Roland Garros: Inspirational Story about WWI Hero

Roland Garros
Roland Garros

You know the moment when you think for sure that you know something, but then you find out it isn’t true? Well, that “wow” moment I had a couple of days ago when I read the biggest tournament on clay in the world, French Open, along with its stadium in Paris, was named after WWI soldier, the aviator Roland Garros.

It is unusual that the name of an aviator is adopted for a tennis stadium. Former tennis players and pioneers of that sport are most common names of the stadiums and tournaments. So, I said to myself, I need to write about this. It is interesting, exciting and it could be inspirational.

Read further to see I wasn’t wrong about that.   
Eugene Adrien Roland Georges Garros was born in Saint-Denis de la Reunion on 6 October 1888. In his younger days he had talent for football, rugby and cycling which helped him to get his respiratory system back to full strength after having pneumonia at the age of 12. Not only that, but he was a champion of France in cycling in 1906.

Aviator in the making

After graduating from the Lycee Janson de Sailly and HEC business school, he founded his own company at the age of 21 (a car dealership not far from the Arc de Triomphe). Until he started to like air shows and planes, Garros studied music wanting to become a concert pianist.

In August 1909 he was invited to the Champagne region by a friend where he attended his first air show in Reims. It marked a moment when Garros fell in love with airplanes. He immediately bought a plane and taught himself how to fly before he got his Ae. C. F. license no. 147 in July 1910.

First he flied a Demoiselle (Dragonfly) monoplane, an aircraft that only flew well with a small lightweight pilot. In 1911 Garros graduated to flying Bleriot monoplanes and entered number of European air races with this type of machine, including the 1911 Paris to Madrid air race and the Circuit of Europe (Paris – London – Paris), in which he came second.  

Roland Garros Aviator
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He contributed to numerous air shows and races by practicing exhibition and stunt flying. Garros’ bravery and inventiveness impressed the spectators so he became a star in the discipline. Hundreds of thousands of people wanted to watch him both from Europe and South America.

On 4 September 1911, Garros broke his first altitude record of 3910 meters (12 600 feet) after taking off from Houlgate beach. Next year on 6 September 1912 he regained the height record by flying to 5610 meters (18 410 feet) after Austrian pilot Philipp von Blaschke had flown to 4360 meters (14 300 feet).   

First flight across the Mediterranean Sea

Roland Garros was very ambitious wanting to accomplish great things in the aviation. He set a challenge to himself of crossing the Mediterranean. On 23 September 1913 he flew from Saint-Raphael on French Riviera. With 200 liters of fuel and 60 liters of castor oil on board he set off at 5.47 am. Despite two engine failures that were rapidly fixed, Garros landed in Bizerte, Tunisia at 1.40 pm after flying 780 kilometers (485 miles).

This historical flight that made him first aviator to cross the Mediterranean took 7 hours and 53 minutes. In the tank was five liters of fuel left.

This action put Roland Garros in the centre of Parisian smart set. He became friends with Jean Cocteau, among others. This poet and filmmaker dedicated a text to him Le Cap de Bonne Esperance (The Cape of Good Hope).

When World War One started, he was teaching military aviation in Germany. Via a night flight to Switzerland he returned to France and signed up with the Storks squadron.

Roland Garros as an inventor

Propeller with bullet deflectors
Propeller with bullet deflectors
after being recovered from
Garros' aircraft
In that time, airplanes weren’t equipped very well with weaponry, if any at all. Since Garros was inventive and had a trailblazing skill, he developed that was revolutionary back then: forward firing machine gun. Garros visited the Morane – Saulnier Works in December 1914 and forwarded Saulnier’s work on metal deflector wedges attached to propeller blades of his Morane – Saulnier L aircraft. The Aero Club of America awarded him a medal for this invention three years later.

On 1 April 1915 Garros achieved first ever shooting down of an aircraft by a fighter firing through a tractor propeller. Two weeks after he gain two more combats in air over German aircrafts.

On 18 April Garros’ fuel line clogged or his plane was downed by a grand fire. He landed on a German side of the lines and didn’t get a chance to destroy his plane before he was taken as a prisoner.

