.
Jean Navarre
Translation by Ioannis Mansolas


 
THE FLIGHT ON A PLANE AT THE BEGINNING OF 1915 ON THE WW1 FRONT WAS A KIND OF SPORT FOR SOME DARING AND ADVENTUROUS YOUNG ONES READY TO CONQUER THE SKIES AND WILLING TO SHOOT IN THE EMPTINESS OF A VAST SKY WHERE NO ONE EVER BELIEVED HE COULD SHOOT DOWN ANY ENEMY OR BE SHOT DOWN BY HIM . DEATH WAS A REMOTE CASE FOR PILOTS , AN EXPERIENCED LEFT FOR THOSE IN THE TRENCHES  MANY KILOMETERS AWAY . ONE OF THEM WAS JEAN NAVARRE A 19 YEAR OLD FRENCHMAN . A RATHER OUT OF THE NORMAL RENEGADE TYPE EAGER TO SCORE SOMETHING AGAINST THE ENEMY AS IT WAS THE CASE WITH ALL OF THEM IN THIS SMALL SOCIETY OF PILOTS THOSE DAYS OF THE WAR 

NAVARRE WAS TO BECOME THE FIRST AIR ACE OF FRANCE AND THE VIEW OF ITS ALL RED PAINTED FIGHTER  WAS ONE OF THE VERY FEW THINGS THAT COULD SHED SOME HOPE AND ENCOURAGEMENT TO THE DESPERATE SOLDIER DYING IN THE TRENCHES. HISTORICALLY  HE WILL BE REMEMBERED AS

THE FIRST PILOT 
TO SHOOT AGAINST ANOTHER ENEMY PILOT 
COMMENCING THE AIR WARFARE OF DOGFIGHTS

It was this very nice inviting dream of these twin brothers running now to the woods , escaping their mother's attention . Going to play in the thickness of the trees and bushes , hide in caves alone to fight  imaginary enemies . They would return only at night or maybe early next morning never scarred by this wandering in the spooky darkness    . This was not certainly their first time not their last . Their mother has realised how deeply her twines were attached to one another beyond the typical family links

These children were always particular characters - what a schoolteacher would call ' children with their own problems ' .  If one of the 2 was missing for a reason the other would take refuge to the woods like a wild animal . Even moonlight seemed to have an effect on them . Those days - and especially at nights - they were becoming all the more nervous and while they were growing up this attitude would get even more wild . For the Navarre twins the life was to continue in this period of puberty until suddenly WW1 dragged them into its fierce destiny without however changing their behaviour .
 

It was this sudden waking up in the morning without an obvious reason that destroyed the dream of the soldier Jean Navarre (Jean Marie Dominique Navarre) . Discipline and obedience in the army had nothing in common with his character but nevertheless did contain some newly known pleasures for those serving in the Army Air Corps  . For the 19 year old young man flying was a marvelous experience in or out of war

Jean and his brother Pierre were born in 1895 , August the 8th at Juis-sur-Moren near the Marne and Seine rivers from a wealthy father keeping a paper factory . Jean showed his immediate interest for planes from an early age and thanks to the money of his parents he was able to follow flying lessons . It was a Saturday of 1914 , 5 days before actually becoming 19 years old , that the war broke out . Then these 2 inseparable twins were to split for the first time . Jean remained as a corporal of the Air Corps while Pierre joined the Army Engineers . The first posting for Jean was the MFS a base equipped with old Maurice Farman that was still to participate first in the warfare . First time Jean met a german plane was in December 1914 . Both pilots were flying alone and the german even saluted him while approaching . Jean did the same but then draw out his rifle and shot at the german . Jean's plane obviously lost its control and it took some time to him to regain it but ....the message has been passed to the enemy Coming back he told his story to his colleagues who , however , condemned this 'unfriendly' act . Jean reacted : "Flying alone will not do , you should fly and fight . There is a war going on , if you are able to understand it !!"

 
 

1915: WORK & JOY

Ready for more action he demanded to posted next year to the MS12  doing some reconnaissance operations on the Morane Saulnier 'L' monoplanes  , known under the nickname 'Parasol' , the umbrella - it had a wide wing on top of the pilot's head . Like in all similar operations these unarmed planes were no good for an ambitious aviator in war . All they were doing is executing circles and watching the artillery shooting and the troop movement while rarely a flak hit could become fatal . It would be either flak or ...boredom to 'kill' these pilots ! Jean would not stand this any longer , so on April the 1st , 1915 ...he forced things to happen ...
It was a rather typical reconnaissance flight when two hesitant german Aviatiks were chased by a Morane Saulnier , the pilot having consumed all his ammo . The observer of Navarre started shooting with his machine gun and Jean himself followed with his hand gun . The first victim was ...there own plane (!) ...as they hit their own propeller . Jean was very busy to keep his plane straight when all of a sudden one Aviatik started 'coughing' ...its engine went off ...and dived onto the ground !  That was his first victory as 3 well aimed shots produced the miracle .


