Ernest Georges LEAU was born in 1890 at Paris, by an organ builder.
Having developed a passion for mechanics since his tender age, and, despite his being completely self-educated, he started manufacturing aircrafts in his father’s workshop, while also serving as a shop assistant. When the First World War broke out in 1914, he requested to serve in the aviation.
Since the air force had not yet been formed, and the war aviation was still in its infancy, everything had to be invented: beginning with airfields and runways. Ernest LEAU was sent to the C 66 flight. Without certificates, he became a "stone breaker" inside a quarry on the Malzéville plateau, north of the Nancy town, where his job was to obtain ballast. Thereafter, he was made driver of a steam cylinder. Considering that this heavy French backfill compactor could not ram much, Ernest had to overuse its brakes.
Steam compactor, 1906 model
As he rose in rank, he became a weapons yeoman, and thereafter a gunner-caporal, both within an interval of barely two months. This enabled him to carry out a number of war missions as an airborne gunner, with his team mate: Master-Pilot DE KERILLIS.
Having requested to become a pilot himself, and the request having been granted immediately by his captain, Ernest Léaud trained on old reconditioned zincs, and scrap-borne Caudron G3 and G4 twin-engine aircrafts. It was during this pilot training, pending the issuance of his licence, that he carried out a remarkable feat, unrivalled in the history of war aviation.
During a small unauthorized training flight, he decided single-handedly, without the knowledge of his bosses, to make an escapade by flying across enemy lines. When he reached the altitude of 1,500 meters, whereas he was not supposed to exceed 200 meters, he met, over Essey, a German aircraft crossing the lines in order to guide artillery shots, against French infantry positions.
Caudron twin-engine G4
Ernest LEAUD continued soaring, with his back against the sun in order to pass unnoticed by the enemy. While flying over the Champnoux forest, he lunched attack. In the battle that erupted, a French single-seat Caudron G4 bomber, piloted by a trainee pilot carrying a Colt machinegun, notorious for its ease to get jammed so often, was pitted against the latest German two-seater intelligence-fighter, equipped with two machineguns of 1,000 cartridges each, one, fixed, shot by the pilot, and the second, mounted on a turret, manoeuvred by the observer.
At the end of several passes punctuated by machinegun bursts, and even though the battle disfavoured him, Ernest LEAU managed to hit the German aircraft, and it went crashing down behind enemy lines.
Upon return to the base, Ernest LEAU had to face the ire of the War Council for his act of disobedience. However, considering his exploit, which elated his bosses and the, somewhat jealous, admiration of his colleagues, this air victory was counted as his first successful test, thus warranting the issuance of his flight pilot licence.
He was neither brought before the War Council nor punished. It was difficult to do less...
Ernest LEAU received his pilot licence on August 25, 1916, with the number 4345. Thanks to this, he continued his aviation pilot missions, grabbing more victories. When the war ended, he resumed the building of organs bequeathed by his father in 1917, and became one of the very first test pilots. His licence bore the number 6.
Georges Léaud, during an air meeting
Ernest LEAU died in Paris on October 19, 1970, in his 81st year, and his funeral was celebrated in the Auteuil Notre-Dame church. His two brothers, Henri, the elder, pilot-warrant officer, and Robert, his mechanic, both died on board CAUDRON G4 aircrafts, leaving no descendant.
Full of extraordinary will and fierce determination, concealed by his unassuming and delightful personality, this serviceman who was made Knight of the Legion of Honour, and held several awards, notably the military medal, the war cross and the aeronautics medal.