One of the very first fighter aces, Jean Navarre terrorized the skies over France by day and the streets of Paris by night.
To French infantrymen in Verdun’s trenches early in 1916, cow- ering under German artillery, machine guns, flamethrowers and gas attacks, the appearance of a bright red airplane over- head symbolized salvation rather than defeat. At the time Manfred von Richthofen, the future “Red Baron,” was an unknown excavalryman without a single aerial victory to his credit. And this red biplane bore on its wings and tail not the black cross of Germany but the tricolor of France. In the cockpit was the poilus’ guardian angel, Sub-Lieutenant Jean Navarre, the“Sentinel of Verdun,”whose presence above the lines proclaimed to all that, as French General Henri Philippe Pétain had declared of the Germans, “They shall not pass.”
Guardian perhaps, but Jean Marie Dominique Navarre was no angel. He and his twin brother Pierre, the eldest of a wealthy paper manufacturer’s 11 children, had been an inseparable pair of enfants terribles, kicked out of some of France’s best schools. Pierre eventually went on to study engineering and Jean to a college of aeronautics—briefly.“I have not stopped yearning to become a pilot,” Jean wrote, “despite the calculations and other approaches I am forced to swallow. I do not want classroom aviation. I have to fly.”
At flight school he proved to be a natural, soloing ahead of schedule—and against orders. After the war began, Navarre won his military wings before mastering navigation. (On his way to join his new unit in a two-seat Maurice Farman MF.7, he and his copilot became lost. “Were we in France, were we over the enemy?” he wondered. “I had no idea!”)
Not one for chauffeuring officer-observers over the lines and merely waving at enemy aircraft, Navarre went up alone armed with a carbine. Happening upon a German Taube, he later recounted:“The enemy is coming towards me, turns, gets alongside me and waves in greeting. He too is alone. As a hello, I gave him my three rounds.” The rifle took both hands; as soon as Navarre let go of the stick, his Farman got away from him. The Taube escaped.
Matching fighting pilots to fighting planes, Captain Charles Tricornot de Rose of France’s fledgling Aéronautique Militaire put Navarre in a new Morane-Saulnier L. Called the “Parasol” for its single overhead wing, the two-seater had a reputation for spins and fatalities. Navarre found its fault instinctively: “The wings are twisted into a spin because they are warpable,” he said. “They form a propeller, and the joystick is thrown violently into the pilot’s knees. The key is not to adjust the warp, which is impossible, but the rudder and dive.”
Even famed prewar aviator Roland Garros was impressed at Navarre’s newfound skill, remarking, “If he does not kill himself, he will surpass us all.”
But in addition to testing aircraft, Navarre was also testing his expertise with women and alcohol, with mixed success. He quickly ran afoul of the Parisian gendarmes. Rather than toss him in jail, however, they simply decanted the youthful aviator back at his base in time for the dawn patrol.
On the morning of April 1, 1915, Navarre went up with SubLieutenant Jean Robert as his observer. When they met a German Aviatik B.I over Merval, Robert broke out a carbine. Navarre shouted: “Not yet! I’ll tell you when!” The Aviatik dived away, but Navarre went after it, closing to within 30 feet before crying, “Go!”
Two of Robert’s shots hit the Aviatik’s radiator, and one struck its pilot in the shoulder. The Germans landed behind Allied lines and were taken prisoner. Robert and Navarre were both awarded medals, promoted and credited with one full victory apiece. Navarre was evidently relieved that no one had died in the engagement. “What good is it to kill for the pleasure of killing,” he commented, “when one can triumph peacefully?”
Later that same day Garros, who had fitted a Hotchkiss machine gun to his Parasol and steel bullet deflectors to its prop, shot down a German Albatros. And two days later prewar stunt pilot SubLieutenant Adolphe Pégoud scored his fifth victory (though some of his claims would have gone unconfirmed by later standards). With these developments, that first week of April 1915 marked the birth of both the archetypal fighter plane and the fighter ace. Jean Navarre would make legends of both.
