July 2006 saw members of the H.M.S. Hood Association make a trip to Brest, France. The purpose of the trip was to join the members of the L'Association des Anciens Marins de Mers-el-Kébir in remembering the 1,300 French sailors who lost their lives in the July 1940 action between the Royal Navy’s Force H (of which Hood was flagship) and the French squadron under the command of Admiral Gensoul. This was the first official trip abroad by an Association delegation since a visit to the Bismarck memorial service in Germany in the 1980s. This trip was also historic in that it would be the first time veterans from the two sides had met one another.
The seeds for this visit were laid in 2005 when the annual Hood reunion was attended by L'Association des Anciens Marins de Mers-el-Kébir Vice-President Hervé Grall. Hervé, whose father was lost in the action, kindly invited the Hood Association to attend the French services. Hood Association President Ted Briggs was very keen to build upon the gesture of reconciliation which Hervé’s visit had represented. Unfortunately, due to his health, Ted was not able to make the trip to France himself. He was however, very glad to see members of the Association make the trip in his place.
The delegation travelled in two parties. Commander Keith Evans, who was representing Ted as the official delegate, travelled by car with his wife Heather. The second party comprised veterans Robert Philpott, Ken ‘Nobby’ Clark, Percy Price and web site researcher Paul Bevand. We flew across from Southampton to Brest Airport, and a very pleasant and trouble free flight we had. We arrived on Saturday evening and were met at the airport by Hervé who had arranged our accommodation at the Cercle Naval – the French Naval Club in Brest.
As Keith and Heather were not due to arrive until Sunday evening, the rest of our delegation spent a very pleasant day with members of the L'Association des Anciens Marins de Mers-el-Kébir. We met at the hotel at 10am. Our hosts were Commander Albert Ligner who served in Richelieu after the war, Marcelle Landure, Joëlle Podeur and Ronan Poilverd. Hervé brought with him René Wook, a French veteran who had served in the destroyer Lynx during the action. We were driven to the fishing village of Camaret where we had lunch. In the afternoon we had a tour of the Battle of the Atlantic Museum. Returning to Brest we met up with Keith and had an evening meal in a local restaurant before saying goodnight to our hosts.
Monday, being the anniversary of the action, was the day on which most of the formal events took place. After breakfast we were again met by Hervé and our hosts from the L'Association des Anciens Marins de Mers-el-Kébir. Unfortunately the morning was not kind to us weather-wise and, as we formed up outside the St Louis Church for the service of remembrance, there was a heavy downpour. Before the service, we met more French veterans including André Jaffre, one of the few survivors of the sinking of the Bretagne as well as relatives who had lost loved ones in the action.
After the service of remembrance we were driven across Brest to Kerfautras Graveyard. Before the formalities commenced, we had the opportunity to meet more French veterans including Jean Hatton, a survivor of battleship Dunkerque. This was the part of the day that would see the dignitaries from both sides join us. The French side we were joined by the Mayor of Brest, François Cuillandre and Vice-admiral Laurent Merer, Préfet Maritime de l’Atlantique and Rear-admiral Traub. Representing the British side was Sir John Holmes, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to France and the Royal Navy’s attaché to Paris, Captain Nick Butler.
The service, which took place at the grave of the unknown sailor, included a guard from the French Navy and the band of Musique des Equipages de la Flotte. Standards were present from the French Naval and Veterans Association. The significance of the occasion and the desire for reconciliation was stressed by speakers from both France and the United Kingdom. Speeches were made by Hervé Grall, Keith Evans and Sir John Holmes.
The culmination of the service saw wreaths laid on the grave of the unknown Mers-el-Kébir sailor by both Associations and the civil and military authorities. The French press and TV were much in evidence and many of the veterans were interviewed afterwards. Following the service, we walked the short distance across the cemetery to the Mers-el-Kébir Memorial where wreaths were again laid.
We then moved onto the civic reception at Brest Town Hall which had been laid on by the Mayor of Brest. The Mayor made a speech to which Hervé made a reply. Afterwards there was a lunch and an opportunity for people to mix informally and exchange to stories. Having thought we had just had lunch, we were taken to a local restaurant for another one!
After lunch we drove to the St Mathieu Memorial, Aux Marins Morts pour la France. Here we had a service in memory of the five Free French sailors who died in the sinking of H.M.S. Hood. Again there were speeches made, this time by the French Admiral, Keith for our Association and Hervé. There was again an impressive display of standards from the various French veterans Associations.
With that the formalities of the day were at an end. We adjourned to an inn for some light refreshments. We were able to chat informally with veterans and met Léon Le Roux, a Dunkerque survivor.
It had been a long and eventful day and there had been many emotional moments. I think we all felt, on both sides, that it had been a great success. We were of course especially grateful to Hervé and our friends from the L'Association des Anciens Marins de Mers-el-Kébir, who had driven us everywhere, made all the arrangements we could possibly need and had treated us as old friends and honoured guests.
We were delighted to welcome their reprensentatives to the annual Hood Association reunion dinner the following May.
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