Posts Tagged 'Lezennes'

Forage Cap

Gil Thew recently sent me this fantastic photograph of his uncle Gilbert Pate:

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Gilbert is in uniform, wearing a peaked forage cap parked at a jaunty angle upon his head. Tucked into the fold at the front of the cap is a white ‘flash’ of fabric. This flash was the mark of an airman under training. Gilbert’s serious expression and immaculate uniform coupled with the trainee flash suggests this might be a copy of his enlistment identity photograph. The photo was therefore most likely taken in late June 1942, when Gilbert would have been 26 years old. He barely looks out of his teens.

While not unique to Bomber Command itself, photographs of airmen from Commonwealth air forces in WWII will frequently show them wearing caps just like this one. The forage cap had been part of the uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force since the First World War. It was designed to look reasonably respectable even after being folded up and jammed into a corner in the cramped cockpit of an aeroplane. A battered cap was a sign that its owner was no sprog.

In May 2009 I visited Lezennes on the anniversary of the Lille operation to see the graves of my great uncle and his crew. I wasn’t prepared for the reception I was given by the locals. There was a small but moving ceremony at the cemetery, presided over by the Mayor with perhaps 20 people attending. After the cemetery we walked into the town to the local library, where a display had been set up telling the story of the crew. There was a television camera crew to document the occasion. I even met a man who had been 10 at the time of the Lille raid, and who remembered standing next to the graves the day after the funerals, singing ‘God Save the King’.

But most amazing of all was the man on the left of this photo:

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His name is Laurent Messiaen. He is presenting me with a pristine original RAAF forage cap. The exact origins of the cap are unknown. I was told it had been with a local family since the war. Apparently Laurent read about my impending visit in the local newspaper and came along specifically to give it to me.

There is no doubt that it is RAAF. Stamped inside, it says “MADE IN AUSTRALIA 1943”. A direct link with the Lille operation cannot be ruled out.

The cap now sits on my shelf. It’s become one of my most treasured possessions.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

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67 years

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We will remember them.

Propeller

My good friend Joss le Clercq is a French aviation historian of some note. When I visited Lezennes and the graves of my great uncle’s crew in 2009, I stayed for a few nights with him in his farmhouse between Fromelles and Aubers, about 20km west of Lille.

Joss has the beginnings of a small aviation museum in his back shed. There are parts of many crashed aeroplanes, all dug up around the local area. Among them is one particular bit of metal. Though badly corroded, it is still unmistakably a fragment of a blade from an aircraft propeller. About fifteen years ago, a hotel and a petrol station was being built in Lezennes. While digging the foundations they found some rusted metal – which Joss identified as the remains of a Lancaster. He retrieved two pieces – the propeller blade and a flat fragment of alloy. From local records he deduced which Lancaster the wreckage was from.

These unassuming bits of metal in Joss’ back shed are most probably the only surviving pieces of Lancaster Mk III, LM475:

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Of the crash site itself there remains now virtually no trace. The petrol station continues dispensing liquefied dead dinosaurs in its curiously French, completely automatic way. The hotel looked pretty empty when we visited. But there are two large rocks on a small bit of flat ground, which Joss says are pretty close to where he found the propeller blade a decade and a half ago.

I reckon they look ideal for the placing of a small plaque, to mark the spot where the Lancaster came down.

 

img_3854 copyA task, perhaps, for when next I visit.

© 2011 Adam Purcell


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