Colonel René Paul Fonck (27 March 1894 – 18 June 1953) was a French aviator who ended the First World War as the top fighter ace and, when all succeeding aerial conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries are also considered, Fonck still holds the title of “all-time Allied Ace of Aces”. He received confirmation for 75 victories (72 solo and three shared) out of 142 claims. In the confusion of war, however, his tally could actually be much higher with some commentators estimating that at least 100 aircraft were victims of his gunnery and piloting skills. He was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1918 and later a Commander of the Legion of Honor after the war, and raised again to the dignity of Grand Officer.
Fonck was born on 27 March 1894 in the small village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe in the Vosges region of north eastern France. During his formative years, he reportedly received an engineering education at École nationale superieure des arts et metiers, but still there is a doubt about this aspect. Fonck actually left school when he was 13. Jon Guttman of HistoryNet says René Paul Fonck grew to be a rather short, unremarkable-looking young man whose own self-serving writings suggest ambitions at least partially driven by an inferiority complex. He claimed that his upbringing in the Alsace-Lorraine region, seized by the Germans after the humiliating Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, had imbued him with a desire for revenge. When World War I broke out, he was mobilized on August 22, 1914, and assigned to the 2nd Groupe d’Aviation at Dijon. Although he had been interested in aviation from his youth, he was rejected for the air service when conscripted on 22 August 1914. Instead, he underwent five months basic training for the role of French Army’s combat engineer, because of his engineering skills; his training duties included first digging trenches near Épinal, and later bridge repairs on the Moselle River. Throughout this time, however, he harboured dreams of becoming a pilot.
Finally Joins Military Aviation
After numerous applications, he was finally selected for pilot training on February 15, 1915. Training was undertaken at centres at St. Cyr and later at Le Crotoy where he would practice flying on a Bleriot Penguin. It was flightless version (simulator) of the Bleriot XI aircraft that gave the sensation of flight whilst firmly attached to the ground. In June 1915, having successfully earned his pilot’s brevet and passed the final examinations, he was posted as a pilot to Escadrille (squadron) C47 flying Caudron G III observation planes, based at Corcieux, not far from his hometown. Fonck considered the unit’s Caudron G.3s “slow and cumbersome,” and after encountering a German plane while returning from reconnaissance over Colmar, he wrote that he “no longer took off without carrying a good carbine.”
Transferred to an Ex Bomber Unit
Early after training, Fonck was inducted into WW I. Jon Guttman writes that on March 17,1917, Fonck and his observer helped bring down an Albatros north of Cernay-en-Laonnais. Fonck was clearly more fighter than recon pilot material. At age of 23, on 15 April 1917 (“Bloody April”), Fonck received a coveted invitation to join the famous Escadrille les Cigognes. Group de Combat 12, with its four escadrilles (or squadrons), was the world’s first fighter wing. The then leading French ace, Georges Guynemer, was serving at the time in one of its escadrilles, N3, and had just scored his 36th victory. But actually on April 25 Fonck was transferred to N.103 of Groupe de Combat 12. Also known as “Les Cigognes” for the stork emblems that graced the sides of its Nieuport 17s and Spad VIIs. GC.12 was the elite group in the French air service, boasting such renowned fighters as Alfred Heurteaux, Albert Deullin, René Dorme and Georges Guynemer. When Fonck arrived, however, N.103, a bomber unit recently turned into a fighter squadron, had yet to boast an ace of its own. Fonck aimed to be the first.
World War I – First Victory
“I had obtained a new plane, naturally; a brand-new Spad with which I promised myself to do a great job,” wrote Fonck. It took him and his mechanics two days to get the aircraft performing to his satisfaction, but his careful preparations paid off on May 5, when he and three comrades encountered five Albatros D.IIIs over Laon. Sergeant Pierre Schmitter’s plane was hit, and Sergeant Claude Haegelen and Lieutenant Pierre Henri Hervet were hard-pressed when Fonck intervened and fired point-blank at a German who suddenly emerged from a cloud in front of him. “His plane immediately nose-dived to a crash at the corner of a wooded area,” Fonck wrote. His victim, Warrant Officer Anton Dierle of Jagdstaffel (fighter squadron, or Jasta) 24, was killed.
