On August 24th 1944, Captain Callet (Pilot) and Lieutenant Mantoux (Observer) carried out a historic mission on board a Piper L-4: They dropped a message over the Préfecture de Paris announcing the arrival of General Leclerc’s troops, and thus the Liberation of the capital.
The pilot’s account (written by Renaud Leblond) and the report of this exceptional mission:
“It was on a stormy day, August 24th, around 1 p.m., that I received the most unexpected order of my career. I was in Rambouillet, from where, that very morning, the tanks of the 2nd armoured division had set off to reach the capital as quickly as possible.
My eight planes – American Piper Cubs in charge of correcting the artillery fire – were grounded. They were stuck in the heavy rain that was falling non stop. Like me, my observer, Lieutenant Etienne Mantoux, was deeply disappointed: that evening, or the day after at the latest, Leclerc’s tanks would enter Paris as heroes, while the squadron, bogged down by the storm, will learn of the victory without having participated in it. We are truly envious… Suddenly a jeep, dripping with water, stops in front of the squadron’s headquarters.
An artillery liaison officer, Captain Righini, gets out of it, then comes towards us. His voice is urgent: “The capital has risen, he says. It is the Police Headquarters which is leading the operations and that is suffering the main blow from the German forces. The officers are holding on heroically, but are ignoring the lightning advance of our tanks.
Emissaries reached Leclerc’s headquarters. They described the dramatic situation of those who were fighting in Paris and who had to be reassured at all costs… I immediately understood the mission: to fly over Paris and drop a lead-weighted message on the Prefecture. Four little words: “Hold on, we’re coming”. Mantoux and I are pumped up. Despite the bad weather. Despite, above all, the insane risks that are looming: like all Pipers, my plane is not armoured; it is slow and has no means of retaliation. Besides, the rules are formal: a Piper must never cross enemy lines.
Except in an emergency. Except in the euphoria of an impending liberation, which was still hanging on by a thread. At about 3 p.m., a break in the weather appeared. We hastily put on our parachutes and fastened our seatbelts. For a first stopover in Arpajon. This time I pray to the Lord. Intensely.
And, as the plane’s engine starts to hum, I remember this sentence from the “Song of the Franks”: “The hours of life are passing… We shall smile when we have to die. On the runway, the crews are gathered. They bid us farewell. Our plane leaps onto the prairie strip. Thumbs up. We are flying into the unknown…
The sky has cleared. On the ground, our tanks, clearly visible with their pink panels, mark the advanced line of combat. They are now behind us. Etienne and I are surprisingly calm. To hide from the Germans, but also to orientate myself, I play with the clouds. In a kind of ecstasy, I repeat into the microphone this sentence of Montherlant: “To know at last what counts and what does not count. And stick to those clearings that we have delimited under the sun of death”. But Etienne corrects me: “Yes, my captain, but let’s stick to the clarity that we are going to define under the sun of death!
When? Right now, when we are the first to discover Paris and forget all the dangers. I recognise the Pantheon, then the Prefecture. Etienne confirms the objective. What to do? I yell: “Watch out, I’m going to dive! The plane tilts, turns and dives. I want to deceive the enemy. To simulate a fall. The altimeter decreases. Nothing, not a shot. We are soon a few metres above the spires of Notre-Dame. I suddenly straighten the aircraft and make a circular turn around the Prefecture. Etienne explodes: “Message launched!” And then I see the golden ribbon that signals it unfolds as if in a dream…
Well, almost. From the left bank, machine guns start to fire. Like hornets, the tracers pass in front of our plane, that tries, slowly, to gain altitude. If I continue my climb, the Germans will correct their fire. My decision is made: I pull in my shoulders and dive to my death on the roofs to get as close as possible to them. The lull will not last. At Kremlin-Bicêtre, we were hit full force. A violent shock occurred at the level of the landing gear. We zigzagged forward in a frantic race. In Villejuif, Arcueil, Cachan, the machine guns spit relentlessly. The return journey is interminable. Until the deliverance: the orchards, the suburbs, Montlhéry and our tanks which rush towards Paris. We shout with joy. We are alive and well. And it is on a wing, without landing gear, that we lie down in a meadow.
General Leclerc congratulates us. He tells us that the message has been received, understood and executed. I laughed nervously. As if I had lost my mind.