Qui se souvient? Who remembers?

Le fils de Rodolphe Lafrenière qui partage cette  photo et un article de journal en souvenir de l’équipage de son père et des Alouettes.

The son of Rodolphe Lafrenière who sent this picture with a newspaper article.

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Douglas (Doyle) Hansen, Rodolphe  Lafrenière et Euloge  Bouchard au Stonefall Cemetery de Harrogate en 1986

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Tholthorpe Reunion

Over the last weekend the village of Tholthorpe has seen its greatest influx of visitors in over forty years, when Canadian veterans of the four RCAF Squadrons which flew Halifax Bombers from the airbase from 1943 – 45 returned for a reunion. 431 (Iroquois) and 435 (Bluenose) squadrons served at Tholthorpe for six months from January 1943 before moving to Croft when they were replaced by 420 (Snowy Owl) and 425 (Alouette). Alouette was largely French Canadian. The mastermind behind the reunion was farmer Geoff Wood from Tholthorpe, who ever since childhood, watching and counting the bombers had been a dedicated aviation enthusiast. Over the years any Canadian veteran who returned to Tholthorpe was always directed to Geoff’s house where a warm reception was always assured, and a record kept of each visitor. Three years ago he was invited to an RCAF reunion in Toronto where the veterans of the four Canadian Squadrons were meeting and it was here that Geoff suggested a reunion in Tholthorpe.

Geoff volunteered to carry out arrangements in Tholthorpe whilst a committee was formed in Canada to co-ordinate arrangements. The organisers thought the event might attract a couple of hundred veterans and relatives but were absolutely staggered when over six hundred registered. Every day since Christmas Geoff has virtually had to leave the running of the farm to his son Paul and concentrate on the sheer slog of running a reunion on this scale. From morning till night he and a small committee from the village have written, posted, telephoned, pleaded, cajoled, liaised with Canada and dealt with the thousand and one things that are never obvious to the causal spectator. It is a tribute to Geoff’s organising genius that everything went off like clockwork, with no hitches.

Earlier in the week the villagers had tided an already tidy village green putting up flag poles to hold the flags of every Canadian state, and flagpoles on the airfield forming a lane with Chris Robinson’s barn where the refreshments were served on the Saturday afternoon. All the former sites were clearly labelled as were the former runways.

The reunion fired up on the Friday with registration in the Village where each of the participants was given an individual stamped badge with the title of the event, the person’s name, an abbreviation of his job at Tholthorpe (eg AG – Air Gunner) and the name and number of the Squadron they served in.

On the Saturday morning they all attended a service at York Minster when a page of the Air Force Book of Remembrance was turned. In the afternoon it was back to Tholthorpe for the main event of the weekend, the unveiling and dedication of a memorial on the village green to men of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The memorial in Canadian granite has the inscription in both English and French and is perfectly aligned North and South so that each has an equal amount of sunlight. Shortly before 3 p.m. the Canadian veterans and some English ones who served with them paraded around the village green headed by the band of the Royal Air Force Regiment playing the Dambusters March, and came to a halt in front of the flag veiled memorial, where the introductions and service was conducted by former 425 Alouette pilot Sammy Milliker from Ottawa, a veteran with 37 missions flown out of Tholthorpe. He introduced Geoff Wood who welcomed all the veterans back to Tholthorpe and thanked them for their part in the defence of freedom and liberty.

The memorial was then unveiled by Air Vice Marshal – Donald Bennett, the founder and commander of the elite wartime Pathfinder force whose job it was to mark to enemy targets ahead of the main bomber force. He spoke of the sacrifices and dedication; a nation with a single purpose, a pulling together and contrasted it with today’s lack of purpose and pulling apart. Padre Ted Light (72) who served at Tholthorpe in 1944 dedicated the memorial.

There was a beautifully played legato version of the Last Post and a lament from a Canadian piper. In the village hall there was an exhibition of photographs and memorabilia whilst in the Chapel there was a 4 film show of the RCAF in the last war with one of the films ‘The Alouettes’ filmed largely at Tholthorpe. Then it was a brisk walk down to the airfield, along the ‘peri’ track to Chris Robinson’s barn where refreshments provided by the people of Tholthorpe were served to over six hundred people. Even the bar was staffed by Tholthorpions. Also in the barn were various items of interest, a replica of a four gun rear turret as used in the Halifax bomber and Mr Turner’s large scale model of a Mark III Halifax, along with plans, maps etc. also the instrument panel of a heavy bomber.

In the evening there was a banquet and dance attended by over five hundred people where Geoff Wood received a standing ovation for his outstanding organisational ability that had made the event such an out-standing success.

Next day they visited the Stonefall Cemetery at Harrogate where the Canadian airmen are buried and in the afternoon visited the Church Fenton Air Display. The weekend was rounded off with a farewell gettogether at the Viking Hotel in York.

Whilst it is very difficult to say what the casualties were at Tholthorpe during the War, we can get some idea from the fate of one of the Squadrons. 431 Iroquois between January 1943 and May 1945 Iost the equivalent of 2 full squadrons, there were twenty aircraft in a squadron and seven men in each crew, i.e. forty aircraft lost and two hundred and eighty men. Not all the men would have been killed as some would have baled out. There were 2 squadrons based at Tholthorpe from early 1943 to the end of the war and so it is logical to assume that their casualties during this period in killed, wounded and POWs were somewhere between four and five hundred. From 1939 to 1941 Tholthorpe was the home of two RAF Squadrons, 77 and 102 when their Whitley bombers operated off the grass before the concrete runways were laid in 1942. In 1940 Whitleys from Tholhorpe bombed Berlin. There would almost certainly have been casualties during this period and therefore the losses for the whole of WW2 would probably be in the order of five hundred.

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