At six o’clock in the evening on June 8, a small crowd gathers by a wall in the small French town of Corbeil-Essonnes.
It is a fairly non-descript town, once a giant of the paper industry, now largely a dormitory town for Paris. It can boast some aesthetic architecture and a pleasing situation, cradled as it is along the banks of two rivers, the Seine and Essonne, some 30 kilometres south-east of Paris.
As walls go this one, notwithstanding the plaque, is also pretty non-descript; about six feet high; a mix of stone and concrete; grey.
On one side of the wall is rue Gournay, a small road that leads from my own house about three minutes away to a main road which back in 1944, the year when this road pencilled its name into the footnotes of the history books, used to be the edge of town.
On the other side of the wall is a garden, abundant greenery.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was out running, I stopped to talk to the owner of the house as he was taking in his groceries.
“What is behind the wall?” I asked.
“Just the garden,” he replied.
“No crater? No sign of what happened?”
“Non. Just the garden.”
No hint of history apart from the plaque.
The small crowd, almost entirely made up of local people, gathers by the wall to pay tribute to a group of seven young men, Canadians and Britons who perished on this spot in the early hours of June 8, 1944.
If the wall is non-descript, then so to an extent is the plaque; a grey slab with a few lines etched in black. But in those lines lies a story of bravery and sorrow. It tells the story of an aeroplane shot down and seven families mourning their dead.
The plaque, which was positioned on the wall in 1984 to mark the 40th anniversary of the incident, marks just one of the many small stories that make-up the whole of the Second World War.
The lack of names lends an air of Everyman to the drama; these could have been anyone’s sons, brothers, boyfriends, fiancés, perhaps even fathers or uncles.
But what was the tale behind the plaque? Who were these seven men whose lives ended together in a desperate smokey spiral one summer’s night over 70 years ago?
Well, I am not going to lie to you: I don’t know. Not exactly. Not as much as I would like. But thanks to the help of a local historian and various notes from the local mairie, this is what I can tell you about the Corbeil crash.
HALIFAX MZ568 EY-E
The seven men were the crew of Halifax MZ568 EY-E, a four-engined heavy bomber which was a part of the RAF’s 78 Squadron.
The squadron had been formed in 1916 as a part of the Royal Flying Corps. The badge shows a rampant tiger and the motto: Nemo non paratus.
In English that means Nobody Unprepared and was an apt description for a squadron that was constantly being sent into the teeth of battle.
At the start of the war the peripatetic squadron (it seemed to move base every six months or so) was flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley night bombers.
In September 1941 they flew their first bombing raid over Berlin. The following March they switched to Handley Page Halifax bombers, contributing 22 planes to the first 1000 bomber raid on Cologne in May 1942.
Just over a year later, in June 1943, they moved from Linton-on-Ouse to Breighton in Yorkshire.
That was to be the makeshift home of the seven-man crew of MZ568 EY-E until the evening of June 7, 1944, the day they set off for France on Operation Record Book to bomb the key railway junctions at Massy and Juvisy, just south of Paris.
The crew was a mix of Empire. Two Canadians, a Scotsman and four Englishmen; two of them from Lancashire, one of the others from Lincolnshire.
The Canadians were in charge. Pilot John Cole and navigator Leonard Gold were both from the RCAF. Not much is known about Cole at the moment other than his identity number (J/25897) but we know that Gold came from a Jewish family and grew up in Edmonton, Alberta.
He enlisted in the air force in August 1942 and after training at Saskatoon, Dafoe and the No. 2 Air Observers School at Edmonton, went overseas in 1943.
His three brothers also enlisted; Harold joined the RCNVR. while Jack and Charles both went into the army.
As far as we know Leonard was one of the two men in the crew to be married. Perhaps Margaret Ellinor, seated on a picnic rug, looking up at her young husband, took the photo above which shows him smiling down shyly. Was this their fond farewell?
Born on May 26, 1917, Gold turned 27 just two weeks before that final mission. His job was to get the Halifax to its target and then get the crew home again.
The other married man in the crew was 24 year-old Sergeant George Cribbin, the air bomber, who had tied the knot with Elizabeth Girvan. Cribbin is listed as coming from Ashton in Lancashire but whether that is Ashton-under-Lyne or Ashton in Makerfield is not entirely certain. His name doesn’t appear to be listed on the Ashton-under-Lyne war memorial.
Flight-Lieutenant Thomas Bisset, who was the plane’s radio operator, was gazetted on May 1, 1942, one of three brothers to enlist.
This Bisset family is listed as coming from the Scottish harbour village of Cellardyke in Fifeshire but a couple of hundred years earlier they may have been settled in neighbouring Perthshire. No doubt young Thomas would have been schooled in the daring adventures of his 18th century namesake and very likely ancestor who was a close cadre of the explorer Captain Cook; indeed Thomas Bisset Snr was Master of Cook’s ship HMS Eagle. His son James went on to become a Rear-Admiral.
Young Thomas’ parents Shepherd and Williamina, who may have insisted on her family name Watters being included in his forenames, are buried in Anstruther. Their tombstone carries an inscription for Thomas too. And his name appears on the Anstruther war memorial.
Sergeant Harry Tattler was the son of David and Libby and grew up in the mill town of Bolton in Lancashire, where he is remembered in two different churches: Saviour’s and Emmanuel. One of the gunners, he was just 20 when the Halifax came down in Corbeil.
The other gunner was 19 year-old Sergeant Terence Newman from Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire while Sergeant Dennis Balmforth, something of a mystery, makes up the crew. Balmforth was the mechanic, the man who would fly the plane if something had happened to the pilot Cole.
Operation Record Book took place the day after D-Day. With Allied forces ramped up on the Normandy beaches, it was vital to cut off the German lines of supply and reinforcement. And that meant hitting the railways, notably the main junctions of Achères, Massy, Versailles and Juvisy-sur-Orge.
