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The French Air Force of the armistice.

by Philippe Ballarini
translation Mike Leveillard

4. Le Levant (The Middle East)

In the Middle East, Syria and Lebanon were under French protectorate since 1920 and 1926 respectively, while Palestine and Transjordania were under British protectorate. As for what will be called later on the "Syria affair", it had began with a "coup d'état" in Iraq on April 1st 1941, and It soon became evident that the chief instigator of the plot, Rachid Ali el-Gailani would not hesitate to call on the Axis forces for help. This situation was most dreadful in the eyes of the British because, not only was Mesopotamia a highly strategic area, but a large portion of its petroleum came from the Iraqi wells.  Indeed, Iraq cut the pipeline joining the wells of the Iraq Petroleum Company at Haifa in Palestine and sent the precious oil to Tripoli that was under French control. Taking into consideration the Vichy politic of collaboration with Germany, it was the same as handling the oil to the Axis forces. (It must be noted however that the British had drastically reduced the flow of the pipeline since June 25th 1940.)

The French fighter arm consisted of only one unit that had arrived in Rayack in March 1940, equipped with Morane-Saulnier MS 406s. This unit could not take part in any combat, nor apply any tactics learned in the defeat of June 1940 and the armistice. What frustration it must have been for those airmen ready to fight but that could only participate in exercises! Many of them had firmly decided to continue the fight on the side of the English despite the disastrous effect of Mers el-Kébir.
The French command experienced many difficulties in keeping the pilots of GC 1/7 under the control of an Air force now belonging to a country open to a politic of collaboration with Germany. The future commandant of the group Normandie-Niemen, Captain Tulasne was a "deserter" from Rayack who took advantage of a training mission to escape. He was reported as lost at sea!
The situation in the Middle East soon became explosive. On order from Admiral Darlan, General Dentz the high Prefect of Syria, not only delivered French arms to Rachid Ali, but he also opened the Libano-Syrians airfields to the Luftwaffe.

On May 15th 1941, the British opened the hostilities by attacking the French airfields, hoping to destroy the Luftwaffe's airplanes. The French Air Force of the Levant was reinforced with units that came from North Africa (they were even refueled and rearmed on their way at bases held by the Italians or the Germans). Adding to the troops in the Middle East that were in obedience with the legality of the Vichy regime, came those that also held resentment against the British, such as Lieutenant Cuffaut who had flown over the Mers el-Kébir harbor and witnessed the massacre. He had seen the English drop leaflets on the Homs airfield asking the French aviators not to fight, and yet the next day, airplanes with the same markings came back and attacked the GC 1/7 killing two pilots and two mechanics.

The strength of the French Air Force was not very powerful, but neither were the strength of the R.A.F. They were still flying the old Gloster "Gladiator" biplanes and Fairey "Fulmar", easy preys for the D-520s. The invasion of the Levant by the English troops reinforced with elements of the free French began on June 8th 1941. At the beginning of the operations, the French Air Force was used to support the ground forces, using the bombers to attack the armors and the infantry along the Lebanese coastline, while the fighters strafed the English troops and the
Glenn Martins attacked the British Fleet that was pounding the French in the Saïda area.
Blocked on all sides, the Vichy troops capitulated having refused all help from the Germans. The French Air force had engaged 279 airplanes and lost 179, most of them on the ground and not in aerial combat. With more than 3000 sorties, the French Air Force of the Levant had been very active, but with airplanes that could not compete.
The fate of the surviving airplanes was diverse; some went back to France, or North Africa, while others wound up equipping the F.A.F.L (Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres or free French Air Force).

© Aerostories, 2001.

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Picture of Morane-Saulnier MS 406s well aligned on the Rayack Lebanon airfield. It is from this base, and aboard one of those airplanes that Captain Tulasne, future  commandant of the "Normandie Niemen" would escape to Palestine in December 1940.

S.H.A.A. Document                 Click

June 1941: Attack of an airfield by British "Tomahawk". The nose of a LeO 45 can be seen on the foreground.

S.H.A.A. Document         Click

On a Syrian airfield, a LeO 451 damaged by a British air raid is being repaired.

S.H.A.A. Document          Click

Mechanics working on a Bloch MB-152 in 1942, a short time before the dissolution of the French Air Force of the armistice.

S.H.A.A. Document       Click