Arms for the Resistance
By DAVID TAYLOR
Allied invasions in Normandy started with D-day on June 6th. The German response was the movement of troops and armour from Bordeaux and the South up to the North of France. The Resistance in the Dordogne and central France were disrupting this movement with the aid of supplies dropped from Britain.
On the night of 20th August 1944, eight Stirling Mk IV aircraft of 299 Squadron took off from RAF Keevil in Wiltshire on 3 different SOE missions, to drop arms and supplies to the French Resistance, in the South of France.
Of these missions, one was “Paul 118”, involving 3 aircraft:
LJ 896 – 5GC, Pilot P/O Davidson, take off at 22.32 hrs
LJ 813 – 5GE, Pilot F/Lt Taylor, take off at 22.47 hrs
EF 322 – 5GB, Pilot P/O Hotz, take off at 23.00 hrs
The coordinates of the intended drop zone are given as 43° 53’ 52’’ N, 00° 44’ 24’’ E, in the vicinity of Fleurance, some 60km North-West of Toulouse.
The flying distance would have been approximately 550 miles.
Struck down in France
Davidsons aircraft landed back at Keevil at 05.36 and that of Hotz, at 05.47.
Taylor’s aircraft LJ 813 did not return. It crashed with the loss of all 6 crew, at La Morenchie, a farmstead near the village of St-Germain-des-Prés in the Dordogne department, some 30 km NE of Perigueux.
According to eye-witness accounts, the aircraft was in flames as it came down through a grove of walnut trees, and was much disintegrated on impact. It came to rest in front of a farmhouse, the four engines either side of the house. The cause of the crash is not understood with any certainty, nor indeed why it happened some 100km East of the intended route. Local people remember a violent thunderstorm in the Excideuil area that night, and there are reports of bad weather in RAF records; one other aircraft from Keevil that night abandoned a similar mission in central France due to “severe electrical storm”. The RAF records also refer to some activity by German aircraft in that general area.
So from research to date, the cause might have been electrical storm affecting navigation instrument, lightning strike, or enemy action, or some combination of all of these.
Wreckage of LJ813 at la Morenchie 21.08.1944
The crew of LJ 813 on this flight were all from RAF Volunteer Reserve:
|Ernest Albert Taylor||Flight Lieutenant||105159||Pilot||Aged 30|
|Carl Victor Mason||Flight Lieutenant||106539||Navigator||Aged 30|
|Reginald Dutton||Pilot Officer||178818||Air Gunner||Aged 33|
|George James Elliott||Flying Officer||169876||W.Op./Air Gunner||Aged 24|
|Ronald Victor Cooling||Flight Sergeant||1322410||Bomb Aimer||Aged 23|
|Arthur Alfred Beale||Sergeant||1133762||Flight Engineer||Aged 24|
This same crew had flown together many times during the preceding months, with the exception of P.O Dutton, who on this night took the place of F/O W.E.Tripp.
The Officer Commanding “A” flight was S/Ldr. D.W.Triptree.
The deceased were taken to Excideuil, the nearest town, about 6km to the East. On August 23rd, with Perigueux liberated just four days previously, a funeral ceremony was held, attended by the Mayor, the Préfet, and representatives of Government and Resistance movements. The six coffins were draped in Union flags, made from parachute cloth, and a Guard of Honour formed by the FFI. A huge crowd had gathered in this small town, carrying flowers and flags, and followed the cortège through the town’s narrow streets to the communal cemetery, where all the aircrew were buried in a group of six graves.
Funeral Procession through Excideuil 23.08.44
After the war
Every year, now usually on the first Sunday after August 20th, a morning of remembrance ceremonies is held, to honour both the crew of the Stirling, and three local Resistants killed during the war. The day is organised jointly by both communes, St-Germain and Excideuil, and visits four different locations, starting in alternate years at either Excideuil or St-Germain.
The format of the morning has evolved over the years from less formal beginnings.
Representing government will usually be the mayors or their deputies of both communes, together with representatives of the Préfet, the Conseiller General, and the British Consul in Bordeaux.
Others in official capacity include committee and other members of the ANACR (Association des Anciens Combattants de la Résistance), many as standard bearers for the local groups, and a representative of the RAF. Then there are the families of the aircrew, local residents, both French and some British expatriates, and maybe a few holidaymakers and tourists.
