Yves Mahe: The Frenchman who saved York
French President, Jacques Chirac, on a state visit, once stated that York was spiritual home of the modern French air force. This is because during the Second World War, the airforce detachment of the Free French (a body of troops who refused to accept either France's surrender or the Vichy Rule of Nazi puppet Phillippe Petain), who played a heroic role in the Battle of Britain, were based in the city.
During the war York became one of the major targets for German bombers- with an estimated 9,500 buildings being destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
However on 29th April 1942,in what was known as the Baedeker Raid, around 40 German bombers crossed the channel, dropping nearly 90 tonnes of explosives on the city. Destroying the station, Rowntree's Factory (which burned for several days due to the fire), the Clifton area and several streets near St Martin le Grand Church- which still keeps the ruins as a memorial today. The raid killed 93 civilians and injured 203!
However as the bombers circled for another raid on the City- aiming to destroy both civilian and military targets, one lone French fighter, Yves Mahe, took off in a Hawker Hurricane to meet the bombers. Other planes had stayed grounded, with a heavy fog that night and with the smoke of the bombs, there was near impossible visibity at ground level- making Mahe's flight a virtual suicide mission.
The 23-year old Frenchman was a maverick already, him and his brother were both civilian pilots when the German's invaded- Mahe refused to accept occupation- breaking into a French airbase and stealing a plane from under the noses of the Wermacht- flying to England under-fire to join the fight against Nazism. Amazingly on his first day of British sightseeing he bumped into his brother, who had done the same.
In the skies of York Mahe hurtled through bullets and smoke, first firing bursts at several planes before shooting down a Heinkel 111 heavy bomber. He then looped round to attack the rest of the squadron, who, seeing the Heinkel destroyed began to retreat towards the coast- dropping the rest of their bombs harmlessly on the surrounding dales. All but one of the crew of Heinkel were killed, with a lone tail-gunner, parachuting into the Ouse before climing out bedraggled and disoriented- he surrendered at the house of elderly woman, who gave him warm clothing and his first scone whilst he waited for the police to arrive.
A further Junkers 88, which was badly damaged by Mahe was forced to crash land at Elvington, where one crew member died and the rest also became POWs.
Mahe would go on to become a hero of the French airforce, flying several bombing sortees over Europe until he was shot down in 1943. Escaping to the Russians, and returned to active service on the Eastern front, before being shot down and caputred again, before being condemned to death for repeated escape attempts. Amazingly he escaped again before returning to a now liberated France- to become a squadron commander, a role which continued after the war.
He married his childhood sweet-heart on return home but was killed in 1962 when his plane malfunctioned on a training exercise over Belgium- he was only 43 at the time of his death. A Lieutenant-Colonel with over 11 decorations including the Officer of the Legion of honor, Companion of the Liberation War Cross with six citations, the Resistance Medal, the Colonial and Aeronautics medals, the Order of the Soviet Union and War Cross of Czechoslovakia. He is also listed as one of the heroes of the French Airforce, with a base in Normandy named in his honour.
General de Gaulle would also personally present him with the Croix de Guerre and York gave the pilot a civic welcome at the Mansion House following the war. His Grandson, also named Yves Mahe, and also a pilot in the French Airforce, is expected to attend the exhibition as a guest of the mayor.
Until May 6, York will display Mahe's Hawker Hurricane, a testament to both the civilian cost of the raid, and the bravery of one pilot who potentially saved hundreds of lives defending his adopted city.