Visit to Normandy – July 2009

Friday 24th July

Flt Lt John Worthington Harder

We (Glyn, Benoît (our translator – local lad interested in local history & with very good English) and me) set out on our 2 hour drive (having driven over 8 to get to “the Shed” the day before!) down to Evron, the town where John had crashed nearby 65 years ago to the day.

 On the way, we went through the village of Mezangers & saw the same sign that John’s sister, Cynthia, had seen back in 1994. However, we decided to press on to Evron (in the same direction that the lorry in the picture is going) to see what we could find out there.

Well, so far, total waste of time… the people in the Mairie hadn’t heard of John, neither had the Tourist Information office. We even checked out the local ’phone book & found a Marcel LeBlanc, but not the one that we wanted. Unfortunately, I’d not printed off a copy of the letter that Cynthia wrote to Carroll where she provides details of a few more names, so we were relying on the information contained in the newspaper articles that had been sent me. Anyway, we left copies of photos of John & the articles with the Mairie’s office & they said that they’d see what they could find out.

 So, off we set again, towards the North & back “home”, however, having once again arrived at the village of Mezangers, we decided to follow the signs & very quickly arrived at the farm of La Bouverie which is the farm where John bailed out & his ‘plane crashed. Yes!!! Success… or so we thought… unfortunately, the only people at the farm were two lads of around 12 – 15 & they knew nothing about a Spitfire crash.

Undaunted & armed with two more photos from Cynthia’s album… we decided to have a further look around.

 A little further down the road, we came across a field that seemed to suit the bill. The only problem being that in Cynthia’s photo, it looks like a wall or hedge line going behind the pylons, but in ours it was a fence & further away. We realized that in the years between her visit in 1994 & today, there could have been many changes, but something just “didn’t feel right”. I walked a little further down the road to the crossroads & could see the pylons carrying on, but they were then closer to another farm so I reasoned that that farm would have been mentioned in the newspaper articles.

Anyway, at this point, Glyn suggested showing the photos that Cynthia took of the people who she and Ned met on her visit to the two lads at the farm to see whether they recognized anyone… we did… and they didn’t! So at this point, we were beginning to think that we’d come a long way & got almost there, but were fairly disappointed.

 As a final thought “and whilst were here”, I suggested that we drive over to the other farm, that we’d spotted & ask the same question there.

So, down the drive we went & two farm hands appeared… Benoît explained what we were doing, showed the photos & we all got the shock of our lives when he saw this one and said “C’est Mon Pêre!” This is the guy who came overto them whilst they were in the field & then went off & brought back the Pitot Tube from John’s Spitfire.

 Well, I’m sure that you can imagine the way that we felt; even more so when he said that he’d give him a call & a few minutes later, M. Michel Filoche arrived, himself.

Here’s a photo of him with Benoît…

We then asked him if he could show us where John’s plane crashed & he did – it’s actually visible on the photo between M. Filoche’s head & the red trailer! Also visible is the “wall or hedge” that we’d been looking for in the other field!!

So, we then had a good tramp over the field with my metal detector, but we couldn’t find anything on this occasion (at least where we were looking!). However, M. Filoche then asked if we were in a hurry (we were as we needed to get back “home”, but this was too interesting, so we said no!!), and he took us to his farm about ¼ mile away & to a hedge where they used to throw stuff that had been ploughed up in the field… a bit of a rummage around & he came out with two pieces of aluminium, still with green & grey camouflage paint visible on them!!!

   
 The Ruler is 18inches long

Well, at this point, I’m like a kid with the keys to the sweet shop! If someone had asked me, “what would your ideal day be like?” I wouldn’t have dared ask for this!

Then M. Filoche asked whether we’d like a drink (we didn’t really have time, but didn’t want to be impolite) so we said yes! He then took us to his fishing lodge back near the original farm as his wife was away & he didn’t have the keys & he opened some bottles of beer when we made a few toasts.

Then one of his farm hands arrived with a bottle of Pastis (an anise-flavored liqueur and apéritif).

 At this point I need to warn you DO NOT DRINK THIS STUFF… it will drive you insane!! How do I know this, well during our conversation, M. Filoche explained that they used to find unfired 20mm cannon shells from John’s Spitfire, took out the cap & then used the propellant to start barbeques!!! Apparently, it’s rather good! However, if you do ever make it down to visit M. Filoche (La Marechalerie de Rennes, 53600 St Gemmes le Robert), by all means take a bottle with you!

So, overall, a brilliant end to the day.

Here’s a map to the farm…

 

 

Saturday 25th July

Major Ray Elledge

Flushed by the success of Friday (or at least how it ended), we (or rather I!) decided that we’d go & see whether we could find out where Ray had crashed.

From the description in his manuscript (which I’m still working on typing up into Word), I’d been able to locate a likely spot on Google Earth, just north of the St Lo to Perriers road which he mentions…

 

Anyway, having visited the two local farms without success (no one in), we decided to get out of the car & walk along the break in the trees, work our way through a hedge line & into a small clearing with a pond in it…

 

As you can see, in the pond, there are two tree stumps! Are these what remain of the two trees that he crashed into?

So, we went further… and by the one nearest the bank, there are two pieces of metal sticking up out of the water!!

So, I started digging… but then I remembered that one problem that Ray had had was that the two 500lb bombs had still been attached to his ‘plane when he crash landed… were they at the other end of this metal? Just in case, I stopped digging! Interestingly, Glyn who was about 10 yards away took a couple of steps back when I mentioned this… as if it would help!

Unfortunately, we’d have to leave any further research until later as we had to get back to my friends to set up the talk that he’d asked me to deliver.

