Lest We Forget – French Town Commemorates WWII Liberation

 
 

In memory of the Airmen who gave their lives for freedom in Saint-Sever during World War II

Message from the Mayor of Saint-Sever

On the 6th of June 1944, Allied troops landed on the coasts of Normandy. Today, the 9th of June 2018, we are here to honour the British and American airmen who lost their lives here in our community during the last war. We stand here in this symbolic location of the Abbey of St Sever.

One of its builders was Hugh the Wolf, who became Earl of Chester following the Norman conquest of England. It goes without saying that our links with our British friends go back a long way. So today I am very happy and honoured to welcome the families of Pilot Officer Morison, Sergeants Holland, Hutchinson, Westley, Wilkinson, Clennell and the representatives of Lieutenant Marko, young men aged between 19 and 25 who gave their lives for our freedom.

All of them died liberating Europe from Nazi totalitarianism. During the six years of war, three aeroplanes came down in our area, resulting in the deaths of seven airmen. One disaster in particular is deeply embedded in the memories of many of our inhabitants.

Abbey of St. Sever

On the 13th of April 1941, an English bomber crashed in the centre of our town, causing the death of nine civilians: Mr and Mrs Léon Champion; Guy Boudier, Marcel Charlemagne, Paulette Vaudry, Gabrielle Bricod, Jeannine Lebedel, Georges Morel and Maurice Brochet. We will never forget their sacrifice.

That is why, more than ever, we carry out a duty of remembrance so essential for our young people, to prevent a return to those barbaric times. Let us hope that the sacrifice of these men for our freedom will not have been in vain. Let us spend a moment showing our appreciation of these liberators.

This stone, placed on the site of the war memorial is a token of our respect and appreciation. It is also a means of not forgetting the past and of passing its message on to future generations. We may think that the fight against fascism is ended but before us we see nationalism and the distortion of the truth. Recent incidents are too serious to ignore. Let us not allow a tragic repetition of history.

Saint-Sever today.

At the moment it is clear that at all levels we must act as guardians of liberty and fraternity. Let us continue the work of the pioneers of the European Union. This structure has brought us peace for over seventy years. Let us be the ambassadors of this Europe which despite its shortcomings, has brought us so much. My thanks go to all the British citizens who have crossed the Channel, all the veterans and their standard-bearers, to the teachers and pupils for their contribution, to Collectif

MemoireDDEN, to the Association du Souvenir Aérien Normand, to the school of music of Noues de Sienne and to the volunteers and collectors who have worked hard to make this day a success. We honour our liberators, our Résistance fighters and all of the martyrs for the cause of freedom.


Jean-PierreNOURRY`
Mayor of Saint-Sever

Today we remember

Today we are remembering the allied airmen who gave their lives here in Saint-Sever. First we look back at the tragedy of 13th April 1941. The country had been subjected to enemy occupation for several months. The United Kingdom, supported by Canada, remained the last bastion of a free Europe. The allies would not receive the support of Russia until June 1941 and of the United States until the December of that year.

On that fateful 13th April 1941, a squadron of British bombers was returning from a nightime bombing raid on an airfield at Bordeaux Mérignac from which German bombers had been taking off to attack the Atlantic convoys. Vickers-Wellington bomber OJO which had sustained some damage was limping home to England across our countryside.

Saint-Sever during the war.

In the early hours of that Easter Sunday, the bomber crashed right in the centre of town. It was like the Apocalypse. A wall of flames shot down the main street. The rapid intervention of the local people, the firemen of St Sever and units from Vire, Villedieu and Caen prevented the blaze from spreading. The bodies of nine civilians and five airmen were recovered from the smouldering wreckage.

Warrant Officer Rawlings (pictured right) received the order to parachute out of the plane as it made its first pass over the town to prepare for a landing by firing a flare. After the disaster he failed to find a safe refuge and was captured by the Germans the same day a few kilometers from St Sever and sent to a prison camp.

