Published on May 9, 2013
By Thomas Van Hare
“I achieved my greatest victory on May 9, 1918. For some time, I longed for a triumph in a single 24 hour period, to down five opponents, which I felt would be so many that none other could exceed it.” So began René Fonck’s recollection of that day, 95 years ago today in aviation history, when he finally had his chance.
That morning, two other pilots, Edwin C. Parsons and Frank Baylies, were engaged in a competition that Fonck could not ignore. It was a competition, however, that did not suit him either. While Fonck’s desire was to down at least five enemy aircraft in a single day, the two men instead wanted to wager a bottle of champagne on who could down the first aircraft of the day. For them, the wager was also a challenge to Fonck’s authority and position as the squadron’s leading fighter pilot. It was a dark wager too, made as an angry rejection of Fonck’s not very likable, often arrogant character. Fonck would have none of it.
That morning, however, a lingering drifting fog covered the aerodrome and surrounding area on the Allied side of the lines, grounding the men. Seeing a brief thinning, Frank Baylies took off on patrol. Shortly thereafter, he returned to report that he had won the wager, having shot down a German Halberstadt CL.II reconnaissance plane.
Angrily, Fonck demanded that the bet should be more reflective their real skills — not who was first, but who was most. Instead, he told them, the bottle should be awarded to the one who could bring down the most planes in a single day. Reluctantly, they went along — and thus, amidst low hanging clouds, mist and fog, Fonck’s greatest day began.
Although the fog of the early morning kept the three men grounded for a time, the weather on the German side of the lines was clearer. Many German planes were already aloft in clear skies above the trenches. They were at work directing artillery fire against French soldiers down in the mud. The most deadly instrument of the Great War was artillery fire, not bombing from the air. Unopposed, the German aircraft would be able to signal their artillery units to carefully and steadily correct their fire, and thereby cause many casualties. Finally, at 10:45 am, René Fonck took off in his SPAD XII. In his own words, which we’ve translated from the original French language text, what transpired was as follows:
Around 10:00 am, the fog began to dissipate and three quarters of an hour later, I could finally take off with Captain Battle and Lieutenant Fontaine. Just over the front lines, we came upon a patrol consisting of a reconnaissance aircraft protected by a two-seat fighter plane.
By a pre-arranged hand gesture, I gave the signal to attack and with the first burst from my guns, I hit the enemy pilot. Without a second thought, to avoid being hit by defensive fire, I turned into a rapid reversal followed by a slip. This put me under the wing of the other Boche plane, whose gunner tried to respond, but it was already too late. A second time, I opened fire and this second opponent tumbled down, even as a third plane escaped the attacks from my comrades.
Seeing me approach to fire, the third one thought me unable to pursue if he dove to the right, yet this error brought his end. Following, I was about a second behind him and coming into a position to fire, so I immediately took advantage of my positioning. His aircraft was shattered and fell in pieces; he had suffered the same fate as his compatriots. The fight had lasted just 45 seconds. The three two-seaters came down near our trenches and were found next to Grivesne, all within 400 meters of each other.
We were barely back on the ground when from all points of the horizon, the phones rang to confirm my triple kill.
The Second Sortie
After lunch, the men celebrated at the aerodrome for a time before word came that more German artillery spotters were aloft over the front lines again. Fonck and two others ran to their planes and took — what transpired next is again related in his own words:
All around me, there was an explosion of enthusiasm, but there wasn’t a minute to lose, and at 5:30, I took off again with the Sergeant Brugère and Lieutenant Thouzelier. In the skies, there were scattered clouds carried by the wind, forming a large screen behind which we could hide and quietly make our approach.
At 6:20 pm, I recognized a Boche plane flying above Montdidier. A field of mist separated us. I boldly flew through the mist which, like cotton wool, soon wrapped itself around me entirely.
It is easy to kill the enemy when you surprise him, shooting the instant you come out of the cloud. Leading him 30 meters, I surprised his observer who was at that moment looking over the side making adjustments. A hail of bullets overtook the man. Though I had lost sight of my companions, I wasn’t all that upset about it as I prefer to fly alone into the midst of the enemy without having to worry about covering the others. Coordination requires us to get each other out of trouble and help when one falls into a position of disadvantage. Even if I try to never fail in that duty, above all I still love my freedom to attack on my own — it is essential for success in my business.
Four Fokkers then appeared and right above them there were five Albatros planes as well. One against nine, alone, my situation suddenly became perilous. I hesitated, wondering whether to attack or slip away, but my desire to set a new record prevailed over whatever prudence I felt. I chose to risk combat. The Fokkers filed into a triangular formation and, at the higher altitudes where I found myself, I was quick to make my plan of attack. I closed directly with my adversaries at a speed that was a little less than 240 km per hour and, slid myself between the two flights. I reached the trailing Fokker as it monitored the Albatros planes. At just 30 meters, I fired my first salvo at him from behind and saw immediately how he fell before me.
Warned by the crackling of my gun, the two closest Boche planes turned at the same time meet me, but I was traveling 8 meters in each passing second and they had no chance to finish turning into me. I managed to pass between the two of them. It took them 8 seconds to rejoin into their formation. They had had enough as I had killed the leader of their patrol.
