Well the time arrived, after years of negotiation and planning. On 1st July, at 17.30 hrs, a party departed from Gatwick Airport in order to be Guests of Honour at the ceremonies in the town of Lannemezan & at the cemetery at the top of Pic de Douley where the aircraft - Halifax JN888- came to rest with all the crew. The party consisted of members & friends of 4624 Sqd R.Aux.A.F, relatives of 624 Squadron members, and most important of all 7 veterans of RAF 624 (SD)Squadron.
On arrival at Toulouse Airport we were met by Al Gaudett and Monsieur Pene ,the Mayor of Esparros (the birthplace of the 3201 compagnie FTPF de Nistos et Esparros... that the boys of the Halifax JN888 tried to resupply). Monsieur Pene drove the coach which took us to the Hotel du Commerce in the town of St. Gaudens. Following a welcoming reception and a superb buffet supper, it was time to relax with some liquid refreshment ( nothing much changes).
Friday was a relaxing & free time day & various people relaxed in their own way. Everyone met back at the hotel for 18.00hrs in time for dinner, and at 19.00hrs we boarded Monsieur Pene's coach to be driven to Lannemezan. On arrival we were greeted by many local dignitaries and former members of the various resistance groups & Maquis. The townspeople had turned out in their hundreds & the gendarmerie had closed the road. The veterans marched in behind the RAF Honour Guard ( under the command of Flt. Lt. Gary Vickers) & Piper Sgt Robert Jordan of the Central Band R.A.F.
There was then a very moving ceremony at the "Monument aux morts de la Resistance" which lasted for about 90mins.
This ceremony was in memory of 4 local resistance fighters who were executed in public by the Germans in 1944.
At the end of the ceremony, the veterans, honour guard & the piper marched off the ground to tremendous applause from the townspeople. After the ceremony came refreshments and a short time to mix with the resistance fighters.Sadly due to the time now being 22.45 hrs ,a 45min coach journey back to the hotel, and a 05.30 breakfast call the following morning, this short time was very short indeed.
Following the early breakfast on the Saturday morning, it was on the coach again for the trip to the Pic de Douley. At least now the coach goes a long way up ( goodness knows what it must have been like in 1944) to the car park. As we got higher, the road became more winding and narrower & eventually we lost the tarmac and ended up with a narrow, winding, single dirt track (Monsieur Pene is a tremendous driver and so young as well at 74).
At the car park, we were greeted by Fire/Paramedic Trucks & Gendarmerie all there to attend to the needs of anyone who should require assistance on the trek up the Pic. Five of the veterans decided they were going to make it all the way (and so they did). And, the ceremony did not start until the last of the five had arrived. There were medic points & water/rest points all along the trail and every care was taken to make sure that everyone reached the top safely & in one piece.
On reaching the Anglo-Canadian Cemetery crowds of people had turned out. It was a magnificent sight.
Again there was a very moving and emotional ceremony, the piper playing the laments from the exact point of impact of the aircraft. The speeches and the wreath laying. It was a moving moment when Jack White stepped forward to lay the first ever R.A.F. wreath on this site after 60 years, remembering his 624 Squadron colleagues.
At last, after all these years, there is a plaque embedded in the cemetery wall, from the R.A.F.
And when George Walsh , brother of Sgt James Edward Walsh of the crew, presented a mounted display of all the crew's brevets to the Mayor it became even more moving.
Then it was back down into Lannemezan for another ceremony at the "Monumentaux morts. Following this ceremony, the parade marched to the "sall des fetes" (the local community hall) for a meal with local dignitaries and ex French Resistance Fighters, and there was also an exhibition on "The Free French Air Force".
A very hectic, very enjoyable but more so a very emotional few days that I am sure none of us will ever forget.
Photos taken July 2004 by the French Photographers.