Until the end of the month with the same insufficient means , Jean has shot another 2  , winning for him a medal as well as the reputation of the most risky pilot in the war . The french soldiers in the area of Reims would recognize immediately his plane and he never missed to execute an impressive manoeuveur to excite their spirits . Infatigable , active , lovable , Jean had everyone talking on him . 

His commander Cpt. De Bernis admired him so that he encouraged a flight to the front at Arras where together with his colleague Pivolot they had to ferry two planes ..during night time . "Don't you worry . I know the way very well and I can navigate correctly " , Pivolot  assured  Jean.

The best way to navigate at night - on those days - was to fly over the railroad lines ! This is what Pivolot did , dropping to some 5 meters height whenever close to a station , to read its sign . Until the moment ..they were lost " . They had to land both for navigation information and fuel . The sergeant found nearby refused to help them until he accepted a bribe . Then only it was possible to arrive at Arras next morning . Their staying in Arras was a short  ...alas not an uneventful one . It was this aerial mnaoeuver over the airfield usually out of question due to safety . " They will not tell me what to do ..." , Jean said starting again his dangerous 'tricks' to show-off . This however was followed by a 15 day punishment and grounding . It was during this period that he was surprised by the visit of his brother who was serving at a nearby unit . At the end of his visit , Jean asked the base commander permission to transport his brother by plane . The commander said : No , and Jean just ignored him , got on the plane and on his return accepted a new 15 days punishment . 
 

He never stopped to provoke his fate . A rainy day his commander was not there and Jean proposed a short flight to a colleague to visit the nearby town

- "On what ?" asked his friend

- "But ...On a plane , most certainly"  , he replied
-"Under this bloody rain ?"
- "Would you prefer an ...umbrella ?"
_"Well no but ..."
- "Do not worry , I have flown under worse conditions "
 

The Morane Saulnier MS-L ,'Parasol' (umbrella)

Not quite true though but they finally reached Amien enjoying most of the 'sweeties in life' and welcomed by people around . Lot of toasts and wine  contributed to a nice evening . They had to leave , however , and be back before ... the commander returns . OK but at least they had to say 'a thank you' to those hospitable people down there . This is why they took off above the local cathedral executing one manoeuver after the other ending up with throwing flowers over the main square sending kisses to this especially nice girl on that balcony . They landed again to spend the night with her and return back next morning very lucky to escape with 8 days punishment alone

Soon , there was another visit by Pierre and again an air trip back to his unit , only this time to receive the severe anger of the commander . No punishment this time , just a permanent 'exile' . Jean and Pivolot had to leave back to MS-12 .  What a tremendous joy !!! They were so happy to leave Arras that they did not stop to thank him ceaselessly !!! It was already the winter of 1915 , snow all over and while they were preparing their engines people was gathered around to watch the coming spectacle ....Surely Navarre and Pivolot would start some nice manoeuvers around ! How to resist such a temptation ? Once few centimeters above ground he turned immediately to the group of people below passing just over their terrified  heads

Back again to the MS-12 he was disappointed to find that nothing has really changed with the air war . He flew next time in May on a rather quiet and romantic sky where nothing was flying as if someone was working against his warrior feelings . To keep up in combat shape he started chasing ....ducks (!) simulating a kind of a fighter battle with his gunner Rene Sampe , over Reims . That was his way to break  monotony  ....

This scenery looked so nice from 15 m. high over this romantic small lake and the swamp around it . To increase his view he leaned his Maurane to the left , cut speed to the minimum , leveled off at 70 Kmh and descended to 6 m . Then looking behind he saw the sky full with birds ! That was an exciting area to continue with his simulation . The poor birds were obviously scattering all over except that this duck , straight ahead was still zigzagging in front of his plane . Sampe aimed with his gun but the duck turned immediately to the right as if to avoid him on a very tight turn indeed . Navarre believed he could match the manoeuver and followed the bird to be found exactly on  its tail ....still at some few meters only above ground . The left wing was raised up then the left descended even lower ....There was a sound of broken wood and crashing material . The Maurane turned 4 times around its axis filling with debris an area of 20 Km around . Miraculously Navarre stood up unharmed from what remained of the heavily punished plane while Sampe was moaning like an animal some kilometers away .

