John Sauvage – Eulogy

John’s funeral took place on 29 April 2019, and we have asked permission from the family to publish this very touching, and sometimes very funny, eulogy of John, written by his son Paul, which tells a great deal about this extraordinary man who flew for the Pathfinders in 1943.

John Sauvage, 100 years old! Husband, father, war hero, industry leader, visionary!  He enjoyed a stellar career in the RAF. Flew an unbelievable 63 bombing missions over enemy territory, and as a result of his exploits was quickly promoted to Squadron Leader and later V.I.P. pilot with Transport Command.  He flew the ‘fake’ Montgomery to Gibralter, danced with Vera Lynn, met Bob Hope, and was one of the few people to have witnessed Mountbatten shake hands with MacArthur after the liberation of the Philippines.

But, who was the man behind this legend? To us he was quite simply ‘Dad,’ and a man of humble beginnings. He was one of 10 children who happened to be born in the tropical paradise of The Seychelles, by today’s standards, a salubrious address by any measure.

He was an accomplished scholar who excelled at school, but being the fourth eldest in a large family his parents could not afford to further his education beyond matriculation. Never being one to hold himself back he decided in 1939, to gain sponsorship to Great Britain to further his education and seek opportunities far from home.

This is where purpose and history collide, as on Dad’s arrival, one of the most tumultuous events was about to unfold – the outbreak of World War Two. Although Dad aspired to be a doctor, he soon realised that there was some urgency about training pilots for Fighter and Bomber Command, and like most young men was eager to join up.

We have referenced a few anecdotes about Dad’s time in the RAF, but his career is resplendent in all its detail in the RAF Pathfinders Archive, 44 Squadron and 97 Squadron archives. Not only was Dad a part of history, he made history and I would encourage anyone to have a look at these records, they are  truly remarkable.

His story begins using his own words….

My training in the RAF started in October 1939, and by early 1940 I had progressed from Tiger Moths, to Ansons and then to Airspeed Oxfords, the latter a twin-engine aircraft. After about 100 hours flying I was then transferred to an operational unit of a Handley Page Hampden bomber squadron (44 Rhodesia Squadron). The Hampden was a much faster and modern light bomber with a single seat cockpit in which dual pilot training in the conventional way (side by side) was not possible. Hence after a demonstration flight, you stood behind the instructor and watched him closely perform two or three take-offs and landings. One felt very nervous on the first solo flight but tremendously excited. Some inevitably got into difficulty but were told to take more time to fly around before attempting to land. Such were the rudimentary and haphazard techniques of flight training in a country desperately trying to gear itself up for the fight.” 

Dad’s war service was colourful and chequered. Having flown Hampdens for two years and on one occasion surviving an attack from an enemy aircraft, resulting in disintegration of the plane on landing, Dad was transferred to 97 (Straits Settlement) Squadron.

Here he trained on flying the legendary Lancaster Bomber. Soon thereafter his squadron joined the Pathfinders, and it was whilst undertaking operations with the Pathfinders that he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in June 1943, the citation reading: “This Officer has taken part in a large number of operations during which many important and well defended targets have been attacked successfully. In June 1943 he participated in an operation against Friedrichshafen. Whilst over the target his aircraft was extensively damaged by fire from ground defences, but he flew on to North Africa and made a safe landing.” A further quote in the London Gazette states “Yet again in October 1943, as Squadron Leader he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order as he had participated in numerous sorties, including three attacks on Berlin. He is a highly skilled and a determined pilot, whose gallant efforts have contributed materially to the successes obtained. Squadron Leader Sauvage is a great leader, whose example has proved a source of inspiration.” He was later awarded a bar to his D.S.O. for other acts of selfless bravery.

Early in 1944 he was transferred to Transport Command to fly in S.E. Asia. For a period of time he became V.I.P. pilot to Air Vice Marshall Sir Keith Parks (of Battle of Britain fame), Field Marshall General Blamey (the Australian General who commanded Allied Land Forces in the Pacific Theatre), and Lord Louis Mountbatten (Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command).

After the war he went to work for Douglas Bader in Shell Aviation flying amphibians off rivers in Central and South America.

This was followed by a stint flying the Berlin Airlift with Freddie Laker among other countless dedicated pilots who heroically risked their lives ferrying food and vital supplies to the 4 million inhabitants of Berlin, their former enemies.

We found a very telling and poignant phrase from the RAF Pathfinders Archive which states that Dad was  “something of a character, noted for his charm and his French accent. A fellow officer later recalled that Squadron Leader Sauvage had great success amongst the females with his Gallic gallantry.” It was this “Gallic gallantry” that was eventually to sweep mum into Dad’s arms and take him from the horrors of war, to the horrors of raising a family comprising of us four children – each uniquely challenging in their own way.

