Mes Carnets Rene Mouchotte The Mouchotte Diaries 1940 43

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Computers and the internet are amazing things. One of my concerns with putting together this site was that it could remain current, yet with all my travelling I've often much to say, but little time to say it. Years ago when reading the news it would take me days on end to reply to the kind letters people sent. Now, with the magic of the modern age, I can keep you up to date with what I'm doing and other events in my life.

MES CARNETS - Rene Mouchotte The Mouchotte Diaries 1940/43

Date: 3rd August 2010

MES CARNETS - RENE MOUCHOTTE     The Mouchotte Diaries 1940 - 43

The Daily Mail still haven't printed my story so here goes.  The one element for which I have to thank Andrew Morrod (Features Editor) is that the commission concentrated my mind on writing the piece.  It was difficult to précis all the information I had into 2000 words - but it was a good exercise.  The article below is my unedited version.

COMMANDANT RENE MOUCHOTTE 

At Capel-le-Ferne near Dover, there is a poignant memorial to the pilots who lost their lives in World War 11.  From the air one would see a giant propeller in the middle of which sits a pilot looking toward the French coast - squadron badges are etched around it. 

Annually in July a Memorial Service is held in commemoration of the Battle of Britain and a dwindling band of veterans attend alongside the RAF Top Brass.

Three years ago, as a guest at this moving occasion, I saw Sponsorship forms on the lunch table.  These were to help raise money towards the Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall unveiled by HRH Prince Michael of Kent in 2005.  Etched into the imposing Granite are the names of over 3000 pilots and aircrew who took part in  WW2 (1940 - 45) Many of them died in the war - they came from France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, North and South Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today), Belgium, Ireland, Newfoundland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and one pilot from Jamaica. Many in the UK think the war was won purely by the Brits but as you see from the list, we had aid from all corners of the globe.

Filling in the form and sending my cheque, I thought no more about it until receiving a letter asking if I had any particular requests.  I knew of no-one in my family who'd  been in the RAF but, being of Huguenot extraction, asked for the name of a French pilot if one were available.  Thus began and unfolded a remarkable story. 

Receiving the name of 'my pilot' I idly typed it into an Internet search -I have no idea why.   Wow -  I had 'adopted' a French Hero - recipient of the Croix de Guerre, the Legion d'Honneur, the DFC from the Brits and was the first French pilot to command an RAF Squadron.

Rene Mouchotte kept diaries of his War years which were never meant for publication but published they were by a family friend and with the co-operation of Mouchotte's Mother who, on handing them to Andre Dezarrois stated “I cannot doubt any longer.  I shall never see my son again on earth.  Here is all I have left of him.  Will you publish it?  Surely there is a lesson here for the young men of the country for which he gave all he had'. So 'Les Carnets de Rene Mouchotte'  was published and later  translated into English in 1956.  Being an incurable romantic, I obtained a copy expecting it to be a rather dry Pilot's log. Instead there was a story which couldn't be put down.

Rene came from a well to do manufacturing family and, despite his mother's fears,  was given a small plane for his 18th Birthday.  He was, therefore,  readier than most to enter the French Air Force  and was stationed in Algiers when the Vichy Government capitulated to the Germans on June 17th 1940.  Mouchotte was incensed and wrote 'I have made up my mind.  I am going to England, or Malta or Egypt.”  By this time he and his great friend Charles Guerin decided that they were going to 'steal' a plane from one of the many already being decommissioned.  They very nearly didn't make it.  Though they knew many of the planes at the airfield had been denuded of fuel they did not realize  the Goeland - the object of their impending theft - had propellers which were put out of order.  By the skin of their teeth, they did make an escape having stowed away in the cockpit for hours waiting for dawn before they could begin their flight. Rene describes their near discovery in such vivid terms, you feel you are reading an adventure story.  Guerin and Rene 'limped' to Gibraltar and from there were sent by ship to England.

This is where the diaries are so interesting and vivid.  Rene writes about inactivity, frustration at being held back from active service,  everyday life, fear, cold, blackouts (there were no G suits (anti Gravity)  in WW2) and our dreadful food!

On July 31st 1940 Rene and his fellow Frenchmen read in the French papers 'All military personnel declared rebels, who have joined a foreign army to continue fighting will be sentenced to death if they have not returned to France by 15th August'. 

Of course, Rene had absolutely no intention of returning to his home country and he writes that he promised himself he would wear an English uniform and carry Canadian papers when he flew over France - he knew he could never pass as a Brit. but might just get away with being taken for a French Canadian.  Not only would capture in France lead to torture and death for him but he was concerned for his family and particularly for his mother who was living in Bergerac.  She had no idea what Rene was doing, believing him to be working 'safely' in Intelligence for the Free French Force.  Throughout the diaries there is no mention of his father.  As they were a Catholic family and divorce would have been out of the question in the 40's, I am assuming that his father was deceased.