Navarre’s superiors hoped their new hero would set an example, and so he did—just not a good one. The Germans had by that time learned to avoid Parasols, but Navarre found new uses for his plane: stunting over his airfield, against orders; joyriding with brother Pierre, who was stationed nearby with the 6th Engineer Regiment; and putting on aerobatic demonstrations to impress the girls of nearby Amiens. He topped it all off by buzzing a contingent of visiting British officers, swooping down so low that they dived into the mud. “My military record has a good chance to be too small to contain all of my punishments,” he wrote. “And to crown it all, not the slightest enemy in the air.”
Finally he snagged a wingtip and cartwheeled his Parasol while he and an observer were trying to hunt ducks…in midair. At the hospital de Rose railed,“Are you satisfied?” Navarre later complained to squadron mates, “If only we had the ducks too!”
He redeemed himself by volunteering for special operations, including one of the first balloon attacks (a failure) and secret missions over the lines to insert spies and saboteurs. On his return from one mission he couldn’t resist doing a bit of stunting over the German aerodrome at Laon. “Nobody thought to fire on me,” he reported. “I was so proud.”
After he learned that two of his former passengers had been caught and shot, Navarre refused further spydropping missions. Despite that, his exploits earned him the Legion of Honor and his commanders’ grudging respect. “With Navarre, I am always taken by surprise,” noted de Rose.“At the moment we are to sign his arrest order, we are obliged to turn it into a citation.”
When Pégoud was shot down and killed on August 31, Navarre suddenly became France’s leading aviator, as popular with the press as he was with the ladies and bartenders. He demanded a new single-seat Morane-Saulnier N, nicknamed the “Bullet” by the British. Though difficult to fly, the monoplane featured a streamlined fuselage and shoulder-mounted wings that made it fast, strong and maneuverable. And it had a forward-firing gun with Garros-style deflectors.
On October 25, when Navarre caught an LVG C.II over Château-Thierry, the German observer hammered out some 300 rounds but failed to get in a single hit on the Frenchman’s Morane. Navarre fired a mere two bursts—just eight shots total (the Hotchkiss only held 24 per clip)—putting half into the Germans’ engine. On landing to take the LVG’s crew prisoner, Navarre learned that his fame had spread across the lines. “We know you well on our field,” the Germans told him, “and your little monoplane is dreaded by all. We prefer to have been shot down by you rather than another.”
Navarre’s three confirmed victories put him two ahead of Sergeant Georges Guynemer and Adjutant Charles Nungesser. Navarre and Nungesser soon became as famous for their drinking and womanizing as for their exploits in the air. But the shy, fatalistic Guynemer didn’t fit in with their lifestyle—perhaps the reason why, in February 1916, he was the first to become an ace.
Navarre, meanwhile, upgraded to a compact little Nieuport 11 Bébé (Baby), almost as fast as the Bullet but sturdier and better at turns and climbing. Its Lewis gun, mounted atop the upper wing to fire over the propeller, had a 47-round magazine. Navarre found it “much more convenient” for shooting down Germans.
On February 21, he downed a two-seater behind enemy lines near Badonviller, though it was unconfirmed. By then he and France had bigger worries: That morning at 7:15 the Germans had unleashed a daylong, 800-gun artillery barrage to light off the apocalyptic Battle of Verdun. Pétain put de Rose in charge of France’s air war, telling him: “I am blind. Sweep the skies for me. If they chase us out of the sky, it’s quite simple—Verdun will be lost.”
Those in the trenches—on both sides—knew when Navarre arrived. With his Nieuport’s fuselage and wheels painted in French red, white and blue, he performed daily stunts over the lines, literally flying le tricouleur for all to see. As usual, his superiors took a dim view of such antics. And as usual, Navarre didn’t care.
Already airborne at dawn on February 26, Navarre spotted three German two-seaters sneaking low across the lines and decided,“Let us teach them that I don’t get up early for nothing.” His mere appearance behind one of the German planes inspired its crew to land and surrender. But instead of receiving praise for a bloodless victory, Navarre was punished for flying without permission.
