|History of the Armée de l'Air edit|
|History of the Armée de l'Air (1909–1942)|
|Free French Air Force|
|Vichy French Air Force|
|History of the Armée de l'Air in the colonies (1939–62)|
The Armée de l'Air (literally, "army of the air") is the name of the French Air Force in its native language. It has borne this name only from August 1933 when it was still under the jurisdiction of the army. Today, several other countries, all of which were French colonies in the past, also use the term "Armée de l'Air" for their own air forces, including Cameroon (Armée de l'Air du Cameroun), Gabon (Armée de l'Air Gabonaise), Madagascar (Armée de l'Air Malgache) and Senegal (Armée de l'Air du Sénégal). The air forces of most other French-speaking countries use the term Force Aérienne before the adjective of their country to describe them, such as the Force Aérienne Belge for the Belgian air force. A notable exception is Canada, whose armed forces were unified in 1968 and so they used the joint English/French title, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF)/Forces Armées Canadiennes (FAC). The air element of the CAF was known officially as the Canadian Forces Air Command. Since August 16, 2011 this has been returned to The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) (French: Aviation Royale Canadienne).
This article deals exclusively with the history of the French air force from its earliest beginnings (but not French naval aviation, the Aéronautique Navale).
- 1 The early years of French military aviation until 1914
- 2 World War I (1914–1918)
- 3 Between the world wars (1918–1939)
- 4 From the "Drôle de guerre" to defeat (September 1939 – June 1940)
- 5 Defending Vichy’s interests (June 1940–December 1942)
- 6 Operation “Torch”: the last battle for the Vichy French air force (November 8–10, 1942)
- 7 See also
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 References
- 10 External links
The early years of French military aviation until 1914[edit | edit source]
Aviation in France was the preserve of pioneers like Henri Farman and Louis Blériot during the first decade of the 20th century. Like many other armies, however, the French soon saw the potential in aeroplanes as tools for reconnaissance duties. The French collective memory of the humiliating defeat of the army at the hands of the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 was still very fresh, and France was preparing to face Germany again. Indeed, it had already planned to invade Germany using the strategy and tactics formulated in the so-called “Plan XVII”.
From December 1909, the French Department of War began to send army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) from all branches of the army, especially engineering and artillery, to undergo flying training at civilian schools as “pupil-pilots” (élèves-pilotes), including at places such as Rheims and Bron. (Rheims was where the famous Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne had taken place in late August 1909.) In March 1910, the Établissement Militaire d'Aviation (EMA) was created to conduct experiments with aircraft. The Aéronautique Militaire was created, as a branch of the Army, on 22 October 1910, under the command of General Pierre Roques. Even so, it was not until mid-1911 the first military aviation brevets were awarded to army pilots. Furthermore, it was not until a law was passed on 29 March 1912 that the Aéronautique Militaire formally became part of the armed forces.
Training of military pilots was the same as civilian pilots until 1910 when the General Staff introduced the military pilot license. The military pilot badge N°1 was issued to Lieutenant Charles de Tricornot de Rose, who first completed all the military requirements. Lt. de Rose was trained in the Bleriot Flying School in Pau, in southwest of France, the city where the Wright Brothers had established the first aviation school in history just a year earlier.
Even though the German army was forming its own embryonic air corps at the time, many consider the French one to be the world's first “air force”, even if it did not become the Armée de l'Air until August 1933, for it was still under army jurisdiction. Nearly a year after that, it finally became independent on 2 July 1934, albeit 16 years after the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) gained its independence as the Royal Air Force (RAF).
World War I (1914–1918)[edit | edit source]
France led the world in early aircraft design and by mid-1912 the Aéronautique Militaire had five squadrons (escadrilles). This had grown to 132 machines (21 escadrilles) by 1914, the same year when, on 21 February, it formally came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War (Ministère de la Guerre) and, on 3 August, Germany declared war against France, with Britain declaring war against Germany upon the German invasion of Belgium.
At the beginning of what eventually became known as World War I, the Aéronautique Militaire concentrated on reconnaissance work with aircraft like the Farman MF.2. On 8 October, though, the commander-in-chief, General Barès, proposed a radical expansion to 65 squadrons. Furthermore, he proposed that four types of aircraft could be used for four different types of task: Morane-Saulniers would be used as fighters, Voisins as bombers, Farmans as reconnaissance aircraft, and Caudrons as artillery spotters.
