McGrath, Gerald

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                                        GERALD MCGRATH
                                     By Farrell McCarthy

MIRAMICHI – On May 8, 2000, myself from Miramichi and Ann McGrath of Lincoln, N.B., travelled to Saint Nazaire, France, for the unveiling of a monument to our uncle, Gerald McGrath, and six other crew members. They were killed the night of March 28/29, 1943, when their bomber aircraft was brought down by a German anti-aircraft fire.

The event is all the more touching to the Gerald McGrath family, because for 56 years we always thought the plane crashed in the English Channel. It was only when members of the Memoire Et Savoir Nazairien French Committee had contacted us, after much searching, that we realized he had a grave near Saint Nazaire, France.

We were also told that a number of people in the area had seen the bodies. The plane had come down in the yard of a steel factory.

Ann and I realized we were going to witness a personal part of World War II history, but nothing would prepare us for the stories we would hear from the people we met who saw the plane crash, nor the ones who spent so much time researching and planning this monument.

Gerald McGrath (1916 – 1943), was the son of Mary Ann (McElroy) McGrath,of Maugerville, N.B. He was the youngest in a family of ten. He was a graduate of Provincial Normal School, Fredericton, and taught in one-room schools in Maugerville, N.B., Blue Bell (near Plaster Rock), and the Lower Portage near Grand Falls.

Gerald McGrath left teaching in June, 1941, and enrolled in basic training for the RCAF at Moncton. He continued his training at Stanley, N.S., Quebec, and Toronto. He went overseas in June, 1942 as a rear gunner for the RCAF, stationed in Britain.

                           I was five months old, he was 26.

At the age of 92, my mother, also a teacher, and 10 years older than Gerald, was told of her brother’s grave in France.

                       Soldier’s last letter is of home sickness

But Gerald’s last letter was written to my Aunt, Theresa McCarthy on March 27th, 1943, the night before his plane left on the fatal mission to France.

He writes: “I often think of the times I spent on the Portage, and the people. As I sit here tonight, a night like May back home, I can picture the boys around the country store, catching rides for Grand Falls. I wouldn’t mind being there right now.”

During 1999 and the first quarter of the year 2000, Ann and I had corresponded with the members of the Memoire et Savoir Nazairien Committee as they were gathering as much material as possible regarding these heroes, as they called them, who helped drive the Germans out of France and free the world from Nazism.

                Now bear with me as I briefly state what happened that night.

On March 28/29, 1943, 323 airplanes (179 Wellingtons, 52 Halifaxes, 50 Lancasters, 35 Stirlings and 7 Mosquites) set off from bases in England to bomb the German Submarine Station at St. Nazaire, France. Direct hits were scored 18 times, but they caused minimal damage and failed to penetrate six meters of reinforced concrete shielding on the submarines.

                          Sixty-two aircraft were lost in the attempt.

The collateral damage to the adjacent town was more severe. Eighty percent of Saint Nazaire was reduced to rubble by the end of the war.

                             Loss of civilian life in the hundreds

In fact, hundreds of French citizens in this area not only lost their lives because of the German occupations, but also as a result of allied bombings.

During the late evening of March 27/28, 1943, as the planes headed across the English Channel, the weather conditions were reasonably good with 4/10 to 6/10 cloud at 18,000 feet over the target. Crews reported the flak (German anti-aircraft fire) intensive, but mainly inaccurate. However, the German ground search lights were able to spot the Halifax Bomber.

The Halifax Bomber with the men on board was coned by search lights for quite a long time over the target and in spite of its twisting and turning was firmly held before finally going down due to very heavy German anti-aircraft fire.

When the Halifax bomber came down in the yard of steel factory in St. Nazaire, there were many eyewitnesses who saw the bodies.

The following is the eyewitness’s account of three French citizens – Raymond Gandon, Yves Thoby and Mrs. Lamballe.

                              Statement from Raymond Gandon

“I left work at 7 a.m. on 29th March 1942, and on passing in front of the company Serrurerie Nazairienne I saw the cockpit of a plane. When I got closer, I saw the pilot sitting in his seat with his hands on the controls. He was a handsome, blonde man. He must have been fairly tall, and what particularly marked my attention was the fineness of his hands.

