Saturday, October 8, 2011

France - 1917 SPAD XIII Aces

Three Aces

I am still busy working on filling the ranks in my profile collection for the SPAD S.XII C-1. Today's offering is a trio of SPAD XIII flown by the top three French Aces of The Great War. They offer a studry of contrasts. Their differences in temperment and life experience could not be greater. However they did share one common trait, each was a superb pilot and deadly marksman.

René Paul Fonck March 27, 1894 - June 1953

SPAD S-XIII 1917
SPAD S-XIII 1917 René Paul Fonck Spa103 75 Victories

René Paul Fonck was the highest scoring ace for France and the Allies. As a boy growing up in the foothills of the Vosges, he was fascinated by stories of men and their flying machines. Yet when he was conscripted in August of 1914, he refused to serve in the French Air Service, choosing instead to go to the trenches. By early 1915, he had changed his mind and began his flight training in a Penguin at Saint-Cyr. Displaying an inherent talent for flying, he was soon serving with Escadrille C47, flying an unarmed Caudron on reconnaissance missions over the lines.

In April of 1917, after more than 500 hours of flight time, Fonck was assigned to Spa103. Flying the SPAD S.VII, he developed a reputation for studying the tactics of his opponents and conserving ammunition during a dogfight. On two separate occasions, he shot down six enemy aircraft in one day.

As his fame grew, so did his ego and Fonck never achieved the admiration and popularity of Georges Guynemer. Even French ace Claude Haegelen, one of Fonck's few friends, felt he boasted too much and too often; but no one could deny that Fonck was an excellent pilot and superb marksman.

Georges Marie Ludovic Jules Guynemer December 24, 1894 - September 11, 1917

Georges Guynemer was France's most popular ace. He entered the French Air Service in November of 1914 and served as a mechanic before receiving a Pilot's Brevet in April of 1915. Despite his frail physical appearance, he took part in more than 600 aerial combats and was shot down seven times and survived. An excellent marksman and highly skilled pilot, he was hailed as the French Ace of Aces. Guynemer received letters from women proposing marriage, requests from school children for his autograph and was often followed through the streets.

One of the first pilots to receive a SPAD S.VII, he called his plane Vieux Charles (Old Charles). On May 25, 1917, he engaged and shot down four enemy aircraft with Old Charles in one day. Looking for ways to improve the performance of his aircraft, Guynemer armed a SPAD S.VII with a single-shot 37 mm canon that fired through a hollowed out propeller shaft. He called this impractical aircraft his Magic Machine. Despite the fumes that filled the cockpit and the recoil of the canon, during the summer of 1917 he shot down at least two enemy aircraft with his Magic Machine.

On September 11, 1917, Guynemer was last seen attacking a two-seater Aviatik near Poelcapelle, northwest of Ypres. Almost a week later, it was publicly announced in a London paper that he was missing in action. Shortly thereafter, a German newspaper reported Guynemer had been shot down by Kurt Wissemann of Jasta 3. For many months, the French population refused to believe he was dead. Guynemer's body was never found.

Charles Eugene Jules Marie Nungesser March 15, 1892 - May 8, 1927

Charles Nungesser was a French ace pilot and adventurer, best remembered as a rival of Charles Lindbergh. Nungesser was a renowned ace in France, rating third highest in the country for air combat victories during World War I.

Charles Nungesser was born on 15 March 1892 in Paris, and as a child was very interested in competitive sports. After attending the École des Arts et Métiers, where he was a mediocre student who nonetheless excelled in sports such as boxing, he went to South America; first to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to search for an uncle who could not be located and then onto Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he worked as an auto mechanic before becoming a professional racer. His interest in racing soon led him to flying airplanes; Nungesser learned to fly by using a Bleriot plane owned by a friend. After he eventually found his missing uncle, he worked on his sugar plantation in the Buenos Aires province.

When World War I broke out, Nungesser returned to France where he enlisted with the 2e Régiment de Hussards. During one patrol, he and several soldiers commandeered a German Mors patrol car after killing its occupants. This impressed his superiors, and he was subsequently awarded the Medaille Militaire and granted his request to be transferred to the Service Aéronautique.

