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History of the Armée de l'Air (1909–42)

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Title: History of the Armée de l'Air (1909–42)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: French Air Force, Flight over Vienna, Albatros D.VII, Albert Achard, Franz Büchner
Collection: Air Force History, Aviation in World War I, French Air Force, French Third Republic, Military History of France, Military of Vichy France
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

History of the Armée de l'Air (1909–42)

History of the Armée de l'Air
History of the Armée de l'Air (1909–1942)
Free French Air Force
Vichy French Air Force
History of the Armée de l'Air (colonial presence 1939–1962)
The familiar French military aviation roundel gave rise to similar roundels for air forces all over the world, including that of the United Kingdom (RAF), which reversed the colours on the French roundel.

The Armée de l'Air (literally, "army of the air") is the name of the French Air Force in its native language. It has borne this name only from August 1933 when it was still under the jurisdiction of the army. This article deals exclusively with the history of the French air force from its earliest beginnings (but not French naval aviation, the Aéronautique Navale).[1]


  • Military aviation to 1914 1
  • World War I 2
  • 1918–1939 3
  • September 1939 – June 1940 4
  • Vichy: June 1940 – December 1942 5
  • Operation Torch: November 8–10, 1942 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
    • In French 9.1
  • External links 10

Military aviation to 1914

Ville de Nancy and République dirigibles at the 1909 Bastille Day Military Parade

Aviation in France was the preserve of pioneers like Henri Farman and Louis Blériot during the first decade of the 20th century. Like many other armies, however, the French soon saw the potential in aeroplanes as tools for reconnaissance duties. The French collective memory of the humiliating defeat of the army at the hands of the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 was still very fresh, and France was preparing to face Germany again. Indeed, it had already planned to invade Germany using the strategy and tactics formulated in the so-called “Plan XVII”.

From December 1909, the French Department of War began to send army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) from all branches of the army, especially engineering and artillery, to undergo flying training at civilian schools as “pupil-pilots” (élèves-pilotes), including at places such as Rheims and Bron. (Rheims was where the famous Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne had taken place in late August 1909.) In March 1910, the Établissement Militaire d'Aviation (EMA) was created to conduct experiments with aircraft. The Aéronautique Militaire was created, as a branch of the Army, on 22 October 1910,[2] under the command of General Pierre Roques. Even so, it was not until mid-1911 the first military aviation brevets were awarded to army pilots. Furthermore, it was not until a law was passed on 29 March 1912 that the Aéronautique Militaire formally became part of the armed forces.

Training of military pilots was the same as civilian pilots until 1910 when the General Staff introduced the military pilot license. The military pilot badge N°1 was issued to Lieutenant Charles de Tricornot de Rose, who first completed all the military requirements. Lt. de Rose was trained in the Bleriot Flying School in Pau, in southwest of France, the city where the Wright Brothers had established the first aviation school in history just a year earlier.

Even though the German army was forming its own embryonic air arm — the Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches — at the time, many consider the French military's Aéronautique Militaire to be the world's first “air force”, even if it did not become the Armée de l'Air until August 1933, for it was still under army jurisdiction. Nearly a year after that, it finally became independent on 2 July 1934, albeit 16 years after the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in conjunction with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), as both linked army/naval air arms gained their independence as they combined to become the Royal Air Force (RAF) on April 1, 1918.

World War I

A squadron of French planes
German aircraft damaged in combat
Debriefing, Museum of Air and Space, Le Bourget, France
The squadron bar, Museum of Air and Space, Le Bourget, France

France led the world in early aircraft design and by mid-1912 the Aéronautique Militaire had five squadrons (escadrilles). This had grown to 132 machines (21 escadrilles) by 1914, the same year when, on 21 February, it formally came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War (Ministère de la Guerre) and, on 3 August, Germany declared war against France, with Britain declaring war against Germany upon the German invasion of Belgium.