Carrying his friend on his back Navarre took the way back , murmuring ..: ' At least we should have got this duck ....'

For the next 2 days Sampe was in the hospital and Navarre probably ready to receive a posting to the trenches . Captain Bernis called him :

- " The commander of the 5th air corps is mad against you . For a moment I had it sure you will go to the infantry ....but finally he accepted my proposal "

- "What proposal ? " asked Navarre
- " The ...Medal of Honor ...." , he replied
Navarre was about to cry ....Bernis was one of those rare commanders who deeply believed in the potential of his people . Yes , Navarre was destroying discipline but ... he was promoting the morale !
On the 25 of October 1915 while Navarre was sitting in the cockpit of a new Morane Saulnier N the germans appeared . Navarre wished they would get the direction to Paris so that Jean could ...visit the capital city , but the german pilot just turned against him on a face collision course . During their tight crossing the german gunner of this LVG started shooting with his Parabellum . Jean turned behind his tail immediately with a turn so tight that almost scratched the  enemy . Then pressed his trigger but only for a very short time . The smoking LVG balanced right , left for a while then dived to the ground . The two germans upon landing took out a piece of cloth dipped in gasoline to set the plane of fire , then Navarre sent some warning shots on top of their heads . He landed his plane close and then asked the germans :
- "What happened to the plane ? "
-"The bullets found the engine " , they replied
Navarre saw 4 holes ...
-"May I ask your name ? " said the german
-"Navarre"
-"Ha , so it is you ....we know your name ..." said the germans
He delivered the prisoners to a french patrol and they all went to the closest pub and there he used the phone to inform his commander . Bernis appeared in a while offering food and a glass of wine to the germans . While the level of the wine was dropping down the spirits were going up . There was inevitably the discussion on plane performance . The germans insisted they were the best
- "But No ..., the fact I got you speaks on its own "  screamed Navarre . The germans replied by throwing the bottle against the wall in anger . Bernis took out his revolver to ...enforce the peace ...
The last days of 1915 passed without something interesting until this morning in February 1916 the alarm sirens sounded in Paris . The germans had pushed their positions very close to the capital on the 24th . Navarre was sent to Verdun to "Crash the germans ...this is what matters " as he would often say . He was still a child with some 3 air kills to his laurels at a time when the term air battle or dog fight was not invented yet . Over Verdun he had to prove he was now a man

 
 

1916 : AN ACE OVER PARIS

Everything have changed , even the smell of the air ...his brother was writing to him . On the trenches it is not only the powder but death and wrought you could smell . Holes on the earth , carcasses and dead all over which Pierre could see but not Jean from a height of 3000 m. This is why Pierre asked for a posting to an aviation job . The french command ignored the german forces rushing to Paris , how many and where from . Communications with the front were cut and germans were all over around . Jean new unit the N67 was , however , equipped with the new Nieuport 11 called 'Bebe' . A plane with distinct qualities and some disadvantages at the same time . Its larger upper wing combined with its narrow lower one  , on a steep dive , could  tear the lower one like paper although this did not stop Jean from scoring victories

Two days after his arrival in Verdun he was to prove its potential . On the 26th he spotted 3 german two-seaters on a formation . He approached the closest one and ...he saw the gunner raising up his hands surrendering !  Navarre did not expect it but still he drove the enemy plane to his lines which was captured . Next morning he saw 9 similar aircraft over his airfield . One of them saw Jean and the pilot made a turn to help his gunner aim against him . Jean avoided the confrontation at the moment , made a new turn and positioned his plane aft and below on the enemy 'blind corner' ...he fired and ...his 5th victory was a fact . He was a true 'ace' a term freshly invented by the french especially for him , besides he was given a medal for this ...Aces must be prominent among others !

His new commander Marquis de Saint-Sauvers was another officer to admire the offensive spirit . Jean asked a special permission to 'differentiate' his plane , it was granted and next morning everyone was stunned by looking at this unique all-red painted Nieuport 11 ! Navarre was the first pilot to introduce this arrogant attitude , Richthofen just imitated him later . Although hated by other military units , aviators considered it justified for one reason or another . Actually to hide the real one : if death was to arrive then it better be to a known individual and not to the unknown , say , private No 325327 of the 35th regiment of the 21st brigade.
 
