Rene Mouchotte had defied orders to escape from France and join the Free French in Britain in 1940. He was now a Squadron Leader in command of No. 65 Squadron, the first foreign national to command an RAF Squadron.
On the 24th December they had begun practice for landing on aircraft carriers – taking off and landing from a marked out runway. Then they moved to a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm station at Arbroath for training at sea, on HMS Argus.
Mouchotte was impressed with the Royal Navy. ‘What a difference after the RAF. Cleanliness, discipline, mess like a grand hotel, trained waiters, very good food, comfort etc.’.
RAF pilots had taken off from carriers before – with almost no training – when planes were being flown off for the reinforcement of Malta. The Rear Admiral reminded Mouchote that they were ‘specially favoured’ to be the first RAF squadron to be trained on an aircraft carrier for take off and landing:
4th January 1943
It was the first time I had set foot on an aircraft carrier, and the next morning, when I ventured to explore, I was dumbfounded by its vastness. An enormous hangar, which took up most of the length of the vessel and all its width, gave an impressive idea of its size.
Unfortunately when I reached the flight deck, I saw it with my pilot’s eyes and could not help but find it appallingly short and narrow. We should have to perform miracles to take off and land. At 10 a.m. we were already at sea. The officer in charge of flying had called us together to give us final instructions.
I was making the first flights. A Spitfire, hoisted from the hanger on an enormous platform-lift, was pushed to the end of the flight deck. Only the chocks stopped it slipping back on the slope which forms the end of the deck. As I climbed on the wing, I cast a glance beneath me, to see the wake set up by the ship’s propellers 20 metres below.
One thing comforted me, a good 35-knot wind, which made my task much less difficult. It would be saying a good deal to say I was quite free from apprehension; I noticed that I was warming up my engine with more than usual care.
Then everything happened quickly without thought. The little flags dipped, two men flat on their bellies under my wings took away the chocks, two others hung on to the wingtips. My brakes on, I opened the throttle; released the brakes; tail in the air, I taxied along the deck. No time to think, I was at the other end already then in the air.
Several minutes later, after setting the pitch of the propeller, retracting the undercarriage and making my first turn to port, at above 500-600 metres, I realized the horror of my situation. A minute aircraft carrier was sailing there below me, as small as half a matchstick, and on it, in a few instants, I was going to have to land myself and my Spitfire.
It was so good in the air that I hadn’t the least desire to go down, my approach, as I lost altitude, looked more and more difficult and the deck hardly seemed to have changed in size. I had to touch down with my wheels immediately behind the bulge of the deck. If I succeeded in placing myself well in the centre, the cables would do the rest, provided my speed were correct. Therein lay the difficulty.
My task was to circle twice, as if about to land, but to open the throttle at the last moment without touching the deck with my wheels. The third time, thank God, I landed without damage; the cables stopped me loyally. I made four complete landings, after which I almost regretted not being able to go on. I was very pleased, the task in the end had proved easier than I had imagined. Unfortunately all my pilots did not have my luck and we had some small (not serious) accidents to regret.
See Rene Mouchotte: The Mouchotte Diaries 1940-943. Mouchotte would never fly from an aircraft carrier operationally, he was soon selected to lead an exclusively Free French squadron, No.341.
For the latest on Rene Mouchotte see BBC News, 28th January 2013.