French villagers who clubbed together to erect a lasting memorial to the crew of a British Second World War bomber which crashed on their main street have won praise from Dame Vera Lynn.
At Saturday’s unveiling ceremony, a message from 101-year-old Dame Vera, the Forces’ Sweetheart, was read out in which she spoke of the sacrifices made by the crew of the doomed Wellington Bomber and the villagers killed on 13 April 1941.
The Wellington T2897 of 149 Squadron, which was on its way back from a bombing mission in German occupied France near Bordeaux, developed engine trouble after being hit by flak and crashed into the centre of St Sever Calvados.
The fireball from the disintegrating aircraft enveloped much of the village’s main street and killed nine villagers, including a 15-month-old infant as well as five of the six crew on board.
Before the Wellington came down, one of the crew, Gunner Sgt Kenneth Rawlings, was ordered to bail out to try to help steer the Wellington away from the village by lighting a flare in a nearby field, but it all came too late as the aircraft hit the village. He was subsequently captured by the Germans and put into a POW camp in Poland.
The rest of the Wellington crew were killed. They were: Pilot Officer Ronald Morison, 23; Pilot Sgt Ernest John Holland DFM, 22; Wireless operator Sgt Ronald Hutchinson, 23; Pilot Sgt John Leo Westley, 23; and Gunner Sgt Walter Hugh Wilkinson, 21.
Witnesses spoke of the horror of that night, including one, Mme Bourgeois, who later recounted: “The plane crash was really frightening. I will never forget this dreadful event on Easter Sunday 1941, I still see the street on fire and the fire brigade coming from several towns around including Vire, Villedieu and Caen to help out and also the human chain of townspeople passing buckets of water.”
Reports at the time suggest that despite losing members of their own families, hundreds of people defiantly turned out under the eyes of the Germans to pay tribute to the courage of the airmen, who had been on a mission from RAF Mildenhall to destroy a Luftwaffe airfield in Merignac, the home of the FW 200 long range maritime bomber.
Last year, the villagers of St Sever decided to club together, some 77 years after the crash, to build the 1.5 metre memorial as a more lasting tribute to the airmen’s courage.
St Sever’s village historian Andre Laroze said a plaque in the main street where the plane came down would remain, but would be replaced by the memorial in the cemetery after agreement with the Mayor of St Sever, Jean-Pierre Nourry.
Mr Laroze explained: “The work on getting permission for the 1.5 metre memorial has been undertaken by local people in their own time and expense and underlines the deep debt of gratitude that still exists among those liberated by the Allies, even though French families suffered casualties in the process.”
The gesture has touched the heart of Dame Vera Lynn, who praised both the townspeople’s generosity and kindness.
Dame Vera said: “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 Second World War and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. It is so important that we never take their sacrifice for granted and events like this ensure we do not.”
Dame Vera added: “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 will be thinking of you all.”
At Saturday’s service the Mayor of St Sever, Jean-Pierre Nourry said that during six years of war, three aircraft came down in the area, but the one ‘disaster’ which marked it out most vividly in the memories of townspeople was the crash of the Wellington, which destroyed the lives of nine villagers and their families.
He said: “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 pioneers of the European Union, a structure which has brought us peace for over 70 years.
“Let us hope that the sacrifice of these men for our freedom will not have been in vain. 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.”
At the service, children from a local school sang songs including the White Cliffs of Dover, and relatives of the crewmen read out tributes.
Anne Hutchinson, the niece of Sgt Ronald Hutchinson, said: “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 the village for building this memorial so that my uncle and the other crew members will never be forgotten.”
James Morison, a relative of Ronald Morison, said: “I’m very proud to he here today in commemoration of Ronald and other members of the plane that gave such sacrifices for the freedom of Britain and France.”
After the war, Sgt Rawlings lived at 240 School Road, Yardley Wood, Birmingham, and became a Warrant Officer, marrying widow Peggotty Capell in Bournemouth in 1946.
A different fate awaited the farmer who was labelled a traitor by the villagers of St Sever after allegedly telling the Germans where Sgt Rawlings was hiding. He was executed by the French Resistance on D-Day in 1944.
The new memorial in St Sever carries the simple inscription: “They gave their youth in St Sever so that peace could flourish in Europe”.
Relatives from most of the families were traced last year after an appeal was launched in British newspapers and across social media.