Air University Review, September-October 1985

The French Air Force In 1940

Was It Defeated by the Luftwaffe or by Politics?

Lieutenant Colonel Faris R. Kirkland, USAF (Ret.) 

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.1

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.

Since the mid-1960s, fragments of information--aviator's memoirs, production reports, aircraft inventories, and Anglo-French correspondence--have come to light. These sources reveal four new facts about the French Air Force.

These data exculpate the prewar parliamentary regime and the British. They raise questions about the leadership of an air force that had parity in numbers of aircraft, the aid of a powerful ally, the latest radar, and the most advanced aviation technology in Europe, yet lost a defensive battle over its own territory.5

French Aviation Technology
between the Wars

The French aviation industry built more warplanes during the interwar period than any of its foreign competitors. The Breguet 19 bomber of 1922 (1500 built) and the Potez 25 army cooperation aircraft of 1925 (3500 built) were the most widely used military aircraft in the world. (No more than 700 examples of any other type of military aircraft were built in any country during the interwar period.) One Breguet 19 flew across the Atlantic in 1927; a group of thirty Potez 25s circumnavigated Africa in 1933.6

French bombers were consistently and technically excellent. The Lioré et Olivier 20 of 1924 was the fastest medium bomber in the world for three years, and it gave birth to a half -dozen derivative designs. The Potez 542 of 1934 was the fastest bomber in Europe until 1936. In 1935, the Amiot 143, which equipped eighteen squadrons, carried a two-ton bomb load at 190 mph at 25,920 feet. Its German contemporary, the Dornier Do 23G, carried half the bomb load thirty miles per hour slower at 13,780 feet. During the following year, the Bloch 210, with a service ceiling of 32,480 feet, began to equip what would ultimately be twenty-four squadrons. No foreign bomber built before 1939 reached 30,000 feet.

The Farman 222 of 1936 was the. first modern four-engine heavy bomber. Production models reached operational units at the same time that the service test examples (Y1B-17) of the Boeing Flying Fortress were delivered and two years ahead of the production version(B-17B). Typical performance envelopes--5510 pounds of bombs, 1240 miles, at 174 mph for the Farman, versus 2400 pounds of bombs, 1500 miles, at 238 mph for the YIB-17--showed the designs to be technically comparable, with the French emphasizing loadcarrying and the Americans emphasizing speed. Design evolution of the two types tended to increase the speed of the Farman derivatives (to 239 mph for the model 223.4 of 1939) and the load-carrying capacity of the Boeing (to 4000 pounds of bombs, 1850 miles at 211 mph for the B-17G of 1943). Neither design was capable of long-range daylight bombing operations in its 1940 form. The Farman was used exclusively for night raids.

The Lioré et Olivier 451, at 307 mph, and the Amiot 354, at 298 mph, were the fastest medium bombers during the opening phases of World War II, outpacing the 1940 operational versions of the German Schnellbomber types--the Dornier Do 17K (255 mph), Heinkel He 111E (261 mph), and Junkers Ju 88A (292 mph). The Bloch 174 reconnaissance bomber of 1940 was, in operational configuration, the fastest multiengine aircraft in the world (329 mph).

French fighter aircraft held eleven out of the twenty-two world airspeed records set between the wars, and seven were held by one aircraft--the Nieuport-Delage 29 fighter of 1921. The Gourdou-Leseurre 32 monoplane fighter of 1924 was the world's fastest operational fighter until 1928, when the Nieuport-Delage 62 overtook it. In 1934, the Dewoitine 371 held the honor; and in 1936, the Dewoitine 510 was the first operational fighter to reach 250 mph.7 The Dewoitine 501 of 1935 was the first fighter to mount a cannon that would fire through the propeller hub. The French fighters in action during 1939-40 were extremely maneuverable, powerfully armed, and able to outfight the Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Bf 110C, as well as the German bombers.

Only in the summer of 1938 did the air ministry begin awarding contracts of sufficient size to warrant the construction of facilities for mass production of aircraft and engines. Concurrently, the French government began a program of funding the expansion of production facilities in the United States to produce Curtiss fighters, Douglas light bombers, Martin light bombers, Pratt and Whitney engines, and Allison engines. By May 1940, French manufacturers were producing 619 combat aircraft per month, American firms were adding 170 per month against French orders, and the British were producing 392 fighters per month. German production of combat aircraft, averaging 622 per month during 1940, was little more than half that of the industries supporting the Allies.8 The traditional explanation of the French defeat in terms of inadequate supplies of aircraft and aircraft that were inferior in quality does not stand up. The psychological and political milieu in which the air force evolved during the interwar years offers more substantive bases for understanding what happened to the French Air Force.

Interservice and
Civil-Military Political Issues

The French Air Force was born, grew, and went into combat in an atmosphere of political intrigue. Air force officers were embroiled in three internecine struggles concurrently throughout the interwar period: animosity between the political left and the regular army that had begun before 1800; bureaucratic strife between army officers and aviators about the control of aviation resources, which began during the First World War; and a pattern of coercion and deceit between leaders of the air force and politicians--who, in the late 1920s, began to use the service for political ends.