It was often said that after examining the aircraft, German engineers, led by Fokker, designed the improved interrupter gear system. The truth is work on Fokker’s system had been going on for at least six months before Garros’ aircraft crashed.

Famous escape and heroic death

Roland Garros was in captivity for three years. He escaped disguised as a German officer, along with another French airman Lieutenant Antoine Marchal, on 14 February 1918 after several attempts, according to newspapers headlines back then. Clemenceau wanted him as an advisor, but heroic Garros wanted to fight again. Unfortunately, his health was quite deteriorated: short-sighted he secretly made himself a pair of glasses in order to fly again.  

This brave aviator settled into Escadrille 26 to pilot a Spad, and claimed two victories, on of which was confirmed.

After three years of captivity, with damaged health, still wanting to fly and fight the war, he was killed on 5 October 1918 over the Ardennes, near Vouziers. This happened only a month before the end of the Great War and one day before his 30th birthday.

While researching about this exceptional human being, I came across a New York Times article that was published on 9 March 1918. Entitled “Garros to train anew in the art of air warfare” he reveals his personal thoughts after escaping the prison-of-war camp and preparations for new beginning in the air war. Also, he denies some headlines that were not true about his escape:

Practically all that has been printed on that subject is fictitious. Neither Marchal nor I have divulged a single detail and we do not intend to. The reason is obvious – you know there are other French prisoners in Germany. Here and there a crumb of fact has incautiously been let drop by an intimate friend, but the rest of the stories are pure invention. Why, one reporter even wrote an account of an interview with us in Amsterdam when we never even passed through that city.

In his own words

About his experiences in German war prison he said:

From the outset my imprisonment was exceedingly rigorous, although I was never actually ill treated. I was so strictly watched that, contrary to what has been stated in the press, I was never even able to attempt to escape previously.

Regarding his starvation and tough times:

During the last eighteen months the food supplied to prisoners by the Germans has fallen to the starvation point, and like the rest of my comrades, I would have been unable to live without the packages from France. (…) Once, about six months ago, for some reason the delivery of packages was temporarily suspended, and we had a terrible time, I lost fifteen pounds in two weeks.

The part when he is determent in going back to war:

What are my plans? Of course I am going back to the front in the chasse escadrille as soon as I have had some training and can get abreast of the new developments. That will take about a month, I expect. You know it is like coming back from the grave. One has to learn over again.

He referred on current situation of WWI:

France has no idea of what Germany is suffering. The state of things here is like heaven as compared to hell. (…) If only the people here knew the truth there would be less of this spineless grumbling and talk of Germany being unbeatable. What if Russia has fallen down? You Americans are worth ten Russias. (…) The Germans know that their only hope is in the weakening on the part of the Allies. If we hold fast we are bound to beat them.
Roland Garros Aviator WWI soldier
Credit: Staff/Afp/Getty Images

Exciting description of his capture after aircraft’s falling:

Because of motor trouble I was forced to land on Belgian soil north of Courtrai. (…) I hid among the weeds in a narrow ditch with only my head emerging from the mud. Twice the search patrols stopped within a yard of my hiding place. As the afternoon passed, although I was nearly frozen, I began to think I might get away. Then just as it was getting dusk two boches came right on top of me and the game was up. Another quarter of an hour and the darkness would have saved me.

Once again he mentioned going back to war:

It was bad luck, but never mind that now. At least I have got my chance again before the war ends.

How WWI aviator became immortal?

In 1927 French musketeers, a group of French tennis players, les Mousquetaires, beat the US players and won Davis Cup for the first time. The tennis stadium had been built for the Mousquetaires to defend their Davis Cup title. Therefore, at the request of Emile Lesueur, Garros’ former classmate at the HEC and president of Stade Francais, in 1928 the tennis stadium was named after Roland Garros.

Garros played tennis only recreationally and has never participated in any tournament. Victory belongs to the most persevering is a quote attributed to Napoleon, but Roland Garros inscribed it on propellers of his plane. No wonder he didn’t give up after imprisonment. It was his life quote that describes his bravery and destiny at large.

For there is no better reasons for naming the tennis stadium than patriotism, gallantry and modesty of a true WWI hero.    

Roland Garros Aviator
Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

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