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Roland Garros, the aviator the world mistakes for a tennis champion

Roland Garros lands on Tunisian soil in September 1913, becoming the first pilot to cross the Mediterranean Sea without stops.
Roland Garros lands on Tunisian soil in September 1913, becoming the first pilot to cross the Mediterranean Sea without stops. AFP file photo

Throughout the world, Roland Garros is synonymous with tennis. But few people know the home of the French Open was named after a legendary aviator who pioneered fighter combat during World War I.

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Each year in June, tennis fans around the world have their eyes set on the clay courts of Roland Garros. Yet few of them will know what – or who – those two words stand for.

“Visitors often think he was a great champion from the past or a senior tennis official,” says Michaël Guittard, the French Open’s museum curator. “When they discover his story, they are usually very surprised.”

Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros, better known as Roland Garros, was certainly a sports buff. But he never picked up a single tennis medal. His passion was flying. He was one of the finest pilots of his generation, and one of the many tragic victims of World War I.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914 Garros was already a celebrity in the budding world of aviation. “He was a pioneer, certainly one of the very best to have vanquished the Mediterranean,” says Guitard, referring to the Frenchman’s successful crossing from France to Tunisia on September 23, 1913 – the first in history.

The world’s first fighter pilot

Garros was exempt from the draft but decided to enroll anyway, convinced that airborne warfare would have a major role to play. He took part in reconnaissance missions and bombings, but was frustrated by technological limitations.

“At the time there was one pilot steering the aircraft and a second at the back who carried a gun and tried to fire at enemy planes,” says Guittard. “Chances of a hit were minimal.”

Roland Garros poses in front of a Demoiselle B.C. aircraft in 1910.

Building on research by engineer Raymond Saulnier, Garros helped devise a synchronization system that enabled pilots to shoot through a plane’s propellers without hitting the blades.

By April 1915 his aircraft was equipped with the system and the French pilot rapidly scored three victories over the German air force, earning a commendation for bravery. Guittard describes him as “the first fighter pilot in history”.

His success came to an abrupt end on April 18 when he was forced to crash-land his plane on the German side of the lines. “We still don’t know whether it was a mechanical failure or an enemy hit that forced him to land,” says Guittard. “He tried to set fire to the plane to hide its secrets and went into hiding, but was caught by the Germans.”

Garros failed to destroy the aircraft and a young Dutch engineer, Anthony Fokker, was soon at work on an improved synchronization system, which was fitted onto German planes. “From then on Europe’s skies were German,” says Guittard. Fokker’s planes began shooting down French and British aircraft, in what was known as the “Fokker Scourge”.

Great escape

Meanwhile, Garros was busy plotting his escape from a German POW camp. He managed to send coded messages back to France and arranged for the delivery of two tennis rackets with hollow handles, containing a map of Germany and a felt hat with which he hoped to escape unseen.

Roland Garros (right) and Anselme Marchal (left) during their captivity in Germany.

He got his break after meeting fellow pilot Anselme Marchal at the Scharnhorst camp in Magdeburg, in eastern Germany. Marchal spoke perfect German and in February 1918 the two were able to trick the guards by donning German officer uniforms, which they’d made in secret.

“It was nothing short of an adventure movie,” says Guitard, charting their escape from Germany. “They slept in a cemetery, spent an afternoon in a cinema, blended into the crowd, and finally, after numerous attempts, made it through the Netherlands, on to London, and finally back to Paris, where they were treated to a hero’s welcome.”

Garros was greeted in person by the French leader Georges Clémenceau, who offered him a technical job handling France’s air force from behind the frontline. But, after three years in captivity, the pilot was desperate to get back in the air.

Legend lives on

On October 5, 1918, on the eve of his 30th birthday, Garros took part in one last, fateful mission over the Ardennes, along with five other French aircraft. Four of them had left to chase a German aircraft when a squadron of six Fokker planes suddenly appeared. Garros dived in for the fight and never came back.

For days French newspapers harboured hopes that their hero had survived and was back in a German prison, but body and wreckage were eventually found near the village of Vouziers, where Garros was buried.

Roland Garros and Anselme Marchal are awarded the Légion d'honneur, France's highest distinction, after their escape from Germany.

Guittard says it is still not clear what caused the plane to crash. “The engineer Saulnier raised the possibility that one of his machine guns may have jammed, or that he may have jammed it himself and destroyed his own propeller – becoming a victim of his own invention,” he says.

Either way, the pilot’s legend lived on. A decade after his death, France hosted the final of the Davis Cup in a brand-new stadium on the western fringes of Paris. The stadium's constructor Emile Lesieur insisted it be named after Garros, his friend and comrade during the war.

“In the beginning, people thought that the man would be eclipsed by the tournament,” says Guittard. “But today nobody remembers the other ace pilots Garros encountered, whereas we still talk about ‘Roland Garros’ and there are always people keen to find out where the name comes from.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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