At the core of French civil-military relations for the past two centuries had been fear on the part of the political left of repression by the regular army. The regular army had repressed leftist uprisings in bloody confrontations in 1789-90, 1848, and 187 1. It had supported rightwing coups d'état in 1799 and 1851, and a possible coup by General Georges Boulanger had alarmed the politicians in 1889. One of the principal issues in the Dreyfus Affair of 1894-1906 was the claim by the army that the word of its officers was not subject to question by civilian authority. The politicians prevailed over the officers and seized every opportunity to weaken and humiliate them. The Combes and the Clemenceau governments in 1905-07 forced Catholic officers to supervise the seizure of church property, degraded them in the order of precedence, and appointed a Dreyfusard general as minister of war. A right-of-center government in 1910 used the regular army to crush striking railway workers, confirming the leftists' perceptions of the army as their enemy. In 1914, a central tenet of the Socialist program was replacement of the regular army with a popular militia. The left won the election of 1914 but could not enact its program because war began two months later. During the war, the generals assumed extraordinary power and robbed the left of its electoral victory. But in 1924, the left again won control of the government and moved swiftly against the regular army. A series of laws in 1927-28 reduced the army from a combat force to a training establishment, a 1931 law mandated laying off 20 percent of the regular officers, and two laws (1928 and 1933) amputated military aviation from the army and navy and set it up as a separate service. Though there were logical arguments favoring an independent air force, the move was primarily a demonstration of the politicians' power over the military leaders.

The aviators' welcomed the politicians' support because they had been struggling with officers of the ground arms since 1917 concerning the appropriate role for military aviation. The flyers saw aviation as most effective when employed in mass to strike at decisive points designated by the commander in chief, but each army general wanted a squadron under his direct orders. The aviators had achieved their objective, on paper, in the organization of the 1st Aviation Division in April 1918. The division was a powerful striking force of twenty-four fighter squadrons and fifteen bomber squadrons--585 combat aircraft. It could deploy rapidly to widely separated sectors and apply substantial combat power in support of the ground forces. However, the ground commanders in whose sector the 1st Aviation Division operated used the force primarily as a pool of extra fighter planes to protect their observation aircraft.9

The aviators' ability to influence the development and employment of their branch was limited by their junior status. The commanders of brigades, escadres (wings), and groups in the 1st Aviation Division were lieutenants or captains appointed as acting majors; and the divisional commander during the war was only a colonel. In the postwar army, major commands went to nonflying generals and colonels from the infantry, cavalry, or artillery. Having tasted senior command responsibility during the war with only eight to ten years of service, the leading aviators were impatient for promotion; but the structure of their branch under the army offered few positions for officers above the rank of captain (serving as commanders of squadrons, units comprising ten to twelve aircraft in peacetime).

The formation in 1928 of an air ministry independent of the ministry of war offered the aviators a separate promotion list, the opportunity to organize the air force as they saw fit, and an air force general staff to make policy. The aviators lost no time in reorganizing to create additional positions for field grade and general officers. Between 1926 and 1937, the number of squadrons rose from 124 to 134, while the number of grouses (commanded by majors) rose from 52 to 67. The fifteen aviation regiments, formations composed of several groups, were converted to thirty escadres, each having only two groups. The number of command positions for colonels was thereby doubled. The senior aviation commands-two air divisions in 1926-were changed to four air regions in 1932 and to two air corps and six air divisions in 1937. In addition, eight army aviation commands (headed by brigadier generals) and twenty-six corps aviation commands (headed by colonels or lieutenant colonels) would come into being upon mobilization. Having created an abundance of positions for senior officers, the air ministry accelerated the promotion process: In the army, the average time in service for fast-track officers to reach major was sixteen years; colonel, twenty-six years; and brigadier general, thirty years. In the air force after 1928, these averages fell to thirteen, nineteen, and twenty-two years.10

The question of aviation policy was not so easy to control. The army and the navy had fought the creation of the air ministry and the independent air force with sufficient vigor to retain operational control of 118 of the 134 combat squadrons. The air force officers were responsible for training, administering, and commanding the air force in time of peace; but in wartime, only sixteen squadrons of bombers would remain under the air force chain of command.

Many aviators saw the primary role of the air force as close support of the ground forces--observation, liaison, and attack of targets on the battlefield. The French had developed close support techniques during the First World War (1914-18) and had refined them during the war against the Rif rebellion in Morocco in 1925. In Morocco, aviators flying in support of mobile ground forces perfected the use of aviation for fire support, flank protection, pursuit of a beaten enemy, battlefield resupply, and aeromedical evacuation." But many air force officers sought a broader mission for their service.

