Jean Navarre and his Morane-Saulnier monoplane. ‘He always catches you on the hop. Just when you want to put him on a charge, you end up mentioning him in despatches.’
For Sergeant Joseph Frantz (V24), the airmen of both sides shared a certain esprit de corps in the early days of the conflict: ‘At the start, we aviators were a little more, shall we say, chivalrous than the other arms of service … we raised a hand in greeting when we met another plane, even an enemy one.’ Lucien Finck (HF7) encountered one such German flying a Taube over Thionville. ‘[The plane] was 100 metres ahead and a little below me,’ he recalled. ‘The pilot’s muffler was flapping in the wind. He turned round, spotted me and gave a hearty wave. Then the [Boches] were too polite to go armed, now they’re too well-armed to be polite. I’d have had trouble doing him much harm, though. My only weapons were an old-fashioned standard-issue revolver and a box of wind-resistant matches.’ But this gentleman’s war was short-lived and pilots and observers like the young Jean Navarre (MF8/MS12/N67) were soon taking potshots at their opponents: ‘the enemy came towards me, banked, flew parallel to me and waved his hand in greeting. He was on his own, too. By way of response I fired my three rounds … He dived quickly, without waiting to find out what came next…. I flew home, pleased as punch.’
High in the air, American volunteer Jim McConnell (N124) felt very remote from the struggle below: ‘The battle passes in silence, the noise of one’s motor deadening all other sounds. In the green patches behind the brown belt myriads of tiny flashes tell where the guns are hidden; and those flashes, and the smoke of bursting shells, are all we see of the fighting. It is a weird combination of stillness and havoc, the Verdun conflict viewed from the sky … Our knowledge about the military operations is scant. We haven’t the remotest idea as to what has taken place on the battlefield – even though we’ve been flying over it during an attack – until we read the papers; and they don’t tell us much.’ However, Captain Antonin Brocard (N3) shared Pétain’s conviction that fighter pilots could inspire those huddled in the trenches: ‘Out of acute self-interest, our troops follow the planes that manoeuvre over their heads very closely indeed: offensive behaviour and attacking sorties over enemy lines boost morale. Particularly daring and reckless actions, even when of little apparent military value, can nevertheless serve to invigorate a unit and drive it forward. Aviators should remember this when their turn comes to set the example.’
One pilot who took this message to heart was the so-called ‘Sentinelle de Verdun’, Lieutenant Jean Navarre (MF8/MS12/N67). He had been unruly even as a boy, and many commanding officers found him hard to handle, but his flying skills made up for a lot. ‘Navarre was a phenomenon in the air, a real prodigy,’ recalled his CO in N67, Captain Henri de Saint Sauveur. ‘He devised the range of manoeuvres known as “aerobatics” and spent hours developing them for use in aerial combat … I still have enormous admiration for him. I’m very grateful for the enthusiastic, dependable and cheerful way he tackled the missions entrusted to him. And I remain completely in awe of his artistry and skill.’ De Rose was similarly charmed and exasperated in turn: ‘Navarre always catches you on the hop,’ he grumbled. ‘Just when you want to put him on a charge, you end up mentioning him in despatches.’
Navarre had made his reputation with MS12 before requesting a transfer to join N67 at Verdun. Anxious to be as close to the front as possible, he moved with his mechanics to the suburb of Faubourg Pavé, well within range of the enemy artillery. He was soon driven back to Vadelaincourt, but as a visible presence in the sky during the darkest days of the German offensive he became a hero to pilots and ground troops alike. Private E. Louis, serving in the trenches with 25th Chasseurs, was one of his admirers: ‘Lieutenant Navarre hated to waste a journey, so if there was no prey about he’d use the return trip to entertain the men crouched in the trenches. He absolutely worshipped the poilus. “Is that what they do in the trenches?” he replied, when asked why he didn’t keep count of his victories. “No! Then why should I be any different?” Coming back from a sortie he liked to put on a bit of a show. He gave it everything, going through his full repertoire to show us poor sods that he hadn’t forgotten us and was doing all he could to divert us.’