At the beginning of what eventually became known as World War I, the Aéronautique Militaire concentrated on reconnaissance work with aircraft like the Farman MF.2. On 8 October, though, the commander-in-chief, General Barès, proposed a radical expansion to 65 squadrons. Furthermore, he proposed that four types of aircraft could be used for four different types of task: Morane-Saulniers would be used as fighters, Voisins as bombers, Farmans as reconnaissance aircraft, and Caudrons as artillery spotters.[3][4]

At first, the shooting-down of aeroplanes was (quite literally) a hit-and-miss affair and was usually done by ground artillery, despite the fact that on October 5, 1914, Sergent Joseph Franz and his mechanic Caporal Louis Quénault, shot down a German Aviatik. However, air fighting became revolutionized when a reconnaissance pilot, Roland Garros, mounted a Hotchkiss machine gun on the cowling of his Morane-Saulnier L and added deflector plates to the blades of the propeller, so that the wooden propeller would not be shot to pieces whenever he opened fire on German aircraft. Garros, in some respects, thus became the world's first fighter pilot, but he was shot down and captured, remaining a prisoner until his escape and return to the front. He was killed in action just a month before the armistice in 1918.

Nevertheless, Garros inspired aircraft designer Charles Nungesser (who shot down 43 enemy aircraft and survived the war, only to disappear attempting a transatlantic flight in 1927).

1916 was when most squadrons were grouped around the sector of Third Reich's Luftwaffe.

The air battle over Verdun was the first large scale air battle ever fought. With French observation and reconnaissance aircraft threatened by whole squadrons of German fighters, the French commanders were completely blind and were unable properly to react to German artillery fire and infantry maneouvers. General Pétain called for Commandant (Major) de Rose and barked "De Rose, I'm blind, wipe out the sky!" De Rose then concentrated fighter aircraft from other airfields and land divisions, called for the best pilots in the French Army such as Jean Navarre or Georges Guynemer and established a systematic occupation of the Verdun sky by creating rolls of fighter shifts. After several weeks of intense air fighting, the French slowly regained air superiority over Verdun. Verdun can also be remembered as the birth of command and control of air power in air warfare.

It was at this time that, with the Luxeuil, but then it moved to Bar-le-Duc. Flying fighter planes such as the Nieuport 17 and the SPAD S.XIII, not only did it gain a reputation for bravery and daring, shooting down a total of 57 enemy aircraft before being absorbed into the U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) in February 1918, but also for recklessness. Furthermore, its pilots allegedly reveled in partying. The leading “ace” was French-born American Raoul Lufbery, who shot down 16 enemy aircraft (all but one with the Escadrille) prior to his death in action on 19 May 1918. Other American volunteer pilots, including aerial reconnaissance pioneer Fred Zinn from the French Foreign Legion, flew with regular French Aéronautique Militaire escadrilles.

By April 1917, the Aéronautique Militaire had 2,870 aircraft comprising 60 fighter and 20 bomber squadrons and 400 observation planes, yet, by October, an even more radical expansion to over 300 squadrons altogether was being proposed. By May 1918, over 600 fighters and bombers came under the command of the so-called Division Aérienne. Two months later, long-range reconnaissance squadrons had been formed, based in part on tactics invented by the American Zinn. At the armistice, the Aéronautique Militaire had some 3,222 front-line combat aircraft on the Western Front, making it the world's largest air force in air strength. During the war the Aéronautique Militaire claimed 2,049 enemy aircraft and 357 balloons destroyed, for some 3,500 killed in action, 3,000 wounded/missing and 2,000 killed in accidents.[5] Some 182 pilots of the Aéronautique Militaire were deemed flying aces for having scored five or more air-to-air victories.[6]


Morane D-3801 J-143

The end of war may have brought peace to France, yet the country itself and its infrastructure had been ravaged by four years of unremitting warfare, the like of which had never been experienced before, and the scars left behind were not just physical. As a result, it took some time for industry to recover. Not unexpectedly, orders for military aeroplanes dropped after the Armistice, resulting in reductions being made in terms of squadron strengths, a phenomenon much more keenly felt in the RAF given that it was by far the biggest air force in the world in terms of aeroplanes on station and in manpower at the end of the war itself.

