Five veterans of the unique French Squadron’s that operated out of the WWII Bomber Command Station of RAF Elvington made a pilgrimage back to the former airbase, now the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial, to mark the 65th Anniversary of the formation of their Squadrons. These Squadrons were formed around the remnants of the French Air Force, under the name of Groupes Lourds (Heavy Groups), flying near obsolete Leo 45 aircraft in missions alongside allied forces in North Africa against the Nazi Afrika Korps. Under the RAF designation of 346 Guyenne Squadron and 347 Tunisie Squadron, they were officially formed on 16th May and 20th June 1944 respectively.The visiting veterans, whose ages range from a ‘youthful’ 87 to a grand 91, have recently all taken part in the production of a French film documentary about their lives and loves in York and on the operations over Europe conducted from RAF Elvington. It will not be lost on many people that it is also the 65th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, one of the greatest operations in military history, but what is often overlooked is the vital role played by the two French Squadrons of Bomber Command in this strike for liberty and victory.
346 Squadron was immediately drawn into the invasion operations and it’s first missions were on the night of 1st/2nd June 1944 in a raid on the strategically vital radar installations at Ferme d’Urville on the Normandy coast. This mission, involving aircraft from other Squadrons and locations, was led by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire (617 Squadron). Then on the night of 5th/6th June, 346 was involved in raids against the heavy German Gun Battery just outside the small fishing port at Grandcamp Maisy, on the western tip of what was designated as ‘Omaha’ Beach, for the landings. Operations also took place against the railway marshalling yards at Caen and St. Lo. One of the veterans attending, Louis Hervelin, 87, took part in these missions.
The success of these operations was crucial to the overall outcome of the battle ahead, but the anguish that those first French crews must have gone through in bombing their own homeland is revealed in the documentary, overcome by their determination to ‘kick the Nazi enemy out of their beloved homeland’.
346 Squadron was augmented by the formation of 347 Tunisie Squadron on 20th June, and from this point they together took the war to the Ruhr, known ironically as the ‘Happy Valley’ because of the immense danger from flak and fighter intervention, and the German industrial heartland.
Ian Reed, Museum Director, said, “These young men, far away from their homes and their families had the unenviable task of often bombing their own country, and 50% never made it home. They were brave men and well known throughout York. Their stories in this new film are exceptionally heart-warming, especially about the English people and we are pleased to welcome them “back to base” once again”.
All of these veterans are united in their admiration in respect for the way they were welcomed and received in England, despite the language barriers, being treated as one of the family in the network of homes operated by Friends of the French Volunteers, when taking leave in places as diverse as London, Leeds or Lossiemouth. Locally, they learned to enjoy the unique atmosphere of the English pubs and the dance halls in York and the surrounding area. This exuberance in the face of the hostility of the times amazed them, as public dancing had almost ceased in France from the onset of the war.
They were impressed by the spirit and organisation of the British people and the way the old and the young, all pulled together in one united objective, all focused around the major figure of the time, Winston Churchill. Something else they had never encountered were the WAAF’s, and other branches of the women’s services, and the many and varied roles they took part in maintaining aircraft and keeping the bases running efficiently. This they found simply incredible.
What is very important to these survivors is what they refer to as the English Hommage and the ceremonies that are organized each year to pay tribute to those that did not return. Louis Hervelin recalls the services in York that he has attended: “At the commemorative service in York that I have been to several times, four Officers of the Royal Air Force take the Book (of Remembrance), and show it to the congregation, and then they turn the page. It is called The Turning of the Page and then they put it back in its place. That is a real memory, it gets you right here! When the English clergyman explained to me, when I saw the names of my chums – they are all there! I left in tears.”
Similarly, Pierre Patalano notes, with a tear in his eye: “In Elvington (York) in the village there is a War Memorial dedicated to the French. Every year, the schoolchildren keep a day (Remembrance Sunday) to visit the Memorial … that’s all! What else can be added?!”
The veterans who took part in the trip to Elvington are:
Louis Hervelin – 87. Radio Operator / Air Gunner. 32 missions. Took part in raids on Grandcamp Maisy Caen and St. Lo.
Lucien Mallia – 88. Air Gunner. 23 missions. Survived from aircraft being shot down on night of 3rd/4th March 1945 when in ‘Operation Gisella’, German fighters lay in wait above air bases as the bombers returned. Lucien’s Halifax was shot at on approach to Elvington, but was able to divert to Croft where attacked again but made crash landing. The Luftwaffe JU88 that initially attacked this Halifax over Elvington crashed nearby, making another strike at the airfield, becoming the last German aircraft to crash on British soil.
André Guédez – 88. Air Gunner, 23 missions.
Pierre Patalno – 88. Air Gunner. 29 missions.
Hervé Vigny – 91. Air Gunner. 35 missions.
Of these veterans, two have not been back to Elvington since the end of the war – Pierre Patalano and Hervé Vigny. Both were overwhelmed by the experience.
Louis Hervelin and André Guédez have not visited since 13th September 1996, but Lucien Mallia is a more regular visitor, who has attended the Remembrance Day services over the past few years.
During the visit to the Yorkshire Air Museum, the veterans had the opportunity to go inside the unique restored Halifax bomber, the only complete example in the world and see their former crew positions, recalling many memories. They toured the Museum and the many exhibits housed in original wartime buildings, including the Control Tower and French Officers Mess display. They were also shown for the first time, the documentary that they have all contributed to.
The trip culminated with a Civic Reception with the Lord Mayor of York and the High Sherriff at the Mansion House, York.
In Bomber Command, losses were one in two. The French Squadrons themselves lost 216, comprising of 41 crews plus those killed on training, exercise and bomb loading. After hostilities had ceased, and patrolling missions ended, these two French Squadrons left Elvington in October 1945, for Bordeaux, Mérignac, with their Halifax bombers, to form the basis of the new, and current, French Air Force.