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The French Air Force in 1940

Updated on April 17, 2018
A 1947 poster, but still looking reasonably plausible for a French 1940 recruitment poster.
A 1947 poster, but still looking reasonably plausible for a French 1940 recruitment poster.

Throughout the Interwar years, France had been a constant innovator in aerial technology, had possessed what had always been a powerful air force and at times was in all probability the strongest in the world, and had boasted a tradition of victory from the First World War when its aviators had played an important role in victory over the German army and aviation service. In 1940, its fighters were swept from the sky, its bombers failed to achieve anything of note, its aircraft were forced to retreat to North Africa where they survived at all, and it would be a favorite scapegoat of the new Vichy regime for the failings of the armed forces in 1940. What had gone wrong in these twenty years since French aviators won the First World War? Why was the French Air Force so poorly prepared for 1940?

Material

Most famous among all of the problems plaguing the French air force was lack of sufficient planes, and an insufficient quality of the planes that the air force had. This is broadly true, as the French air force was outnumbered by its German equivalents, and suffered heavily in terms of quality : a general rule of thumb were that French technological developments were 3 years later than their German equivalents. French production had been plagued by the problems of an inefficient aircraft industry, then the chaos of industry nationalization, and constant changes in ministerial objectives.

French air production had been plagued with problems for the last two decades. If France had had the world's best air industry during WW1, its very size meant that following the war, capacity was hugely in excess of needs. Naturally, a culling of the number of companies resulted, but this was not as much as was needed : companies survived on small orders and prototypes, encouraged by a government prototype policy which propped up small companies, resisted state attempts at their integration (decrying it as the heavy hand of government on them while simultaneously being almost entirely dependent on government purchases of aircraft and on the state's subsidies), and bided their time in the hopes of large aircraft deals in the future. Thus, when the need did come for France to have large production of aircraft, in the 1930s, France was left with a vast array of small companies which were incapable of assuming real economies of scale to produce aircraft cheaply and in numbers, and with poor research capacities next to the German giants across the border. In response to this situation, the Popular Front launched a nationalization of the air industry in 1936 : while nationalization ultimately did result in gains in aircraft production, it threw the industry further into chaos and opposition for a period of time (and had some inherent flaws - the new companies for example, were organized by region, instead of by any economic criterions), and led to an intensely political debate about the air industry. Huge French investments into building up production capacity were finally starting to bear fruit by 1940, but problems with the size of this build up and the move from skilled workers to large numbers of unskilled laborers (many of them women) continued to plague production and spare part availability. Throughout the period, French economies of scale were further prevented by the attempt to decentralize aircraft production throughout the country, particularly to the south and west, where they would be less vulnerable to strategic bombing : the anticipated strategic bombardment never came, and it prevented achieving greater industrial concentrations in the Paris basin.

The Curtiss Hawk 75,an American fighter  utilized by the French to good effect.
The Curtiss Hawk 75,an American fighter utilized by the French to good effect.

The mainstay of the French air force in 1940 was the Bloch MB 151/152, and the Morane Saulnier M.S. 406. Both of these aircraft were inferior to their German counterpart, the Bf 109, with lower firepower and inferior speed. While the new D.520 fighters were equivalent, they had only just arrived and were barely entering service. American H-75s proved to be perhaps the best of French fighters, being available in numbers due to having already been equipped, and being combat capable. French heavy fighters meanwhile, were so slow they were often incapable of catching German bombers. The general picture painted, with the exception of the H-75, is one of an air force with inferior aircraft available in insufficient numbers : this is generally true.

French bombers were in an even worse state, and when the war started, there were no modern French bombers at all. The French air force was equipped with a motley array of slow Bloch MB. 131 fast reconnaissance bombers, obsolete Amiot 143s, Potez 200s and 210s, and Farman 220 strategic bombers. The Breguet 693, Amiot 354, and LeO 451 offered modern French bombers and ground attack aircraft, but they were barely entering service at the time of the German invasion. Out of 31 French GBs (groupements de bombardement), 20 were in the process of being re-equipped when the German attack occurred.

Thus the French entered the true campaign on May 10th with some 640 fighters and 240 bombers, compared to 1200 fighters and 1700 bombers on the German side. The disparity in numbers was all too often further amplified by a disparity in aircraft quality. Spare parts were commonly lacking for newly delivered French aircraft, such as sights, radios, offensive armament, and defensive armaments, which meant that they were militarily useless until supplies of new spare parts arrived. Technically there were 850 fighters in the Armée de l'air's ranks, but 30% of these were un-serviceable due to these equipment problems, arriving thus at the 640 fighter figure.

