The Knight of Death, the White Bird, and the fates of nations

This is a guest post by Valdemar

I have always been fascinated by the fighter aces of the Great War, and spent much of my childhood reading about them and gluing together Airfix biplanes. One in particular caught my imagination – he seemed the quintessential action hero. So I was intrigued when, late last year, I read that a French author, Bernard Decré, claimed to have found evidence that Charles Nungesser was the first to fly the Atlantic from continental Europe to North America. As soon as I read the name I recalled the pictures of the dashing, if rather morbid, young ace.

Did Nungesser make it, only to perish within sight of the North American coast? It wouldn’t be surprising. The term daredevil might have been devised for this extraordinary pilot, racing driver and playboy, who styled himself The Knight of Death. But when claims about this or that historic achievement surface, many of us ask the perfectly reasonable question, does it matter? If Scott had beaten Amundsen, what effect would it have had on history? Very little, in that particular instance. But the case of Nungesser is rather different.

First, a bit of background. Charles Nungesser was born in 1892 in Valenciennes. A mediocre scholar, he was good at sport and adventurous by nature. When he left school he went to South America to search for a lost uncle in Brazil, then to Argentina where he became a professional racing driver. When he got the chance to fly a primitive Bleriot aircraft he jumped at it. (Oh, and he eventually found his uncle.) When war broke out in 1914 he returned to Framce and was soon in the thick of combat high above the Western Front.

Nungesser made a point of drawing attention to himself by emblazoning his plane with a skull and crossbones, plus a coffin with two candles. He apparently believed that if he paid due tribute he would escape the Grim Reaper, and styled himself the Knight of Death. This attitude, coupled with rugged good looks and his appetites for wine and women, made him a national hero. While he ended the war as the third-ranking French ace, with 43 confirmed victories, he was easily first in popularity.

Nungesser’s success – indeed, his very survival – seems all the more remarkable given his appalling bad luck. (Or good luck, depending on how you view it.) He crashed more often than any other ace, and was frequently wounded. Rather than detail every incident, let’s just recap on this 1918 summary of his injuries:

‘Skull fracture, brain concussion, internal injuries (multiple), five fractures of the upper jaw, two fractures of lower jaw, piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel embedded in right arm, dislocation of knees (left and right), re-dislocation of left knee, bullet wound in mouth, bullet wound in ear, atrophy of tendons in left leg, atrophy of muscles in calf, dislocated clavicle, dislocated wrist, dislocated right ankle, loss of teeth, contusions too numerous to mention.”

After an unsuccessful spell as a flying instructor, in 1923 he moved to Hollywood and found a new lease of life giving flying exhibitions and doing film stunts. Footage of Nungesser appears in The Dawn Patrol, released in 1930. It was during this period that he became interested in a trans-Atlantic flight, but he was in such poor physical shape that he hesitated to try.

In 1927 another French ace, Paul Tarascon, was planning a flight from Paris to New York, Francois Coli as his navigator. When Tarascon was injured in a crash Nungesser stepped in as replacement. He had his death-defying insignia painted on Tarascon’s plane, L’Oiseau Blanc, or White Bird. The daredevil was back in the limelight, and all France was once again cheering him on.

On May 8th, 1927, the White Bird took off from Le Bourget airfield near Paris. It was escorted to the coast by French warplanes and crossed the Channel safely. Later, witnesses noted the distinctive white biplane passing over Ireland. The next morning New Yorkers gathered in their thousands in Battery Park, which offered a good view of the Statue of Liberty. The amphibious White Bird was expected to land in the harbour, beside the symbol of Franco-American friendship.

There were rumours that Nungesser’s plane had been sighted off Newfoundland or Long Island. Some French newspapers prematurely reported a triumphant landing in New York, such was their belief in the indestructible fighter ace. But as the hours passed and the crowds dispersed, it became clear that the White Bird had been lost. Two weeks later, Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, and claimed his place in history.

Searches were made for the White Bird and its crew, but despite claims that an aircraft had been heard by fishermen off Newfoundland, nothing was found. Since then many people – including thriller writer Clive Cussler – have tried to solve the mystery. But despite many claims that fragments of the plane were found, nothing substantial has emerged.

The latest theory, from Bernard Decré, is that Nungesser crashed in fog on May after battling against contrary winds in an epic 40 hour flight. The White Bird carried enough fuel for 42 hours, in ideal conditions. Next summer Decré plans to start searching the seabed around Newfoundland. Perhaps this latest attempt will solve what has been called the Mount Everest of aviation mysteries.

If Nungesser had succeeded, Lindbergh would have called off his attempt. As it was, Lindbergh’s flight gave the USA a new national hero. A national hero who, in the run up to the Second World War, became a trenchant critic of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Nazi sympathiser, and a fervent isolationist. Without Lindbergh as its figurehead, American isolationism would have been a much weaker force. US intervention on the side of Britain might not have had to wait for Pearl Harbor to settle the matter.

If Nungesser had succeeded, events might have been different on the other side of the Atlantic, too. France would have been galvanised by new-found patriotism and self-confidence. The French aviation industry would have benefited, as its American counterpart certainly did in the wake of Lindbergh’s triumph. A more confident, better-armed France might have faced the events of the Thirties with greater resolution. Indeed, France might have stopped Hitler’s march into the Rhineland, leading at the very least to a disastrous loss of face for the nascent Third Reich. Charles Nungesser would not have advocated appeasement, and he would have had the microphone.

All very speculative, I know. But at a time when we’re beset by people telling us that such-and-such is ‘inevitable’ and we must be ‘pragmatic’ (i.e. turn round and drop ‘em, sunshine, this is going to hurt) it is appealing to think that sometimes, at the most crucial moments in history, remarkable individuals can make a difference, for good or ill. It may not be true. But which of us doesn’t want to believe it?


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