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The French connection
12:09pm Wednesday 15th August 2012 in Features
Seventy years ago the Free French Air Force made Elvington airfield their base. Today the bonds remain and include internships for French students. MATT CLARK met some who came for the summer
JULIAN Marande is getting his hands dirty. Normally he spends his days designing futuristic aircraft on his computer, but today, saw in hand, he is building a plane the old-fashioned way – out of wood.
Julian and his college pal Jèrèmy le Roux are helping to restore the world’s only Eastchurch Kitten, a lightweight biplane fighter dating from 1917. They have carved out sections for the wings and are now starting to put them together with panel pins.
It’s more Wright Brothers than Airbus.
Both men are studying aeronautical engineering in Laval, 100 miles west of Paris, and as part of their course they need to pass an English test. So instead of a summer holiday, they came on a two-month internment in this country.
But Jèrèmy and Julian struck lucky. They successfully applied to spend it at the Yorkshire Air Museum (YAM) in Elvington. This was ostensibly to brush up on their language skills, but Julian says the best bit is getting to work on rare and vintage planes.
“I’ve never seen anywhere like this place,” says Jèrèmy. “We are both interested in fighter planes and to be able to help restore some from the two wars is why we wanted to come. We also saw a Spitfire fly over the other days and that was magic.”
While the planes undoubtedly attracted Julian and Jèrèmy to YAM, they had no idea of its biggest draw. The airfield has a French connection, as during the Second World War it was the only Free French Bomber base in England.
“I had no idea, I learned only when I came here and saw the exhibits,” says Jèrèmy. “I was very surprised and very pleased.”
Elvington’s first operational aircraft were Handley Page Halifax bombers operated by 77 Squadron. Then in early 1944 the unit moved out and in came number 346 (Guyenne) and number 347 (Tunisie) squadrons of the Free French Air Force. Both played a major part in the bomber offensive against Germany.
After the war Elvington languished and became an unloved museum piece gently decaying in the vast flats of the Vale of York.
Then in 1986 the Yorkshire Air Museum moved in. Now it’s one of the top aviation attractions in the country and Europe’s only Allied Air Forces Memorial.
“I have met some French people who came to learn about their parents who were pilots here during the war and talking with them was very interesting,” says Julian. “I feel a lot of pride that French airmen flew from Elvington, they were very brave.”
Because the base hadn’t been used operationally since the war it remained exactly as it was. But years of neglect left the original air traffic control tower and hangars derelict and overgrown with weeds.
Now it has been authentically restored, thanks in no small part to a French wartime film, which showed Elvington as it had been in 1944.
Using this archive film, museum volunteers were able to recreate the site, right down to the pack of Woodbines on top of the control tower desk.
These days the biggest job is restoring the exhibits and having extra pairs of hands is always welcome. Many of the volunteers are retired, so young blood such as Jèrèmy and Julian is very welcome.
“At college our work is more theoretical using computer software, but here it is all practical,” says Julian. “We haven’t been taught to work on wood or metal before, but we are learning that here and it will help a lot with our studies.”
Impressive studies they are too. Although in their early twenties, Jeremy and Julian are involved with a complex project to design a box wing airliner that will take more people further but by using less fuel.
This, says Jèrèmy, is what planes will look like in 20 years.
Sandrine Bauchet came here on internment last year and was so taken with the place and its history that she decided to up sticks from sunny Nimes, in the south of France, to dank Yorkshire and is now PA to museum director Ian Reed.
Perhaps something she is having second thoughts about during our summer?
“It sounds crazy I know to leave the sun, but the museum is like a small part of France in England and I love it,” she says. “When I walk around I think the French pilots walked here, just where I am standing.”
Sandrine’s desk is nicknamed Bureau Francais and she was a main organiser of last year’s French in York event.
One of her favourite events is the service at the French Memorial in Elvington Village which has attracted an increasing band of veterans, some of whom had married local girls and stayed in the area.
Sandrine says some of their stories bring tears to her eyes.
“They are often very emotional. Then you get days like other one when the niece of a pilot came. Together we watched the movie filmed here. Suddenly she said, ‘Oh look, that’s my uncle’. It was very moving.”
The French aircrew weren’t only risking their lives every time they got airborne. After the armistice the Vichy Government instructed its citizens not to fight against the Germans and its policy was to execute anyone who went to England to join up.
It even extended to members of their family, which is why many signed up anonymously.
“To me they are all heroes,” says Sandrine. “We don’t learn anything about what they did in the war at school and that’s strange because this was the only French bomber base in England and we should be taught about it.”
• The last downed German fighter One night in 1945, German night-fighters launched Operation Gisela against 450 heavy bombers returning to England from a raid on the Ruhr.
At around midnight 100 fighters crossed the English coast from the Thames to Yorkshire and infiltrated the returning bomber streams. Two hours later 24 bombers had been shot down and a further 20 damaged.
Having shot down two Halifax bombers of 158 Squadron, Hauptman Johann Dreher turned his attention to the French Air Force Halifax’s landing at Elvington. The runway lights were switched off and all aircraft ordered to divert to other airfields.
Dreher continued to attack Elvington.
When he circled for another attack, his fighter clipped a tree and crashed into Dunnington Lodge farmhouse, killing all five crew; the farmer, Richard Moll, his wife and mother.
A black cross can be seen by the roadside in front of the farmhouse near the Museum on the road back to York. The war ended just nine weeks later and Dreher’s Junkers proved to be the last Luftwaffe aircraft crash on British soil.