In October 1945, the French Heavy Bomber Squadrons based here at Elvington were finally able to return home to Bordeaux. President of the Groupes Lourds Association Paul Bogaert recounts the return of 346 and 347 Squadrons as they fly from Elvington to Bordeaux in October 1945.
After 23 months of operations from the RAF Station of Elvington (Yorkshire) came the day that the two French squadrons integrated into Bomber Command as 346 squadron “Guyenne” and 347 squadron “Tunisia” finally returned to their homeland.
On that day, Elvington received the visit of Air Chief Marshall Sir Norman Bottomley who had succeeded Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris as Chief of Bomber Command. After reviewing the troops alongside Station Commander Colonel Puget, he made the following address:
“As chief of Bomber Command, I have the honour of wishing you farewell on behalf of the RAF on your return to your country after such a long exile. In a way it is a sad duty for me because we will greatly regret the departure of those who have been our colleagues for so long in times of great peril. But like you, we are happy that you are returning to your country basked in the glory you deserve; for this marks the realisation of a goal long contemplated and sought by you.
In these farewell words, 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. You courageously undertook advanced training courses in our schools, and you committed to learning our methods, thus gaining the admiration of all.
In the end, you fought with us, taking off from English stations, from the beginning of the summer of 1944, taking war all the way to the enemy’s territory. I would like to record here the debt that we and you both owe to Colonel Bailly, your first Chief, who, with his brave aircrew, have earned our admiration and respect. I must add a word of appreciation to those of you who worked on the ground to keep “Tunisie” and “Guyenne” in the air. Your work was essential and you can be proud of the exceptional performance standard you maintained.
Now that the links have been forged between our two Air Forces, we are happy to believe, even to know that the close collaboration of the French Air Force and the RAF will continue in the future.
Finally, 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.
Goodbye ! Long Live France!”
The Royal Air Force had allowed the two groups to leave with their aircraft. 40 Halifaxes thus joined “Guyenne” and “Tunisie” to form 21 Heavy Bombing Squadron (21st E.B.L.) on 20th November 1945 at the Bordeaux-Mérignac Station. So it was on 20th October that “Guyenne” departed Elvington to go to Bordeaux-Mérignac.
“Tunisie” followed on 29th October. During the departure on 29th October, 16 “Tunisie” Halifaxes (4 others have been delayed) took off shortly before midday. The weather was bad, cloudy sky and rain. One of the aircraft – RG 561 / C (headed by Second Lieutenant Jacques Wellard) – encountered difficulties after take-off and despite the pilot’s best efforts to correct the effects of the lack of power and speed, the aircraft crashed in Escrick (12 km south of Elvington) near Sheep Walk Farm. The plane caught fire, with two deaths reported (the Navigator who was commanding the aircraft, Second Lieutenant Wellard and the Bomb Aimer, Sergeant Prades). Some of the crew (the two air gunners) were injured, and some of the passengers the plane was carrying to Bordeaux were injured, one seriously. A few cows were also hit. These were the last two deaths in the Heavy Bomber Squadrons.
The aircraft landed in Bordeaux Mérignac around 4.45 pm and were welcome by Général Cappar, chief of 5th air group, Commandant Cattelat, station commander and Commandant Demazure, C.O of “Guyenne”. The French Air Force Band and two Air Force sections under Lieutenant Kerbrat honoured the flag of 25th Air Wing, the Group’s standard.
Standard of 25th Squadron – standards of the two « Tunisie » squadrons The return of the Heavy Bomber Squadrons was celebrated on Sunday 25th and Monday 26th November 1945. A ceremony chaired by Lord Stansgate, British Air Minister and Mr. Charles Tillon, French Armaments Minister, was held in Bordeaux. A large parade took place on the Place des Quinconces followed by a reception within the town hall and a gala evening at the Grand Théâtre in the presence of British and French personalities. The following day, a mass was held in Bordeaux’s Saint-André Cathedral by the Archbishops of Bordeaux and Besançon, in the presence of the military authorities, in memory of the aviators of the Heavy Bomber Squadrons who died in combat. Reverand Father Joseph Meurisse gave a long homily recounting the exploits of both groups.
Installation in Bordeaux-Mérignac In August 1940, the Germans had settled on the Mérignac air base with bombing squadron No.40. Numerous bombing missions were launched from Mérignac during the Battle of Britain between July 1940 and May 1941. The British carried out the first bombing of Mérignac on the night of 22nd November 1940 continuing well until 1943. The Americans subsequently carried on the bombing until the Germans left in August 1944. The Heavy Bombers therefore arrived on a station in a state of ruins in October 1945. “The first four months are spent renovating the buildings. The staff of the two units take the roles of masons, carpenters, roof repairers … Then the crew are reformed and resume training. Both groups spend their Tuesdays and Wednesdays conducting bombing and training flights. The machine gun turrets are gradually dismantled ”(source: ‘Histoire de la BA 106’)
From then on, the Heavy Bomber Groups were given new assignments. “Guyenne” provided long-distance transport links (Africa and Indochina). The Halifax passengers were officials and their families. “Tunisie” was assigned meteorological reconnaissance flights as well as sea search and rescue.
In March 1946, a passenger transport line was set up between Bordeaux – Rabat and Dakar used by officials and their families. The Halifax bomb bays were converted into luggage compartments. The passenger “cabin” was spartan! Wicker armchairs were attached to the cabin floor above the luggage compartment allowing space for 32 passengers! “Tunisie” resumed long-distance transport activities while “Guyenne” became an Operational Group. On 20th October 1948, 21 Bombing Squadron was transformed into a transport squadron. Another ministerial order dated June 1949 confirmed the creation of Transport Group GT 1/25 on 1st July, using the name and standards of GB 1/21 “Tunisia”. GBL 2/21 “Guyenne” was disbanded on 1st August.
The last operational flight of a Halifax took place on 8th October 1951 – it was RG 605. The “Tunisie” Halifaxes were replaced by B-26 Invaders. “Tunisie” left for Indochina. °°°°°°° The memory of the Heavy Bomber Squadrons is honoured at 106 Air Base “Captain Michel Croci” by a commemorative plaque on the exterior wall of the Headquarters’ entrance. This plaque was unveiled by Air Force General Jean Thiry (then President of the Amicale des Groupes Lourds) on the 50th anniversary of their return to France in October 1995.
Since 2010, a ceremony has been held every 5 years at the Mérignac base with a military parade. Unfortunately, the ceremony which was scheduled for 21st October 2020 has had to be postponed until next year due to the global pandemic. Nevertheless, a military parade will still take place on the base on 21st October in the presence of two veterans and two sons of veterans.
(Paul BOGAERT – President of the Association of Veterans and Friends of the Heavy Bomber Squadrons)
Sources : Books authored by Robert Nicaise, Guy Fruchart, Louis Bourgain, B.A.106, photos SHD/Air.