Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Kings of the Air: Albert Préjean

Mention of wartime pilot turned actor Albert Préjean in my last post inspired me to see what else I could find about his wartime career.

Préjean was born in 1894, and was called up in November 1914 as part of the Class of 1914. A sporty young man, his love of horses inspired him to join the 25th Dragoons, 'too young', as he later admitted, 'to understand the futility of wars.' He received the Médaille militaire for rescuing a man under fire, as well as the Croix de guerre. Subsequently, he transferred into the infantry, first with the 111th, and then on 21 June 1916 to the 245th, serving in the Vosges. There, he commanded one the regiment's trench raiding teams, and was wounded twice in three months.

He later recalled, 'Leaving military hospital, I asked to transfer to Aviation. This was granted. Flying my own crate, I'd become an ace, part of a little team. It was a magnificent squadron, the Storks with Guynemer ... that's all there is to say.'

He entered Aviation at his own request, transferring on 12 April 1917 as an observer. He began pilot training on 20 November 1917, and got his wings on 8 January 1918. He then passed to the Gunnery School at Cazaux on 3 April, and then to the Air Combat School at Perthes on 18 May.

Guynemer may have been his hero when Préjean transferred, but the former's death on 11 September 1917 meant that Préjean would never fly alongside him. Préjean did not join a front-line squadron, SPA73, until 16 July 1918, naming his SPAD Mistinguett, after the famous dancer/singer (with whom the young Préjean was smitten). He transferred to SPA85, another squadron of GC19, on 17 October. He was promoted to full lieutenant on 18 November. He was transferred to SPA 96 on 20 March 1919, and returned to the Aviation Depot at Dijon-Longvic for discharge on 9 November 1919.

But he seems to have been marked by his service because he rarely wore them; he later wrote, 'We valued them very little at the time, and [now] they make me look older than my years'. He was recalled to the colours in 1939, and was posted to the 610th Pioneers. Much of his time, however, was spent with the Army Theatre. 'I'd gone off to the first one to the sound of drums, wearing heavy boots, and a heart full of "go". This time the nailed boots were still there, but the heart was missing. One war added to another does a lot of things ... for instance, making an old soldier twice as unenthusiastic.'

There is more on his career at the Encinematheque site here or French Wikipedia here. His Internet Movie Date Base page is here. Préjean could hold a tune as well. There are several clips of his songs on YouTube, including his best-known hit, Sous les Toits de Paris, from the film of the same name.

Although Préjean never got to fly with Guynemer (and SPA73 was one of the Storks squadrons), his remarks do show the grip that Guynemer and men like him - such as Garros, Védrines, Navarre - had upon popular imagination, and how their example encouraged young men to enter aviation. Raymond Brohon, who would be a fighter pilot in 1940 recalled, 'as a kid I always tried to collect all the literature; they used to sell short books recounting the life of Navarre, Guynemer, etc: I had quite a collection.' A chance meeting with the ace Dieudonné Costes set Jean Jardin, a future Armée de l'Air general, on his career path, when the former ace took the young man up for a spin: 'it was a revelation; that very day I said, "this is what I want to do; I want to be a pilot."'

Pictures: Préjean and his SPAD; part of his official record; Mistinguett, whose legs were insured for 500,000 francs, long before Betty Grable was ever thought of

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