the stories of their wartime sacrifice.
This month, the Association has appointed Mrs Barbara George Honorary Vice President (Vice-Presidente d’Honneur).
President Paul Bogaert said: “You know well our attachment to the Yorkshire Air Museum which we consider as our partner in our mission to honour the memory of the two French squadrons RAF 346 and 347 and to perpetuate their war exploits and their involvement in the liberation of France. We are delighted to have you by our side.”
Since becoming the Director of the Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Air Forces Memorial, Barbara has introduced a new overall mission for the Museum directly in line with its heritage and vision:
To Honour, Educate and Inspire.
To Honour the memory of the Allied Air Forces during WWII;
To Educate the public in the history of aviation as well as the importance of strategic partnerships;
To Inspire future generations to take up careers in diplomacy, engineering and history.
Barbara George is also leading new initiatives to tell the story of the Groupes Lourds Squadrons, giving visitors to Elvington a stronger sense of place and a better understanding of this important part of French and British history.
To Barbara, this appointment in recognition of her work to keep the memory of the ‘French Squadrons’ alive is a great honour and will strengthen the links already forged between the Museum and the Association.
“Long before it was a museum, our site was home to 2,000 French aircrew and groundcrew – a French enclave on British soil during the War. It was the only place of its kind, with the British and French flags flying side by side at the entrance of the Base.
During 11 months, the French Squadrons took off from Elvington, by day and by night, on long and perilous raids on Germany. Many lost their lives. Despite difficult conditions and heavy losses, they never refused to fly, carrying out a total of 2,500 sorties and dropping 10,000 tons of bombs.
The French in Elvington lived in exile, far from their families, far from their homeland, far from everything. Their life was precarious. They would have lived everyday thinking of the time when they could go back to their liberated homeland and hold their loved ones in their arms again.
Although this is a page in the history of the French Air Force written in England, it is little known on both sides of the Channel. The work done by the Groupes Lourds Association to keep the memory of these remarkable people alive is exemplary and I am honoured to have been invited to join the Association to add my support.
Since I began discovering the stories of the Groupes Lourds (Heavy Bomber Squadrons) and meeting the French veterans and their descendants, I have been touched by the accounts of deep respect and gratitude the French and British both had for one another during this traumatic period of history.
As we celebrate 75 years this month since the French air personnel returned to France, I cannot help but think of the words pronounced by the Chief of Bomber Command Air Vice Marshall Sir Norman Bottomley on the day of their departure from Yorkshire:
“I wish to convey our deep appreciation to Tunisie and Guyenne, whom we know as “346 and 347 Squadrons”, for their heroic and generous spirit.[..] in this moment, we have a special thought for those brave airmen who gave their lives for the allied cause. They died for France, and not only for France but also for all the allies, for all those who suffered oppression and aggression from the enemy. We will never forget them. Their sacrifices and names are forever part of the Royal Air Force’s history. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
In 2021, Barbara is planning an exciting re-interpretation of the original Flying Control Tower at Elvington, a Heritage II listed building, one of the best preserved Towers of its type in the country.
The exhibition will tell the story of 346 squadron’s mission from Elvington over Normandy on 5th June 1944, the night preceding D-Day. It will become part of its learning programme for the thousands of school pupils who visit the museum each year.
Funding for this project has been generously provided by the Burton Family Trust.