Courageous pilot gets voice again

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IT IS the story of how a charismatic young French pilot killed in action was brought back to life for his sister on wartime newsreels.

Now the poignant tale of French airman René Mouchotte, the first French pilot to command an RAF Squadron, is being brought to television screens thanks to a quest to discover more by TV presenter Jan Leeming.

Ms Leeming, a vice president of the Yorkshire Air Museum, at Elvington, near York, enlisted the help of museum director Ian Reed, and the remarkable life of the pilot who had a hand in the shooting down the 1,000th German aircraft by the Biggin Hill air station was revealed.

It was a journey that resulted in his sister hearing his voice for the first time in 73 years.

The squadron leader had to risk all to carry on after the Nazi invasion of his home country and he and others flew under false names to protect their families from retribution.

Mr Reed discovered unseen film footage and radio recordings, featuring a man referred to only as René to protect his identity, which he realised was the French pilot.

It was later discovered that his sister, Jacquelin Quentin, was still alive and living in Paris.

Before Madame Quentin died last year Ms Leeming and Mr Reed were able to travel to France and show her the 1943 film and radio recordings obtained by the museum.

“She said how delighted she was to ‘see and hear her beloved brother for the first time in 73 years’,” Mr Reed said.

“She had not seen him since 1938 and to see and hear him was emotional.”

During their visit, Ms Leeming and Mr Reed were able to present her with the pilot’s British wartime medals.

The airman’s war diaries were never meant for publication but Les Carnets de René Mouchotte was published by his mother after the war and later translated into English.

“They are probably the best diary of the Battle of Britain that anybody wrote because he never intended them to be published so they were real – it’s very gritty,” Mr Reed added.

In one excerpt from July 1940 he wrote: “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.”

Born at St Mandé Paris, his passion had always been aeroplanes and a picture of Georges Guynemer, the First World War ace, adorned his bedroom at home. He learned to fly in 1937 during his National Service at Istres.

In September 1942 General De Gaulle presented him with the Croix de Guerre with Palme. In the same year he had taken command of the 65 Squadron RAF and became the first non-British Empire airman to lead a RAF Fighter Squadron. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Mouchotte died over France in 1943 after being attacked by Luftwaffe fighters.

He had flown 1,748 hours and 382 missions in just three years.

His body was washed ashore in Belgium and placed in an unknown grave by the local priest.

In 1949 he was identified and repatriated to France where he was reburied following a state funeral service.

On Monday, his story will be told on BBC One’s Inside Out programme at 7.30pm.

Ms Leeming became interested in the story after deciding to sponsor names on a memorial wall. Coming across the name of René Mouchotte she realised she had adopted a real hero and embarked on a lengthy journey to learn more about him.

The museum then set about obtaining his British medals including the Battle of Britain clasp, which had never been issued, and last year organised an official presentation in Paris to surviving members of his family.

Sadly Madame Quentin, already 101 by the time she was tracked her down, did not live to see the ceremony but was thrilled to see images of her only brother shortly before her death.