Free French Spitfires

Following the dissolution of the Vichy French naval aviation arm, the second escadrille of the combat fighter group GC II/7 accepted several navy pilots into its ranks. In March 1943, it received its first British aircraft; Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb fighters. When GC II/7 was broken up in August, the squadron received two designations – one of which was French, the other British – by virtue of the fact that its complement included both French and British pilots. While the British designated the unit No.326 Squadron of the RAF, the French knew their squadron as GC 2/7, even though it was attached to No. 345 Wing of the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force (MACAF). Its first mission as GC 2/7 was an armed reconnaissance mission on April 30, 1943, during the final phase of the war in North Africa, by which time the Luftwaffe had all but vanished, but ground-based Flak units still remained. By May 13, the Germans had surrendered in North Africa, and GC 2/7 had by then flown 42 missions, accumulating 296 sorties. On June 18, the squadron replaced its Mk.Vb Spitfires with the more agile and maneuverable Mk.IX variant, built originally to combat the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190, an example of which had been credited to GC 2/7 just seven days earlier.

September 1943 witnessed the participation of GC 2/7 in the liberation of Corsica, claiming seven enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of two of its pilots. On the 27th, the squadron, alongside GC 1/3, had the distinction of becoming the first Armée de l’Air unit to be stationed on French soil, since the dissolution of the Vichy French air force the previous December, when it occupied the airfield at Ajaccio-Campo dell’Oro. Now part of No.332 Wing, the squadron’s duties encompassed patrols over the island of Corsica itself, interception of German bombers attacking the island, protection of Allied convoys traversing the Mediterranean, attacks against German shipping berthed in Italian ports, and, from January 1944, the escort of USAAF bombers attacking targets in Italy. From the spring of 1944, GC 2/7 would involve itself both in strafing and dive-bombing attacks against ground targets in coastal regions of western Italy as well as the island of Elba, famous as the place of temporary exile of Napoleon in 1814 prior to his escape.

Finally, in September 1944, GC 2/7 found itself based in metropolitan France itself and was assigned to the same kind of missions that it had conducted over Italy. However, its commanding officer, Captain Georges Valentin, was shot down by flak over Dijon on the 8th, while another, Captain Gauthier, was shot down a week later, only he managed to reach Switzerland from where, having been interned, he “escaped” to rejoin his unit. As the front line advanced eastwards towards Reich territory, GC 2/7 went to Luxeuil, from where missions flown in early October resulted in four enemy aircraft being confirmed destroyed and another one counted as a “probable”. Christmas Eve saw GC 2/7 escorting B-26 bombers. “Around 20” enemy fighters attacked the formation, and GC 2/7 claimed four of them destroyed, but the French lost one of their pilots in the process.

GC 2/7 frequently clashed with the enemy as the Allies advanced farther into Nazi Germany – including a sighting of two Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters on March 22, 1945, which were just too fast for the piston-engined Spitfires. On April 14, sixteen of the squadron’s aircraft were escorting Lockheed F-5s when they were intercepted by a mixed formation of Bf 109s and Fw 190s, two of which were claimed by GC 2/7 pilots, yet one pilot was shot down and became – for the brief duration that the war in Europe yet had to run – a prisoner. By the time the war did end on May 8, GC 2/7 had, since its formation two years earlier, accomplished just over 7,900 sorties.

French Spitfire pilot Pierre Closterman opens his score

Pierre Closterman had joined the Free French, No.341 Squadron in the spring of 1943. Now based at the famous RAF station at Biggin Hill in the south of England, under the leadership of Henri Mouchotte, they were as experienced as any squadron in Fighter Command.

Twenty two year old Closterman had spent time developing his skills under the tutelage of the older pilots, including Mouchotte and Martell, but he had not yet made a name for himself. When the time came for him to open his score, he did so in dramatic fashion. They were engaged in a sweep over France when suddenly a dozen Focke Wulf 190s attempted to ambush them out of the sun:

Led by a magnificent Fw 190 A-6 painted yellow all over and polished and gleaming like a jewel, the first were already passing on our left, less than a hundred yards away, and turning towards us. I could see, quite distinctly, outlined on their long transparent cockpits, the German pilots crouching forward.

‘Come on, Turban Yellow, attack!’

Martell had already dived straight into the enemy formation. Yellow 3 and Yellow 4 immediately lost contact and left us in the middle of a whirlpool of yellow noses and black crosses.

This time I did not even have time to feel really frightened. Although my stomach contracted, I could feel a frantic excitement rising within me. This was the real thing, and I lost my head slightly. Without realizing it I was giving vent to incoherent Redskin war-whoops and throwing my Spitfire about.

A Focke-Wulf was already breaking away, dragging after him a spiral of black smoke, and Martell, who was not wasting any time, was after the scalp of another. I did my best to play my part and back him up and give him cover, but he was far ahead and I had some difficulty in following his rolls and Immelmann turns.

Two Huns converged insidiously on his tail. I opened fire on them, although they were out of range. I missed them, but made them break off and make for me. Here was my opportunity!

I climbed steeply, did a half-roll and, before they could complete the 180° of their turn, there I was — within easy range this time – behind the second one. A slight pressure on the rudder and I had him in my sights. I could scarcely believe my eyes, only a simple deflection necessary, at less than 200 yards range. Quickly I squeezed the ring-button. Whoopee! Flashes all over his fuselage. My first burst had struck home and no mistake.

The Focke-Wulf caught alight at once. Tongues of flame escaped intermittently from his punctured tanks, licking the fuselage. Here and there incandescent gleams showed through the heavy black smoke surrounding the machine. The German pilot threw his plane into a desperate turn. Two slender white trails formed in the air.

Suddenly, the Focke-Wulf exploded, like a grenade. A blinding flash, a black cloud, then debris fluttered round my aircraft. The engine dropped like a ball of fire. One of the wings, torn off in the flames, dropped more slowly, like a dead leaf, showing its pale yellow under-surface and its olive green upper- surface alternately.

I bellowed my joy into the radio, just like a kid: ‘Hullo, Yellow One, Turban Yellow Two, I got one, I got one! Jesus, I got one of them!’

The sky was now full of Focke-Wulfs, brushing past me, attacking me on every side in a firework display of tracer bullets. They wouldn’t “let me go; a succession of frontal attacks, three-quarters rear, right, left, one after the other.

I was beginning to feel dizzy‘and my arms were aching. I was out of breath too, for maneuvering at 400 m.p.h. a Spitfire whose controls are stiffened by the speed is pretty exhausting work – especially at 26,000 feet. I felt as if I was stifling in my mask and I turned the oxygen to ‘emergency’. All I could feel was a hammering in my damp temples, my wrists and my ankles.

Moments later Closterman was ‘flabbergasted’ to shoot down a second German.