Colonel Henry Lafont
Colonel Henry Lafont
August 10th 1920 Cahors, Lot, France Died: December 2nd 2011. Paris, France. Age 91
Col Henry Lafont, made a dramatic escape from Vichy-held Algeria and reached England to fly Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain; he was the last of the 13 French fighter pilots to fly in the Battle.
When France capitulated in June 1940, Lafont was at the fighter school in Oran, Algeria, and was said to be “mad with rage” to see France occupied.
Although he and his fellow pilots were ordered not to attempt to escape, six of them — including Lafont — decided to steal an aircraft and fly to Gibraltar.
They were led by René Mouchotte, who would later command a Spitfire squadron and be awarded a DFC before failing to return from a sweep over northern France in August 1943.
Mouchotte identified a twin-engined six-seat Caudron Goeland aircraft, which had sufficient fuel. What he and his comrades were unaware of, however, was that the propellers had been sabotaged in an attempt to prevent the aircraft taking off.
They stole aboard during the night and, at first light, started the engines. In the event, Mouchotte managed to drag the aircraft into the air at minimum speed and made a laborious climb. Using a map torn from a geography book, the crew reached Gibraltar, where they received a warm welcome.
A few days later they sailed for England .
Henry Gaston Lafont was born at Cahors in the Lot region on August 10 1920.
On leaving school he gained his pilot’s licence and joined the French Air Force in November 1938 .
On arrival in England, Lafont and his colleagues converted to the Hurricane and were sent to a squadron in Northern Ireland before joining No 615 Squadron at Northolt, from where he flew patrols during the Battle of Britain.
Over the next few months he flew more than 100 patrols and was credited with shooting down two enemy aircraft.
On February 26 1941 he was the first of the pilots who had escaped to England to achieve a success, although he was the only one in his formation of six aircraft to return safely to base.
In July 1941 Lafont became an instructor, and trained more than 60 Free French Air Force fighter pilots.
Six months later he joined the Groupe Alsace flying Hurricanes on convoy patrols and fighter cover over Tobruk, when he probably shot down an enemy bomber.
In May 1942 he volunteered for service in Russia with the Normandie Squadron, but before joining he was shot down and wounded.
He returned to England.
Throughout 1943 Lafont flew with No 341 Squadron on operations over France and the Low Countries.
By war’s end he had completed 230 operational missions, and he was one of the few to be awarded the Ordre de la Libération, instituted by General de Gaulle. He also won the Croix de Guerre with three palms and the Croix de la Valeur Militaire.
Lafont remained in the French Air Force, serving at the 5th Air Region Headquarters in Algeria during the conflict there and for six years in London.
After losing his fighter pilot medical category, he turned to helicopters.
He retired from the French Air Force in 1966.
In 1967 Lafont was appointed Director General of the Paris Air Show , the world’s oldest and largest air show and held at Le Bourget since 1909. He remained in the post until 1984.
In addition to his wartime awards, Lafont was appointed Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur.
In 2002 he published Aviateurs de la Liberté. Mémorial des Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres.
At his funeral at Les Invalides in Paris, the colours of the French Fighter Pilots’ Association were carried in his honour in the presence of senior French Air Force and RAF officers.
Henry Lafont was twice married, and is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.