Valor Friday

| February 9, 2024 | 5 Comments

Pierre Clostermann

In any air force, in any war, there is always a special cadre of “aces.” An ace is a pilot (almost always a fighter pilot) who has scored at least five kills, that is to say a pilot that’s shot down five enemy aircraft. Within the category of aces, there are several sub-categories.

During World War I, the difficulty and danger inherent in shooting down barrage and observation balloons saw several men dubbed “balloon ace” for sending five or more down crashing. Similarly in World War II, chasing down and destroying V-1 flying bombs was its own category of ace. Even non-pilot aerial gunners could also be aces.

Those who scored multiples of five were double and triple aces. Particularly efficient aviators might become an ace in a day. With the massive scale of the Second World War, there were combinations of these, with several men becoming triple aces in a day (downing at least 15 enemy aircraft in just a single day’s action).

Among the hundreds of aviators who can claim the title of ace, only one will be their country’s ace of aces, the highest scoring man wearing their flag during the war. Some of the best-known fighter pilots were their service’s ace of aces. Manfred von Richtofen (known popularly in the west as The Red Baron) was the ace of aces among both sides in WWI. Eddie Rickenbacker was the American Ace of Aces for the war. In World War II, America’s best ace was Richard Bong, while the Germans have Erich Hartmann (who is also the top scoring fighter ace of all time with 352 kills).

With the fall of France relatively early in World War II, there are two lists of French aces from the war. The first is those who fought with the Free French, which remained a part of the Allies for the whole war, and the second composed of those who flew for the occupied Nazi-puppet government of Vichy France. With the return to Allied loyalty, the latter list contains pilots whose kill tally includes wins against and for the Allies.

The ace of aces of the war for France was Pierre Clostermann, pictured at the top. Eagle eyed readers will notice the massive number awards he’s wearing. His Croix de Guerre has dozens of attachments, each indicating individual citations. Around his neck is the coveted Legion of Honor. You might also recognize some foreign awards there, including the British Distinguished Service Order and the American Distinguished Service Cross. How did one man become so highly decorated?

Perhaps most surprising in the story of Clostermann is that his victories didn’t start in the early days of the war. His 33 air-to-air triumphs came in just the final two years of the conflict.

Clostermann was born in 1921 to a family of French diplomats in Brazil, where he was subsequently raised. Being in an aristocratic position, as a young man he would have occasion to meet many celebrities and dignitaries. In those days, daring aviators were some of the most popular and celebrated figures. Clostermann met two of France’s best known pilots, Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet.

As many boys at the time had, Clostermann was fascinated with flying, and took his first flight in 1935. The next year, at a Brazilian flying club, he learned how to fly himself. He was instructed by a man he knew as Karl Benitz. Research has led me that this was actually Arthur Benitz, a German aerobatic pilot. Benitz died in 1943, reportedly in Russia (assumedly as part of the war effort) after having been German aircraft firm Bücker’s chief test pilot since 1936. He most famously took the then-new Bücker Jungmeister. The Jungmeister is a still-celebrated aerobatic bi-plane and the Nazi Luftwaffe’s advanced trainer.

Clostermann completed his secondary education, then went to France. There he earned his private pilot’s license in 1937. Over the next few years he would travel back to Brazil, to the US, and, after the war started, to Britain to join the Free French Forces in 1942. Along the way, he’d gotten an aeronautical engineer’s degree and his commercial pilot’s license.

He initially tried to join the Free French in 1940 but was rejected. He used the time to continued his studies, and then made a roundabout trip from the US, to South America, and then South Africa on his way to Liverpool.

Joining the French Air Force, Clostermann already had more than 300 hours of flight experience. At a time when men were being sent into combat with a fraction of that seat time, it’s to be expected that he would be selected to be a pilot in uniform. He underwent fighter pilot training and was made a pilot sergeant. Flying Spitfires, he was sent to the front lines in January 1943 as part of the Royal Air Force’s No 341 Squadron (known to the French as Groupe de Chasse n° 3/2 “Alsace”).

