Henry Lafont Ceremony At Les Invalides In Paris

Jan Leeming

Shoreham 2007

Shoreham Airshow 2007
Me looking brave before taking to the air (and the wing) of the plane. Wow, it was cold !! But the whole experience was totally exhilarating.

 

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Computers and the internet are amazing things. One of my concerns with putting together this site was that it could remain current, yet with all my travelling I've often much to say, but little time to say it. Years ago when reading the news it would take me days on end to reply to the kind letters people sent. Now, with the magic of the modern age, I can keep you up to date with what I'm doing and other events in my life.

HENRY LAFONT - Ceremony at Les Invalides in Paris

Date: 7th December 2011

I briefly mentioned that I am now in contact with the Director of the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington which honours the French bomber pilots. He has been running the Museum for almost two decades and has brought it back from near closure to be one of the foremost attractions in the country. (I only knew about it because my dear friend, Sue, lives in Leeds and in September she mentioned that there had been a great deal on the local news about the dedication of a new memorial to the French Bomber Pilots which was unveiled in York Minster amid great panoply and also a Fly Past in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine – the emblem which René Mouchotte adopted when he formed the fighter squadron ‘Alsaçe’)

On the Tuesday of my sojourn, he sent me an email asking if I were still in Paris. Henry Lafont had died the previous Friday and there was to be a Requiem Mass and a Military Ceremony at Les Invalides. He had been asked to deputize for the French Air Attaché in London – and would I like to join him.

I knew that M. Lafont was still alive but had been told that he was too ill to interview so had given up on that side to the story. He was one of the pilots who escaped from Oran with René and Charles Guerin. Indeed, it was due to René’s excellent piloting skills and his awareness of the need to balance the plane that he asked ‘petit Lafont’ to stand behind the two of them to help on the landing in Gibraltar. The plane had been partially decommissioned and was not performing as it should have been.

René referred to Henry Lafont as ‘petit’ but I’m not sure whether this was because he was a few years younger than René and Charles or whether it was a reference to his stature.

Lafont is one of the thirteen Free French names inscribed on the Memorial Wall at Capel-le-Ferne. He survived the war and rose to be a Colonel in the French Air Force and now he is gone – the last of the Free French fighter pilots.

I can’t tell you how honoured I felt to be attending the ceremony at Les Invalides.

At 2.30 pm, a very moving goodbye ceremony - a catholic mass with communion was celebrated by the Priest of the Saint-Louis-des-Invalides cathedral of Armies (Cathédrale des Armées).
There was an interesting speech reminding the congregation who Henry Lafont was, what he did and what he became after leaving the French Airforce (Head of the Le Bourget airshow organisation). His friendship with René Mouchotte was mentioned about 5 times in the speeches.
The priest mentioned  that Henry Lafont had said  "the British royal family had been the only ones to wear a uniform during the war" (the Queen was an ATS).

Some members of the French Air Force were also in attendance . The Chief of Air Staff was represented by a three-star general. The "Gouverneur militaire de Paris", a four-star general (French Army, Legion) was in attendance because he lives and work at the Invalides.

My friend Col. Antoine was carrying the colours of the Association of the Fighter Pilots, among other Associations' Colour-carriers.

Ian Reed and Hubert de Lisle and myself were representing the UK.

The coffin draped in the French colours, with a cushion pinned with Henry's decorations was brought and carried away by ten FAF militaries.
After the mass, outside in the magnificent secular court-yard, the French Air Force band played the Funeral March (La Marche Funèbre, composed by Chopin) After that, La Marseillaise was played outside the church, in the magnificent court-yard where all the military parades take place.

And then we followed the coffin through the Gates and outside to the waiting hearse.

I met some members of the Lafont family but it was not the time nor the place to talk further about Henry Lafont and René although I know that René’s sister kept up a lifetime friendship with Henry and they met each other regularly until fairly recently when neither of them was in a fit state of health to go visiting.

I would have liked to visit the Museé des Armeés to look at René’s medals and the facsimile of his diaries but we had a train to catch so my visit to the Museum and Les Invalides will have to wait until my next visit to Paris.

Oh, and I nearly forgot that we met the grandson of Maréchal Foch.  He's a great Anglophile and was so loquacious it was hard to have to leave him.  What a day!

(And I must mention the kindness of the Gendarme - Bruno -  in the little office at the Gate who allowed me to leave my luggage there - can't see our lot doing the same thing)

The French traffic was absolutely appalling and we only just caught the Eurostar with a couple of minutes to spare.

Ian and I spent the whole journey discussing the way forward for the documentary on René and I was having a little self-hug at the thought that I now have film for posterity of his lovely sister – as do the family for I will ensure they receive a copy of the full interview and the edited version when it is made.

I’ve loads of Blogs on which to catch up but my office is like a waste paper tip and I really must get down to the dreaded filing and sorting as well as piles of ironing which have been ignored for 3 weeks.

I feel very fortunate to have met René’s sister and some of her family – and to think that it  came about  because I took the chance of leaving  a ‘message in a bottle’ in René’s tomb at Père Lachaise.

Owen and Mireille are coming over from Paris to spend Christmas with me so instead of a quiet time with a smoked salmon sandwich and a bottle of bubbly, I’m now shaking the dust off the Christmas decorations and running around doing the shopping I wasn’t going to bother with. But I’m delighted. Owen has been in my life for over 50 years and Mireille for about 30 and they are very dear to me.

So till the next time – not sure when I will catch up as other matters have to take precedence at the moment. Jan
 

HENRY LAFONT - Ceremony at Les Invalides in Paris

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