Roland Georges Garros in front of a plane Demoiselle

Absolute Legends: The French Soldier Who Became The World's First Fighter Pilot

When Roland Georges Garros enrolled in the French Army in WW1, he was convinced that aerial warfare would play a major part. He was right...

Roland Georges Garros in front of a plane Demoiselle

The date was July 28, 1914, the day the First World War began.

Despite not being drafted straight away, Roland Georges Garros was soon enrolled in the French Army and was quickly taking part in reconnaissance missions and bombings. It would be the start of four years of war that would change things forever.

From the start, Garros was convinced that aerial warfare would play a major part in the conflict.

He was right.

But whilst the First World War marked the real beginning of the use of military aircraft on the battlefield, Garros was getting increasingly frustrated with the technological limitations that came with the machines that were being used.

At that time, a 'fighter aircraft' was considered to be one of two things: either a plane where the pilot was armed with a hand-held weapon, or a plane which had one pilot steering the aircraft and another one sitting at the back trying to fire at enemy planes behind.

An early attempt of a pilot on a French Morane-Saulnier L to mount a forward-firing gun during WW1

Either way, the chances of actually hitting a target were fairly minimal, and most methods of air combat were improvised.

The first exchange of fire between aircraft is considered to be on August 15, 1914, right at the start of the First World War. Serbian (and later Yugoslav) military pilot Miodrag Tomic was conducting a reconnaissance flight over Austria-Hungary, when he encountered an enemy plane and waved.

But he was shocked when the pilot then took a revolver and began shooting at Tomic's plane. Tomic produced a pistol and fired back.

Roland Georges Garros decided to come up with a solution that would enable one pilot in a fighter aircraft to successfully fire shots at the enemy. In early 1915, he invented a propeller plane that could successfully fire a machine gun through its own propellers, without hitting the blades.

He did this by protecting the lower section of the propeller blades with steel armour plates that deflected bullets that might strike the spinning blades. On his first flight, he succeeded in shooting down a German observation plane. He would go on to shoot down a total of four German aircraft.

A pilot sitting in a French Morane-Saulnier N, with a deflector placed in front of the machine gun
A pilot sitting in a French Morane-Saulnier N, with Garros' deflector placed in front of the machine gun

Unfortunately, his success was limited, as Garros was brought down behind enemy lines on April 18, 1915.

He was detained in a prisoner of war camp and his secret was revealed to the Central Powers, as he had not been able to destroy his aircraft before being captured - in particular the gun and armoured propeller.

The Germans then summoned Dutch aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker, whose factory they had taken over, and ordered him to inspect the plane. Fokker, who had been looking into the issue for some time, was worried that Garros' design could still cause damage to the propeller, however, so decided to modify it slightly.

He invented a machine gun that had a rate of fire that was controlled by the propeller, or in other words, a synchronised device. A German pilot then took an aircraft fitted with the new weapon out to the skies and used it to successfully bring down a French counterpart.

The order was quickly made for all German planes to be fitted with the new device and it was soon incorporated into the famous Fokker Eindecker, which led directly to a period of German air superiority, known as Fokker Scourge.

A pilot sitting in a Fokker Eindecker EII, fitted with his new synchronisation device
A pilot sitting in a Fokker Eindecker EII, fitted with Fokker's new synchronisation device

The Allied reconnaissance planes were rendered defenceless and exposed. It became dangerous for them to acquire vital intelligence from continual aerial reconnaissance. For the first time, the Germans were on top in terms of their aircraft.

Garros, meanwhile, quickly began hatching a plan for escape from his POW camp. He sent coded messages to France and arranged for the delivery of two tennis rackets with hollow handles, which contained a map of Germany and a felt hat to be used as a disguise. It worked. Garros escaped on February 14, 1918.

He soon returned to combat but sadly, on October 5, 1918, Garros' plane was shot down and he was killed a day before his 30th birthday and five weeks before Armistice Day. He was shot down near the French town of Vouziers, close to the Belgian border. In a cruel irony, he was killed by a German airman flying a Fokker Eindecker fitted with Fokker's new synchronisation device.

Spitfire Uncovered 22/11/17
The Supermarine Spitfire, pictured here, was used continuously during WW2

The end of the First World War, on November 11, 1918, quickly meant that further advancements slowed down, as countries were faced with smaller budgets for aircraft. Further planes would be built soon enough though, with the Second World War featuring fighter combat on a larger scale than any other conflict to date.

And the legacy of Garros lived on. A decade later a tennis centre, which he had often attended as a young man when he was studying in Paris, was named after him.

The Stade Roland Garros is still used for the French Open, one of sport's four Gland Slam tournaments.

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