Squadron Leader: 615 Sqn RAF
341 Sqn RAF (Groupe de Chasse No 3/2 “Alsace”)
At the corner of Avenue de la Chapelle in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris, amongst the 70,000 tombs, stands a clean and well kept mausoleum with a large bronze coloured Cross of Lorraine in the centre of its iron gates. Inside, a small photograph of a confident looking young airman, complete with Mae West life jacket.
This is the last resting-place of René G. Mouchotte, one of the most famous and admired French fighter pilots of World War Two. A gifted tactician and charismatic pilot, but most of all, a man with a clear vision of right and wrong, at a time of great uncertainty within his homeland. This clarity plus a formidable determination made him an exceptional leader, at a time when France, Britain and the free world most need men like him.
Born in 1914 at St Mandé, Paris, René’s passion had been aeroplanes and a picture of Georges Guynemer, the WW1 ace adorned his bedroom.
His national service began in 1937 when he learned to fly with the Armée de l’Air at Istres. He was placed on the reserve list and at the outbreak of war he was recalled to the training schools at Salon de Provence, and Avord.
Despite France’s initial advances into Germany during September 1939 the “drôle de guerre” ended on 10th May 1940 with the “blitzkrieg” invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg and Pay Bas.
It is estimated that 75% of French fighter pilots were lost in just 3 months against a Luftwaffe with mainly superior aeroplanes. The German pilots had the advantage of combat experience in Spain, and took a huge toll on the less experienced French and British airmen.
René’s training unit was withdrawn to Algeria but on the way he and his friend Charles Guerin decided “without tampering too much with the orders” to apply to be “fighter pilots”, but on arrival in Oran they found that France had sadly fallen.
Over 1000 French aeroplanes arrived in Oran, but after the Armistice, severe punishment threatened those who tried to fight on or join the British. The aeroplanes began to be immobilised to prevent escape. On 30th June Mouchotte and 5 friends including Charles Guerin and Henry Lafont, escaped to Gibraltar by stealing the station commander’s partly disabled, twin Renault engined Caudron Goéland in a hair-raising escape across the Mediterranean.
They had been told that not only would the Spanish fire at them if they strayed across the Spanish coast but the British would send them back to France if they landed. (In fact the very next escaping plane was shot down by the Spanish and crashed in Gibraltar Harbour killing four Frenchmen). Despite these fears and skipping low over the waves in thick fog they found “the Rock” and were overjoyed to receive a rapturous reception by the “Tommies, who thrust cigarettes at us”. They were driven through the streets of Gibraltar with people singing the Marseillaise and welcomed by the British and other French airmen who had managed to escape.
They sailed for England on July 3rd and arrived in Liverpool 10 days later, where they join the RAF, who were soon to face their greatest test in the Battle of Britain.
René’s escape put a price on his head. All the Free French were condemned to death by the Vichy Government, and like many French combatants at that time, they either changed their name (like General Leclerc) or simply became anonymous to protect their families at home.
His RAF familiarisation and aircraft type-training began immediately at locations in Wales, Wiltshire and Lincolnshire. He joined 245 Squadron on 19th September in Northern Ireland with Henri Lafont, and soon after, René was promoted and posted to 615 Squadron. This squadron had fought in the Battle of France and the Dunkirk evacuation, and flew Hawker Hurricanes. The Hurricane was the most numerous British fighter during the Battle of Britain and accounted for 60% of enemy losses, despite being overshadowed by the more glamorous Spitfire.
Posted to RAF Northolt, and then RAF Kenley near London, René flew daily missions against Luftwaffe attacks and on 26th August 1941 he destroyed his first enemy plane, a Junkers Ju88 fighter-bomber, and began regular attacks on German targets in the Pas de Calais.
By the end of 1941, René was posted to the first Free French Squadron at RAF Turnhouse (now Edinburgh Airport) in Scotland. 340 Squadron had Supermarine Spitfires and was now part of Le Groupe de Chasse IV/2 “Ile de France”. On 6th February 1942, René took command of A-Flight (“Paris”) with Spitfire’s now bearing the Cross of Lorraine. On 14th July General De Gaulle presented René with the Croix de Guerre with palme and in August he took part in the infamous Dieppe Raid.