Aviators who were impatient with the close support mission-because it enta, 'led the subordination of aviation to the army-gradually gained ascendancy on the air force general staff. In 1932, General Giulio Douhet's concepts of strategic aerial warfare were translated into French with a laudatory preface by Marshal Henri Petain.12To placate the politically powerful army general staff, air force doctrine prescribed that the entire air force should be capable of participating in the land battle. But the aircraft the air staff sought to procure were the type Douhet had described as battleplanes--large, heavily armed machines designed to be capable of bombing, reconnaissance, and aerial combat. These were clearly intended for longrange bombing, not close support. The air staff claimed that such aircraft could support the land battle, but the army staff was skeptical. The army had sufficient influence to continue to dictate air force procurement policy until the beginning of 1936. In January of that year, the air force had 2162 first-line aircraft. Of these, 1368 (63 percent) were observation and reconnaissance planes dedicated to the army, and 437 (20 percent) were fighters dedicated to protecting the observation planes.13

In 1934-36, the tension between the army and the air force surfaced in a series of incidents. During a command post exercise in 1934, the army called for attack of battlefield targets; the air force protested that technical problems and limited resources made it impossible to meet the army's demands. The army appealed to the Supreme War Committee, which ruled that the air force should be responsive to the ground commanders and that there was no need for a supreme air commander. In 1935 during joint army-navy maneuvers, the army called for an air attack on motorized columns. The air force responded after a long delay with a strike by heavy twin-engined Bloch 200 battleplanes flying at treetop level. The umpires declared the aircraft to have been wiped out.14 The air force had no aircraft suitable for the attack of battlefield targets, and the air staff on several occasions declined to consider proposals for dive bombers or assault aircraf t on the grounds that the attack of battlefield targets was contrary to air force policy.15

The strategic bombing enthusiasts found their advocate in Pierre Cot, air minister from June 1936 until January 1938. Cot tripled the bomber force by organizing five new bomber escadres, converting seven of the twelve observation and reconnaissance escadres to bomber escadres, and equipping four of the five remaining reconnaissance escadres with aircraft capable of long-range bombing. The observation mission, except in the colonies, was turned over to the air force reserve so that the maximum number of regular air force units could participate in the strategic bombing mission.16 (See Table I.)

Table I. Strength of the French Air Force by Branch and Year (squadrons fully organized and equipped)
Branch 1920 1926 1932 1938 1940
Fighter 83 32 37 42 67
Bomber 32 32 27 66 66
Observation and
145 60 46 26* 30 (plus 47

Totals 260 124 110 134 163 (plus 47
*Sixteen reconnaissance squadrons were equipped with battleplanes to participate in the long-range bombing mission.
**Of these, twenty-one fighter, forty-four bomber, six reconnaissance, and eleven reserve observation squadrons were fully organized but were reequipping in May 1940.

Cot's all-out support of strategic bombing met some opposition in the Superior Air Council--the seven or eight senior generals in the air force. To facilitate acceptance of his program, Cot convinced the parliament to pass a law reducing the mandatory retirement age limits for each grade by five years. This move forced all of the members of the Superior Air Council into retirement and removed 40 percent of the other officers as well. Cot filled the vacancies by promoting NCOs and calling reserve officers to active duty--men he believed were more amenable to his new programs of political indoctrination.17 His purges and the sudden promotion of strategic bombing enthusiasts generated a crisis of morale in the officer corps. The crisis was exacerbated rather than alleviated when Guy La Chambre replaced Cot in 1938, because the new air minister conducted his own purge--of the men whom Cot had promoted. La Chambre denounced strategic bombing and directed the air force to prepare to provide close support to the army. Following these developments, the air force leaders perceived the government as an adversary, as well as the army. They began a practice of ignoring governmental policies and deceiving the air minister and the parliament while pursuing narrowly institutional interests.

The struggle for independence occupied the energies and attention of the air staff so completely that they neglected to develop fully the ground observer corps; command, control, and communications systems; and airfield facilities.19 Because they were preparing to wage a defensive aerial battle over their own territory, the French aviators could have prepared these elements in peacetime, but they were still in a rudimentary state in 1940. During the battle, the French had difficulty tracking and intercepting intruders, were unable to mass units and consequently suffered unduly heavy losses, and achieved an operational availability rate only one-fourth that of Luftwaffe units.

Possibly because of their disenchantment with the government for using their service as a political toy, the aviators were unable or unwilling to believe that they might be provided with more than a handful of additional aircraft. Thus, when the director of aircraft production advised General Vuillemin, the chief of the air force, in January 1939 that 370 to 600 aircraft per month would come from French factories in 1940, the general said the air force required only 40 to 60. There were not enough aircrews or ground crews for a larger number, and to expand the training program would require the efforts of the entire strength of the air force. In March, Vuillemin agreed to accept 330 aircraft per month. However, even by using forty- to forty-five-year-old reservists to fly in first-line combat units, he could not fully man his units after mobilization.20 The availability of aircrews became the limiting factor on the number of units that Vuillemin could field, and the physical capacities of his aging pilots became the limiting factor on how frequently the aircraft would fly.

To keep from being buried under the flood of aircraft pouring from the factories, the air staff imposed multiple requirements for modifications, conducted complex acceptance inspections, and kept key components (guns, propellers, and radios) separated from the aircraft on which they were to be installed. Aircraft newly arrived from America were let in their crates. Still the air force received many more aircraft than it could man, and the air staff had to conceal the surfeit from prying parliamentary eyes by dispersing brand-new, combat-ready planes to remote airfields far from the battle zone.21

As a consequence of the political struggles between the officer corps and the political left, between the army and the air force, and between the air force and the government, the French Air Force entered combat with an incomplete ground infrastructure, insufficient personnel to man its aircraft, and a doctrine so completely at variance with the army's doctrine that the two services were destined to fight largely independent wars.

