Roland Garros, hero of the air ... and tennis? - Kathryn's history blog

Monday, 16 May 2016

Roland Garros, hero of the air ... and tennis?

In French sporting culture the name Roland Garros is synonymous with tennis, as the title of the home of the French Open. However, Monsieur Garros had very little to do with tennis. Robert Wohl has even claimed that he was terrible at most physical sports. He was instead a hero of the air; one of France’s first aviators.

Roland Garros, aviator (source)
Having gained his pilot’s licence in 1910, he was one of France’s first sporting pilots, flying in competitions such as the Paris-Madrid Air Race. In 1913 he gained acclaim for being the first man to fly non-stop across the Mediterranean, from the south of France to Tunisia. He made the 800km journey in just eight hours. Aged only 25, he was at the forefront of aeroplane development.

At the outbreak of the First World War he was, ironically, teaching military flight in Germany. He escaped home to France and enlisted as a reconnaissance pilot in Escadrille 26 of the French Air Force. Not only was he a successful aviator but he also helped develop aerial technology. He helped create a system which allowed a pilot to fire a machine gun forwards, but to avoid hitting the propeller by way of steel wedge deflectors. This improved the efficiency and consistency of air warfare. In the first three weeks of April 1915 he shot down three German aeroplanes.

The Garros deflector system (source)
Despite this advantage, Garros was forced to crash land in German territory on 18th April. There are conflicting reports of whether the crash was caused by a technical fault or by being shot by ground fire. He survived the fall but was unable to destroy his aeroplane. As a result, he was taken prisoner and his plane was used by German designer Fokker to improve their air force.

Garros' memorial in Vouziers (source)
For the second time in his life Garros had to escape from Germany and after many attempts, he escaped from the POW camp in February 1918. He returned to service in the French Air Force, where he shot down another plane on 2nd October. However, three days later and on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he was shot down and killed above the Ardennes, most likely by the German ace Habich. He is buried in the communal cemetery at Vouziers, near Bastogne in Belgium.

Roland Garros had four confirmed victories during the Great War, meaning that he is not technically considered a flying ace (which requires five victories), although he had claimed at least one other kill. He is nonetheless considered a French hero both for his war service and his pre-war pioneering of aviation. The day after his death he was posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his services.

A decade later, Paris was in need of a new tennis stadium in which France could host the Davis Cup as the reigning champions. The new stadium was to be built in Paris’ 16e arrondissement, where the young Garros had attended Lycee Janson de Sailly.  It is recorded that he played tennis during this time, but without much success. His main interest at this time had been music, although this was soon to be replaced by his love of aviation that would last his lifetime.

 
The 1928 Davis Cup at the new Stade Roland Garros and centre court in 2012 (source one and two) 

While his connection to sport and to Paris has come to represent his legacy in Europe, a more fitting tribute remains to him on his birth island of La Reunion where the international airport still bears his name. One of France's first successful aviators, he was a pioneer of both adventure and military aviation. His name lives on at the centre of French culture, even if not solely for his contribution to aviation technology.

Kathryn

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