An interview with a Free Frenchman, Mr. Clostermann. By Alexandre Jaeg
This interview with Pierre Clostermann was made by Alexandre Jaeg for school in February 2005. It's probably one of the last interviews made with Pierre Clostermann. The original interview was in French, but thanks to an enormous amount of work by Phil Poffenbarger, it has been translated to English. Without Phil's indefatigable gigantic efforts, you would never been able to read the interview in English. Thanks to both Alexandre and Phil!!
AJ: Hello Mr. Clostermann. Let's pass directly to the heart of the topic; what were the incentives, those of you and your colleagues, to volunteer for enlistment in the ranks of the FAFL, the Free French Air Force [les Forces Aêriennes Françaises Libres]?
PC: Well, in order to understand my response to this question, especially if you are a young Frenchman of today, it is necessary to realize that our generation experienced two major historical events: one was the war of 1939 to 1945; the other was the war in Algeria. I must say that for me and my colleagues studying at an American University at the time of the invasion of France the issue was straightforward. I am an Alsatian Frenchman as were several of my colleagues. Could we tolerate the German occupation of Paris? Aside from all philosophical and legal considerations for which the French had to answer the solution was simple for us: the Germans were in Paris, the Germans were in Strasbourg and for an Alsatian this meant that there was no alternative but to make war.
Left: Pierre Clostermann in his Hawker Tempest Mk V, Le Grande Charles on 20 May 1945.
I did not possess the fundamental constitution to make war at the time; in fact, the main attraction for me was the thought that I might receive the opportunity to fly a Spitfire. I had taken flying lessons while studying engineering at the American University and I had achieved commercial piloting qualifications; therefore, at this time already I had a lot of flying hours but this was piloting simple planes. In my mind was the desire to step up to the experience of piloting a real thoroughbred of the skies, the Supermarine Spitfire. I left the university immediately in order to enlist in the FAFL. My father left a week prior to my departure.
AJ: Was your father a military man?
PC: No, he was not in the military; he was in the diplomatic corps. He left with the French military attaché, Martial Valin, who soon became General Valin, Commander of Free French Air Forces. My father and Marshall Valin arrived in London within a few weeks.
My father wrote me a very beautiful letter that I have always kept. In his letter he explains that it is necessary to first take care of my mother and lady Valin then to appreciate the opportunity before me, to volunteer to fight for one's homeland; this rarely occurs for a man just reaching his adult status in life. He and emphasized in his letter how precious and important was this opportunity and that history by itself would not resolve the conflict and preserve the homeland; that only by the heroic actions of the homeland's young men and women would the land of our Heritage be preserved.
He then urged me to travel to London as soon as possible after sending my mother and lady Valin off to Brazzaville [Congo]. Once in London he assured me that General Valin would assemble a FAFL squadron and that I could volunteer for this service or for flying duty in the RAF if the FAFL squadron was incorporated under the command of the RAF. I admit that I left for London with little enthusiasm for entering into hostilities.
Naturally, most of my friends expressed varied incentives for going to war. In France one often refers to the writings of François Labouchère but I find that few read them unless specifically asked. He is often quoted as saying: "The most difficult aspect of defining one's duty is to actually perceive the correct path to take." I feel that this quote represents a shallow alibi for many especially those who have not read Labouchère's complete essay. These individuals often express that they were caught up in the German invasion and had no time to act; therefore, their path was to remain at home and deal with whatever happened. If one reads Labouchère's essay further he makes a strong argument for preservation of the homeland. He says that a responsible man must leave the comforts of home and enter into war against those that are invading, that this is the honorable path of duty.
In 1942 François Labouchère was betrayed and killed by the enemy. I knew his mother and sisters after the war; they were exceptionally good people and they were very proud of François's sacrifice for the homeland. They were an old French family of considerable means, all lost in the war, and most of their possessions were never recovered but they remained proud nonetheless. As for me personally my first priority was to pilot an aircraft. I reasoned that once I had traveled to England and joined up that the Free French pilots might become a significant force in the war. One of my friends, Henri Mattey, arrived on base out of uniform. He was wearing a sweater over a canary yellow shirt with socks to match and when we stood in our initial formation Commander Mouchette reproached him soundly. Henri didn't miss the opportunity and responded, "Yes, my Commander, I am out of uniform, dressed as a civilian, but I am here because I want to wage war against our enemy. Uniformed soldiers here are not nearly as eager for this as me." And he was right! You know, we were only a small cohort but the role of the Français Libres [Free Frenchmen] was out of proportion to our actual numbers.
AJ: How many were you?
PC: We had 600 Free French volunteers in the aviation branch of which 300 more or less were fighter pilots. I am referring to the time long before June 1942 when the Americans landed in North Africa; thereafter, our numbers were less. By the time the Alsace squadron was formed in Biggin Hill in May 1942 we had only 60 or 70 fighter pilots remaining. Overall, out of the initial 2500 Free French volunteers we had lost 400 by May 1942.