The Albatros Fighters Attack
Fonck’s attack had surprised the Fokkers and, having downed one, he had driven the others off. Clearly, they were less experienced and, perhaps recognizing the speed of the attack and accuracy of Fonck’s fire, had chosen to depart the area of the fight. Yet there were still five Albatros fighter planes left. Worse yet, they were above him, positioned perfectly to swoop down and attack. Fonck related what happened next:
Next, the Albatros fighters took their turn and dove on me. At first, all were surprised by the boldness of my maneuvering, but now they were reevaluating. I was at a disadvantage, on my back foot — or talons, so to speak — and I began spinning like a meteor. I turned back and saw then as if drawn against the sky a grand arc of movement, a circle of enemies converging from all around me. Yet I had the satisfaction of perceiving, at a distance the gap and with two quick bursts, I watched as one of their number fell in flames. Then, turning away quickly, the distance separating us increased and soon, finding myself out of their range, I turned back toward my field.
I cannot describe the reception that awaited me. There were endless ovations and I was carried along triumphantly by the men. Later at the bar, it all seemed fantastic. At 8:00 pm, my victories were confirmed. This gave me great satisfaction, surpassing the number of victories I had set for myself to achieve in a single day.
René Fonck’s career as a fighter pilot was short — not because he was shot down or injured, but because, unlike the other great aces of France, he had started late in the war, flying for only the last year in combat. Guynemer, by comparison, had flown from 1914 to the end. Yet it was Fonck who ended the war as the leading ace with 75 confirmed victories.
His squadron was one of four within the famed Les Cigognes fighter group (these being SPA.3, SPA.26, SPA.73 and SPA.103) and of Escadrille SPA.103’s 111 claimed victories, he had accounted for all but 36. His confirmed victories, however, falls well short of the number of those he probably actually downed. Unlike some who, once seeing smoke or damage to their opponent, would break away and later declare a kill, Fonck ensured that those he hit were actually downed, typically observing that he had hit the pilot or watching the plane burst into flames or fall to the ground. Thus, Fonck was supremely confident of his personal score.
Even if only less than half of those he shot down were official confirmed, by his own reckoning, he had certainly downed fully 142 German aircraft. This was a score that surpassed that of Germany’s famed Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, widely reputed to have the highest score of the war. However, the Red Baron’s 80 victories over Allied aircraft are only those that were officially confirmed. Like Fonck, Baron Manfred von Richthofen too kept a personal tally of those he knew with absolute confidence to have downed. The Baron’s person total, however, still fell short of Fonck’s — it was 120 Allied aircraft shot down.
Fonck’s confidence in his score was due to the tactics he used. He preferred a high speed ambush from which he took a deflection shot from point blank range, usually hitting the pilot. He was an expert marksman and rarely missed. For a time, he flew a SPAD XII that carried a single shot, hand-loaded 37mm Puteaux “moteur-canon” that fired through the engine shaft, so that the cannon round emerged from the center of the propeller hub. With that weapon, he shot down 11 of his opponents — using just one cannon round for each kill. As for the rest, his extremely short bursts with his machine guns typically fired less than five rounds to achieve each kill.
By attacking quickly in a slashing pass, he rarely entered into a dogfight. Using his superior eyesight, he would spot the enemy first and position himself for the most advantageous attack. His tactics were to attack only on his terms. If the situation did not favor victory, he would break away. If he could fly to a position of advantage, he would do so. Typically, after climbing above the enemy, he would dive down and in a single pass to shoot down one or two enemy aircraft before continuing in a dive away to safety. Then he would return to his base.
As a result of his slashing, hit and run tactics, over his entire career in combat, Fonck’s aircraft was only hit once by enemy fire — and that was just a single bullet that had pierced its fabric harmlessly. Fonck’s tactics would later become the dominant approach used by many leading World War II aces.
How many enemy aircraft did René Fonck actually shoot down? We’ll never know, but one thing is certain, and that is that his official total of 75 victories is far less than what he himself knew he had actually achieved. His claims — nearly twice as many as the official tally — were made with absolute confidence based on his tactics. Those who fell behind German lines were not confirmed and many of those that fell over No Man’s Land were left unverified.
As for his own personal record of shooting down six enemy aircraft in a single day — on September 28, 1918, just four and a half months later, he would repeat that score. Over St. Marie-a-Py, St. Souplet, Perthes-les-Hurles and Souain, he downed three Fokker D.VIIs and two Halberstadt C types as well as a DFW C.
To this day, René Fonck remains the leading Allied ace in all of air combat history. There were German fighter pilots who scored higher, though if we are to take his personal tally as accurate, that number is limited to only a handful during WWII and those flew predominantly on the Russian front, against inferior aircraft with pilots of less skill and experience.
His fame, however, was limited not by his prowess, but by his attitude. Even if Fonck was widely recognized as a deadly ace, and one who was both unmerciful and brilliant in the air, he was his own worst enemy in the public eye. He was arrogant and unforgiving. He would lecture the others on combat tactics, his tone patronizing and superior. Even though he was the greatest French combat pilot in history, men like Guynemer and Nungesser, even if less successful, enjoyed the admiration of the public and the popularity of the press. They were the superstars of the air war, while Fonck was ignored and spurned.
For René Fonck, however, the question of popularity was unimportant. He was a warrior to the bone. The knowledge of his own successes, that he was deadly in the skies over the trenches, that was all that really counted. In the end, he was satisfied with himself, and that was all that mattered.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
Fonck’s one error was his thought that no pilot could match his score of five shot down in a single day. World War II would demonstrate that with increasingly deadly planes, so too the best pilots could achieve even greater successes. What is the record for the most planes shot down by a pilot in a single 24 hour period?