“At four or five meters from him were two other crew members. One on his back, the other laid on his side. They were both tall and strong, and were wearing smart leather jackets.

“Near to these men was a cage lying on the ground which contained live pigeons. I intended to liberate the birds, but when I heard the sound of the boots of the German soldiers arriving, I was afraid for my own safety.”

                                     Statement from Yves Thoby

“At that time, I was employed by the locksmiths Noel in Trignac doing maintenance work in the factory. After a horrific night’s bombing, I went at 7:30 a.m. to the factory. At the base of the water tower, on the railway line, I saw an air crew member lied out, face to the ground. He was warmly dressed in a white roll neck sweater. However, he had neither shoes nor jacket. These had no doubt been stolen. A German soldier was standing at his side.

“A bit further to the left, in the iron ore pit, I saw the body of the aircraft with three crew members, a cage with two dead pigeons, and a wing of the plane on a conveyor belt.

“I saw this tragic sight very briefly as the German soldiers quickly pushed away all civilian presence.”

                                   Statement from Mrs. Lamballe

“That evening, as soon as they saw the plane fall from the sky, my father, Francois LeFeuvre and our neighbor, Desire Dubois, immediately set out saying, ‘It came down in the factory.’ They went through the ‘Trignac Door’ – my father had the key – taking the shortest route.

“They were the first on the scene of the crash. They told us they saw three dead Canadians, with a cage containing two live carrier pigeons. “Their first thoughts were to free the pigeons, but German soldiers arrived and prevented them from doing so. They had to step back as the German soldiers were armed.

“My father added ‘he pointed his gun to each of us. I like Desire a lot, but when the German soldier turned from me to point his gun to Desire, I was a lot comfier!’ They were allowed to return home after having shown their papers proving they were employees of the factory.”

                               Crew of the Halifax is honoured

On May 8, 2000, more than 3,000 French citizens from the local area turned out for the unveiling of a monument to honor the 14 Canadian and British airmen. A 70 member children’s choir stood beside the monument and sang songs in English and French.

Yves Thoby, the president of the “Memoire et Savoir Nazairiens” Committee stated, “We saw the Halifax fall to bits in the factory grounds; and above all we saw the crew members – all of them dead. They appeared to us as tall, handsome, strong, young men, as we described in the memorial book. Twenty years old is far too young to die.”

Mr. Thoby further stated “Tell them (Canadians) that the French people have not forgotten such sacrifices. It is when times are difficult that you can come to know your friends. In our scanty shelters, during the bombing raids, and frightened out of our lives, we never doubted.”

“We kneel with respect in front of such heroes,” concluded Mr. Thoby.

The mayor of Trignac, Jean Louis LeCorre stated in his speech, “Let us remember here in Trignac (a small town beside the city of St. Nazaire), here on this site which has important historical and social background; here where the ruins remind us of those social wounds; what was the air crew’s sacrifice.”

Shortly after the speeches, the flags of Canada, France and Britain that covered the monument were taken away to show a large stone monument and the names of the 14 airmen. The monument is on the site where the Halifax Bomber crashed. In the background can be seen the concrete remains of the vacant steel factory.

                                 Touring the enemy submarine

Before the unveiling of the monument, we were taken on a tour of the huge German submarine base.

Then, we were taken to Escoublac-La-Boule War Cemetery, 13 km west of St. Nazaire. For the first time, we saw the graves of our loved ones and laid flowers, shed a tear, and said a prayer.

The seven airmen from the Halifax Bomber are buried side by side.

The graveyard is kept in top shape, has 329 burials of servicemen and women from United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

At the graveyard, we met a local French woman of 85 who showed us pictures of the graveyard taken soon after the burial of many of the men during the war. With money collected secretly from the generous local people, she provided a cross for every grave, had hedges planted, and employed a permanent gardener to tend the cemetery. She dedicated all her time and energy to maintain the graves.

Later, the graveyard came under the control of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Part of my soul rests with him in a well-kept graveyard near Saint Nazaire-Trignac, France.

Source: Miramichi Leader – November 7, 2000

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