If one reviews the unit citations of the early Free French volunteers one finds that the aviators received many citations and awards. The reason for this is simple. Aviators were constantly at war flying missions daily; whereas, the Army and Marine volunteers were not constantly in a combat situation. For example, between the landings at Bir Hakeim, Libya, and the invasion at Normandy the Army and Marine Free French Forces experienced little combat. In contrast, the aviators were flying missions almost daily especially the fighter pilots. During this 700 day period I arose between 0400 and 0500 hours in the summer and 0600 hours in the winter to be on the alert status by 0800 hours each day. There were holidays here and there sometimes three weeks in duration but regardless during this period of 700 days the fighter pilots flew approximately 400 missions. This is a grueling pace and it takes a toll on the individual pilot. After the war I realized that this division of intensity of effort was in fact a good thing. There are two philosophical statements that I find relevant to this. The first is from Paul Valèry's writings and the second is from the writings of Andre Paul Guillaume Gide. Valèry wrote that "to every terrifying time in human history one always finds someone sitting aside documenting the events and inserting wisdom into the situation," and Gide once wrote "without stubborn unyielding men much of what we cherish would be destroyed; these men are the salt of the earth!" If you reflect a moment on the time of the Second World War this is exactly what happened. These brave unyielding men preserved our way of life, our freedoms; they were exceptional people and of those that survived most have succeeded in outstanding civilian career accomplishments. You understand that it is not necessary to have achieved a high military rank or to have earned an award of honor and valor in order to succeed in civilian life after a war but simply to have walked in the path of someone defending the homeland; that was sufficient. And what is even more extraordinary is that this duty did not only fall upon the shoulders of the nation's youth but it fell also upon the backs of our older citizens. For example, Pierre Louis-Dreyfus, grandson of Leopold Louis-Dreyfus who founded the global Louis-Dreyfus Industries, entered the Free French Forces at the age of 32 and piloted a Boston Bomber [Douglas DB-7 family, A-20] in the Lorraine Group. Pierre was, of course, a multimillionaire. He purchased 29 Boston Bombers from Douglas Aircraft as a gift to the RAF; in addition, he did not accept a cent of salary for his piloting duties. Pierre flew 45 low-altitude bombing missions.
A Boston Bomber from the Lorraine Group.
In this same vein there was also Roger Martin Du Gard (1881-1958) who worked in the Lorraine Bomber Group; he is noted for winning the Nobel Prize in literature (1937) and was in his late fifties when he served. Then, among others that I shall not mention, there was also Henri Deplante who later assisted in the design of the Dassault Mirage Fighter and finally, I should recognize Pierre Mendès-France who entered service at the age of 33 years.
AJ: Yes, he served as our Prime Minister (1954-55) in the Fourth Republic [I felt that it was necessary that I justify the years vested in the study of French history].
PC: Yes, and as I was saying, Mendès-France also piloted a Boston bomber in the Lorraine Group. Few people know of this because he never made a point of it during his political years. If you please, I am only speaking of one squadron, the Lorraine Group, but you can multiply this by many fold to realize the magnitude of the Free French effort. So, to return to the question of the incentives of the people that joined the France Libre, well, the first and foremost reason for joining was that the Germans were in Paris. The second reason was that the Germans were in Strasbourg; both reasons amount to the same thing, our homeland was invaded and occupied by a hostile fascist regime and we could not sit down and allow this to develop into a permanent situation. Our homeland, our French heritage was at stake here.
AJ: But how did you weigh the risks to your life and limb against this threat?
PC: The risks? You know, the risks to one's life were a part of the overall effort to reverse this invasion and we had no false illusion about that. Life is important but the moment that a fighter pilot sits down in the cockpit of a Spitfire he understands that his life could be cut short, blown away like the ashes in an ash tray.
AJ: This is one of the things that I have difficulty conceiving and it is one of the primary reasons that I have sought out this interview; our generation may not be so willing to put their lives on the line in the name of a cause. I wish to understand this in greater depth.
PC: Yes, I understand that; the youth of today have difficulty conceiving of a self-sacrificing ethic in the setting of war. If you please allow me to bring two things together for the purpose of this discussion, two concepts that have been misunderstood or forgotten. The first is the concept of duty, or I should say Duty with a capital D! The second is Homeland with a capital H! Have we lost the sense of our homeland, the earth of our fathers? Our homeland contains everything that we hold dear, our farms, our cities, our homes, gardens and parks, our highways…these things are our inheritance and if threatened we must defend against any threat. If we fail to defend our inheritance then we have nothing to transmit to our offspring, our inheritance is gone, revised, dissipated. It is our duty to defend this inheritance. I recall with a deep sigh the deep inner feeling that I had when I once again placed my feet on the soil of France shortly after the Normandy invasion. We had come back to our homeland, weapons in hand, and we were going to finish the fight and drive the invaders from our father's soil. Yes, the risks were great and the losses were enormous especially towards the end of the war when I piloted the Tempest.
AJ: As for example when you attacked an airfield and you alone returned out of eight or twelve aircraft?
PC: Yes, we could send out six aircraft on a mission and only two would return. This unusually high loss was especially likely to occur on ground attack missions such as strafing enemy supply trains. We could not do much about this; the anti-aircraft coverage was intense and severe. The losses in the Free French Forces were similarly experienced in the RAF proper. You know, overall the Royal Air Forces and Royal Marines lost over 80,000 young pilots. The Americans too experienced heavy losses of airmen on their daylight bombing missions. Now, when one speaks of the liberation of France there is one thing for certain, this would never have occurred if the RAF had lost the Battle of Britain in 1940. This event was pivotal in blocking the German advance westward. And this was accomplished in large part by the very young British men of the RAF, young inexperienced men still wet behind the ears so-to-speak yet willing to put all on the line for duty and homeland despite terrifying losses. If the Luftwaffe had won the Battle of Britain the Allies would have been in a dreadful situation, we would have been done. To come back to the issue of incentives and the ethic of duty and homeland preservation I believe these young men in the RAF demonstrated the full measure of these attributes for generations to come. We must not lose sight of what they accomplished and of the sacrifices that they made. I do not like to use big words but the phrase Free France [Libèrer la France] has great emotional impact on me. I could not go for a walk on the beautiful avenue of the Fields-Elysèe with fifty meters of German flags staged along both sides and not react! When one sees the old newsreels from 1940 of the German troops passing under the Arc d' Triumph and parading down the Fields-Elysèe one wonders how all of the Frenchmen could stand there and watch passively supporting the invasion. Why didn't they make posters or some small sign against the invading regime, it was a public event but no obvious dissention was shown. My fellow countrymen disappointed me at that time but later on the underground resistance movement helped to relieve my disappointment.
AJ: Could you characterize some of your friends that joined the FAFL?
PC: Oh dear, well, you know me, I boarded a boat and stayed on deck a lot enroute to Liverpool, England, from the USA; this was a picturesque journey with lots of time to reflect about my future. One cannot get much more picturesque than that. My friend Jacques Remlinger also interrupted his life, his university studies in England, boarded a subway and traveled to Liverpool! Still, there were some among us that had taken very risky paths to our point of assembly in England. One fellow actually rebuilt an old airplane in his barn in the countryside of France and then stole gasoline, drop by drop, until he had a sufficient amount to attempt the incredibly risky journey to England.
Left: German troops in Paris, June 1940.
He succeeded in crossing the English Channel and landed safely but unfortunately he was killed in action in the early months of the war. Here, I have a list of thirteen highly accomplished young men who left Toulouse in the mid-Pyrenees section of France on or about June 18, 1940, for England; of these thirteen, twelve were killed in action in the war. In the Normandy invasion fourteen Free French pilots from the Alsace squadron had the honor of being the first across the French coastline. Six months later only three of these fourteen were still alive. Our losses were very heavy. We had to develop a mental anesthesia to these losses in order to function from one mission to the next.
AJ: And at the end of hostilities did the mental anesthesia remain?
PC: What shocked me then and after hostilities was the severe drama of a crash in flames, the pilot burned severely, but still alive with no hope for survival. Often a physician would administer several morphine injections to ease the horrible pain and agony; it was humane euthanasia and it was practiced on a large scale in this impossible situation. We did not have the knowledge to care for severe total body burns at that time. Sometimes we tried to salvage what we could and used immersion techniques, submersion of the burned pilot in salt solutions or gentian violet solution but this led to prolonged agony and death was inevitable in a few agonizing days. We had no antibiotics, no penicillin; the Americans had some penicillin but they were misers and did not make it much available to us.
AJ: In regards to your enlistment in the military you have not mentioned how you received notification; could you elaborate on this process?
PC: Are you referring to the call up of June 18th? 
PC: Well, I was enrolled in an American University, California Institute of Technology [Caltech] in Pasadena, California, as a student in aeronautical engineering and I happened to read about the fall of France in a newspaper. My father wrote to me from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where he was stationed in the diplomatic corps as Consul General and told me to look for any newspaper article with reference to General Charles DeGaulle. Finally, after looking for several days I found a reference in the Caltech library newspaper. I cut out the article with a photo of General DeGaulle and kept it in a book next to an oak leaf. In the article there was a statement that impressed me a lot, it was "that France had lost the battle but not the war." It was in this context that I spoke of the call of June 18th for this was the date that the Free French Forces were to assembly and organize. In France there are certain mythical dates such as Marignan 1515 and now, for me, June 18, 1940.
DeGaulle's character was extraordinary. Here is my favorite photo of him. As you can see he is pensive, thoughtful, and strong. The photo was taken on June 14, 1944, on the beach at Courseulles-su-Mer at the time of the landing at Normandy. This date is four years to the day when he arrived in London, June 14, 1940.
AJ: Ah yes!
PC: Is this strange? Not at all! It is the wheel of destiny! General DeGaulle arrived in London with nothing. He was alone, desolate, shipwrecked, but he set up an office in an empty room with a table, two armchairs, and a staff of one French officer to serve as his aide. This was the Français Libres!
AJ: But how was it that DeGaulle could act as the central point of unification of the Français Libres?
PC: Ah! That is nothing short of a miracle! You know, France always had a lot of luck, luck that she did not always deserve, but here came DeGaulle and this truly was a miracle. It is not easy to explain how one individual could struggle against the English, the Americans, the Germans, the Russians, everybody including his own friends, his allies, his enemies, with such a determined narrowly focused goal: To return France to total independence, a free republic once again or even a country with laws similar to a free republic, or even anything else resembling a republic. One is struck boldly by this fact that DeGaulle alone could unify this effort. Think of the millions of men that the allies mobilized; whereas, we, the Free Frenchmen, were not capable of recruiting 800,000 men at the start of hostilities nor two years later yet when the war was finally over DeGaulle had achieved French equality with all other Allies. This is a statement in support of his incredible will.
AJ: To return to the central theme of the interview, would you be able to speak about your first encounter with hostilities in the war; what were your feelings?