There are many humorous anecdotes that underline our memories of Dad when we were children, and we’d like to share a couple with you.

As a family we always looked forward to Sundays (ish!). It was Dad’s day off and was often characterised by a visit to the pub with mum for lunch time drinks. For us that meant a bottle of coke and a bag of Smith’s crisps with the infamous blue bag of salt – a blissful treat for us! However, in order to get to the pub we had to undergo the horrendous ‘drive of death’ to reach our destination. Dad drove as he flew, shortest, fastest, most direct route, but fortunately at ground level. He had a total disregard for other road users, and overtaking on bends or crests of a hill were fair game. He always had a saying that life was comprised of ‘the quick or the dead, particularly when you have a Messerschmitt 109 up your arse!’ (we were always impressed that Mum allowed him to use the word ‘arse’ in this context!). Luckily, we always arrived safely which very much put us in the ‘quick’ category.

Dad was always very keen to ensure that we children excelled in our academic studies, although we think we can safely say that none of us actually did. He was also very exacting in terms of school selection to ensure that we received the best education they could afford. It was on one such occasion Peter and Paul went with Dad and Mum for an interview at a well known religious school near St. Albans. The day duly arrived and we were ushered into the headmaster’s study so that the boys could be cross- examined in depth and their intellects duly assessed. No sooner had they gone in than Dad proceeded to interview the headmaster, completely hijacking the meeting, and much to the headmaster’s annoyance he couldn’t get a word in edgeways! In the interim, Peter and Paul discovered that if you manoeuvred your bottom on the leather seat of the chair, you could simulate a not unrealistic ‘farting’ sound. Mum was horrified and gave them looks to kill. This upped the ante, and they took an extreme risk by increasing the number of farts. Calamity! They started to giggle, and giggle, and giggle, and then Mum (who incidentally had a wicked sense of humour particularly when it came to the digestive system) followed suit. She was shaking like a jelly whilst trying to maintain composure. Dad by now had caught on and became apoplectic, which made it all the more hilarious. Needless to say, Paul’s schooling was not at this learned establishment, and we think he ended up in a local remedial school for his sins!

In 1950, Dad joined Eagle Airways as a pilot. Eagle was one of the first fledgling airlines to pioneer charter flying. It was started with a couple of converted Lancaster’s and quickly grew into a fleet of Vikings, Viscounts, and Boeing 707’s. The airline had contracts for troop carrying and developed the embryonic idea of ‘packaged’ holidays. Dad went from being pilot, to training pilot, to chief pilot and ultimately, Managing Director. Eventually the market niche they had helped develop began to take shape and grow, and the company evolved into British Eagle, a significant airline of the day.

After 17 years with British Eagle, Dad decided to spread his wings further and in 1967 he became M.D. of Britannia Airways. Later, he became chairman and chief executive of the Thompson Travel Group. Throughout his time at the helm of this prodigious company, Dad continued to develop and blend the airline with the travel company, and in so doing launched a significant expansion program so that Britannia became a major travel holiday airline enjoying exponential growth and significant commercial success. Indeed Thompsons continues to be a very dominant entity that has survived in this competitive industry and continues to this very day, built on the foundations of Dad’s vision and drive. As a result of his services to the Airline Industry in 1975 Dad was awarded an O.B.E. as a fitting tribute to his life’s work.

Dad retired in 1986, continuing to live in Tewin where he lived out his life with Mum. He enjoyed golf, and worked very hard at maintaining his health (it paid off!). He was an avid reader, was intensely cerebral and had an incisive knowledge of politics and current affairs which captured his imagination. He often impressed with his ability to discuss and debate the most complex of issues (Brexit anyone?) and enjoyed topics that stretched his analytical mind.

Dad, to say that you were a towering influence on those who have known you is a gross understatement. You possessed some incredible qualities and the words ‘brave and selfless’ would have to shine brightest from a long and credentialed list of achievements, it simply radiates from there. It is a fact that less than 10% of aircrew who flew at the beginning of the war would survive to see the end of it – we are in awe of what you did and the skills that you used to fly you and your crew safely home. It was only fitting that His Excellency Derick Ally the Seychelles High Commissioner, both attended and spoke at your recent 100th Birthday celebration. He asked to do this to honour the most highly decorated Seychellois of World War Two, a wonderful tribute from your country of birth.

There are never enough superlatives to describe a life such as yours. Speaking on behalf of Paul, Peter, Susan, Helen, and John, there’s one word that stands head and shoulders above the rest, and it’s one that we’re proud to use, and that’s the word DAD!

Farewell, safe journey and blue skies, Dad.