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French Air Force / Arme de l'Air
World War II

Those who try to explain how the French military attempted to solve the strategic problems of the interwar period enter an emotionally charged arena. Many assign blame for the defeat of 1940 or condemn the members of the military for failing to adopt more effective, "modem" methods of warfare in time to defeat the Germans. Historians and pundits alike attribute the defeat in 1940 to conspiracy, treason, incompetence, stupidity, paralysis, and degeneration.

When the blitzkrieg hit France, 119 of 210 squadrons were ready for action on the decisive northeastern front. The others were reequipping or stationed in the colonies. The 119 squadrons could bring into action only one-fourth of the aircraft available. These circumstances put the Allied air forces in a position of severe numerical inferiority vis--vis the Luftwaffe. As the battle opened, both the 40 percent shortage of mechanics and the absence of a trained reserve of pilots and other aircrew, meant a quick onset of fatigue so that efficiency dropped rapidly. Equally debilitating was the fact that French fighters were slower, heavier, less reliable, and not as easily replaceable as the Luftwaffe's Me-109 and Me-110. In short, the calamity of 1940 had many causes.

The French fighter force had available to it during the battle more than 2900 modern aircraft. At no time did it have more than one-fifth of these deployed against the Germans. The operational rate of the fighter force was 0.9 sorties per aircraft per day at the height of the battle. (German fighter units flew up to four sorties per aircraft per day.) Yet in spite of committing only a minor portion of its resources at a low usage rate, the fighter force accounted for between 600 and 1000 of the 1439 German aircraft destroyed during the battle.

More than 2300 of the 2900 French fighter planes and all of the 382 assault bombers available during the battle carried 20mm cannon capable of penetrating the topside armor of all of the German tanks. The air force general staff, dedicated to the strategic bombing mission, had quietly ignored Guy La Chambre's directive to prepare for the ground assault mission. La Chambre had forced the air staff to procure assault bombers in 1938, and the first aircraft arrived in units in October 1939. The instructional manual for assault bomber units did not appear until January 1940, and there never was a manual for the employment of fighters in the assault role. The air staff complied with the letter of ministerial and army demands for a ground assault capability but did not commit intellectual, developmental, or training resources to developing one.

By mid-June, however, the Luftwaffe was exhausted. It had lost 40 percent of its aircraft. Its flyers had been operating above hostile territory without navigational aids and with the certainty of capture in the event their aircraft were disabled. The air and ground crews were working from captured fields at the end of lengthening supply lines. The French, on the other hand, had conducted much less intensive flight operations, were able to recover the crews of disabled aircraft, were falling back on their logistical bases, and were bringing new units on line with brand new aircraft every day. By 15 June, the French and German air forces were at approximate parity with about 2400 aircraft each, but the French were operating from their own turf, and they had the support of the RAF. Mastery of the air was there for the seizing, but on 17 June the French air staff began to order its units to fly to North Africa. The justification put forth by the air staff was that the army was destroyed and could not protect the airfields.

The behavior of the leaders of the French Air Force before and during the Battle of France suggests that their primary purposes were to protect the regular air force against its domestic adversaries and to ensure its survival after the battle and the expected defeat. This was a preposterous misordering of priorities in a nation at war but made psychological and institutional sense when one reflects on both the frustration the aviators had suffered in their struggle to achieve operational independence from the army and the cavalier and callous way in which parliamentary officials had played with their lives, careers, and values.

During the Battle of France in May-June 1940, French Army commanders complained that German aircraft attacked their troops without interference by the French Air Force. French generals and statesmen begged the British to send more Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter squadrons to France. Reporters on the scene confirmed the German domination of the skies, and the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe came to be accepted as one of the principal causes of the French collapse.

The air force was a convenient scapegoat for the French Army generals who dominated the Vichy regime that ruled France under the Germans. By attributing the defeat of French forces to weakness in the air, the army officers diverted attention from their own failures. Moreover, the Vichy leaders were able to strengthen their claim to legitimacy by blaming the parliamentary regime they had supplanted for failing to provide a sufficient number of aircraft. The Vichy leaders also reproached the British for holding the bulk of their air force in the British Isles. Concurrently, the Vichy army officers used the defeat of the air force to justify abolishing the air ministry and the air force general staff, incorporating their functions into the war ministry and army general staff and returning the air force to its former status as a branch of the army. With the army controlling the postwar sources of information, for many years there was no voice to challenge the official position that France had lost the war because the prewar politicians had not equipped the air force adequately.

The defeat of 1940 rocked the nation's military institutions. The Air Force, in particular, shouldered a large portion of the blame for the military's poor performance.

Freanch authorities submitted an extensive rearmament program for the years 1944, 1945, and 1946 based on the premise that a large reservoir of manpower would become available as the liberation of France was undertaken. The air part of the program contemplated the activation by May 1946 of a total of 172 squadrons with 2,800 first-line planes and the corresponding ground and service troops. It was to be an extension of Plan VII then being implemented in North Africa.

The Allies declined to examine the program at the time as they considered it premature. Later, a few weeks before the launching of ANVIL, the French resubmitted their proposal. General Arnold seemed more disposed to consider it provided that it had General Eaker's approval and that equipment could be furnished largely from theater stocks. There the matter rested.

In the fall of 1944, as the liberation of France progressed, the French military authorities then established in Paris renewed their proposals. Implementation of Plan VII was virtually completed. Additional effectives were available in France.

At the end of November 1944 the French High Command estimated that 20,000 former aviation personnel needing but little refresher training could be put to useful employment provided they were given the necessary clothing, equipment, and aircraft. On 29 December the CCS accepted the program in principle and requested the Combined Administrative Committee to work out the responsibility for the provision of equipment. The program was now to start in April with the delivery of equipment for several headquarters and four combat squadrons and terminate in September-October.

The Supreme Commander decided on 28 April to suspend all further shipments of equipment to the French after the shameful rape of more than 1800 women in Stuttgart by Algerian troops. On 1 May War Department officials informed the theater that, in accordance with the Supreme Commander's request, shipment of the remaining equipment was being canceled with the exception of aircraft which would continue to be delivered until further advice from the theater.

American sources provided the complete initial equipment for 19 combat squadrons and 60 supporting units, representing a personnel strength of some 30,000 men, for which the United States had also furnished the entire necessary maintenance.

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Page last modified: 12-11-2015 19:20:51 ZULU