French to honour WWII night ops hero

Image caption,
Wing Cdr Leonard Ratcliffe flew out of RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire

A former squadron leader who flew agents of the Special Operations Executive into Nazi-held Europe is to be guest of honour at the opening of a new museum to the Resistance in France.

Wing Commander Leonard Ratcliffe, 91, is the last surviving squadron leader who led secret wartime missions to drop SOE agents into occupied Europe.

Operating from RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire and under cover of darkness, he took part in more than 70 operations behind enemy lines.

He would often pilot bombers deep into Germany, parachuting in saboteurs.

On other occasions, he would fly single-seat aircraft into France, navigating by moonlight to meet members of the French resistance.

The risks were huge - his squadron was wiped out three times during the war, 600 people lost or injured out of a staff of 200.

Today he stands alone but still actively involved in Essex life and actively campaigning for local hospitals.

Many missions were flown in the Lysander - a rare example of which is kept at the Shuttleworth collection in Bedfordshire.

Now Wing Cdr Ratcliffe has been honoured by the French who have invited him to help dedicate a new museum set up to honour the resistance and those who aided their battle against the Nazis.

The new museum has been built in the French city of Bourges, which is in the Cher region of the country.

It is called the Musee de la Resistance et de la Deportation du Cher (Cher Museum of Resistance and Deportation).

It brings together the collections from two other museums and also includes the story of those who were deported from the area during the war, primarily the Jewish population.

There are similar museums in other parts of France but this one is particularly important since the Cher region marked the demarcation line between occupied France to the north and unoccupied France to the south.

This made it an important strategic area for the resistance not only in terms of sabotage, but also in the movement of people across the border.

Bourges was also a key target since it had a military airfield plus factories to produce and repair aircraft.

According to a former member of the resistance it was from Bourges that the German bomber raids on Coventry were launched.

The full report can be seen on Inside Out in the East on BBC1 on Monday 8 November at 1930 GMT.

More on this story