Like the United Kingdom, France had an empire stretching all over the globe, and it needed to be policed. Anti-French elements in French Morocco were clamouring to be free of their colonial masters, much as anti-British elements in India wanted the British to leave their country. On 27 April 1925, therefore, alongside tactical and logistical support, air policing operations in Morocco were started owing to the so-called Rif War and they were to continue until December 1934, barely five months after the Armée de l'Air had gained its independence from the army.

Unlike in the United Kingdom, however, there existed the perception in France that it was more important to place political influence in decision-making before practicality and production when it came to which aeroplanes were to be in the air force, and lobbying in the French parliament undoubtedly had plenty to do with this. At the time, the French aeronautical industry was mostly composed of small companies such as Latécoère, Morane-Saulnier and Amiot, operating more or less on the craftsmanship level rather than on commercial production. A rare exception to this rule was Marcel Bloch, whose company had started out building propellers during World War I and was the forerunner of today’s Dassault Aviation. He foresaw the crisis that the industry would undergo, and so he got together with the company run by Henry Potez. Both Bloch and Potez’s names would, perhaps not surprisingly, become very influential on the future of French military aviation. Together, they formed a company which became the Société aéronautique du sud-ouest (SASO) and produced aircraft such as the MB.200 and MB.210 bombers.

Nevertheless, the French aeronautical industry proved itself incapable of delivering enough aircraft that the annual fiscal budgets had called for, in spite of the fact that Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and, by March 1935, was defying the Allies (and the Treaty of Versailles) openly by announcing the existence of the Luftwaffe. National security was clearly under threat, so Pierre Cot, the secretary of the French Air Force, decreed that national security was too important for the production of war planes to be left in the hands of private enterprises.

In July 1936, therefore, coincident (albeit by sheer chance) with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the French government therefore began nationalizing the companies, creating six giant state-owned aircraft companies, which nearly encompassed the total aeronautical production domain, and regrouping those companies according to their geographical locations. Bloch’s own company was nationalized in January 1937 and became part of the Société nationale de constructions aéronautiques du sud-ouest (SNCASO), yet Marcel Bloch himself was asked by Cot to oversee SNCASO in its entirety. However, the aircraft engine industry, even if it proved incapable of providing the badly needed powerful engines, escaped nationalization.

By 1937, it was clear that more modern aircraft were needed, since the air force was still flying relatively antiquated aircraft like the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406, armed with 20-mm cannon, then amongst the most modern fighters in the inventory of the Armée de l'Air at the outbreak of World War II.

The urge to construct more than 2,500 modern machines, among them the Gernika-Lumo), where the civil war had ended in March 1939 with victory for the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

France had tried to respond militarily to the threat of another European war via an intensive re-equipment and modernization program in 1938–39, as did other countries desperately in need of new planes including Poland which in 1939, ordered 160 MS-406 fighters in France which unfortunately for the outnumbered Polish Air Force weren't delivered before the German invasion of Poland. Germany was way ahead of everybody else, so it was a question of “too little, too late” as far as the French – as well as the whole continent of Europe – were concerned.

September 1939 – June 1940

A re-organisation of the air force took place during September 1939. Prior to the reshuffle, the basic unit structure consisted of two

  • article on the Lafayette Escadrille
  • article on Raoul Lufbery
  • City of Rheims web site A comprehensive history of aviation as pertains to the city of Rheims (in French)
  • Official Government of France Defense Department Website pages detailing the history of the Armée de l'Air to 1914 (in French)
  • Official Government of France Defense Department Website pages detailing the history of the Armée de l'Air from 1914 to 1918 (in French)
  • Official Government of France Defense Department Website pages detailing the history of the Armée de l'Air from 1918 to 1939 (in French)
  • SLHADA (Société Lyonnaise d’Histoire et de Documentation Aéronautique) website SLHADA is a Lyons-based society dealing with the history of the city and its aviation roots in particular (in French)
  • Spartacus (UK-based) – a web site for schools
  • WWI Aircraft Profile Gallery: France An Illustrated History of World War I