In the diaries you find yourself one minute reading that Rene had a day off in London and went in search of Duvelleroy's - a shop famous in the annals of French fashion since the end of the 19th Century.  It specialized in the making of fans and was founded by Rene's great grandparents. 

Then in the next paragraph you read about him being blinded by fog 'straining your eyes to pick out anywhere to land, in case the radio won't work, each instant dreading the embrace of a balloon (Barrage), you watch your petrol supply running out in terror'.

One of the first deaths to affect Rene was that  of a French friend and colleague, Henri Bouquillard, (affectionately nick-named 'Grand-Pere') with whom he shared a room.  It was March 1941 - Rene was desperately tired and went to a Rest Home near Oxford for a week.  He writes that he is 'royally installed.  I laze with a regiment of English nurses and adorable French nurses at my orders ....  I have observed that in England the women are either frankly unattractive (oh really!) or else have such pure and regular faces that one seeks in vain for some small defect which would tire the eyes.' 

In June and July the death toll of colleagues is rising. Rene had to endure the agony of seeing his friend Charles Guerin die before his eyes. Guerin's plane developed a glycol leak -  his plane was enveloped with a fatal white cloud denoting complete engine failure and blinding the pilot.  Rene tried to guide himback to base but Guerin told him he wasn't going to be able to make it and would try to ditch near the convoy.  Sadly when he was 50 feet above the sea his plane lurched to starboard and plummeted into the sea.  Rene circled the area for a quarter hour but his friend was gone.

In July 1941, Rene received a great honour - he was to be flight commander of an English flight but is eagerly awaiting news of a French Squadron which is in the process of being formed.   However, he pays the Brits a great compliment by writing that he will miss Squadron 615 because 'English camaraderie is so pleasant and sincere I am afraid I may not find its like where they send me.'

I love the frequent humourous episodes in the diaries.  In October 1941 he is shown a letter received from France by a comrade.  In it the writer is far from flattering to the Vichy Government and intimates that he'd like to see them put up against a wall and shot.  The letter concludes by hoping that 'the swine of a censor' will not open his letter.  It had, however, been opened in France and in red ink in one corner was written 'The swine of a censor has opened your letter and has read it, but he had let it pass just the same'!

The same entry contains the fact that Churchill came to visit and had tea whilst the press photographers dutifully took shots of the occasion.  Churchill was accompanied by Clemmy, was smoking his traditional cigar and left on the best of terms.  Churchill was regarded as the Godfather of 615 Squadron.

That same month, the squadron was visited by General de Gaulle who took lunch with the boys.  De Gaulle was obviously a person whom Rene liked and respected which was the general feeling expressed by others in the squadron - 'I have always been glad to find that the General enjoys the unanimous respect and admiration of his colleagues.  He rises above mischievous rumours - loves his country and thinks of the end to be attained.'

In November 1941, Rene is on his way to 340 Squadron - the first Free French Squadron.  He is excited until they receive their first two planes - so old that the exhaust pipes are dropping off and the undercarriages won't retract.  It is winter in Scotland and the fog and cold are giving the boys a great deal of trouble.  He writes that fortunately a dear old lady in the knitting department of a charitable organization called France-Argentine has sent him a thick, hand-knitted blue sweater.  A pity I do not know the lady's name to thank her.  Anyway, why shouldn't she be young and pretty? 

Another indication of his humour just before he left to go to Edinburgh.  He is on a short leave in London and  writes 'Met two severe policewomen, marching in full awareness of their importance - long slow strides and hands behind their backs. “Hello Ronny” cried one of them.  I recognized an old friend from the Chez Yvonne Club!

Rene did not spend a 'glamorous' war flying on constant dangerous sorties. He was often extremely frustrated at having to fly missions guarding important shipping or accompanying heavy bombers but he did see 'action'.  He spent many months from 1940 until 1942 carrying out the thankless task of keeping watch over the sea.  Attacks on flak ships were part of this mission, extremely dangerous operations in which he destroyed a good dozen of them.  He was credited with only four planes down but was one of two pilots who claimed the thousandth victory over the Germans.  As it was not completely clear who had the decisive victory, the event was shared between Rene and Squadron Leader Jack Charles of 611 Squadron. This victory was later celebrated by a Grand Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

 

On July 13th 1942 - Rene was decorated with the Croix de Guerre by General de Gaulle.  The ceremony took place 'on a glorious morning, in the great courtyard of Wellington Barracks, overlooking Buckingham Palace' and he wrote that he was 'terribly affected' as the General shook his hand.  De Gaulle then took the salute and Rene writes wickedly 'The W.A.A.F's enjoyed a great success.  Unfortunately they were led by a fat girl who marched in front of them, her head thrown back ridiculously and her posterior very noticeable and well behind her.'  Later there were cocktails at the Grosvenor Hotel.

