A new book of diaries and letters sheds light on an unforgettable wartime romance with a York connection, reports STEPHEN LEWIS
ON DECEMBER 9, 1943, a ship steamed into harbour at Liverpool docks, having left Algiers ten days earlier. On board were some French airmen who had escaped Vichy France to take part in the fight against Hitler.
They were on their way to join the Guyenne and Tunisie bomber squadrons based at RAF Elvington.
Among those who arrived aboard the Scythia that day was a young Frenchman with intense, greenish eyes and a love for dancing and singing by the name of Francis Usai.
A few days later, on January 1, 1944, he attended a ball at The British, a welcome centre in Liverpool for newly arrived Allied forces. There he met a young university student, Barbara Rigby, who lived in Liverpool with her parents.
Barbara recorded her impressions of Francis in her diary that night. "He stuck to me and was very charming – dark, greenish eyes," she wrote. "He's from Marseilles and arrived from Algiers. He speaks very little English and that was funny. He liked dancing and was quite musical. Asked him to tea tomorrow."
Francis came to tea and charmed Barbara's parents. He was quickly posted away from Liverpool, first to undergo training, and then to join his squadron at Elvington. But the pair struck up a correspondence which blossomed into a full-blown wartime romance.
Francis poured out his poet's heart to Barbara in a series of passionate letters. Barbara replied – and, conscious that she was living through "extraordinary events", noted down in her diary everything that happened during those wartime years.
One of Francis' letters, dated October 4, 1944, described a night out on town in York with his three best friends, fellow French airmen Jacques Leclerc and Henri Martin, and Henri's English wife Pat.
Francis described how the 'famous quartet' were seen singing and dancing in the streets of York. They headed for the Grand Hotel where, after causing quite a sensation as they walked in, they enjoyed some aperitifs before ordering a meal.
"No sooner had we started eating than I got up with great dignity and said that I had an urgent phone call to make," Francis wrote.
"This was followed by general mayhem, and eventually the two famous sergeants (his friends 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...you spoke to Jacques for the first time, and we then returned to our table while all the diners gazed at us wide-eyed."
The foursome finished their meal, then found themselves out in the street 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. I'm sure that some people must still be wondering what was that troupe with such a small man on one side and such a tall one on the other..."
It's a lovely description of a night out in wartime York. But within a month that little group had been hit by tragedy.
Francis and his friends were each part of a seven-man Halifax bomber crew. It was a dangerous life. Between June 1944 and October 1945, the two French squadrons at Elvington flew more than 2,800 sorties. Forty-one aircraft were lost, and 216 airmen killed – half the French aircrew at the base.
Francis' friend Henri was among them.
On November 6, 1944, Francis rang Barbara to say Henri's plane had not returned from a mission. She received a letter from him the following day, in which he poured out his anguish.
"My beloved, I'm so shattered, my darling," he wrote. "Henri is reported missing. I only found out this morning, and immediately phoned Pat. Poor Pat, she was so brave, so wonderful... My God, what shall I do? What can I do?...Life really is unjust, isn't it? And to think that Pat will have a baby in a few months..."
A couple of months later Francis' own plane was shot down, prompting a chilling telegram to Barbara's family from RAF Elvington: "Regret to inform you that your friend Francis Usai is missing."
It prompted Barbara to confide her own anguish to her diary that night. "It seems impossible he is missing," she wrote. "I can hear his voice, I can see him asleep in the armchair. Kissing my hand, saying to me 'Courage!" on the train.. Oh! Cis, you were perfect: there was no one like you..."
Francis survived, however, and lived through the war, although the relationship did not last. Barbara – later Barbara Harper-Nelson – married an English army officer. They moved to Uganda, then to Australia, where she still lives.
Francis had two children, worked for Shell near Paris for many years, and died of cancer in 1966.
Their remarkable wartime romance came to light when Ian Reed of the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington stumbled across an old photo in the museum archives of Francis and the three friends with whom he had enjoyed that night out in York.
On the back was an address for Barbara Harper-Nelson in Australia. He wrote to her and the story came out.
It has already been turned into a play, Cis and Barbiche (the pair's nicknames for each-other), which was staged at York Theatre Royal earlier this month.
Now a book, The Bright Squadrons, edited by Barbara and Genevieve Monneris, has been published by Amberley. Over almost 300 pages it reproduces Barbara's diary and Francis' letters. It is by turns funny, moving, and heartbreaking: a true-life love story and an unforgettable portrait of Britain at war.
The Bright Squadrons: A True Story of Love And War by Barbara Harper-Nelson and Genevieve Monneris is published by Amberley, priced £18.99