French villagers gather to salute gallant 1944 Letchworth pilot bomber crew near the spot where they were killed in action

Around 250 people paid their respect at the ceremony in Achiet-le-Petit, France.

Around 250 people paid their respect at the ceremony in Achiet-le-Petit, France. - Credit: Archant

The sacrifice of a bomber pilot from Letchworth whose plane was shot down during the Second World War has been honoured at the tiny French village where he lost his life.

Around 250 people paid their respect at the ceremony in Achiet-le-Petit, France.

Around 250 people paid their respect at the ceremony in Achiet-le-Petit, France. - Credit: Archant

Richard Picton was just 24 when his Lancaster bomber came down under German fire and crashed in Achiet-le-Petit, killing all seven crews members on board.

The former St Christopher School student – who before the war was a reporter on Comet forerunner the Hertfordshire Express – had been flying home from a raid on one of the biggest rail depots in France when his plane was hit.

He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, with Richard described in the accompanying citation as a pilot captain who had completed “many successful operations against the enemy, in the course of which he has invariably displayed high skill, fortitude and devotion to duty.”

The events of April 11, 1944, have never been forgotten by those living near the crash site and Michel Lespagnol made it his mission to remember those who died after his mother spoke to him about witnessing the tragedy.

Richard Picton at a school boxing tournament in 1936 when he was 16.

Richard Picton at a school boxing tournament in 1936 when he was 16. - Credit: Archant

The Frenchmen attempted to trace the relatives of all seven men who were killed that day, and ran an appeal in the Comet earlier this year in a bid to find Richard’s relatives ahead of a special ceremony at Achiet-le-Petit.

Three families of crew members made the trip to France – some coming from as far afield as Canada and Australia – but Michel was only able to track down Richard’s nephew of the same name 10 days prior to the event.

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Living in Canada, Richard’s nephew was unable to attend, but more than 250 people gathered for a ceremony at the village cemetery on June 6 – the anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings and the start of the liberation of France from Nazis occupation.

Following the ceremony – which was organised with the help of Achiet le Petit and Ribecourt La Tour Band, the Somme Association 39-45, the local town council and many other organisations which were all represented on the day – there was a reception where a film made by Michel was played, and a parade.

Later the families were taken on a flight which passed over the Somme and Pas de Calais battlefield and memorial sites.

“We had a wonderful day,” said Michel. “There was a pleasant blue sky and nice temperature for this special day and it was wonderful to have the three families of the crew members present.

“The day ended with a visit of the Somme Association 39-45’s private museum and then it was time for all to say goodbye – with the promise to keep in contact and the souvenir of an unforgettable day.”