The Second World War attack pitted 24 Allied bombers against four German minesweepers stationed off the French town of Barbatre. The Nazi boats were destroyed in a short battle, and all but 23 of the “Beaufighter” bombers returned to their base in England.
The pilot, Coniston native Robert Forestell, and his navigator, Ian Robbie of Edmonton were killed in the battle, and residents recovered their remains from the Atlantic and quietly buried them in the town's cemetery, where they remained largely forgotten.
That is until two amateur historians — Tony Ecreau and Michel Moracchini — decided to try and find the families of the dead Canadians.
They eventually made contact with Forestell's family in Coniston, which led to a ceremony at the Colonial Inn on Monday when Coniston and Barbatre were formally twinned.
Jason Marcon, a great-nephew of Robert Forestell, said Ecreau and Moracchini deserve credit for making it all possible.
“The idea came about from those two gentlemen in France,” he said. “They're history buffs, and they were researching the forgotten history of their town, especially relating to the cemetery and those buried from the Second World War.”
After they tracked down Forestell's family, Marcon contacted the Coniston CAN and they supported the idea of twinning with Barbatre and bringing its mayor, Guy Modot, here for a formal ceremony.
“You have two towns that can share cultural ties, physical ties, they may exchange students, they may exchange ideas, stuff like that,” Marcon said when asked what the twinning process means.
“He's really happy to be here,” Marcon added. “He's a member of the organization in France that's promoting this, and he has a son that does live in Montreal. So he has a connection to Canada already and he's expanding that connection by coming to Coniston.”
Language was something of an issue, Marcon allowed — “he doesn't speak any English, really (and) my French is improving.”
Modot, speaking through Ward 5 Coun. Ron Dupuis, who acted as translator, said he was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and friendly Sudburians are. He said he was touched by how warmly he's been treated by the people of Coniston and Sudbury.
He intends to visit Sudbury again. In addition to his family in Montreal (son and grandchildren), he's excited to return to learn more about First Nations people.
While the battle took place decades ago, Greater Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk became emotional when speaking about Canadians who were killed and buried in graves across Europe during the war.
“In one cemetery in the town of Barbatre, on the French Atlantic coast, sits the grave of one of those brave men – Coniston-born Robert Forestell,” Matichuk said. “These memories are important and it's the connections we make and the bonds we form that will keep these memories alive. And that's why I'm so proud to be here this evening.”
She also chatted briefly with Modot about their experiences as mayor of their respective cities.
“He also told us about his city, that they have beaches that are 10 miles long,” Matichuk said. “There was a lot of interesting information I learned about Barbatre.”