Pilgrimage To The Pyrénées

November 1, 1999 by Mac Johnston

In an isolated spot high in the French Pyrénées, a group of 30-odd pilgrims from Chatham, Ont., gathered in July to honour one of their own lost in WW II.

To pull back the shroud of time that has enveloped Pilot Officer Leslie Arthur Peers, J85070, Royal Canadian Air Force, we begin by examining excerpts from the 1944 operations log of 624 Squadron, Royal Air Force, in which he flew Halifax bombers from Blida, Algeria:

“5/6 June, Duty Proust (France); Up 2225, Down 0529; Not successful–no visibility, 10/10th cloud over target.”

“7/8 June, Duty Nickels (France); Up 2200, Down 0505; Nickels dropped on Carcassonne, Montauban, Auch and Toulouse.”

“26/27 June, Duty Citron (France); Up 2025, Down 0510; Successful–stores dropped.”

“11/12 July, Lighthouse (France); Up 2200, Down 0645; Successful–stores dropped. Nickels dropped.”

The details are sparse, befitting the secretive nature of the missions. What you have are the date, the destination or duty, the elapsed time and details of sorties in jargon such as “nickels,” which was slang for propaganda leaflets. The log also contains the aircraft type and number, and a list of the crews. These four missions were flown by the 27-year-old Peers and his six RAF crew members.

The details of flights by other crews provide further hints about the nature of the operations: “Not successful–incorrect reception at Panane;” “Not successful–no recognition at Diddle…;” “Successful at Accorduer–stores dropped; reception doused at other targets; nickels dropped;” and at Taille Crayon “Successful–15 agents and stores dropped.”

The word SECRET at the top of many pages provides the final clue that this was not a regular bomber squadron. Indeed, it was one of the squadrons that conducted clandestine operations in parts of France, Yugoslavia, Poland and other areas occupied by Germany. From its base in northern Algeria, 624 Sqdn. used the long range and large load capacity of the Halifax to drop weapons, ammunition, radios, other supplies and agents to local resistance units in France.

During WW II, Canadians who were secret agents served with one of two British organizations, the Special Operations Executive or the smaller MI-9, according to Uncommon Courage, a 1985 booklet by Veterans Affairs Canada.

The SOE was engaged in operations behind the lines throughout Europe and Asia. It put 1,800 operatives into France between 1941 and 1945, including 25 Canadians, of whom seven were captured, tortured and executed. SOE operatives worked with units of the French resistance to sabotage military installations, demolish industrial plants and ambush German troop movements.

In July 1944, the French Resistance requested a supply drop in the Hautes Pyrenees through a Canadian SOE operative, Charles Joseph Duchalard. The Peers crew was assigned the task as one of its three targets on the night of July 13/14. The squadron log says simply: “Nothing heard of aircraft after takeoff. Aircraft did not return.”

Fifty-five years later, in the French Pyrénées near the Spanish border, Jean Bordes of the French Resistance fills in more details: “PO Peers was in charge of a mission to drop weapons and ammunition to the 175 men of the 3201 Sniper Company and French Partisans group which was based 10 km away from where we are now.

“Those special missions over France were kept secret and the destination of the planes was a highly confidential matter…. To find an isolated spot in the middle of occupied territory was extremely dangerous in those days. The crew depended totally on the map and on the system used by the recipient on the ground to signal their position. This meant that the pilot had to keep visual contact with the ground while flying at low altitude, no matter what the weather conditions and the topography…. Flying by night in this mountain area was particularly tricky.”

That night there was a low cloud cover and mist, making it even more dificult to identify the drop zone in the range of treed mountains. On a low pass, one of the plane’s wings hit a tree, sending the aircraft crashing into the mountainside known locally as the Pic du Douly. Halifax JN888 was seven km from its target.

Two youths tending cattle found the wreckage on July 15 at an altitude of 1,400 metres. The 3201 FTPF Company was quietly informed. Resistance fighters went quickly to the isolated site and found ammunition was still popping sporadically in the smouldering wreckage. They spirited away what supplies they could salvage.

All seven crew members were dead and their bodies were not individually distinguishable. The resistance members dug graves, buried the airmen in beds of fern, erected a cross and put a fence around the graves. The site was significantly refurbished in 1994 with the considerable assistance of the French Army, which brought concrete and other supplies in by helicopter. To this day, French citizens regard the flyers as heroes and tend the site lovingly.

