Rugby, Resistance and the RAF

After more than four years of Nazi occupation Paris was finally liberated on the 25th August 1944. Central to the French struggle had been their underground resistance movement and the air campaign of the Royal Air Force. In the aftermath representatives of both met at Parc du Princes for a unique game of rugby.

The following account was written and recorded in the minutes of the RAF Rugby Union. It is printed here in full:

Royal Air Force Rugby Union Minutes Book

R.A.F. XV versus FRENCH SERVICES XV

Played in Paris on November 11th, 1944 at the Parc du Princes

The R.A.F. committee and team left by air on Friday morning, November 10th, arriving at La Bourget aerodrome about noon.  Very little damage to French towns and villages could be observed, but in the places where V1 sites were situated the sites and their immediate vicinity were plastered with bomb craters.

The aerodrome and buildings at Le Bourget, which had been heavily bombed by British aircraft when the German were in occupation, are much damaged, but repair work is in hand.

We were met at Le Borget by Monsieur Legrous, President of the Paris Rugby Union, Monsieur

Saulnier, Secretary of the Paris Rugby Union and Monsieur Debon, assistant Secretary of the French Rugby Union, who speaks good English.

We were driven to the Hotel du Printemps for lunch, where the President welcomed us in a gracious speech, responded to by Sir Commodore G.R. Beamish, the senior R.A.F officer with the team.

It soon became evident that the Paris Rugby Union had spared no pains to make our visit an enjoyable one, and a spirit of friendship which none of us had experienced to the same extent in pre-war days was very noticeable.  After a luncheon of five courses, and with plenty of red and white wine we were taken to our hotels to leave our luggage and then taken in small parties to the shops, where we could buy scent, lipstick, fountain pens and silk stockings, etc, at a price. Our shopping period was limited as we were due at the Stade Francais at 5.00 pm. – a longish drive through the Bois de Boulogne to Saint-Cloud.  We were received by Monsieur Serre (the President of the club), members and their wives, and were given an excellent tea, with sandwiches, sweet cakes, etc.  Members of the Committee were made Honorary members of the club, and again the deep feeling of friendship was very noticeable.

We left for the Arc de Triomphe in time to lay a wreath on the tomb of the ‘Unknown Warrior’ at 6.30p.m.  The ceremony was impressive.  It was pitch dark when we arrived, but then torches were lit and held by torch bearers both sides of the tomb.  We marched up and our wreath was laid by the Captain, Squadron Leader Toft, and then we stood back on each side to make room for the French ex-service men (corresponding to the British Legion) who marched forward with their banners and wreaths.  During the ceremony three search lights were throwing their coloured beams, red, white and blue, under the Arc de Triomphe, making a magnificent setting to the whole scene.  Air Commodore Beamish then re-kindled the ‘Flame of Remembrance’ and we marched to our bus and so back to the Hotel du Printemps for dinner.

Triomphe Celebration

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The German had forbidden all armistice celebrations during their occupation and every Parisian who could do so, was determined to attend either this evening’s ceremony or the main one on Saturday November 11th.

After dinner we were taken to the Folies Bergeres which was opening with a new programme having been closed for four months, and then back by bus to the hotel, and so to bed.

On Saturday the Committee’s first engagement was a luncheon at the Stade Jean Bouin, close to the Parc du Princes so we took the opportunity of walking to the Champs Elysees to see the processions on their way to the Arc de Triomphe for the 11am Armistice Ceremony. The day was a public holiday, all shops being closed, and there were immense crowds lining this fine route.

We were fortunate in seeing Mr Churchill, General de Gaulle and Mr Eden driving to the Arc de Triomphe, and in hearing the shouts and cheering of the enthusiastic spectators, “Church-eel”, “Church-eel”, called the crowd, and there is not the slightest doubt that his visit, so well timed, will have been of inestimable value in cementing friendship between our two nations. Since Paris was freed the French have been longing to demonstrate their gratitude to the British and particularly to the R.A.F, and we were delighted to note that Mr Churchill was wearing the uniform of the Air Commodore.

Armistice Day

Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

From the Place de Concorde we watched the troops marching down the Champs Elysees toward us after the completion of the ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. Nowhere in London would one obtain such a splendid view of troops marching on a broad front with bands playing and crowds cheering.  The Mall would be the nearest approach to such a route. The British led the procession, Navy, Army and R.A.F followed by the Canadian Scots with their bagpipes which always thrilled the French. The U.S troops marching very well, followed by French and French Colonial detachments.

We were entertained to lunch by the French Federation of Rugby Football whose President Monsieur Elvere gave us a hearty welcome. We also met Mr Rutherford, an Englishman who did much to restore relations between France and the Four Home Unions before the war after the former country had eliminated certain factors which had caused a breach in relations. Mr Rutherford had been in prison camp for years, but was well treated by the Germans, and was a sports organiser in the camp. The German Commandant was a rugby enthusiast, and had met Mr Rutherford before the war when the latter took a touring French team to Germany.

After an excellent lunch, we walked to the Parc du Prices and met Air Marshall and Lady Tedder, also General Duche to whom the teams were presented before the match. The afternoon was fine with no wind, and a crowd of some 20,000 watched a clean open game in which the French team, although beaten by twenty-six points to six, were by no means outclassed. The crowd cheered all outstanding points of good play by the R.A.F. and were very fair in their applause. The score would have been much greater in our favour if many passes had not been dropped.