External links

  • Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (2000), La chasse française: le GC II/4, in Aéro-Journal magazine, edition #16 (December 2000 – January 2001), Aéro-Editions SARL, Fleurance, pp. 60–63 (print edition in French)
  • Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (2004), Casablanca: 8 novembre 1942: les Américains débarquent, in Aéro-Journal magazine, edition #35 (February–March 2004), Aéro-Editions SARL, Fleurance, pp. 4–31 (print edition in French)
  • Olivier, Jean-Marc, (ed.), Histoire de l'armée de l'air et des forces aériennes françaises du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours [History of the French Air Force since the 18th century to the present], Toulouse, Privat, 2014, 552 p.
  • Osché, Philippe (2000), “Mécano aux Cigognes”, in Aéro-Journal magazine, edition #13 (June–July 2000), Aéro-Editions SARL, Fleurance, pp. 51–56 (print edition in French)

In French

  • Alexander, Martin S. The Republic in danger: General Maurice Gamelin and the politics of French defence, 1933–1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Ballarini, Phillippe (2001), “Where is the French Air Force?”, article translated by Mike Leveillard and posted on Aerostories website [4]
  • Cain, Anthony C. Forgotten Air Force: French Air Doctrine in the 1930s (Smithsonian History of Aviation and Spaceflight Series, 2002)
    • Cain, Anthony C. "Neither Decadent, Nor Traitorous, Nor Stupid: The French Air Force and Air Doctrine in the 1930s" (PhD dissertation, Ohio State University 2000) online; Bibliography pp 231-
  • Christienne, Charles. French Military Aviation: A Bibliographical Guide. New York: Garland, 1989.
  • Doughty, Robert A. The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919–39 (Stackpole Books, 2014)
  • Doughty, Robert A. The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940 ( Stackpole Books, 2014)
  • Duroselle, Jean-Baptiste. France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932–1939 (2013); translation of his La Décadence, 1932–1939 (1979) 508pp
  • Gunsburg, Jeffery A. Divided and conquered: the French high command and the defeat of the West, 1940 (Greenwood, 1979)
  • Haight, John McVickar. American aid to France, 1938–1940 (1970)
  • Higham, Robin. Two Roads to War: The French and British Air Arms from Versailles to Dunkirk (Naval Institute Press, 2012)
  • Jackson, Julian. The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (2003)
  • Kiesling, Eugenia C. Arming against Hitler: France and the limits of military planning (University Press of Kansas, 1996)
  • Kirkland, Faris R. "The French Air Force in 1940: Was it defeated by the Luftwaffe or by Politics?." Air University Review 36 (1985): 101–17
  • Kirkland, Faris R. "French Air Strength in May 1940," Air Power History (1993) 40#1 pp 22–34.
  • Porch, Douglas. "Military “culture” and the fall of France in 1940: A review essay." International Security 24#4 (2000): 157–180.
  • Van Haute, Andre. Pictorial History of the French Air Force: 1909–40; Pictorial History of the French Air Force: 1941–74 (2 vol. 1975)
  • Vennesson, Pascal. "Institution and airpower: The making of the French air force." Journal of Strategic Studies 18#1 (1995): 36–67.
  • Young, Robert J. In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933–1940 (Harvard Univ Pr, 1978)

Further reading

  1. ^ Andre. Van Haute, Pictorial History of the French Air Force: 1909–40; Pictorial History of the French Air Force: 1941–1974 (2 vol. 1975)
  2. ^ "France: Air Force (Armée de l'Air), in Christopher H. Sterling, Military Communications: From Ancient Times to the 21st century (ABC-CLIO, 2008) p168
  3. ^ Davilla, James J., and Arthur M. Soltan. French Aircraft of the First World War. Stratford, CT: Flying Machines Press, 1997.
  4. ^ WWI Aircraft Profile Gallery: France An Illustrated History of World War I Accessed on 27 December 2013.
  5. ^ Christienne, Charles, and Pierre Lissarrague. A History of French Military Aviation. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.
  6. ^ [3] Retrieved on 24 June 2010.
  7. ^ Cornwell, Peter (2007). The Battle of France Then and Now. After the Battle. p. 81.  
  8. ^ Barry, Major-General R. H. Military Balance: Western Europe May 1940. p. 99. 
  9. ^ Ellis, Major L. F. (2004). The War in France and Flanders. The Naval & Military Press.  


