So, here is a portrait of the Knight of the Air.
As a teenager Guynemer was practiced in the art of roller-skating, then all the rage in Paris, and excelled at fencing and rifle shooting. Perhaps these three interests, combining balance and quick reflexes with a good eye, played some part in later developements. A common interest in all things mechanical led to friendship with Jean Krebs, the son of a director of the Panhard Motor Company. Guynemer learned much about the workings of the internal combusion engine from his friend, knowledge which would later stand him in good stead, and the pair developed a passion for the new science of aviation. During the war Krebs was killed when his aircraft crashed onto the airfield returning from a mission.
In 1911, whilst still only 17 years old, Guynemer witnessed the Circuit of Europe Air Race. That same year he flew as a passenger in a Farman bi-plane and henceforth all his ambition turned to flying. Following college graduation in 1912 he commenced studies for admission to l'Ecole Polytechnique. However, dogged by continued ill health he was compelled to withdraw in the summer of 1914 and retired to the family villa in Biarritz.
Following the outbreak of war Guynemer was turned down by the air service no less than five times due to his poor health. Making his own way to Pau he secured an interview with Capitaine Bernard-Thierry and was accepted for training as a mechanic. There followed a successful application for flying training and Guynemer made his first hop at the controls of a Bleriot "Pingouin" on January 26th 1915. The award of brevet number 1832 came in April, along with promotion to Caporal and a posting to the reserve pool at le Bourget.
On 8th June 1915 he joined his first and only operational unit, Escadrille MS3 at Vauciennes equipped with Morane monoplanes. The Morane type L allocated to Guynemer had previously been flown by Charles Bonnard and had been named by him "Vieux Charles" (Old Charlie). Guynemer retained the name and carried it on most of the aircraft he subsequently flew. The first victory came on July 19th 5000 metres above Soissons. In a combat lasting ten minutes the Morane's rearward firing Hotchkiss machine gun was manned by Mecanician Gueder.The Aviatik crashed into the French lines killing the crew, and an excited Guynemer landed beside it in search of a trophy. Two days later he was promoted sergent and received his first Palme (awarded for a mention in despaches), and on August 4th both he and Gueder received the Medaille Militaire Guynemer's citation read:
"A pilot of great spirit and daring, willing to carry out the most dangerous assignments. After a relentless chase, brought a German aeroplane to combat, a combat which ended in its crashing in flames."
In September Guynemer's career very nearly came to an abrupt end when he was brought down in no-mans land to be rescued by French troops. He would be shot down a total of seven times. On 29th September and 10th October he undertook so called "special" missions, landing behind enemy lines with French agents. Alighting on rough ground and taking off again in a flimsy Morane L must have been a risky buisiness.
For Guynemer December 1915 was an eventful month. Escadrille MS3 was renamed N3 on the 5th following re-equipment with the single seat Nieuport 10, with it's overwing Lewis a far more effectivly armed aeroplane than the Morane .On that same day Guynemer despached another Aviatik with the entire contents of a Lewis drum. Victory was again Guynemer's on the 8th , but on the 14th his Nieuport was badly shot about in an indecisive engagement with a Fokker monoplane. December 24th, his 21st birthday, brought the award of the Legion d'Honneur and a citation describing him as "a pilot of great gallantry." By the end of 1915 the young sergent Guynemer already one of France's most decorated airmen.
Commissioned sous-lieutenant on March 4th 1916 his score stood at eight victories, but he was wounded on the 13th following a frenzied period of combat over Verdun. Returning to the front on April 26th, his wounds barely healed, he was clearly still suffering from nervous exhaustion and was sent home on leave. It was in April that the flamboyant Escadrille markings had begun to appear, and Esc N3 was by now a component of the elite Groupe de Combat 12 (lesCigognes..the Storks) On his eventual return fighting duty he took command of a Nieuport 17 on which he scored steadily. On June 6th Guynemer was flying Nieuport 17 N-1386 when there ocurred one of those fabled duels of which World War One air-fighting legend is made. High above Lierval Guynemer joined battle with Ernst Udet, destined to be the highest scoring German ace to survive the war. By Udets own account his Albatros suffered a double gun stoppage leaving him defenceless. Observing Udet hammering his guns with clenched fist, Guynemer broke off the action with a wave of the hand and left his adversary to fight another day. Whether we believe it or not it is the kind of story that ought to be true. (1 see Udet would tell the story later: see below)
Capitaine Brocard, Commander of Esc N3, descibed Guynemer as "...my most brilliant Stork". Brocard's opinion was confirmed when, on September 23rd, his protoge brought down three aircraft in one day. Guynemer also suffered the indignity of being brought down that day but was uninjured. Guynemer was now piloting the SPAD 7 about which at first he expressed doubts. In a letter to Louis Berchereau in December he wrote:
The 150hp SPAD is not a match for the Halberstadt. Although the Halberstadt is probably no faster it climbs better, consequently it has the overall advantage. More speed is needed: Possibly the airscrew might be improved."
These difficulties overcome Guynemer rapidly got into his stride his victories rapidly increased. He frequently scored doubles and reached 30 by the end of January 1917. Although appreciating very early on that flying in concert with a wing-man would assist in his survival Guynemer was one of the great vertuoso soloists of the first air war, prefering to stalk his enemy and either ambush him or best him in single combat. A preference he shared with his contemporaries Albert Ball and Werner Voss. With the SPAD however he quickily adopted new methods more suggestive of World War Two than World War One. Flying with a number two he would employ hit and run tactics to exploit the SPAD's superior speed and dive.