 

Navarre's all-red Nieuport 11 ,  'Bebe'

In the days to come the red Nieuport would become the symbol of encouragement to all these miserable soldiers in the trenches who could find no glory in killing the enemy or themselves for that matter. He would fly over their heads after an air kill just to trigger their cheering. The cries : Long live the guardian of Verdun would not cover even the buzz of his engine.

On the 4th of April , a year after his first air kill - he flew on three patrols the very same day. Upon landing the ground crew approached him waiting the news for a new possible air victory. He put down his helmet and gloves whipped the oil from his face and said : "The beast inside me was satisfied !" . He had shot down 4 enemy planes , an unthinkable score for those days. No , he was not really that cruel and if possible he would achieve an air kill without necessarily killing the enemy pilot but he would risk anyhow at maximum to get his victory. The 'beast inside him' was not the one of a killer.

Finally only 2 out of these 4 victories would be credited to him but even so he was promoted to a second lieutenant. The stress of the fight was however building up and its effect was obvious. His old tendency to escape to his loneliness was coming back. On the next full moon he was lost again to the nearby woods eventually thinking of his brother again. He was posted to the aviation and started his air training. Jean was already worried too much over his brother's possible fate. Jean was familiar to the spirit of the 'killing machine' system but Pierre had not known until then the experience of killing.

On the 19th of May a truck stopped at the Vaudelencourt airfield behind the front lines and Archibald Johnson got out of it. He was a young american volonteer for the french aviation. The first spectacle to see were the black 'flowers' of flak chasing an enemy 2-setaer Albatros flying after a Voisin. . Johnson was looking and listening ecstatically  the engine sound, the shooting , the sun reflections on their metal skin ...then this red Nieuport came out of nowhere ...The german gunner fired , the Nieuport did not change its course , then 6 repeated shots under the Albatros belly when the Nieuport was at a breath's distance from it ...The Albatros dived desperately on the ground leaving a smoke trail behind while the red Nieuport received the cheering of the soldiers.

The americam rushed to see the pilot of the Nieuport. At that time the Nieuport was on the ground and its pilot lying on the grass , relaxed with his tunic unbuttoned . He was a short , straight guy with the glittering eyes of the veteran and a dark 'smoked' face. When the american asked a question , the pilot of the Nieuport , without hearing the question , said :

- "I think I got them both"
_"But why did you have to wait so long to shoot ?"
-"My job is to destroy the enemy and me , Navarre , can not risk and let him go" . This was to be his 12th and last victory

On the 17th of June , Jean , Pivolot and lieutenant Giniane flying 3 Nieuports spotted an enemy observation plane at 4500 m guiding the german gun fire. They shot it down but enemy fighters wanting to avenge appeared. The french shot one down but there was a second one. Navarre rocked his wings left-right and showed them the target. Navarre was the first to attack but then broke left to allow Pivolot to fire ...But where was Giniane ? Navarre turned his head behind to check .....The explosion was tremendous and deafening . The german shell had broken his arm , shed debris into his chest and thrown his head against the canopy. The geramn gunner needed only 2 seconds to aim at the all red Nieuport. As by a miracle while falling steeply Navarre regained control at about 1700 m , he managed to land it and then ...fainted in the cockpit.


Lieutenant Jean Navarre



He regained his senses for a while looking at a 'double' Pivolot due to the concussion.

-"How did you manage to land ?" asked Pivolot surprised
-"...I was afraid it would have been my last landing , so I decided to be ... careful ", he said

He next regain his senses in the hospital in pain and bleeding amidst nightmares. Doctors tried what they could although they were unable in front of the last. He was operated and sent back to the unit, then he was given a leave which did not really help. Returning again to his unit things have got better. The germans were using toxic gas. Maybe France was expecting too much from Navarre, he was reacting rather as a victim of the 'nerve gases' than as the guardian of Verdun : always in depression, very sensitive and nervous, he was never the same as his colleagues found out. He had tried to fly again but lost his senses to regain them just few meters above the treetops. This failure made him even more nervous ;  he tried to convince himself by using again his old trick, the attack from low and below. But germans knew now better. This was no longer a  method to raise your score.