At first, the shooting-down of aeroplanes was (quite literally) a hit-and-miss affair and was usually done by ground artillery, despite the fact that on October 5, 1914, Sergent Joseph Franz and his mechanic Caporal Louis Quénault, shot down a German Aviatik. However, air fighting became revolutionized when a reconnaissance pilot, Roland Garros, mounted a Hotchkiss machine gun on the cowling of his Morane-Saulnier L and added deflector plates to the blades of the propeller, so that the wooden propeller would not be shot to pieces whenever he opened fire on German aircraft. Garros, in some respects, thus became the world's first fighter pilot, but he was shot down and captured, remaining a prisoner until his escape and return to the front. He was killed in action just a month before the armistice in 1918.
Nevertheless, Garros inspired aircraft designer Anthony Fokker from the Netherlands (which, unlike in World War II, was not invaded and remained neutral) to do exactly the same, fitting his E.I monoplane (a revolutionary aeroplane in 1915) in the same way and thus changing the way in which the air war was fought, as German and Allied aeroplanes fought each other and produced “ace” pilots. Three prominent French “aces” were René Fonck, who became the top-scoring Allied pilot of World War I with 75 enemy aircraft shot down, Georges Guynemer (killed in action in 1917 after gaining 54 victories), and Charles Nungesser (who shot down 43 enemy aircraft and survived the war, only to disappear attempting a transatlantic flight in 1927).
1916 was when most squadrons were grouped around the sector of Verdun, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in military history when more than one million soldiers from the French and German armies were killed, as the Germans attempted to take the fortress, considered strategically important. Combat formations were introduced, with several fighter squadrons being part of one wing, an organization that the Germans would also adopt for their army air service and, later, for the Luftwaffe.
The air battle over Verdun was the first large scale air battle ever fought. With French observation and reconnaissance aircraft threatened by whole squadrons of German fighters, the French commanders were completely blind and were unable properly to react to German artillery fire and infantry maneouvers. General Pétain called for Commandant (Major) de Rose and barked "De Rose, I'm blind, wipe out the sky!" De Rose then concentrated fighter aircraft from other airfields and land divisions, called for the best pilots in the French Army such as Jean Navarre or Georges Guynemer and established a systematic occupation of the Verdun sky by creating rolls of fighter shifts. After several weeks of intense air fighting, the French slowly regained air superiority over Verdun. Verdun can also be remembered as the birth of command and control of air power in air warfare.
It was at this time that, with the USA still officially neutral (until unrestricted submarine warfare moved public opinion to pressure President Wilson to declare war against Germany), a squadron of mostly American volunteers flew on behalf of the French, the Lafayette Escadrille (first designated N.124 and later SPA.124), under the command of Captain Georges Thenault. It operated initially from Luxeuil, but then it moved to Bar-le-Duc. Flying fighter planes such as the Nieuport 17 and the SPAD S.XIII, not only did it gain a reputation for bravery and daring, shooting down a total of 57 enemy aircraft before being absorbed into the U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) in February 1918, but also for recklessness. Furthermore, its pilots allegedly reveled in partying. The leading “ace” was French-born American Raoul Lufbery, who shot down 16 enemy aircraft (all but one with the Escadrille) prior to his death in action on 19 May 1918. Other American volunteer pilots, including aerial reconnaissance pioneer Fred Zinn from the French Foreign Legion, flew with regular French Aéronautique Militaire escadrilles.
By April 1917, the Aéronautique Militaire had 2,870 aircraft comprising 60 fighter and 20 bomber squadrons and 400 observation planes, yet, by October, an even more radical expansion to over 300 squadrons altogether was being proposed. By May 1918, over 600 fighters and bombers came under the command of the so-called Division Aérienne. Two months later, long-range reconnaissance squadrons had been formed, based in part on tactics invented by the American Zinn. At the armistice, the Aéronautique Militaire had some 3,222 front-line combat aircraft on the Western Front, making it the world's largest airforce in air strength. During the war the Aéronautique Militaire claimed 2,049 enemy aircraft & 357 balloons destroyed, for some 3,500 killed in action, 3,000 wounded/missing and 2,000 killed in accidents. Some 182 pilots of the Aéronautique Militaire were deemed flying aces for having scored five or more air-to-air victories.
Between the world wars (1918–1939)[edit | edit source]
The end of war may have brought peace to France, yet the country itself and its infrastructure had been ravaged by four years of unremitting warfare, the like of which had never been experienced before, and the scars left behind were not just physical. As a result, it took some time for industry to recover. Not unexpectedly, orders for military aeroplanes dropped after the Armistice, resulting in reductions being made in terms of squadron strengths, a phenomenon much more keenly felt in the RAF given that it was by far the biggest air force in the world in terms of aeroplanes on station and in manpower at the end of the war itself.