PC: You know aerial dogfights in WW II lasted only a few seconds. Most people do not realize this but the fight began and ended very quickly and always unexpectedly. In the fight one had to focus all attention on every aspect of the battle. It could arrive in a fraction
of a second and end as quickly yet the memory could last for days or weeks on end. A full week could pass without any action then on Monday of the next week everything could happen at once, a cafouillis. And do not forget that the planes were flying at great speeds often crossing paths at greater than a thousand kilometers per hour. That is fast! You may not quite appreciate it but at these speeds one's reflexes were extensions of the plane itself, instantaneous flying without thought; there was no time for choosing between options, it was all instinct. It was also necessary to have some luck. Personally, I experienced a lot of luck during the war or I would not be alive today. I caught a bullet in the right leg; that is the extent of my injuries after nearly three years of aerial fighting. I cannot explain it except to believe in the concept of luck.
AJ: How did you feel at the end of a mission? Were you tired?
PC: Yes, I was exhausted!
AJ: Morally too?
PC: Nervously, yes; it is all nervous exhaustion. As I mentioned the fight occurred so fast that we managed only by trained reflexes. At the end of the mission we had time to think, to reason, to re-play the mission in our heads, and this process took a nervous toll on us.
AJ: When you left on a mission did you feel assured that you could return or did you think fatally?
PC: One of my friends, General Andrieu, once said, "The worse thing about the guillotine is living through the evening before the execution." Please understand that Andrieu was not wrong; a similar devilish mental strain applied to the fighter pilot when, in the evening, he was thinking about the day's mission, the mistakes made, and all the while he knew that tomorrow he must start anew. But after a shower, a meal, a beer, and communion with your comrades, it was possible to feel somewhat normal again for awhile. During the period before the invasion of Normandy the fighter pilots were the only ones to make war on more or less a daily basis. Sometimes it was surreal to meet with these military folk who were not waging war but who worked in factories, in offices, and who were in another universe from us; it often reminded me in retrospect of the dialogues [small talk] portrayed in Dino Buzzati's novel, Heron. Occasionally, we met in the middle of these people who went to restaurants, to movies, or to a bar in the evenings, and we felt like foreigners; it often felt like a terrifying Scottish shower to meet in a normal universe after having been in a madman's universe for an hour or two shortly before. In fact, this interaction facilitated the onset of mental or nervous fatigue.
AJ: There was something that personally shocked me as I read your book, The Big Show. It seemed to me that sometimes as you described your aerial encounters and victories that you may have felt the air war was something of a game or sport and that the notion of death [opposing pilot's demise] was not mentioned, was paradoxically absent.
PC: Yes, viewed from the outside an aerial dogfight can be a magnificent object of geometry and physics. An aerial fight can be very beautiful if one manages to separate one's self from the event in a sterile manner and hold that a human did not die there, that this was only an exercise, a matter of geometry and aerodynamic physics in space. Everything happens very rapidly. It is necessary to find the solution to an equation in two to three seconds and every problem that presents itself can be quite different from any previous problem or experience. It is difficult to…
AJ: But what were your feelings about your adversaries that fell in aerial combat?
PC: At first I saw only a metal airplane with black crosses; I didn't see the man. And then one day I flew very close to my adversary and I saw his face clearly, I saw the man, and it disturbed me. The full picture of the situation passed through my thoughts like lightening. Here in the 20th century humankind can be very civil towards one another, write literature to this effect, study the humanities in peace, but here in aerial combat we meet in a separate but distinct primary universe, a universe where there is only life or death, no civility, no study of the humanities. I wasn't quite prepared for this revelation. Before the war I studied in an American University close to the beach in Malibu, California, near San Diego and Hollywood. This environment was like a dream world. I learned to pilot in the evenings in a magnificent aero-club. I loved the study of fluid mechanics. Studying in a university was like a dream, a wonderful privilege. Coming out of this dream-like environment into the hostile environment of war where one meets individuals that want to kill you; in fact, they are determined to kill you. This was a madman's universe and it is necessary to understand the fatigue that this environment induced. We flew nearly every mission to 10,000 meters altitude without cabin pressurization and we breathed pure [100%] oxygen. I must tell you that everyone's lungs paid a high biological tax for this. We have all experienced pulmonary problems since the war. In addition, we experienced both negative and positive G-forces without the benefit of a specialized fight suit. Often the negative G-forces experienced were in the range of -2 to -3 and the positive G-forces were commonly +5.0 to +6.6. We often lost vision and consciousness for several seconds. This was a major factor that contributed to our fatigue. Finally, we piloted planes that were very difficult to fly, even dangerous for that matter. This was especially the case near the end of the war flying the Hawker Tempest for example. These planes were real thoroughbreds designed and built for high performance. They were not in the class of the adorable Spitfire. The Tempest required constant attention to every detail. In ground attack missions it was easy to put the plane into the ground and on final approach it was necessary to attend to every detail, especially the air speed, or else one could die easily in a second of wandering attention. This induced pilot fatigue greatly especially over a prolonged period of time. Fortunately, there were periods of brief reprieve. For example, when we were stationed forward in Belgium, Holland, and Germany, we could not become operational immediately because the Americans had uselessly bombed the airfields the week before so we had to wait for repairs. This bombing of the airfields had an adverse effect on out adversaries in that it pushed them into a fight to the death.
AJ: I have read that the Germans attempted to promote the advance of the Allies but impede the Soviet advance near the end of hostilities so that they would fall into the hands of the Allies opposed to the Soviets.
PC: Yes, certainly, very certainly, the end game was played out badly. In this war as in all wars there is a human element that influences the final outcome. This was the case in Napoleon's time and it was true in 1945. The admiration that Roosevelt had for Stalin was an example of such a human factor yet Stalin was a cold monster.
AJ: Did you know about Stalin at that time?
PC: No, good Lord, no. He was widely known as a great figure but he was like an anaconda, a marvel of nature but very dangerous. Their idea was-they often met-:"We are going to bring peace to the world for two centuries. We are going to share the world. You shall occupy this part of the war torn world and we shall occupy that part. Each of us shall maintain peace in our regions of responsibility." Their arguments and agreements were deadly serious but after hostilities two-thirds of Europe was in the hands of the Russians and by the year 1950 we recognized what this really meant with respect to individual liberties for those living under Russia's communist control. It was absolutely dramatic. You know what they say…"the road to hell can be paved with good intentions." Andre Malraux foresaw this very well, or at least he is the individual known best to have written about it. I hope that you have read Malraux's writings?
AJ: (I indicated small ashamed signs confessing the fact that I had not read Malraux) [Translator's note: Andre Malraux (1901-1976) was Minister of Culture alongside Charles DeGaulle from 1958-1969; he fought against colonialism in Indochina, fascism in Spain, and Nazi Germany.]
PC: Oh my! Oh dear me! Ooooh! He was a communist to his death. He made war in Spain. He created a bomber squadron there in 1936. He was an astonishing character. He became a good friend of De Gaulle who liked him and appreciated him a lot. He was a man of very pure judgment; he always demonstrated a storehouse of wisdom and compelling expressions. Well now, after this highly philosophical history lesson let us come back to the main theme of our interview.
AJ: Yes! To repeat, how did you personally consider your German adversaries?
PC: Very well! The pilots, yes! Ah, certainly, I considered the Luftwaffe, the pilots, as equals. If by chance one was shot down it was accepted that it was
preferred to be captured by the Luftwaffe, not the Gestapo, or the Waffen SS, or even the Wehrmacht. In a general sense at this time all pilots, specifically all fighter pilots, formed an international organization similar to the "Mafia."
For example, even before the end of the war the Allies received five Messerschmitts, Me 262s, flown in by Luftwaffe pilots; this also occurred one day following
the Armistice. Did these adversaries have a concern about their safety and welfare? No, as long as they fell into the hands of British and American pilots. These Luftwaffe pilots were held prisoner for a week then three were given civilian clothes, money, papers, and returned to their homeland. The other two (one of whom was Hans Ulrich Rudel) preferred to be held prisoner but by the English, not the Americans. These two were placed in an English POW camp with chocolate, cigarettes, and other nice amenities such as a few drinks. Their accommodations were almost akin to normal living. Even though they did not speak English they managed to communicate well with their British captures. There were never any problems reported.
Right: Messerschmitt Me262.
During this time I became friends with many German pilots. In fact, I am the Godfather to Hans Ulrich Rudel's son born after the war. As you know Rudel is one of the most decorated and accomplished Luftwaffe pilots of the war. Hitler actually created a special decoration just for Rudel.
AJ: What was this decoration?
PC: It was the Knight's Cross with Swords, Diamonds, and Oak Leaves of Gold. This was very special, nothing ignoble, worth much more than money. [Note: On October 25th of 1943, Hans Rudel was awarded Swords to his Knights Cross with Oak Leaves. In early March of 1944, he flew his 1500th mission and was promoted to the rank of Major] The Russians finally requested that the Americans should turn over all Luftwaffe prisoners with more than 100 documented aerial victories; in addition, all Me 262 pilots were requested. Contrary to the record for all other Germans who became prisoners of the Soviets most of these Luftwaffe pilots returned home 10 years later.
AJ: Erich Hartmann is an outstanding example of what you speak of, correct?
PC: Yes, but when Erich Hartmann returned from Soviet captivity he weighed only 37 kilograms (81.4 lbs).
Left: Hans Ulrich Rudel.
AJ: Were you also friends with Adolf Galland?
PC: Yes, I knew Galland well; he was a friend. But my closest friends from the Luftwaffe were Gunther Rall and Hans Ulrich Rudel. They were close friends; I went to their homes and they came to mine.
AJ: Does it appear absurd to you to be willing to kill these adversaries in the sky yet become close friends with them on the soil?
PC: Certainly! Precisely! This was our leitmotif, to be adversarial pilots during war yet to be friends in peace. We all believed that as fighter pilots we belonged to an elite species of mankind from our respective countries that superseded political dogmas; did you realize that we never witnessed a Luftwaffe pilot addressing a comrade with the tense outstretched arm of the Nazi salute. They greeted one another in the usual military salute even in the presence of Hitler. The only pilot that used the Nazi salute was Hartmann when Hitler presented the Cross of Iron with Swords and diamonds. All of his friends reprimanded him for this and reminded him that he could not hide it because it was recorded in a newsreel of the occasion.
AJ: Was this more the expression of the fighter pilots rebellious mind set or was it a mark of their political opposition to Nazism?
PC: I believe it was snobbery towards the regime. Fighter pilots were, in general, not blind supporters of Hitler or of the politics of the time especially in the beginning of hostilities; to become a German fighter pilot was considered a privilege in most German families as was the case in France during the First World War (1914-1918). Fighter pilots generally were recruited from the privileged social classes, from aristocratic families.
AJ: Didn't the Luftwaffe fighter pilots consider themselves Nazi's? PC: No! For example, Rudel was a simple young man with no strong political views. I could discuss Hitler with him for hours and whatever I did not understand he would openly explain. He really did not view Hitler as we view him in the post-war era. For Rudel, Hitler was someone akin to a president of a republic. For Rudel and other Luftwaffe fighter pilots their view was that he had provided them with some magnificent flying machines. Most fighter pilots held this restricted view of Hitler; they knew that without Nazism they would not have had their state-of-the-art flying machines.
