Like most cities, York has its own celebrities such as John Barry (composer of the James Bond theme among other film and TV work) actress Dame Judi Dench, comedian Frankie Howerd and glamour model Samantha Jessop but while researching possible vehicles and structures to be included in my model bus diorama Ming Ing I have found a number of stories about York’s heroes. I would like to begin with the tale of Yves Mahe.
As The Times Defence correspondent Tom Coughlan wrote in the edition of Saturday 4 May 2013:
“The relatives of a long-dead French pilot have been surprised to learn that he is hailed as the saviour of the City of York. The city this weekend commemorated the 71st anniversary of the notorious “Baedecker Raid” of 29 April 1942, with an exhibition in honour of Yves Mahe, a pilot of the Free French Air Force.
The 23 year old pilot was at the controls of an RAF Hawker Hurricane fighter plane, the only aircraft to mount a defence of of the city as waves of German aircraft unloaded more than 80 tons of incendiary and high explosive bombs from 0230 until 0400. Six hundred homes were destroyed as well as the city’s Guildhall and other historic buildings such as St Martin le Grand church in Coney Street. 95 civilians died; 212 were injured.
The German formation was beginning an attack on the Rowntree factory in the north of the city when the Frenchman dived on them, shooting down a Heinkel He 111 bomber into the River Ouse in the centre of the city.
Mahe then attacked a second aircraft as the German formation scattered and abandoned their attack. A German aircraft later crashed near Castle Howard, north of York. The significance of his actions became clear when it was later revealed that the Rowntree factory had been secretly used to store hundreds of tons of high explosive, sparing York a potentially catastrophic explosion.
Speaking from Istanbul, Yves Mahe’s son Loic said that the news of the commemoration was a great surprise.
“We knew about the incident,” he said, ” but what is a surprise is that it is still so remembered in York. It is a little bit old now but we are very happy about it.”
He retains a framed photograph of a civic reception held in honour of his father in York, following the raid, during which the Free French flag was flown above the city.
The family also has a faded diary in which the pilot recorded his memories of the attack – during which he believed he had shot down two aircraft, chasing them in the “clair de lune” above the city.
The Yorkshire Air Museum, which tracked down the Mahe family and mounted the exhibition, is displaying a Hurricane in the centre of the city.
Named after the Baedecker tourist guide to Britain, the series of German air attacks in 1942 targeted towns of cultural but limited strategic importance, including Exeter, Bath and Norwich. They were in retaliation for German claims that the RAF had hit similar targets in Germany.
“The thing he probably would have liked to say today” said Loic Mahe, ” was he wished to do his best to be part of fighting against the Nazis and that is why a few months after this happened he asked to join another squadron which was sent to fight in Russia.”
The French pilot fought for two years alongside the Red Army and was shot down by German aircraft near Smolensk in 1944. He survived capture and was sentenced to death but escaped with the help of Russian prisoners.
Yves Mahe was one of four brothers, all of whom vowed to fight on after the German invasion of 1940. One of his brothers survived Mauthausen Concentration Camp, another was a Free French pilot and a third a resistance fighter. The man who saved York was later killed in an air crash in Belgium in 1962 while flying a Gloster Meteor jet with the French Air Force. He was 42.
By chance his son said that the four Mahe brothers are to be memorialised in their home town of Guerande, near Nantes, next week with a road – Rue des Freres Mahe -named in their honour.
“It is bizarre, the coincidence,” said Loic Mahe.”
I first encountered this article as I envisaged that the Jeremythorpe area of Ming Ing – now occupied by the modern architecture of the Ming Ing Cafe and truck stop – would have once contained a livestock market opposite the garage that is currently Viking Vehicles. Farm animals would have arrived by train along a branch of the Derwent Valley Light Railway, hence the shed built there to maintain locomotives laid over between freight turns. However, a stray bomb from a Heinkel during the 29 April 1942 Baedecker Raid could have flattened the market pens, which were never rebuilt after the newly opened ground was requisitioned for anti-aircraft guns.
Indeed, on that fatal early morning, the Luftwaffe also scored a direct hit on York North locomotive depot, now the Great Hall of the National Railway Museum. This damaged beyond repair A4 Class streamlined pacific engine 4469 “Sir Ralph Wedgwood”, the 1938 vintage 4-6-2 having been stabled at York during running in trials after being repaired at Doncaster Works before returning to its home depot of Gateshead. 4469 had originally been named “Gadwall” but was renamed in March 1939 after the LNER’s Chief Officer who was retiring after 16 years in the post. The name “Sir Ralph Wedgwood” was later re-applied to fellow A4 4466 – previously “Herring Gull” – in 1944. 4466 “Sir Ralph Wedgwood” was later renumbered as 6 by the LNER and was withdrawn from British Railways service on 3 September 1965 as 60006 ( pictured). A plaque was placed on the spot where 4469 was destroyed on 29 April 1992 to mark the 50th anniversary of the raid.
