To the general public of today, increasingly aware of the saga of the flying fighter aces of the Great War, Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen is generally acknowledged as THE highest scoring and most famous of the Great War flying aces. This awareness of von Richthofen’s role in the Great War is due to some extent, it has to be said, to the influence of the widely syndicated daily newspaper comic strip of Charles M. Shultz that recorded the antics of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the Red Baron (one of von Richthofen’s more famous nick-names).
Whilst it is true that von Richthofen is generally credited with the highest number of confirmed aerial victories (80) in the Great War, the ‘ace’ system itself was initiated by the French newspapers in 1915. The idea was then avidly taken up by the French Government eager for a diversion from the bad news from the Western Front. It was inspired by a French airman Adolphe Pegoud who was the first to shoot down five German aircraft.
However, quite unexpectedly it was a modest, slight, Parisian who was to win the hearts of the French people and became its most revered and beloved flying ace. His name was Georges Marie Ludovic Jules Guynemer.
Georges Guynemer (hereafter GG) was born in Paris in December 1894 to a rich and influential military family. He was a sickly youth and an undistinguished student. At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 he was refused entry five times by the l’Aéronautique Francaise (The French Army Air Services) but with his father’s help was finally accepted as an aircraft mechanic.
A well backed application for pilot training soon followed and was also successful; candidates with a slight frame were at an advantage.
In April 1915, aged 21, GG received his pilot’s brevet, and a posting to the Reserve at Le Bourget with the rank of Caporal.
Going to war with l'Aéronautique Francaise
GG joined his first operational unit – Escadrille (Squadron) MS3 on the 8th June 1915. The squadron was equipped with Morane-Saunier Parasol L aircraft. The aircraft assigned to GG was formerly flown by Charles Bonnard who had named it Vieux Charles (Old Charles). GG retained the name and subsequently assigned it to all the aircraft he flew.
GG quickly adapted to operational flying and by 19th July 1915 had claimed a German Aviation B.1; the first of his 53 confirmed victories, although the rear firing machine gun was manned by his mechanic.
Promotion to sergent (sergeant) quickly followed along with a Mention-in-Despatches and the Medaille Militaire; atypically, the non-commissioned mechanic was also awarded the MM for his participation in the shooting down of the Aviatik.
With a record of having been shot down seven times during the next two years, GG’s flying career was subsequently highly eventful.
In December 1915, GG’s squadron was renamed N (Nieuport) 3, re-equipped with Nieuport 10’s and armed with a forward firing machine gun (an above the upperwing mounted Lewis).
When GG downed his second victory near Compeigne – close to Paris - he could not locate where it had crashed. To everyone’s amazement, he requested that his retired army Colonel father to rush to the area and locate the crash. This his father did, found the crash-site and identified the German pilot. GG was awarded a confirmed victory, his second..
December 1915 also brought him the award of the Légion d’Honneur (Chevalier = Knight ) making him one of France’s most highly decorated airmen at that time.
GG became noted amongst his peers for his meticulous pre- and post flight inspections of his aircraft and armament and for his daring close-contact attacks on the enemy.
With eight victories to his name, on 4th March 1916, whilst engaged in the heavy fighting on the Verdun Front, GG was commissioned to Sous-Lieutenant (Second Lieutenant/Pilot Officer).
On the 12th March 1915, whilst flying the new Nieuport 17 aircraft, he was wounded in the arm and face and crash-landed, almost totally destroying his aircraft. He was out of action for the next three months, having briefly returned to duty too early and being sent on leave again exhibiting clear signs of exhaustion related to combat stress.
Returning to duty in June 1916, he participated in the aerial battles over the Somme battlefield. By September 1916 his tally of victories had risen to18.
The French Groupes de Combat had come into being on the 16th October 1916 as a result of the success of l’Aéronautique Francaise in the skies above the Verdun battlefield in 1916.
The Groupe de Combat #12 was formed on the 6th April 1916 under the command of Commandant d’Antonin Brocard, incorporating squadrons N3 (GG’s), 26, 37, 62, 65, 67, 73 and 103. It soon became universally known as Les Cigognes – The Storks: all the Groupe de Combat # 12 squadrons carried an individualised identification insignia derived from various in-flight attitudes of a black and white stork with a red bill and legs.
Les Cigognes squadrons became known as the ‘ace-factories’ of France as so many of their pilots became aces; of all the French aces, GG became the French ace closest associated with the stork insignia.
The Spads and the 'magic machine'
Recovered from his injuries, GG quickly settled into his role with the Groupe de Combat # 12 and converted to the new Spad (Société de S.P.A.D) S VII fighter aircraft. With this aircraft he raised his number of confirmed victories to 30 by January 1917.
After many further contests in his Spad S VII – including a famed one-to-one duel with Ernst Udet (subsequently Germany’s second scoring ace) – GG again showed signs of stress and exhaustion and was sent off on Rest and Recuperation Leave.
Whilst on leave, and as active as ever, he discussed with the various authorities in the aviation field the possible improvements to the fighting ability of the current French fighter aircraft, and the Spad S VII in particular. One of these experts – Louis Bechereau, the SPAD company’s senior designer – proposed the modification of the deadly 37mm (1.5-inch) Hotchkiss cannon to fire through the hollow crankshaft of the Spad S VII’s Hispano-Suiza V-8 engine.* The project came to fruition and a trial commissioning of the Spad S XII.Ca. (i.e. with the cannon) followed.