More Actions – 1917
His second victory came on 17 May 1917, Fonck downing an Albatros in conjunction with his observer, Sergeant Huffer. By this time, Fonck had amassed over 500 hours flight time, an incredible amount in those early days of aviation. On 25 May 1917 Fonck’s observer was killed by an anti-aircraft shell burst, a fate that almost befell Fonck a few weeks later. Fonck claimed his first enemy aircraft in July 1916, but his victory was unconfirmed. On 6 August, he and fellow pilot Lieutenant Thiberge engaged a German Rumpler CIII, and by maneuvering over and around the reconnaissance plane, staying out of its fields of fire, forced it lower and lower until the German crew landed behind French lines. “For twenty minutes at least, from bank to bank and spiral to spiral,” he wrote, “we descended from an altitude of 4,000 meters until we landed on a grassy field where, their will broken, two Boche officers surrendered—the only prisoners I ever took.” German records noted that 2nd Lt. Hermann von Raumer and Reserve 1st Lt. Adam Brey were taken prisoner that day. It was his first verified victory. It brought him the Médaille militaire in late August 1917.
Unit Switches to G.4s
In October C.47 switched from G.3s to twin-engine Caudron G.4s, and Fonck flew 13 long-range recon missions and 24 artillery-spotting flights during the month. Some of the G.4s carried cameras, which as Fonck noted in his autobiography, Mes Combats, “gives a clearer and more exact map, once corrected and adjusted for scale, than the work of the best professional geographer.” He also observed that German anti-aircraft fire was intensifying. During a photoreconnaissance mission in June 1917, a shell tore through Fonck’s right wing, missing his nacelle by less than a yard. “If the projectile had exploded on contact with my wing, my fate would have been sealed,” he wrote. “I am not ashamed of the slight case of shivers that I still experience at this memory.”
Becomes a Flying Ace
Fonck was instead assigned to another escadrille in the group, Spa 103. Flying the SPAD VII, he quickly made a name for himself, achieving fifth aerial victory and attaining flying ace status by 13 May. He picked off another target on 12 June, then went on hiatus until 9 August. In late July, when GC.12 moved to Dunkirk in the Flanders sector, to face some of the best fighter squadrons in the German air service, the aerial action heated up considerably.
Interesting Air Challenges
Shortly after GC.12’s arrival in their sector, some British pilots arrived to familiarize its personnel with their aircraft. There was a difference in technique between the renowned Guynemer and the rising star Fonck. There was a Canadian ace, who offered to have a mock dogfight with Fonck and Guynemer. It was with the senior, Guynemer first. The two aircraft would cross in the air and the ‘combat’ would begin at once. Immediately, Guynemer was on his tail and he could not get him off. Fonck reportedly said, “Send me three pilots, and I will attack them. They will never see me.” Three English pilots started, and were over the field, where they had lost sight of Fonck. Suddenly, there was a Spad flying through the three Englishmen. It was Fonck. That was the difference between the two schools. Fonck was a very good pilot, of course, but he never made a dog-fighting maneuver in the air. He always flew flat. Not to be seen by anybody…that was his style.
On August 19, Fonck embarked on a winning streak, downing an enemy plane daily until the 22nd. On September 14 he attacked a German observation aircraft and quickly killed the pilot. The plane suddenly and violently inverted and threw the observer through the wing of Fonck’s aircraft. Such was the Frenchman’s determination to accurate report his victories that he went to the crash site and ripped out the German aircraft’s barograph to confirm, his twelfth, so its readout would confirm his combat report. Fonck ended the year with nineteen confirmed kills as well as a commission and had been awarded the highest French military honour the Légion d’honneur.
Avenges Guynemer Death
On September 11, 1917, Captain Georges Guynemer, victor over 53 German aircraft since 1915, did not return from a patrol. Everyone in GC.12 swore revenge, including Fonck. On September 14, he destroyed a two-seater in flames over Langemarck. “Such was the funeral of Guynemer to me,” he later wrote. On 30 September, he and Adjutant Dupre jointly shot down a German two-seater Rumpler CIV 6787/16 of FA 18. The news reported the killed pilot to be Lieutenant Kurt Wissemann, who had allegedly shot down Guynemer, and that Fonck had boasted of avenging the death of his “good friend” Guynemer. This story is put into question by German records, indicating that Kurt Wissemann of Jasta 3 had been killed two days before in a different fight, in which he was flying a single-seater, probably against No. 56 Squadron.
September and October 2017 added four victories apiece to Fonck’s score. Thus, by year’s end, he had raised his tally to nineteen. He was commissioned as an officer, and had received the Légion d’honneur.
Fonck got only better. Fonck’s confidence in his ability was matched by his excellence in the air. He was a studious man and known for his clinical professionalism. He applied mathematical principles to combat flying, and his engineering knowledge regarding the capabilities of the aircraft he flew was unsurpassed among his fellow pilots. Fonck took few chances, patiently stalking his intended victims from higher altitudes. He then used deflection shooting with deadly accuracy at close range, resulting in an astonishing economy of ammunition expended per kill. More often than not, a single burst of less than five rounds from his Vickers machine gun was sufficient. Many commentators have compared his tactics as less a dogfight than surgical merciless executions. He was also reputed to be able to spot enemy observation aircraft from very far away, where most other pilots would have perceived nothing.
