You can find countless reminders of the World Wars across France but some of the more poignant are little, solitary graves that tell of the battle for France’s liberation that took place in 1944. Here in Limon in Lot-et-Garonne is one such story, a moving testament to Franco-British solidarity against the common Nazi enemy, the sacrifice of Jack Ayliffe.

Off the beaten track is a small village cemetery in rolling wooded countryside. It’s hard to find it on the map, so hard we even missed it on our first trip. We went there this year to lay a cross for the Royal British Legion* at a white painted grave, with a large bent propeller at one end. It’s where the villagers with full honours buried Flying Officer Harold “Jack” Ayliffe, aged 24, the navigator of a crashed De Havilland Mosquito of 151 Squadron, who died on 4 August 1944.

RAF support for partisan attacks on Nazi miliary supplies

When the US, British and French allies landed on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944 and fought their way inland, the French Resistance rose in support and launched a series of attacks on German troops across France. Sometimes these attacks were in collaboration with allied action. One such target was the Bordeaux-Toulouse railway and the main road, the RN 113, which were being used to move materials to the north against the allies’ landing.

At the beginning of August the Resistance launched attacks to harass these movements, supported by Royal Air Force bombing by Mosquito fighter-bombers. They located an ammunition train and while railways workers delayed it, in conjunction with Colonel Hilaire of the Special Operations Executive a message was passed to the RAF. The train was attacked at Clermont-Dessous by two RAF Mosquitos of 151 Squadron and completely destroyed.

One of the explosions caught one of the low-flying Mosquitos and the pilot, Squadron Leader R N Chudleigh, made a forced landing on the hillside at Limon. The plane caught fire and exploded and, although the pilot managed to escape, his navigator Ayliffe was not so lucky. Rescuers were unable to get close to the wreckage, and only found his unrecognisable body later.

 

Jack Ayliffe's grave, Limon 47

A burial with full military honours

The mayor of the commune had the body carried to the church nearby and thence to the local cemetery where, in pretence that he was a local villager, Ayliffe was buried with full military honours and declared to be “Mort pour la France”, which is French for “died for France” and is an honour awarded to those who died in service for their country in war. To them, he was helping to liberate their country.

Chudleigh was wounded but taken to a farm and thence to Nérac to recover, where he met with Col. Hilaire and was then helped by the FTP Resistance to return to England. In the Lot-et-Garonne the conflict continued until the Germans were forced to leave the region.

Ever since, the municipality of the commune of Feugarolles have taken care of the tomb and on the first Sunday in August, a ceremony to commemorate these tragic but also heroic events takes place at the Limon cemetery to honour Jack Ayliffe and his act of service. French and British flags are lowered, as is the way in France, and wreaths are laid in his honour.

The story of the sacrifice of Jack Ayliffe deserves to be told too.

* On behalf of the CWGC, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Notes

The letters FFI in the photo of the memorial stand for Forces françaises de l’Intérieur and were a combined resistance body created after the Allied landings to conduct guerrilla war against the Axis powers. They included the former FTP of communist partisans who helped Chudleigh escape back to England via Spain.