The Battle of France:
10 May-25 June 1940

The French faced the German invasion with 4360 modern combat aircraft and with 790 new machines arriving from French and American factories each month. However, the air force was not organized for battle. The regular air force had only half again as many units as during its peacetime nadir in 1932. As the battle opened, 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-à-vis the Luftwaffe. (See Table II.) Qualitatively, however, the French pilots and aircraft proved to be more effective than their adversaries.

Table II. Modern Combat Aircraft Deployed on the Western Front, 10 May 194022



and Dutch



Fighters 583 197 780 1264
Bombers 84 192 276 1504
and Observation
458 96 554 502

Totals 1125 485 1610 3270

The fighter units on the northeastern front were equipped exclusively with machines built within the preceding eighteen months. The American-made Curtiss 75A fighter joined French squadrons beginning in March 1939. It was the most effective type in its class in combat over France until the Dewoitine D520 became operational in mid-May 1940. Eight squadrons equipped with the Curtiss 75A shot down 220 German aircraft (confirmed kills), losing only thirty-three pilots. In seven aerial battles in which the Curtiss fighters were engaged with Messerschmitts, the total score was twenty-seven Bf 109Es and six Bf 110Cs destroyed for three of the French aircraft.23

The Morane-Saulnier MS 406 equipped eighteen squadrons in France on 10 May 1940. The kill-loss ratio for units flying the MS 406 was 191 to 89. The shortcomings of the Morane fighter compared to the Bf 109E have been the topic of many memoirs, but in the reported battles in which Messerschmitts faced Moranes alone, the French posted a record of thirty-one kills and five losses. Both the Morane and the Messerschmitt were designed to met specifications issued in 1934, prototypes flew in 1935, and quantity production began in 1938. The Messerschmitt design was better suited for evolutionary development, and the Bf 109E-3 model of December 1939 was superior to the Morane. (See Table III.) During the Battle of France, the air staff converted twelve squadrons equipped with Moranes to other types as rapidly as training facilities permitted. This policy marginally increased the efficiency of the individual units, but it acted to decrease the effectiveness of the fighter force as a whole by taking combat-experienced squadrons out of the line at a critical time. Further, it failed to capitalize on new production to increase the size of the fighter force.

Table III. Comparative Characteristics of Fighter Aircraft in the Battle of France25

Country Type Horse-
Speed (mph) at
Best Altitude (ft)
Ceiling (ft)
France Curtiss 75A-3 1200 311 at 10,000 33,700 six 7.5-mm
France Dewoitine 520 910 329 at 19,685 36,090 one 20-mm
four 7.5-mm
France Morane 406 860 302 at 16,400 30,840 one 20-mm
two 7.5-mm
France Bloch 152 1100 320 at 13,120 32,800 two 20-mm
two 7.5-mm
England Hawker Hurricane I 1030 324 at 16,250 34,200 eight 7.7-mm
Germany Messerschmitt Bf 109E-3 1175 348 at 14,560 34,450 two 20-mm
two 7.9-mm

Another fighter designed to meet the same specification as the MS 406 was the Bloch MB 150. Though it lost out in the procurement competition to the Morane, the Bloch firm developed the basic design around a more powerful engine. The resulting Bloch MB 152 was faster and more powerfully armed than the MS 406. Twelve squadrons had Bloch fighters on 10 May 1940, and six more became operational with them during the battle. Units while equipped with Blochs shot down 156 German planes and lost 59 pilots.24

The first two squadrons equipped with the fast and agile Dewoitine 520 entered the battle on 13 May; eight others completed conversion training and became operational before the armistice. Between them, they shot down 175 enemy aircraft for a loss of 44 aviators. Polish pilots manned two squadrons of Caudron C 714 fighters. The ultralight Caudron (3086 pounds, empty) was capable of 302 mph with a 450-horsepower engine. Becoming operational on 2 June, the Poles shot down seventeen German aircraft and lost five pilots before their unit was disbanded on 17 June.

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.

The bulk of the published commentary on the French bomber force has focused on the fact that eight squadrons of Amiot 143M twin-engine medium bombers remained in the French order of battle. Designed in 1931 and manufactured between 1935 and 1937, the Amiot 143M by 1940 had been left behind by the rapid evolution of aviation technology. Critics of the prewar regime and apologists for the air force have drawn attention to this aircraft to highlight the poor quality of the equipment with which the French Air Force had to fight. Operationally, units equipped with the Amiot 143 performed with distinction. The eight squadrons flew 551 night bombing sorties between 10 May and 16 June and lost only twelve aircraft. In addition, six of the squadrons furnished thirteen aircraft for one desperate daylight mission on 14 June against German bridges and vehicular traffic approaching Sedan. A strong fighter escort kept the loss to three Amiots.26

The French long-range, four-engine heavy bomber, the Farman 222, equipped four squadrons. These squadrons flew seventy-one night bombing missions, striking targets such as Munich, Cologne, and Koblenz. They lost only two aircraft.

Modern French day bombers included the 307mph Lioré et Olivier LeO 451 (18 squadrons, 392 sorties, 98 losses), the 298-mph Amiot 354 (4 squadrons partially equipped, 48 losses), and the 304-mph Breguet 693 (10 squadrons, 484 sorties, 47 losses). The French machines were supplemented by shipments from America of the 288-mph Martin 167F (first of 8 squadrons into action 22 May, 385 sorties, 15 losses) and the 305-mph Douglas DB-7F (first of 6 squadrons into action 31 May, 69 sorties, 9 losses).