Fonck, like France’s leading ace, Captain Guynemer, flew a limited-production SPAD XII fighter, distinguished by the presence of a hand-loaded 37mm Puteaux cannon firing through the propeller boss. He is apparently credited with downing 11 German airplanes with this type of weapon, called a “moteur-canon”. This was made possible by the gear-reduction version of the Hispano-Suiza V8 SOHC engine first used in that model of SPAD fighter. It offset the now-hollow propeller shaft above the crankshaft axis, and the 37mm cannon was mounted in the V space between the two rows of cylinders.
Fonck would later fly the highly successful SPAD XIII, the first SPAD fighter model to use twin Vickers machine guns. Elegant looking on the outside, the Spad XII was decidedly different inside the cockpit, where the cannon breech protruded between the pilot’s legs, necessitating Deperdussin-type elevator and aileron controls on either side of his seat instead of a central control column. A highly skilled pilot like Guynemer could master such a system, but he was also forced to deal with the heavy recoil of a single-shot weapon that filled the cockpit with smoke upon firing and had to be reloaded by hand. In spite of the Spad XIII’s shortcomings, Fonck found its speed and sturdiness in a dive ideal for his stalking tactics.
Spectacular 2018 – “Ace-in-a-Day”
For Fonck 1918 started with something of a fallow period of nineteen days without a single kill to his name but a double victory on 19 January ended this drought. Adapting to it readily, he downed two opponents on January 19, and by March 17 had raised his score to 30. February added another five, March seven more, and another three in April. Then came a spectacular performance on 9 May. Rene Fonck was a serious character and a heated disagreement between the Frenchman and two American squadron-mate pilots, Edwin C Parsons and Frank Baylies led to perhaps the single most spectacular day in his career. Perturbed by Fonck’s lectures on aerial success, the two Americans bet Fonck a bottle of champagne that one of them would shoot down an enemy plane before Fonck. Baylies took off despite hazy weather and shot down a Halberstadt CL.II. Back at the airfield, he expected Fonck to honour the bet. He did not. Rather than pay off the bet, a sulky Fonck badgered the Americans to change the terms of the bet so that whoever shot down the most Germans that day would win. Lingering fog kept Fonck grounded most of the day. It was well into the afternoon before it cleared enough for him to take off at 1500 hours. Between 1600 and 1605 hours, he shot down three enemy two-seater reconnaissance planes. A couple of hours later, he repeated the feat. Thus becoming “Ace-in-day” for the first time. Understanding the importance of reconnaissance planes, with their potential to direct intensive artillery fire onto French troops, Fonck concentrated his attentions upon them; six shot down within a three-hour span proved it. He added a double victory on 19 May and five more in June. By now, he was shooting doubles frequently, and with 49 on his score sheet, he was rapidly closing in on Guynemer’s record.
Surpasses Legendary Guynemer
On 18 July 1918, he achieved another double, to bring his total to 53 and into a tie with Guynemer. The following day, he shot down three more enemy aircraft and surpassed the score of the legendary Guynemer, who had remained the leading French ace after his death on 11 September 1917.
Becomes Leading Allied Ace
He added four more victories in August, raising his total to 60. Fonck was becoming a legend amongst the Allied forces and even in Germany his reputation was well known and respected. Then, on 26 September, he repeated his feat of knocking down six enemy airplanes in a day, although this time three of his six victories were over Fokker D.VII fighters. “I now had sixty-six official victories to my credit.” He had also become the only World War I ace with two six-victory days in his combat log. Another success two days later and two on 5 October put his score at 69, very close to the 72 of Major William Avery Bishop, then the leading Allied ace. On 30 October, he matched Bishop with three more victories. He shot down two more the following day, and another the day after that, finishing with 75 confirmed victories. By end of the war Rene Fonck had become France’s highest scoring combat ace. His victory over a Halberstadt on 01, November 2018, was also the last for GC.12 before the armistice was signed on the 11th, bringing its total to 286 aircraft and five balloons, although if victories prior to the group’s formation are counted, the collective wartime total of its component squadrons came to 411 planes and 11 balloons. The group’s top-scoring squadron had been Spa.3 with 175 victories, but Spa.103 ranked second with a wartime total of 111—73 of which had been scored by one individual: René Fonck.
