… the day we went to Clermont?
Thanks, Marianne, for ringing me at 06:30 otherwise I would still be in bed now, but anyway off to a garage along the road between Pionsat and St Eloy where Marianne was to leave her car for a service, and then we headed into Pionsat to catch the bus.
33 of us, there were, on board heading for Pionsat’s annual shopping trip to Clermont. Many towns and villages in the rural Puy-de-Dome go there on the same day and the Conseil-General have a little welcoming celebration with coffee, orange juice and croissants – just as well seeing as how I didn’t have any breakfast. And we received a free tram ticket, shopping bag and little Christmas present too.
The queue for the tram was enormous and so we walked to the centre, which was quite nice seeing as we passed by the city’s cemetery. One thing about Marianne is that she’s just as interested in things like this as I am and an invitation for a stroll around the dead centre of any kind of urban settlement will not be sneezed at.
There were formerly many religious establishments in Clermont Ferrand and we stumbled across many communal graves in which various groups of nuns had interred their departed members.
The communal graves of the monks were however much more interesting. Tucked away in a quiet little corner of the cemetery behind a few enormous tombs is their last resting place – one headstone for each establishment and a little plaque for each brother who is interred here. Things like that are quite poignant really.
And I wonder who is involved in the upkeep of this little plot because some of the communal graves of the nuns are, well, very sorry spectacles indeed.
There’s also a Commonwealth War Grave here in the cemetery at Clermont Ferrand. 22 British, Canadians and New Zealanders are buried here. 21 are Air Force men and quite clearly three groups of 7. Pilot, Flight Engineer, Navigator, Wireless Operator, Bomb-Aimer and a couple of gunners.
One group died on 5th March 1944, another group on 10th March 1944 and the third group on 27th July 1944. Clearly three Lancasters shot down in the vicinity and with the proximity of the huge Michelin tyre factory – just a couple of hundred yards away from where I was standing taking this photograph, then no prizes for guessing what they were doing – or trying to do.
Or so I wrote at the time. Subsequent research revealed something rather different.
Only one of the aircraft was a Lancaster engaged in bombing the Michelin factory (with an alternative target of the marshalling yards at Aulnat).
These were the crew of Lancaster B III serial ND513 of Squadron 207 RAF, carrying identity EM-R. The crew led by Squadron Leader Dudley Pike had set off from Spilsby in Lincolnshire on 10th March at 19:42.
The aeroplane suffered a direct hit from flak and exploded in mid-air. The wreckage crashed close to the Anne-Marie-Menut roundabout between 23:00 and 23:30.
The earlier crash, on 5th March 1944, was actually a Stirling B III serial EF215 of 75 squadron RAF (although many of the crew were New Zealanders). She carried identity AA-M
She had taken off from Mepal in Cambridgeshire on 4th March 1944 at about 20:51. She had been loaned to SOE (the Special Operations Executive) and was on a training flight parachuting arms to the Resistance in the Auvergne.
Because of the foul weather (blinding, gusting snowstorms were reported) she couldn’t see the torch signals and so aborted the mission, but ran into the side of a Puy in the Le Cros – Douharesse area.
The upper middle machine-gunner luckily survived the crash and was arrested. The others perished and, according to a report issued at the time, the cause of death was as much exposure to the elements as the injuries received in the crash.
The third aeroplane Was another Lancaster B III, serial number ND527 (only 14 machines newer than that lost on 10th March). She carried identity LE-O and belonged to 630 suadron RAF, although some crew were Canadians.
She had taken off from East Kirkby in Lincolnshire at 21:17 on 26th July 1944 to bomb the marshalling yards at Givors, south of Lyon, but at 02:45 the following morning, in the middle of a violent storm, she was involved in a mid-air collision with Lancaster ND856 of 82 squadron.
The pilot of the plane attempted a crash-landing just south of St Ignat, 14kms north-east of Riom, but collided with trees. The plane burst into flames and the crew was immolated.
