Monday 6 August 2012

Merde, alors

How lucky is this? You've just lost your port engine to flak as you're on your way home from dropping four 250lb bombs on the U-boat pens at St Nazaire, you're losing height and there's no chance of making it back across the Channel. You don't want to risk a sea landing, because you know how risky they are, and you've yet to hear of anyone successfully getting the dinghy out of a Blenheim bomber. So you circle round, trying to distinguish land from sea on this pitch-dark moonless September night in 1941, and end up bringing the plane down in the bay of St Efflam in Brittany.

Look at this photo: it could be Weston-super-Mare, the sea is so shallow and goes out so far at low tide. Dad couldn't have planned it better. Or done a better job of landing, with no injuries to himself or his crew of two. "We got away with it," he told my nephew 50 years later, with typical understatement. The plane skimmed along the water, possibly on the bottom, and stopped without drama or damage in just a metre of water. They took the time to rip up all their maps and smash the instruments, and then waded ashore to hide in the woods, where in the morning they got help from a young girl walking her dog, and then a whole series of courageous women and members of the Resistance, some of whom later lost their lives because of it.

In 1991, I visited this bay with Dad, but it was a wasted opportunity: a crazy, spur-of-the-moment dash across northern France from Normandy where we were holidaying. It was a very long day of driving there and back again with a leaky baby on my lap and a twitchy toddler strapped in beside me. All we had time for was a look at the beach and a flit through the town before we had to leave again. Madness. We should have planned it, stayed there, met some of the people, done it properly; and I should have taken notes, so that now I could remember what Dad said about it all. Damn.

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