Jaques, Marquis de Saint Phalle
Born: June 30th 1917 in El Jadida, Morroco Died: June 15th 2010 Age 92
De Saint Phalle, whose family has lived for centuries in the Burgundian Chateau de Montgoublin and traces its roots back to the 6th-century priest Saint Fal, had fled occupied France for England in the hope of flying Spitfires with the RAF on the Western front. Instead he found himself flying Russian Yakovlev “Yak” fighters in dogfights against German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s over the freezing plains of Russia.
Although de Saint Phalle himself flew more than 100 missions he had only one confirmed “kill”, shooting down a Fw 190. His own Yak fighter had already been riddled with bullets and he was forced to crash-land as he saw his enemy’s plane explode.
His 96-man French squadron, however, shot down a total of 273 enemy aircraft between March 1943 and May 1945, giving the Russian Yak fighter a reputation as the most lethal warplane on the Eastern front, favourably compared with the Spitfire that dominated the skies over western Europe. Such was the reputation of the Free French pilots, enhanced by powerful propaganda from their Soviet allies, that Nazi Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel issued a decree that: “any French pilot captured should be immediately executed”.
Gustave André Jacques de Saint Phalle was born in what was then Mazagan (now El Jadida), Morocco, on June 30 1917. As eldest son, he inherited the title of marquis from his father, Ferdinand Aimé Toussaint Joseph de Saint Phalle, a civil engineer who had gone to Morocco to build roads and bridges after being demobbed from the Great War through injury. Jacques’s mother was Anne Marguerite D’Urbal. Another branch of the de Saint Phalle family emigrated in the 1930s to America, where Jacques’s niece, best-known as Niki de Saint Phalle, became an internationally-renowned painter, sculptor and filmmaker. She died in 2002.
As a teenager, Jacques de Saint Phalle hoped to become a monk but, with the Nazis rapidly rearming, applied instead to the French Air Force. After obtaining his pilot’s licence on July 7 1939, he served at the Avord airbase in central France until war broke out in September, when he was sent to fighter-pilot school at La Sénia airfield in Oran, Algeria. He was there when the Wehrmacht occupied France in May 1940.
De Saint Phalle was able to return to the unoccupied “Free Zone” of his country, where “to earn a crust” as he put it, he worked in Foix for a charbonnier, or coalman. All the Armée de l’Air, under Vichy control, could offer him was a post as a guard at the Istres airbase, which housed its slumbering Dewoitine and Morane-Saulnier fighters.
But he was intent on finding a way to escape to England and so, with the help of the Resistance, trekked over the Pyrenees disguised as a peasant, avoiding Franco’s Guardia Civil and reaching the American consulate in Bilbao. From there he made it to Seville, where he teamed up with a fellow French pilot, Henri Foucaud, who also had set his sights on joining the RAF.
Together the two Frenchmen, by train and mule-drawn cart, managed to cross the border into Portugal, reaching the British embassy in Lisbon. They soon found themselves on an DC-3 to Bristol to link up with their compatriot pilots in the Free French GC-3 Normandie (Groupe de Chasse-3, Normandy).
After de Saint Phalle lied to the squadron commander, Jean Tulasne, that he had completed the necessary 400 flying hours required of a skilled pilot – he had actually only flown for 150 hours – he and Foucaud found themselves flying Yaks on the Russian front. Foucaud would die in an airfield accident in Tula, Russia, in April 1944.
Later the same year, Stalin suggested renaming GC-3 the Normandie-Niemen squadron after it played a key air role above the ground battles to cross the Niemen river, in present day Belarus.
From 1945 to 1975, de Saint Phalle flew for Air France, becoming the airline’s first pilot to fly a Boeing 747, a far cry from his wartime Yak-3 with its 1,650 horsepower. He retired to the Chateau de Montgoublin in 1975 but continued to fly and to teach as president of the his local flying club.
Honoured as a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur and awarded la Croix de Guerre by France, de Saint Phalle also received three military awards from the Soviet Union – the Order of the Red Star, the Medal for the Victory over Germany and the Order of the Patriotic War.
Jacques de Saint Phalle generally avoided using his title of marquis although others in Burgundy who respected his family’s history always did.
He is survived by his second wife, Agnès (née Périsson), whom he married in 1977, by their son and his stepdaughter, and by a son and daughter from his first marriage to Emilie Greco, who died in 1969.