AJ: Didn't they have any specific political or ideological incentives? It seems to me that this view that you are presenting is a little puerile.
PC: Well, with respect to well defined political incentives I did not perceive that the Luftwaffe fighter pilots held any such incentives. You know, Germany is a young country. Before Otto von Bismarck [Minister-President of Prussia from 1862-1890; he engineered the unification of numerous States of Germany into a German Empire] Germany was only 12-14 principalities. It was not a country like France. France and England along with Austria and Russia were the only structured European nations in the late 19th century. Germany practically did not exist. Otto von Bismarck and Guillaume II d' Allemagne created the German nation (or Republic) in the castle of Versailles after the war of 1870. Rudel was from the northern area of Germany; his father was a Protestant minister. These were very simple folk. They did not have any political engagements to speak of. It is for this very reason that he could not directly enter into the elite Luftwaffe; he entered the Luftwaffe through the backdoor, straight from an aero-glider club. These clubs were popular at the time before the war. Lufthansa, the commercial airlines of the time, was being secretly converted into a war machine. Rudel wanted to become a fighter pilot but these positions in the Luftwaffe were reserved for certain aristocratic young men. However, Rudel worked his way into the position as pilot of a Stuka dive bomber [JU 87] and his accomplishments with this unglamorous aircraft will forever be written in the annals of aviation history.
AJ: There is one aspect of this history that I find illuminating, that illustrates the absurdity of war. It is the story of your German cousin who piloted Me 109G-10's in JG 300 during the early part of the war.
PC: Ah yes! There again, in Germany, there are the Rhenish, the people of Germanic origin that lived for generations along the Rhine. The Rhine was always considered simply a street until Bismarck and Hitler underscored it as a boundary demarcation. The folk that lived along the Rhine viewed the artificial demarcation as odd or as even with respect to the individuals that lived on both sides, the Rhenish on the Germanic side and the Alsatian and Lorraine regions on the western side. Individuals on either side are usually quite sensible but the two World Wars clearly defined our artificial differences.
You know, after the war there were not a lot of archives to review on the German side so it was difficult to ascertain accurate information about my Germanic cousin. I found out most of the information from his aunts and I did manage to recover a few photos from a few German archives that were not destroyed. My cousin was indeed a pilot for the Luftwaffe and it gives us a sharp perspective regarding the absurdity of some wars. His name was Bruno Klostermann spelled with a K in the German language but with a C in Alsatian. ( http://aviation-ancienne.forumactif.com/sutra28094-Bruno-Klostermann.htm )
AJ: From where is your family origin?
PC: My family is from Obernai, Alsace, France. [Alsace is like a narrow ribbon from the Swiss border in the south up to the German border in the north of Strasbourg; Alsace is cradled by the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine] My mother was from Forbach, Lorraine. We had a bountiful childhood.
AJ: Did your family origins ever pose problems for you with the FAFL?
PC: No, my mother was ferociously anti-German as was all of Lorraine. My father was a good, patriotic Alsatian, anti-German similar to my mother. My mother always called the Germans the Alboches. It is an actual name but the word boche does not exist by itself. Alboche is derived from a tribe in the region that was called the Alboches. The Alsace region did experience some trouble between Catholics and Protestants; without the revocation of the edict of Nantes Alsatians would have never experienced this problem. In my own family the problem was dramatic at times. Historically, the Protestants migrated from Alsace into Germany and the Catholics remained behind. My distant cousin, Bruno Klostermann, emigrated with the Protestants that eventually ended up in Germany, Holland, and even England.
AJ: I ask the following question in relation to something that I have read. It concerned the amazement of an emissary of the British government during his visit to Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA, the site of the top secret Manhattan Project, the development of the atomic bomb. He noted that most individuals around him spoke with a Germanic accent and had Germanic names. After the war did your name of Clostermann affect your peaceful return to civilian life?
PC: In the Free French Forces those that had enlisted before November 1942 were given priority to demobilize from the military so I immediately requested my discharge papers and found myself waiting in a long line, not saying a word; I fondled my combat pay bonus (equivalent to about 20,000 Marks), my three shirts, two pairs of socks, and finally I returned home. My father was again on assignment in southern Africa. The first thing that I did was attend a confessional with our local priest.
AJ: Ah yes, to revitalize the spirit?
PC: Yes, that is about all one can say.
AJ: In the last chapter of The Big Circus it is possible to obtain an impression that you were feeling some sort of regret; is that true?
PC: Yes, that is true. The first sensation that we all experienced was loneliness akin to that felt by factory workers immediately after closing of the workplace. We were lodged, fed, paid, and then nothing, the absence of any recognition or activity induced a terrible emptiness. I remember my friend Jacques who told me: "You see my old friend, they are not going to need us anymore. We are left to our own devices and we have not been prepared for return to civilian life. It will be unpleasant!" It is always like this for military men after a war. It is classic, the memories of places and events, of friends lost or injured…
AJ: Did you experience post war trauma akin to what we refer to today as post traumatic stress disorder?