As he headed off to barracks arrest, however, a flight of nine enemy bombers appeared overhead. Navarre leapt back into his Nieuport and caught up with them just as they unloaded over Ancemont. When one bomber turned into his attack, Navarre waited until the last instant, then snapped off five rounds. The bomber rolled wheels-up and plunged into a wood.
French troops stripped the dead crew, and when Navarre arrived on the scene they offered him a bloody German tunic as a souvenir.“I was sick,” he remembered.“It was enough to have killed the unfortunate. I did not want to bring in such tragic evidence.” It was his fifth victory. Rather than see their new ace under arrest, headquarters quietly replaced his squadron commander.
Now at the height of his powers, chasing Germans by day and mademoiselles by night, Navarre set Paris aflame as the enemy never could. Rather than wear a flying helmet in the cockpit, he donned a lady’s silk stocking over his coiffure.“Navarre goes hatless,” gushed the Paris Journal, “…the hair brushed back from his brow and seeming swept by a tornado of air.”
The transfer of his brother Pierre from the infantry to a pilot’s seat in a neighboring squadron was cause for celebration. But on March 8, in one of his first dogfights against a Fokker E.III Eindecker, Pierre was hit three times and nearly died from a severed artery. It was a grim reminder of the deadly game they were playing.
By the time Jean returned from overseeing his brother’s recovery, things had changed. The day of the lone air hero was already done. De Rose was assembling fighter units into squadrons and squadrons into fighter groups. Guynemer and Nungesser, both wounded, had been put out of action. Only Navarre still stood out in the crowded skies. He’d had his Nieuport, fitted with the first synchronized Lewis, painted red for all to see. (Young Richthofen, flying two-seaters from just across the lines, surely took note.) That spring of 1916 over Verdun would cement the Navarre legend for all time.
Yet to some onlookers it seemed that for Jean Navarre some of the fun had gone out of it. One of the first aviation artists, Lieutenant Henri Farré, recalled that he was flying as an observer, hard pressed by a German Rumpler C.I, when, “What should I suddenly see, high in the air above us, like a meteor—Navarre, in his red airplane…a veritable bird of prey, swooping down on the poor Rumpler, almost touching it with his wings.” One burst from the Nieuport sent the German down in flames. On landing, Farré sought out his savior to thank him, but Navarre just shrugged it off, saying,“I was sure that you were going to be attacked, so I kept on flying 2,000 yards above you.”
“Then you made use of us as bait?” Farré asked. “Absolutely,” Navarre replied.
Perhaps Navarre also sensed that his own end was near at that point, since death was all around him. On May 11, Major de Rose, who had so often admonished him for his daredevil antics, died while demonstrating a Bébé. (Under stress, those early Nieuports were notorious for shedding their lower wings.) And on the 19th, Navarre and Lieutenant Georges Boillot, Nungesser’s squadron commander and a good friend to both fliers, attacked an Aviatik C formation over Chattancourt. Navarre shot one down for his 10th victory, but his triumph as the Allies’ first double ace was short-lived. That same day Boillot went up alone and was caught by five Eindeckers, shot down and killed. Navarre and Nungesser reportedly circled over his funeral, dropping flowers.
Navarre was by that time spending all night carousing and all day in the air. His superiors and fellow pilots warned him to ease off before something gave way, but he seemed driven. “I fly because I must,” he once said, “but this killing is not a matter a man can be proud of.”
On June 17, he scored his 12th victory (not counting some seven known only to the enemy). But then, when Navarre and two squadron mates closed on a German two-seater, its observer concentrated his fire on the red Nieuport. Before Navarre could get off a shot, he was struck a tremendous blow. “I understand [I have been hit]!” he recalled. “But I feel no pain. My first instinct is to shoot…I want my revenge immediately. At this point, I feel like coughing, and wiping my mouth with the back of my glove, I realize that I am spitting blood like water.”
The bullet had pierced his arm and lodged in his chest. Semiconscious, he crash-landed behind French lines and was rushed to a hospital. His stay there apparently brought out the old enfant terrible. Navarre’s petulance and fits of rage soon made the youthful pilot as infamous among the medical staff as he had been among the Germans. Perhaps it was due to a concussion suffered in the landing, or the alcohol-free hospital diet. More likely it was the knowledge that while he lay in bed the Battle of Verdun was being won without him, that both Nungesser and Guynemer had returned to action and were leaving him behind in the victory count.
