A POIGNANT love story between a French airman and a 19-year-old English girl during the war has proved so touching it is now being retold across the world. EMILY FLANAGAN reports
THE discovery of a grainy black and white photograph of three French airman and a smartly-dressed woman - taken on a night out in York in October, 1944 - has unlocked a love story which moved a theatre director to pen a play, attracted the attention of publishers and the French National Museum.
It was uncovered by Ian Reed, director of the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, near York, which during the Second World War was an RAF base used by French bomber squadrons.
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He wrote to an address on the back of the photograph and found it belonged to Barbara Harper-Nelson, 89, who as a 19-year-old fell in love with Francis Usai, the dark-eyed French airman in the photograph.
She has a collection of more than 350 letters daily letters from him, together with her diaries, which she has kept for 70 years.
Liverpuddlian Barbara, a fluent French speaker, was part of a delegation responsible for greeting arriving French airmen. It was at one such event in Liverpool that she met Francis.
Her diary for January 1, 1944, recalled: “He stuck to me and was very charming, dark, greenish eyes. He’s from Marseilles, and arrived from Algiers...asked him to tea tomorrow.”
Francis, 22, was posted to RAF Elvington, where two French heavy bomber squadrons were based. Within days he was undertaking missions over Berlin and his native country.
Tragically, more than 50 per cent of the base's 2,500 French airmen were killed during the war.
Although both survived, there would be no happy endings.
Francis was the only one of his friends to live. Shortly after they died, he was mistakenly shot down by the Americans.
While recouperating, the war ended and he wrote: “I ought to have shouted for joy, or burst into song, but I only wept for a moment."
Shortly afterwards the couple said farewell as war marriages between English and foreign nationals were frowned upon.
Barbara’s diary entry describes his departure at a London railway station.
“He said we loved each other, then we kissed passionately. And the train left. I wept bitterly.”
She later married a British Army Officer and moved to Australia, where she still lives. Francis wed a French girl in 1947 and had three children. He died in 1996.
Their correspondence was loaned to the French National Museum in Paris in 2010 and has been turned into a play by Australian actor/director Jenny Davis.
It will tour France and arrive in York for this year’s Tour de France. Negotiations are also underway to turn the story into a book.
Barbara has already written a dedication to Francis: "He who loved me so much and whom I have never forgotten.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 2,500 French airmen arriving in York and the couple’s first meeting.
With strange prescience, in one of his letters to Barbara (who he called “Barbiche”) Francis wrote: “In seventy years they will talk about Barbiche who saw England invaded by all those odd strangers who stole young girls’ hearts, and perhaps they will say it with a little regret in their heart.”