Also of interest was that Yves Mahe’s 253 Squadron Hurricane was similar to over 2 000 of the Hawker monoplanes built by the Gloster Aircraft Company and that the saviour of York died in a Gloster Meteor, most likely one of the French Air Force’s Armstrong Whitworth built NF11s.
During this year, London’s Imperial War Museum was undergoing refurbishment and in my imagination the Eden Camp Modern History Theme Museum near Malton could have been entrusted with the M3A3 Grant tank used by Lieutenant General ( Later Field Marshall Lord ) Montgomery while in command of the British Eighth Army.
Like its cousin the Lee – used by American forces and distinguished by a turret topping machine gun cupola – the Grant’s main 75mm gun, the first on an Allied tank to seriously challenge German armour, was mounted on the hull rather than the turret.
However, in this case the 37mm turret gun was a wooden mock-up used to make “Monty’s” tank look like all the other Grants under his command. The space normally occupied by the breech mechanism and shells was taken up by command radio equipment. As is related in Ming Ing: Extra Portions, this historic load had travelled north via Samuel and Eleanor’s cafe.
Not only was Glasgow born 21 year old Corporal Jim Fraser the goggle wearing driver of “Monty’s Charger” from August 1942 but he offered the Lieutenant General his own black Royal Tank Regiment beret as an alternative to Montgomery’s Australian bush hat which, despite being adorned with the cap badges of units under his command, kept blowing off in the slipstream whenever he raised his head out of the Grant’s turret. Monty accepted Jim Fraser’s beret – now preserved at Bovington Tank Museum – and later acquired his own featuring both a General’s and a Royal Tank Corps badge which took him all the way from El Alamein to Berlin.
Jim Fraser drove General Montgomery in his Grant all the way to Tunis before being posted to the 6th Royal Tank Regiment for the Italian campaign in Spring 1943. Having already won the Military Medal at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941 for saving the life of his troop leader Lieutenant Kitto, Jim Fraser was mentioned in dispatches at the crossing of the River Senio in April 1945. He would later serve in the British army all over the World until 1959 when he became a postman and local councillor.
Although more famous as an actor, Francis Matthews was the son of a shop steward at Rowntrees in York – served by the same Foss Islands Branch as the Derwent Valley Light Railway – and went to school there and is best remembered for his live action role as TV’s Paul Temple and as the voice of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionated puppet Captain Scarlet. After his death on 14 June 2014 the Daily Telegraph wrote:
Francis Matthews, the actor who has died aged 86, appealed to two very different television audiences – cutting a dash as the suave gentleman sleuth in the BBC’s adaptation of Francis Durbridge’s Paul Temple (BBC, 1969-71), and thrilling generations of children as the voice of Captain Scarlet in the cult puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (ATV, 1967-68).
Paul Temple made his television debut in 1968, in a 12-part BBC series with John Bentley as the hero and Dinah Sheridan as his wife. Its success prompted the BBC to commission another series the following year, this time with Matthews as a definitively smooth Temple and Ros Drinkwater as his elegant wife Steve.
Solving unlikely mysteries in a world of fast cars, luxurious homes and dry martinis, the pair became fashion icons of sorts, in Matthews’s case helping to establish a craze for polo-necks and cravats among men of a certain vintage in the “Gin and Jag” belt.
The series was co-produced with a West Germany company and some 64 one-hour episodes were made, all in colour. The first 26 cost £630,000 to produce, then the biggest budget for a crime series in the BBC’s history. Lavish German funding enabled filming to take place not only in London, but in glamorous settings in Malta, Germany, Amsterdam and Italy, thereby allowing the BBC to steal a march on comparable ITV thrillers.
The series was extremely popular, especially in Germany, and was intended to last for five years. But the BBC withdrew prematurely, with Huw Wheldon, the corporation’s managing director for television, explaining to Matthews that Paul Temple was really “Lew Grade territory” and citing his preference for such improving historical dramas as The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R.
In contrast to the plummy tones of Paul Temple, Matthews is said to have modelled his voice for Captain Scarlet, the Mysteron-battling hero in Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi series, on the silky, mid-Atlantic English of Cary Grant, though in fact Matthews admitted it was more “Tony Curtis impersonating Cary Grant in Some Like it Hot”.
With its visible marionette strings and clunky “Supermarionation” special effects, the show, repeated many times over the years, built up huge cult following. Matthews, though, was unimpressed by his fans. “They really are anoraks,” he told The Independent in 2006. “They dress up and stare at you when you’re signing the autograph as if you’re some kind of extraordinary god!”
The son of a shop steward at Rowntree’s confectioners, Francis Joseph Matthews was born in York on September 2 1927. He attended St George’s School in York and St Michael’s Jesuit College in Leeds before embarking on a theatrical career at Leeds Rep. After National Service in the Royal Navy, he completed his apprenticeship in rep around the country.
