Fokkers and Aces Fight over Europe

Fighter Ace, film star, racecar driver, boxer, lady’s man, Parisian, and all around badass… Tell me more you say? OK. Charles Eugene Jules Marie Nungesser, born in Paris on March 15, 1892, (interestingly the same year the first military contract was issued for an airplane). Growing up in Paris he attended École des Arts et Métiers (France’s premier technical school) and while he was a mediocre student he excelled in competitive sports, particularly boxing.

Eventually he dropped out of school and hopped aboard a ship headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with the intention to work for his uncle who owned a sugar plantation. Charles, a bit of a wild card, most likely didn’t have the best-laid plans. When he arrived in Brazil his uncle was nowhere to be found. His options limited he continued onto Buenos Aires, Argentina where procured work as an auto mechanic. He quickly moved from under the hood to behind the wheel as a professional race driver. His need for speed wasn’t sated since the absolute top speed of cars at the time was around 55 MPH and upon meeting another Frenchman who owned a Blériot plane, his attention turned to the sky. To be fair planes were still limited to airspeeds of around 50 MPH at the time, but undoubtedly Charles found flying around in wood and canvas a superior rush to tooling along on the sod below.

He talked his friend into allowing him to take the plane up. Can you imagine that conversation?

(Read with a French accent)

“Hey pal, do you mind if I take your plane up?”

“You mean that experimental flying contraption that has been around for less than decade? Do you have any experience?”

“No. How hard can it be? It’s just balsa and cloth strapped to an engine with a wooden propeller. My auto has twice as many tires and I can drive that.”

“Well, as long as you’re careful. I just got the wicker chair with no seat belt detailed.”

Talk about one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

Charles flew around for a few minutes and after making a safe landing he.was.hooked. After two weeks he considered himself a trained pilot. Shortly thereafter the enigmatic uncle surfaced and Charles went to work on his plantation in the Buenos Aires province.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II., August v. Mackensen Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R11105,_Kaiser_Wilhelm_II.,_August_v._Mackensen_crop.jpg

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This would be the British equivalent. Image from http://www.finecars.cc/en/detail/car/18286/index.html

In July of 1914 the conflict known as the Great War broke out. Charles returned to France to fight the Germans despite their cool pointy hats. He joined the 2e Régiment de Hussards, a division of the cavalry. On one patrol Nungesser and several other soldiers came up a Mors German staff car and proceeded to light up the men inside like a Polish Church, that is to say, those Germans got deaded. Charles grabbed the opportunity to get behind the wheel of legendary Mors, piled the other Frenchmen in and speed back to HQ where the brass were so pleased with his actions they awarded him the Medaille Militaire and gave him the German’s patrol car he “boosted”. Can you imagine that now? “Good job capturing that Hummer Private So-n-So. Here’s the Metal of Awesomeness and enjoy that Humvee on your leave.”

Nungesser was able to turn this success into a transfer to the Service Aéronautique, the French national flight school. He transferred to Escadrille VB106 to be trained as an observation pilot. At the time airplanes weren’t constructed with weapons and used predominately the way we use satellites and drones today to gather intelligence. In fact after the U.S. entered WWI, Orville Wright (co-inventor of the airplane) confidently wrote that the nation with the most airborne scouts, “will win the war and put an end to war.” He thought aerial reconnaissance would make war “… too expensive, too slow, too difficult, too long drawn out” for anyone to keep doing it.

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The Voisin III LAS was used primarily as a bomber. Image found http://wp.scn.ru/en/ww1/b/643/21/0#3

On July 31st, 1915 the Nungesser lore really took shape. Charles and his mechanic and friend, Roger Pochon, were on standby duty. Never one for the sidelines Charles stole a two-seater Voisin III LAS, found five German Albatros’ over Nancy, France and shot one down. The rest tucked tail and ran. Roger and Charles and returned to base. For this he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, forwarded to training in Nieuport fighters, and given eight days in house arrest.

He flew over 50 bombing missions by the time he left VB106. November 1915 he 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. So much was his penchant for the macabre he had his Nieuport 11 “Bébé” (baby) emblazoned with violent images of death. He went as far as to make his own Jolly Roger composed of a skull and cross-bones, a coffin and candlesticks all contained in a black heart. So excited was he about his new emblem he flew over the town of Nancy at 30 feet to give everyone a good look. As usual his stunts landed him in jail for eight days. His commander of the squadron told him that if he was going to do aerobatics to do them over the German lines. Nungesser jumped into his plane, flew to the nearest German field, and gave them quite a show. He reported back to his commander, told him what he had done, and was put under arrest again. Gotta love this guy.

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Austrian Balloon. Image found http://acepilots.com/wwi/balloon_68.jpg

In January 1916, Nungesser broke both legs, pierced the roof of his mouth with the planes control stick, and dislocated his jaw in a serious flying accident. Within two months he was up in the air again, hobbling to his aircraft on crutches or carried by his faithful mechanic, Pochon.  By the end of March he was back with N. 65 and in the first week of April he made up for lost time over Verdun shooting down several enemy aircraft and balloons (balloons were used largely in WWI as observation decks and occasionally as bombers).  One leg did not heal properly, so he underwent surgery and insisted that no anesthesia be administered. I want you to think about that next time you think something “really hurt”.

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This two seater Albatros was used for bombing. Image from http://www.wwiaviation.com/gallery-albatros.html

The Germans enjoyed this reprieve from the ace, but upon his return they gave him a new Nieuport with a 130 HP Clerget engine (vs. the previous 110 HP) and those Fokkers began to drop like flies once again. So agitated were the Germans with this French Ace hole they sent a single Albatros to drop a message over the French base to challenge Nungesser to a “duel” over Douai. When he arrived there were six sneaky krauts lying in ambush. Charles quickly reduced two of the German crafts to flying flaming tinder sticks. The other four fled the scene like the cowards they were. On his way back an apparently near-sided RAF pilot attacked Nungesser. Left with no option Charles had to shoot him down too.

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Born Margaretha Geertruida she created her alter ego Mata Hari around this dancing garment. Image from http://www.natemaas.com/2011/05/mata-hari.html

He was all you would expect of a war hero and flying ace. Accompanied by beautiful women, dashing good looks, charisma, booze, fast cars, and courage to boot. In fact while on leave in Paris he is reported to have dated Mata Hari, the famous, exotic dancer and German spy. He knew she was a spy and gave her a lot of false information about a new super fighter being built by the French.

By the end of the war he held 43 official victories (44 if you count the myopic RAF pilot), the third highest number among French fliers behind René Fonck and Georges Guynemer. 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.” It should be noted some of these injuries were incurred while driving a powerful touring car when he hit some ice at speed and rolled it. He was thrown free, however his mechanic and friend, Roger riding shotgun, did not survive.

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Foreground: Nungesser’s Hanriot HD-i Background: German Fokker Triplane painted as the one flown by the legendary Red Barron. Image from http://s133.photobucket.com/user/KylePix/media/Museums/Airplanes/Planes%20Of%20Fame%20Chino/100807-2003Hanriot.jpg.html

After the war the world was in recession and there was little work for flying aces. He attempted to start a flying school in France, but do to low interest it never got off the ground. Ever the dare devil he traveled to America in a Hanriot HD-i bearing his grim wartime insignia for a tour of barnstorming. Never appeased he looked to cinema. He performed in The Dawn Patrol and was falsely rumored to have died while flying in Howard Hughes famous flight epic Hell’s Angels. During his film career he became interested in the idea of making a transatlantic flight and told his friends his next trip to America would be by air. Mind you no one had yet made the Trans-Atlantic flight.

François Coli, a navigator already known for making historic flights across the Mediterranean with only one eye, the war claiming the other, had been planning a transatlantic flight since 1923, with his wartime comrade Paul Tarascon, another World War I ace. When Tarascon had to drop out because of an injury from a crash, Nungesser came in as a replacement. Nungesser and Coli took off from Le Bourget airport near Paris on 8 May 1927, heading for New York in their L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird) aircraft, a Levasseur PL.8 biplane, again painted with Nungesser’s old World War I insignia. It was the named for a dove to signify peace. With Nungesser’s emblem on the side it represented more accurately the state of things.

The White Bird was last seen passing Ireland and when they failed to arrive in New York it was assumed they were lost to the bottom of the Atlantic. There were rumors they went down over Maine. Most of the rumors tracked back to “earwitnesses” who claimed to have heard, but not seen, the plane in Newfoundland and Maine. These signs fell in a line from Canada down to Maine. Chillingly, if they represented the French explorers, the headwinds had put their flight far behind schedule, committing them to coming down somewhere in Eastern Canada or Maine. These rumors have never been substantiated; however following an exhaustive investigation the French government published a report in 1984 that concluded that Nungesser probably reached North America. Nungesser was 35. Two weeks later Charles Lindberg completed the first Trans-Atlantic flight flying the opposite direction from New York to Paris.

Charles Nungesser skirted the rules, pushed the limits, broke his body constantly, endangered himself and friends, and succeeded at everything he put his mind to irrespective of the opposition. Like the White Bird marked with the Jolly Roger, life is constantly between peace and end game chaos. Neither is better than the other. Charles knew this and lived every moment of his life.

Summary of Charles Nungesser’s life http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wtm95BVEWAU

Drive fast. Take chances. Thanks for reading.

-Danger

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One Comment on “Fokkers and Aces Fight over Europe”

  1. An interesting article thank you. We recently visited the memorial Nungesser and Coli at Etretat, Normandy – some pictures here http://www.normandythenandnow.com/last-flight-of-the-white-bird-at-etretat/
    It’s a stunning memorial at the place Nungesser and Coli last saw France.
    Also posted is an old image of the original memorial blown up by the Germans in WW2. Memorial styles certainly change!
    We are glad Nungesser and Coli and their bravery are not forgotten.


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