World War I: Colonel Rene Fonck

Rene Fonck
(George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Colonel Rene Fonck was the top-scoring Allied fighter ace of World War I. Scoring his first victory in August 1916, he went on to down 75 German aircraft during the course of the conflict. After World War I, Fonck later returned to the military and served until 1939.

Dates: March 27, 1894 – June 18, 1953 

Early Life

Born on March 27, 1894, René Fonck was raised in the village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe in the mountainous Vosges region of France. Educated locally, he had an interest in aviation as a youngster. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Fonck received conscription papers on August 22. Despite his earlier fascination with aircraft, he elected not to take an assignment in the air service and, instead, joined the combat engineers. Operating along the Western Front, Fonck constructed fortifications and repaired infrastructure. Though a skilled engineer, he reconsidered in early 1915 and volunteered for flight training.

Learning to Fly

Ordered to Saint-Cyr, Fonck commenced basic flight instruction before moving to more advanced training at Le Crotoy. Progressing through the program, he earned his wings in May 1915 and was assigned to Escadrille C 47 at Corcieux. Serving as an observation pilot, Fonck initially flew the ungainly Caudron G III. In this role, he performed well and was mentioned in dispatches twice. Flying in July 1916, Fonck downed his first German aircraft. Despite this triumph, he did not receive credit as the kill went unconfirmed. The following month, on August 6, Fonck achieved his first credited kill when he used a series of maneuvers to force a German Rumpler C.III to land behind French lines.

Becoming a Fighter Pilot

For Fonck's actions on August 6, he received the Medaille Militaire the following year. Continuing observation duties, Fonck scored another kill on March 17, 1917. A highly veteran pilot, Fonck was asked to join the elite Escadrille les Cigognes (The Storks) on April 15. Accepting, he commenced fighter training and learned to fly the SPAD S.VII. Flying with les Cigognes Escadrille S.103, Fonck soon proved to be a lethal pilot and achieved ace status in May. As the summer progressed, his score continued to increase despite taking leave in July.

Having learned from his earlier experiences, Fonck was always concerned about proving his kill claims. On September 14, he went to the extreme of retrieving the barograph of an observation aircraft he downed to prove his version of events. A ruthless hunter in the air, Fonck preferred to avoid dogfighting and stalked his prey for prolonged periods before striking quickly. A gifted marksman, he often downed German aircraft with extremely short bursts of machine gun fire. Understanding the value of enemy observation aircraft and their role as artillery spotters, Fonck focused his attention on hunting and eliminating them from the skies.

Allied Ace of Aces

During this period, Fonck, like France's leading ace, Captain Georges Guynemer, began flying the limited production SPAD S.XII. Largely similar to the SPAD S.VII, this aircraft featured a hand-loaded 37mm Puteaux cannon firing through the propeller boss. Though an unwieldy weapon, Fonck claimed 11 kills with the cannon. He continued with this aircraft until transitioning to the more powerful SPAD S.XIII. Following Guynemer's death on September 11, 1917, the Germans claimed that the French ace had been shot down by Lieutenant Kurt Wisseman. On the 30th, Fonck downed a German aircraft which was found to have been flown by a Kurt Wisseman. Learning this, he boasted that he had become "the tool of retribution." Subsequent research has shown the aircraft downed by Fonck was most likely flown by a different Wisseman.

Despite poor weather in October, Fonck claimed 10 kills (4 confirmed) in only 13 hours of flying time. Taking leave in December to be married, his total stood at 19 and he received the Légion d'honneur. Resuming flying on January 19, Fonck scored two confirmed kills. Adding another 15 to his tally through April, he then embarked on a remarkable May. Goaded by a bet with squadron mates Frank Baylies and Edwin C. Parsons, Fonck downed six German aircraft in a three-hour span on May 9. The next several weeks saw the Frenchmen rapidly build his total and, by July 18, he had tied Guynemer's record of 53. Passing his fallen comrade the next day, Fonck reached 60 by the end of August.

Continuing to have success in September, he repeated his feat of downing six in one day, including two Fokker D.VII fighters, on the 26th. The final weeks of the conflict saw Fonck overtake leading Allied ace Major William Bishop. Scoring his final victory on November 1, his total finished at 75 confirmed kills (he submitted claims for 142) making him the Allied Ace of Aces. Despite his stunning success in the air, Fonck was never embraced by the public in the same way as Guynemer. Possessing a withdrawn personality, he seldom socialized with other pilots and instead preferred to focus on improving his aircraft and planning tactics. When Fonck did socialize, he proved to be an arrogant egotist. His friend Lieutenant Marcel Haegelen stated that though a "slashing rapier" in the sky, on the ground Fonck was "a tiresome braggart, and even a bore."


Leaving the service after the war, Fonck took time to write his memoirs. Published in 1920, they were prefaced by Marshal Ferdinand Foch. He also was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1919. He remained in this position until 1924 as a representative for Vosges. Continuing to fly, he performed as a racing and demonstration pilot. During the 1920s, Fonck worked with Igor Sikorsky in an attempt to win the Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. On September 21, 1926, he attempted the flight in a modified Sikorsky S-35 but crashed on takeoff after one of the landing gears collapsed. The prize was won the following year by Charles Lindbergh. As the interwar years passed, Fonck's popularity fell as his abrasive personality soured his relationship with the media.

Returning to the military in 1936, Fonck received the rank of lieutenant colonel and later served as Inspector of Pursuit Aviation. Retiring in 1939, he was later drawn into the Vichy government by Marshal Philippe Petain during World War II. This was largely due to Petain's desire to utilize Fonck's aviation connections to Luftwaffe leaders Hermann Göring and Ernst Udet. The ace's reputation was damaged in August 1940, when a spurious report was issued stating that he had recruited 200 French pilots for the Luftwaffe. Eventually escaping Vichy service, Fonck returned to Paris where he was arrested by the Gestapo and held at the Drancy internment camp.

With the end of World War II, an inquiry cleared Fonck of any charges pertaining to collaboration with the Nazis and he was later awarded the Certificate of Resistance. Remaining in Paris, Fonck died suddenly on June 18, 1953. His remains were buried in his native village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Colonel Rene Fonck." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: Colonel Rene Fonck. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Colonel Rene Fonck." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).