Summary of WW I
To summarize, he was officially awarded 75 confirmed victories. With 75 confirmed victories—and 52 unconfirmed—Fonck was the undisputed Allied ace of aces, yet he never received the adulation bestowed upon Guynemer and Nungesser. He had 56 victories during the whole of 1918. His 1918 list by itself would have made him France’s leading ace. Unlike many leading French aces, Fonck’s score contained only three shared victories. Also unlike most aces, he remained unwounded; indeed, only a single enemy bullet had ever hit his aircraft. He had also forgone the most hazardous air-to-air combat: he had shot down no balloons.
Fonck – Ascetic and Withdrawn
Yet for all his skill and success, Fonck never captured the heart of the French public as Guynemer had. Fonck was ascetic and withdrawn. Instead of drinking or socializing with the other pilots, he planned his flying missions and tactics, ironed his uniforms, and stayed physically fit through calisthenics. He seemed to overcompensate for his shyness by constantly mentioning his exploits. As a result, he seemed distant, arrogant, even abrasive. His comrades respected his skills, but even one of his few friends, Marcel Haegelen, considered him a braggart and shameless self-promoter. Fonck may have resented the fact that Guynemer remained more popular in the French press even after he surpassed him in victories. Fonck also seemed to lack insight into the effect his personality had upon his image or career. However he and he alone carried the flag of the French Air Force at the victory parade on the Champs-Elysées.
Civil Life After WW I – Member of Parliament
Fonck returned to civilian life after World War I, and published his war memoirs Mes Combats, prefaced by Marechal Foch, in 1920. The fame he got from the war allowed him to be elected Member of Parliament representing the Vosges from 1919 to 1924.
Transatlantic Air Race
During the 1920s, Fonck persuaded Igor Sikorsky to redesign the Sikorsky S-35 for the transatlantic race for US$ 25,000 Orteig Prize. On 21 September 1926, Fonck crashed on takeoff when the landing gear collapsed, killing two of his three crew members. Charles Lindbergh won the prize seven months later in 1927.
Returns to Military Aviation & Nazi Links Controversy
Fonck eventually returned to military aviation and rose to Inspector of French fighter forces from 1937 to 1939. His inter-war contact with the likes of former WW I foe Hermann Göring and Ernst Udet cast a shadow upon Fonck’s reputation and independence during the German occupation of France in 1940, as did allegations of collaboration with the Nazis and the Vichy regime. On 10 August 1940, Vichy Foreign Minister Pierre Laval announced that Fonck had recruited 200 French pilots to fight on the Nazi side. However, the truth was more complicated. Marshal Philippe Pétain wished to exploit Fonck’s relationship to Göring in order to meet Adolf Hitler. He ordered Colonel Fonck to talk to Göring. A meeting was planned at Montoire, but after discovering evidence about the pro-Nazi politics of Pierre Laval, Fonck tried to convince Pétain not to attend. Initially Pétain appeared to heed Fonck’s advice, but for some reason he eventually decided to disregard Fonck’s warnings and met Hitler at Montoire on 24 October 1940. Fonck’s loyalties were thus questioned by the Vichy regime, and he returned home to Paris, where he was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in the Drancy internment camp. Effectively he could not be part of WW II.
Post World War II – Cleared For Loyalty
After the war, a French police inquiry about his supposed collaboration with the Vichy regime completely cleared Fonck. The conclusion was that his loyalty was proved by his close contacts with recognised resistance leaders such as Alfred Heurtaux during the war. Additionally, he was awarded the Certificate of Resistance in 1948. Citation reads “Mr. Fonck, René, a member of the fighting French forces without uniform, took part, in territory occupied by the enemy, to glorious fights for the liberation of the nation”.
Last Days – Dies at 59
Fonck remained in Paris but also visited frequently his native Lorraine, where he had business interests. He died of a stroke in his Paris apartment, Rue du Cirque, on June 18, 1953, at the age of 59 and is buried in the cemetery of his native village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe.
Great Way to Sum Up
Jon Guttman of HistoryNet wrote based on an interview with Historian Ian Toll “Twilight of the Gods”, covering the story “Allied Ace of Aces: René Fonck” He wrote, “When Germans, Americans, Italians or Belgians think of World War I aviation, the first names that come to mind are usually their highest-scoring fighter pilots— Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, Edward Rickenbacker, Francesco Baracca and Willy Coppens. An exception is France, which most reveres its second-ranking ace, Georges Guynemer, among its martyred heroes, while the higher-scoring René Fonck settles for posterity’s grudging respect for his wartime achievements. A less romantic, more practical mind might note that Guynemer literally burned himself out in his single-minded patriotism, making his death, in September 1917, almost inevitable. Fonck, in contrast, flew, fought and lived by a philosophy that dying for one’s country was less desirable than making one’s opponent die for his. Cynical though that outlook seemed at the time, it was arguably more mature and better suited for a fighter pilot’s success—and survival. But perhaps Fonck’s biggest problem compared to Guynemer was that he survived.