* Not to be confused with French ace Roland Garros’ propeller deflector plates or Anton Fokker’s interrupter gear. See FOKKER in the article ‘Significant individuals behind the development of new British weaponry and tactics for the Western Front in the Great War’which is also listed on this website.Called by GG the ‘machine magique’, the single-shot 37mm cannon equipped Spad S XII. Ca. was flown in combat by GG and he claimed several victories with it. The hand-loading of the gun in flight, and the noxious fumes and the recoil produced in the Spad XII. Ca’s cockpit when it was fired, made the whole enterprise a highly hazardous affair. So, despite the incredible destructive effect the cannon had on the targeted enemy aircraft and crew, any idea of mass production of the combination was dropped.
The final phase
As his operational skills grew, GG became more confident in his own abilities and often relinquished his wing-man to fly on solo missions; a practice adopted by many of the more successful air aces of both sides. His skills at ambush and single combat become legendary, and his fame grew to be extolled by the French Press and the adoring French public whose interest only increased as his personal modesty and reticence became better known.
Promoted to Capitaine in February 1917, GG continued augment his series of victories including multiples in a single day: on one such day in May 1917 he claimed four victims; two of them in one minute.
In a singular act of recognition of GG’s favourable standing with the general public, on the 13th May 1917, he was asked to carry the l’Aviation Militaire colours at a much attended military parade in Dijon in Central France. (For a strange co-incidence see Postscriptum below).
In June 1917, GG was awarded a much-anticipated Légion d’Honneur (Officier = Officer). The award was presented at a special ceremony on the 5th July 1917 where his Les Cigognes emblazoned Spad S XII. Ca. aircraft was also put on parade.
By the end of July 1917, GG became the first French ace attain his 50th victory – a German DFW (Deutsche Flugzeug-Werke AG.) model C.V. An achievement that was widely acclaimed by the French Press and Government: GG continued aerial success was seen as another welcome diversion from the more dire realities of the war.
GG’s war in the air continued at a furious pace, with the effects of battle stress becoming ever more apparent in his demeanour and physical appearance. However, his score of confirmed victories continued to mount until, on the 20th August 1917, it reached 53 with the downing of another DWF C.V. in the Ypres Sector of Belgium. (Other higher total scores are quoted; some as high as 100, if all of the ‘probable’ victories are included).
The end of the self-named ‘Boche hunter’ came with the almost predictable pattern of death of the flying fighter ace; a miasma of unsubstantiated facts, suppositions and rumours, and no dead body for posterity to honour and mourn.
Certainly, as mentioned above, by early-September 1917, GG was in an advanced state of combat induced stress; he was also said to be suffering from TB, a long existing condition exacerbated by the stress of combat. In all conscience, he should have been rested long before: contemporary photographs clearly show the progress of his physical deterioration.
What is fairly reliably known about his death is that on the morning of the 11th September 1917, GG took off with his number two on a patrol over Poelcapelle, in the Ypres Sector, Belgium. They encountered a twin seater German reconnaissance plane and proceeded to attack it with the usual elan, but it evaded them by diving steeply away. Then, without any prior warning, a flight of German fighter aircraft came into view. GG’s number two (or wingman), sure that GG had seen the danger and would react accordingly, dived towards the German flight scattering them across the sky. Returning to the fray, GG’s wing-man found no trace of GG, nor the German aircraft, so, after a careful search he set off for base, only to find GG had not returned.
Apparently, GG did not take successful evasive action, was engaged by one, or more of the enemy, and subsequently crashed nearby. The wreck of an aircraft and the body of the pilot were examined by members of the German 143rd Infantry Regiment. It is said that they stated that the pilot had been killed by a single bullet wound to the head and had received other superficial wound(s) to his body. For some reason the body was not recovered and it is surmised that it, and the aircraft, were subsequently blown to smithereens in a prolonged and intensive co-incidental British artillery barrage of the area. No trace of the aircraft, or the remains of the pilot (GG?), was ever found at the supposed crash site.
The pilot who was credited by the Germans with GG’s death – Leutnant Kurt Wiseman of Jasta 3 - was himself killed in action soon afterwards; thus another thread in the story was lost. A grieving and disbelieving French public was only informed of GG’s death after one month of delay.
Grieving French school children, who had eagerly plotted GG’s career over the three years of his flying adventures, were told that ‘Capitaine Guynemer flew so high he could not come down again’.
The two public monuments that commemorate GG are a statue in his city of birth, Paris, and a plaque in the national Pantheon, also in Paris. Obviously, there is no burial site.
Although GG was not France’s highest scoring ace of the Great War – that honour went to Paul René Fonck with 75 victories - he was really taken into the hearts of the French people and became their favourite and most beloved air ace of the Great War. Of course, the newspaper stories of GG’s 600 aerial duels, his double wounding, 26 citations, including the highest decorations his nation could bestow, allied with his constant modest demeanour and patent love for France, all played a part in the phenomenon.
The combat stress suffered by GG at various times, known contemporaneously by the French as Le Cafard (= to be fed up), would today be called PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). In GG’s case it would have given a clear indication of the need for a period of rest, or complete withdrawal, from combat situations.
Finally, today, there is still a Les Cigognes squadron – #EC.01.002 - in the French Air Force. It flies Mirage 2000-5F’s out of the Dijon air base in Central France.