The intense air activity took its toll on Guynemer's health and he was again rested from combat suffering with exhaustion and nervous depression. He used the respite to his advantage and in correspondence with Louis Bechereau developed some ideas on future fighter armament. Discussions with Bechereau centered around a short barreled version of the formidable single shot 37mm Hotchkiss canon, which it was envisaged would be fired through the hollow airscrew shaft of a geared 200hp Hispano Suiza vee-eight. Practical demonstrations proved the idea and with the project officialy sanctioned work commenced on what became the SPAD 12 Ca 1.
With his promotion to Capitaine on February 18th 1917 Guynemer was entering the most active phase of his career. Another triple victory on March 16th was followed on May 25th by an unprecedented four victories in one day, two of them in less than a minute. A singular honour awarded Guynemer on May 13th was to carry the colours of l'Aviation Militaire at a parade of captured enemy weapons and equipment at Dijon. There was yet another double victory on June 5th, and a week later the award of Officier de la Legion d'Honneur cited as follows:
"One of the elite, a fighter pilot as skilful as he is audacious, he has rendered brilliant service to his country, as much by the number of his victories as by the daily example of his unchanging keenness and ever growing mastery. Heedless of danger he has become for the enemy, by the sureness of his methods and by the precision of his manoevres, the most redoubtable adversary of all."Twice wounded and with 45 victories and twenty citations, the rosette of the Legion d'Honneur was presented at a special ceremony on July 5th 1917 and the prototype cannon armed SPAD 12 , to which he referred with pride as his "avion magique", was on parade. The new SPAD required all of even Guynemer's unrivalled skill to fly whilst manualy re-loading in the heat of battle. but he destroyed several enemy aircraft on the type including a double on August 15th. Alternating with the SPAD 12 he was flying a SPAD 13 on August 20th when he scored a victory which does not apear on his tally. Returning from a successful combat, culminating in the destruction of a DFW, he was attacked in the circuit by a British DH4. Compelled to return fire he wounded the British pilot who was forced to land.
Guynemer was now living in the air. On September 10th when the failure of a water-pump caused a forced landing a Belgian airfield where Guynemer effected a temporary repair and took off again. Returning to base he borrowed Duellins aircraft to complete the mission, and brought it back with a blown engine and four bullets in it.
At 08:25 hrs September 11th 1917 Guynemer took of in company with Lieutenant Bozon-Verduraz as his number two. As Guynemer manoevered for an attacking possition on a two seat bi-plane over Poelcapelle eight German scouts came into view. The French pair continued to dive on the two-seater, the Alabatros scouts climbing rapidly to meet them. Beleiving that his flight leader had also seen the approaching danger Bozon-Verduraz dove away confident that Guynemer would follow. One account has it that he did in fact break off the chase, but met his demise when he ran into and attacked a large formation of bombers from KG5 .
As with so many of the aces of the Great War his final combat is shrouded in mystery. A body identified as Guynemer's was briefly in the care of the German 413th infantry regement, where a terse medical report mentions that a finger of the left hand was shot away and gives a single bullet to the head as cause of death, but the next day the area was subjected to an artillery bombardment that would last an incredible fifteen days and all traces of Guynemer and his aircraft were obliterated by the British guns. It might be expected that Germany would be quick to exploit the propaganda value of the end of the French ace of aces, but it was nearly a week before a claim was made and credited to Leutnant Kurt Wisseman of Jasta 3. It would be a month before the French confirmed Guynemer's disappearance, by which time Wisseman had himself been killed in action.
Thus ended the short life and dazzling career of Georges Marie Ludovic Jules Guynemer, revered by the people of France as the veteran of over 600 air combats. Twice wounded and awarded 26 citations, the recipient of the highest honours for galantry France could bestow, his official victory total is 53 but it has been suggested that the true figure is nearer 100. A list of his victories reveals a pattern of intense activity interspersed with gaps of sometimes several weeks. Some are accounted for by the periods of inactivity that often happen in war, but constantly on the brink of nervous collapse others mark Guynemers absences for treatment of more than merely physical wounds. Given the consideration of a later more enlightened age Georges Guynemer might have been relieved from combat in March 1916, to live out the balance of his life a much decorated but obscure French airman with eight victories and a proud record in the service of his country.
His monument stands proudly in the city of his birth, outside 26 Boulevard Victor HQ Armee de l'Air, and in the crypt of the Pantheon of Paris an inscribed marble plaque bearing the name of Georges Guynemer and the insignia of the Legion d'Honneur reads:
"Fallen in the field of honour on September 11th 1917 - a legendary hero, fallen in glory from the sky after three years of fierce struggle. He will remain the purest symbol of the qualities of his race, indomitable tenacity, ferocious energy, sublime courage; animated by the most resolute faith in victory he bequeaths to the French soldier an imperishable memory which will exalt the spirit of sacrifice"
1) "Guynemer had watched me doing and knew for now I was his defenseless victim : he made another pass just over my head in almost inverted flight and to my amazement made a sign with his hand and left westward.Startled I got to the field. Afterwards some people suggested that Guynemer's machine gun had the same problem while others thought he was afraid of me hitting him in my distress. But I don't buy that. For me, Guynemer displayed some perennial element of old chivalry that oulasted modern fighting methods.Therefore, I feel committed to contribute this personal testimony as a homage to the unknow tomb where he rests..." (Ernst Udet)
Why do people remember and prefer Guynemer rather than some other Aces?