“The sudden stop in my hard work brought me down completely and made me another man,” he admitted. “Especially when, to my misfortune, I was sent to a hospital in Paris.”As soon as the ace was able to get around, he received the last thing he needed: constant invitations to dinners, parties and fêtes, not to mention his old watering holes. He wasn’t physically up to his old escapades. And his condition only worsened on November 15 when his brother Pierre died in a crash while retraining.
At this point Navarre’s revelries took on a destructive bent. Celebrity turned to notoriety, and the Sentinel of Verdun became the “Mad Flyer of France.” Being barred from his old haunts did nothing to improve his outlook. In that era, psychotherapy was no more advanced than aviation, but today the diagnosis seems obvious. Post-traumatic stress. Survivor guilt. Death wish.
Navarre’s superiors, who had for so long turned a blind eye to his indiscretions, now recalled him to duty but kept him grounded for his own good, with predictable results. Navarre borrowed a plane to try his old stunts, only to reopen his wounds at 9,000 feet and barely get back down alive.
At the prospect of losing his flying skills, Navarre seems to have suffered a breakdown. It took him months in a sanitarium to pull out of his downward spiral. Not until March 1917, having sworn off alcohol, did he go back to the front. He even flew a few patrols, but scored no more victories.
In April, while his plane was undergoing routine repairs, Navarre went out for the evening in Paris and ran into some old friends. Drinks were had, one thing led to another and he ended up driving his powerful Hispano-Suiza sports car down a sidewalk. When gendarmes converged on the scene, Navarre actually ran over one of them. Fortunately, his Hispano was high-sprung, and he even stopped to help the policeman up. But when the lawmen attempted to arrest him, a fight broke out. Navarre jumped back behind the wheel, and Paris was treated to a scene of its air hero pursued by police on bicycles, trying to shoot out his tires.
This time he went not to the hospital but to prison, accused of attempted homicide. The authorities eventually excused him on grounds of mental instability. He was remanded to family care, returning to duty just a few weeks before the war’s end.
France was willing to forgive him, and Navarre, who had been named chief test pilot for Morane-Saulnier, was revered as an ace among aces. When it came time for the Bastille Day 1919 victory parade down Paris’ Champs-Élysées, he was as insulted as any French flier to learn that aviators would have to march with the infantry. Far better for one of them to fly through the Arc de Triomphe! And Navarre was still regarded by experts as the best pilot in the service.
“It’s crazy,” Robert Morane warned him, pointing out the Arc’s inner walls were “not even 17 to 18 meters” apart.
“You are mistaken,” Navarre responded. “There are only 12.7 meters. My plane is 8.5 meters [wide]….I will succeed.”
He practiced for the attempt between phone poles located near a local aerodrome, barreling his Morane-Saulnier AI parasol monoplane again and again under the wires. The inevitable happened around 3 p.m. on July 10, just four days before the parade and a month shy of Navarre’s 24th birthday.
Afterward, newspapers reported that France’s hero had given his life avoiding a collision with less experienced pilots. Witnesses claimed his engine lost power at the critical moment. Some said he came in too high, catching his Morane’s overhead wing on the wires; others that he did not climb quite high enough and caught its landing gear. Regardless, the Morane was seen to veer left, lose speed, sideslip and pile into a wall at the edge of the field.
It’s been less than 100 years since Navarre’s passing. Now, as remote-controlled drones are beginning to dominate the battlefield, the age of the fighter ace seems to be drawing to a close. But so much of the past century has turned on air power, and today’s world owes much to men like Jean Navarre—among the very first of the few who lived fast, flew high, fought hard and died young.
Don Hollway points out that he has enough stories for two articles on Jean Navarre’s exploits. For further reading, he recommends: Jean Navarre: France’s Sentinel of Verdun, by Jim Wilberg; and, for those who read French, Jacques Mortane’s Navarre: Sentinelle de Verdun.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.