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Roy Marchand - a mother's pain on the loss of her only son

"He was the loveliest and most precious gift that God could bestow on any mortal here on earth, and I, his mother, shall mourn him all the rest of my days."

(Extract from the private diaries of Mrs Constance Marchand in 'The Battle of Britain - Then and Now', ed. Wilfred Ramsey, pp280-281) - see further details at the bottom of the profile.

P/O Roy Achille Marchand was born in Bromley, Kent on 24th August 1918, the son of Rene Achille Marchand and Constance Jane Marchand (nee Dean).

His father was from a Swiss watchmaking family who came to Britain in 1910 and founded a watch company that made artillery shell fuses in WW1.

After leaving Westminster School in 1936, Roy Marchand began to study Medicine at King’s College, London University. His desire for a flying career in the Royal Air Force was ignited after meeting a serving RAF Squadron Leader whilst holidaying in the South of France in 1938.

Marchand joined the RAF on a short service commission in March 1939 and he began his training at 30 Elementary & Reserve Flying Training School at Burnaston near Derby. Further training followed at 15 FTS Lossiemouth and he was awarded his wings in August 1939. A posting to 11 Group Pool on 20th November for further training resulted in attachment to the 2 Ferry Pilot Pool as a reserve pilot for France.

Roy Marchand was soon serving with 73 Squadron operating Hurricanes at Rouvres.

Marchand was credited with Messerschmitts destroyed on 26th March and 21st April, 1940.

On 13th May four Hurricanes from the squadron engaged a Do17 of 3(F)/122 near Rheims. All were hit by return fire, Marchand's L1673 being hit in the oil and glycol tanks. He force-landed near Bethenville with a shoulder wound and perspex splinters in his left eye. He was evacuated to the UK for treatment. During his convalescence he married Jean Angela Cullen in Bromley, Kent. However he and his new wife were badly hurt in a car accident and were in hospital for three weeks.

Marchand was back with 73 on 6th July, now at Church Fenton in North Yorkshire where it was recuperating and re-equipping. They were sent south on 5th September, firstly to Debden in 12 Group but then to its satellite, Castle Camps. They were in action the same day. The following day, the 6th September, Marchand claimed a Me109 probably destroyed and this was recorded in the squadron ORB:

'P/O Marchand destroyed a 109, 10 miles NE of MAIDSTONE, thus opening the Squadron’s score in that category. He landed at PENSHURST having run short of petrol and rather lost his way. He got back in the evening his smiles even as large as if his wife had walked suddenly into Freddie 1 (the airfield's code name). It was a tonic to see him but when he came to make out his individual combat report, the IO noticed that he had only claimed a ‘probable’. Even more pleased was he when told it obviously came into the ‘destroyed’ class and he was the first to get a definite kill for 73 Squadron.'

On the 11th Marchand claimed a probable Me110. On the critical day of the Battle, 15th September, 73 Squadron were on standby from dawn till until just after 1100 hours when ten Hurricanes, including Marchand, were ordered off to patrol Chelmsford at 15000 feet. Not being at full strength, Blue and Green Sections of ‘B’ Flight comprised the main formation leaving the four remaining Hurricanes to act as lookouts. They soon engaged a large force of Me109s above Maidstone. A lack of fuel and ammunition caused the Hurricanes to break off one by one and return to Castle Camps where all but Marchand were accounted for. A report was received saying that he had force-landed at Biggin Hill. It was only that evening, after an afternoon combat, that a signal was received resulting in the ORB entry:

"... we were astounded to be told that he had crashed at TYNHAM [sic] near SITTINGBOURNE and killed.”

The sadness felt by everyone was intensified by the fact that his pregnant wife had been waiting at the squadron dispersal for her husband. The unpleasant task of breaking the news to her fell to F/O Michael Beytagh [as acting Commanding Officer] along with P/O Hoole, the Intelligence Officer. The squadron diary later recorded:

P/O Marchand was an excellent pilot and a charming and unassuming boy who was never ruffled by anybody or anything. We will sorely miss him.

The record for the day was closed with the words:

The Squadron feels that to some extent the death of gallant Marchand to-day has been avenged by the day’s good work.

P/O Marchand was buried at Bromley Hill Cemetery where for many years his grave was marked by a magnificent polished granite headstone. This was later moved to an air museum and replaced by a CWGC headstone (below).

When the museum closed down the stone was obtained by the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum who felt that a more suitable location was the crash site. With the cooperation of Mr & Mrs Rex Boucher, the owners of Nouds Farm, Lynsted and the agreement of Marchand's daughter Mrs. Carol Ventura, the stone was installed on 15th September, 1985.

At this spot each year the local branch of the Royal Air Force Association holds its Battle of Britain service.

Photos and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website. Additional research courtesy of Dean Sumner 2008.

