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  • Claire Jordan

Roland Garros

Currently underway in Paris are the French Open Tennis Championships, generally known simply as Roland Garros after the stadium complex in which they are played.

You might think Monsieur Garros was a French tennis player of days gone by (I did) but the truth is far more meaningful.

Born into a well-connected family in Saint-Denis in 1886, he was certainly keen on sports; he took up cycling while recovering from pneumonia aged 12 and he was also fond of rugby, football, tennis and, eventually, fast cars.

But all this was really background noise; on holiday in 1909, he first set eyes on his grand passion.

He went to an air-show, fell instantly in love with aeroplanes and decided then and there to become a pilot.

As with everything else he had tried in his young life so far, he learned quickly and excelled at it.

Soon, he was entering air races and setting altitude records, deciding in 1913 that he would make the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean Sea, from the south of France to Bizerte in Tunisia.

He of course managed it... eight solid hours in his monoplane, during which time he fixed two separate engine malfunctions himself.

When War came the following year, it offered him at last a truly worthy investment of his formidable energies and intellect. He had no hesitation in joining the French Army and offering up his skills as a pilot and problem-solver.

With aviation still technically in its infancy, airplanes were used primarily for reconnaissance at this time.

He was perfectly happy to fly in this capacity, but (being Roland) couldn’t see why, if he saw a German aircraft on a recon flight, he couldn’t also shoot it down while he was there.

To this end, he started to arm himself with a carbine when he flew, but even he found it next to impossible to accurately hit a moving target at several thousand feet with a rifle in one hand and the controls of a monoplane in the other.

And so it was that, three months into the War, he went to discuss the matter with his engineering friends at an airplane manufacturer.

Their biggest problem was that mounting a front-firing machine-gun on a propeller-driven flying machine meant that a proportion of the bullets would hit the propeller blades as they left the muzzle.

Eventually between them, they found a way to synchronise the firing of the gun with the spinning of the propeller, using narrower blades edged with deflecting wedges in case of the odd errant bullet.

On 1st April 1915, raring to get into the air and give the whole thing a good go, Roland Garros became the first pilot to shoot down an aircraft by firing through the propeller blades on his own machine.

He followed this up with two more kills the same month.

Roland was definitely someone you wanted on your team, not the other guy's.

But – in another of life’s great ironies – the spectacularly smart invention which Roland helped bring to life and then fearlessly trialled with such success was about to fall into enemy hands.

Three weeks into his new, self-forged career as a fighter pilot, Roland’s plane was hit by ground-fire and he crashed behind German lines.

He survived, but he and his broken aircraft were swiftly surrounded and taken prisoner.

He could only watch in silent horror as the enemy swarmed all over his precious plane, knowing they would steal and reproduce his invention.

German engineers at Fokker had been working on ideas for the creation of an actual combat aircraft but they weren’t there yet.

Roland's plane was exactly what they needed.

As he was marched off into captivity, we can only imagine the brave Frenchman’s chagrin.

But Roland Garros was not a man to sit still if he could help it; he was down but not out.

After three long years as a POW, on Valentine’s Day 1918, he finally managed to escape from his camp, along with another French pilot.

They made it to London, via the Netherlands, and from there, Roland returned to France as fast as he could.

He went straight to the Army and was back in the air, shooting down enemy aircraft again by the autumn.

But it wouldn't last.

On 5th October, this magical, magnificent man was finally shot down and killed by a German fighter pilot, using technology Roland himself had pioneered and which the enemy had stolen from him.

It was five weeks before the Armistice and a single day before his 29th birthday.

It is terribly sad, but it’s a story worth telling and a man worth honouring.

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