French difficulties in matters of production capacity were further amplified by a heterogenous aircraft production. The German air force during the Battle of France equipped itself with only one single-engine fighter, the BF 109, while the French and French-equipped forces deployed the Caudron C.710, D.500 which was being retired, D.520, M.S. 406, MB.151/152, with imported American Curtiss H-75s and Dutch F.K.58s. For a nation desperately in need of uniformity in its fighter production, to ensure economies of scale - even more so than Germany with its larger aviation industry - the French air force failed to impose discipline in its own house, and paid the price in an eclectic array of aircraft that made rationalization of French aircraft production harder. The same chaos reigned in reconnaissance and bombers. More French aircraft models than German ones was probably an inevitability given that the Luftwaffe had the privilege of starting from nothing and building its desired air force, but the extent to which the French built excessive models of aircraft compared to the Germans is startling.

These low production rates led the French to look elsewhere for supplies, and they turned to the US to purchase aircraft. The United States possessed a huge industrial capacity, by far the largest in the world, but its aviation industry was small for providing for the vast needs of the French air force. But the United States was the only friendly country available from which aircraft could be purchased, and hence it was there that France turned. At the time of the declaration of war, France had ordered close to 800 American machines, which had swelled to 2,100 by May 10, combined with thousands of various aircraft parts ranging from propellors to motors. Total French orders amounted to around 5,000 aircraft, including 2,000 fighters, 2,000 bombers, and 1,000 trainers, with 1,000 deliveries achieved at the time of the armistice. However, these numbers were less impressive in combat, for although the American planes ordered tended to be combat effective, such as the Curtiss H-75 and the Martin Maryland, their lengthy arrival time had prevented their widespread integration into service, as French pilots were still training on the new aircraft as they transitioned from older models to this new equipment. Out of 24 groupements de chasse present in France in May, 1940, 10 were re-equipping at the beginning or re-equipped throughout the campaign with either new French or American fighters, thus impacting readiness.

French production was improving rapidly throughout the 1940, but like with American aircraft, the new planes arrived too late to make much of an impact. Some of the future developments of the French Air Force presuming that it was not defeated in 1940 are discussed in another post of mine, linked below.

M.S. 406

Pilots and Personnel

While the lack of sufficient amounts of French planes is famous, less famous but even more critical was insufficient pilots. At one point the air force was assured that it might expect deliveries of ~500 aircraft per month, but claimed that it would only be able to main 50. As with many other air forces before the war, becoming an officer or non-commissioned officer in the French air force was more than simply one's capability as a fighting officer, management capability, and leadership - the directly necessary elements of an officer's job - but required also skills in French composition, language and literature, history, geography, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, physics, chemistry, and foreign languages. Of course, many of these were useful, and helped to provide a better broad understanding for officers, but too many simply decreased the available officer pool. A reduced curriculum for pilots, changing from 3 years to 6 months, entered into service in 1939, but as with other French proposals, it was too late to have an effect. Aircrew passed from school to school in a dizzying array of scattered small training schools, including Écoles Élémentaires (basic flight schools), Écoles Auxiliares (advanced flight training), École Principales (final stage training for one of three combat specialities), and Centres d'Instruction (for specialized training in bombardment, reconnaissance, or pursuit). Thus students went through at least four different bases in training. Expansion in the urgent need to train more pilots and ground crew was undertaken before the war, but many of the new schools were inadequately staffed and equipped for carrying out their rôle. As with the rest of the French army, the air force had short term conscripts available for many roles, but these lacked the necessary technical skills due to their short lengths of service. While French education tended to be good and produce skilled pilots and support crew capable of flexibly responding to situations, it produced too few.

The French were quite aware of these problems in having insufficient personnel. They would attempt to rectify this in 1940 by withdrawing experienced personnel from combat units to train new pilots, done around a month before the invasion by German commenced. The only effect was to deprive French aircraft units of desperately needed men at the front when the Germans actually arrived : done six months earlier (it was intended that the pilots would be detached for training roles for 6 months as well), this might have been a logical and intelligent policy, but as it came, it did much to further weaken the French Air Force in the critical battles of May, 1940. Less self-destructive policies, like responding to the lack of security of Metropolitan training installations by opening up bases in Africa, foundered upon poor infrastructure which caused extensive delays in moving to this region.

