Yves Mahé (1919-1962)

Free French fighter pilot who helped defend York during the 1942 Baedeker Raid

Location of plaque (put up jointly with the Allied Air Forces Memorial - Yorkshire Air Museum): Coney Street opposite St Martin’s church

In the early hours of April 29, 1942, a fleet of German bombers arrived in the skies above York.

For more than 90 minutes during what became known as the 'Baedeker Raid' they rained down 84 tonnes of incendiary and high explosive bombs, setting the city ablaze. More than 90 civilians died, more than 200 were injured and it was estimated that 9,500 houses were destroyed or damaged.

Many public buildings were also severely damaged, including the medieval Guildhall and the church of St Martin le Grand in Coney Street. The old Rowntree factory in North Street was burned to the ground; the railway station was badly damaged and the incoming King’s Cross to Edinburgh train crowded with service personnel took a direct hit. Also hit were Clifton Aerodrome; St Peter’s School; Queen Anne Grammar School for Girls; the Manor School, Marygate and the Bar Convent, where the building collapsed killing five nuns.

Four RAF stations had been tasked with defending York - including RAF Hibaldstow, where 253 Squadron had a number of Free French Air Force pilots. Among them was a young Pilot Officer, Yves Mahé.

Mahé had born in Nantes, France, in November 1919. He qualified as a civilian pilot and then joined the French Air Force. During the Second World War, as German troops advanced across France he refused to accept his country’s defeat. Joining the Free French forces he made his escape on a stolen plane, first to Gibraltar then on to England, where he was reunited with his brother, also a pilot.

By April 1942, at the age of 23, Mahé was serving with 253 Squadron. On that fateful early morning of April 29, he saw the city of York ablaze from a distance. He set off alone with all eight machine guns of his Hawker Hurricane blazing and shot down a Heinkel bomber in flames over the River Ouse. The bombers had been lining up to attack the main Rowntree factory but then retreated. Although Mahé received support from other aircraft which followed, it is thought to have been his lone intervention which set the attackers in retreat.

The young pilot was given a civic reception at the Mansion House in York. Later General de Gaulle presented him with the Croix de Guerre. He went on to fly with French air squadrons fighting with the Soviet Air Force, and was shot down over Smolensk in 1944. He was captured by the Germans, condemned to death but escaped. He served with the French air force until 1962 when he was killed flying a Gloster Meteor jet night fighter which crashed in Belgium. He was 42.

His Excellency Bernard Emié, the French Ambassador, unveiled the plaque to Yves Mahé in York on May 2, 2014, referring to him as ‘the stuff of legends’. Never a truer word...

Stephen Lewis

To read the stories behind other York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk/