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French flyer who became an RAF hero
12:05pm Friday 8th February 2013 in Features
Wartime footage discovered by staff at the Yorkshire Air Museum will feature this month in a TV documentary about a Second World War fighter ace. MATT CLARK discovers his remarkable story
SPITFIRE ace René Mouchotte wasn’t only one of the few, he was unique. Having escaped to England, René joined the RAF and during three years of action flew more than 380 sorties, not to mention shooting down the 1,000th enemy plane and becoming the first Frenchman to lead an RAF squadron.
Jan Leeming, former BBC newsreader and vice-president of the Yorkshire Air Museum, has been fascinated by René’s story since she sponsored his name on the Battle of Britain Memorial Wall of Remembrance at Capel-le-Ferne, near Folkestone.
And after five years spent researching the untold part of the pilot’s story, she is about to tell it in a BBC documentary called Searching for René.
“I knew of no one in my family who’d been in the RAF but, being of Huguenot ancestry, I asked for the name of a French pilot, if one were available,” says Jan. “Thus began and unfolded a remarkable story.”
After receiving the name of her pilot, Jan says she idly typed it into an internet search and discovered she had adopted a French Hero; a recipient of the Croix de Guerre, the Legion d’Honneur and the RAF’s Distinguished Flying Cross.
The search was made easier when Jan discovered René’s wartime diaries. They were not intended for publication but published they were six years after his death with the co-operation of René’s mother.
“Les Carnets de René Mouchotte was translated into English and being an incurable romantic, I obtained a copy of the book expecting it to be a rather dry pilot’s log,” says Jan.
“Instead there was a story which couldn’t be put down.”
First it told of René’s verdict on the Vichy Government’s capitulation. He was incensed and wrote, “I have made up my mind. I am going to England, or Malta or Egypt.”
At the time René was serving with the French Air Force in North Africa, but with his great friend Charles Guerin, and four others, he stole a heavily guarded and partly decommissioned plane.
By the skin of their teeth, they escaped, having stowed away in the cockpit for hours.
“René describes their near discovery in such vivid terms, you feel you are reading an adventure story,” says Jan.
The men limped their plane to Gibraltar, boarded a ship bound for England and signed up for a brief career in the RAF.
“This is where the diaries are so interesting and vivid. René writes about his frustration at initially being held back from active service, everyday life, fear, cold, blackouts and our dreadful food.”
Having served initially with RAF units, René joined 340 Squadron, the first Free French Squadron in November 1941. The following year he was presented with the Croix de Guerre by General de Gaulle and became the first non-Commonwealth leader of an RAF squadron.
He wrote that he was ‘delirious with happiness’ at the thought of leading his own squadron into battle over France.
But René would have been put to death as a traitor if shot down in his homeland and he writes of concerns for his mother who had no idea what he was doing. She believed he was working safely in intelligence for the Free French Air Force.
Despite the rigours of war there are frequent humorous episodes in René’s diaries. He mentions a letter received from France by a comrade. In it the writer is far from flattering about the Vichy Government and intimates that he would like to see them put up against a wall and shot.
The letter concludes by hoping “the swine of a censor” will not open his letter. It had, however, been opened and written in red ink was “The swine of a censor has opened your letter and read it, but he let it pass just the same.”
“René’s diaries are written in such an easy and personal style, I really felt as if I knew him,” says Jan.
“You find yourself one minute reading that he had a day off in London, then in the next paragraph being blinded by fog ‘straining your eyes to pick out anywhere to land, in case the radio won’t work, each instant dreading the embrace of a barrage balloon, you watch your petrol supply running out in terror’.”
Despite his meticulous diarised accounts, the final chapter in René’s story was shrouded in mystery.
Records show that on August 27 1943, he was shot down over the English Channel while escorting US Air Force bombers on the first daylight raid against V2 rocket sites in Northern France. He was found a week later washed up on a beach in Belgium, but his ID disc was engraved with a false identity; René Martin, a French Canadian, to protect him from torture and death if captured in France. He was buried in Grave 87 in the field of honour at Middlekirke cemetery.
Rene’s true identity remained unknown for years, but fortunately the Belgian authorities had been meticulous. René’s death certificate described him perfectly and a note at the bottom mentioned an ambiguity. His undergarments bore the name René Mouchotte; it seems the normally diligent Frenchman had been careless.
But the unwittingly left clue would lead to him being exhumed and correctly identified after the war.
René was repatriated, given a funeral with full military honours at Les Invalides and laid to rest in the family tomb at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, a necropolis of the famous and final resting place of Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.
Seven decades later another chance find completed his life’s story. As part of her research, Jan visited René’s tomb and left a letter hoping a member of his family would get in touch.
Four months later, Jan couldn’t believe her luck. A reply came on behalf of René’s sister, Jacqueline Quentin-Mouchotte, who, at 101 years of age, was still living in Paris.
Jan went to see Jacqueline twice before she died and on the second visit took a special present: René’s unclaimed Battle of Britain medals, which Ian Reed of the Yorkshire Air Museum had arranged to be struck.
Jan first met Ian after hearing about the newly dedicated memorial at York Minster to the French in York. She asked for his help and Ian came up trumps by discovering some unknown film footage of René.
But once again the pilot’s identity came about by chance.
“I searched through hundreds of Pathe and Gaumont films,” says Ian. “Then I was watching a report about the invasion of Malta which was followed by a small item about the 1,000th enemy plane being shot down and there was René.
“It was an almost a ‘by the way’ piece. I could have easily missed it.”
More research revealed more footage as well as radio transmissions featuring René. It was to prove a treasure trove for the producers.
Last week, Jan and Ian teamed up once more at the Air Museum to put the finishing touches to the documentary and film an introductory feature about Searching for René which will be shown on BBC 1’s Inside Out at 7.30pm on February 23.
“A friend of mine suggested that I am in love with René. How can you be in love with someone you’ve never met and who has been dead for almost 70 years?” says Jan.
“But I am enamoured with his integrity and honour, his great love of family, his humour and the enormous respect and love felt for him by his men.”