Furthermore, French pilots were reduced in the their amount on the frontline by the lack of an auxiliary flying corp as was found in the United States or United Kingdom. There, aircraft produced by factories would be delivered by the flying corp to the military units. In France, the lack of such a flying corp meant that pilots had to fly the aircraft from the aircraft parks to their formation, spending valuable time on a simple ferry operations.

While pilots may have been the most obvious part of the personnel of any air force, there were a variety of other factors concerning air force personnel management. The French produced superb aeronautical engineers from the National Aeronautical Institute, under the purview of the Air Ministry from 1928 onwards. However, the French made little usage of the civilian skills of their reserve air officers who had gone to work in the peace-time air sector, beyond their flying skills : this was in contrast to the Germans who collaborated extensively with Lufthansa upon their technological developments. One of the world's best air designers, Marcel Bloch, was retired, brought back, and retired again.

Direct support personnel were often lacking. When the war broke out, there were only 40% of the required radiomen for the French air force, and only 23% of the number of needed mechanics, a situation which the French were belated in fixing. Many skilled aircraft workers were called up for the war, causing industrial disruptions, before they were returned back to the factories.

Infrastructure

In 1939, France only had 1 paved runway in the entire country, and in 1933 it had only had 2 radio beacons that provided for aeronautical navigation : a project to improve aviation infrastructure in 1936 had achieved little by 1940. Weaknesses of French civil aviation, despite heavy subsidies for them, meant that the Germans had had a much more secure civilian market throughout the 1920s and 1930s, which compensated for lack of military orders. French anti-aircraft guns at their bases were insufficient to ward off Luftwaffe attacks.

Supporting Air Defense

Aerial detection and observation was also insufficient. The French, unlike the Germans or English, had no significant deployed radar. This was less important in the French situation than it would be in the English situation during the Battle of Britain, due to shorter times to spot incoming aircraft, but it still represented another advantage leveled against the Armée de l'air. Furthermore, while there were a few radar sets provided by the English, the lack of a centralized system to take advantage of this and direct fighters like with Fighter Command in the UK meant that the radar that did exist was of little help. Not only was detecting German aircraft made much harder, but engaging them was too : while during the Battle of Britain nearly 100% of fighter sorties would engage German attackers, during the Battle of France, many French sorties simply closed on empty air.

Coordination

The French air force was intensely linked to the army by its doctrine, for supporting it by protecting it via its fighters, conducting reconnaissance, and launching bombing raids on enemy front-line troops and rear area targets. This was hardly controversial for an air force in the 1930s and 40s : the German air force on the other side of the Rhine had roughly the same mission profile. However, the French air force was much more under the influence of the army than was its German equivalent. When war came in September 1939, previous large autonomous aerial regions established by Pierre Cot were broken up with air units divided into smaller packages to support army units. Instead of the cardinal rule of military operations - concentration of force - the French air force was forced to cover everywhere on the front, and resultantly could be strong nowhere, unable to concentrate forces for decisive operations. Under land force authority, these aircraft often were relegated to being forgotten, not being given missions and then panically thrown into the battle when things went south. Furthermore, army commanders would want their air commanders to be at their headquarters, which deprived them of the capability to manage their units.

Coordination with units on the ground was very poor, surprisingly so for an air force which supposedly had cooperation with the army as its principal objective. Air support over a target would take some five hours to arrive from being signaled to attacking, a situation which grew worse when taking into account enemy fighter opposition. This was in contrast to German forces which could expect support within near minutes of requests, and the Luftwaffe had 3 signal regiments, 63 signal companies, and 115 special signal units coordinating air attacks and air-ground cooperation. Royal Air Force times to target were even longer, since reports had to be sent back to London.

Sortie Rates

France and Britain in 1940 planned for a long war. Blessed with superior combined resources and industry than Germany, particularly once their blockade of Germany was taken into account, and with access to world markets such as from America, in a long war they could mobilize more war capacity and continually increase their strength relative to the Germans. By contrast, the Germans, well aware of this, desperately sought to seek a resolution quickly. German sortie rates throughout the Battle of France were much higher than their French counterparts, which were .9 sorties per day for fighters, and .25 sorties per day for French bombers, while German fighters sortied 4 times per day. A bomber which flies once per day will have much less effect upon the battlefield than another which flies four times : thus larger German numbers were further magnified upon the frontlines.

Allies

If the French Air Force had its problems, it could take little comfort in the assistance of its allies. France's principal ally in 1940 was the United Kingdom, but England's assistance to the continent would prove terribly insufficient for the coming storm. French and British air doctrine was fundamentally different in 1940, and would continue to remain so throughout the war. French air doctrine saw air power as a subsidiary to the army, despite previous flirtations with strategic bombing by the air force. French doctrine was firmly established by 1940 as providing reconnaissance for the army, protecting it from air assault, bombing enemy troops in the field, and attacking rear-line support infrastructure. French air power thus existed to serve strategic purposes, but it was not in of itself strategic.

British doctrine meanwhile, saw air power as holding a specifically strategic role for aviation. The RAF, unlike the French Air Force had to wait until 1932 to gain its independence from the army, or the German air force which didn't exist until 1935, had been independent from just after WW1. It was not dominated by the army like in the French air force, and aimed to protect the home islands, dominions and colonies, and trade routes, by utilizing its bombers in an offensive fashion to weaken enemy nations. Much like a naval blockade, an air war would be a long-term battle of attrition against an entire enemy state, and it wished to directly damage enemy aircraft numbers in attacks upon their production, although they were less sanguine about the possibility of attacking heavily defended airfields.


British Bristol Blenheim bombers with the RAF Advanced Striking Force : English aircraft were deployed to the continent in small number with obsolete aircraft, and performed badly during the 1940 campaign.
British Bristol Blenheim bombers with the RAF Advanced Striking Force : English aircraft were deployed to the continent in small number with obsolete aircraft, and performed badly during the 1940 campaign.

Britain, with over 2,000 modern aircraft, only deployed around 200 single-seat fighters to the continent. At the same time, it kept 700 single-seat fighters at home in air defense squadrons, when the threat from German bombers was minimal : in order to make any significant impact on England, the Germans would have to secure bases in France first. Instead of defending their first line of defense, France and the low countries, the RAF kept its fighters hidden in the UK, denying itself the capacity to play a part in the decisive battle on the continent. The RAF avoided the possibility of attacking ground troops and participating in army cooperation, preferring to strike static industrial and transportation complexes. Later in the war the British would increase the amount of tactical cooperation with the ground forces, but in typical arrogant attitude would dismiss French tactical support as "unprofitable". Meanwhile, the policy of striking industrial and city targets in 1940 whatever may have been its merits, and these were probably very few with little benefits for the vital battle, was politically impossible due to French fears that it would instigate a bombing war where the Germans would bomb French cities, something that the inferior French air force would be unable to respond to. Coordination between the two air forces was extremely poor : in effect, they were both fighting different wars, and by the end of May 1940, the RAF had elected to abandon the French on the continent, retreating back to the UK.

Thus, in 1940, the British contribution to the continent, from one of the world's largest and most powerful air forces, was small and ineffective, and played an important part in their failure to support the French against the Germans and the resultant German victory in the West. By the end of May the small elements sent to France were already being withdrawn, essentially leaving the French on their own. The entire world would pay a bitter price for British stupidity and inflexibility for years to come.

Conclusion

Despite its many problems, the French air force probably did better than it would seem destined. It probably achieved some 550 aircraft shot down throughout the Battle of France, a hardly insignificant figure : balanced against this were slightly smaller losses of aircraft on its side in direct combat against the enemy, 400-500. However, adding in losses to destruction on the ground and accidents, both around 230, raise these numbers closer to 1,000, although the German air force also suffered from significant accident numbers which increased its losses. French fighters generally shot down more enemies than they lost, but a simple ratio like this tells little about an air force's effectiveness on a war. Similarly while the Germans never succeeded in the utter destruction of the armée de l'air, which continued to exist and even had more units at the end of the campaign than at the beginning (as greatly increased numbers of aircraft deliveries and produced aircraft became available), they accomplished their objective of preventing French aerial attacks on their advancing formations and on supporting their own ground troops.

As with many of the stories of the Battle of France, it was not for want of courage that the French military collapsed, but rather due to poor doctrine, insufficient preparation for many combat aspects that the Germans prepared, and poor planning. If the Armée de l'air failed, it was not alone in this.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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