Published: 00:01, 21 April 2014 |
RAF bomber pilot Len Barnes owed his life to the family who hid him from the Germans after his Lancaster was shot down over occupied France.
Now 70 years later, his daughter has told of the unique bond of friendship that still exists between the two families.
As the last to leave the stricken aircraft of 630 Squadron where two of his crew already lay dead, Len's only chance was to parachute to safety.
What followed was an extraordinary story of heroism as the 24-year-old airman found refuge from the Germans through the bravery of French farmers and freedom fighters.
They hid him for six weeks and helped him escape down through the Pyrenees and eventually back to Britain where, remarkably, he took to the skies again.
After the war, Len - who became a printer - moved to Chestfield with his wife Merville, known as Merv.
But 23 years later, his saviours - the Coigne family - found a jar he had buried containing some of his belongings, including his RAF pin brooch and his home address.
With the help of a French televison company, they tracked him down and it led to an emotional reunion in 1963 in Fere-en-Tardenois near Reims, where he had hidden in a barn.
Len died 25 years ago, but the bond between the families is as strong as ever.
Now Len's three daughters - Amanda Burrows from Herne Bay, Angela Barnes from Canterbury and Glynis Spencer from Whitstable - have led a 15-strong family visit to Fere-en-Tardenois.
There they were given a huge civic reception and a welcome from the mayor.
It is not the first time they have returned to the scene of Len's remarkable survival, but it was made all the more poignant by being the 70th anniversary.
It is also the place where Len's two fellow airmen are buried.
So close have the families become that Amanda, 50, even named her daughter Madeleine after Madame Coigne, the farmer's wife.
While she and her husband Leon are now dead, their family still treasure their friendship with Len's descendents.
Amanda, of Glen Avenue, Beltinge, said: "The bond that exists between us is unbreakable. I know my dad would be so proud and pleased that the friendship he found in 1944 continues between us today. He was eternally grateful to those who hid and cared for him.
"The Coignes took immense risk in hiding my dad and could have paid for it with their lives. Without them we would not be here today.
"The welcome we received was amazing and we were treated like royalty. It was very emotional on both sides and they really feel like our French family.
"After the war, my dad founded the RAF Escaping Society, for which he was awarded an MBE.
"I now do talks to schools and show parts of his uniform, flying helmet and other artifacts to keep this part of history alive."
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