The effectiveness of the French bomber force was reduced by poor communications arrangements that made massing of bomber squadrons impossible and rendezvous with fighter-escort problematic. Attacking piecemeal, the two day-bomber wings operational on 10 May lost twenty-eight of their forty-two aircraft in the first week. RAF day-bomber units, operating in the same command/control/communications environment, lost 132 out of 192. Most of the surviving machines were in need of extensive repairs. Although new aircraft and units came into action, the low operational rate (.25 sorties per aircraft per day) of the bomber force degraded its ability to have a significant effect on the land battle.

French reconnaissance and observation units had the most powerful aircraft in these two categories in the world. The standard French strategic reconnaissance aircraft, the Bloch 174, was capable of 329 miles per hour and an altitude of 36,000 feet. First delivered to units in March 1940, the Bloch 174 was produced quickly enough to equip all of the strategic reconnaissance squadrons during the battle. The reconnaissance units obtained early, accurate, and detailed information on German concentrations and axes of advance. They continued to keep senior army headquarters informed, irrespective of weather and enemy opposition, throughout the battle. However, the tempo of activity in reconnaissance units was extraordinarily low--an average of one mission every three days for a squadron (.04 sorties per aircraft perday). At the peak of intensity--from 10 to 15 May--the most active squadron flew two missions per day.27

The observation branch, relegated to reserve status in 1936, was the stepchild of the air force. The air staff had no program to modernize its equipment--aircraft dating from 1925 to 1935. Guy La Chambre in June 1938 directed the air staff to reequip the observation squadrons. Pilots in operational units wanted an ultrafast singleseater for long-range reconnaissance and a light two-seater capable of landing on unimproved fields for short-range observation missions. The air staff, preoccupied with political issues and indifferent to the views of men on squadron duty, ordered the Potez 63.11, the fastest, heaviest, most complex observation plane in the world. With a top speed of 264 miles per hour, it was 40 miles per hour faster than its German counterpart (Henschel Hs 126 B) and 50 miles per hour faster than the British Lysander. With twelve machine guns, it was the most heavily armed machine in any air force. Too fast and heavy to land on improvised strips yet too slow to escape German fighters, it was an elegant and graceful coffin for its crews.

Observation squadrons trained and mobilized under the army commands they would support. Army corps commanders viewed their observation squadrons as their private air forces and often imposed unrealistic demands that led to heavy losses early in the war. The air force general staff made rules to protect observation aircraft that limited their utility--for example, they had to fly behind friendly artillery, no mission could exceed fifteen minutes, fighter escort was required, and only the most modern (Potez 63.1 1) aircraft could be used. Poor liaison between the army and air force, coupled with slow communications within the air force, led to many observation squadrons being kept on forward airfields until they were about to be overrun by German motorized units. As a result, more than half of the observation aircraft in units on 10 May were destroyed to prevent capture or simply abandoned by the end of the first week. When the front stabilized between 25 May and 5 June, the observation units performed effectively, but coordination between the air force and army was too threadbare to permit them to function in a war of movement.21

The ability of the air force to provide close combat support to the army had been fatally compromised by the aviators' struggle for independence. Senior army officers were ignorant of the capabilities and limitations of aviation, and the air force had done almost nothing to develop a capability to attack battlefield targets. Army generals declined strikes on appropriate targets. They demanded support without being able to describe the nature or location of the target or the plan and timing of the friendly maneuver to be supported. The air force organized maximum efforts to support French armored counterattacks. On 14 May, British and French bombers flew 138 sorties and lost 51 planes in support of General Charles Huntziger's counterattack at Sedan. He postponed the attack. The next day the air force mounted 175 sorties; the attack was canceled. The air force did its best to support Colonel Charles de Gaulle's armored thrusts toward Montcornet on 16 and 17 May. Night fighters received day ground assault missions, and the remains of the bomber units were committed. But Colonel de Gaulle failed to tell the air force the time and direction of his movements. As a result, 68 bomber sorties went in before de Gaulle moved and were of no assistance to him. A major breakout south by the encircled Army Group 1 was planned for 21 May. The air force received orders to support the attack but had no information on the time, place, or direction.29 (The mission was canceled.)

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.

With German armor overrunning France, the air force belatedly sought to improvise an antitank capability. 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 staff designated Fighter Group III/2 to carry out the first aerial antitank missions. Its MS 406 aircraft carried high-velocity, engine-mounted 20-mm guns, but no armor-piercing ammunition was available. On 23 and 24 May, the unit flew nine sorties, lost three aircraft, and destroyed no tanks. Two weeks later, several fighter units flew a total of forty-eight antitank sorties over a four-day period--again without armor-piercing shells. They lost ten aircraft and did inconsequential damage. Two attacks in mid-June cost an additional three aircraft without seriously damaging any tanks.30 The capability of the armament and the valor of the pilots were wasted because of the absence of intellectual and logistical preparation.

