Fighting spirits: my grandfather, the WWII interpreter

Here’s the story of my grandfather who served as an interpreter for French pilots stationed in Yorkshire during the Second World War

RAF officers meeting members of the French Air Force during a field visit at RAF Elvington (1944 or 1945)

Someone asked me recently why I had decided to make a career out of languages, and it got me thinking. Was it something in the family history? My mum speaks French and Spanish, having worked as an au pair in her late teens. And my grandfather, who was born Lewis but preferred to go by Louis, spoke excellent French. I never met him. He passed away long ago, but I decided to piece together his story using tales passed down through the family, letters, newspaper clippings and the odd war report. What follows is a summary of that story.

Report of enemy attack on RAF Station Elvington on 4th March 1945.

0030. Warning from Base. Prepare for Intruder Broadcast. One enemy aircraft going north.

0054. Landings suspended… All lights extinguished.

0140. Enemy aircraft (JU 887) made a strafing attack from SE to NW from 50’ with machine guns and cannon.

These snippets are from a war report signed by my grandfather, Squadron Leader L Irwin. Seconded to the Free French Air Force in addition to his RAF duties, his role that night was to bring home French and British bombers following raids, most likely over Germany. He was positioned in the control tower, and his high level of spoken French meant that he was a key point of liaison.

This report is dated not long after the controversial bombing of Dresden, a time when the Luftwaffe was eagerly seeking revenge. Strafing at 50ft is deadly. But Allied aircraft weren’t the only target – the German night fighters were trying to destroy the control tower. If they could take that out, then the remaining aircraft would be stranded and likely crash land.

As my mum recounts the story, he sheltered under the desk, all airfield lights out. Allied aircraft were warned to switch off lights and circle at 1,000ft. He snuck out from under the desk to check the sky. Then he scurried back under to shout orders alternately in French and English over the deafening boom of enemy firing. Strafing attacks continued until approximately 0400.

Eventually, while circling round for another attack, the German plane clipped a tree and crashed into a farmhouse – the last German aircraft of the war to fall on UK soil – and landing procedures were cautiously resumed. Two Allied aircraft were lost that night, but the rest landed safely at Elvington or were sent to nearby airfields if they had sufficient fuel.

This is just one of countless war stories that make me wonder what my life as a translator would have been like if I had worked during the war: the sheer weight of responsibility, the need for absolute accuracy and speed in relaying messages.

My grandfather began his military career training as a pilot in California. He was one of the first batch of UK pilots trained in the US before America joined the war. They were shipped to the US as civilians in suits and bowler hats to disguise the real purpose of their journey, yet by all accounts his skills did not lie in piloting aircraft himself.

Back in the UK, my grandfather was sent to RAF Elvington to support the formation and integration of the Free French unit alongside the RAF squadrons based there. Dozens of French pilots had escaped occupied France, some flying missions as early as the Battle of Britain in 1940. Having escaped occupied territories, they were able to fight back against their invaders, even though this sometimes meant dropping bombs on their own country.

My grandfather, Louis Irwin.

Intensive retraining

In September 1943, two groups of French pilots were shipped to Liverpool to begin intensive retraining with RAF Bomber Command. They were later transferred to Elvington. These two units were the only French Air Force heavy bomber squadrons during World War Two. Over 2,000 French airmen were trained at RAF Elvington, York, between June 1944 and October 1945, in an area that became known as ‘Petit France’ due to the huge number of French stationed there. Indeed, many accounts, such as The French Squadrons (Amberley Books), recount stories of romances between French airmen and Yorkshire lasses.

However, back on base, the French were slow to combine powers. They declined to share mess halls – as you can imagine, the French Air Force were reluctant to trade their haute cuisine for British army grub. Meetings were tense, and no one but my grandpa was allowed into French officers’ quarters. As today, the interpreter was not required solely to supply linguistic skills; he was an intermediary for two traditional rivals. As a squadron leader in the RAF, his first loyalty was firmly to the Brits; yet as a liaison officer to the French, his duties blended interpreting with crucial relationship-building work.

Incredible pictures released after the war show the planning cycle at the RAF headquarters under the overall command of Air Chief Marshal Harris (‘Bomber’ Harris) – orders relayed via telephone to the squadron headquarters, where they were given to the pilots heading out on missions. That was the part that Louis would never forget: telling young pilots that he would have their breakfast waiting upon their return, knowing full well that a number of them would not be so lucky. In fact, during the last 18 months of the war, the French Air Force lost half of its airmen in dangerous sorties.

Tense climate

Such a tense climate was exhausting. One weekend, my grandfather was given leave to see his family – not a regular occurrence, I should imagine. In anticipation of his visit, my grandmother had prepared him a traditional home-cooked supper: meat stew with mashed potato. As he sat at the table, my grandmother went to fetch him a glass of water. But by the time she returned, barely a minute later, he had fallen asleep and landed face first in the mashed potato!

I cannot profess to have ever worked under such pressure. I can handle tight deadlines and important documents, but I’ve never been placed in quite such a position as my grandfather. My work takes place almost entirely online, and I rarely hear where or how my translations have been used. Putting together the pieces of this puzzle has brought me a new understanding of our role as translators and interpreters. Are we always aware of how much we are relied upon? How often do we stop to think about the consequences of the slightest error on our part?

By all accounts, my grandfather did well at a tough job. He was well liked by the French and maintained regular correspondence with them during peacetime. At home, we have a copy of a French war magazine signed by each of the French leaders at his base – a reminder that his charm and good nature served him just as well as his linguistic talents.

During Easter 1953, Louis went to Paris on a mission of a very different nature. An old army pal had just got engaged to a Parisienne, and needed some help to smooth the way with her family for their marriage. Afterwards, since he had the day free, my grandfather set off to the Air Force headquarters in Paris. On arrival, he asked the guard to contact Lieutenant-Colonel Faucilhon of Flying Control. The guard looked sceptical but agreed to phone through. Five minutes later, a chauffeur-driven car screeched to a halt at the gates, and the very senior lieutenant-colonel leapt from the car crying ‘Mon cher Louis’ and ordered the gates to be opened immediately.

My grandfather was led to the car, accompanied by a very smart salute from the guard, and a day no doubt full of reminiscences and an extremely good French lunch.

I would love to hear from you if you are inspired by this story to seek out your own family history in linguistics. And to show your appreciation for wartime linguists, please consider donating or volunteering your time to Translators without Borders (www. translatorswithoutborders.org).

The view from the control tower at RAF Elvington, printed in the Yorkshire Post after the war. To read more about Petit France, please see the videos and articles on www.yorkshireairmuseum.org.