A Brief History
On September 23, 1913, future fighter pilot combat hero Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros of France made an aviation historic first by becoming the first pilot to fly all the way across the Mediterranean Sea, flying from St. Raphael, France, to Bizerte, Tunisia. Usually referred to by the more manageable name of Roland Garros, this aviation pioneer went on to become the first acknowledged fighter pilot hero during World War I, though unlike the popular legend, was not technically the first fighter “ace.” Historians often point to Garros as the man that invented air to air combat tactics.
A fighter pilot (or his crew members, such as a weapons systems officer, radar intercept officer, or gunner) is called an “ace” if he (or today, she) shoots down at least 5 enemy aircraft. While Garros shot down 4 German planes, the first person to actually shoot down 5 enemy planes in combat was fellow French pilot Adolphe Pégoud, who had 6 enemy aircraft shot down to his credit. In a moment of supreme irony, Pégoud was killed on August 31, 1915, shot down by a German pilot that had been one of Pégoud’s pre-war students! Garros has frequently and mistakenly been referred to as the first aerial ace, which is not quite accurate. The mythical legend of Roland Garros was not all tall tales, as his pioneering aviation career included several early aviation accomplishments.
Becoming a pilot in 1910, Garros was issued pilot’s license #147. He began a career of aviation racing and testing the limits of his aircraft, achieving a world record altitude of almost 13,000 feet in September of 1911, and later regaining his world record a year later by flying above 18,000 feet. In 1913, Garros achieved another aviation first by making his cross Mediterranean flight, an agonizing 8 hour flight that included at least 2 serious engine problems along the way. When World War I started in 1914, Garros took his considerable aviation skills to the defense of his country by joining the French Army and becoming a combat aviator.
Within the first days of the Great War, Garros made the news with the sensational headlines that he had become the first pilot engaged in air to air combat, flying his plane into a German Zeppelin, destroying the airship and killing its crew as well as himself. Alas, the report was not true and Garros has not downed an airship nor had he been killed. (No Zeppelin was shot down by a fighter aircraft until 1915, and that was by British Navy pilot Reginald Warneford who downed a Zeppelin by dropping bombs on it from above after he failed to take down enemy airships with machine gun fire.) Garros did achieve a combat aviation first by becoming the first fighter pilot to ever shoot down an enemy plane by firing his machine gun through the arc of his forward mounted propeller, a feat accomplished by having deflector wedges mounted on the propeller blades to divert machine gun bullets from the gun mounted directly behind the engine. When Garros was shot down over German lines in 1915, the Germans saw his propeller wedges and consulted their engineers for a similar solution. Going one better than Garros, Dutch aviation inventor Anton Fokker invented an “interrupter gear” that allowed machine guns to fire through a propeller’s arc without hitting the blades, which gave the Germans a decided advantage until the Allies could also make the same adaptation. (Fokker later moved to the United States and died in New York in 1939 of meningitis, only 49 years old.) Garros had been captured and spent nearly the following 3 years in a POW camp.
In February of 1918, Garros managed to escape from the POW camp and found his way back to French lines, after passing through the Netherlands and traveling to London, England. He then resumed his aerial combat career, shooting down his 4th and 5th enemy planes, although only one of those 2 victories was “confirmed,” giving him a total of 4 aerial victories officially, and 5 unofficially. Sadly, the combat comeback Garros mounted was not to be long lived, for he was shot down and killed in the area of Vouziers, Ardennes in Northern France on October 5, 1918. His adversary that fateful day may have been German ace Hermann Habich (7 aerial victories total) who had been flying a Fokker D.VII. Garros was piloting a Société pour l’aviation et ses dérivés (SPAD) S.XIII, an improvement over the previous SPAD S.VII and the most produced French fighter of World War I (8472 built). The SPAD S.XIII had a 200 horsepower engine and could make a max speed of 131 mph, with a ceiling of 22,300 feet and armed with twin .30 caliber or .303 caliber machine guns. The Fokker D.VII had only a 185 horsepower engine and could fly at a max speed of 124 mph, with a ceiling of 20,000 feet and armed with twin 7.92 mm machine guns.
Garros is remembered both for his aerial prowess and his extreme devotion to duty and patriotism and is commemorated in the name of the stadium in which the French Open tennis tournament is held each year., called Stade Roland Garros in French, or Roland-Garros Stadium in English. In fact, the French Open Tennis Tournament is officially named Les Internationaux de France de Roland-Garros. Roland Garros airport serves the people of La Réunion, the French island/department located in the Indian Ocean, and French automobile manufacturer Peugeot has produced many special edition cars tagged “Roland Garros” from small compact “city” cars to large sedans and even mini-vans. Garros is not the first person to ram and down a Zeppelin, nor was he the first to shoot down 5 enemy airplanes, but he certainly was a premier pilot and a French patriot, worthy of the legacy he leaves behind.
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For more information, please see…
Cobleigh, Ed. The First Fighter Pilot – Roland Garros: The Life and Times of the Playboy Who Invented Air Combat. Check Six Books, 2019.
Garros, Roland. MEMOIRES. PHEBUS, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Roland Garros (aviator), is a photograph from San Diego Air & Space Museum at Flickr Commons. According to the museum, there are no known restrictions on the publication of these photos.