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Kings of the Air: Not just a tennis player ....

Since the French Open Tennis Championship is being played at the Stade Roland Garros at the moment, it provides the perfect cue to talk about the man after whom the stadium is named (not about tennis, which is dull. Dulldulldulldull. Ohgodhowdull. Not altogether that keen, to be frank.).

Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros, to give him his full name, was born in Saint-Denis on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion on 6 October 1888, but went to school in Paris. He began his aviation career in 1909 flying Alberto Santos-Dumont's Demoiselle monoplane, an tiny aircraft that only flew well with a small lightweight pilot like Garros. He gained his pilot's licence in July 1910. In 1911 he changed to Blériot monoplanes and entered a number of European air races, including the 1911 Paris to Madrid air race and the Circuit of Europe (Paris-London-Paris), in which he came second. In September 1912, he established a new world altitude record of 5,610 m (18,410 ft) in the skies over Tunis. By 1913 he had switched to flying the faster Morane-Saulnier monoplanes, and made the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean from Fréjus to Bizerte in Tunisia - a feat that earned him the Légion d'Honneur. There's a short documentary on Vimeo here with some marvellous contemporary footage.

At the time, he was also serving in the Army, as a sous-lieutenant. His actual arm of service was the infantry, but he seems to have done no footslogging at all, posted instead directly to the Service des Fabrications de l'Aviation, responsible for research and testing, where he could use his aviation experience to some effect. One of his projects was connected with the arming of aircraft, collaborating with Charles de Rose. It was obvious that the best position for a gun was firing forwards, but the pesky propellor would get in the way. Both men started working on deflector plates, which were fitted to the propellor blades, and would deflect bullets away from the blades themselves, leaving them undamaged. Ninety percent of the bullets passed the blades without hitting, but the remaining ten per cent would ricochet in every direction, including back at the pilot and aircraft.

The technology had not been perfected by the outbreak of war. De Rose was sent to the Front, but Garros remained as a test pilot with Moranes, and continued to work on the deflector plate idea. Posted first to MS23, then to MS26, he had the opportunity to test his ideas out under combat conditions. And on 1 April 1915 over Westkapelle, he was successful: 'I'd taken off on my own with ninety-five kilos of shells to drop them on a German station. Arriving over my target, ten kilometres from our lines, I saw a plane in the middle distance around 500 metres above me. Our batteries were firing at it. I reached the right height, came closer, the batteries were firing at us, I opened fire from thirty metres: the Teuton replied with his rifle, I reloaded my machine gun three times. After a few rounds the enemy fled in disarray descending full speed. I didn't give him a metre. The combat lasted ten minutes and and finished at 1,000 metres: shot through like a sieve the Albatros suddenly caught fire, it was smothered in flames and came down like a whirlwind. It was tragic, appalling.' Over the next few weeks, he shot down another two Germans. What was even more remarkable was that Garros was so short-sighted he had to wear glasses under his goggles.
But on 18 April, either a blocked fuel line or ground fire forced him to land near Inglemunster, on the enemy side of the lines. He set his machine alight, but was captured. The popular story was that the deflector plates inspired Antony Fokker to produce his synchronizer gear, but Fokker had been working on the idea before Garros's fall. There's a YouTube video on this part of his career here.

In February 1918 two outwardly disreputable characters presented themselves at the French embassy in The Hague. They were Garros and his comrade Anselme Marchal (C66), newly escaped from their German POW camp at Magdeburg. During his three years of captivity, Garros had been moved from camp to camp – Küstrin, Trier, Gnadenfrei, Magdeburg, Burg, then back to Magdeburg – in response to his repeated attempts to escape by tunnel, sea – and even air. Marchal had been a prisoner since 20 June 1916, when the engine of his specially modified Nieuport 12 seized up over Austrian-occupied Poland after a daring leaflet raid on Berlin. This time the pair succeeded by the simple expedient of disguising themselves as German officers and walking out through the gates. Marchal spoke German so, rather than head cross-country, they took the train to Aachen and eventually swam to freedom across the river marking the Dutch border.

The French, Prime Minister Clemenceau in particular, wanted the newly-returned Garros to remain in Paris in some staff position, but the pilot insisted on returning to the Front. But the Front of 1918 was not that of 1915. Pilots like René Fonck had devised an effective method of solo combat appropriate to the new era of group manoeuvring. After three years in a German prison camp, Garros had not – and, despite a course at the air gunnery school at Cazaux during the summer, old habits died hard. On 5 October 1918 he took part in a patrol that encountered a group of seven Fokker D.VII over Vouziers, ten kilometres inside German lines. His CO, Captain de Sevin, ordered him to stay in formation, but Garros had other ideas: '[he] darted straight into the Fokkers, followed by [de Sevin], who fought for a few seconds with several opponents. Eventually [the CO] managed to break off – but Garros, with a huge number 30 painted on the upper wing of his aircraft, had disappeared. There was no sign of him.'

SPA48 had several pilots in the vicinity, including one who had spotted a SPAD taking on three Fokkers: 'Two of them banked, while the third waited calmly for the attack. Suddenly, at point-blank range, the SPAD broke up into fragments so small they might have been playing cards scattered on the wind.' Ironically, given his role in the development of fighter armament, Garros may have shot off his own propeller after his synchronizer gear malfunctioned. Leutnant Hermann Habich of Jasta 49 probably administered the coup de grâce.

Garros is buried in Vouziers. The military airfield on Saint-Denis, Base Aérienne 181, is named in his honour. In 1928, a new stadium was being built in the Bois de Boulogne for France's defence of the Davis Cup. The site was the location of courts that Garros had enjoyed attending and playing on when he lived in Paris, so the new complex was named the Stade Roland Garros when it opened in 1928 (history of the championships here, if you must).

Pictures: Garros in pre-war days (both from Gallica); Garros in uniform; Garros's personnel card (from Mémoire des Hommes); Anselme Marchal; Xavier de Sevin (from Albin Denis).


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