Published: 20 August 02
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2002
The Forgotten Air Force: French Air Doctrine in the 1930s by Anthony Christopher Cain. Smithsonian Institution Press (http://www.sipress.si. edu), 750 Ninth Street NW, Suite 4300, Washington, D.C. 20560-0950, 2002, 248 pages, $34.95 (hardcover).
The rapid collapse of France in 1940—the country fell in six weeks to German assault—was a tremendous shock to most of the world. A number of postmortems have tried to determine the precise reasons for France’s defeat. Now, Anthony Christopher Cain, an Air Force lieutenant colonel recently appointed editor of Aerospace Power Journal, has examined the French air force and the role it played in the debacle. Cain does this by reviewing the Armée de l’Air in the interwar period, concluding that French airmen were buffeted by a succession of political upheavals and the machinations of a resentful and covetous army and navy. As a result, the airmen adopted a policy of “reactive defense”—that is, they acknowledged the defensive and war-weary mood of the French politicians and army, thereby consciously adopting a path that would fit air policy into these defensive modes. This proved unwise.
The French air force was the world’s largest and most powerful when World War I ended in 1918. Although not a separate service, it nonetheless enjoyed a certain prestige for its excellent perfor-mance during the war. Things soon deteriorated, however. Demobilization hit the air arm particularly hard, partly because the army officers in charge gave preference in funding to ground forces and equipment. In addition, French politicians reflected the mood of the people, who were increasingly fearful of and pessimistic about a German resurgence. Defense policy, readily supported by the army, increasingly focused on a defensive stance in the east. The Maginot Line would stand as an impregnable and concrete trench when the Germans returned. Air theory, which in France stressed the offensive and revolutionary nature of strategic air attack (as it did in Britain, the United States, and Italy), was distinctly unwelcome in such a passive environment. Even when the air force became a separate service in 1933, airmen thought it wise to focus on supporting ground forces. Ironically, war would show that they did not handle that mission particularly well either.
Cain argues that Pierre Cot, air minister for much of the 1930s, realized the danger of such a stance and attempted to correct it through a vigorous effort at doctrine formulation, reorganization of the aircraft industry, more realistic war games and exercises, and a robust training establishment. Unfortunately, his efforts went for naught. As war approached, the army tightened its grip on the air force, and by 1940 ground commanders again controlled all air assets. Cot’s efforts at reforming the French aviation industry met with a similar fate. Even in the face of a looming German threat, companies could not be induced to streamline and modernize. When the German tidal wave hit in May 1940, the aircraft available were too few and too slow. Thus, France in 1940 serves as the classic example of how bad strategy and policy decisions can have catastrophic results.
In truth, the challenges faced by the French air force between the world wars were not unique. In both Britain and the United States, budget cuts took a severe toll on the air arms. In Britain, for example, the Royal Air Force (RAF) received on average a mere 15 percent of the defense budget, and in the United States, the Air Corps had an even smaller share. Similarly, the RAF found itself constantly under attack from the army and navy, which sought to disestablish the RAF as a separate service and take back the airplanes they had lost in 1918. In the United States, of course, the Army firmly controlled its Air Corps and quashed all talk of a separate service. In addition, Britain—and to a far lesser extent, the United States—had to meet the needs of imperial defense with a series of governments far more interested in disarmament than rearmament. Yet, the RAF and Air Corps managed to articulate a doctrine of strategic airpower that would see them through the war. What happened in France?
Cain does not tell us the French air force’s share of the defense budget between the wars or even its aircraft and personnel strength. Nor do we learn what role the Staff College and War College played in educating (as opposed to training) students for future war. We are nonetheless left with the clear impression that the French air force suffered from a remarkable lack of effective and forceful leaders during the interwar period. The book makes no mention of dominant commanders like Hugh Trenchard; rabble-rousers like Billy Mitchell, who put service above self; or even the type of driven and creative officers at the RAF Staff College and the Air Corps Tactical School, who formulated a doctrine of strategic bombing—despite what the other services and politicians said about that method of war. When French army generals made demands, air leaders folded. Cain concludes that the leaders of the French air force were not decadent, traitorous, or stupid. Perhaps not, but neither do they appear to have been selfless, visionary, or brilliant.
The Forgotten Air Force is a good book with some very important lessons. The French air force went from first to last in a remarkably short period of time. Leadership—more accurately, the lack of it—proved instrumental in this fatal spin. We should all be concerned with whether our Air Force is cultivating the types of leaders and thinkers who will ensure our readiness for future conflict.
Col Phillip S. Meilinger, USAF, Retired
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.