Pierre Henri Clostermann (28 February 1921 – 22 March 2006) was a World War II French fighter pilot
During the conflict he achieved 33 air-to-air combat victories, earning the accolade "France's First Fighter" from General Charles de Gaulle
. His wartime memoir, ''The Big Show (Le Grand Cirque)'' became a notable bestseller. After the war, he worked as an engineer and was a Member of France's Parliament.
Clostermann was born in Curitiba
, into a French diplomatic family. He was the only son of Madeleine Carlier from Lorraine
and Jacques Clostermann from Alsace
. After receiving flying tuition from German pilot Karl Benitz (died in 1943, Russia), he completed his secondary education in France and gained his private pilot's licence in 1937.
World War II
On the outbreak of war in 1939 the French authorities refused his application for service, so he travelled to Los Angeles
to become a commercial pilot, studying at the California Institute of Technology
. Clostermann joined the Free French Air Force
in the United Kingdom
in March 1942. After training at RAF Cranwell
and 61 OTU, Clostermann, a sergeant pilot
, was posted in January 1943 to No. 341 Squadron RAF
(known to the Free French as ''Groupe de Chasse n° 3/2 "Alsace"''), flying the Supermarine Spitfire
He scored his first two victories on 27 July 1943, destroying two Focke-Wulf Fw 190
s over France.
In October 1943, Clostermann received a commission as an officer, and was assigned to the British No. 602 Squadron RAF
, remaining with the unit for the next ten months. He flew a variety of operations including fighter sweeps, bomber escorts, high-altitude interdiction over the Royal Navy
's Scapa Flow
base, and strafing or dive-bombing attacks on V-1
launch sites on the French coast. He flew air-cover for the Normandy Landings
, and was one of the first Free French pilots to land on French soil, at temporary airstrip B-11, near Longues-sur-Mer
on 18 June 1944. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross
shortly afterwards, after which he was reassigned to French Air Force Headquarters.
In December 1944 he returned to the front line on re-secondment to the Royal Air Force as a supernumerary flight lieutenant
. He joined No. 274 Squadron RAF
flying the new Hawker Tempest
Mk V. In an aircraft which he named ''Le Grand Charles'', Clostermann flew an intensive and highly successful round of fighter sweeps, airfield attacks, "rat scramble" interceptions of Messerschmitt 262
jet fighters, and rail interdiction missions over northern Germany over the next two months.
In March 1945 he briefly served with No. 56 Squadron
, before transfer to No. 3 Squadron
. On 24 March 1945 he was wounded in the leg by German flak
, and after belly-landing his badly damaged aircraft was hospitalized for a week. From 8 April 1945 he was commander of "A" Flight, No. 3 Squadron RAF
. He was awarded a bar to his DFC
On 12 May 1945 during a victory fly-past
to mark the war's conclusion, another Tempest collided with his, and as a result an air pile-up occurred with four close formation low-flying aeroplanes of his flight involved, with three pilots being killed. Clostermann bailed out, his parachute opening just a few yards above the ground. He continued operations with No. 122 Wing RAF until he left the military altogether on 27 July 1945 with the RAF rank of wing commander
and the French rank of ''lieutenant''.
In his 432 sorties, Clostermann was credited officially with 33 victories (19 solo, 14 shared, most of them against fighters) and five "probables", with eight more "damaged". He also claimed 225 motor vehicles destroyed, 72 locomotives, five tanks, and two E-boat
s (fast torpedo boats). Many references credit him with 29 to 33 victories, although these probably include his "ground" kills of enemy aircraft. Recent, more detailed analysis of his combat reports and squadron accounts indicate that his actual score was 11 destroyed, with possibly another seven, for a total of 15–18 victories.
In 1951, Clostermann authored an account of his wartime experiences entitled ''Le Grand Cirque'' (published in English as ''The Big Show''). One of the first post-war fighter pilot memoirs, its various editions have sold over two and a half million copies. William Faulkner
commented that this is the finest aviation book to come out of World War II
. The book was reprinted, in expanded form, in both paperback and hardcover editions in 2004. It was also adapted in comic book form by Manuel Perales, in close collaboration with Clostermann. Clostermann also wrote ''Feux du Ciel'' (''Flames in the Sky'') published in 1957, a collection of heroic air combat exploits from both Allied and Axis sides.
After the war, Clostermann continued his career as an engineer, participating in the creation of Reims Aviation
, supporting the Max Holste Broussard
prototype, acting as a representative for Cessna
, and working for Renault
He served eight terms as a ''député'' (Member of Parliament) in the French National Assembly
between 1946 and 1969.
He also briefly re-enlisted in the ''Armée de l'Air
'' in 1956–57 to fly ground-attack missions during the Algerian War
. He subsequently published a novel based on his experiences there, entitled ''Leo 25 Airborne''.
During the Falklands War
in early 1982 comments publicly emerged from Clostermann expressing praise for the courage displayed by Argentine Air Force
and Argentine Navy
pilots during their air-to-sea attacks on the Royal Navy
. Clostermann had written the comments, which were partly motivated by ethnic insults towards Argentinians that he had become aware of in the British press during the conflict, in a letter to a class of Argentine fighter-pilots who were being trained at that time in France at an Armée de l'Air
establishment, at which his son was an instructor. The private letter's comments, from a renowned World War II military hero, swiftly found their way across the Atlantic Ocean to Buenos Aires
, where they were published in newspapers as war propaganda. As a result of this perceived "betrayal" of his links with the United Kingdom via his war service in the Royal Air Force, Clostermann attracted hostility from parts of the British press.
He also attracted controversy in France for his vehement anti-war stance in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War
Clostermann died on 22 March 2006 at his home at Montesquieu-des-Albères
, in the French Pyrenees
[Obituary for Clostermann, 'Daily Telegraph', 25 March 2006. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1513883/Pierre-Clostermann.html]
Clostermann was married and had three sons.
On 6 June 2004, a road in Longues-sur-Mer
, near temporary airstrip B-11, was named after Clostermann.
Foreign orders and decorations
* Clostermann, Pierre. ''The Big Show''. (Translated by Oliver Berthoud) London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004. .
* Shores, Christopher and Clive Williams. ''Aces High''. London: Grub Street, 1994. .
* Thomas, Chris. ''Typhoon and Tempest Aces of World War 2''. Aircraft of the Aces No. 27. Botley, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1999. .
* ''Wings Encyclopedia of Aviation''. London: Orbis Publishing, 1979.
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