A remarkable collection of letters and diaries shed light on a poignant wartime romance. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
THE photographs show an attractive couple: a dark-haired young woman with extraordinarily intense eyes and a handsome young man with the soulful look of a poet.
She was Barbara Rigby, a teenage student living with her parents in Liverpool. He was Francis Usai – a Free French airman stationed with a Halifax bomber squadron at RAF Elvington.
Their wartime romance was the stuff of Hollywood films. And it continues to resonate 70 years on, thanks to an extraordinary diary and a collection of letters which Barbara, now 89-year-old Barbara Harper-Nelson, has kept with her all her life.
Over the course of two years, during which he flew countless missions over occupied Germany from his base at Elvington, Francis wrote more than 350 letters to his “Barbiche”.
In her private journal, meanwhile, Barbara recorded her meetings with Francis, and her desperate fears for his safety as he flew mission after mission.
She was right to be worried. Francis was a gunner; part of the seven-man crew of a Halifax with one of the two Free French bomber squadrons based at Elvington.
It was a dangerous life. Between June 1944 and October 1945, the two squadrons flew more than 2,800 sorties. Forty-one aircraft were lost, and 216 airmen were killed – half the French aircrew at the base.
Two of Francis’s closest friends were among those who lost their lives. And on January 4, 1945, Barbara received the news she had been dreading: Francis’s plane was missing.
She took to her bed for two days. “I feel numb, I don’t know what to do,” she confided to her diary.
Francis survived, although his back was badly injured. But sadly, there was to be no happy ever after.
Conditions at the end of the war made it too complicated for a French airman and a English girl to be together, said Ian Reed, director of the Yorkshire Air Museum based at Elvington airfield, which during the war was the base for Francis’ squadron.
At Christmas 1947, Barbara received a card from Francis saying he would never forget her and that he would always love her.
But they both went on to marry other people. Francis had two children, worked for Shell near Paris for many years, and died of cancer in 1996.
Barbara married a British army officer. They lived in Uganda, and in 1962 moved to Australia, where she still lives, now aged 89.
The diary and letters came to light while the Yorkshire Air Museum was helping French film-maker Genevieve Monneris make a documentary about the French bomber squadrons based at Elvington during the war.
Mr Reed stumbled across an old photograph in the museum archives, which depicted four of the people they had been researching – among them Francis.
On the back was an address in Australia for Barbara Harper-Nelson. Mr Reed wrote to her – and the full story came out.
With the help of Barbara, the letters and diaries were brought together by French film-maker Genevieve Monneris and translated into English by Michel Darribehaude.
Mr Reed is now hoping to get them published.
But they already form the basis for a new play, Cis & Barbiche – the nicknames the couple gave each-other – which will be premiered in Australia on March 1. It will then receive its UK premiere at the Theatre Royal in York on July 3, as part of the Tour de France cultural festival.
It promises to be an event not to be missed.
Between them, Barbara’s diary and Francis’ passionate letters provide an unforgettable portrait of a Britain at war – as well as a true love story.
Extracts from the letters and diaries
Barbara met Francis at a reception at the British Council in Liverpool where allied servicemen were welcomed to Britain. She was an 18-year-old student who, because she spoke French, had agreed to meet and greet newly arrived French airmen.
Saturday, January 1, 1944, Barbara’s diary:
Mme da Horta… introduced me to Francis ? – I couldn’t grasp his surname. He stuck to me and was very charming, dark, greenish eyes. He’s from Marseilles, and arrived from Algiers… asked him to tea tomorrow.
Sunday January 2, Barbara’s diary:
Francis came to tea. He’s very sweet and easy to get on with… His English was most amusing. He finds English girls very free because they smoke! He sang Elle Pleure Comme Une Madeleine and called Wiener (the family dachshund) Globule. He stayed quite a long time, told me pointless stories and is very fond of animals. I took him back to the tram. He kissed my hand and said “Goodbye Princess!”.
Monday January 3, letter from Francis at training camp for foreign servicemen:
Dear Barbara, no sooner have I arrived than I hasten to write to you, so you can’t say that I have forgotten you, and that the French are ungrateful (Oh! A slap on the face!)…Thank your parents for the delightful evening we had together. Say hello to Globule. Hope to see you again soon. Your Francis.
