The Free French air force in York

Contributed by Josh McKeown

The dissertation French Flyers in York by Josh McKeown (available for free here) examines the history of two Free French heavy bomber squadrons, Nos. 346 and 347, during their time based at RAF Elvington near York in the United Kingdom.  Like all of the ‘exiled forces’, the men faced the dual stresses of combat and separation from their homeland, and it is this latter element that McKeown focuses upon in his study.  Most of the aircrew had been serving in North Africa until 1943 before transferring to Britain as part of Bomber Command.  They were equipped with Handley Page Halifax aircraft and trained for night raids over Germany in preparation for Operation Overlord.  They were fully operational from May 1944 until the end of the war, after which they transferred to Bordeaux under French control in the autumn of 1945.

McKeown presents three primary chapters in his study: ‘Memories’, ‘Relationships’ and ‘Press’.  The first chapter draws much of its material from oral histories and the written memoirs of both French and British personnel.  It is clear that everyone found the Yorkshire reception to be convivial and welcoming, a ‘safe place’ that offered a valuable respite from the terrors of night bombing raids, by far the most dangerous aspect of the air war.  In ‘Relationships’, the author concentrates on two romances that blossomed against the backdrop of war, and how these intense friendships illuminated the overall experiences of the airmen-in-exile.  In chapter 3, ‘Press’, published articles concerning the deployment of 346 and 347 at Elvington are examined, highlighting the considerable positive aspects but also documenting some tragedies that occurred during and after the war.

The study challenges several perceptions that the experiences of the Free French in Britain were negatively impacted by the difficult relationship between Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill.  By concentrating on the human story behind the military role, McKeown has cleverly and persuasively shown that it is erroneous to use political strife to interpret personal experiences.  With this paper, Josh McKeown makes an important and valuable contribution to the topic.

Royal_Air_Force_Bomber_Command,_1942-1945._CH13406

Images:  Header – A Handley-Page Halifax B Mark III of 347 (Free French) squadron at Elvington in Yorkshire.  Above: General Martial Valin, commander of the French Air Force in Britain, talks to crews of 346 (Free French) squadron in York.  To the right of the picture stands Air Vice Marshall Roderic Carr, AOC 4 Group.

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