See also

“Torch” had resulted in a victory for the Allies, even though it was fair to say that the French had no choice but to engage the Americans, otherwise the Americans would (and did) engage them since they were technically enemies. As a result, 12 air force and 11 navy pilots lost their lives in the final four days of combat between (Vichy) France and the Allies during World War II. Barely two weeks later, the Germans invaded the then-unoccupied zone of metropolitan France and ordered the complete dissolution of the Vichy French armed forces on 1 December 1942. Those units then not under Vichy control would then be free to join with their Free French colleagues to fight the common enemy: Nazi Germany.

Ultimately, the presence of Vichy France in North Africa as an ally of the Germans came to an end (ironically) on Armistice Day, 11 November 1942, when General Noguès, the commander-in-chief of the Vichy armed forces, requested a ceasefire; that did not stop a unit of U.S. Navy aircraft from attacking the airfield at Marrakech and destroying several French aircraft, apparently on the initiative of the unit’s commander. Once the ceasefire request was accepted, the war between the Allies and the Vichy French came to an end, after two and a half years of what was termed “fratricidal” fighting.

On the morning of 10 November 1942, the Vichy French air force units in Morocco had a mere 37 combat-ready fighters and 40 bombers left to face the might of the U.S. Navy Wildcats. Médiouna was attacked once again and several of the fighters were left burning, while two reconnaissance Potez were shot down, one by a Wildcat and the other by an SBD over the airfield at Chichaoua, where three Wildcats would later destroy four more Potez in a strafing attack.

Nevertheless, having been reinforced by two other bombers, GB I/32 carried out a bombing mission against the beaches at Safi, where more U.S. soldiers were landing, the next morning. One of the bombers was damaged and attempted to make a forced landing, only it exploded upon contact with the ground, killing the entire crew. Fighter unit GC I/5 lost four pilots in combat that day (9 November) and it was on that same day that Adjudant (Warrant Officer) Bressieux had the distinction of becoming the last pilot in the Vichy French air force to claim a combat victory, in this case a Wildcat of VF-9. Shortly afterwards, 13 Wildcats attacked the airfield at Médiouna and destroyed a total of 11 French aircraft, including six from GC II/5.

The day’s victory tally of enemy aircraft shot down by the French fighter pilots totaled seven confirmed and three probable, yet their losses were considered heavy – five pilots killed, four wounded and 13 aircraft destroyed either in combat or on the ground – when one considers that GC II/5, based in Casablanca, had lost only two pilots killed during the whole of the six-week campaign in France two years before. In the meantime, Wildcats of U.S. Navy Fighter Squadron VF-41 from Ranger strafed and destroyed three U.S.-built Douglas DB-7 bombers of GB I/32, which were being refueled and rearmed at Casablanca, leaving three others undamaged.

Wildcats attacked the airfield at Rabat-Salé around 07.30 on the 8th and destroyed nine LeO 451 bombers of GB I/22, while a transport unit’s full complement of various types was almost entirely wiped out. At Casablanca, SBD Dauntless dive-bombers succeeded in damaging the French battlecruiser, Jean Bart, and Wildcats strafed the bombers of GB I/32 at Camp Cazes airfield, some of which exploded as they were ready for take-off with bombs already on board, thus ensuring their mission never went ahead. The U.S. Navy did not have it all their own way, though, as several Wildcat pilots were shot down and taken prisoner.

The last major battles against the Allied forces, in which the Vichy French air force took part, took place during Operation Torch, launched on 8 November 1942 as the Allied invasion of North Africa. Facing the U.S. Navy task force headed for Morocco, consisting of the carriers Ranger, Sangamon, Santee and Suwannee, were, in part, Vichy squadrons based at Marrakech, Meknès, Agadir, Casablanca and Rabat, which between them could muster some 86 fighters and 78 bombers. Overall, the aircraft may have been old compared to the F4F Wildcats of the U.S. Navy, yet they were still dangerous and capable in the hands of combat veterans who had seen action against both the Germans and the British since the start of the war.

