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The title of best of the Allied pilots in World War One rests on the shoulders of Frenchman Colonel Rene Paul Fonck, who succeeded in destroying 75 enemy aircraft during the conflict. In the confusion of war, however, his tally could actually be much higher with some commentators estimating that at least 100 aircraft were victims of his gunnery and piloting skills. The hero of WW1 however fell from grace when he allegedly colluded with the Vichy Government that came to power as France fell to the Nazis in World War Two.
Fonck was born in the small village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe in the Vosges region of north eastern France on March 27, 1894. On August 22, 1914 he was conscripted and because of his engineering skills he underwent five months of basic training with the French Army’s combat engineers. The training gave him the skills necessary for digging trenches near Epinal as well as making repairs to damaged bridges that crossed the Moselle River. Throughout this time, however, he harboured dreams of becoming a pilot and after numerous applications was finally selected for pilot training on February 15, 1915. Training was undertaken at centres at St. Cyr and later at Le Crotoy where he would practice flying on a Bleriot Penguin. Like the bird it was flightless version of the Bleriot XI aircraft that gave the sensation of flight whilst firmly attached to the ground. In May 1915, having successfully passed the final examinations, he was posted as a pilot to Escadrille C47 flying Caudron G III observation aeroplanes.
Fonck’s first aerial victory claim was made in July 1916, but was unconfirmed and he would have to wait until the next month when on 6 August he and fellow pilot Lieutenant Thiberge forced down a German Rumpler CIII. His second victory came on March 17, 1917 and a month later, aged just 23, he was offered the chance to fly with leading French ace Georges Guynemer as part of the legendary Escadrille Les Cigognes (Group de Combat 12). Fonck was instead assigned to another escadrille in then group, Spa 103 where he flew the SPAD VII. On May 13 he finished off his fifth aerial victory and became the latest French combat ace.
On August 14 he attacked a German observation aircraft and quickly killed the pilot. The plane suddenly and violently inverted and threw the observer through the wing of Fonck’s aircraft. Such was the Frenchman’s determination to accurate report his victories that he went to the crash site and ripped out the German aircraft’s barograph to confirm his reported kill. Fonck ended the year with nineteen confirmed kills as well as a commission and had been awarded the highest French military honour the Légion d'honneur.
Fonck’s confidence in his ability was matched by his excellence in the air. He was a studious man who combined his mathematical and engineering knowledge to the problem of high speed aerial combat. He was also methodical and skilful in the air stalking his victims and surprising them in clinical attacks from high altitude. He honed the use of deflection shooting at close range and thus saved a great deal of ammunition. Indeed he rarely used more than five rounds from his Vickers machine gun. Many commentators have compared his tactics as less a dogfight than surgical merciless executions.
For Fonck 1918 started with something of a fallow period of nineteen days without a single kill to his name but a double victory on 19 January ended this drought. Five were added in February, seven in March and three more in April. Rene Fonck was a serious character and a heated disagreement between the Frenchman and two American pilots, Edwin C Parsons and Frank Baylies led to perhaps the single most spectacular day in his career. The Americans were riled by Fonck’s successes and bet a bottle of champagne to whoever shot down an enemy aircraft before Fonck. Baylies succeeded in killing the crew of a Halberstadt CL II and landed expecting Fonck to honour the bet. He did not. Fonck instead changed the terms of the bet to see who could destroy the most German aircraft before the end of the day. Grounded by fog until 1500 he flew around looking for targets. The French pilot found them at 1600 and within five minutes had sent three reconnaissance aircraft to the ground. Two hours later he repeated the feat. Six aircraft destroyed within three hours.
By August his score had risen to 60. Fonck was becoming a legend amongst the Allied forces and even in Germany his reputation was well known and respected. On 26 September he repeated his feat of destroying six German aircraft in a single mission when he downed six Fokker DVII fighters. Further successes would continue until the end of the war when Rene Fonck had become France’s highest scoring combat ace. The French people, however, never took to Fonck as he was a withdrawn and ascetic character. He never socialised with the other pilots instead choosing to plan attacks, iron his uniforms and kept fit using calisthenics. This gave him the impression of being distant, arrogant and some might even say abrasive.
During the 1920’s Fonck’s interest in developing aviation never waned and he worked with Igor Sikorsky to redesign his Sikorsky S-35 aircraft to try and win the Orteig Prize of a nonstop flight across the Atlantic. On September 21, 1926 in the rebuilt aircraft Fonck crashed on takeoff killing two of three crew members. The following year Charles Lindbergh famously won the prize.
Between 1937 and 1939 Fonck was Inspector of French fighter forces but throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s he had kept in correspondence with the likes of Hermann Goring and Ernst Udet which following the occupation of France in 1940 cast a long shadow over his reputation and independence. Accusations of colluding with the Nazis quickly spread and on 10 August 1940 Vichy Foreign Minister Pierre Laval announced that Fonck had recruited 200 French pilots to fight alongside the Nazis. The truth was more complicated.
Marshall Philippe Petain had used Fonck’s relationship with Goring to arrange a meeting with Adolf Hitler. The meeting was subsequently arranged to take place at Montoire but when Fonck discovered Laval’s pro Nazi leanings he tried to dissuade Petain from attending. Petain would eventually, however, meet with the German dictator on October 24, 1940. Fonck’s loyalties were then questioned by the Vichy regime and he was then imprisoned in Drancy internment camp after being roughly interrogated by the Gestapo. At the end of the war the French police carried out their own investigation and cleared him of all charges. In fact his close contact with one of France’s leading resistance fighters Alfred Heurtaux put pay to any further accusations. In 1948 Fonck was awarded the Certificate of Resistance. The citation read "Mr. Fonck, René, a member of the fighting French forces without uniform, took part, in territory occupied by the enemy, to glorious fights for the liberation of the nation".
Rene Fonck died of a stroke in his Paris apartment on June 18, 1953 and was buried in the cemetery of his native village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe.
"I put my bullets into the target as if I placed them there by hand."
"I prefer to fly alone... when alone I perform those little coups of audacity which amuse me..."