The names of the seven airmen are inscribed on the Runneymede Memorial in England. The memorial is commonly thought to contain only the names of those WW II airmen who have no known grave, but that is not so. It also contains the names of a small number of airmen whose graves have been deemed inaccessible by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, says Brad Hall of the commission’s Canadian Agency. In this instance, the families were given the choice of leaving their loved ones in the original graves or having them moved to the nearest war cemetery. They chose the mountainside sanctuary.

Relatives of the six RAF crew members had visited the site over the years, but there had never been a visit by Canadian family members or a Canadian ceremony. The Canadians held their service on Friday, July 9. They also participated in the larger French ceremony the next day when citizens of the Nistos area trekked up a narrow mountain trail to the clearing where a small pile of wreckage still remains. One organizer estimated attendance at 800.

The Canadian pilgrimage was a mission of respect illustrating that remembrance has no boundaries or generational limits. The ball was started rolling in early 1998 by Alain Gaudet, a member of Canada’s 1st Airborne Commando from 1973-76 who now lives in the Pyrénées region. After he discovered that a Canadian was buried there, he began a letter-writing campaign. He soon found allies at Hon. Ray Lawson Branch in Chatham. Among those leading the way were First Vice Ruth Ann Dodman, Past President Walter Tomaszewski, Grand President Tom Lawson and high school history teacher Peter Stanojevic. The Chatham Daily News was most supportive and 411 Wing of the Air Force Association of Canada joined in.

But the organizing web was much wider. Don Pearsons, heritage officer at the Canadian Forces 1st Air Division in Winnipeg, got involved and the event became part of the 75th anniversary of the formation of the RCAF. A principal player was Jerry Pickard, Member of Parliament for Kent-Essex, who helped win the authorization of the Department of National Defence to provide the Chatham group with some seats on a CF Airbus making a regular supply run to our peacekeeping Forces in Europe.

Relatives were brought into the picture. The pilot had been born a Cole but because of the death of his mother and economic circumstances, he was adopted at a young age by the Peers family, whose name he took. When he became an adult, the pilot had a son born in 1942 whom he gave the name Leslie Peers, with the middle name Cole to preserve the family tie. Leslie Cole Peers was located in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa, in retirement after a career with the CBC as a technican, a trade he learned during five years in the RCAF. His mother had remarried and his family left Chatham when he was 11.

Les Peers Jr. brought his wife, Eileen, and adult son, Shawn. The Cole family centred in the Chatham-Wallaceburg area contributed 11 members to the group. Cadets also participated as did other youth who were assigned to make a video of the trip. The Legion’s Dominion Command also became involved and was represented at the ceremonies by the Germany Zone Colour Party under Tom Andrews.

The Chatham group’s expenses were covered largely by a branch fund-raising campaign that generated $15,000 through corporate and private donations, a triva contest, a silent auction and other events. Meanwhile the many arrangements in France were handled by the volunteer Gaudet, with the assistance of the Canadian military attache in Paris.

Gaudet, who derived “immense satisfaction” from the successful tribute, said: “I hope the people of Canada realize this is something to be proud of.” Indeed, the trip touched the participants individually and collectively.

MP Pickard said: “Each and every one of you have pulled together to make an event between Canada and our friends in France absolutely memorable for the rest of our lives.”

Chatham organizer Dodman, whose branch is now twinned with the 3201 FTPF Company, said: “I’m astonished by the genuine warmth and emotion we received from the mountain folk. There was hugs and kisses and slaps on the back… You know when I felt the true emotion? When our bus was leaving. One French group was waving but another was crying…. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us.”

Grandson Shawn Peers said: “…There’s a lot of love that went into making that grave site. It’s simple and it’s honourable.”

Marion Cole, 78, of Wallaceburg, sister-in-law of the pilot, said: “I’ve done many, many things in my long years, but this is the greatest pleasure and honour I’ve had…. I’m just very, very happy that there’s someone who cares enough to do these things. There’s enough people in the world who don’t seem to care about each other. Don’t you find it sort of restores the idea that there are good people in the world?”

The last words belong to Les Peers Jr.: “It’s been the most emotional two days of my life…particularly when I went up and saw it…. It hits you. I couldn’t do anything for half an hour. I’ve always felt my father was looking after me as a guardian angel. I’ve been extremely lucky in my life and I think that’s why. Now I feel he’s content that I’ve come over here.

“I’m in awe of the site. I can only say thank you every time I see the French citizens and tears flow. The people looking after it are usually with the resistance and to me they’re all heroes.

“We’ve never had a war on our own property. The French have had two wars this century. I can now understand their feelings towards those who have helped them. Hopefully we won’t have to do it again.”

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