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214. Who says history is dead?


Over the last couple of days, my good friend Paschalis Palavouzis has been pursuing a trail of evidence that would grace any detective novel.

He was very unsure about my Grandad’s story in relation to the magneto. If you remember, he had always said that he had swapped it for some bombs and food with an Italian racing driver called Bartolomeo (Meo) Costantini, who was an Italian racing driver flying with the French Escadrille sharing Prinos aerodrome on the island of Thassos (or Thasos – either spelling is acceptable).

He always said that Costantini obtained the Bosch magneto from Germany via his racing contacts, and Grandad treasured it because it was more reliable than the Avia ones fitted as standard on British machines.

But Paschalis wasn’t aware that Meo had ever served on Thassos, and when he looked through his voluminous records, he could only find one Costantini, and he was Pierre, who was apparently a Frenchman. So what could all this mean?

Paschalis did some more digging and contacted his friend David Mechin, and here’s what they found.

‘Pierre Dominique Félix Costantini was a weird ass born in Sartène (Corsica), on 16 February 1889. He began his military service in late 1911 and became a military pilot in late 1913, serving in Escadrilles D4, DM 36 then MS 26 in 1914-1915, gaining two mentions in dispatches. 
‘He was transferred to Salonika with escadrille N 91 on 28 September 1915. Why that? I think because he was a Corsican asshole… Many pilots sent to Salonika went there as a form of punishment, because their commanding officers wanted to get rid of them.
‘In Salonika (he was then adjudant-chef), he went to Escadrille N87 on 8 December 1915, then escadrille V83, then escadrille V90. He was shot down by flak on 23 March 1916 and escaped capture.
‘He was sent to the Thasos detachment in late May 1916 (a few days before Grandad arrived). He pretended to be a famous driver, but this was a joke: he was referring to the famous Italian driver champion Meo Costantini, driving a Bugatti. This man was already famous in 1914. 
‘Like many pilots in Salonika, he became sick with malaria.
Back in France in early 1917, he went to several units – a clue that he was a difficult guy to handle.

‘He was shot down and captured on 9 November 1917 in Dixmude, and escaped on 30 May 1918.
‘After WW1, he continued a military career but had many health problems, becoming a journalist and writing history books on Napoléon.

‘During WW2, he had the rank of major and became a collaborator, declaring “a personal war on England”.

‘Condemned to 15 years in prison after WW2 in 1952, he was sent to a psychatric asylum, believing himself to be Napoléon.
He died in 1986.’

(I hope David will excuse me for editing his excellent translation from his native French).
So it seems that Pierre had the entire British contingent (and quite possibly the French as well) fooled into thinking he was an illustrious Italian racing driver. I would have though that some of the French might have seen through his Corsican accent, but maybe not! At any rate, it provides a magnificent twist in the tale of the magneto.
As for the origin of the magneto, Paschalis reckons it was possibly taken from a shot down and captured German machine on the Salonika front. There were at least four Albatros C.I aircraft captured by the French and displayed at the ‘White Tower’ before the local population in the period 01 February – 25 April 1916.
And the final piece in the jigsaw; could Pierre be the man standing with Grandad in the photo taken on Thassos?
I leave you to judge, but personally I’m convinced.
Grandad on the right is 1.90m tall (6ft 3in).  Pierre Costantini was 1.67m (5ft 4in).

Grandad on the right is 1.90m tall (6ft 3in). Pierre Costantini was 1.67m (5ft 4in).

Pierre Costantini

From now on, Paschalis will forever be Poirot!

  1. What a great post. Thank you!

  2. Romain Lubin permalink


    Je connais très bien le parcours de Pierre Costantini.

    Je vous confirme qu’il est bien présent sur la photo au côté de votre grand-père.

    Je peux aussi vous apporter des précisions.

    Pouvez-vous me contacter sur ma messagerie ?

    Merci beaucoup de votre réponse.

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