As a military pilot, he was transferred to Escadrille VB106. While there, in July 1915 he shot down his first plane, a German Albatros and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. This action initiated the Nungesser legend. On 31 July 1915, Nungesser and his mechanic Roger Pochon were on standby duty. The two took off in a Voisin 3LAS despite Nungesser's assignment to non-flying duties. In an encounter with five Albatros two-seaters, the French duo shot one down near Nancy, France. Returning to their airfield, Nungesser was placed under house arrest for eight days for his insubordination. He was then decorated and forwarded to training in Nieuport fighters.

By the time Nungesser left VB106, he had flown 53 bombing missions. He had also emblazoned at least one of the escadrille's planes with his elaborate gruesome personal insignia: the freebooter's skull and crossbones and a coffin with two candles.

After retraining, in November 1915 he was transferred to Escadrille N.65 (the 65th Squadron) and was later attached to the famous Lafayette Escadrille, composed of American volunteers. While visiting the Escadrille on one of his convalescent periods recuperating from his wounds, he borrowed a plane and shot down another German while he was there. By the end of 1916, he had claimed 21 air kills.

Despite being a decorated pilot, Nungesser was placed under house arrest on more than one occasion for flying without permission. He disliked strict military discipline and went to Paris to enjoy its many pleasures (such as alcohol and women) as often as possible. He was a leading fighter pilot, whose combat exploits against the Germans were widely publicized in France. Nungesser's rugged good looks, flamboyant personality, and appetite for danger, beautiful women, wine and fast cars made him the embodiment of the stereotypical flying ace. In contrast to the unsociable but nonetheless top French ace René Fonck, Nungesser was well liked by his comrades. Yet Nungesser suffered a very bad crash on 6 February 1916 that broke both his legs, and he would be injured again many times. He was often so hobbled by wounds and injuries that he had to be helped into his cockpit.

Notwithstanding these early setbacks, Nungesser became an ace in April 1916. He was wounded on 19 May 1916 but continued to score and would be wounded again in June. Nevertheless, he finished the year with 21 victories. It was during this time he downed two German aces, Hans Schilling on 4 December, and Kurt Haber on the 20th. The Nieuport Ni 17 "The Knight of Death" flown by C. Nungesser

His silver Nieuport 17 plane was decorated with a black heart-shaped field, a macabre Jolly Roger, and a coffin and candles painted inside. He had adopted the title "The Knight of Death," paraphrasing the French word mort "death", a play on words for the German Mors vehicle, like the one he had earlier captured while as a cavalryman.

In early 1917, Nungesser had to return to hospital for treatment of injuries but managed to avoid being grounded. He had pushed his score to 30 by 17 August 1917, when he downed his second Gotha bomber. Injuries from a car crash in December got him a month's respite as an instructor before he returned to flying combat with Escadrille 65. He still flew a Nieuport, even though the squadron had re-equipped with Spads. By May 1918, he had 35 victories, including a shared victory each with Jacques Gérard and Eugéne Camplan, and was raised to Officer of the Legion d'Honneur.

By August 1918, he finally made a radical upgrade to the most recent Spad, the Spad XIII, and began to win again. On 14 August, he shot down four observation balloons for wins 39 through 42. The following day, he shared a win with Marcel Henriot and another pilot and finished the war with 43 official victories.

In his flying career, Nungesser received dozens of military decorations from France, Belgium, Montenegro, United States of America, Portugal, Russia, and Serbia.

By the end of the war, a succinct summary of Nungesser's wounds and injuries read: "Skull fracture, brain concussion, internal injuries (multiple), five fractures of the upper jaw, two fractures of lower jaw, piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel imbedded [sic] in right arm, dislocation of knees (left and right), re-dislocation of left knee, bullet wound in mouth, bullet wound in ear, atrophy of tendons in left leg, atrophy of muscles in calf, dislocated clavicle, dislocated wrist, dislocated right ankle, loss of teeth, contusions too numerous to mention."

2 comments:

Bill said...

RE: Nungesser injury list.

What was he made of?

For pity's sake, if I go to the dry cleaner and the post office after work, I need a nap and a strong drink just to make some dinner and soothe my overstressed soul...

W. I. Boucher said...

@Bill: Pilots back then suffered lots of injuries and went back into combat s soon as they could. There are examples where amputees were back in the cockpit long before they were fully healed.