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by Philippe Ballarini
translation Mike Leveillard

June 1940: were is the French Air Force ?

1. The collapse and the debacle.

Before the disaster of May - June 1940, an important politician had asserted to the officers of the French high command: "We will win the war, because we are stronger". When asked about the eventuality of a German attack through the Ardennes, a certain Marshall Pétain retorted:  "In this highly unlikely event, we will block them with a pincer counter attack."

We now know what happened…. Guderian's armors pierced the French defense lines at Sedan on May 10th 1940, and the invading German hordes created mass hysteria, and a total debacle in France as never seen before. Civilian refugees mixed pell-mell with the French army were encumbering the roads, terrorized by the Stukas, and from the soldiers attempting to resist the German advance with hopeless energy, the same desperate question could be heard:
"Where is the French Air Force?" Indeed, the sky seemed to belong to the mighty Luftwaffe.

The Vichy regime desiring to appear legitimate in the eyes of the French people tried to evade their responsibilities for the great debacle with a "kangaroo trial", known as "le procès de Riom" (the Riom trial). During the trial, Marshall Pétain a hard core Catholic conservative, not only wanted to settle the score with his old socialists enemies (such as Léon Blum), but he also wanted to establish a cover up for the French Army's defeat. The Army was represented at the trial with a large number of their generals, and it was much easier for them to point the finger at the Armée de l'Air (French Air Force) than to accept their own failure. To explain the defeat, the emphasis at the trial was about the defection of the British, especially the RAF. England had now become France's enemy; the scapegoat of the French government entering a political collaboration with the Nazis.

Although the Riom trial is now regarded as a ridiculous part of history, it has left many unanswered questions regarding the fighting spirit of the French Air Force in 1940, and to this day it remains a very delicate subject. 

Did the French Air Force and its pilots failed? Yes, according to the majority of the French Army generals who resented the fact that the French Air Force had not been placed under their direct command.
Was not making the French Air Force their scapegoat a way to save face in the years to come?

However, was the Luftwaffe truly invulnerable?

© aerostories, 2001

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The Ju-87 "Stuka" dive-bombers were equipped with sirens adding to the panic during their attack.

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