During the war 340 Squadron was awarded the Croix de la Liberation and destroyed 37 enemy aircraft, flying 7,845 sorties with over 10,000 flight hours. (It became Escadron de Chasse 02.005).
On 1st September 1942, Squadron Leader René Mouchotte took over 615 Squadron, one of the very top units of the war, and became the first non-British Empire airman to lead a RAF Fighter Squadron – a fine testament to his leadership skill. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
In January 1943, he commanded 341 Squadron (Groupe de Chasse n° 3/2 “Alsace”) which moved to the famous RAF Biggin Hill in the south east of England, and on 15th May 1943, Squadron Leaders ‘Jack’ Charles (611 Squadron) and René Mouchotte each destroyed a Focke-Wulf 190 of I./JG 2., as the Biggin Hill Wing’s 999th and 1,000th kill claim. The 1000th enemy aeroplane was a significant prize. It was agreed to “share” the honour and a huge party was held at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London to celebrate – attendees including Churchill and De Gaulle.
Constant daily missions were taking their toll on the young men of RAF Fighter Command. From contemporary photographs you can see the exhaustion on his face and frame. Although his stylish pose, forever with a strategically held cigarette, and smiling face never falter, he becomes pale and emaciated. He refers to the stress he is under and the fact that he has been fighting for 2 years without rest, watching his friends and colleagues die around him and not knowing what the next day will bring.
On 27 August 1943, with Clostermann as his wingman, he led and directed his squadron to escort B17’s of the USAF on Operation Ramrod S.8 – the first daylight raid on the V1 site at Blockhaus d’Éperlecques in the Pas de Calais. They were attacked by huge numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and, against strict orders his wingman left him. Rene’s last words on the radio were “I am alone…..” and he was never heard from again.
The loss to the squadron of this charismatic and expert airman was immense.
His body was washed ashore and buried in Middelkerk, in Belgium. In 1949, his body was repatriated to France and reburied on 3 November following a state funeral service at Les Invalides in Paris.
René Mouchotte had flown 1,748 hours and 382 missions. He had been an exemplary leader and gained the respect of everyone who had met him.
His detailed diaries were never meant for publication, but “Les Carnets de René Mouchotte” were published in 1949 and his prophetic words, which were ultimately to become his epitaph, say everything about a man to whom both the Armée de l’Air and the Royal Air Force are still proud to have had in their ranks, and for the people of Europe to be grateful for his sacrifice.
“Si le destine ne m’accorde qu’une courte carrière de combattant, je remercierai le ciel d’avoir pu donner ma vie à la liberation de la France”
If Fate allows me only a brief fighting career, I shall thank Heaven for having been able to give my life for the liberation of France.
Searching for Rene
In 2012 the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial was contacted by the former BBC Television newsreader, Jan Leeming. Jan is a keen supporter of the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel le Ferne near Dover and had sponsored some of the names on the memorial there.
One of the names was René Mouchotte, and she began a 5 year search for his story. She had come to a stop in her research and contacted YAM for help. Jan had earlier found his tomb in Paris and left a message for his family and was surprised to be contacted some months later by Mouchotte’s 101 year old sister, Jacqueline.
Whilst filming Jacqueline, Jan joined Ian Reed from YAM when he represented the French Embassy at the state funeral at Les Invalides in Paris, of Henry Lafont – the last French RAF Battle of Britain pilot. From that meeting began detailed research; the creation of two television films and the discovery of erstwhile unknown film footage of Rene.
Rene’s sister had not seen her only brother since the day he left for war in 1939. She had only heard of his death by secretly listening to the BBC radio during the Occupation and had kept the news from her mother. In May 2012 Jan and Ian were able to show her the film taken in 1943 and hear her brother’s voice for the first time in 70 years. She died three weeks later.
During 2012 the Yorkshire Air Museum prepared two short films about Rene Mouchotte with their recently discovered archive footage, sound recordings and interviews and arranged for the unclaimed war medals including the prestigious Battle of Britain Clasp, to be presented by the Chief of the Royal Air Force on behalf of the British Government to the relatives of René Mouchotte and his friend Henry Lafont, at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris on July 13th 2012.
During 2013 BBC TV aired two short programmes (a Northern and a Southern version) about Jan’s search for René Mouchotte and in 2014 Jan was a guest at the official re-naming of the RAF Headquarters at Gibraltar in the name of her hero, Commandant René Mouchotte .