A POIGNANT wartime story partly set in York will be coming to the Theatre Royal's studio stage next week.

Francis Usai was a young Free French airman stationed with a Halifax bomber squadron at RAF Elvington during the Second World War.

Barbara Rigby was the teenage student he met and fell in love with at a British Council reception in Liverpool when he first arrived in Britain.

The pair began writing to each other – and managed to snatch meetings and even weekends away together.

Their wartime romance was the stuff of Hollywood films. Francis' letters to Barbara provide a wonderful picture of life in York during the war. One describes a night out on town with three friends.

"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," he wrote. "It was a wonderful evening – but without you, it was incomplete."

In others, his feeling boils over – especially one written after a stolen couple of days away together. He had to catch a train, leaving Barbara behind. "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 as you said 'adieu'," he wrote.

There was good reason for the dread. Between June 1944 and October 1945, 216 airmen from Elvington lost their lives– half the French aircrew at the base.

Among them was Francis' good friend Henri.

"My beloved, I'm so shattered my darling, Henri is reported missing," Francis wrote to Barbara. Eventually, Francis' own plane went down. He survived, but Barbara didn't know that at first. "Oh! Cis in the huge plane, in the cold night! Goodbye, darling, I give you a kiss," Barbara wrote in her diary.

The pair's wartime romance wasn't to last: but Barbara - later Barbara Harper-Nelson - kept her diary and Francis' letters.

They came to light when Ian Reed of 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. He stumbled across an old photograph. On the back was an address in Australia for Barbara. Ian wrote to her - and the full story came out.

The pair's nicknames for each other were Cis (Francis) and Barbiche (Barbara). So when their story was adapted into a stage play by Jenny Davis, she gave it the title Cis and Barbiche.

It is that play that will be performed – for three nights, with a Saturday matinée – at the Theatre Royal studio next week.

"A highly emotional love story of two intelligent young people thrust into a situation dictated by world events," is how the theatre's publicity describes their story.

Which sounds just about right.

Cis and Barbiche, York Theatre Royal Studio, July 3 to July 5, 7.45pm, with a 2pm Saturday matinée. Tickets: 01904 623568