The german lieutenant Goy, rear gunner of an Aviatik, did not really worried when he spotted the french fighter ; at least 3 Nieuports were necessary to scare a gunner and a pilot of very acute senses in battle : the pilot would always press his pedals to change direction rapidly and check the fighter when positioned aft and below on his 'blind corner'. When the Nieuport approached, Goy could not miss its identity, it was the all-red Nieuport flown by Navarre.

Navarre repeated a classic 'hawk attack' to a supposedly ignorant victim, only this time the 'victim' was well prepared. Goy raised his machine gun and fired at a distance of 500 m , that is before the 150 m. , the typical range Navarre would start his own fire. However, Navarre did start shooting unexpectedly at the same time. The fuselage of Aviatik was filled with holes, cutting off the control cables and penetrating the radiator. The boiling water fell on the face of the pilot who in turned did a desperate movement to avoid it. The elevators did not reply, he then tried his ailerons but the engine was almost dead. he switched it off trying to find a suitable  landing area. Goy then saw a hole on his suit and blood coming out of his belly ! A fatal wound no doubt , he thought. But the Nieuport did not attack again ! Did he had hit the french ace ? He was not sure. Navarre on the other side was disappointed ! Either the tactics or the war , or may be both have changed for ever.
 

Finally all people involved in this short air battle did return alive to their bases. The germans to fly again another mission ...Navarre never to fly again ! This 'failure' looked to him as the definite proof of his inability to shoot down enemies. His wounds were to deteriorate, his head started creating too much pain and suffering, Navarre became an unstable personality. His commander decided to send him away. As for Navarre, he was to find a refuge to the 'night fife' in Paris, away from the trenches and the war, usually drinking and creating trouble with his good friend Charles Nungesser, another 'particular' french ace of the time.


Jean Navarre while 23 looked like an old man of 33+

NOVEMBER 1916 : The nightmare



...He was wandering into the woods and he could not understand why he was alone. Pierre should have been there ...but he was not , he must find him...It was the end of the training flight and everything was all right. The Morane behaved properly and the sun was shedding his light over the broken-like front lines lost in the mud were 70.000 dead were lost. But where is Pierre ? He would not let him go alone ....What would he tell his mother ? Oh , no , he had to find him. The fear started spreading all over him , he opened his mouth to scream ...no air was coming out of his lungs ....Silence and nothing but silence in the wood ......

...The Morane taxied nicely on the wet ground but the wheels stuck there, the plane turned over, the 'nose' hit vehemently on it and Jean jumped out of his bed at the moment Pierre was breaking his neck. The dreadful news arrived next morning just to give him the final blow ! 'The government is to be blamed by making these unreliable planes ...he shouted !' His nerves broke down for ever. On the next moonlight he was driving in the streets of Paris and decided to attack with his car the patrolling pedestrian policemen shouting ...' I am the ace of Paris !!!' . Then returning to his base climbed on a plane and flew to the nowhere, just asking to kill some germans. At his 21, he looked as a man of 35, when he was caught by the guards and was sent to the clinic, rapped up in 'a white suit' , the one of a crazy man.

There Navarre passed the rest of the time until the end of the war producing no more trouble than to his guardians in the clinic. This is why he survived more than others despite his wish to kill and get killed in the air. In September 1918, the gates of the clinic opened and released the lieutenant Navarre who returned back to his duty , although now as a test pilot for the Morane company. In 1919, the 'tamed' Navarre was given the honor to fly over Paris, below the Arc of Triumph, during the national day. The 'old' Navarre has kept some of his flying spirit despite his adventure, testing his plane continually at the airfield of Villacoublay in Paris, passing below a bridge nearby with his plane for training. On his second rehearsal below the Arc of Triumph he made a standard turn to have another go. Then Navarre did hear a BANG!! of a wire breaking and ... the right wheel of the landing gear was cut-off, the plane lost control , turned on its side, the propeller was detached and the fuel blew up on a huge explosion.

Air accidents like this, were not uncommon. At least God gave Navarre the chance to die the dissent death of an airman.


The medals awarded to Jean Navarre : The Legion of Honor, The Military-Medal, The War Cross


 

REFERENCES
1.Thomas Funderburk: The Fighters, Grosset & Dunlap New York 1965.
2.Alexander McKee: The Friendless Sky, New English Library 1962.
3.Jean Jacque Petit: Les As de lAviation 1914-18, Editions Heimdal1992.
4.www.theaerodrome.com/
5.Cristopher Campbell: Aces and Aircraft of WW1, Treasure Press 1981.
6.Norman Franks: Nieuport Aces of WW1, Osprey Publishing 2000.

Return to the Home Page