The untold story of the Wakefield war hero who played a vital part in Britain's war effort

As the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Nicky Harley shares the untold story of Wakefield war hero Stephen Beaumont.

Thursday, 7th May 2020, 10:33 am
Updated Thursday, 7th May 2020, 10:34 am

Britain was entering its darkest hour as the nation teetered on the brink of facing the full force of Hitler’s blitzkrieg alone.

With the hopes of the nation resting on Winston Churchill’s shoulders, one Wakefield war hero was on hand to play a part in his bid to salvage the war effort.

As the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the untold tale of Stephen Gerald Beaumont’s role can be shared, writes Nicky Harley.

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HEROES: J Dawson, AR Edge, Stephen Beaumont and D Ayre are pictured in 1939. A distinguished pilot, Beaumont was a vital part of the war effort.

It was June 1940 and France was on the verge of surrender when the city solicitor was approached to help fly the prime minister into France to hold secret talks.

A distinguished pilot, Beaumont had grown-up at the family home of Hatfeild Hall in Stanley, now Normanton Golf Club, and followed in his father’s footsteps to join the family law firm Greaves, Atter & Beaumont.

Having taken lessons at West Riding Aero Club, in Yeadon, in his youth, he was called up to join the RAF at the outbreak of war along with 11 other pilots from the squadron.

In 1936, he had been the first privately-trained pilot to join 609 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force when it formed at Yeadon that year and was one of the first three pilots to gain his wings with them a year later.

A distinguished pilot, Beaumont had grown-up at the family home of Hatfeild Hall in Stanley, now Normanton Golf Club, and followed in his fathers footsteps to join the family law firm Greaves, Atter & Beaumont.

On June 11, 1940, Beaumont and eight other pilots were dispatched to Warmwell in Dorset to rendezvous with an Imperial Airways Flamingo carrying Winston Churchill to escort him to Briare, near Orleans in France. The secret mission was of high importance, as Churchill made a last ditch flit across the Channel to convince France to stay in the war.

He had been prime minister for just four weeks when he was faced with the fall of France.

A few months earlier the new French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud had made a pact with Britain not to enter into a separate armistice with Germany.

Just five days into his tenure, Churchill had received a desperate phone call from Reynaud on May 15 telling him “France was beaten…they had lost the battle” as he pleaded for more troops and air support.

It was the start of crisis talks.

Just a few weeks after the emotive evacuation of Dunkirk, Beaumont repeatedly escorted Churchill across the Channel for the talks.

The first day the entourage flew to Briare, near Orleans in France and two days later he again escorted him to Tours.

When Beaumont took the mission, he probably had an idea of its historic significance but it was not until his landing in France that his own memoirs reveal how desperate the situation was.

“The airfield at Tours must have been a good example of the disintegration into which France had sunk,” he recalled.

“Here we were with the prime minister and, initially, there was no one there to meet him.

“Tours airfield with its uncut grass and shabby buildings, resembling a bankrupt flying club, was totally unlike our spruce RAF stations. If this was an aerodrome of the French Air Force, then its morale must have been rock bottom.”

Sadly, he was right.

The historic journey to France’s makeshift military headquarters at a chateau in Briare would be the penultimate meeting of the Anglo-French Supreme War Council.

Churchill’s visit was a last ditch attempt to keep France in the war as the French hoped to convince him to send the might of the RAF to help their plight.

But leaving Britain unprotected was not an option for him, he expressed his sympathy and left with a heavy heart.

Two days later Beaumont escorted the prime minister again on the final ever meeting of the Supreme Council this time in Tours. The French Prime Minister, Reynaud, broke the news that France was physically incapable of carrying on without US intervention.

As the French asked to be released from their obligation not to conclude a separate peace, Churchill responded: “We must fight, we will fight, and that is why we must ask our friends to fight on..we ask you to fight on for as long as possible.”

It was a sombre return to Britain for Churchill and at 6am the next day the surrender of Paris was signed and German troops flooded into the historic capital.

Churchill pledged to his allies that if France surrendered, Britain would continue to fight.

“I personally believe that the spectacle of the fierce struggle of the carnage on our island will draw the US into the war.”

A month later, Beaumont would play a pivotal role in the Battle of Britain as the Luftwaffe began the bombardment of the coastal and shipping channels.

His son Nigel Beaumont told the Express: “Our excellent father was in the air with his single squadron during the horribly out-classed early part of the Battle of Britain. He and his fellow pilots cursed the skies of the summer of 1940 that gave them no rest, tiredness was a serious problem.”

Beaumont continued to serve with 609 until he was posted to 7 OTU Hawarden a few months later as an instructor.

The posting was partly because his 26-year-old squadron commander, George Darley, felt that Beaumont, being 30, would not survive.

Years afterwards, Darley greeted him saying ‘Hello Beau, still alive? That’s thanks to me’.

When Beaumont left 609, seven of the 12 pilots with whom he had gone to war with were dead and two were invalids. Of an additional 12 who had joined later from the same squadron, only three were alive.

The unit was redesignated 57 OTU on 1st November 1940. Beaumont was posted to the newly-formed 59 OTU Turnhouse on 22nd December 1940. In 1942 he served as a wing commander at Andreas on the Isle of Man meeting bombers flying in from the US.

His final major posting was in Normandy, living and working in the back of a truck preparing for the D-Day invasion with 84 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force, in the role of Deputy Air Officer Administration.

He finished the war as a Group Captain and on January 1, 1945, was awarded an OBE.

On his return to Wakefield, he became Clerk to the Governors of Wakefield charities, Clerk to the Commissioners of Tax, Secretary of the Wakefield Chamber of Commerce, Deputy Coroner for Wakefield and Chairman of the Wakefield Hospital Management roup.

During the next 50 years he said that the appointment which brought him most satisfaction was the clerkship of the Wakefield Grammar School Foundation consolidated charities.

In 1967 Beaumont was appointed Deputy Lieutenant for the West Riding of Yorkshire and in 1979 became High Sheriff of West Yorkshire.

Beaumont died in September 1997.

His mother, Gwendoline Beaumont, made history when she became the first female to stand as an MP in the area in 1935.

His aunt, Florence Beaumont, was honoured earlier this year when Wakefield College named the former West Riding Registry of Deeds, the Beaumont Building, after her.

She had founded the city’s branch of the suffrage movement in 1910 and had led thousands of women on a march to London to campaign for equal franchise.