2:05AM GMT 25 Mar 2006
Pierre Clostermann, who died aged 85, was one of the leading French fighter aces flying with the RAF during the Second World War.
He flew 432 combat sorties and destroyed at least 18 aircraft in the air and on the ground. A charismatic and sometimes controversial figure, he wrote a classic account of his wartime experiences which is considered by many to be the finest aviation book to come out of the war.
Pierre Henri Clostermann, the son of a French diplomat, was born on February 28 1921 at Curitibia, in Brazil. When he was nine he was sent to be educated in Paris. After rejoining his parents in Brazil he obtained his private pilot's licence in November 1937.
When war broke out he wanted to enlist in the French Air Force, but was refused permission; so instead he left for the United States, where he studied aeronautical engineering at the Ryan Flying College in Los Angeles. His father opted to support Charles de Gaulle, and in April 1942 Pierre joined the Free French Air Force and travelled to England.
After completing his pilot training in early 1943, Clostermann joined No 341 "Alsace" Squadron at Biggin Hill, commanded by the French ace René Mouchotte. Flying the Spitfire Mk IX, he achieved his first success when he shot down two Focke Wulf 190s over northern France, soon following this with a third. On the day Mouchotte was shot down and killed, Clostermann was flying as wingman to him, and attracted some criticism from his wing commander for losing contact with his leader.
Clostermann was then posted to No 602 Squadron, and over the next 10 months he flew constantly on fighter sweeps, bomber escorts and dive-bombing and strafing attacks against the V-1 launch sites on the French coast. He achieved more successes in the air, almost all against fighters, but also against targets on the ground. On D-Day, June 6 1944, Clostermann flew two fighter sweeps over the Normandy beachhead, finding himself "astonished at the absence of the Luftwaffe".
Five days after the invasion he landed on a temporary airstrip in Normandy; he was one of the first French pilots to touch down on French soil, four years to the day after de Gaulle's famous radio address calling the French to resistance. Clostermann and two French colleagues had put on their best uniforms, but immediately regretted it when clouds of fine dust billowed up as their Spitfires landed; within seconds they resembled workers in a flour factory. Sixty years later, on June 6 2004, he was present when a road at Longues-sur-Mer, near the airstrip where he had landed, was named after him.
Once in Normandy Clostermann flew sweeps deeper into northern France, shooting down four fighters and probably destroying others. On July 2 1944, No 602 was engaged in a fierce fight with Focke Wulf 190s over Caen, and Clostermann claimed two German fighters and damaged three others. A few days later he was awarded a DFC. Having flown far more than the accepted number of operations before taking a compulsory rest, he was mentally and physically exhausted, and was sent to the staff at the Headquarters of the Free French Air Force.
In December Clostermann returned to operations, flying the RAF's most powerful fighter, the Tempest. He joined No 122 Wing in Holland, flying fighter sweeps and attacking motor transport and rail traffic over northern Germany. He also engaged enemy fighters whenever the opportunity arose, adding a further four to his total.
On March 24 1945 he was wounded in the leg by the intense German anti-aircraft fire that was a major feature of all the ground attack operations; he had to crash- land his badly damaged Tempest, but was back in action a week later as the flight commander of No 3 Squadron.
As the armies advanced, the Tempests roamed deeper into northern Germany, attacking any trains they found and shooting up aircraft on the ground. On May 3 Clostermann led a series of attacks against airfields and seaplane bases in the Kiel area. Flying his Tempest "Le Grand Charles", he strafed airfields and moorings, destroying several transport aircraft and flying boats. Shortly afterwards he was awarded a Bar to his DFC together with the American Silver Star, and French and Belgian decorations.
On May 12 Clostermann was leading a victory flypast over Bremerhaven when his aircraft collided with another. He baled out at very low level and his parachute opened seconds before he hit the ground. Clostermann was released from the service in August 1945 and returned to France.
After the war, he continued his career in aeronautical engineering, initially with the Societé Aubry et Cie in Paris. He later helped to found the Reims Aviation Company, acting as a representative for the American Cessna aircraft company, of which he later became a vice-president. He served on the boards of Air France and Renault.
In parallel to his business interests, Clostermann pursued a successful political career as a Gaullist, serving eight terms as a deputy in the French National Assembly before finally retiring in 1969. He also briefly re-enlisted in the French Air Force in 1956-57 to fly ground attack missions in Algeria. He retired as a colonel in the reserves.
Clostermann was no stranger to controversy. His final claims for the number of aircraft he destroyed has often been the subject of debate, but it is recognised that he achieved remarkable success. During the Falklands War in 1982 he praised Argentinian pilots for their actions and courage, and his perceived "betrayal" of the RAF attracted some antipathy in Britain. He also generated controversy in France for his vehement anti-war stance in the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991.
Clostermann's great passion was deep-sea fishing, an activity he indulged in throughout the world. He was a founding member and first president of the Big Game Fishing Club of France, and a representative of the International Game Fish Association from 1966 - he joined the association's board of trustees in 1977. He was a dedicated and effective spokesman for sportsmanlike angling and conservation policies.
Clostermann's wartime autobiography, Le Grand Cirque (The Big Show), which came out in 1948, was an immediate success. Marshal of the RAF Sir John Slessor described
it as "a magnificent story, making one proud, not only of those French boys who fought so gallantly, but of the RAF in which they served". The book was subsequently translated into 50 languages and sold three million copies worldwide; it was reprinted in 2004.
Clostermann's book Feu du Ciel (Flames in the Sky), published in 1957, was also widely acclaimed; and he wrote extensively on fishing.
In addition to his British awards, Clostermann was awarded the Grand-Croix of the Légion d'honneur and appointed a Compagnon de la libération, France's highest awards for gallantry and service. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre with no fewer than 19 palmes.
Pierre Clostermann died at his home in the Pyrenees on March 22. He is survived by his wife and three sons.
Quo Fata Vocant-Whither the Fates call