Sixty five years ago, on March 10 1944, seven young men assembled in the evening twilight for an important mission. They were tasked to fly a Stirling Bomber across to France and to drop seventeen containers to the Resistance. They were all members of 90 Squadron based at Tuddenham Airfield in Suffolk, near Bury St Edmonds.
Sixty five years ago, on March 10 1944, seven young men assembled in the evening twilight for an important mission.
They were tasked to fly a Stirling Bomber across to France and to drop seventeen containers to the Resistance.
They were all members of 90 Squadron based at Tuddenham Airfield in Suffolk, near Bury St Edmonds.
The men of 90 Squadron were specialised in the dangerous techniques of mine laying, or 'gardening' as it was called, which involved low flying at night over hostile waters near enemy harbours. The obvious dangers of fog, mist, poor visibility, night flying at low level as well as interception by fighters and ground fire meant that the war wreaked a terrible toll on the men and aircraft of 90 Squadron.
They did not have the massed formations of other bombers for protection, with the rather false impression of safety in numbers, because of the inadequate .303 machine guns that were supposed to act as a defence against the cannon of the ME109s and Focke-Wulf fighters.
The crews of 90 Squadron often had to fly alone in a blacked out aircraft with the flight instruments lit only by the ghostly glow of ultraviolet light. They would wear goggles or blindfolds before getting onboard in order that they preserved their night vision, which could be destroyed for twenty minutes by the flare of a match, or a careless beam of light from a torch.
This mission was important because it was before the impending invasion of Europe and the need to reassure and equip the members of the French Underground as a lead up to D-Day.
The Resistance in the Bourgogne operated from the Morvan Forest which is on the frontier between the regions of Occupied France and Vichy France. This was a zone heavily patrolled by the Third Reich and the differences between the two sides of this demarcation line are still felt today by the people who live here.
The Resistance had a woman radio operator in the Morvan, who lived in a six square metre hole disguised in the forest. She lived in this hole for months transmitting vital information about convoys and troop movements in the area.
The Stirling was a relatively slow four-engine heavy bomber that came into service in 1941. The crew had to fly across France at low level, which meant that they were vulnerable to any ground fire, even small arms. Navigation across a blacked out countryside, zigzagging between known concentrations of flack has many problems and I imagine that they had to rely on such transitory sightings as the reflection of moonlight from canals and rivers that they passed.
Squadron Leader King was the pilot, his rank denoting perhaps the importance of this mission. I have not been able to discover where their destination was, but the flight was to end in tragedy, as they crashed into the forest near Brazey-en-Plaine, in the Côte d'Or.
Three of the crew were killed on impact and one, Flight Sergeant Squance, was able to escape both the wreckage and the Germans, with the aid of local French people.
The surviving three members of the crew were taken to St Jean de Losne and were interrogated by the Gestapo. They were tortured to death.
I can only imagine at their bravery and courage in the face of inevitable death, however they did not divulge any information, so the Germans did not know where to search for the recipients of this load of supplies.
There followed a purge through the area after this and there are graves in most cemeteries in the villages of the Bourgogne which mark the final resting places of young men who were murdered. Some of the markers are memorials to those who were sent to extermination camps.
In Seurre, our neighbouring village, there are the graves of several young men who were taken out of the town and shot at the roadside. The victims also included the village doctor, who was suspected, I imagine, of aiding wounded members of the Marquis. This created a wave of fury against the invaders, but there was not a lot anyone could do, because any action was met with murderous reprisals.
The crew of the bomber are all buried in the cemetery of Brazey-en-Plaine and recently their graves have been touched up. The village has flowers laid there every 11th of November and also on France Liberation Day, which is a holiday introduced by Giscard d'Estaing, on the 8th of May.
I go there to pay my respects on each 11th of March, the anniversary of the crash.
All that physically remains now to commemorate the 90 Squadron members is a memorial at what was Tuddenham Airfield, which is now agricultural land. The runways have been torn up and recycled into road-fill. The control tower is gone and only some dilapidated buildings mark the place where over two thousand people once lived and from which many people left to die in foreign lands.
In total, 90 Squadron lost 53 heavy bombers during the war, with few survivors.
In France, on memorial days, people of the villages and towns gather at the memorials and read out the names of all the people who died for France, one by one, so that they are officially remembered.
As a Rhodesian, I feel sad that the men and women who fought against terrorism in my country have no memorial, except for a secret one in England that was smuggled out of the collapsing Zimbabwe, before it could be desecrated.
One Rhodesian friend of mine, who has a small chateau south of Paris, insists that when the French remember their dead in his village, that they walk down the road to the site where a Lancaster bomber crashed during a raid on a German Army base, and that they read out the names of the men who died there, so that we all could be free.
I have decided that I am going to build a memorial to Squadron Leader King and his crew as close to the crash site as I am allowed.
I understand that some parts of France suffered heavy raids by Bomber Command, and that there must be sad memories of French people lost in what they call "collateral damage".
However, this particular crew were tasked to aid the French Resistance, and they died without divulging information about their mission.
They knew there was no hope of rescue.
They knew they were doomed.
I think they should be specially remembered as representatives of all those who gave their all, so that today we can it in peace and enjoy the food and wine and ambiance of France.
What greater love can there ever be that a man should lay down his life for his fellow man?