It is interesting to note that both French tries were scored by General Delmas, leader of the French underground movement during the German occupation and selector of the French team. He is a good-looking man, aged twenty-nine, and evidently a very strong character. The Germans know of his activities, but were never able to lay hands on him, and he almost ranks with de Gaulle in the estimation of many Frenchmen.

RAF v Paris, 11/11/1944, Parc des Princes

After the match, we returned to the Stade Jean Bouin for tea and drinks. The English team was ‘toasted’, and the R.A.F. Captain Toft replied in excellent French. The R.A.F. informed the French by song that they were “jolly good fellows”.

We took the bust to the Maison des Allies, calling at a shop on the way which had been specially opened to enable each member of the R.A.F. team to buy one pair of silk stockings. As the price was nearly £2 a pair, only a few availed themselves of this opportunity.

The official dinner given to the two teams by the Paris Rugby Union took place at the Maison des Allies, and General Koenig (the French C in C.) came to welcome us, but could not remain to dine. He recalled an episode in North African when he called upon the R.A.F. to deal with German bombers which were attacking his forces. Prompt action resulted in their destruction and he sent a signal to Air Marshal Coningham thanking him for the R.A.F. assistance – he was amused by the reply which thanked him for “the sport” given.

The usual after-dinner toasts were given, and it was very noticeable how all conversations stopped whilst General Delmas spoke. His was a political speech referring to the past and future of Anglo-French co-operation, and the vital necessity of preventing Germany from starting a fourth war.

Group Captain the Reverent Mc.Hardy had travelled with our team, and was soon a great favourite with the French. We insisted that he should speak and, after apologising for having forgotten his English owing to the length of his say in France, he spoke in French. He finished his speech by saying that in his new appointment as “Directeur de Consciences” (a title given him by the French) he had a very difficult job controlling his “moutons perdus”.

After dinner we were invited to a ‘bar’ owned by a member of the French team named Perrier, and as we were leaving the Maison des Allies, large numbers of officers (male and female) and their friends were arriving for a dance. Several of the team decided to return later.

At the ‘bar’, Monsieur Perrier and his wife most generously filled our glasses with champagne – corks were popping and flying across the room as V.1. projectiles with great frequency. All our efforts to pay towards the cost were frustrated.

We were then taken to a night club where a band was playing but no one was dancing. Unknown to our team, a ban had been placed on dancing owing to Armistice Day (it was somewhat astonishing that an official dance had been arranged at the Maison des Allies!) At the night club, as the ladies refused to dance, members of the team formed a large circle and danced around the room. This soon had the desired effect, and in a few minutes the small floor of space was crowded with dancers.

Those who returned to the Maison des Allies found both floors where dancing was taking place very crowded. Cabaret turns were introduced, and the “Can Can” danced by eight vigorous and pretty girls was very heartily applauded.

The driver of the bus deserves a special note. He was a very small man with a very humorous twinkle in his eye. He drove through the streets, day or night, at between thirty and forty miles an hour, hooting loudly every time he approached a cross street. He came in to all our functions to see how we were getting on, though he did not sit down with us at our official dinners. Folies’ Bergeres, night clubs, champagne parties, official receptions were all alike to him. He would get in somehow, and one would feel a nudge on the arm and, when looking round, one would meet his smiling face saying “n’est pas jolie, monsieur?” He had been nearly four years in a German prison camp, and must have been irrepressible.

On Sunday we were one hour later than programme time in leaving le Bourget. We were seen off by our friends, real friends by this time – Messieurs Legrous, Saulnier and Debon. Our flight was uneventful until approaching London when we ran into thickish cloud, and were diverting to an aerodrome in Herts, but the clouds cleared for a few minutes when we were not far from Hendon, and we managed to land before the clouds closed in again. Our visit, coinciding as it did with Mr. Churchills’, will ever be memorable to every member of the Committee and team, and has done much to cement the friendship between the R.A.F. and the rugby players in Paris. One could feel a strong sense of gratitude from the French to the British for saving European freedom, and an intense desire for friendship and co-operation. The French in Paris certainly bear us no ill will for our bombing of French factories and aerodromes and, in fact, greatly admire the high standard of accuracy achieved by the R.A.F.

Liberation Of Paris

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

The absence of young children was noticeable, but may have been partly due to a fear of taking them into the crowded streets on November 11th. I did not see a single perambulator or any babies in arms.

The details of the tour were arranged by Wing Commander Cadney and the organization was perfect.

On the field that day were England’s last pre-War captain, Henry Toft, and first post-War captain, Joe Mycock. French try-scorer Jacques Chaban-Delmas would become the Prime Minister of France in 1969.


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3 Responses to Rugby, Resistance and the RAF

  1. frederic1892 says:

    Happy to read this wonderful story from an English perspective!

    Like

  2. rhymboy1 says:

    Terrific detailed report capturing the atmosphere and attitudes of the day. Rey useful!

    Like

  3. keithgregson says:

    What a wonderful and moving account which puts the whole topic of sport and war in context. In particular the detail that one of the Germans and one of the allies had been friends through rugby prior to the conflict and the fact that the rugby playing French Resistance leader was only 29! I am currently working on Sunderland RFC and the Second World War and have discovered that 19 lost their lives, eight were prisoners of war and 18 were decorated. The immediate contrast with the First World War losses is that in the 14-18 conflict most of the the deceased were young infantry officers while in 39-45 they were equally young RAF officers. In terms of the club’s two wartime experiences, I am hoping to do some form of ‘compare and contrast’ ( spot the former history teacher!) over the coming months.

    Like

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