Diary entries of French pilots makes for fascinating reading

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Reading diary entries written by soldiers during time of war can be fascinating, educational and heart-breaking all at the same time.

The tales they share are so down-to-earth, so normal, with none of the Hollywood glitz expected of a war movie.

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They summon images of young men, often little more than boys, being thrust into a world of blood and smoke and tears, when they would rather be at home with their families.

Graham du Heaume, a volunteer at Shoreham Airport Museum, has published a volume of diary entries from the Second World War, which includes many such tales.

It is called Silence, On Vole! – which means Silence, We’re Flying! – and is made up of diary entries written by the men of 345 Squadron, based at Shoreham.

The men were all French fighter pilots and members of the 11/2 Berry group, created in January 1944 to fight within the RAF.

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Their words not only describe the likes of the D-Day landings, and the fears such an event brought, but also the fondness they felt for their adopted British home.

Mr du Heaume said: “This book is a record of the emotions, pleasures and fears of a group of French fighter pilots of 345 Squadron during the Second World War.

“The original was published in 1946 and we at the Shoreham Airport Museum were presented with a copy in 1993.

“As a volunteer at the museum, I became aware of the texts a few weeks ago and the resulting book is a translation of those writings.

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“I am delighted with the result as it portrays the daily life of these brave boys.”

Among the members of 345 Squadron was a gifted artist called Toto Guerin, who captured both the humour and the horror he and his comrades faced in the final years of the war.

Examples of his sketches are dotted throughout the book, giving an added insight into squadron life.

The book is a fascinating read for anyone, not just those with a particular interest in Shoreham or the Second World War.

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The words of the men are almost poetic and, while reading, it is easy to picture them going about their business, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.

But it also impossible to imagine their feelings as they flew into battle.

One entry describes the squadron escorting bombers on a raid of Nazi positions in France.

Pierre Decroo wrote: “We cannot keep from feeling a burning in our flesh with every ton of explosive that falls on our soil.

“We try to cling to other thoughts, but every corner of France is a piece of the heart of Berry, because our pilots are the most diverse group, and each is proud of their unfortunate country’s regions.”

It must have been heart-breaking for these men to fly missions to bomb their own homeland – towns, roads and fields they had played in as boys – but they did it because they knew they had no choice.

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If their people were to be free of the Nazi stranglehold on Europe, sacrifices had to be made.

Hopefully, their eventual success helped heal those wounds.

Silence, On Vole! is available from Amazon, eBay, from Mr du Heaume via blackarch@tiscali.co.uk and at Shoreham Airport’s Visitor Centre and Museum.

Wartime runway ‘a terror to pilots on windy days’

Imagine yourself as a young pilot during wartime, flying to a strange place to serve time with your allies.

You would be nervous to say the least.

Now imagine making your final approach to a runway you have never seen before, only to find it lined with the kind of obstacles you would usually expect to find in a computer game.

Such was the experience of one French fighter pilot during the Second World War as he guided his plane into land at Shoreham-by-sea.

Maurice Guerin was part of 345 Squadron, the Free French, and his diary entries were among many translated by Shoreham Museum volunteer Graham du Heaume in his book, Silence, On Vole!, which means Silence, We’re Flying!.

Describing his approach to Shoreham, M Guerin wrote: “It appears to us through a mist of fine weather as a charming corner; the runway is small, strange, green and copiously lined with obstacles including an encroaching road, railway line, overhanging hills, high voltage lines and balloons.

“It quickly becomes a terror to pilots on windy days.”

Despite the somewhat precarious position of the runway, M Guerin spoke fondly of his time in Blighty in his diary – even taking a light-hearted dig at English food.

He wrote: “The officers’ mess is in a small hotel (Sussex Pad) that is requisitioned a hundred metres from dispersal.

“We eat traditional English food, that is to say mediocre.

“There is an old radio that works only when thumped, and the lounge chairs are for fatigued legs, clad in enormous padded flying boots.”

During their down time, the young pilots would head to Brighton’s nightclubs, including The Norfolk, in Norfolk Square.

In his account of the delights offered by an “agreeable” night in Brighton, Captain Guizard wrote: “The beer and alcohol seem like coloured water, but with a bit more effect.

“Countless uniforms, dresses in poor taste and the atmosphere thick with smoke. The Guards Officers have shiny buttons and the RAF pilots sing slightly rude songs.”

So, in many respects, very little has changed!

Getting to and from Brighton was something of a chore, which was later remedied by a Sergeant Ulman, who provided the men with “an old black saloon car of doubtful age and reliability”.

They called her Lullabelle and she was their pride and joy, although the mechanics thought otherwise.

While Shoreham proved itself to be something of a home from home for the French pilots, the terrors of war were never far from their minds.

On June 19 1944, Pierre Decroo wrote an account of a mission to escort 18 Boston bombers to a drop in Alencon.

The return journey saw one of the fighter planes experience engine problems which became so bad, the pilot considered bailing out over the Channel.

M Decroo described in vivid detail the radio transmission of the pilot as he pleaded with his engine to keep working: “Come on, hold on, don’t let me down. A little effort, just a little effort...”

It’s hard to imagine the fear running through the heart of that pilot before he finally executed a safe landing.

Then there was D-Day, described by Cdt Accart as “a day of flames” in his account of the battle to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

Of the efforts of his own men as they manoeuvred their way through a sky thick with planes, he wrote: “In the sky, the hunters provide impenetrable protection. Impenetrable indeed because its destiny is such that their greatest work is to avoid each other.

“Never before have we felt the certainty of absolute domination of the sky.”

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