Carving out wartime French connection

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DEEP into the Second World War, on Christmas Eve 1944, the festive season was looking bleak for many sick children in hospitals in York.

For the 2,500 French airmen stationed nearby at RAF Elvington, it was also due to be a tough Christmas away from their families back home.

But thanks to a flash of inspiration from Sous Lieutenant Lemarchand, who served as a mechanic in the French Air Force, it turned out to be a happy Christmas in the Yorkshire city.

On December 24, more than 200 toys handcrafted by the airmen using razor blades were delivered to needy children in the city. Working day and night for three days, scraps of waste metal and wood had been transformed into cars, ships and aeroplanes.

The men were spurred on by Sous Lieutenant Lemarchand, who had persuaded his team of mechanics to embark on the project after he saw a charity Christmas tree in York station.

A prize of a bottle of whisky went to the maker of a model Normandie-type liner, which was able to float.

The heartwearming story has recently come into the hands of the Yorkshire Air Museum through a member of a French veterans’ association whose father was an engineer at Elvington. The museum has also discovered that an Elvington resident, John Nicholson, still has one of the toys, given to him as a child.

Museum director Ian Reed said: “These chaps could start with a lump of metal and would create a complete aeroplane exhaust. I’m sure they were doing it with their children in their minds.”

The Frenchmen also had a deep connection with local Yorkshire families and their children. In October this year, a service was held at York Minister commemorating them.

Mr Reed added: “Many of the men based here spent Christmas with Yorkshire families and there is a great strength of feeling towards them still around today.”