Warrant Officer Rawlings

The burial of the airmen took place on the 16th April. Despite the German propaganda, an impressive crowd came from all over the countryside and showed the same respect for the airmen as for the civilians who were buried the next day. An imposing cortège stretched across the whole width of the road from the church square down to the cemetery. It is estimated that more than three thousand people took part in what was seen as one of the very first protests against the enemy.

In a small gap in the middle of a watchful crowd on the edge of the main street, a group of patriots spread out several French flags in defiance of the restrictions imposed by the occupying forces. The enemy learnt lessons from this ceremony and no longer allowed participation of the population in the funerals of other allied airmen in the region. This was the case in Vire in 1942.

British Flight Crews during WWII.

It also went as far as the arrest and deportation of people who dared to contravene the ban, as was the case in St Martin des Entrées near Bayeux in 1943. This helps to explain why the burial of the young English pilot Dennis Clennell, aged just 19 was carried out so discreetly in St Sever after the crash of his Typhoon on 10 April 1943 close to the railway line.

Finally, on the first of August 1944, three days before the liberation of our town, an American fighter bomber crashed near a farm called La Davière. Lieutenant Rudy Marko was buried nearby in a bomb crater. We will now give an opportunity to the airmen’s families to pay their personal respects together with the children of the primary school who will deliver a translation and present you with two English songs.

André LAROZE

Message from Dame Vera Lynn

I was delighted to hear about the event you are organising in Normandy – it is a lovely idea to memorialise those brave airmen, and I am honoured to have been asked to contribute to this special occasion. So many brave men fought for our freedom during the War, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Vera Lynn

It is so important that we never take their sacrifice for granted, and events like this one ensure we do not. I thank all of the people of St Sever and the families of those airmen for their efforts, sacrifices and commitment to maintaining the memory of the past. I wish you every success for the upcoming event, and will be thinking of you all in June. I do hope the event goes well, and would be grateful if you kept me updated. Sending you all my very best wishes.

Dame Vera Lynn

Sgt Ronald Hutchinson

A 149 Sqn Wellington bomber undergoing engine tests at Mildenhall. Note the
boarding access ladder

All I knew about my uncle was that he died somewhere in France. Now, my brothers and I know more about him and this is thanks to the generosity and kindness of your village for building this memorial so that my uncle and the other crew members will never be forgotten.
I am sure that my father and grandfather would be very proud and happy to know that this memorial will always be in your village to remember Ronald and his crewmates by.

Sgt. Ronald Hutchinson

Written by his niece Anne Hutchinson

Pilot Officer Ronald R. Morison

Ronald Morison, the pilot of the Wellington airplane, was my grandfather’s cousin. I’m very proud to be here today in commemoration of Ronald and the other members of the plane that gave such sacrifices for the freedom of Britain and France. His sister, Peg, is still fit and healthy, aged 99. She would have loved to have been here today to accompany her granddaughter, Vanessa.

Pilot – Ronald Morrison

Her memories of her brother are that Ron and his three brothers were away at school from the age of eight and so it was only the holidays that they spent together. When Ronald was 14, they moved from the town to the country where their father was a doctor for seven years and later became Medical Officer of Health for the County of Cumberland (now Cumbria).

A Wellington bomber at Mildenhall. Ron Morison is first from the left.

Ronald and Peg enjoyed exploring the countryside and loved the animals. Ron was influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s « The Jungle Book ». Ron was good at games and enjoyed tennis the most. He also liked speed and soon learnt to drive cars and motorbikes. After working in a bank, he joined the RAF in 1939 and achieved what he really wanted to do, to take part in the fight against Nazi Germany.

Written by James Morison

Sgt John L.G. Westley

John Westley, my father’s younger brother, was one of the crew. My brothers and I were born after the war, so we never knew Uncle “Jack”, but I know he was very much missed by his brother (my father Jim) and his sister (my aunt Josephine) and his grieving parents.

We lived in Sutton in Surrey, with my grandparents, Alfred and Marie, and there was always a small black and white photograph of my uncle on the mantelpiece in his Air Force uniform, though my grandmother did not really talk about him much as it upset her too much. Our house in Mulgrave Road, Sutton, was named SaintSever.