Operation Torch: November 8–10, 1942

Allied operations during the Anglo-Iraqi War included attacks on Vichy air force bases in Lebanon and Syria, which served as staging posts for Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe units flying to Mosul to support the Iraqi nationalist coup. Then in June 1941 British, Commonwealth, Empire and Free French forces invaded Syria and Lebanon. Vichy French air units, some of which were equipped with Dewoitine D.520 fighters and US-built Martin Maryland bombers had initial air superiority, but the Allied invaders inflicted heavy casualties on Vichy air and ground forces. By mid-July the Allied invasion was victorious and put Syria and Lebanon under Free French control.

Syrian-based Vichy air force units saw action against the British from April 1941, when a coup d'état in Iraq briefly installed the nationalist Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani as prime minister of in order to secure the vital oil supplies at Kirkuk (under British control since 1934) in northeastern Iraq for the pro-Axis nationalists who wanted the British to be expelled from the country. However, the RAF base at Habbaniya withstood the nationalists, and in May the British, Indian and Commonwealth "Iraqforce" invaded Iraq via Basra. The ensuing Anglo-Iraqi War ended with Iraqforce defeating the nationalists at the end of May and restoring a pro-Allied government in Iraq.

Nearly three months afterwards, on 23 September 1940, the Vichy air force saw action again when the British tried to take Dakar, the capital of Senegal, after a failed attempt (as at Mers-el-Kébir) to persuade the French to join the Allied cause against the Axis. This time, however, the French managed to repulse the British torpedo-bomber attacks launched from the carrier HMS Ark Royal during several days of fighting with only light casualties on their side.

Vichy and Berlin agreed, if reluctantly, that the Armée de l'Air de Vichy (as it is termed) was still needed in case French interests were to be attacked by the British once again – and, of course, for attacking the British themselves. Goering ordered that all Armée de l'Air aircraft would now be identified by special markings on the fuselage and tailplane of each one. Initially, the rear fuselage and tailplane (excluding the rudder) were painted a bright yellow, yet the markings were later changed so that they consisted of horizontally-oriented red and yellow stripes. In all cases, French national markings (roundel on the fuselage and tricolor on the tailplane) were retained as before.

He implemented the plan – codenamed "Operation Catapult" – for a British fleet, coded "Force H" and based in Gibraltar, to sail to the harbour of Mers-el-Kébir, near Oran in Algeria, where four capital ships and other vessels were stationed, in order to persuade Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul to disobey orders from Vichy and have his vessels sail either to British waters or else to those of French colonies in the Far East or even to the (still neutral) USA with a view to preventing them from being used against the Allies. The overture was soundly rejected, so Royal Navy Admiral James Somerville gave the orders to destroy the French vessels. More than 2,000 sailors allegedly died in the attack, carried out on 3 July 1940, which saw one battleship sunk and two others severely damaged. The incident predictably stunned the French and gave the Germans a golden propaganda tool to discredit the British as France’s real enemies.

However, Vichy’s air force was spared (for the moment) from non-existence owing to the consequences of an event, which would damage, if not completely change, the relationship between occupied France and free Britain. Winston Churchill had no intention of allowing the French Navy’s capital ships to remain intact so long as there was any chance of them essentially becoming adjuncts of the Kriegsmarine (German navy). The last thing he wanted was for the Kriegsmarine to bolstered enough to attempt an invasion of Britain.

In a parallel of what had happened to Germany after World War I, the French government, now with its seat moved to Vichy, was forced by the Germans to accept its terms for a reduced army and navy, both of which would be only strong enough to maintain order in France and in its colonies. (It is of interest to note that France was allowed to keep her colonies, whereas Germany had been forced to cede all of hers under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919.) Germany ordered that, with regard to the warplanes that had survived the Battle of France, including those now stationed in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, they were to be surrendered, either in whole or else already disassembled, if not destroyed altogether – again a parallel of what had happened to Germany’s air force in 1919.

