The Two Day French Event Honoring the 1943 B-17 Crew


2013-07-05 By Robbin Laird

The families of the 10-crew members who crash-landed onto the waters of Noirmoutier Island, France on July 4, 1943 were invited to attend the unveiling ceremony honoring their World War II combat crew members.

Thousands of French joined the ceremonies on Sunday June 30, 2013.  It was indeed a festive occasion.

For the families and the participants in the ceremony, the event was a two-day experience.

(I have included throughout programs available during the events for the families, participants and attendees.

For a general Wings of Freedom program, see the following:

Wings of Freedom Program).

The first day focused on visiting various parts of the American presence in France story and notably, the areas targeted by the B-17 raid on July 4, 1943.  It was a chance to come into contact with the reality of the physical quality of the terrain and location of the B-17 bombing effort.

Also, experienced during the first day was a symbol of change from 70 years ago.  The families visited the Airbus plant in St. Nazaire where Europeans and others have come together to build a global plane, rather than making war on one another.

Indeed, part of the A350 fuselage crafted at the factory comes from North Carolina.

To a person, the members of the families were clearly moved by the level of attention provided to the B-17 memory and to Americans more generally.

As Colin Clark, editor of Breaking Defense entitled my piece on the event: “French Gather by the Thousands to Honor US Pilots Downed on July 4 – 1943.” 

Indeed, that aspect of the event came through in wandering through the village and experiencing the vintage cars, the World War II vehicles, the many French dressed in World War II uniforms or outfits and the re-enactment on the beach of the return of the allies to France.

Visiting the War Memorials

The families of the crewmembers and participants in the celebration spent two days together touring the local area and preparing for the memorial celebration.

(For the program for this part of the two day event see the following:

Saturday Morning Program).

On Saturday June 29, 2013, the group spent the day on the bus and began the day with a visit to the 1917 memorial to the disembarkment of the first Americans to join the allies to fight in World War I.

In addition, the same location was the scene of a disastrous strike by the Luftwaffe against a British troop ship trying to return to England after the defeat in France.

The largest British maritime disaster took place just off the Loire estuary on June 17th, 1940 when the passenger ship RMS Lancastria – hastily arrived from Great Britain – to sail back there the large number of British and soldiers of other nationalities, as well as civilians she had boarded, was bombed by 4 German Junkers..

This disaster, which killed, as it is said, 2,500 to more than 5,000 persons, including 1,728 of them found. A monument was erected in 1988, next to the St Nazaire Raid monument.

The monument area in St. Nazaire also honored the British soldiers involved in Operation Chariot as well.

In early 1942 Britain was facing a most critical situation. The success of the German U-Boat raids on transatlantic shipping threatened Britain’s supply of food and arms, and was damaging her morale. The daring and brilliantly successful cross-channel Raid on the huge Dry-dock at St Nazaire, France, carried out by British Commando and Naval Forces, lifted Britain’s morale and demonstrated that bravery could achieve the apparently impossible. Five Victoria Crosses (VCs) were won on the Raid, the largest number ever awarded for a single Action.

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Saint-Nazaire U-boat Base

One of the facilities visited by the families of the B-17 crew as part of the remembrance of the 70 years ago raid on the Nazi airfield and U-boat base was the U-boat base.

The base is a heavy reinforced facility with anti-aircraft protection.  Obviously, this was a high value target but also one very difficult to strike.

The base is 300 meters long, 130 meters wide and 18 meters high, amounting to a 39,000 m² surface on the ground, and a volume of concrete of 480,000 m³. The roof is 8 meters deep, featuring four layers: the first one is a 3.5 meters sheet of reinforced concrete; the second is a 35 cm granite and concrete layers; the third is a 1.7 meter deep layer of reinforced concrete, and the fourth, is a “Fangrost” layer of steel beams, 1.40 meters deep. The roof is dotted with anti-aircraft weaponry, machine guns and mortars.

The base offers 14 submarine pens. Pens 1 through 8 are dry docks, 92 metre long and 11 meters wide; pens 9 through 14 are simple docks, 62 meters long and 17 meters wide, each holding two submarines.

Between pens 5 and 6, and 12 and 13, are two areas giving access to the upper levels of the base.

The base was equipped with 62 workshops, 97 magazines, 150 offices, 92 dormitories for submarine crews, 20 pumps, 4 kitchens, 2 bakeries, two electrical plants, one restaurant and a hospital.

For a good look at life at a French U-boat base, the following book provides significant unvarnished details:

Steel Boat Iron Hearts: The Wartime Saga of Hans Goebeler and U-505

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Aéroport Château Bougon

After visiting one site which required bomber attacks, namely the U-boat pens, we then visited the key target for the July 5, 1943 attack, namely the airfield and factory areas in support of German air operations against the United Kingdom.

Nantes airport (formerly known as Aéroport Château Bougon)owes its origins to a military airfield, conceived in 1928 on part of the current site. In 1936/7 the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques de l’Ouest opened an aircraft factory adjacent to the airfield, initially building MB.210 bombers, followed by M.S.406 fighters and LeO 45 bombers. In 1939 the first paved runway was constructed, with a length of 900 m (2,953 ft).