“He is not a truthful man,” said Haegelen, who was nevertheless one of Fonck’s best friends. “He is a tiresome braggart, and even a bore, but in the air, a slashing rapier, a steel blade tempered with unblemished courage and priceless skill….But afterward, he can’t forget how he rescued you, nor let you forget it. He can almost make you wish he hadn’t helped you in the first place.” Swiss volunteer Jacques Roques summed up Fonck by saying, “As a fighter pilot, in one word, the best…but he was not a very sympathetic character.”
In seeming contradiction to his grating personality, Fonck’s lifestyle was arguably among the most sensible for a fighter pilot of his time. While Guynemer flew relentlessly, and third-ranking French ace Charles Nungesser alternated between fighting, womanizing and drinking, getting barely two hours of sleep at night, Fonck rested between missions, drank moderately and spent much of his leisure time practicing his marksmanship.
While uncounted volumes have been written about Guynemer, the only author who wrote a book devoted to Fonck was Fonck himself. The Storks, by Norman Franks and Frank Bailey, and Ace of Aces, by René Fonck. An unrequited seeker of glory whose deeds could easily have spoken for him eloquently enough by themselves—if only he had let them.
- On his closing into the target aircraft during combat, he said “I put my bullets into the target as if I placed them there by hand.” – Rene Fonck
- On his preference of flying alone, he said, “I prefer to fly alone… when alone, I perform those little coups of audacity which amuse me…” – Rene Fonck
Médaille militaire citation, 1916 – “A pilot of remarkable bravery and skill, having already engaged in a great number of aerial combats. On 6 August 1916, he resolutely attacked two strongly armed enemy planes, took on one in pursuit, and by a series of bold and skillful maneuvers, forced it to land uninjured within our lines. He has been cited in orders twice.”
Légion d’honneur – “A fighting pilot of great value, combining outstanding bravery and exceptional qualities of skill and sang-froid. He came to pursuit aviation after 500 hours of flight on army corps aircraft and became, in a short time, one of the best French combat pilots. On 19, 20 and 21 August 1917, he shot down his 8th, 9th and 10th enemy aircraft. He has already been cited seven times in orders, and has received the Médaille militaire for feats of war.”
Légion d’honneur chevaliership in 1917. He was raised to the grade of Commander in 1920, and to the dignity of Grand Officer in 1936.
One of the most decorated French war heroes
Remarkable officer from every point of view; of admirable fighting ardor. Pilot of the highest order, for reconnaissance missions and artillery range intelligence, as well as for surveillance service that he completed many times despite very unfavorable atmospheric conditions. He demonstrated, during the course of an uninterrupted series of aerial combats, an exceptional strength and will to win, which sets an example for the French chasse pilots of today.
Rene Fonck was also awarded the British Military Cross and the British Distinguished Conduct Medal. He had twenty eight army citations (“palmes”), and one bronze regimental citation (“étoile de bronze”) attached to his War Cross.
Header Image Source: History Net
- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Fonck
- Find A Grave https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/51798788/rene-paul-fonck
- Vocal Media. https://vocal.media/serve/aerial-combat-ace-rene-paul-fonck
- Aviation History research director Jon Guttman, History Net https://www.historynet.com/allied-ace-of-aces-rene-fonck.htm
- Kennedy Hickman, Thought Co. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-i-colonel-rene-fonck-2360477
- René Paul Fonck http://albindenis.free.fr/Site_escadrille/Rene_Fonck.htm
3 thoughts on “French Colonel René Paul Fonck – The Highest Scoring All-time Allied Ace of Aces – 75 Victories”
“Fonck, in contrast, flew, fought and lived by a philosophy that dying for one’s country was less desirable than making one’s opponent die for his. Cynical though that outlook seemed at the time, it was arguably more mature and better suited for a fighter pilot’s success—and survival”.
Cynical as the outlook may have seemed at that point in time (1917), it was a quarter of a century later that the legendary Gen George S Patton Jr. said it loud and clear. “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his”.
Rene Fonck not only believed in it, but he also practiced it.
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Absolutely Sir. Serious guy. Professional. Agressive. Prepared his sorties well. Maintained clear bottle to throttle gap. A pilot of remarkable bravery and skill.
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