As French war heroes are remembered in York, RAF chief Sir Stephen Dalton talks to Sarah Freeman about the future of Britain’s Armed Forces.
Even the most experienced military planners couldn’t have timed it better.
At York Minister yesterday, shortly after a packed ceremony commemorating the French airmen stationed at RAF Elvington during the Second World War, had drawn to a close, word began to spread. Sixty six years after the French squadrons had united with the Allied forces, another joint operation was being hailed a success. This time it was not Europe, but Libya and the end of Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal rule was proof that servicemen and women are as necessary today as they were then.
“History comes full circle,” says Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, head of the Royal Air Force. “What those men in the Second World War and the squadrons show us that when countries work together they can achieve great things.”
Yesterday’s ceremony, which saw a permanent memorial to the French airmen dedicated at York Minster, was a time for reflection. The 346 Guyenne and 347 Tunisie squadrons were based at RAF Elvington, now home to the Yorkshire Air Museum, from June 1944 to October 1945.
During eight months of fighting, they lost 41 aircraft and 216 men and for Sir Stephen the memorial, the first of its kind in an English cathedral, is a chance to reflect on the stories of men like Andre Guedez. On Christmas Eve 1944 he was planning to meet his girlfriend in York. The war, or so many thought, was all but over and after months away from home, the airman was looking forward to a few hours away from the base. However, Andre never made it into the city centre. When news that Hitler had broken through American lines in the Battle of the Bulge reached England, all leave was cancelled and Andre, along with five of his colleagues, took to the skies.
At 20,000ft and with outside temperatures having plummeted to –50C that night, the aircraft was hit by enemy fire. Andre jumped from the aircraft and almost immediately fell unconscious. He still to this day he doesn’t know how he survive, but others weren’t so lucky. The pilot died on board and three of his fellow airmen were shot as they parachuted to the ground.
“The big thing we have to remember is that everyone involved in conflicts like these are human beings,” says Sir Stephen. “They are not automatons. These are people who are prepared to put their bodies on the line because of their ideals. They don’t want to go to war. No one wants to go to war, but they do it because they believe it is the right thing to do.
“You have to believe that what you are doing is right. We went into Libya to save people from the possibility of genocide and whenever and wherever there is a new threat to our freedoms then there will be people ready to defend them.”
Sir Stephen has the same passion for the RAF as he did when he joined in 1973. However, these have been difficult times for the Armed Forces. Last October, as part of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, Prime Minister David Cameron announced defence spending would fall by eight per cent over the following four years. Harrier jump jets were axed, along with the Navy’s flagship HMS Ark Royal and the Armed Forces were told that collectively they would lose 17,000 jobs. With a further 25,000 civilian positions going in the Ministry of Defence, Sir Stephen warned that some sections of the RAF were already nearing the point of exhaustion. The cuts received widespread criticism, but have gone ahead and it was the RAF who made the first move by announcing 2,700 redundancies.
“Some of the decisions I have had to make have not been easy,” he says. “I didn’t want to tell 173 young air crew that they weren’t going to have a job, but when we were first told about the cutbacks the one thing we said was that we had to be honest with everyone.
“What I have to do is ensure that the bedrock of the RAF remains solid. These are financially challenging times and we always knew that savings would have to be made. However, you have to think long term. If you cut too much there will be nothing to build on when times are prosperous. That’s something we can’t risk.”
Every so often, but particularly in straitened times, there are suggestions that the RAF should be subsumed into the Army. It would, say some, make financial sense, cutting down on unnecessary duplication between the services. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an argument Sir Stephen has much time for.
“The level of complexity in what we do and the demand for operational excellence make the idea inconceivable,” he says. “Without dedicated air power expertise, or for that matter maritime expertise, the whole thing would grind to a halt.
“The RAF isn’t just about fighter planes, it’s also vital in delivering supplies to troops and rescuing those on the ground. Without it, I suspect there would be a great deal of heart-searching the next time the Armed Forces were called on to act.”
In an unpredictable world, being prepared for the unexpected and the extraordinary costs money, but according to Sir Stephen it is a price worth paying. “We could have probably predicted the Libya situation was going to happen, but we couldn’t have predicted when it would happen. Sadly, world events don’t stick to a neat timetable and if you run down your Armed Forces it becomes impossible to react quickly enough. We were in the skies above Libya 17 hours after Colonel Gaddafi moved on Benghazi. If you play catch up, people quickly see that you’re not ahead of the game. Once you’ve lost public confidence you might as well give up.”
With a strategy now in place to take the RAF forward to 2020, Sir Stephen is optimistic the worst is over and while he hasn’t met the new Defence Secretary Philip Hammond yet, he seems to approve of the appointment.
“He’s a businessman,” he smiles. “I’m sure we’ll get on just fine.”
Sir Stephen became set on joining the RAF after watching an air display as a child and flying will always be his first love. “Nothing compares to this job,” he says.
And yesterday as he watched RAF veterans take their place beside young recruits in York Minster, he had every reason to feel proud.
‘These were young men who watched so many of their colleagues and friends die’
During the Second World War, 346 Guyenne and 347 Tunisie were the French Air Force’s only heavy bomber squadrons.
For almost 18 months between 1944 and 1945 both were stationed at RAF Elvington, near York, and the base has since been described as the spiritual home of the modern-day French Air Force.
Their last mission was on April 25, 1945, by which time they had made 2,834 sorties, dropped 8,621 bombs and ferried 165,725 gallons of petrol to the Army in Brussels.
Both squadrons took part in the Battle of the Ruhr and the Battle of Berlin, but the conflict took its toll.
By the time peace was declared, the squadrons had lost 50 per cent of their young crews.
The permanent memorial to those who lost their lives and those who survived the war was the work of Matthew Hodgkinson, a craftsman at the York Minster stoneyard.
Yesterday’s service was the culmination of a two-year long project led by Ian Reed, director of The Allied Air Forces Memorial and Yorkshire Air Museum and Dean of York, Keith Jones.
“We have always had a good relationship with our colleagues in France, but I just thought it was about time there was official recognition of the services they gave,” says Ian. “These were young men who watched so many of their colleagues and friends die and yet kept putting their own lives on the line. Their bravery deserves to be remembered.”