PC: Ah, no, no, I do not believe so. I had the foresight not to replay my fighting experiences in my mind, not to allow the memories to creep back into my brain but that is very difficult so for therapy I went on a prolonged serious fishing trip up the Seine with a fishing rod in an old BKW. I lay down in the Inns along the sluice. The Seine at the time was very easy to navigate and it was not polluted; there were all kinds of fish and I caught nearly every species that swam the river, trout, carp, and many others. This was a lovely experience for me. I slowly recovered my fundamental French origins. And I also had an experience with the French administrative problems of the time. This was gloomy. I was accustomed to English efficiency but the French government workers were not up to the challenge of efficient management at this time. I recall that I had to redo some papers, my driver's license, my identification card, my passport, and some other less essential documents. In order to accomplish these tasks it was like a bullfight that you can scarcely imagine. I was considered an ex-POW! I would respond, no! I was not a prisoner! But to admit to not being a POW seemed to be derogatory. Finally, in one office I was told that I had to go to the first office of tobacco in order to obtain an emblem to be worn by all French prisoners on their jackets. This was all too incredible and very aggravating for me. The government employees certainly lacked understanding and compassion for a Free French patriot. At one point when I was being questioned about my prisoner status and why I was denying it I suddenly yelled something to the effect that I was not a former prisoner because "I could run more quickly than everyone else!"
AJ: Let's move away from this topic a little because I have some additional personal questions that aviation enthusiasts will want to know of.
PC: Of course!
AJ: How did your experience in flying the Spitfire affect you?
PC: Oooooh that! Well, I must tell you that everyone who has flown a Spitfire has never forgotten their moment in the cockpit. For me it was love at first sight and it positively affected my early opinion of the war. It was winter and when I first saw my Spitfire I leaped from the truck and rested my gaze on this beautiful plane resting like a jewel in a white velvet case on a carpet of snow. She was factory fresh covered in gray matt camouflage paint with no black exhaust trails oxidized on her sides. She had only the colorful rosette of the RAF insignia on her wings and flanks.
The Germans called her the oeillade of the peacock because of her beauty. My God but this plane was a beauty! She had feminine lines with the soft curves of a woman's hips all around a bubble of plexiglas for the canopy that sat calmly on her fuselage. In spite of her wing cannons she had the grace of a swan.
There was something beyond the first impression beauty of the Spitfire that caused a certain reverence, a silence whenever she was discussed among the pilots. Even today, a generation later, the friends of my son refer to the Spitfire with reverence as if there was something mythical about her.
AJ: We can say that between us this same romantic mythical feeling about the Spitfire still exists today.
PC: Ah yes! Then you too realize the beauty of this magnificent plane! Today, fifty years after the Battle of Britain, the old pilots of the time show a tear of admiration whenever they set eyes on the beautiful lines of the Spitfire. For them it is as though they are remembering their pretty petite fiancée of the first aerial love of their life. Today's young pilots only dream to try it, to have one flight in the Spitfire. But beware! Just as a woman mistreated if the Spitfire is mistreated it will take vengeance and kill. I found written in the archives a piece from Corky Miller, a test pilot for Grumman, who wrote something astonishing about his flight in the Spitfire. It is as if one is reading an account of a virgin experiencing her first encounter. Corky miller writes: "There is no question that the Spitfire has one of the most beautiful silhouettes of all of the major fighters to evolve from the drawing board. Her elliptical wing and long fuselage are beautiful to watch in flight or on the ground. The long nose and the rearward elevated attitude in flight promotes much improved pilot visibility compared to other fighters where one is obliged to roll partially inverted or to zigzag in taxing in order to maintain adequate visibility. I was warned prior to my test flight that her hydraulic pumps were troublesome, problematic, and that I should not trust the brakes. As soon as I placed myself on the flight line and arrived at the moment of truth I applied throttle and I was delighted with her acceleration. She lifted off in a short 150 meters into a wind of only 20 knots. She climbed like a Japanese Zero. Any shortcomings of this plane that had been expressed to me prior to this test flight had completely vanished in my mind by now. A slow speed stall at 110 km/h revealed only a slight drop of the right wing. She responded and recovered promptly from the stall as soon as I re-applied power. Despite the busy array of instruments and switches in the cockpit that is typical of British planes I found that I did not need any compensators; everything was located where it seemed natural. Her stability on the three axes was sufficiently sensitive to delight a fighter pilot yet sufficiently stable to permit smooth flying in turbulent air. I felt that the Spitfire was a better pilot intrinsically that her pilot riders in the cockpit. Aerobatics were a delight. She responded to my thoughts apparently without any effort. Her qualities of flight were so marvelous that I proceeded on with a few reverse Cuban eights. They were no more complicated to perform in the Spitfire than to eat a piece of cake. Upside down I hung in the harness but found it quite comfortable. I never derived as much pleasure in flying any fighter as the Spitfire. She made me feel comfortable in any attitude of flight. Now I gained some understanding how the pilots in the Battle of Brittan could form up repeatedly day after day, exhausted, yet admirably succeed in their mission and in the end defeat the Luftwaffe. I confess that my Tomcats, Wildcats, Hellcats, and the Corsairs and Thunderbolt P-47s are beasts of burden compared to this thoroughbred, the Spitfire. She is analogous to an Arabian stallion. As for the landing she was no more difficult than to down a dry martini."
AJ: That is eloquent!
PC: Yes! And it was written by a well-known test pilot of fighter aircraft. Most pilots who flew the Spitfire remember it fondly. Presently, there are about 50 Spitfires still flying in refurbished condition. The only problem is that in some of the restored the engines are not typical of the original Merlins or Griffons; the sound of the Rolls Royce engines was always something special. Later on in the war when I transitioned from the Spitfire to the big raw Hawker Tempest Mk V, well, let me just say that I was in another universe altogether. It was similar to comparing a gazelle to a rhinoceros. To me it was as if the war had changed and this was now the most difficult part.