Vichy: June 1940 – December 1942

Figures for aircraft losses during the Battle of France are still debated, although it is reasonable to suggest that the French did inflict considerable losses on the Germans. General Albert Kesselring, reflected that Luftwaffe effectiveness had been reduced to almost 30 percent of what it had been before the invasion of France. The armistice of 22 June 1940 did not necessarily mean the end of the war for French pilots, those who escaped from France fought on in the Free French Forces (Forces Françaises Libres) and those who remained flew for the French Armistice Air Force on behalf of the Vichy government.

On 16 June, GC II/4 lost its second commanding officer in nine months when Commandant (Major) Borne took off on a reconnaissance sortie near Châtillon-sur-Seine and was shot down by three Bf 109s. The next day, nine unserviceable Curtisses were set on fire by ground crews at Dun-sur-Auron before 23 remaining were flown to Meknès in Morocco. GC II/4 was disbanded on 25 August 1940, having been credited with 14 aircraft shot down during the Drôle de guerre and another 37 after the invasion, for the loss of eight pilots killed, seven wounded and one taken prisoner.

At dawn on 10 May 1940, the day of the German invasion, Luftwaffe aircraft attacked the air base at Xaffévilliers, destroying six Hawks. By 15 May, GC II/4 was down to seven operational aircraft, which shot down a Heinkel He 111 bomber, four Bf 109s and possibly a Henschel Hs 126 observation aircraft for no loss. The good luck continued for GC II/4 when four enemy aircraft were destroyed the next day for no loss. Unfortunately, the aforementioned state of chaos with regard to preparing France for war was still evident when some GC II/4 pilots were shocked to discover that new Curtiss H-75A-3s being prepared at Châteaudun had vital equipment missing – including radios.

As it became clear that the war was lost for France, the high command ordered what remained of the Armée de l’Air to French colonies in North Africa to continue the fight, such that Armée de l’Air units were stationed at places like Alger-Maison-Blanche and Oran in Algeria and Meknes and Rayack in Morocco. The Vichy government ordered the dissolution of many of the air force squadrons, including the fighter unit designated GC II/4, nicknamed Les Petits Poucets. GC II/4 had been formed at Rheims in May 1939, then moved to Xaffévilliers by the start of the war. It flew US-built Curtiss H-75A Hawk fighters, with which the unit claimed the first two French air victories on 8 September 1939, two Bf 109s of I/JG 53. Just 17 days later, it lost its commanding officer, Captain Claude, in combat, yet the pilots were especially shocked to discover that his body had been discovered with two bullets in the head, suggesting that a German pilot may have murdered him after bailing out of his aeroplane.

The Armée de l'Air was beset by obsolete strategy, tactics, aircraft, weapons and even in communications, and the lack of equipment owing to "technical problems." Both became apparent when the Germans advanced swiftly through France and Belgium. On 11 May, nearly 20 French bombers and over 30 British fighter escorts were shot down attacking German crossings over the Meuse river. French fighter and bomber strength was rapidly depleted in May as Luftwaffe fighters and Flak shot down aircraft, which attacked the advancing Germans. Squadrons were often out of contact with any French army units that they were supposedly supporting, partly to the poor coordination of communication between the army and the air force and partly to the outdated, unreliable army communications equipment being used.

A Dewoitine D.520 fighter plane. The D.520 was amongst the most modern and manoeuvrable of French air force fighter planes, and many of them saw action against the Allies as part of the Armistice Air Force until it was ordered to be disbanded by the Germans on 1 December 1942.

On 10 May 1940, the Germans had more aircraft and many aircrews were veterans of the war in Spain. French inter-service rivalry led a Potez reconnaissance aircraft crew, which had spotted a huge concentration of Panzers and supporting infantry units concealed in the Ardennes forests two days after the start of the invasion, not being believed by the army commanders who refused to act on what they called air force scaremongering.

When the war began the Armée de l'Air suffered from disorganisation in government, armed forces and industry which had led to only 826 fighters and 250 bombers to be anything like combat-ready. Many more aircraft were not ready because of shortages of equipment and components, machine-guns had not been calibrated and some bombers lacked bomb-sights when they were delivered to squadrons. The French had no comparable organisation to the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and front-line pilots in France became responsible for ferrying new aircraft from factories to the squadrons, temporarily depleting front-line strength.


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