By June 1944, the two French Squadrons that flew from Elvington were fully operational. They had been flying missions as part of the allied air forces over occupied Europe and while everyone knew that an invasion was inevitable and drawing ever closer, nobody knew exactly when that would take place.
The evening of the 5th / 6th June 1944 was a pivotal moment in European history as D Day unfolded. Flying from here at RAF Elvington, the French airmen played their part. Here’s an overview of the mission flown by 346 Squadron and the reaction of the crews as the realised what was happening.
The Mission – to Destroy the Maisy Battery in Normandie to deprive the Germans of it’s use during D-Day. Though as they are briefed to fly, they do not know of the momentous day ahead. They are told it is simply another mission to complete.
Extracts from ‘Les Francais dans le Bomber Command’ by Guy Fruchard:
“On the 5th of June, things are becoming clearer and the Allied Armies are soon to go into action and take part in a massive landing on the beaches of Normandy. So that this operation can be done in the best possible conditions, it is necessary to annihilate the German defences that are there.“
“During the night of June 5th to June 6th, 1944, Bomber Command’s effort will be huge. 1,012 aircraft will be used, with 946 taking care of the batteries which are located all along the concerned beaches.
These are Fontenay, Houlgate, La Pernelle, Longues-sur-Mer, Maisy, Merville-Franceville-Place, Mont-Fleury near Arromanches, Pointe du Hoc, Ouisterham and Saint-Martin-de-Vareville on which 5,000 tons of bombs will be released.
14 ‘Guyenne’ crews are on the chart to take part in these operations; they will participate in this event which will have a magnitude no one among the executants can yet guess.
However, Commandant Font-Reault is quite insistent during the Main Briefing that ‘the Channel should NOT be bombed, only the target’ and the attitude of the chiefs is a bit strange and ambiguous. All leaves us to think that what is going to happen tonight is particularly important and that we must make sure this mission is a success.
The 346 Squadron Halifaxes, will be mixed with 110 other aircraft to annihilate the Maisy battery 155 in the Calvados region of France.
Many Museum visitors today are unaware that the French aircrew undertook bombing missions over their own country in order to drive out the Nazi occupiers. In fact, Bomber Command gave the French, unlike the others, the option not to bomb if they were certain that civilians could be hit during the bombing. Information was provided by French resistance networks of areas to avoid.
This quote from ‘Night Pilot’ by Jean Calmel. He was one of the pilots that evening:
“Until 20th July 1944, the targets were in France. Each time it was a torment to think that we were bombing our own country occupied by the Germans. As the bombing was independent, each crew had the responsibility for the few tons which it launched into space. The bomb-aimer was given orders that if he had the least doubt as to the whereabouts of the target he was not to press the ‘tit’ and release them. In this event he would have to jettison his bombs in the sea. I must state here that these imperative regulations had been worked out by the British themselves and applied to all friendly territory occupied by the Germans. The Allied crew – and we had many proofs of this – never disobeyed these regulations.”
It was only after successfully hitting the target and as they turned for home across the water to England that they realised the enormity of what was unfolding below them in the Channel as they flew overhead the massed landings.
Jean Calmel wrote:
“Three minutes after I was airborne, I lost sight of the ground and its red lights, after seeing nothing but stars and clouds. I bombed at the hour prescribed, by the pink gleam of the markers which could be seen through a thin layer of stratus.
The battery was silenced.
On my return I was surprised by my lack of sensations. The explanation is simple enough and classical: preoccupied with my concentration on all I had been taught, my whole mind was busy during the course of my mission. All those imperceptive details which should have made me sense the dangers, all the aspects of the sky and of the enemy, all the invisible shadowy presences – that host of imponderables which go to make the true night-flyer, would only be revealed to me in subsequent missions.”
“The life of the crew depended upon their pilot being aware of them and being able to interpret them”.
Despite the light cloud cover, the mission was a success. The landing Allied forces were protected from bombardment from the battery and many lives were saved through the action.
We can only imagine the excitement that most have grown around RAF Elvington as, once safely back on the ground, the French airmen will have had time to gather their thoughts and reflect on what they had just seen crossing the water from England to France that morning.
In the words of one of the French pilots who flew that night: