One of the last few remaining extraordinary members of 346 squadron sadly passed away this week. We were blessed to have welcomed him at Elvington only a few years ago.
Enrolled in the French Air Force as a volunteer just before the Second World War, he was a student pilot at Rochefort. When the Germans invaded France, he decided to leave France for Spain where he was interned in a camp for a while. Released in 1943, he joined the Free French Forces and became a pilot and rear gunner on Halifaxes in England at RAF Elvington, within 346 Guyenne Squadron.
At the end of the war, he remained close to General de Gaulle and intervened almost everywhere in the world, officially or unofficially in Algeria, Laos, Morocco and Africa.
What better than the words of Astronaut Michel Tognini in the foreword to his autobiography to describe him:
“He was a man who wanted to be in the air, whatever his function: air gunner on British bombers, crop sprayer, then helicopter pilot: he had an incredibly rich and unparalleled career in aviation.
He was a determined man, and had a clear idea of his vision and role, in an era of instability.
Jean was an example of courage and optimism. He was a deeply endearing character everyone would have liked to have at their side and be able to ask him for the secret of this overflowing and contagious vitality.” For his 95th Birthday, Jean celebrated with a parachute jump at 5,000 metre altitude.
During his visit to Elvington a few years ago, Jean said that if there was one picture he wanted to keep in mind it was that of the tens of school pupils who came to pay their homage to him in Elvington and, through him, to honour those who are no longer there.
He said that seeing these young English children in school uniforms, in front of the monument dedicated to the crew of the Groupes Lourds, was more comforting than all the praise and decorations he had received. For him these young people justified all the fights, all the sacrifices, because they are the future.
Jean, careful not to give advice, just gave them a simple tip, with a wink: “Be daring”.
During his career, Jean Billaud was awarded the title of Grand officer of the Legion of Honor, and held numerous military decorations.
Christian HUMBERT, General Delegate of SOUVENIR FRANCAIS, for Charente-Maritime said: “His modesty was matched only by his kindness”.