In August 1942 Rene was given command of an English Squadron in recognition of his service record and his experience with the R.A.F.  He commented that he was delirious with happiness at the thought of leading his own squadron into battle over France.  And in September he was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader with 'twenty-eight excellent pilots under his command'.

At the outbreak of WW2 the Germans had Air Supremacy but over the five years of war the Spitfire was re-designed, redeveloped and modified  constantly until it became far superior to the German Messerschmidts.

Rene's war was not without its administrative problems..  At one point in November 1942 he seriously considered resigning as a Squadron Leader as he writes about the 'Admin tyranny of people who never heard a shot making decisions whereby his pilots sleep in tents with temperatures 10 degrees below zero without a rug or a ground sheet because a little dust was found under their beds.  Plus ca change!

Rene Mouchotte's Diaries are written in such an easy and personal style, I really felt as if I knew him.  I've read the Book twice and know that I shall read it again - each time there is a new discovery, a nuance, a wicked piece of wit but above all I see a man of great personal integrity and honour.

Just before his final mission Rene wrote that he felt his nerves wearing out and his temper deteriorating - little wonder when he'd not had a full week's leave in 2 years.  He states that the smallest effort gets him out of breath.  His wingman wrote that he was tired and emaciated.

A few days after his 29th Birthday, on 27th August 1943, Rene went missing over the English Channel.  A body was washed up on 3rd September on a beach at Middelkerke in Belgium and buried in Grave 87.  After the war, the R.A.F., U.S.A.F. and the French Air Force sought the final resting places of their countrymen and the remains in Grave 87 were exhumed and correctly identified as those of Commandant Rene Mouchotte.  He was re-patriated to France and buried with full military honours in the Family Tomb at Pere Lachaise Cemetery outside Paris.  It is a necropolis of the famous and final resting place of Chopin, Bizet, Piaf, Oscar Wilde, the 12th century lovers Heloise and Abelard to mention but a few.

In his diaries Rene mentions an Uncle, sister and nephews and a woman called Suzanne who went to live with his mother for the duration of the war.  As she was not called sister, perhaps she was a fiancée.  The Tomb is in good repair which suggests that there are still extant members of the family.  I would dearly love to communicate with them and let them know that Rene Mouchotte has his name carved with pride and is remembered with honour at the Battle of Britain Memorial here in the UK.

An elderly friend of mine suggested that I am in love with Rene. How can you be in love with someone you've never met and who has been dead for almost 70 years! But I am enamoured of his integrity and  honour, his great love of family and his humour and the enormous respect and love felt for him by his men.

R.I.P. Commandant Rene Mouchotte. Little did you imagine that your diaries would be published and still be read so many decades after your death.

A measure of the man is to be found in his Will and Testament:

'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.  Let my mother be told that I have

 always been very happy and thankful that the opportunity has been given me to

 serve GOD, MY COUNTRY AND THOSE I LOVE, and, that, whatever happens, I

 shall always be near her.'

 

The Mouchotte Diaries 1940 - 1943  - published in the UK in 1956.  Edited by Andre Dezarrois - Translated from the French by Philip John Stead and published by Staples Press Ltd. London.

Tried to obtain a copy of Mes Carnets (published in 2004 and now out of print) because it contained the photos and other illustrations which were absent from the 1956 English Edition.  However, in my trawling of the Internet I came across a source of Rare books in  Belgium and ordered a copy of the original French version complete with everything - it's only in paperback but I can't wait to receive it.  The 2004 version may be reprinted - and the old version is sold out on Amazon - so hopefully my little article might do it's bit for the cause.  

ADDENDUM

 I'm not brilliant at ordering articles on line but did my best and hoped that I'd got it right.  Well, I had and the book plopped through the letter box this morning. So thank you to Antiquariaat Joyce Royce in Belgium. (In fact, so unsure was I that I'd placed the order correctly that I went back in to the site and saw that 'my' book was now unavailable so I'd obviously ordered correctly)

It was very exciting to open the package - it's a third printing by Flammarion dated 1950 and originally cost 350 Francs.  ( Oh how lovely to see the word Francs - I loathe the ubiquitous Euro and pray that we will never capitulate.)  Of course, it is in French but the joy for me was all the photographs which are absent from my English copy.  The book is yellowed with age and despite being a paperback, it does have a dustcover with interesting art work attributed to one J.M Rabec.

The photo below comes from The Mouchotte Diaries - there is no photographic acknowledgement.  The photo is often used on the Internet.

MES CARNETS - Rene Mouchotte  The Mouchotte Diaries 1940/43

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