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Wartime French airmen made Christmas gifts for York children

The mechanics set up a makeshift workshop in a tin shed on the airbase and spent their spare time working in sub-zero temperatures to make gifts from spare bits of metal left over from their work

8 December 2020
By Jane Hanks

A group of French Second World War airmen based near York in the UK spent their spare time in the days leading up to Christmas 1944 making hundreds of toys for children in three local hospitals.

In just under three days they made 204 toys - including model trains, jeeps, prams, toy houses, play kitchens, drums, and blackboards, from scrap material left over from their work repairing aircraft.

Ian Reed, director of the Allied Forces Heritage Group which researches and promotes the commemoration of the allied services, said this French toy story started just three days before Christmas when Lieutenant André Lemarchand, an air force instrument technician, was travelling to his air base by train: “At York railway station, he noticed a Christmas tree with collection boxes for local children in hospital.

"He wanted to make a difference and he thought of an idea to use the skills of his aeroplane mechanical department and workshops to make children’s toys.
"At that period there were almost no toys, as all available manufacturing was concentrated on the war effort, and there was virtually nothing available to cheer the children, especially those in hospital."

Lieutenant Lemarchand got permission to go ahead with his project from Commandant François Churet, who was responsible for ensuring that 40 Halifax bombers were ready for action at any time.

He had 880 mechanical engineers who worked day and night to keep the two squadrons flying as war in Europe reached a critical period.

The project was given the thumbs up and, despite the airmen’s huge workload, volunteers were quickly found to make the toys and a small workshop was set up. They were under strict orders they must not hinder aircraft repairs, work in their own time and only use scrap materials.

“Many of the air force technicians had children of their own they had not seen for some time,” said Mr Reed, “or perhaps never, because they had been born while they were away.

"It must have been very cold, working in the tin sheds with sub-zero temperatures outside and only a small stove to keep them warm.

"But they came up with all sorts of ideas to make the toys. Some were even battery operated, at a time when that was unheard of. Often all they had to make them was scrap wood carved with razor blades.”

There was so much enthusiasm that a competition was organised for the best toys. First prize - a bottle of whisky - went to a detailed model of the ocean liner France, which could float.

Second prize, a bottle of gin, went to The Rose of Alsace, a child’s bedroom model with a fire and lights illuminated with batteries.

The third prize of two bottles of aperitif, went to a complete child’s model kitchen with oven, utensils and pans.

At midday on Christmas Eve, the toys were loaded onto one of the station’s lorries and driven to the Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor of York.

“The children were delighted to receive such remarkable gifts, the kind of thing most had never seen before. Most of them are in their eighties now.

"One, who is sadly no longer with us, kept her gift for the rest of her life.

"The good-hearted nature and commitment of the French mechanics and technicians in undertaking this extraordinary kindness towards British children is an Anglo-French story we should continue to remember.”

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