It was a strange sight deep in the heart of rural France. Barely fluttering from a tall weather-beaten flagpole was an immaculately laundered Canadian flag. In September 1976 – our flag being a mere 11 years old – it was a wonderful sight to see even if it wasn’t close to July 1 Dominion Day (1879) which became became Canada Day in July 1982.
I almost missed it as we pulled out of Chaumousey, one of the many colourful villages scattered across the Vosges range in eastern France. During the Second World War, it was on the direct route as the Allies – the United States Fifth Army and the French First Army – drove across France to cross the River Rhine and penetrate into the heart of Hitler’s Germany.
We were driving from Vienna to Paris, looking for nothing in particular, everything in general. The Maple Leaf, flying alone atop a very tall flagpole deep in rural France demanded a pause in plans. There were questions to be asked, answers to be sought.
I did a quick U-turn to drift back to Chaumousey, which isn’t far from Epinal, where 5,255 white crosses stand in vast mute testimony to U.S. battle deaths. In comparison, the cemetery at Chaumousey was postage stamp size, a final resting place for generations of villagers with not much room for mass intrusions.
But the villagers had found room for the graves of six members of the crew of Lancaster bomber III PB253 UL-A2 of Royal Air Force Squadron 576. They lie side by side in one special manicured grave, placed there by the villagers on July 29, 1944, when their aircraft was shot down by German night fighters. Only the pilot, Flying Officer Jimmy Archibald of the New Zealand Air Force, survived the mid-air explosion that blew him through the flight deck windows leaving him with just enough instinct to pull his parachute ripcord.
He was later found hanging in a tree, with multiple fractures and internal injuries. He was rescued by German troops, taken to a German hospital, and eventually returned to England after liberation by U.S. troops.
The six dead were left for the people of Chaumousey to bury. Five were English; one was Flying Officer Peter Joseph Biollo, a 20-year-old from Edmonton, and the lone Canadian in the crew.
The Maple Leaf flew for him the day I drove by in 1976. For reasons village historians cannot explain, it is the only foreign flag to fly over the gravesite. In Chaumousey, it remains where “the Canadian bomber crashed and where the Canadian airman is buried.”
A letter written in September 1945 by Abbe Albert Mercier, parish priest of Chaumousey, provided details of the July 31, 1944 funeral service for the crew: “A very large … number of people formed the funeral procession of these heroes whose caskets were covered with flowers and, in spite of the interdiction of the Germans, the big crowd went to the cemetery and joined in the final prayers at the graves.”
I have always wondered what the “interdiction of the Germans” was in 1944 when their thousand-year empire was in disastrous collapse. Not pleasant I suspect.
Today, I wonder if Chaumousey still holds memorial services for the crew of PB253 and still flies the Maple Leaf as it was so proudly continuing to do in 1976 “for the Canadian” when we paused so briefly to stand in the awe and pride the Maple Leaf can command when seen so far from home in such respectful cause.
In Nanton, Alberta, they have an aircraft museum boasting a fully re-built Lancaster bomber. Inscribed on the Bomber Command Memorial Wall are a few words from Father J.P. Lardie, Chaplain 419/428 Squadron RCAF.
“Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name – Canada – telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens, fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and if it had to be, to die, for their country and for freedom …”
The old folk of Chaumousey would say “amen” to that and let their children tell the story of why, for a few days in late September, the Maple Leaf still flies high and proud over “their” Canadian grave.