The story of the French Air Force is one of gallant and competent individual performances that made no perceptible difference in the outcome of the battle. A dozen years of political strife had unraveled the network of trust and confidence through which bravery and professional skill could have an effect. The army and the air force each fought its own battle, weakened by the lack of coordination. The air staff, with its eyes on Berlin, neglected the preparation of command/control/communications systems and thereby denied the French Air Force the ability to integrate the efforts of individual units. The air force was so bitterly alienated from the political leadership that it declined to expand its organization and thereby deprived France of the powerful air force that its industrial base had provided.

Could the French Air Force Have
Seized Command of the Air?

On 10 May 1940, the operational units of the French Air Force committed to the Western Front were heavily outnumbered. The low rate of operations in the French Air Force compared to that of the Germans increased by a factor of four the French inferiority in the air during the first month of the battle. 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.

An examination of which units were ordered to North Africa and which were left behind reveals much about the motivation behind the evacuation. The units flown to North Africa were those regular air force squadrons with the most modern and effective aircraft--all of the squadrons equipped with the Curtiss 75A (10), Dewoitine 520 (10), Amiot 354 (8), Bloch 174 (18), Farman 222 (4), Douglas DB-7 (8), and Martin 167 (10), plus most of those with the Lioré et Olivier 451 (12 of 18). Those left behind included all of the air force reserve units--47 observation squadrons and 12 fighter squadrons--and all of the units closely connected with the army (the observation squadrons, the 10 assault bomber squadrons, and 7 night fighter squadrons converted to the ground assault role).31

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. Refusing to expand the regular air force, spinning off the dangerous and unglamorous observation mission to the reserves, maintaining a low operational rate, declining to seize command of the air when the Luftwaffe was weak, and selecting only regular air force units and those unconnected with direct support of the army to send to North Africa constitute a coherent pattern. The senior aviators kept their service small, protected the cadres from severe danger, and kept most of the regular air force together out of the Germans' reach. Such decisions suggest a preposterous misordering of priorities in a nation at war but do make 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.

The relevance of the French experience for leaders of the United States Air Force lies in the fact that the institutional struggle for autonomy and the operational necessity for cooperation are permanent and uncongenial elements of every defense establishment. The U.S. Army Air Service (and Air Corps) endured as much destructive and capricious treatment by uniformed and civilian officials of the army and the navy during the interwar years as did the French Air Force.32 By facing the issue of institutional independence for aviation just after (rather than just before) a great war, American military leaders avoided an interservice confrontation on the battlefield. But the interservice struggle goes on: doctrinal divergence retains its potential to sabotage mutual support among the services in future wars. The French experience can be useful as a cautionary tale about the ease with which institutional loyalties can weaken a national defensive posture.

Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania


1. For a survey of French efforts to obtain more air support, see Patrick Fridenson and Jean Lecuir, La France et la Grande Bretagne face aux problèmes aériens (Vincennes: Service Historique de l' Armée, 1976), A sampling of army generals who complained about air support includes Lieutenant General René Prioux (Souvenirs de guerre 1939-1943. Paris: Flammarion, 1947); Lieutenant General Henri Aymes (Gembloux: succès français. Paris: BergerLevrault, 1948); Lieutenant General Benoît Fornel de la Laurencie (Les opérations du IIIe Corps d'Armée en 1939-40. Paris: Charles Lavauzelle, 1948); and General Alphonse Georges in preface to General Gaston Roton's Années cruciales (Paris: Charles Lavauzelle, 1947). Historians who accepted French aerial inferiority as a given include Alistair Horne (To Lose a Battle: France 1940. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969, pp. 184-85); Guy Chapman (Why France Fell: The Defeat of the French Army in 1940. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968, pp. 33-34, 69-72); William L. Shirer (The Collapse of the Third Republic. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969, pp. 611, 616-20); and Jeffrey A. Gunsburg (Divided and Conquered. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1969, pp. 107-10).

2. Joseph Roos, "La bataille de la production aérienne," Icare, 59 (Autumn-Winter 1971), pp. 44-51; Jean Truelle, "La production aéronautique militaire jusqu'en 1940," Revue d'Historre de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, 73 (January-March 1969), p. 103; Pierre Cot, "En 40, on étaient nos avions?" Icare, 57 (Spring-Summer l971), pp.36-57; Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Entscheidungsschlachten des Zweiten Weltkrieges (Frankfurt-am-Main: Verlag fur Wehrwesen Bernard und Graefe, 1960), p. 25.

3. For details and sources on combat performance and numbers of French Air Force units, see the discussion in this article on the Battle of France.

4. The Royal Air Force sent 12 of its 40 operational fighter squadrons to France--30 percent. The French committed 580 of their 2200 fighters--26 percent. RAF fighter losses were 227 of those based in France plus 219 from Fighter Command units based in England. Total--446. French fighter losses totaled 508. Total losses of aircraft in the Battle of France were: French--892, British--1029, German-1469. These figures were derived from data and discussion in Major L. F. Ellis, The War in France and Flanders (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1953), pp. 98, 309, 312, 372-73; Robert Jackson, Air War over France (London: Ian Allen, 1974), pp. 76-78, 136-37; Fridenson and Lecuir, pp. 184-85, 189, 198; Chapman, pp. 160-61, 225, 290; Gunsburg, pp. 111-12, 268; Shirer, pp. 700, 766, 767, 783; General Maurice Gamelin, Servir (Paris: Plon, 1946), vol. 1, p. 282; William Green, Warplanes of the Second World War, vol. 2, Fighters (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 61.