During the 1950s and 1960s Matthews appeared in Hammer horror films including The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). He starred opposite Morecambe and Wise in The Intelligence Men (1965) and That Riviera Touch (1966), and later made guest appearances on the comic duo’s Christmas specials in 1971 and 1977, becoming a great friend of Eric Morecambe due to their shared passion for home movies. In 1956 he took a small role in Bhowani Junction with Ava Gardner, to whom he is said to have given tea at his parents’ modest Yorkshire home.
After Paul Temple, Matthews was seldom out of work. His notable credits included Alan Plater’s Trinity Tales (1975), a modern take on the Canterbury Tales featuring a boozy Yorkshire rugby fans travelling to Wembley, in which he played Eric the Prologue. In 1977 he appeared alongside George Cole in Charles Woods’s sitcom Don’t Forget To Write as a successful scriptwriter. In 1986 he was one half of a gay couple in Dirk Bogarde’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband?
In 1963 Francis Matthews married the actress Angela Brown. She died in 2001 and he is survived by their three sons.
Staying at Rowntrees, where would we be without After Eight mints, Matchmakers, Drifters, Lion Bars and Yorkies? I’d probably have more teeth and better health, but Nestle historian Alex Hutchinson described as “incalculable” the impact on chocolate making in Britain of their inventor : Brian Sollitt. As the Daily Telegraph reported on his death in September 2013:
Brian Sollitt, who has died aged 74, invented the After Eight mint, a wafer thin chocolate square in a paper sleeve that changed the way Britain’s aspirational middle classes rounded off its dinner parties.
For more than 50 years Sollitt worked at the Rowntree factory in York, devising recipes and ideas for new confectionery lines. He also worked on the development of other chocolate favourites such as Yorkies, Matchmakers, Drifters and Lion bars.
But the After Eight mint, launched in 1962, was Sollitt’s greatest triumph. It created a new niche in the confectionery market — the after-dinner mint. Early After Eight television commercials showed guests and hosts in black tie. In 1963 one newspaper advert featured a woman in evening dress. “After Eight wafer-thin mints have the same effect on me as camellias and candlelight,” she trilled. “They make me feel expensive, pampered and gay.”
Although After Eights are exported to some 50 countries and still sell in their billions, last year The Grocer magazine reported that sales had slumped by 11 per cent, putting this down to the decline of formal dining and a rise in food prices.
But some say the real rot set in as far ago as the 1970s, when After Eights became widely available in emerging self-service supermarkets. “The little paper envelope was very recherché,” Robert Opie of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising told The Daily Telegraph. “But going into the supermarkets meant they became available to hoi polloi, to be put into their baskets alongside frozen food.”
Sollitt joined Rowntree at the age of 15, hand piping Black Magic chocolates in the company’s cream department. This led to a transfer to the Creme Experimentation division, where he became an ideas man, spending hours at his marble slab with a palette knife trying out new lines he created by hand, “tempering” chocolates, piping, cooling and encasing them in individual paper cups before presenting them to the marketing men.
He would spend months — sometimes years — grappling with intricate technical problems such as ensuring a perfect texture and finish, and an acceptable melting point between the fingers .
By 1962 he was head of the section commissioned to come up with a way of wrapping delicate squares of peppermint fondant in dark chocolate. Called aside by senior management, he was told the project was highly hush-hush; even today, the process Sollitt developed of preventing the liquid fondant from oozing out of the chocolate casing is secret.
After Eights have become the world’s leading mint chocolate brand, accounting for half the market. When the slender squares are made, the centre is hard and dry, but after three days in storage an ingredient in the mint fondant causes the centre to soften.
Over the years Rowntree (later taken over by the giant conglomerate Nestlé) shrank the individually wrapped mint chocolate squares from 60mm to 43mm. When a customer in Sweden also complained that they were thinner than before, the makers blamed a rogue German batch, revealing that the thin mints made in Britain are greater in area but smaller in girth than their German counterparts.
Brian Lawrence Sollitt was born on November 16 1938 in York. Wartime rationing deprived him of most chocolate and sugary sweets throughout his boyhood. He joined Rowntree on leaving school and worked with chocolate all his life. Although he retired in 2007, he returned last year to make a giant three-kilo After Eight to mark the mint’s 50th anniversary. Sollitt described presenting it at the Houses of Parliament as one of the proudest moments of his life.
He loved After Eight posters and packaging, with their baroque silver clock logo, and collected examples from all over the world.
Sollitt also used his skills as a chocolatier to raise money for charity, making giant Easter Eggs, and, on one occasion, a 3ft chocolate Pudsey Bear for Children In Need. Renowned as a jolly character, he decorated his house with 500 Father Christmases each year and opened it in aid of charity.