During World War II the airfield was briefly used as a British Royal Air Force base before being captured by German forces.

Under occupation the aircraft factory was closed, and the airfield was used by the Luftwaffe as a base to bomb targets in England.

As a consequence the airfield was hit by a damaging air raid on July 4, 1943, which also destroyed the adjoining aircraft factory.

Sunday, June 30, 2013 was the day of the dedication of the memorial.  And the day was broken into several distinct events.

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French Vehicles, Re-Enactments, and World War II Garb

On Sunday morning, the festivities began with an “attack” on the beach with the presence of an original troop landing ship, “troops” to conduct the landing and defenders to defend the beach.

We have had “General Patton and his aide” present.  Many French dressed in World War II uniforms or dress of the era.  The “Free French Forces” were everywhere celebrating the contribution of the Mighty 8th to the liberation of France.

There were many vehicles of the epoch with a very large French presence and clear commitment to keeping these vehicles and memories alive.

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The Church Ceremony and the Procession

The next phase was the service in the local church accompanied by the presentation of the colors from several French veteran units.  The church ceremony was conducted in both French and English, and hymns were song in English for the benefit of the American families present.

(For the program for the church ceremony see the following:

Church Program).

There was then a ceremony at the war monuments outside the church to those who fought in World War I and World War II.

This was a very well done ceremony reminding Americans of the heavy losses the French suffered in World War I with small villages having many names on their war memorials.  The heavy burden of occupation by the Nazis had its own consequences and was remembered as well, and discussed with our French hosts.

My daughter, Chloe Laird, did an interview with a resident who witnessed the crash landing, and we will post this interview in the coming days.

Next there was procession on foot and in World War II vehicles to the place on the beach where the new monument to the B-17 crew was to be unveiled.  It was a feast day type of procession, where the memory of the crew was mixed with the remembrance of the cost of liberty, and the emotion of becoming free from the heavy hand of Nazi occupation.

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Dedicating the Monument

The final phase of the ceremony was the unveiling of the monument to the B-17 crew.

Many speeches were given honoring the French-American relationship but the clearest statement of what people felt was by the brother of the co-pilot:

I think if my brother were here today, he would say that the period appearance of his plane above the water gave hope to people in the village that liberation and freedom are coming soon and remains a symbol of freedom to this day.

(For the presentation by George Stephenson see the following:

Stephenson Presentation).

Following the ceremony, several planes flew over the beach but the queen of the event was clearly the B-17 come low over the beach where her brother was still to be found in the waters of the bay.

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For the families and participants, the festivities concluded with a dinner celebration.  And the USAF representative and General Niclot provided their perspectives to the dinner audience.

(For the dinner event see the following:

Dinner Program

and for General Niclot’s presentation see the following:

General Niclot Presentation).

We Americans can thank those Europeans keeping the memory of the B-17 and the Mighty Eighth alive today. 

And none more than the Sally B team, which flies the B-17 in Europe, is composed of Brits and clearly could use support to keep the plane flying.

A link to their website provides a chance for we Americans and those Europeans who wish to an opportunity to provide the financial support necessary to keep this remember of the cost of freedom alive to today’s generation.

For a brochure on the Sally B see the following:

Sally B Brochure

Credit Featured Photo: Pierre-Anne Laird

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The additional photos of the B-17 during flight and of the memorial should be credited to Second Line of Defense and were shot on June 30, 2013.

An important prologue was delivered by Representative Miller of Florida before the Congress.

And his remarks were read to the participants at the dinner concluding the festivities.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mr. MILLER of Florida.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to commemorate the enduring spirit and gratitude of the people of the United States and France as exemplified through the mutual friendship of the sister cities of Crestview, Florida, and the French island city of Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile.

The island of Noirmoutier, located off the west coast of France near Nantes and Saint-Nazaire, maintains an inextricable link with our Nation’s military history. On July 4, 1943, while America was celebrating the date of its independence, an American B-17 crash-landed right on the beach of the small Noirmoutier village of la Gueriniere.

This Flying Fortress was returning to England after a bombing run on the Nazi-held airfield outside Saint-Nazaire during World War II.  Though the crew survived, the Nazi occupation forces on Noirmoutier got to the Americans before the island’s underground partisans could rescue them, and the crew was imprisoned for the duration of the war.

To this day, the people of Noirmoutier refuse to clear the wreckage of the B-17.

Even for the island’s youngest generation, it acts as a vivid reminder of the sacrifices made by France’s American allies toward the cause of liberating France, and Europe, from the scourge of Nazi occupation, deprivation, and brutality. On Commemoration Day, Sunday, June 30, 2013, a monument will be unveiled on Noirmoutier dedicated to the courageous crew of that fateful B-17 and to all Americans who worked so selflessly to obtain France’s liberation from the Nazis.

On behalf of the United States Congress and the citizens of Northwest Florida, I am privileged to recognize the friendship between the people of Northwest Florida and Noirmoutier and join them in honoring the service and sacrifice of all men and women who sacrifice their lives in the name of freedom.