Before he could score his first kills over occupied Europe, he crash landed his plane once after being unable to lower his landing gear. It would be the first of occasional misadventure in the air, interspersed with magnificent victories. Just a couple of weeks later he scored his first kill, actually his first two kills, on 27 July, taking down two German Fw-190s over his ancestral homeland of France.

He briefly fell out of favor among the Free French Forces command after a mission that claimed the life of his squadron commander. It was 27 August 1943. Clostermann was flying the wing position for Commandant René Mouchotte. They were escorting a daylight bombing raid of B-17 Flying Fortresses. Over occupied France, the formation was attacked by a large number of enemy Fw-190s. A melee ensued.

As the Frenchmen tangled with German fighters, Mouchotte and Clostermann became separated from the rest of their flight. Clostermann’s Spitfire started having engine troubles. When this happened, he lost sight of Mouchotte. The last that was heard from the famed aviator was a radio message, “I am alone with the bombers.” His body washed ashore in Belgium a week later.

Despite a mechanical issue not being his fault, Clostermann was blamed for not being there for his wingman. He was relegated for a time to second-line fighting. By the end of the year he was back to front-line service.

In total, Clostermann flew more than 340 combat missions and shot down nearly three dozen enemy aircraft (though that total has been called into question). He was commissioned an officer in October 1943, flew in support of the Normandy Invasion, and was one of the first Free French pilots to land on French soil on 18 June 1944.

British Distinguished Flying Cross

Subsequently, Clostermann received the British Distinguished Flying Cross (roughly analogous to the similarly named American award) and was then called to serve at the French Air Force headquarters in October.

Clostermann returned to frontline service in December 1944. Again flying with an RAF squadron, he was now in the Hawker Tempest fighter. He obviously learned something of the politics game from his parents, because he was a strong supporter of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French, a national hero of the war, and would become Prime Minister and then President of France in the Fourth and Fifth French Republics. Clostermann even named his aircraft “Le Grand Charles.”

Hawker’s Tempest was the premier British fighter of the war. At the time Clostermann was flying them they were brand new. A development of the legendary Hawker Typhoon, the Tempest was designed with a laminar flow wing to give it better high altitude performance. It also performed better at low altitudes, becoming the fastest low level fighter of the war. Pilots, including Clostermann, used this to their advantage to engage the state-of-the-art German Me-262 jet fighters the Nazi war machine was pressing into service.

One of a series of photographs that showed Clostermannn flying his Tempest Mk.V, NV994/JF-E over Germany during April 1945, en route to ALG B.112 Hopsten. The body of water below the aircraft has been identified as a part of the Dortmund-Ems Canal

On 24 March 1945 Clostermann was flying with the RAF’s No 3 Squadron when his Tempest was hit with German flak. Wounded in the leg, the plane badly damaged, he made it back to a friendly base, but was forced to belly land his plane again. He spent a week in hospital, and received a bar to his British DFC (to indicate a second award) for his troubles.

Before the end of the war Clostermann had risen to command the RAF’s 122 Wing at just 24 years old. On 27 July, just after the war’s end, Clostermann left the Air Force. He held the rank of Wing Commander (equivalent to a lieutenant colonel) in the RAF and lieutenant in the French Air Force. De Gaulle called him “Le premier chasseur de France” (France’s foremost fighter pilot).

On 12 May 1945, just a few days after VE Day, Clostermann was involved in an incident that claimed the lives of three pilots and nearly cost him his. Clostermann and his wingmen were flying in close formation as part of a victory flight over Bremerhaven, Germany.

The wing of Clostermann’s Tempest, and that of one of his wingmen, collided. The close formation flying didn’t leave a lot of room for an error like that. Immediately, all four airplanes in the low-altitude flight piled up. Clostermann was the only man to survive after bailing out. His chute opened moments before he hit the ground.

