SEARCHING FOR RENÉ
And the 80th Anniversary of a Free French Spitfire Hero’s Death in Action
It all began with an Invitation in 2007 to attend Memorial Day at the Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel le Ferne.
On the luncheon table were Sponsorship forms for the Sir Christopher Foxley Norris Memorial Wall. I send off my cheque and received a request as to which name I wished to Sponsor. As I believed I’d no Family Members in the RAF, and as my Maternal family were of French descent, I asked for a French Name and was allocated that of René Mouchotte. There are only 13 Free French names on the BOB Wall so I could have been given any of them. Fate gave me René.
Until then, I’d hardly ever used the Internet for research but curiosity led me to enter René’s name little expecting anything much. Was I in for a surprise! Although strictly against regulations René had kept diaries during his time in the UK with the RAF, and I discovered that they had been published after his death, first in French and then in 1956 had been translated into English.
Being a romantic and a sentimentalist so went searching for a copy in English. I secured an Ex-Library copy and sat down to read it – expecting it to be full of fighting and RAF Jargon. It was like reading a novel – an intimate portrayal of this man’s determination to fight for his country, his pain at being an exile from his beloved France and family- his horror at watching his best friend die in front of him. He came across as a loving and much loved individual. I’ve read the Diaries seven times.
Having spent decades as an interviewer researching stories and putting all the pieces together, I found myself commencing a search for René.
Knowing that René had disappeared on his return from the Raid on Eperlècques in August 1943: that his body washed up on a beach at Westende in Belgium, had been buried in an unmarked grave but had been disinterred and returned to France where he received a full Military Funeral at Les Invalides in Paris, I discovered that the Mouchotte family tomb was in the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Having friends there, I asked if I could stay for a few days.
Visiting the Cemetery I discovered that the Tomb was in very good condition and was obviously attended and cared for. With the help of my friends I translated a letter into French, returned to the Cemetery and dropped it into the tomb hoping that someone would find it. That was in July 2011. In November I received an email from the Son in Law of René’s sister inviting me to pay her a visit just after her 101st Birthday. The family are Catholic and it is traditional on the eve of All Souls to visit the graves of the deceased and that is what happened and why my letter was found. The son in law had lived and worked in England and knew me from BBC TV News so he knew I was Bona Fide.
Hiring a cameraman I returned to France and recorded my visit to Jacqueline Quentin Mouchotte and also to the Tomb.
In the meantime I had become involved in correspondence with the Director of the Yorkshire Air Musuem. Whilst in Paris I received an email from Ian Reed asking if I were still in Paris and if so would I accompany him to the funeral of Henry Lafont (one of 5 escapees from Oran in a stolen plane piloted by René.).
Ian and I were both booked on the Eurostar and I spent the journey plying Ian with Champagne (well a half bottle to be exact) and talked and talked about René. Through his work with the Museum, Ian had many RAF Contacts which I hadn’t and he was able to secure the War medals which had never been given to René’s family. We returned to Paris some months later and presented them to Jacqueline. Her son in law said she’d been very ill at Christmas and he felt she only clung to life to see the medals.Ian also found film of René. when stationed at Biggin Hill, in the line up to receive the shared prize for downing the 1000th Enemy plane – as well as a brief glimpse of him at the Celebratory Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. The London Cabbies offered to take all the pilots back to Biggin free of charge. Jacqueline cried and said that was the first she’d seen of her brother in 70 years – she died 3 weeks later.
Later that year, the medals were presented to the Mouchotte and Lafont families by Sir Peter Ricketts (now Lord Ricketts) at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris.
In the course of my search, I also visited Middelkerke Town Hall in Belgium to look at the sculpture in honour of René. By chance there was a new and young Archivist to whom I was introduced and he gave me much more information on the finding of the body and showed me pictures of a presentation to a much much younger Jacqueline.
