Desperately in need of modern fighters, France took a keen interest in the Spitfire as early as 1939. A single Spitfire Mk I was delivered and tested by the French air force in July 1939. After the war, France also operated the Spitfire during several years, notably using it in combat during the Indochinese war, while the French navy operated the naval version of the Supermarine fighter, the Seafire.
Between these two periods, French pilots flew and distinguished themselves at the controls of the legendary fighter, as part of the Free French Air Forces. Here are a few of these men and aircraft…
Spitfire Mk I, No 64 Squadron, flown by S/C Maurice Choron, autumn of 1940
Maurice Choron was one of the first French pilots to arrive in England and joined the RAF in August 1940. After a short training period with an OTU , he was assigned to No 64 Squadron nd became the first French pilot to take part in the Battle of Britain. On November 1st, he shot down a Heinkel He 115. Maurice Choron disappeared on April 10, 1942 over Northern France, during the first mission flown by No 341 (Free French) Squadron “Ile de France”. He was credited with three confirmed and three probable victories.
Spitfire Mk Vb, No 91 “Nigeria” Squadron, flown by Cpt Jean Demozay, September 1941
Jean Demozay also took part in the Battle of Britain, flying with No 1 Squadron on Hurricanes. He earned his first victory one week after Choron, downing a Ju 88 on November 8, 1940. His tally increased steadily, and his skill as a fighter pilot was truly revealed when he transitioned to the Spitfire Mk Vb after his transfer to No 91 Squadron, of which he eventually became the commanding officer. He is credited with 18 victories, 2 probable victories and 4 damaged, and flew 400 combat missions. He regretfully stopped flying combat missions in January 1943. He was killed in a flying accident in December 1945.
Spitfire Mk Vb, No 340 Squadron “Ile-de-France”, flown by Cpt Bernard Dupérier, August 1942
When No 340 Squadron was formed, Bernard Dupérier took command of B Flight (“Versailles”) and later took command of the entire squadron when Philippe de Scitivaux was killed in action on April 10, 1942. Initially equiped with Spitfires Mk I and II, the squadron received the more powerful Spitfire Mk V, which was introduced as a stop-gap measure to counter the threat of the new Fw 190, pending the arrival of the improved Spitfire Mk IX. During Operation Jubilee (the August 19, 1942 raid on Dieppe), the squadron’s aircraft received distinctive white strips. On that day, Dupérier flew four support missions, shared a kill on a German bomber and damaged another one.
61 Operational Training Unit
Spitfire Mk II, 61 OTU, RAF Rednal, November 1942
This is where it started for all French pilots who gained fame at the commands of the Spitfire: the aircraft of OTUs, most of which were war-weary hand-me-downs from frontline squadrons. This Mk II was the first Spitfire flown by Pierre Clostermann, in November 1942. The Mk II was totally outclassed by contemporary German fighters and no longer used by frontline units, but could still prove useful as a trainer. Clostermann wrote about this first flight in his memoirs The Big Show:
“How deliciously soft was the aircraft’s response! The slightest shift of the foot or hand was enough to throw the aircraft around the sky. The speed is such that the few seconds that have gone by have taken me several miles from the airfield. The black runway is no longer but a charcoal streak on the horizon. Timidly! I attempt to turn, fly over the airfield again and come back right and left. Pulling slightly on the stick, I climb to 9,000 ft in the blink of an eye. […] All my life I will remember my first encounter with the Spitfire.
Softly, as one would caress a woman’s cheek, I pass my hand on the cold, smooth aluminum of the wings that carried me… At last, I have flown a Spitfire…”
Spitfire Mk IXc, No 602 Squadron, flown by P/O Pierre Clostermann
The Mk IX is the last of the Merlin-engined Spitfires, and is often considered as the most beautiful and best of all Spitfire versions. This Mk Ixc was flown by Pierre Clostermann. After a stay with No 341 “Alsace” Squadron, Clostermann was assigned to No 602 “City of Glasgow” Squadron. Bearing the red lion emblem and the French croix de Lorraine, this Spitfire ended its career flying with the Italian air force in 1947. Clostermann probably never achieved any victories in this aircraft, but was credited with 4 confirmed victories on other 602 aircraft before converting to the Hawker Tempest. He ended the war with 33 victories.
UK, Spitfire Mk IXc, MH417, Cdt René Mouchotte, No 341 (Free French) Squadron, 1943.jpg
No 341 Squadron, composed of Free French pilots, flew from Biggin Hill under the command of S/L René Mouchotte. It was flying as Mouchotte’s wingman that Clostermann flew some of his first combat sorties. On 27 August 1943, Mouchotte was killed while escorting bombers over Northern France. The circumstances of his death are unknown, but he was last heard crying “I am alone!”. His body was washed ashore in Belgium a few days later. It is unclear whether Spitfire MH417 was flown by Mouchotte on that day or by S/C Pierre Magret, who was the group’s only other casualty on that day.