Published: 09:28, 25 January 2013
When former newsreader Jan Leeming sponsored the name of René Mouchotte on the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, it sparked a five-year journey resulting in a documentary broadcast this week. Chris Price found out more.
René Mouchotte should never have had a chance to join the RAF. A fighter pilot in the French Air Force, he was based in Algeria when the French signed the Armistice with Nazi Germany in 1940.
With his aircraft under armed guard, René and five other comrades stole a decommissioned plane, which got them to Gibraltar despite its propellers having been disabled. From there they boarded a ship for England where they joined the RAF.
It was the beginning of what was to become a brief but distinguished career. He was the first Frenchman to become a squadron leader with the RAF and was given command of the 341 Alsaçe Squadron at Biggin Hill. Along with Canadian pilot Jack Charles, René shared the honour of downing the 1,000th enemy plane during the Second World War.
“He was a highly-dedicated, honourable and very likeable person who inspired confidence and admiration from the pilots in his squadron and from his superiors,” said ex-newsreader Jan Leeming, who has dedicated five years to bringing the untold part of the pilot’s story to the world.
“The facts speak for themselves. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, was the first non-Commonwealth pilot to become a squadron leader and was asked by his superiors to share his formation tactics.”
Much of René’s life is known about through his diaries, which were published after his untimely death. On August 27, 1943, René was shot down escorting a US Air Force bomber on the first daylight raid on the V2 rocket site in northern France. His body was found washed up on a beach in Belgium a week later.
Introduced to his name after she sponsored it on the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne in 2007, René’s diaries prompted former I’m A Celebrity... contestant Jan, who lives in Walmer, to visit the tomb in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris where René was buried. Hoping to make a film about his life and connections to Kent, she left a letter in the tomb, hoping a member of his family would find it and get in touch.
Sure enough, they did. René had a sister, Jacqueline Quentin-Mouchotte, who was still alive and Jan went to meet her in 2011, on her 101st birthday.
“It was a very emotional moment and we both had tears in our eyes,” remembered Jan, who was born in Barnehurst. “I couldn’t believe I was meeting and talking with René’s sister and she was delighted that, after all these years, someone had enough conviction to make his story known to the wider public.”
The story did not end there. While in Paris, Jan went to the funeral of Henry Lafont, the last surviving French pilot of the Battle of Britain, who also escaped with René from Algeria in 1940. There was a notable omission on a cushion bearing his military honours – his Battle of Britain medals.
It inspired Jan to go on one final chase for Henry and René. With the help of the Yorkshire Air Museum, she was able to obtain the medals and present them to René’s sister in May last year. Unfortunately, Jacqueline died a month later.
“At least she saw them and held them in her hands,” said Jan, 71.
“I only wish she’d known at that stage that I would eventually get the long-awaited documentary made about René. I felt very sad at the news of her death and very honoured to have known her for a short while.”
So as the programme is set to air, how does Jan look back on the last five years delving into René’s past?
“I had no idea what was in store but the more information I uncovered, the more I wanted to discover,” she said.
“I can’t wait to see the finished programme. I’ve enjoyed every step of the research and meeting so many good people along the way. I am honoured to be accepted as a friend by the Quentin-Mouchotte family. There is now quite a gap in my life which I shall have to fill with another project.”
The National Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne
Dedicated to Churchill’s “the Few,” it commemorates those who fought in the skies above Kent and the country’s coastline in the Battle of Britain.
Fewer than 3,000 men made up the aircrews which defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940.
The names of all those who took part in the Battle of Britain are listed on the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall, named after the late Air Chief Marshal – a Hurricane fighter pilot in 1940 and the first president of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, which runs the site.
On the White Cliffs between Dover and Folkestone, the memorial is free to visit.
The Battle of Britain (July 10 to October 31, 1940) was the first major campaign to be fought entirely in the air. It was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign to that date.
The aim for Nazi Germany was to gain air superiority to pave the way for an invasion of the UK (known as Operation Sea Lion.) Initially targeting shipping convoys and ports, one month later the Luftwaffe shifted its attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure.
Ultimately, German forces failed to destroy Britain’s air defences and the RAF won the battle. This was Nazi Germany’s first major defeat and a significant turning point in the Second World War.
The Battle of Britain prompted Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speech in August of that year, where he uttered the immortal line: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Jan Leeming’s documentary, Searching For René, is broadcast on Inside Out on BBC1 and BBC1 HD from 7.30pm on Monday, January 28.