September 1944, Francis had a period of leave during which the pair, now in love, were able to meet.
Friday September 1, Barbara’s diary:
Went to the village and then sat by the fire. He talked about his plane, G for George. His imminent departure hung over both of us. We had dinner, then went to the station. When the train left and he wasn’t there to see me any more, I burst into tears. My heart was broken.
Saturday September 2, letter from Francis at Elvington:
The last few days were the most marvellous in my life. It was near the bridge, when you were afraid someone might have seen us, that I knew our two hearts were beating in unison. It was the same near the river when you said “I love you” and I stood like an idiot, or when our hands were clasped together under the table during all those hours. And finally there was this small, ivy-covered station in the countryside, my Bébé walking alongside the train as it started moving, then a last kiss, and the dread in your eyes when I said “adieu”.
October 4, 1944, letter from Francis at Elvington describing a night out on the town in York with three friends - fellow French airmen Jacques Leclerc and Henri Martin, and Henri’s English wife Pat:
Two nights ago, the famous quartet was seen wandering in the streets of York, singing and almost dancing while the flabbergasted passers-by looked on. It was a wonderful evening – but without you it was incomplete.
We first went for aperitifs. Once these had made us joyful, being in high spirits, we headed for the Grand Hotel and sang Ma Pomme and other melodious ditties of that sort. We drank another aperitif. Then in the dining room we naturally asked for the wine list.
No sooner had we started eating than I got up with great dignity and said that I had an urgent phone call to make. Eventually the two famous sergeants (Jacques and Henri) followed me to the phone booth to the great distress of the head-waiter, who imagined we didn’t like his cuisine and were just about to leave. You know the rest: I phoned, we phoned, you spoke to Jacques for the first time.
We found ourselves in the streets again, walking towards the dance-hall, locking each other’s arms and blocking the whole width of the pavement, so that no-one could pass in the opposite direction.
Sunday, November 5, 1944, letter from Francis:
My beloved, I’m so shattered, my darling, Henri is reported missing. He failed to return yesterday evening. We haven’t heard from him and can only imagine the worst. I only found out this morning and immediately phoned Pat. Poor Pat, she was so brave, so wonderful but seemed so calm that I was a little afraid. Write to her, Bébé, comfort her, for I feel so unequal to the task, you must help me darling, I need you for that. My God, what shall I do, what can I do?…And to think that Pat will have a baby in a few months.”
January 1945 – Francis missing in action Thursday January 4 - telegram from RAF Elvington to Barbara’s family:
Regret to inform you that your friend Francis Usai is missing as the result of air operations on the night of 2nd January.
January 4, Barbara’s diary:
It seems impossible that he is missing. I can hear his voice, I can see him asleep in the armchair. Kissing my hand, saying to me “courage!” on the train. I feel numb, I don’t know what to do any more. Oh! Cis, you were perfect: there was no-one like you, and I love you and you loved me. Oh! Cis in the huge plane, in the cold night! Goodbye, darling, I give you a kiss.”
Monday January 8, telegram from Elvington:
Sgt Usai now known to be injured and admitted to hospital in France.
Monday, January 8, Barbara’s diary:
He is alive. I expect it’s serious: probably the plane crashed or maybe F parachuted. Poor darling, he’s never been in hospital in his life. Hope to heaven it’s not an amputation, or burns, or that he isn’t blinded. Thank God, I know that kind people are looking after him and doing all they can to help him. Let him live! Let him live!”
Thursday May 10, 1945, letter from Francis, still in hospital, shortly after VE Day:
Et voila! But I can’t feel any joy or anything; I haven’t the impression the war’s over, and in any case it’s not. Millions of people have stopped suffering, and this makes me happy, but I can’t feel enthusiastic; it seems to me I ought to have shouted for joy, or burst into song, but I only wept for a moment when the armistice was announced. I have to remember that the poor soldiers in the Far East are in a much worse situation than mine. Some died yesterday and the day before. They’ll never return to their own country.