5. The French had developed radar on their own; the British provided the French Air Force with superior radar equipment in early 1940. Gunsburg, p. 107; Fridenson and Lecuir, pp. 167-70.

6. Breguet 19 ocean flight--Heiner Emde, Conquerors of the Air (New York: Viking, 1968), p. 79; Potez 25 African flight--André Van Haute, Pictorial History of the French Air Force (London: Ian Allen, 1974), pp. 97-103; production of Breguet 19 and Potez 25--EIke C. Weal et al., Combat Aircraft of World War Two (New York Macmillan, 1977), pp. 88, 97.

7. Performance data on interwar aircraft from Weal et al, C. G. Grey and L. Bridgman, Jane's All the World's Aircraft (London: Sampson Low Marston, 1919-1939); Martin C. Windrow and Charles W. Cain, editors, Aircraft in Profile, 14 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1967-1971); Kenneth Munson, Fighters between the Wars 1919-1939 (New York: Macmillan, 1970); and Bombers between the Wars 1919-1939 (New York: Macmillan, 1970); William Green, The Warplanes of the Third Reich (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970), and James C. Fahey, U.S. Army Aircraft (New York: Ships and Aircraft, 1946). Data on 1939-40 aircraft from same sources and also from William Green, Warplanes of the Second World War, vols. 1-11, and Famous Bombers, vols. 1 and 2 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959-60). Speed records from Christopher Chant etal., The Encyclopedia of Air Warfare (NewYork: Crowell, 1975), p. 54,

8. German production--William Green, Warplanes of the Third Reich, pp. 296, 387, 433, 455, 543, 578; French production--William Green, Warplanes of the Second World War, vol. 1, pp. 21-22, 29-30, 32, 46; vol. 7, pp. 88, 110, 113,117,140,142-44; vol. 8, pp. 12,13,32; John McVickar Haight, Jr., American Aid to France, 1938-1940 (New York: Atheneum, 1970), pp. 139-40 (aircraft built in the United States); and British production--Derek Wood and Derek Dempster, The Narrow Margin (New York: Paperback Library, 1969), p. 453,

9. Van Haute, pp. 60-64; General André-Paul-Auguste Voisin, "La doctrine de l'aviation française de combat en 1918." Revue des Forces Aériennes, 3 (1931), pp. 885-90, 898-910, 1299-301.

10. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1927 , p. 57a; van Haute, pp. 66-70, 81-83, 89-92; Lieutenant General Jean Henri Jauneaud, De Verdun à Den Ben Phu (Paris: Editions du Scorpion, 1960), pp. 38-39; France, Ministère de la guerre, Annuaire officiel de l' armée française (Paris: Charles Lavauzelle, 1922, 1925, 1928, 1932, 1936).

11. Colonel Paul Armengaud, "Les enseignemenls de la guerre Marocaine (1925-1926) en matiere d'viation," Revue Militaire Francaise, 28 (January-March 1927), pp. 150-71, 340-56; 28 (April-June 1928), pp. 73-94, 151-64; editors of Revue des Forces Aériennes, "Aït Yacoub--le role de l'aviation dans les affaires de Guefifat, Tarda, et Aït Yacoub en Maroc," Revue des Forces Aériennes, 1 (August-December 1929), pp. 295-308.

12. General Giulio Douhet, La guerre de l'air, translated by J. Romeyer (Paris: Journal "Les Ailes," 1932).

13. Van Haute, p. 108.

14. Brigadier General Jean Hébrard, Vingt-cing années d'aviation militaire (1920-1945), 2 vols. (Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1946), pp. 162-67, 170-75.

15. Brigadier General Fleury Seive, L'aviation d'assaut dans la bataille de 1940 (Paris: Editions Berger-Levrault, 1948). pp. 21, 50, 53-55; Hébrard, pp. 179.

16. Pierre Cot, The Defeat of the French Air Force," Foreign Affairs, 19 (October 1940-July 1941), pp. 790, 805; Jauneaud, pp. 46-47; Hébrard, p. 185; Robert W. Krauskopf, "French Air Power Policy 1919-1939" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Georgetown University, 1965), pp. 98-99, 122, 223-26; Robert J. Young, "The Strategic Dream: French Air Doctrine in the Inter-War Period, 1919-39," Journal of Contemporary History, 9 (October 1974), pp. 67-69.

17. Major General Paul Armengaud, Batailles politiques et militaires sur l'Europe. Témoignages (Paris: Editions du Myrte, 1948), pp. 37-40.

18, Krauskopf, pp. 254-56, 263; Young, pp. 72-73.

19. General Henri Hugo, " Une expérience inestimable, " Icare, 54 (Summer 1970), pp. 92-93; General Joel Pape, "Parfois, j'ai envie d'oublier," Icare, 54 (Summer 1970), pp. 100-01; General Raymond Brohon, "Le groupement de bombardement No. 10," Icare, 57 (Spring-Summer 1971), p. 87; Lieutenant Colonel René Josselin, "Sept semaines sur la front de la Sarre," Icare, 59 (Fall-Winter 1971), pp. 163-64.

