Free French fighter pilot
Plaque in Coney Street opposite the entrance to St Martin’s church. YO1 9QL
In retaliation to the British bombing of the historic city of Lübeck in 1942, Germany launched a series of attacks on English cities which came to be known as the Baedeker Raids. A young French pilot, Yves Mahé, was to play a key role in the defence of York.
Yves Mahé was born in Nantes, Loire-Atlantique, France on 21 November 1919. He qualified as a civilian pilot and then joined the French Air Force. During the Second World War, as German troops advanced and the French Third Republic signed the Armistice with Germany on 20 June 1940, Yves refused to accept his country’s defeat. He joined the Free French Forces, a body of troops under the French government in exile, led by Charles de Gaulle, who refused to accept either the French surrender to the Nazis or the Vichy government of Marshal Pétain in France. Travelling on a stolen plane, first to Gibraltar then on to England, he was reunited with his brother, also a pilot.
By April 1942, at the age of 23, Yves was serving with 253 (Hyderabad) Squadron, RAF Fighter Command which had returned from the Orkneys in late 1941 to be based in Lincolnshire, flying convoy protection off the East Coast. Following the devastating impact of Germany’s nine-month bombing campaign of London and other cities, the Blitz, which came to end in May 1941, Britain responded with a deadly attack on Lübeck in March 1942. Prior to this, British bombing had been strategic, targeting vital infrastructure and military installations, keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. In a change of tactics, an Area Bombing Directive was issued to the RAF on 14 February 1942 authorising the targeting of civilian areas. Utilising the new Wellington and Stirling heavy bombers, Lübeck was blanket bombed; blockbuster bombs were followed by 25,000 incendiary devices creating a massive firestorm. The city was devastated and hundreds of civilians were killed. Lübeck had been targeted as it was lightly defended and had a large collection of medieval timber buildings which would ignite easily.
Germany retaliated with what came to be known as the “Baedeker Raids” named after the series of famous German guidebooks, popular with British tourists, which gave star ratings to key attractions in European cities. Cities in the UK with the highest number of historic buildings were targeted. Exeter was the first to be bombed on 23/24 and 24/25 April 1942 followed by Bath on 25/26 and 26/27 April. Norwich faced this new terror the following night; York would be next.
On 29 April 1942 around 40 German Luftwaffe bombers crossed the Channel on a course for York. Unknown to the Germans, many of the city’s factories had been put to new wartime uses. Rowntree’s office block on Haxby Road was given over to the Royal Army Pay Corps and the factory to the north of the city centre held a large arsenal of ammunition and bombs. A huge area of the city would have been destroyed had it been hit. The Terry’s factory in the south of the city was being used for the manufacturer and repair of aircraft propeller blades
For more than 90 minutes the German bombers rained down 84 tonnes of incendiary and high explosive bombs on the city setting it ablaze. More than 90 civilians died, over 200 were injured and it was estimated that 9,500 houses were destroyed or damaged, a third of the 28,000 houses in the city. Many buildings were severely damaged including the medieval Guildhall and the church of St Martin le Grand in Coney Street, part of which is still in ruins as a monument to the disaster. The old Rowntree factory in North Street was burned to the ground; the railway station was badly damaged and the incoming King’s Cross to Edinburgh train crowded with service personnel took a direct hit. Also hit were Clifton Aerodrome; St Peter’s School, Bootham; Queen Anne Grammar School for Girls, Nunthorpe; the Manor School, Marygate and the Bar Convent where the building collapsed killing five nuns.
York’s Civil Defence and emergency services performed well, extinguishing many incendiary devices and dealing with the dead and wounded. Four RAF stations were tasked with defending York including RAF Hibaldstow where 253 Squadron had a number of Free French Air Force pilots. Flying his Hawker Hurricane II, Yves Mahé saw the city of York ablaze from a distance so set off alone with all eight machine guns blazing and shot down a Heinkel HIII bomber in flames over the River Ouse. The bombers had been lining up to attack the main Rowntree factory but then retreated. Although Yves received support from other aircraft which followed, his lone intervention had set the attackers in retreat.
The young pilot was given a civic reception at the Mansion House in York. Later General de Gaulle presented him with the Croix de Guerre. He went on to fly with French air squadrons, fighting with the Soviet Air Force and was shot down over Smolensk in 1944. He was captured by the Germans, condemned to death but escaped. He served with the French air force until 1962 when he was killed flying a Gloster Meteor jet night fighter which crashed in Belgium. He was 42.
His Excellency Bernard Emié, the French Ambassador, accompanied by Air Attaché Col. Nicolas Chambaz, unveiled the plaque to Yves Mahé in York on 2 May 2014, referring to Yves Mahé as ‘the stuff of legends’.
A replica of the Hawker Hurricane flown by Yves Mahé, displaying the Free French symbol of the Cross of Lorraine, can be seen at the Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Air Forces Memorial at Elvington, York.
Leo Kessler and Eric Taylor, The York Blitz 1942, (York, 1986)
Linton Link, RAF Linton-on-Ouse (10 July 2014)
Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington, York, www.yorkshireairmuseum.org
York Evening Press, 3 May 2014.
York Archives Y 940.6 WWII, List of Casualties of the Baedeker Raid, 1942.
© Pat Hill