Roy Marchand's mother, Constance, had extracts of her diaries printed privately and these include a rare and highly personal insight into the loss experienced by the families of pilots killed in action:-

"My dear son was born on the 24th August 1918 - a child of the Great War. He was a pupil at the Abbey Preparatory School, Beckenham, and afterwards at Westminster School. During a holiday in the South of France, he met a Squadron Leader of the Royal Air Force. This encounter changed his whole outlook: he became ambitious to become a fighter pilot.

March 1939

Today I said 'Goodbye'... I got up early, determined to control myself and not to give way to emotion as I knew it would grieve him so. The suitcases were partly prepared yesterday and he added the last few necessities. We said 'Goodbye'... He picked up the cases and passed out of the door...'God bless you, my darling', I said, 'ring me up soon'.... I watched him pass out of thegate and with a last backward glance at me... and then went into the house and closed the door. I was mute in my world had come to an end...'If this is life,' I thought', 'it is cruel''....

April 1939

I have been receiving his letters and have been able to get in touch with him by telephone. This has been a great comfort and relief. He has been able to come home for a few weekends. These visits have been the highlights... I have then come to life and have prepared for him days in advance. My joy and gladness in seeing eager acute anxiety to find out all about his new life. Was he happy? Did it come up to his expectations... and so on...

May 1939

This week he brought home a piece of an aeroplane. He said it was one that had crashed and everyone had taken a piece as a souvenir. I have now discovered through a friend that it is a piece of his own aeroplane that crashed at Derby and that he has been fortunate to have escaped with his life. There were articles in the leading papers - 'Young pilot has lucky escape.' I have been terribly upset and realise more and more the risk he is taking very day...

August 1939

I have anxiously been awaiting for some weeks his expected leave. Today he came... How deliriously happy I am! He has now obtained his Wings and looks wonderful. Eyes follow him everywhere... He is like a young god. These few days passed rapidly. There was the going back - and then a few days later a brief early morning visit on his way to France. ... It is not necessary to dwell upon the surprise, the pain and the anguish this caused us. He was so fine, so manly, so courageous at the thought of adventure, for which he had sacrificed the chance of an instructor's job.

That day passed like a dream...or a nightmare. Waiting for his letters...wondering how he was...Expectancy...fear...sorrow...hope... were so closely inter-mingled that the tears came and went. One was afraid to dwell upon things too much... One was almost afraid to hope too much... One tried to keep long as one could not think.

The weeks went by. They were made bearable by the receipt of beautiful letters; so beautiful that it was almost at times painful to read them. Then followed news of a sudden engagement with a promise to wait two years. Within a few short weeks came a decision to make an early marriage. A brief explanation: "One realises a hell of a lot over here...and one feels one has to snatch one's happiness while one can." Many family discussions after that - much talking and dissention, resulting in us giving our consent reluctantly. Leave promised and leave cancelled at least half a dozen times until, at last, he really came, unexpectedly, late one evening. The joy at seeing seemed nothing short of a miracle. Much to do...many goings and comings, and then the Wedding Day. A most perfect day... sunshine and happiness.

After a brief honeymoon, the return to France. The battle. The telegram from the Air Ministry. The shock. The return after three days wounded to this country, and eventually his arrival home., nervous and unwell. Three weeks' sick leave. A car journey to Cornwall with his wife. An accident which left him and his wife with injuries....a miraculous escape....extended leave. Some said: "It is a Providence, because through that he missed being in the retreat to Dunkirk.

He was, luckily, home a few weeks recuperating before re-joining his Squadron, the famous 73rd. He was stationed for a time in Yorkshire, and then, in due course, moved south with his Squadron in defence of the Thames Estuary. He had altogether brought down many enemy planes, both here and in France, and was shot down in mortal combat in the Battle of London, on September 15th, after sending to earth a further two planes. His Commander said he must have been mortally wounded at the outset as he did not attempt to bale out in his parachute.

The shock and the pain and the grief which followed I cannot dwell upon.... I only know that of all the griefs we mortals have to bear, the loss of an only son is the worst. I feel that nothing more can hurt me again to the same extent. The arrangements for the funeral... his last journey back to us and his old home town. And then, the day of the funeral. Oh, God! Never did I think there ever existed such mortal agony as I bore that day. Although the doctor forbade my going, I felt I had to pay my last tribute to the most wonderful son and gallant Officer in all the world. I was helped into the car...I blindly followed the Service through my tears and staggered out of the car at the cemetery to pay my last farewell to one who had grown to be my whole own creation. Only mothers with only sons can realise what an ordeal this was to me. He was given every honour to the last. A policeman cleared the way for the funeral cortege and there was not a man or youth who did not doff his hat as the hearse went on its journey carrying the coffin draped with the flag of the Royal Air Force. He had made the supreme sacrifice. What more can man do?

It is growing dark as I write these last few lines... There seems to be a hush upon everything, as if the house and every mortal thing is conscious of his passing...The sadness and regrets... the things no longer wanted. I seem to hear again his manly stride, his eager rushing feet, the door bursting open, his joyful , vital presence rushing in...but it is only in my memory, where it will ever remain amongst all the other precious memories until I go to join him."

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