"On of the few" -- a Saskatchewan link to the Battle of Britain

CAHS Regina member Will Chabun writes: Within one week in mid-August, 1990, I received two requests (one from Britain, one from Manitoba) for information on, or a photo of, a young man who lived here for more than 60 years ago. What gives?

The young man was Pilot Officer Camille Bonseigneur, who came from rural southwest Saskatchewan to Regina in the late 1930s and worked briefly for a car dealership, living briefly in at 1827 Osler St.

Then (as was quite common in those days), he enlisted in Britain's Royal Air Force, when it was considerably ahead of our own air force in preparing for the European war that everybody knew was coming.

When the war broke out, young Camille was training as a pilot.

By the summer of 1940 -- precisely 60 years ago this month -- he was flying Hurricane fighters with the RAF's 257 Squadron, one of "the few" who saved Britain from the rampaging, previously undefeated Luftwaffe.

Had Britain fallen, then what? America was not in the war. Hitler would have had a free hand against Russia and might have won the Second World War. The people seeking information on him, and others who fought in this epic battle, are historians aware of its enormous significance.

Incidentally, on Sept. 3, 1940, young Camille Bonseigneur -- thousands of miles away from home -- was shot down and killed.

He was 22.

Touched and intrigued, I put PO Bonseigneur's name into an Internet search engine and looked for references. Immediately, I found this one: http://homepages.tesco.net/~colin.wingrave/p3518.htm

This is the site of the Thameside Aviation Museum at East Tilbury in Essex, which bills itself as the home of archeology in Essex. Its website (it has another at http://www.aviationmuseum.co.uk) picks up this story:

"On the morning of 3rd September 1940 at 10.00hrs, a 257 squadron

Hurricane, P3518 took off from Martlesham Heath, Suffolk with Pilot Officer. Camille Robespierre Bon Seigneur at the controls "Taken from the operations record book of 257 Squadron for the day 3/9/1940:

"The whole squadron took off from Martlesham under the command of Sdr Harkness and was involved in a combat with enemy raiders in the Chelmsford area. In the combat P/O Bonseigneur was shot down and killed after baling out at Ingatestone.

P/O Hunt was also shot down, he succeeded in baling out when his cockpit was on fire. He was taken to Billericay Hospital suffering from severe burns.

P/O Grundy landed at Martlesham after his port tail had been shot off by an explosive cannon.

Sgt. Nutter's main starboard plane & petrol tank were shot by explosive cannon of which he received small splinters in his legs.

Enemy casualties:

One Me109 jaguar? probable; Sgt. Fraser

One Me 109 Damaged; PO Grundy

Our casualties

PO BONSEIGNEUR; killed

PO HUNT; seriously burned

The museum website adds: "On 11th August 1974, the then-Essex Historical Aircraft Society carried out their first major excavation the remains of which are displayed at the museum. The team on the dig were Fred Dunn, Dave Campbell, Roger Pickett, Robin Hill, Ron Wingrave, Chick Lowin and Colin Wingrave .

The dig started at about 8.30 am and at a depth of three feet ( 1 metre ) the smashed remains of the Rolls Royce Merlin came to the light of day for the first time in thirty four years. Ravaged by corrosion most of the outer casing had rotted away. Other finds include the gun firing button from the spade grip, engine mounts, Rotol propeller boss and the maker's plate, confirming this as the aircraft flown by Pilot Officer; Camille Robespierre Bonseigneur.

The excavation of this Battle of Britain casualty was completed by 16.30 hrs on the same day.

The picture above taken looking west at the dig in 1974; The site is now right beside the busy A12 Chelmsford by-pass, between Margaretting and Galleywood the crash site only just being missed when the road was built in the 1980s, 50 metres more to the west and it would have covered a Battle Of Britain crash site for ever. I very much doubt that people driving past know what history is a matter of yard's away!

An article in the Sept. 6, 1940 Regina Leader-Post said Bonseigneur (whose name also appears as "Bon Seigneur" in some sources) was born at Gull Lake to Dr. C.R. Bonseigneur and his wife.

Tragically, Dr. Bonseigneur, who had served in the Canadian army's dental corps during the First World War, died in 1918, shortly after the birth of his son.

Camille's early education was at Forget and later at Prince Albert and Regina, where he attended Holy Rosary elementary school, Central Collegiate and Balfour Technical School. "Following this, he went east and for two years was a member of the Canadian Corps of Signals at Kingston. In July, 1939, he went to England and enlisted in the Royal Air Force, where he became a pilot officer and went into active fighting service this year."

Mary Schabel of Ituna, Saskatchewan, who read a brief article I wrote about PO Bonseigneur and telephone me to indicate that she’d boarded after his death with his mother and step-father. She confirmed that "she talked about how, in his youth, how interested he was in the air force and ... [because] nothing was going on in Canada yet, that was why he joined the RAF."

She also gave me the phone number for Lorna Obst of Yellow Grass, Sask., who was very helpful. Lorna’s mother had married the uncle of Mrs. Bonseigneur.

Camille’s father died of natural causes and was buried at Maple Creek, Sask.

After his death, Mrs. Bonseigneur eventually married Matthew Craigen; Camille was her only child.

Lorna, who was younger than Camille, remembers reading the newspaper "funnies" to her as a girl. In what she figures was 1937, he joined the Canadian Army’s Corps of Signals and was stationed at Kingston, Ont. As the international situation worsened, "he just wanted to go and help out before the Canadians over here were ready to go."

Mr. Craigen "bought him out of the army and he worked his way over to Britain on a cattle boat."

When Camille was killed in action on Sept. 3, 1940, only his parents were notified. Lorna heard about this from a radio program. "Of course, I was very upset; Uncle Matt sent me a little air force man on a statue."

Matt Craigen died in 195; his wife (whose maiden name was LaBarge; some relatives are believed to be in Saskatoon, Sask.) on March 14, 1986, Lorna said.

As for the marking on Bonseigneur’s Hurricane, my best guess is dark green/dark earth camouflage with Sky type "S" code letters and A-type roundels. The serial number, P3518, appeared on the aft fuselage.

Thameside Aviation Museum volunteer Colin Wingrave agreed and added, "it was said that he had some kind of Indian motif or head-dress painted on the side of his aircraft. Would this fit in with the area he came from?"

We are still trying to confirm information on the squadron code letters that would have been carried on this aircraft.

NOTES:

Royal Air Force '257 Squadron' fact file: www.swanrail.demon.co.uk/news6.htm

Motto - Death or Glory.

August, 1918: Formed at Dundee, Scotland, as an anti-submarine reconnaissance squadron

equipped with seaplanes.

June, 1919: Disbanded at Dundee.

May, 1940: Reformed as a fighter squadron at Hendon and equipped with Spitfire aircraft.

July, 1940: Squadron operational and equipped with Hawker Hurricane fighters.

July, August &ampSeptember, 1940: Based at Hendon, Northolt and then Debden

during the Battle of Britain. The Squadron's most well known commanding officer at this time was

Bob Stanford-Tuck.

January, 1943, to January, 1944: Based at Warmwell, Dorset, with Typhoon 18 fighters.

July, 1944: Based at Hurn (now Bournemouth International Airport).

July, 1944, to March, 1945: Based in continental Europe - France and Low Countries.

March, 1945: 257 Squadron disbanded.

September, 1946: Reformed at Church Fenton with Gloster Meteor jets.

September, 1947 to October, 1950: Based at Horsham Saint Faith.

October, 1950: Based at Wattisham.

November, 1954: 257 Squadron equipped with Hawker Hunter jets.

March, 1957: 257 Squadron disbanded at Wattisham.

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