Plane wreckage confirms fate

Salt Springer Brian Pharis among surviving relatives of crew member

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Seventy-five years ago this week, a Royal Canadian Air Force plane was lost off Saint-Malo, France with all seven crew members on board.

The Aug. 31, 1944 bombing raid marked the end of a month-long Allied campaign to wrest the island of Cézembre away from occupying German forces. The Halifax “If Any” was piloted by James Ralph Beveridge and was one of 170 aircraft participating in the raid. Though the crew was ultimately declared dead, the plane was never recovered and the men’s true fate unknown in Canada — until this year.

It’s late but welcome closure for Salt Spring’s Brian Pharis, whose grandmother never gave up hope her son George Pharis, the rear gunner, had somehow survived the crash.

“She thought he might come back,” Pharis said. “She thought he might be in a POW camp and that after the war he might have gone travelling. So she just waited, but of course he never came back.”

The family had already lost a son whose plane had crashed in November 1943. Pharis has the medals awarded to his father and each of his two uncles who didn’t survive the war.

Diver Olivier Brichet  is part of  L’Association Bretonne du Souvenir Aérien 39/45. ABSA [Brittany’s Federation of Aerial Memory] describes itself as a group of aviation enthusiasts of the 1939-45 period that aims to establish the complete list of air losses for the Brittany region. The association has gathered testimonies from people who lived through the Second World War to inform its work.

Brichet had received a list of planes lost at sea off Saint-Malo in the early 1990s and started his search for the If Any soon after. The nearby island of Cézembre had been the last German stronghold in the region to resist the Allied Forces’ summer-long Normandy Campaign of 1944.

“For the Americans, the destruction of this position is essential so that they can use the ports of Granville, Cancale and Saint-Malo for the transport of equipment and supplies that are vital to them,” Brichet writes in his account of the find.

The date Aug. 31, 1944 marked a definitive attack, with 165 Halifax planes from RCAF Group 6 and five Mosquito Pathfinders deployed to bomb the island. The If Any was part of the Porcupine Squadron, based at the Skipton-on-Swale field, North Yorkshire.

The recently released citizens of Saint-Malo were massed on the beach to watch the attack from across the bay, providing ample witness accounts in later years. According to those accounts, the If Any had just dropped its bombs when it was hit and started to rapidly lose altitude. The aircraft was too low for the crew to parachute, so Beveridge and his co-pilot decide to attempt a landing. The plane suddenly hit the surface of the water and then quickly sunk.

Numerous witnesses flocked to the beach to collect the possible survivors, but no bodies living or dead were found. Brichet spoke to eight of the people who were there after he made a call out to witnesses in 1998.

“It is very moving to read these letters written by seniors who were teenagers at the time. All have seen the bomber fall into the sea; however the versions diverge,” Brichet reports.

Brichet and fellow diver Thierry Trotin settled on a fairly large search area for their dives, covering a rectangle of one by two kilometres. Their attempts to scan the area by sonar turned up nothing. They would complete more than 40 dives in the span of 20 years.

Finally, in June 2018, they had a tip from a diver from Madagascar about the location of a three-blade propeller. The team located the artifact, found it did belong to a Halifax plane, and re-oriented from there. Several dives later in July 2018, they discovered a piece of isolated wing, and then discovered other debris, including the four engines. Trotin formally identified the aircraft by finding a “tacky shirt” characteristic of the Bristol Hercules engines that fitted the Halifax.

Brichet and Trotin shared their discovery with Rolland Mazurié de Garenne, the president of the Souvenir Français de Saint-Malo, and contacted the Canadian Embassy to find the families of the missing crew.

“It’s just too bad that my grandmother never got that information,” Pharis said. “She died 20 years ago, but she was always hoping. She never gave up hope.”

For more on this story, see the August 28, 2019 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.

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