RAF bomber crew find welcome in gloomy France

Bofors gun crews practise firing at low-flying RAF Blenheim bombers, November 1939.

Bofors gun crews practise firing at low-flying RAF Blenheim bombers, November 1939.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV L4842 being flown by test pilot Bill Pegg near Filton, 29 May 1939. The aircraft served with No. 53 Squadron and was shot down on 17 May 1940 over France.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV L4842 being flown by test pilot Bill Pegg near Filton, 29 May 1939. The aircraft served with No. 53 Squadron and was shot down on 17 May 1940 over France.

By 11 June 1940 Alastair Panton, an RAF Blenheim bomber pilot with 53 Squadron had already been shot down three times since the German invasion of France. The majority of the BEF had by now been evacuated after their encirclement at Dunkirk. However the 51st Highland Division was still fighting alongside the French and many British support troops remained in France – and a new Expeditionary force would soon be landed further west with a view to establishing a new line of resistance – possibly establishing a joint Anglo-French redoubt in Brittany.

The remaining RAF Blenheim crews, their ranks now much reduced by casualties, were still engaged in the vital business of reconnaissance. They were now mainly flying dangerous, extremely low level sorties, to establish a picture of the rapidly changing battlefield. Panton and his observer Chancery were now due to the meet British Army intelligence officer Major Jameson. In the increasingly confused situation, with many roads impassable with refugees, they had arranged to meet him outside Chartres cathedral sometime that evening, whenever Jameson could find a route through:

The streets were filthy and crowded with refugees; the water and electricity supplies only worked spasmodically; there were queues at all the food shops of customers hoping they would open in spite of the late hour; but the saddest feature was the overall air of resignation. More than ever was I struck by the contrast with the cheerful, purposeful atmosphere at our little encampment in its corner of the airfield.

The pavements around the cathedral were crowded with refugees, as were the steps leadingup to the main entrance.The people, lying or sitting with their belongings, were eyeing us in our flying overalls and forage caps, if not in an openly hostile manner, certainly in a way which showed they were not prepared to help us.

It was only with difficulty that we found space on the steps to sit down and wait for Jameson. When an hour went by without him, we were both feeling ready for a drink. I had noticed a bistro opposite which, unusually, was open, but surprisingly did not seem to be busy.

We decided to investigate and immediately found out why it was not being patronised much. According to a notice pinned to the door, W. Grammond, the proprietor, was charging an entrance fee of 100 francs. We were not short of money as we had had little opportunity to spend any. Without hesitating, we opened the door, cash in hand, and went in to be met by a gigantic hairy man, whom we rightly presumed to be Monsieur Grammond, seated at a table.

We were very pleasantly surprised by our reception, because We had become used to being made to feel not wanted. He jumped to his feet waving aside our proffered francs, crying, ‘Vive l’Angleterre! Vive le Royale Air Force! Entrez! Entrez!’

The other customers smiled their welcome and moved to make seats empty for us. We were soon enjoying large strong cups of coffee and cognac, and delicious they Were. We sat very contentedly at our table from where We could watch the cathedral steps, sipping and listening to the conversation of Monsieur Grammond’s local, clearly tax-exempt, friends.

It was soon evident to us that, in the general opinion, it was only a matter of time before military resistance to the Germans ceased entirely in France,the possibility of holding out in a redoubt such as the Brittany peninsula being discounted.

The majority thought that their government would depart overseas as the Dutch, Belgians and Norwegians had done, and continue the fight from there. Some thought that ‘overseas’ would be in the considerable French colonies in North Africa; others opted for London.

There was a general bitterness about their politicians’ reliance on the Maginot Line, and about our military contribution being far too small.The latter, something which we had never considered, came as a shock to Chancery and me. I suppose we had been blinded by our own personal involvement, but we were made to realise how very few soldiers we had put into the field in comparison with them, the French.

We were nonplussed by being asked if we thought our government would seek peace terms from Hitler when we were on our own. Our obvious astonishment at such an idea caused general laughter, but, when we were asked penetrating questions about how we thought we would beat the Germans, even if we succeeded in preventing them from over-running us, we found ourselves giving vague, broad—brush answers. In truth, we had no idea.

One of our new friends obviously thought things were becoming far too serious, because he started playing “J’attendrai” softly on his mouth-organ. Very soon, Monsieur Grammond went over to him and whispered something in his ear. He broke off his very popular sentimental lament, and started playing the tune of ‘Colonel Bogey’to loud laughter and applause.

Then, with Monsieur Grammond conducting his customers, they started roaring out a song in English with heavily French—accented words. I was hearing it for the first time, and afterwards I often thought of it as an anthem of the French resistance movement.

’Itler ’as only got one ball.
Goering ’as two but very small.
’Immler is somewhat similaire.
But poor old Goebbels ’as no balls at all!

It was a brief respite from the trials of war for Panton, further tragedy would strike his Squadron when many of his ground crew were lost on the Lancastria. Panton would be shot down for a fourth time, surviving as a POW, one of only three officers from the original twenty-two to survive the war. His memoir, published for the first time, posthumously, in 2014, contains an extraordinary series of stories as well as being a tribute to the men who did not survive. See Alastair Panton: Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer: An RAF Officer’s Memoir of the Battle of France 1940.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV in flight, banking steeply towards the camera aircraft, circa 1940.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV in flight, banking steeply towards the camera aircraft, circa 1940.

A Cruiser Mk IV tank on the back of a Scammell tank transporter among a host of other military and civilian vehicles in Le Neubourg during the retreat of British forces, 9 (?) June 1940.

A Cruiser Mk IV tank on the back of a Scammell tank transporter among a host of other military and civilian vehicles in Le Neubourg during the retreat of British forces, 9 (?) June 1940.

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