Yorkshire Air Museum recreate Christmas generosity of French airmen 70 years on

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AT A time when all British manufacturing was dedicated to the war effort, French airmen, taking refuge from the German occupation here in Yorkshire, made an extraordinary gesture of goodwill that ensured the sick and needy children of York had a toy at Christmas.

It was Christmas Eve 1944, when the airmen, who were based at Elvington, delivered 204 careful handcrafted toys to York Mansion House to be distributed to children in the city’s hospitals and institutions.

GENEROSITY RECREATED: Nicola Taylor of York Teaching Hospital Charity, Ian Reed, director of the Yorkshire Air Museum, Alison Wragg of Martin House Hospice, Sheriff of York John Kenny, and the Lord Mayor of York Coun Ian Gillies. 'Picture: James Hardisty

GENEROSITY RECREATED: Nicola Taylor of York Teaching Hospital Charity, Ian Reed, director of the Yorkshire Air Museum, Alison Wragg of Martin House Hospice, Sheriff of York John Kenny, and the Lord Mayor of York Coun Ian Gillies. 'Picture: James Hardisty

Yesterday, 70 years later, the Yorkshire Air Museum recreated the act of generosity, handing over toys donated by staff and supporters to Lord Mayor Coun Ian Gillies, which will be donated to York Hospital Children’s Ward and Martin House Children’s Hospice with the help of the Salvation Army

Ian Reed, the museum’s director, who delivered the toys in a period Citroen Traction Avant, said: “During World War Two the whole of Britain was focussed on the war work, there was no other manufacturing, no cars, no clothes and certainly no toys for Christmas unless you knew someone who could make them.

“The humanity of these young French airmen towards the English children, whilst their own families and loved ones were in unknown circumstances within Occupied France, shines through the ages as a testament to their fundamental good nature and kind spirit.

“This is a story which touches all our hearts especially at this time of year 70 years on.”

French Airmen deliver their handcrafted toys to York Mansion House, on Christmas Eve 1944.

French Airmen deliver their handcrafted toys to York Mansion House, on Christmas Eve 1944.

During World War Two, 2,300 French airmen were based at Elvington, members of the only surviving bomber squadrons. By 1944, some had been away from their wives back home for five years.

The original gift was the idea of airman Sous Lieutenant Lemarchand, a member of the mechanics section, who had seen a charity Christmas tree while passing through York Station, and decided to make some toys for the sick children.

With just three days to go before Christmas Eve, having secured the agreement of the Station Commander, Colonel Bailly, work began.

Using any scraps of spare aircraft material available, and using tools as crude as razor blades, the mechanics worked night and day to produce 204 toys of all types and description.

Officers put up a prize of a bottle of whisky for the best, which went to the maker of a model Normandie type Ocean Liner, perfect in every detail and able to float.

A fully furnished kitchen stove, complete with an array of cooking utensils won a couple of bottles of aperitif.

Every toy proudly bore the Cross of Lorraine to mark their Free French heritage.

“You can just imagine how they may have felt, by doing this, it connected them with their own families back home,” Mr Reed added.

The details of the story came to light from a member of the French Veterans Association, Groupes Lourds, Dr. J P Churet, whose father was the Engineer in charge of all the mechanics based at Elvington during their service here.

The Museum would like to hear from anyone who may have one of toys.

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