Driving to find a match for our postcard of an old market hall we passed a small, poignant memorial.
There is no trace of the market hall Cerisy-la-Salle but the tribute to seven airmen on the corner of Rue du Pont Sec and l’Auney ensures they will never be forgotten.
Twenty four aircraft flew from RAF Binbrook on the evening of 6 June 1944, heading for Normandy. The enemy, shocked by Allied landings earlier that day, would be ready for them.
Just one aircraft would fail to return.
Avro Lancaster MKIII bomber number JB700 took off from RAF Binbrook at two minutes past ten. The Lancaster was carrying fourteen 500lb bombs and a crew of seven young men. Their mission was to bomb Vire’s railway bridges.
JB700 was piloted by Australian Frederick Knight of the Royal Australian Air Force. Age just 21, like most of his crew he was a teenager when war broke out. Fred was from Haberfield near Sydney, his crew were all British, members of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
Air Gunner Robert Elcombe was the youngest, age just 18. Flight Engineer Lionel Croom was the oldest at 39. The rest of the crew were Air Bomber William Lynham age 26, Navigator John Read 21, OP/Air Gunner Farewell Harrison 23 and Air Gunner Leonard Hillman 24.
The flight to Vire was expected to take less than two hours.
The journey, and the end
After take-off the crew kept radio silence as they headed into enemy territory. We don’t know what they could see of the battered landing beaches that June night. We do know they would have seen villages and towns burning and shells explode around them from furious enemy guns. Battles raged all around as navigator John Read looked for landmarks to guide their way.
Then, somewhere over Coutances, they were hit by flak. It was 14km before the Lancaster met the earth and by then it was out of control. JB700 crashed just outside Cerisy-la-Salle, near the old chateau. If not before, the crew were dead on impact. They are buried in the war cemetery at Bayeux.
A village remembers
The tragedy of the seven airmen was never forgotten in Cerisy-la-Salle. They became a symbol of bravery and all that was lost in the fight for freedom.
In 1994, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day and honour the airmen, a monument was erected to the south of Cerisy-la-Salle. John F Hall on his blog describes the annual memorial ceremony:
‘The local band marches down the hill, followed by the anciens combattants (combat veterans) wearing medals and ribbons, and carrying their commune banners. The mayor welcomes everyone, wreaths are laid by the anciens combattants, the names of the crew are read out and a small cross laid next to the name of each airman.
‘A minute’s silence is observed and national anthems are played. News of (new) contacts with crew memebers’ families is given, sometimes followed by contemporary eye-witness accounts by local villagers.
‘To close the event, a verre d’amitié (glass of friendship is offered).’
Searching for relatives of the airmen today
The families of Frederick Knight, William Lynam and Robert Elcombe are in touch with the village and some family members have attended the annual ceremony.
However, if anyone knows relatives of John Read, Farewell Harrison, Leonard Hillman and Lionel Croom please ask them to contact the mayor of Cerisy-la-Salle, he would be delighted to hear from them.
The crew of JB700, and their families
The crew of JB700 are listed on awm.gov.uk’s list of Royal Australian Air Force WW2 fatalities.
- Pilot Officer Frederick Knight 422801 of the Royal Australian Air Force, son of Frederick and Margaret Knight of Haberfield, New South Wales.
- Flying Officer, Air Bomber, William Lynam 152457 Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, the husband of Lillian Edith Lynam from Small Heath in Birmingham.
- Flying Officer, Navigator, John James Read 154193 RAFVR, son of William James and Flora Elizabeth Read of Upminster in Essex.
- Sergeant, W. Op/Air Gunner, Farewell Harrison 1516172 RAFVR, son of Farewell and Agnes Elsie Harrison of Mexborough in Yorkshire.
- Sergeant, Air Gunner, Leonard Wesley Hillman 1245750 RAFVR, son of Edward Wesley and Emily Norah Hillman from Shepherds Bush, London
- Sergeant, Flt Engineer, Lionel Pearcey Croom 1587077 RAFVR, son of Joseph and Margaret Croom, husband of Althea Croom of Wendover in Buckinghamshire.
- Sergeant, Air Gunner, Robert Elcombe 1811531 RAFVR, son of Duncan and Madge Elcombe of Southall, Middlesex
Thank you to John F Hall who kindly allowed us to use his photographs of the memorial ceremony. Link to John’s blog. And Jenny Elcombe whose information helped with the story.
A huge thank you to Hilary Thomson who organises the event and to the Mayor of Cerisy-la-Salle, Yves Simon, without whom it would not be possible.
And of course thank you to the seven airmen, and everyone who fought for our freedom.