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by Philippe Ballarini
translation Mike Leveillard

June 1940: were is the French Air Force ?

2. Spring of 1940: an assessment of the French Air Force

Since its birth in 1933, the French Air Force had been faced with the same problems encountered by England, Italy, and America: the military resenting the idea of forming an independent Air Force.

On that subject, the Italians had been the precursors, strongly supported by General Giulio Douhet, which cost him a certain lost of popularity with the military in 1921. Douhet was convinced that the next conflict would be an "air war", won by those possessing an important fleet of bombers. The Regia Aeronautica became autonomous in 1923.

In the United Kingdom, Sir Hugh Trenchard encountered extreme difficulties in obtaining, and keeping the independence of the Royal Air Force.

The American situation was not much different. General Mitchell who had adopted Douhet's ideas began a campaign for an independent Air Force, demonstrating during exercises the sinking of old battleships and the validity of his ideas. His obstination brought him in front of a court martial in 1926 for his insubordination.

In the decade preceding the second world war, the "Ministère de l'Air" (The Air Ministry) which was formed in 1928 became the site of lobbying and intrigues. 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. Only rare companies such as those under the leadership of Bloch (later to become Dassault) or Potez were influential on the future of the French Air Force.

Meanwhile in Germany, the advent of Hitler's rise to power was causing the fear of another European conflict, and the French aeronautical industry proved itself incapable of delivering the 1023 airplanes that the master plan of 1933 -1934 had called for. Lasting all the way to 1939, France witnessed the dilapidation of its public funds, wasting money on projects such as the design and construction of 1200 T3s, a three-seat observation plane which proved to be a total fiasco.

The French government had however begun a restructuring program that could have proved worthwhile. Pierre Cot the secretary of the French Air Force, taking in consideration the total disarray of his ministry, decided that the National security was too important for the production of war planes to be left in the hands of private enterprises. In 1936 he began nationalizing the companies, creating several societies, which nearly encompassed the total aeronautical production, and regrouping those companies according to their geographical locations. However, the aircraft engine industry, incapable of providing the badly needed powerful engines, escaped nationalization.

In 1940, France had available a mixed fleet of airplanes; definitely outclassed. The airplanes that were truly competitive such as the LeO 451s produced by the SNCASE, or the Dewoitine 520s (which would be used after the occupation by Germany and some of its allied) would be delivered to the French Air Force too late, and too few.

The inadequacy of the aeronautical programs, as well as the indecision of the high command would result in placing the French Air Force in a position of weakness, confronting a modern and well organized Luftwaffe. Many 1940 veterans have bitterly reported seeing hundreds of brand new airplanes in the factories, whereas the front was badly lacking aerial support.

The total lack of organization was unthinkable. A large quantity of airplanes could not be classified as operational, missing vital equipment for combat. Dozens of ground attack Bréguet 693 had been delivered with non-calibrated guns, and without a bombing sight. At the Châteaudun air depot, about 120 airplanes, Bloch MB 152 fighters, and observation Potez 63s were awaiting propellers! On the eve of the decisive battle of the Somme, 70% of the airplanes were grounded for repairs, and for the lack of combat equipment.

As new airplanes were ready for combat duty, it was the French Air Force pilots whom had to do the ferrying from the factories in the rear, thus depleting the front line for several days. French General d'Astier related that during one of his visit at the Nanterre depot to have his fighters equipped with bomb-racks, found the place deserted; the personnel had finished their day's work. Other incidents of this nature, illustrating the total chaos that prevailed are many, not just with the French Air Force, but in all the armed forces. After all, it must be recalled that the Fort of Frémont on the Maginot line had received a supply of 75-millimeter shells for their 80 millimeters canons!

aerostories, 2001

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Morane Saulnier MS 406 receiving maintenance. At the start of the conflict, the French Air Force was being renovated, resulting in a precarious situation.
SHAA (Service Historique de l'Armée de l'Air) Document .

In the thirties, France opted for fixed defense with the Maginot line, a gigantic complex erected along the borders of Germany and Luxembourg. For fear of offending their Belgium neighbors, the French had neglected to provide adequate defense at their border. The idea of a mobile defense using the combined forces of the troops, the armors, and the Air Force did not have the support of a high command with an outdated mentality.
SIRPA Document

Potez 566: this airplane did not fit into the program, but it was ordered anyway to provide the Potez company fresh funding.
SHAA Document

The Dewoitine 520 could have been a serious contender for the Messerschmitt Bf-109.
Document SHAA

Bloch MB 152. After the war its constructor changed his name to Dassault, the "war name" of his Bother who died in a concentration camp.
SHAA Document