Fighter aces — those pilots responsible for taking down at least five other aircraft — are almost as old as aviation itself. Since World War I, young men have been willing to risk death to earn glory and become “knights of the air” or the “cavalry of the clouds.” There have been thousands of pilots who achieved ace status, many whom have racked up far more than five downings. None, however, have ever managed the singular feat of becoming a fighter ace on both sides in the same war.
That is, none except one…
Pierre Le Gloan was from Brittany, born in the Breton town of Kergrist-Moelou on June 1, 1913. He joined the French Armee de l’Air in 1931 as soon as he was old enough to enlist. Before his death in 1943, he achieved ace status in both the French Air Force and under the collaborationist Vichy regime after the fall of France in 1940. With 18 kills to his name and as France’s fourth-highest-scoring ace of World War II, he remains the only pilot in history to become an ace on both sides of the same conflict.
When war came, he was flying a Morane-Saulnier MS.406. On Nov. 23, 1939 he claimed his first kill, a Dornier DO.17 reconnaissance aircraft. Another DO.17 fell to his guns on March 2, 1940.
Pierre Le Gloan with his famous D.520.
All pilots in Le Gloan’s squadron were then re-equipped with the newer and better Dewoitine D.520. Le Gloan lost no time in taking full advantage of the use of a better fighter. During the Battle of France in the summer of 1940 he had a hot streak. In June he shot down four German and Italian bombers: two Heinkel 111 planes and two Fiat BR.20 bombers.
It didn’t end there. The highlight of Le Gloan’s career was to come on June 15. His squadron met a squadron of Italian CR.42 fighters. Attacking with enthusiasm, he shot down no less than three of them. Encountering another CR.42 and a BR.20 on his way back to base, Le Gloan attacked and shot down both of them.
Taking down five aircraft in one day has seldom been achieved by even the highest-scoring fighter aces, and Le Gloan was justly rewarded. His five-kill streak brought him up to 11 kills, well above the five required for ace status. He was also promoted to 2nd Lieutenant to acknowledge his remarkable feat.
On June 20, his squadron was transferred to Algeria, then a French colony. With the fall of France and the installation of Marshal Petain’s Vichy puppet government, the French forces in North Africa were under Vichy command. To Le Gloan, it made no difference. He’d flown, fought, and killed for France. Now, he would do the same for Vichy.
His second fighting streak came in June and July of 1941. Fighting for Vichy and taking on Britain’s Royal Air Force, Le Gloan shot down five of the RAF’s Hurricane fighters, a Gloster Gladiator, and another aircraft that remains unidentified. He’d taken down 11 for France and had added another seven for Vichy. At the war’s end, only Jean Demozay (21 kills), Marcel Albert (23 and two probables), and Pierre Clostermann (33 kills) ranked higher among French aces. Le Gloan’s career would not, however, last much longer.
Neither would his life.
The Allies launched Operation Torch in November 1942. With Allied forces liberating North Africa and Field-Marhsal Montgomery’s famous ‘Desert Rats’ pushing westward after the victory at El Alamein, the Vichy regime’s days were numbered. So were Pierre Le Gloan’s.
Soon, all former Vichy forces were siding with the Allies, including Le Gloan’s fighter squadron. Reequipped in May 1943 with the American P-39 Airacobra, a new fighter might have given the newly promoted Capitaine Le Gloan another winning streak. Might have, if not for a design feature on the Airacobra that wasn’t on the Morane-Saulnier or the Dewoitine: an external fuel tank mounted under the belly meant to be jettisoned when empty or if about to enter a dogfight.
Le Gloan had never flown a fighter with a drop tank. Over the sea on a routine patrol on September 11, 1943 he began to experience mechanical problems. As the Airacobra was not the finest fighter ever built — this wasn’t unusual for pilots who had to fly them. Comparing the Airacobra to the legendary Supermarine Spitfire or P-51 Mustang was like comparing a rent-a-wreck with a Ferrari. With smoke streaming from his aircraft, Le Gloan decided to return to base and land, forgetting to jettison the drop tank. It was a fatal mistake.
Le Gloan, in the midst of severe mechanical difficulties, might have been safer bailing out than trying to land, even if he had remembered to jettison the extra tank. As it was, he attempted to land. It would have been a difficult landing at the best of times in a malfunctioning aircraft and, his mind on other things, Le Gloan forgot to drop the tank. As he touched the ground, the undercarriage collapsed.
The drop tank, still full, ruptured instantly. As the Airacobra screeched along the runway, the mixture of aviation fuel and sparks caused the plane to erupt into a fireball. Pierre Le Gloan, 18-kill ace, only pilot ever to become an ace on both sides in the same war, was burned alive.
Today, his name is largely forgotten except to history buffs, aviation enthusiasts, and the townsfolk of Kergrist-Moelou. Deciding to either forget or gloss over his having flown, fought, and killed in the service of Vichy, the residents of Le Gloan’s hometown named a street after him. Even so, as time passes, fewer people who use it remember either the man or his remarkable place in military history.