Final Tragedy of French Airmen's Wartime Service to be Honoured
3:56pm 26th October 2015
The forthcoming Remembrance Services at Elvington and the Yorkshire Air Museum will reflect on the 70th Anniversary of the repatriation to France of Elvington's French Squadrons.
However this departure from the area saw a final, tragic loss of life from amongst the French aircrews.
Following the end of World War II on 8th May 1945, Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris had allowed the French squadrons within the RAF to continue to patrol the skies over Germany, to ensure there were no pockets of resistance. He also allowed the RAF bombers to transport crews back to France, for brief periods of leave in their recently liberated country. Finally, the time came for the French Squadrons to depart Elvington, with their Halifax bombers, to return to France as the basis of the new French Armée de l'Air.
On the 16th October, 1945, a ceremony was held at Harrogate Cemetery, honouring allied aircrews, including the 59 French airmen, buried there. Then, on 20th October, came the big event at RAF Elvington to mark the return of 346 Guyenne Squadron, to Base 106 at Mérignac, near Bordeaux. Amongst other dignitaries, the ceremony was attended by Air Chief Marshal Bottomley, then Chief of Bomber Command. He proudly took the Salute and addressed the assembled Squadrons in French, acknowledging the contribution of both air and ground crews in the Liberation of Europe. With the words "AU REVOIR! VIVE LA FRANCE" ringing in their ears, the airmen of Guyenne Squadron guided their aircraft into the skies over Elvington for the last time.
Shortly after this, on 29th October, with scarcely any ceremony at all and in poor weather conditions, the second French squadron at Elvington, 347 Tunisie, took to the skies.
Then came the final, ironic tragedy. At 11:56hrs, Halifax RG561 of Sous Lieutenant Wellard came into difficulties, lost altitude and crashed in a field near Escrick, just 15 miles from Elvington. German and Italian prisoners of war, working in the field came rushing to the rescue. Six survived, but Wellard and Sergent Prades were killed in the impact. So, it was with heavy hearts that the squadron finally returned to France that day.
Two French veterans, Jean Billaud and André Hautot, will be amongst the Groupes Lourds (heavy group) contingent attending the Remembrance Sunday ceremony to lay wreaths remembering their compatriots. The Service takes place at 11am at the French Memorial Elvington Village and another service will take place at the Allied Air Forces Memorial & Yorkshire Air Museum at 13:30pm with military representatives from Britain and allied nations, and up to seven British veterans of the Normandy Campaign will receive France's top award, the Legion d'Honneur at the event.
Pictures show ..
The tragic wreckage of Sous Lieutenant Wellard's Halifax Mk.III near Escrick 29th October 1945.
The Inspection of the Parade by Air Chief Marshall Bottomley (right) with French base Commander Col. Puget (next left) for the celebratory departure of 346 Guyenne Squadron on 20th October 1945 and Personnel gather on the Control Tower for the departure of 346 Squadron.
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