Co-pilot Westley in the cockpit of a bomber

Written by his niece Georgie Robins née Westley

Sgt Walter H. Wilkinson

I am pleased to send you some photographs of my uncle, Gunner Sgt Walter Hugh Wilkinson and the unmarked graves of the Wellington crew, with my grandparents visiting them. I am delighted to hear that he and his crewmates are to be honoured by the village of St Sever. One of the memories he left behind is a letter written to his sister in which he said how much he missed his family and the mountains and lakes of his beloved Westmorland.

Sgt. Walter Wilkinson

Despite missing his mother’s birthday and failing to obtain leave for his own 21st just three days beforehand, he hoped to be home by the end of the month to enjoy springtime in the Lake District with family and friends. He ended by paying tribute to his fellow crewmembers and said « This life suits me but it is getting a lot tougher now ». The letter, which was dated 11th April, was the last time his parents heard from him. He was killed two days later.

St Sever – the unmarked graves of the Wellington crew

Written by his niece Alison Ainslie

Sgt Ernest J. Holland

Mr and Mrs Leese, formerly of Champ-du-Boult, described how they often visited the cemetery and left poppies on the graves of the British airmen. One day, they met an old local lady with flowers who just said: « Their mothers cannot do this for them, so I do ». One of these airmen was Sgt Ernest Holland.

Sgt Holland featured on a famous poster encouraging people to volunteer to work in aircraft production and had attended the photographic session for this just a week before he was killed.

A few days before he was killed in St Sever, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his outstanding skill and devotion to duty during his 30 operational night flights as observer. He had also just been selected as the subject for a national recruitment campaign. When the Wellington bomber crashed, posters bearing the photograph of Sgt Holland were being displayed across Britain, in order to encourage people to work within aircraft production.

Sgt. Holland

Adapted from a mail written by Elizabeth and Eric Leese and read by Angela Gibson, representing Ben Hewitt

Sgt Dennis Clennell

As young boys, my father and Dennis Clennell were next door neighbours and the best of friends. They even joined the RAF together in 1941. Next to me is Sgt Clennell’s nephew. Our fathers never knew how Dennis died. Here in the area of Saint-Sever, some spoke of “dog fights”, others of anti-aircraft fire. Little was certain until a few years ago when the facts came to light. On the 10th of April 1943, two Typhoons left England just after midday.

Sgt. Dennis Clennell

One plane returned home, the other was reported « missing over France ». Two planes were seen circling over the railway-line near Villedieu. A few minutes later, near Le Richelieu farm, 4 kilometers west of here, Sgt Clennell’s Typhoon was seen to emerge suddenly from the forest, firing at an armed train coming from Villedieu.

The train was hit and came to a stop, before moving on to St Sever. Flying low, the plane struck the top of a tree and crashed-landed in a field next to the railway-line. The pilot, Sgt Dennis Clennell, was already dead when the first local people reached the wreck. Dennis, who had lied about his age to enlist, died just two days after his 19th birthday.

Sgt. Dennis Clennell in flightsuit.

Written by his nephew Neil Dennis Clennell and read by Michael Dennis Draper

Lt Rudy Marko

On August 1st 1944, Lt Rudy Marko was last seen strafing enemy vehicles. When he attempted to pull up, his right wing was torn off by a tree. The aircraft hit the ground. After the front passed by, three American NCO’s went to La Davière farm where the plane had crashed. Mr Clément, the farmer, led them to a bomb crater in the forest. There, they discovered Rudy’s grave with fresh flowers.

Lt. Rudy Marko

Burned into the wooden cross were the words in French: « Here lies a brave American aviator who died fighting to free France ». The young farming couple asserted they would take care of the grave. But a couple of months later the American army reburied Rudy in a cemetery surrounded by his fellow soldiers and airmen. After the war he was reinterred in America. On behalf of his nephew Paul Marko.