Just a couple of months before, Juvisy had seemingly been devastated by an RAF raid (see picture right) but the damage had largely been fixed and the trains needed to be stopped once more.
And so on the evening of Wednesday June 7, 1944, at 22:52 local time, John Cole took MZ568 EY-E down the runway at Breighton, one of 337 aircraft that set off from their different bases in Britain to attack the railway hubs. Of these there were 195 Halifaxes, 122 Lancasters and 20 Mosquitos.
It was about a two-hour flight from Breighton to the target. Unlike the previous evening, the night was clear. This was good for precise bombing but not so good in terms of becoming an easier target for enemy flak and the German night fighters who caused plenty of damage themselves that night, bringing down 17 Lancasters and 11 Halifaxes.
Just after midnight local time, the alarms sounded in Juvisy with the bombardment starting a few minutes later. The official report the following day says that the Paris-Orleans train line was cut while two major roads were destroyed in the neighbouring town of Athis-Mons where there were ten civilian deaths.
What happened that night within MZ568 EY-E and in the airspace around them will remain forever a matter of guesswork. That they dropped their payload is certain as there was no munitions explosion upon impact although whether this was over the target before they were hit or an emergency jettisoning after they were hit is conjecture.
Nor can we say for sure what it was that hit them. The Germans had just one anti aircraft defence set up in the region near the aerodrome of Orly so it is highly possible that Cole and his crew were caught in the sights of a night-fighter, perhaps that of Oberlieutenant Jakob Schaus who brought down two Allied bombers that night.
What we do know is that around half past midnight, MZ568 EY-E was hit and damaged severely. Was Cole still alive and desperately trying to keep the plane under control or had he been hit? Was Balmforth trying to take over?
With smoke billowing, they hurtled towards the ground. The situation of the crash site suggests that perhaps (so much conjecture in this story) they had followed the river Seine south from Juvisy and then cut inland slightly to attempt a crash landing in the fields which adjoined their eventual crash site.
This was no bellyflop of hope, though. The Halifax came spiralling nose down into the ground, destroying the house that stood at 2 rue Gournay, creating a massive crater and a fireball that would render the crew almost unrecognisable.
Fortunately, the occupants of the house had taken cover during the air raid in a shelter across the road. shaken for sure by the loss of their house but alive.
While the fire service tried to douse the flames, the Red Cross were kept back by German forces until the air raid had ended. The area was cordoned off as the Germans began a search for possible survivors, airmen who had parachuted to safety.
Once the site was secured and the flames put out, the search began in the crater itself which was several metres deep.
The damage to the plane was so severe that not only was it difficult to identify the bodies of the crew but the identity of the plane itself. The report the following day by Monsieur Louis (above), Corbeil’s director of civil defence says that the plane was an American fighter and that the pilot probably ejected.
At five o’clock on Thursday morning the first bodies were recovered, those of Cole and Balmforth, both decapitated, the bodies crushed against the control panels. Shortly afterwards two more bodies were pulled out and then two more. All of them were terribly mutilated, to the point that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there were.
The young team of civilian workers laid the bodies side by side and then began the macabre task of matching the parts.
At dawn the search was suspended and the corpses left under the watch of a German soldier. A second report from Monsieur Louis (right) clarified the situation explaining that six corpses had been taken from the wreckage.
The Germans took no chances. They didn’t want the crash site to become a memorial and they didn’t want the crew to become martyrs for the people of Corbeil. Hence, the six bodies that they had found – Cole, Balmforth, Bisset, Newman, Tattler and Cribbin – were taken to the cemetry in Courances, some 20 kilometres away, and buried with military honours.
It wasn’t until the Friday morning that the search began for the seventh member of the crew.
The local priest, Father Tourneur, was on his way back from the hospital where he had been celebrating Mass when he stopped by the crash site for a moment of prayer. As he stood there, he became aware of a peculiar smell and wondered if there was still a body inside the burned out shell.
He called up the local Scouts and they began the search anew, first picking through the charred remains of the house and then in the debris of the plane.
And there they found Leonard Gold, the navigator from Edmonton, in position below the pilot, hidden deep in the crater.
Perhaps it was Father Tourneur who persuaded the Germans to allow Gold to be buried in Corbeil itself. He rests among many French servicemen and women in the cemetry of the Tartarets.
The crowd gathers at the plaque. If we are lucky there will be no cars parked directly in front of the memorial. Words of tribute will be spoken and from a car sound system will be played the national anthems of France, Britain and Canada. There will be a minute’s silence.
Afterwards we repair to a neighbour’s garden for a glass of wine to remember the seven young men whose lives were extinguished in a non-descript corner of our non-descript town.
Merci messieurs. Reposez en paix.
The crew of MZ568 EY-E
Flying Officer John Arthur Cole (RCAF): Pilot ID: J/25897
Flying Officer Leonard Gold (RCAF): Navigator ID: J/6287
Flight Lieutenant Thomas Neish Watters Bisset: Wireless Operator ID: 121430
Sergeant Dennis Balmforth: Air Engineer ID: 1591013
Sergeant George Norman Cribbin: Air Bomber ID: 1474210
Sergeant Harry Tattler: Air Gunner ID: 2210154
Sergeant Terence Newman: Air Gunner ID: 2202209
©Barney Spender 2017
Follow me on Twitter @bspender
I am indebted to several sources for the information in this story, notably Michel Duparet who has made a large amount of material available including Un Halifax à Corbeil by Jacques Ganz and Jérome Leblanc. I would also like to thank the Mairie at Corbeil-Essonnes and the citizens of France who still honour not just these airmen every year but all of those from Britain and the Empire for the part they played in the Liberation of France.