Flying over Lezennes

Five miles south-east of the centre of Lille is an airport. With an instrument landing system, VOR/DME and a main runway 2825m long it is now more than capable of handling aircraft up to about Boeing B767 size, and indeed today you can catch a flight direct from Lille to some 70 destinations around France, Europe and northern Africa.

But in 1944 it was the Luftwaffe air base known as Flugplatz Vendeville. Based there between April and September of that year was Fliegerhorst-Kommandatur E (v) 220/XI. On the north-west of the base was a battery of three heavy 88mm flak gun positions and it was this battery which probably shot down a 97 Squadron Lancaster, JB708, during the raid on the marshalling yards to the north on 10 May. [1]And after his own aircraft, B for Baker, was hit attacking the same target, Phil Smith landed nearby:

Not long after [being shot down and landing safely], I came to a heavy barbed wire fence, which I took to be the boundary of the fighter aerodrome to the SE of our target. Basis the guarding of English aerodromes, I reckoned that it would be better to walk across the aerodrome rather than make a long detour around it. Accordingly I started to look for a way under the wire but as soon as I did this, shots rang out. I had not been challenged but felt sure that they were meant for me. I changed my mind immediately and crept off as quietly as possible in a North-Easterly direction…        -Phil Smith, ‘Recollections of 1939-1945 War’

About ten hours short of exactly sixty five years after Phil Smith stumbled onto the boundary fence of an airfield near Lille, I was in a car being driven by my friend Olivier Mahieu across the boundary of the same airfield. We had spent the morning at the graves of the crew of B for Baker and Olivier had organised for me to go flying in a light aeroplane with a local instructor. His sister Sylvie came along in the aircraft to act as translator.

The aircraft was F-GKVV, a TB-9 (a French design, unsurprisingly), a type I had never been in before so I enjoyed the chance to fly something a little different.

F-GKVV, the TB-9 we flew over Lille

F-GKVV, the TB-9 we flew over Lille

Though English is the international language of aviation, the local air traffic controllers use French if you’re flying in a French-registered aeroplane. Which is fair enough, but can present some problems if you don’t speak French. The instructor pilot – whose name was Frank – had English as non-existent as my French and I could barely hear Sylvie’s translation over the headset, but with much gesturing going in both directions between Frank and myself we managed reasonably well.

Flying, particularly in a weird aeroplane in a foreign country, is always good fun. But this flight was memorable for more than just this. Because this was the same area where, sixty five years before, the crew of B for Baker had been flying in a Lancaster.

Not long after taking off we were already over Lezennes. The cemetery where we had spent the morning was clearly visible down below.

Lezennes Communal Cemetery from the air

Lezennes Communal Cemetery from the air

And not all that far away I could see the petrol station and hotel that are now built on the site where B for Baker crashed.

The crash site of LM475 B for Baker - between the motel and service station at top centre.

The crash site of LM475 B for Baker – between the motel and service station at top centre.

And also visible, a mile west of the crash site, were some of the big sheds and railway yards that formed part of the target that night. The Fives marshalling yards are the further set in this photo, just above centre.

Part of the Lille marshalling yards

Part of the Lille marshalling yards

Though the passage of time has unavoidably altered the landscape as more areas have been developed and the suburbs have sprawled, from the air the relationship between the target, the airfield and the place where the aeroplane crashed stands out clearly. They really did crash very close to the target area.

Flying over the same area where my great uncle Jack and his crew were lost was for me a profoundly moving experience. It can never come close, of course, to exactly what it was like that May night in 1944. The weather was good, we were flying in daylight and, critically, no one was shooting at us. At 1,500 feet we were also considerably lower than where the Lancasters would have been flying. But to be in the air, over the same railway yards, was to feel for a moment just a little closer to the crew of B for Baker.

F-GKVV passing a church in Hellemmes - snapped by a friend while we were flying

F-GKVV passing a church in Hellemmes – snapped by a friend of Olivier’s while we were flying

 

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

 

[1] Jozefiak, Richard 1995. Crash of a RAF bomber occurred on the airfield Vendeville (Lesquin) during the Second World War. Unpublished typescript translated by Peter Harvey

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