On 26 February Navarre shot down two Germans in one day, and exactly two months later he downed four, but on 17 June his career came to an abrupt halt. On patrol with Sous-lieutenant Georges (‘Pivolo’) Pelletier d’Oisy (HF19/MS12/N69) and Adjudant Urbain Guignand (HF13/N37/N67), he scored his twelfth victory, a two-seater, over Samogneux. Continuing over the Argonne, the three pilots then spotted a German observation machine on an artillery shoot. Navarre deferred to his comrades to open the attack: Pelletier d’Oisy made the first firing pass, but Guignand had disappeared and Navarre decided he would have to join in: ‘The Boche focused all his attention on me, [seemingly] angered by the red fuselage I’d adopted to identify myself in the air. I dived into the attack without waiting for Guignand and just as I made another split-S I felt a terrible shock in my arm and chest.’ Spitting blood, Navarre managed to land his plane using one arm only: ‘I bumped down at Sainte-Ménehould with a bit of a flourish in case this was my last hurrah, bringing the nose into the wind with one of my special grass-cutter turns. The mechanics and the poilus were playing football on the far side of the camp and [I knew] they’d come running over to see what was up. I tried to leave the plane unaided, but my legs gave way as I stood up. I felt faint and shouted for help. The first face I recognized was that of bold Pivolo. Guessing what had happened, he’d stuck to my tail and touched down next to me.’
‘Navarre is the leading ace in our service,’ claimed Captain Auguste Pinsard (MS23/N26/N78/SPA23). ‘He alone managed to give our cockades the better of the black crosses in the skies above Verdun.’ Georges Madon (BL30/MF218/N/SPA38) agreed: ‘[Navarre] reigns supreme among pilots. He is the premier French aviator, the ace of aces in flying and combat. I admire him enormously as I showed … by pinching his tactics, methods and even his colours when I found out he wouldn’t be returning to the front.’ Claude Haegelen (F8/SPA89/100/103) went further still: ‘along with the poilus of 304, Vaux and Douaumont, Navarre will remain the true hero of Verdun’.
One ace who cared little for numbers was Jean Navarre (N67). ‘Navarre was greatly loved, particularly by the younger men,’ commented Adjudant Jean Casale (N23). ‘If he fought alongside a comrade … he gave him the victory, unless the aircraft came down behind our lines, which didn’t happen often.’ According to René Fisch, Casale had personal experience of this generosity: ‘“I almost downed my first aircraft this morning,” [Casale told us]. “It was an Albatros. He couldn’t see me because he was blinded by the sun [and I crept up behind him. I had my finger on the trigger, just about to fire, but before I had time to let off a shot, a red plane swooped down like a bird of prey. Bang, bang, bang … he passed straight between us, and the German fell in flames.” Just as he finished speaking, the captain walked into the mess. He solemnly approached [Casale] and embraced him: “Ah, Casale! Congratulations. You’ve downed your first victim. That’s your first mention in despatches. Navarre has just been on the telephone. You fought like a lion …” Well, we could hardly contain our laughter. And with some justification, don’t you think, when [Casale] had just told us he hadn’t even pressed the trigger? Still … it didn’t stop him from eventually shooting down twenty planes.’
Jean Navarre (N67) was also happy to profit from his fame. ‘He never went anywhere expecting to pay,’ claimed his comrade Lieutenant Alfred Rougevin-Baville (N67). ‘He frequented the Café de Paris, a famous restaurant on the Avenue de l’Opéra. “I am Navarre,” he would announce in restaurants and theatres. This was his “open sesame” and he never had to get out his wallet. One day, however, the maître d’ gave him the bill. Navarre took his kepi – never hung up but always kept under his arm – and passed it round the restaurant, collecting coins and notes. He paid the maître d’ and pocketed the rest.’
After a premature return from convalescence and his twin brother’s death in action, Navarre became increasingly erratic in his behaviour. On 9 April 1917, the worse for drink, he decided to take his Hispano-Suiza for a spin around town and ended up driving on the pavement. Ordered to stop by two gendarmes who shot at his tyres when he failed to comply, he roared back on to the road, ran into another two flics and punched one who tried to remonstrate with him. The pilot fled back to Vadelaincourt but was followed and arrested a short time later. After a brief spell in the Cherche-Midi military prison, he spent the next eighteen months in a sanatorium. Although released in September 1918, he was still at a training establishment when the armistice was signed and never saw action again.