Incidentally, ND856 exploded in mid-air and its remains fell to earth four or five kilometres away. The crew was originally buried in the local cemetery close tot he crash site but were later exhumed and re-interred in the big military cemetery at Mazargues, near Marseille.
The 22nd grave is that of Lieutenant WTL Short and his is an interesting story.
It doesn’t matter what your perception of the RAF Bomber Command is (mine is that they were a bunch of mass-murdering war criminals, but that is by the way), no-one will dispute that for the expense and effort involved and the number of casualties that they suffered, they were pretty much ineffective and much more could have been achieved at far, far less expense by quite simply parachuting into the target area a bunch of commandos armed to the teeth, with the aim of sabotaging the factories and their output on the ground. The rail campaign of Summer 1944 is a classic example of this, and who remembers the Heroes of Telemark?
But a close look at the headstone of Lieutenant Short will reveal that he was “attached to the FFI” – the Force Français de l’Interieur, which is the politically-correct way of describing the French Resistance. And I can’t help thinking that for what he cost the British Government, his efforts were probably far more cost-effective than those of his 21 neighbours. And what is even more sad about all of this is that if you go to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
and carry out a search for the Des Charmes Dechaux cemetery in Clermont Ferrand, you’ll find entries for the 21 airmen but no entry for Lieutenant Short.
From there we walked on into town, stopping halfway for another coffee of course. Crossing the road we went to the Basilica of Notre Dame du Port.
This church dates from the 6th Century and was founded, so the story goes, by St Avit who, as we all know, comes from down the road here at la Cellette where he had a spring and a hermitage. The church was destroyed by the Normans during one of their invasions of the 10th Century and subsequently rebuilt. Unusually, the crypt is open to the public and so we went down there to see what we could see but the short answer to that was “nothing”. It did not escape our notice, however, that the crypt only stretched so far underneath the church.
Marianne then took me to see the Town Hall, which is just around the corner from the cathedral, the famous cathedral where Peter the Hermit summoned the First Crusade back at the end of the 11th Century.
The Town Hall was an interesting place to visit. It was formerly some kind of Abbey, as you can tell from the inner quadrangle and cloisters. But we couldn’t go inside for a nosey – it’s lunch time already.
And what do you notice here? Yes – a blue sky. It was depressing, wet and miserable this morning, just like me. But now it looks as if the sun might be coming out.
The Christmas Market was next on the agenda. That was in the square at the back of the cathedral, the square that is dominated by the Puy de Dome, which you can see all bathed in snow and wun on the skyline in the background.
At the market I bought my final Christmas present, so I’m glad that I came here, and then we headed off to the Tourist Information and the Conseil General where I picked up an enormous pile of stuff for Radio Anglais. We won’t be complaining about lack of events and information now for quite a while with all of this stuff that I’ve collected, and I made a couple of useful contacts too.
My main reason for being here though is to hold Marianne’s hand on the big ferris wheel in the Place de Jaude. In her capacity as hournalist she decided that it would be quite a plan to get to the top and take some decent photos, but she’s not very good at heights. Consequently I was roped in for moral support.
The wheel is quite high as you can see, and the views from the top, such as this one looking north-west, are absolutely splendid. Mind you, I was quite disappointed as it was the smoothest ride that i’ve ever had. It gave no real sensation of movement and it certainly didn’t seem as if we were anything like this high.
Mind you, another lifetime’s ambition has been accomplished. Taking a photo of the cathedral at Clermont Ferrand is next-to-impossible as it is hemmed in by all kinds of other buildings and there’s no really good shot.
I’ve been experimenting with extreme-length telephoto lenses from the surrounding summits of the Faille de Limagne but they haven’t really worked out. But sod that for a game of soldiers now. Up here is the nicest view of the cathedral that anyone could hope to see.
So a visit to a bookshop, a quick coffee and then back to the bus and home to 2°C.The temperature has plummetted and we might well be back into winter at last.