As the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day approaches, Yorkshire Air Museum Director Barbara George has been delving into the history of RAF Elvington’s famous French Squadrons within RAF Bomber Command, to see how the announcement of the Allied Victory in Europe was celebrated back at base. She provides us with a fascinating glimpse into this moment of history.
War in Europe is Over! It is Official!
The hearts of the French airmen in Elvington leap with tremendous joy at the news of the unconditional surrender by the enemy who has finally been brought down. This end has been desired so much, yet it seems to have come as a surprise.
Up to the last day, Guyenne and Tunisie squadrons paid a heavy price in terms of lives. 11 crews were lost in the last two months of the war.
Germany officially capitulates on 7th May 1945. On 8th May, the unconditional surrender is signed and it is ‘VE Day’ – the triumphal day. The whole of Great Britain is celebrating. Jubilant and overjoyed crowds are everywhere.
Inside the Mess at RAF Elvington, the atmosphere is filled with unbelievable joy and excitement.
Pierre-Celestin Delrieu, bomb aimer within 346 squadron, recalls in his book ‘Feu du ciel, Feu vengeur’: “The Day of Victory was celebrated even by the quietest and calmest of people; in the absence of wine, whisky, gin and beer flowed freely and we celebrated this historical moment, bomber aircrew finally in the spotlight.
As soon as the allied radio released the news, the bar became overcrowded instantly. Glasses were being filled, emptied and refilled with frequent toasts in between. The heat was rising and the ambience boisterous. Inside the Mess, people were competing for attention, improvising speeches, with memorable scenes of people climbing on tables, shouting loudly. Two French aircrew from Auvergne were dancing the mazurka, shouting between each step. The commanders were playing rugby with the sandwich plates; the coal shovel was brandished as the new Standard over respectable people’s heads. Others were singing Arabic tunes in memory of North Africa where they had come from.”
“In York, all the pubs are open. People are dancing in the streets and on the main square: shouts, excitement, hustle and bustle, hugs and kisses. This is a popular joy, a spontaneous joy and the Frenchmen from Elvington are joining this celebration, even if they are showing a little bit more reserve. For them, the true victory is on their home soil in France. Their joy is more discrete, nearly selfish even, as they reflect on the fact that being alive is what truly matters.”
They dream of being reunited with loved ones, just for a moment, when they can finally return to their precious France.
Between April 1944 and October 1945, two French squadrons were based at Elvington, 9 km south east of York. They were integrated to the Royal Air Force Bomber Command as 346 and 347 Squadrons, within No.4 Group which was headquartered nearby at Heslington Hall, York. RAF Elvington, together with nearby RAF Melbourne and RAF Pocklington, were grouped together as 42 Base, administered from RAF Pocklington. The Squadrons were equipped with four engine Handley Page Halifax Mk. III and V bombers.
Together, during 11 arduous months, these two squadrons took off from the airfield at Elvington, by day and by night, on long and perilous raids on Germany. Operations often exceeded eight-and-a-half hours in the air, with crew in a state of indescribable nervous tension.
The French in Elvington lived in exile, far from their families, far from their homeland, far from everything. Despite difficult conditions and heavy losses, they never refused to fly, carrying out a total of 2,500 sorties (123 missions) and dropping 10,000 tons of bombs.
The men from ‘Guyenne’ and ‘Tunisie’ came from everywhere. They were from all counties and corners of the ‘French Empire’. They reflected the multiple and nuanced face of France. There were as many active pilots as reservists, some very young men and some fathers of young children, some students, a former Air-France pilot. Some had managed the crossing through Spain, some came from North Africa, some arrived in England as early as June 1940. They were all far from their homeland.
Once France was freed, war kept raging on and it was even harder for them during those interminable night missions over Germany. They knew other fighters were getting home to France but the French in Elvington kept fighting. They missed their country, sometimes even feeling like prisoners themselves.
When the war ended, all the personnel at Elvington waited impatiently for the moment when they would return to France. But activity at Elvington did not cease. On the one hand, crews continued with training flights to keep in practise, just in case… and in the same context Arthur Harris, Acting Commander in Chief RAF Bomber Command, had authorised them to fly over Germany again, but this time in broad daylight and at low altitude. This was in order, as he put it, to allow the crews to see for themselves the results of their bombing and in addition, to show their presence should the armistice be broken.
On 18th October 1945, a ceremony took place at Elvington, outside the current Control Tower (Watch
Office) to mark the departure of the Groupes Lourds returning to France.
During his address on the day, Air Chief Marshall Sir Bottomley said:
“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 NAZI enemy. We will never forget them. Their sacrifices and names are forever part of the Royal Air Force’s history.”
Despite any nostalgia they may have felt, away from their homeland, all accounts ever written by French Elvington veterans indicated that none of them ever felt anything other than incredible gratitude towards Britain: immense personal gratitude for the hospitality of the British people, their warm welcome and constant generosity towards them.
“England at war opened its arms wide to these volunteers and they will never forget it.” (extract from ‘Bombardiers de Nuit’)
Barbara George, 8th May 2020