20. Lieutenant General Francois-Pierre-Raoul d'Astier de la Vigerie, Le ciel n'était pas vide (Paris: René Julliard, 1952), pp. 48, 53-54; Major Jean Fraissinet, "De la drôle de guerre à la vraie," Icare, 56 (Winter 1970), p. 123n; Pierre Jean Gisclon, "Maurice Arnoux est mort au combat," Icare, 54 (Summer 1970), p. 135; Pape, p. 99; Lieutenant Colonel Henri Dietrich, "Point de view d'un réserviste," Icare, 54 (Summer 1970), p. 118; Colonel Jacques Ballet, "A l'abordage sur Potez 63," Icare, 59 (Fall-Winter 1971), p. 118; Colonel Henri Moguez, "Histoire du groupe 501," Icare, 59 (Fall-Winter 1971), pp. 138-40; Major Jean Ridray, "Comme à la fête," Icare, 54 (Summer 1970), p. 128; Jacques Lecarme, "Triste campagne de France," Icare, 57 (Winter 1970), pp. 149-50; Roos, pp. 46-49; Gunsburg, p. 74.

21. Cot, pp. 799-800; Shirer, p. 618; Colonel Jean Louveau, "Jusqu' à l'abordage," Icare, 54 (Summer 1970), p. 110. Colonel Louveau in September 1939 saw 150 new fighters sitting at Chateauroux, and when he went to pick up replacement aircraft in May he was offered one without guns and one without sights. Colonel Dietrich of Fighter Group II/10 had a similar experience at Cazeaux--the missing parts were radios and firing pins (Dietrich, p. 122); General Paul Stehlin, "De la diplomatic au renseignements et à 1'escadrille," Icare, 55 (Fall-Winter 1970), p. 46; Pape, p. 105; Frank Fremond, "Le dernier vol du Colonel Dagnaux," Icare, 57 (Spring-Summer 1971), p. 136; Roos, pp. 46-49, 52; Haight, pp. 242-43.

22. The best sources on numbers of aircraft available on 10 May 1940 are the technical works by Green, Cain and Windrow, and Haight (see footnotes 7 and 8).

23. "Effectifs, pertes, palmares des 24 groupes à 2 escadrillcs et des 4 escadrilles de chasse de nuit dans la Bataille de France," Icare, 54 (Summer 1970), p. 72; Martin C. Windrow and Charles W. Cain, Aircraft in Profile, vol. 6, profile 135, p. 16; vol. 7, p. 24; vol, 9, p. 235; Lieutenant Colonel Salesse, L'aviation de chasse française en 1939-1940 (Paris: Berger-L,evrault, 1948), pp. 36, 40, 48, 54, 57, 61, 72, 83, 85, 175,

24. Salesse, pp. 72, 83, 85, 91, 94, 97, 102, 106, 110-11, 113-16, 118, 120, 130, 132-34, 136, 143, 145-46, 149, 151, 154, 158-59.

25. Green, Warplanes of the Second World War, vol. 1, pp, 30,40, 49, 57; vol. 2, p. 69; vol. 4, p. 44; Green, Warplanes of the Third Reich, p. 549.

26. For performance, see entries for particular aircraft in Weal et al., Windrow and Cain, and Green, Warplanes of the Second World War. For operational rate, see Jackson, pp. 60-70, and Colonel Pierre Paquier, L'aviation de bombardment française (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1948), pp. 208-49.

27. Lieutenant R. P. Guy Bougerol, Ceux qu'on n'a jamais vus... (Paris:; B Arthaud, 1943), and Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Paquier and Major Cretin, L'aviation de renseignement française en 1939-1940 (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1947), pp. 88-89, 92-93, 97, 99,102,106, 114, 116.

28. Paquier and Cretin, pp. 48, 57, 62-64, 67, 75.

29. Astier, p . 72 (General Corap says army is "betrayed" by the air force), p. 104 (General Huntziger declines bombing on massed German tank), p. 105 (General Bilotte declines bombing of crossing at Houx; General Corap asks for air strike but can't say where), pp. 110-14 (all-out effort to support Huntziger's Counterattack, subsequently postponed), p. 127 (General Corap calls for air strikes but cannot specify targets), p. 167 (Colonel de Gaulle declines to give air force his plan of maneuver), p. 238 (General Altmayer refuses air support for attack on Abbeville). Also, Salesse, p. 109 (de Gaulle calls for help too late); Paquier, pp. 200-01.

30. Astier, pp. 136, 150-51, 181; Salesse, pp. 103, 116, 118, 143, 146, 148, 161-62, 169.

31. Paquier, pp. 186-87; Salesse, pp. 166, 170, 187-88; Paquier and Cretin, p. 172; Jackson, pp. 134-35,

32. For an interesting summary of the American experience, see Dewitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1980).


Lieutenant Colonel Faris R. Kirkland, USA (Ret) (A.B., Princeton University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania), is a lecturer in history at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. Formerly he was director of the Social Science Research Group at the University City Science Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his initial assignment as a young Army officer, he served as an artillery forward observer in Korea; at the conclusion of his military career, he was operations officer, XXIV Corps Artillery, coordinating land-sea-air action in Hue, Khe Sanh, and Cap Mui Lai in Vietnam.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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