115 sqn memorial unveiled
Nestled in the stunning surroundings of the Loire Valley, sits the sleepy village of Grez-Neuville.
As a medieval town it is inconspicuous, like so many in the region. The night of the 26th of June 1943, however, was anything but sleepy for its occupants.
On the western flanks of the village a local farmer is woken by the thunder of four Rolls Royce Merlin engines as a bomber flies overhead and crashes into a nearby field. The subsequent explosion utterly destroys the aircraft and leaves him in no doubt of the outcome and alerts the rest of Grez-Neuville that the night is going to be a long one.
Mission details are difficult to come by but the aircraft, a Lancaster of 115 Sqn based at RAF Little Snoring in Norfolk, has been conducting mine laying operations in the port at Bordeaux. It is not clear whether the aircraft is inbound to, or coming off target, but it is intercepted and attacked by a Luftwaffe night fighter based at the nearby airfield at Nantes. The pilot, Sgt Frederick Whitehead and his crew can only evade and retaliate for so long. The damage sustained by their Lancaster has left it uncontrollable and a crash is inevitable. The crash is believed to have killed all on board but in the days after the event rumours start to spread amongst the villagers. Rumours of parachutes and escaping airmen, of heightened activity amongst local Nazi units searching the surrounding area for enemy personnel and of capture that they would rather forget. History has consumed the truth as it so often does under the fog of war, but one truth remains; none of Sgt Whitehead’s crew ever returned to home soil.
There is nothing unusual about this story. Each night Bomber Command sent out wave after wave of aircraft to engage targets all over Europe in pursuit of what Churchill described as ‘the shortest route to victory’.
“Even if the Nazi legions stood triumphant on the Black Sea, or indeed upon the Caspian, even if Hitler was at the gates of India, it would profit him nothing if at the same time the entire economic and scientific apparatus of German war power lay shattered and pulverised at home.”
Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons, 1940.
It is worth noting that there were no regular ‘friendly forces’ on the continent at this time; if a crew found itself on the run, help would be hard to find. For those in any doubt as to the dangers faced by these crews, a quick visit to the display in the main corridor at Kermode Hall should put things into perspective. Airpower, whilst giving a long arm and quick response, is nothing if not fragile. For every 100 airmen, 55 would be killed on operations or die as result of their wounds, 3 would be injured on operations or active service, 12 would become a prisoner of war. Only 2 would be shot down and successfully evaded capture. This left only 27 who survived a tour of 30 operational sorties. Between 1939 and 1945, a total of 364,514 operational sorties were flown, 1,030,500 tons of bombs were dropped and 8,325 aircraft were lost in action.
Fast forward to 2013. Mr Jean-Gael Cesbron is days from realising a dream over a decade in the making. Mr Cesbron is a representative of the village of Grez-Neauville and has dedicated his life to the remembrance of Sgt Whitehead and his crew. A decade of lobbying, researching and communicating have culminated in the approval to unveil a memorial dedicated to the events of June 1943. Talking to Jean-Gael in my limited French, I asked him to describe the origins of such deep rooted dedication to remembering those of another nation. His response was unnervingly simple; ‘Britain was never occupied’. What can you say to that?
Going to extraordinary lengths, Jean-Gael has attempted to trace surviving family members and information about the mission. It seems no surviving family members have been found but along the way the Mayor of Hemel Hempstead has spoken with Jean-Gael and suggests that RAF Halton may be able to assist in the provision of a serving Airman. Airman’s Command School dispatches it’s willing volunteer and once again the RAF ‘parachutes’ (metaphorically, this time!) into the village. Along with the Air Attaché in Paris he forms the Royal Air Force presence in this crowd of dignitaries and French military personnel. Also present is a Chaplain; an unlikely representative from the Royal Navy who turns out to be the great nephew of the pilot. So there is a surviving relative after all!
So 70 years to the day in a quiet cemetery somewhere in the Loire Valley, a village gathers to remember seven members of a Service charged with not only the protection of it’s homeland but also the liberation of those nations already occupied by a force that so quickly swept aside any means of self defence. As World War Two retreats from living memory it is the likes of Jean-Gael Cesbron who keep the memory of these events alive and the lessons learnt at the forefront of our minds.