I tried so hard to get a Channel interested in the Mouchotte story. BBC 2 and BBC 4 ‘sat on it’ for many months and then turned it down. ‘Yesterday’ said he ‘wasn’t famous enough”. The History Channel said it belonged in Military. The Military Channel said it might suit the Biography Channel. I met brick walls everywhere until one day by chance I met a retired BBC Director down here in Kent who knew the local BBC SE Commissioning Editor. I had done all the work, researched, filmed, scripted the documentary and the Editor ‘grabbed it with both hands’. Every Region had a slot called Inside Out which deals with items of local interest in 5 minute segments within a half hour programme.
I was allocated a Producer and a cameraman and we returned to Paris and Middelkerke to do some more filming. I’m glad to say it was impossible to reduce the story to a 5 minutes segment. It was cut to 15 minutes – trebled the BBC SE audience that night and then was given to BBC South and BBC North – so was seen by over a million people – not bad when some mainstream programmes only notch up 3 million viewers.
The producer said he had enough material for a good 30 minute programme which would have been lovely but I was grateful to have the 15 minutes.
After the programme was transmitted – the families of the other 11 Free French named on the BOB Wall wanted the medals for their relations. Ian Reed organised that and they too were presented with the medals.
When I began my search and visited Biggin Hill I met a high ranking Army Officer living in Mouchotte Close. Later he was posted to Gibraltar and in the course of conversation with the Head of the RAF there, found out that they wanted to alter the name of the RAF HQ.Col. John Powell suggested Mouchotte – so that is why Jaguar became Mouchotte Buildings and I was invited over for the unveiling ceremony. A celebratory dinner was held on Battle of Britain day – 15th September 2013
I never stopped hoping that I could tell the story of ‘Searching for René’. Serendipity arrived in the form of Dilip Sarkar MBE – a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, prolific and best-selling author with nearly sixty books to his credit currently writing the official history of the Battle of Britain in eight volumes for the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust. In conversation with the Trustees, my name and interest in René was mentioned. Dilip got in touch after watching my documentary ‘Searching for René’. We met, and I gave him one of my two treasured copies in English of ‘The Mouchotte Diaries’. Dilip contacted his Commissioning Editor at Pen & Sword Books, Martin Mace, and the rest is history as they say. Martin agreed to re-publish the Diaries, including all the interesting Appendices which had been omitted from a later reprint. With his extensive knowledge of the air war, Dilip expanded information about the downing of Biggin Hill’s 1000th enemy aircraft, and the raid on Eperlècques (German V2 rocket launch-site in the Pas-de-Calais) on which René met his death.
Lord Ricketts, British Ambassador in France at the time the medals were presented to the Mouchotte family, kindly wrote the Foreword; Hubert de Lisle and his wife (René’s niece) came from France to attend the book launch on 27 November 2022 at Capel, as did the French Air Attaché – resplendent in his uniform to, as he said, ‘Honour René’.
My fifteen-year-long quest has now come full-circle with the republishing of ‘Free French Spitfire Hero: The Diaries of René Mouchoutte’. With the help of friends, the memory of this brave young Frenchman has been recorded for posterity and is now widely available. There could be no better reward for me personally as we approach the 80th anniversary of his death in action on 27 August 1943.
Commemorative Events: Saturday 26/Sunday 27 August 2023, Biggin Hill Memorial Chapel
26th August 2023 3.30pm ‘Searching for René’ – Illustrated Presentation by Jan Leeming including 2013 documentary
27th August 2023 3.30 pm Service of Commemoration. 80th Anniversary of René Moucxhotte’s death. French Air Attaché, Colonel Xavier will deliver the Eulogy and read René’s Testament in French and English.
For further information, please contact Margaret Wilmot at Biggin Hill Memorial Chapel: –firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch Jan Leeming’s fifteen-minute documentary here.
Purchase Free French Spitfire Hero here.
Jan Leeming’s website.
Dilip Sarkar’s website.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust website.
Biggin Hill Museum & Chapel website.