The Talk in the evening

Around 25 people turned up to the talk, mainly English ex pat’s but a few French also attended, including the local Mairie who had kindly allowed us to make use of the village hall as a venue for the talk. We videoed it as requested, but I’ve not had the opportunity, yet, to view this. Once I’ve sorted it, I’ll try to put it upon YouTube or similar. Anyway, here’s a couple of photos…

Everyone seemed to enjoy the talk with plenty of questions being asked.

I started off with the ones that we know nothing about beyond their names in the shed, then onto the ones where I’ve found their returning PoW Questionnaire & details of the one guy – Wellings – who died just prior to the end of the war & is buried in Prague (no idea what he died of… it’s on the list!). Then I moved on to those that I knew a little more about – Frank Gillespie (who I was able to speak to before he died), Tom Caldwell & Thomas Blunt where I’ve had some photos & records passed me by their family & then on to Gerald Willen & Morris Sheppard who I’ve received a little more on & then finishing off with Ray Elledge & John Harder. Ray’s manuscript provided plenty of “flesh on the bones” of how he, Sheppard, Gillespie & Willen came to be together & then their meeting, in the shed, of John Harder. I ended with John Harder due to the sheer volume of photographic material that I’ve been able to see & copy from a number of sources, but mainly the family. Also, as he was the first one with whom I’d had any success, it helped me tell the tale of what I’d done & the process I’d gone through.

Again, I’ll try to make the slideshow available, but at the moment, it’s over18Mb in size!

Tuesday, 28th July

Major Ray Elledge

Having had a break of a couple of days (to provide an opportunity for Glyn to see some non-WW2 stuff!), we headed back up to the St Lo area on the trail of Ray.

We called in at a house on the side of the St Lo/Perriers road, but the owner didn’t know of a ‘plane crash, but she suggested we visited the Mairie at La Chapelle Enjuger which we did… only to find it closed… open on Wednesday!

However, just as we started to walk away, the Secretary arrived to check on some post! Benoît explained why we were there & she invited us in, she then started ‘phoning around to see if she could find anyone to help. Then we were joined by the Mairie who’d heard that there was someone visiting the office & wondered who… they both then started to get maps out & talk about different people who might be able to help; unfortunately, they themselves didn’t know about Ray’s crash (or that of Frank Gillespie which was in the same sort of area).

Anyway, the final upshot was that they suggested a couple of people; unfortunately, they were unable to assist directly, however, they suggested others to talk to – one, M Pain was unavailable, but his friend was and he confirmed that he had seen a piece of aluminium from an aeroplane near the pond within the woods- so I think that we can claim success!

Again, this will be an area that I’ll be going back to!

 

Ray Elledge, Frank Gillespie, Morris Sheppard & Gerald Willen

In Ray’s manuscript and also when talking to Frank & in the stuff that I have from Jim Sheppard & Scott Willen about their Dads, there’s a regular mention of “The Monastery”… so that was next on the agenda!

We first of all went to Tessy Sur Vire which is mentioned, but the lady in the Tourist Information Centre explained that there wasn’t such a building in Tessy, however, 5km away there was a building which might be the one especially as it had recently been visited by some Veterans, so off in the car northwards to La Chapelle Sur Vire & there up on the hillside, we found it… still surrounded by a high wall & through the trees you can see the stream that the 4 crossed when they escaped.

  
  

The building is now a Gite & has been fully refurbished inside so no sign of any more signatures. However, apparently, there’s a cellar, but we couldn’t get to see this as there was no-one there to talk to… again, this is something to follow-up in the future!

The next place that we looked for was “Chaimps de Champs”, the village near Vire where they were helped by the Resistance. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear on any maps; however, this could be because the French gave a false name to avoid reprisals if they were caught by the Germans. A further contact that I have made – David & Jeanette Mabutt – who run both the “Bluecoat museum” at St Martin des Besaces and an English Tea Room & museum in the village of Montchamp are including the work of the resistance in their museum, so hopefully, they may be able to investigate the resistance link.

From there, the four made their way through Vire up the road to Villers Bocage & were recaptured & taken to the Shed where they met up with John Harder.

Friday 31st July

Flt Lt John Worthington Harder

So, we now return to John.

On Thursday, I rang my contact at the RAF Museum, Stuart Hadaway, & asked him how good he was at recognizing Spitfire parts as we had one! So we agreed that on our way home, we’d call into the museum at Hendon (only a short detour of around 10 miles) & show him the piece… I asked whether the museum would be interested in holding it, but they already have plenty, but he wanted to see it! (eventually, it’ll be kept back in France).

So we arrived at the museum & I showed it to Stuart who then explained there were two ways in which we could check out the part… either look at the blueprints, or climb over one of their Spitfire exhibits! And he knew which one was more fun!!

Unfortunately, the ones they have are a Mk V & a Mk 22; John was flying a Mk IX & there are differences between them. We found a match on the Mk 22 for the rivet pattern where the tail plane meets the tail fin, but the rivets on the 22 were too close to the bend in the metal… the other option is the leading edge of the wing… as I type this, Stuart will be combing the records for a match. Unfortunately, the nearest Mk IX is, I believe, probably down at Duxford (though I’m going to check with Stuart to see if there’s one at RAF Cosford which is also part of the RAF museum & therefore perhaps more easily accessible (I’m also going past in in the next week or so))

Here’s a couple of a confused looking Stuart trying to match up the pieces…

  

All in all, a brilliant end to the week.

The future

So that’s it… great fun had & some wonderful successes, but still plenty to discover on my next trip as & when I can afford the time & money!

Hopefully, you’ve found this ramble through my holiday to be of interest… any questions or comments, you know where I am!

Cheers

Colin

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