The last four months of hostilities the German pilots were infuriated and more aggressive. I had the impression that they said to themselves, "let's go for broke!" It was understandable though because most had lost their homes, their cities, their families, and their children. This was the result of the bombardment of the civilian population and contrary to the conventional wisdom this only served to increase their resistance.
AJ: Did you have the opportunity to fly other types of aircraft?
PC: Oh, I flew several types of Allied planes but I did not have the opportunity to fly any of the German planes.
PC: Yes, well it was a beautiful plane but it was not as worthy as the Spitfire in my opinion because of the weaker match of engines to airframe; it was a wonderful fighter primarily because of its long distance flight capacity.AJ: What did you think of the P-51 Mustang, the so-called flower of the American aviation industry?
AJ: Did you have any doubts about the reliability of your airplanes?
PC: No. I never experienced a mechanical problem with my Spitfire, never, never, never! I crossed the English Channel over 300 times on combat missions and never once experienced a problem in the least.
AJ: How long were your missions in general? How long did it take you to cross the English Channel?
PC: Some missions lasted only 20 minutes. It depended upon where we crossed the Channel. In some areas the Channel is very narrow whereas in others she is very wide. The missions generally lasted 90 minutes in the Spitfire but once we began flying the Hawker Tempest the mission time increased to 2.25 hours. We could leave our Holland airfield in the Tempest, make a combat tour of the Berlin area, and return to base in 2 hours or longer at 600-700 km/h.
There were often items that became stuck in the undercarriage because we often flew very low but even so all went well in general, it was marvelous. You asked me about what one was possibly thinking during the dogfights. I have never published this passage before but it may provide some additional insight into your question. We were on flight patrol over Brighton during a rain storm and two Focke- Wulfs slipped under us and bombarded the station before we could intervene. We finally intercepted them but one passed me missing me by a finger's breadth. My wingman pulled hard but could not avoid wing to wing contact with one of the Focke-Wulfs 190; however, he was able to land on a nearby beach and by some miracle he pulled himself from the wreckage. Before he crashed he ordered me to pursue the Focke-Wulf because it was damaged and slightly lame and to take it down without question for him! I immediately engaged in the pursuit and finally caught up with the Focke-Wulf in the middle of the Channel but my weapons were locked and would not fire. This was a rare problem with the new Spitfire IX c. I continued the pursuit and drew closer to the damaged Focke-Wulf noting that it was slowing down and losing altitude slowly. A small sly flame appeared on the left of his canopy that was immediately followed by a gray smoke trail. I thought, he cannot go much further. The pilot should exit his plane and jump; there was still sufficient altitude to open his parachute and land safely, and I would warn the British patrols of the situation. A prisoner is always interesting to interrogate. I could not shout at him. There was no way for us to communicate. "Change silly!" "Change before it's too late!" Imperturbable, the pilot of the Focke-Wulf continued to lose precious altitude. As we approached the Cape of France the pilot gave me a shy salute; 500meters, then 300 meters, then 250 meters…
AJ: At that moment did you consider escorting it?
PC: I further attempted to communicate with him by writing on my forehead. We finally approached a very low altitude of approximately 20 meters.
AJ: But how did the German pilot react to your efforts?
PC: He did not show any visible reaction to me. Apparently, what he wanted above all else was to return to France his home base. Shortly, there appeared punctuated puffs of black smoke indicating engine failure. Prudently, I edged up closer from behind, to within a few meters in order to get a closer look at this man in distress. At one point I could clearly see the pilot's stained face for he had removed his oxygen mask. The Focke-Wulf was now so low it was flying at the level of a stream. I thought, he is going to die. He is finished because one does not put a fighter aircraft into the water without suffering complete disintegration 99 times out of 100. Suddenly I felt that I did not want to witness this final, fatal event; especially, I did not wish to witness the death of this young pilot. At this instant the concept that this was but a game similar to those that we play in a circus in order to win a teddy bear for a girl that we just met ran through my mind. We pull up on a machine of aluminum decorated with black crosses in order to fire and bring the machine down but one doesn't think of the man inside. When the man comes into view the machine is no longer just decorated metal but it contains a human with flesh and blood just like mine. In the cockpit sits a human brother who has a mother same as me yet he is going to lose a life, a life that could reflect my own life. Why? For whom? I did not want to see this as it was about to happen. I did not want to witness this young man losing his life, a life similar to my own. He is a pilot same as me. He probably has blond hair and, as me, he is probably about twenty years old. I realized that in a few seconds he was going to die right under my eyes. Oh my God, no! I felt like I had also died as I looked behind and saw the long frothy wake of the disintegrated Focke-Wulf. Dear God, this war is too monstrous! Why did we make this war? Why did I make it? An hour later I was in our mess hall drinking tea with my friends Jacque and Max. With a stern face I confirmed the victory: "Yes, the pilot died. No, I would never know his name." "Hey Clo-Clo, why are you making such a stern face," Jacque responded. "Hey, well, I believe we have already discussed the ramifications of our aerial victories." I felt very weary and could no longer continue with this discussion so I excused myself.
AJ: I believe that we should stop here.
PC: Yes, well, will you share a cup of tea before you take your leave?
Copyright Alexandre Jaeg
By and via Alexandre Jaeg