The French military has an undeserved reputation for its lack of martial ardour, from the infamous ‘French military victories’ Google Bomb to the ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ epithet from The Simpsons that has entered the language.
This is a slur on the many brave French servicemen and women who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and one of those was René Mouchotte who became a hero of the Battle of Britain.
Mouchotte was born in Paris in 1914 to a wealthy family that ran a successful distillery business that he was meant to join, but he was more interested in flying and in 1935 he joined the Armee de l’Air as a pupil pilot, qualifying as a pilot in 1937.
He returned to civilian life in January 1939 but with the outbreak of war in September that year he was mobilised as part of the reserve. Mouchotte requested an operational posting but instead he was sent to various training bases as a flying instructor and was eventually posted to Oran in Algeria.
With the fall of France, the planes on the base were placed under guard by the Vichy French but despite this Mouchotte and five other pilots managed to escape in a twin-engined and made their way to Gibraltar to join the Free French forces.
Mouchette travelled to England where he trained on the Hawker Hurricane fight plane before being posted to No 615 Squadron at RAF Northolt in north-west London. His first operational flight took place in October 1940. He later joined the Free French No. 340 Squadron at RAF Turnhouse later became commander of No 65 Squadron RAF, the first RAF squadron to be commanded by a non-Commonwealth officer.
Ultimately he took command of the Free French Groupe de Chasse n° 3/2 ‘Alsace’ squadron and in May 1943 Mouchette claimed the Biggin Hill Wing’s 1,000th kill.
Mouchette was shot down and killed in combat while escorting Flying Fortresses on the first daylight bombing raid on the Pas de Calais. His body washed ashore at Middelkerke in Belgium almost a week later and was buried there. His remains were exhumed in 1949 and reinterred in the family tomb in Paris after a memorial service with full military honours.
Mouchette was both brave and inspired those around and he was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the Compagnon de la Libération, the Croix de guerre 1939-1945 and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He kept detailed diaries during his flying career and although they were never intended for publication, they were published in France in 1949 and then as The Mouchette Diaries in English in 1956 and his words became his epitaph:
If Fate allows me only a brief fighting career, I shall thank Heaven for having been able to give my life for the liberation of France.
Mouchette was the subject of the BBC documentary below that does him better justice than I can in words.