Distinguished Service Order

When he left the service, in addition to his British DFC and bar, he held the British Distinguished Service Order (at the time the second highest award for combat bravery for commissioned officers), the American Distinguished Service Cross (their second highest award for combat gallantry), and a bevy of awards from his native France.

For his World War II service, Clostermann earned more than two dozen citations in orders. This is represented as 27 award devices on his Croix de Guerre (1939-1945 version). Seventeen of those were at the army level as represented by bronze palms (though I count 27 in the above picture). Other pictures of his awards show at least one gold gilt palm, a World War II only award for a mention in dispatches at the Free French Forces level. Depending on the level at which one was cited, these are analagous to an American Silver Star or Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”.

Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor

He received France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honor, at the highest level of Grand Cross. He held the Order of Liberation, France’s second-highest honor. It was only awarded about 1,000 times and only to those who greatly contributed to the Liberation of the country during World War II. Clostermann also received the Military Medal, France’s next highest award for combat bravery (comparable to an American service cross), the Resistance Medal (for “remarkable acts of courage that contributed to the resistance of the French people against the enemy”), the Aeronautical Medal (similar to the British and American DFC), and the Medal for the War Wounded. He also held other honors from foreign Allied governments as well as wartime campaign medals from the British.

Clostermann is likely the most decorated Frenchman of World War II. As I said, he is officially credited with 33 kills, with five probables and another eight damaged. Post-war analysis indicates he without doubt downed 11 enemy fighters, with somewhere around another seven, for a still impressive total of around 18 kills. He also logged 225 vehicles, 26 locomotives, five tanks, and two torpedo boats as destroyed during his many close-air support and light bombing missions.

Post-war, Clostermann used his fame and glory to go into both politics and writing. His memoirs of the war, Le Grand Cirque (literally “The Great Circus”, and published in English as “The Big Show”) was an international bestseller. Published in 1951, it was one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the air war over Europe. He’d later publish multiple other books.

In 1946, while working as an aeronautical engineer, he was elected a député (member of parliament) in the French National Assembly. He served eight terms, between 1946 and 1969. He was politically aligned with his wartime commander-in-chief De Gaulle. Clostermann briefly re-joined the French Air Force in 1956 to fly close air support missions during the Algerian War. He did this for about a year.

He helped set up the French aviation firm Reims, becoming a vice president of the corporate. Reims was the French affiliate for Cessna. He also sat on the board of directors for Air France and Renault. He was also a passionate deep sea fisherman, writing a book on the topic Des Poissons Si Grand (literally “Big Fish”) in 1963. A member of the Big Game Fishing Club of France, he was the group’s first president. In 2001, he was inducted into the hall of fame of the International Game Fish Association.

In his later life, Clostermann became a figure of division. During the Falklands War, he wrote to a group of Argentine fighter pilots (who had been trained in France, in part by his own son) to praise them for the courage shown in action against the better equipped British. The private letter became public, and was seen as a betrayal of his British service in that country. During the Gulf War, Clostermann, now in his 70s, came out as fiercely anti-war. This drew considerable controversy in his native France.

Clostermann died in 2006 at home. He was living in Montesquieu-des-Albères, in the French Pyrenees.

Category: Air Force, Historical, Valor, We Remember

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5JC

If I wrote a fictional story about a French war hero this would be it. Courageous and yet deliciously complicated.

KoB

A prime example that not all Frenchies were ready to surrender. Impressive record in anyone’s book.

Another great story, Mason. We Thank you!

Prior Service

Great post. I take back one of my French “fired once” or “three reverse gears” jokes. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty more!

Sparks

Thanks Mason. Not all the French were eating cheese and drinking some wine when the Naxi’s were storming through.

David

On a side note, the majority of Hoffman’s victories were against Russian Yak biplanes, I read. Would seem to be like flying the gun to an aerial knife fight.