The crew of Stirling LJ 813 are remembered in two ceremonies, at the site of the crash at La Morenchie, in the commune of St-Germain-des-Prés, and at the cemetery at Excideuil, where all six crew are buried. At each site, a few speeches are made, floral tributes are laid in silence, both national anthems are played.
Annual ceremony at Excideuil Communal Cemetery 23.08.2009
Honouring the Resistance
En route between these two sites, another two short ceremonies take place.
One at the hamlet of La Verdenie, where a small stèle commemorates the death of René Donadille, a Resistant killed in a skirmish with occupying forces in June 1944, aged 30. Then at the cemetery of St-Germain-des-Prés, at the tombs of André Dumas and Rene Geoffroy, who died at the hands of the Miliciens in March and April 1944, both aged 19.
Following the morning’s ceremonies, there is a vin d’honneur for all those taking part, followed by a lunch, generously hosted by both communes, for many of those present including the relatives of the Stirling crew.
Monument to the aircrew
At the site of the crash at La Morenchie, a monument to the crew of the Stirling was erected, in the form of a stèle in 1974. It was designed by local architect and ex-Resistant, Yves Bancon, in a form to suggest the wings of an aircraft. It was built with the help of a small group of students from the nearby Lycéee Professional du Bâtiment at Chardeuil under the direction of Professor Lafabregue. (M. Bancon is now retired and currently General Secretary of the departmental ANACR committee.)
The monument was dedicated at a ceremony on 25th August 1974, on the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Paris. Attended by many representatives of government and the ANACR, it was unveiled byCarla Mason, daughter of the navigator. After WWII, Carla’s mother’s wish was for her daughter to maintain links with the communities where her father died, and arranged for her to correspond with a pen-friend from the school in Excideuil, Francine Duranty. Carla maintained her links with the town, learned to speak fluent French and attended many of the annual ceremonies from the age of 11. She last travelled to France with her husband Garrett Kenny and their daughters in 2004 but was too ill to attend, and sadly died in November that year. Francine still lives in the town with her husband and maintains links with the aircrew families as below.
Monument of the crew at La Morenchie 24.08.2004
Annual ceremony at La Morenchie 23.08.2004
65 Years after
Families in touch
Since 1997, the families and relatives of five members of the Stirling crew are in touch with each other, mostly through Carla Kenny, and have attended and taken part in the annual ceremonies.
Sheila Jones, daughter of PO Dutton and her husband Alan, and Stuart Dutton, son of PO Dutton with his daughter Jane.
Mary Ghrist, niece of Sgt. Beale, her husband Richard, and her Sister and brother-in-law Susan and Alan.
Christine Talbot, daughter of F/Lt Taylor and her husband Peter, who have attended most years since 1998, and David, Son of F/Lt Taylor, and his wife Pamela.
Zena Williams (née Brizell), daughter of George Elliot’s Cousin Joyce Stott, wrote to Carla after visiting the cemetery in 1999, and her brother Andrew Brizell is a member of the Stirling Aircraft Society.
For the future
Some of us have asked each other “for how many more years will these ceremonies continue ?” – in the year 2009, 65 years have passed since the events commemorated took place.
From the tenor of speeches made by the Mayors, ANACR members, and others in France involved in the ceremonies, there is no question of them calling time.
The Anciens Combattants who both played their parts and survived WWII, are fewer in number as each year passes, but the spaces are filled, and the Resistance flags still proudly carried, by the succeeding generations.
To quote Arnaud Le Guay, then Mayor of Excideuil, in 1998:
“The fight for freedom is never fought once and for all, we are never totally safe from turmoil.
It is a constant battle as incessant as the struggle between light and darkness. The memory of such sacrifices enforces us to maintain this struggle.
The memory of such sacrifices clears a path for those of us who are conscious of such fragility in the world, and goes far to bring us fortitude instead of surrender.”
Details of the mission and crew are from 299 Squadron Operations Record Books, and Parachute Raid Reports at National Archives, Kew.
For all other information, grateful thanks are due to:
Staff at the Syndicat d’Initiative and the Mairie, Excideuil.
M. Paul Clergerie.
Carla Kenny and Francine Bourdier (née Duranty), and their families.
Mary Ghrist, and Christine Talbot.