P-47 no. 78 is flown by Lt R. Marko over the NY
countryside (1943).

Adapted from “Second to None” by Dr T M Grace and read by Bob Wilkinson

We will remember them

Grave marker for the five aviators in St Sever cemetery. Photos taken by the Wilkinson family in 1949. / Anciennes tombes des cinq aviateurs dans le cimetière de St Sever. Photos prises en 1949 par la famille Wilkinson

Grave marker for the five aviators in St Sever cemetery. Photos taken by the Wilkinson
family in 1949.

 

Original headstone of Sgt Clennell.

 

Grave of Lt Marko in Cleveland, Ohio.

 

Saint-Sever cemetery today.

 

Memorial unveiled 9th June 2018.

Lest We Forget – Recent Commemorations

70th anniversary of the Liberation (June 2014) The ‘Collectif Memoire – DDEN’ and local school children from St Sever pay their respects to the Allied Forces.

 

70th anniversary of the Liberation (June 2014) The ‘Collectif Memoire – DDEN’ and local school children from St Sever pay their respects to the Allied Forces.

 

70th anniversary of the Liberation (June 2014) The ‘Collectif Memoire – DDEN’ and local school children from St Sever pay their respects to the Allied Forces.

From Buckingham Palace to St Sever (March 2018) Retired members of the Special Escort Group came to pay their respects to the allied airmen after seeing reports that appeared in the British press.

 

From Buckingham Palace to St Sever (March 2018) Retired members of the Special Escort Group came to pay their respects to the allied airmen after seeing reports that appeared in the British press.

 

From Buckingham Palace to St Sever (March 2018) Retired members of the Special Escort Group came to pay their respects to the allied airmen after seeing reports that appeared in the British press.

Where It Happened

Before the crash: The family wedding party in front of the bakery before the Second World War.

 

After the crash – picture taken despite the ban on taking photos during the occupation.

 

And today – still a bakery with the greengrocers and general store next door and a memorial plaque on the wall above.

 

‘Here on13th April 1941 five British airmen died for the cause of freedom. They were young, they were just 20 years old! Nine inhabitants of our community perished with them. Saint-Sever remembers them’

Saint-Sever Calvados

The High Street – 4th August 1944. Liberation by the American 2nd Armoured Division (‘Hell on Wheels’)

 

The High Street during the 1930’s

 

The view today.

 

The High Street today.

 

The abbey church which dates from the 13th century.

 

The Benedictine abbey after the modification of the western section (drawing from 1702)

Our Thanks

On behalf of Collectif Mémoire (DDEN) I would like to express our deepest gratitude to the families who have shared with us their moving tributes and so brought to life once more the memory of these young allied airmen who fell here during the Second World War.

We are grateful to Dame Vera Lynn for her kind message of encouragement and to the musicians Anne and Michael Barton and Pierrick Cineux, to the School of Music and to the teachers and children of the Junior School of Saint-Sever who brought such a heartfelt sense of hope and warmth of feeling to this commemoration.

We acknowledge with thanks the contributions of the municipalities of Saint-Sever and Noues de Sienne, the Association Souvenir Aerien of Normandy, our local War Veterans and Fire Brigade, the classic car owners with us today, and the staff and volunteers of the local community association ‘La Vache Qui Lit’.

In addition our thanks go to the many researchers who helped locate the families of the airmen and to the journalist Peter Devine who published articles about our search in the British press.

Finally we are most grateful to Alan Davidge, Olivier Jeanneau, Jenny Shorten and to the staff of the municipalities of Saint Sever and Noues de Sienne for their technical assistance in the projection of the images during the ceremony and the production of this booklet.

André LAROZE
(President, Collectif Mémoire-DDEN)

The text and images in this publication are the intellectual property of the President of Collectif Mémoire Severin – DDEN Circonscription de Vire. Commercial use of this document or any part thereof is not permitted, unless authorised by the rights holder. Non-commercial use is allowed on condition that the right’s holder is credited and the same conditions are passed on to the recipient.