Like the United Kingdom, France had an empire stretching all over the globe, and it needed to be policed. Anti-French elements in French Morocco were clamoring to be free of their colonial masters, much as anti-British elements in India wanted the British to leave their country. On 27 April 1925, therefore, alongside tactical and logistical support, air policing operations in Morocco were started owing to the so-called Rif War and they were to continue until December 1934, barely five months after the Armée de l'Air had gained its independence from the army.
Unlike in the United Kingdom, however, there existed the perception in France that it was more important to place political influence in decision-making before practicality and production when it came to which aeroplanes were to be in the air force, and lobbying in the French parliament undoubtedly had plenty to do with this. At the time, 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. A rare exception to this rule was Marcel Bloch, whose company had started out building propellers during World War I and was the forerunner of today’s Dassault Aviation. He foresaw the crisis that the industry would undergo, and so he got together with the company run by Henry Potez. Both Bloch and Potez’s names would, perhaps not surprisingly, become very influential on the future of French military aviation. Together, they formed a company which became the Société aéronautique du sud-ouest (SASO) and produced aircraft such as the MB.200 and MB.210 bombers.
Nevertheless, the French aeronautical industry proved itself incapable of delivering enough aircraft that the annual fiscal budgets had called for, in spite of the fact that Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and, by March 1935, was defying the Allies (and the Treaty of Versailles) openly by announcing the existence of the Luftwaffe. National security was clearly under threat, so Pierre Cot, the secretary of the French Air Force, decreed that national security was too important for the production of war planes to be left in the hands of private enterprises.
In July 1936, therefore, coincident (albeit by sheer chance) with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the French government therefore began nationalizing the companies, creating six giant state-owned aircraft companies, which nearly encompassed the total aeronautical production domain, and regrouping those companies according to their geographical locations. Bloch’s own company was nationalized in January 1937 and became part of the Société nationale de constructions aéronautiques du sud-ouest (SNCASO), yet Marcel Bloch himself was asked by Cot to oversee SNCASO in its entirety. However, the aircraft engine industry, even if it proved incapable of providing the badly needed powerful engines, escaped nationalization.
By 1937, it was clear that more modern aircraft were needed, since the air force was still flying relatively antiquated aircraft like the Dewoitine D.500 and D.501, serving with fighter squadrons including the famous Cigognes (Storks), an illustrious member of which during the Great War had been Georges Guynemer (who had been killed in action on 11 September 1917). This particular squadron, part of Groupe de Chasse (GC) I, was stationed at Chartres-Champbol at this point, but, barely five days before Germany invaded Poland, it relocated to Beauvais-Tillé, by which time it had swapped its D.500s and D.501s for the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406, armed with 20-mm cannon, then amongst the most modern fighters in the inventory of the Armée de l'Air at the outbreak of World War II.
The urge to construct more than 2,500 modern machines, among them the Bloch MB.170 bomber and the Dewoitine D.520 fighter plane, had been a response to circumstances by the French government, which itself had been prompted by an alleged remark by the then-commander-in-chief of the air force, who claimed that less than half the approximately 1,400 front-line aircraft would be ready to go to war at a moment’s notice; and most of those were obsolescent, anyway. Perhaps this politicking was not surprising, given that the air force generals had to fight their corner against the army and navy chiefs for their piece of the military budget pie every year, since there was intense inter-service rivalry. Nor was there even any clear idea about how the air force should be used, and conflicting ideas led to bickering and delays while a certain neighbor to the east of the Rhine was preparing its armed forces. The inadequacy of the French aeronautical programs, as well as the indecision of the high command, resulted in the French Air Force being placed in a position of weakness, confronting a modern and well organized Luftwaffe, whose first teeth had been proverbially cut in Spain (Most prominently with the bombing of Gernika-Lumo), where the civil war had ended in March 1939 with victory for the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
France had tried to respond militarily to the threat of another European war via an intensive re-equipment and modernization program in 1938–39, as did other countries desperately in need of new planes including Poland which in 1939, ordered 160 MS-406 fighters in France which unfortunately for the outnumbered Polish Air Force weren't delivered before the German invasion of Poland. Germany was way ahead of everybody else, so it was a question of “too little, too late” as far as the French – as well as the whole continent of Europe – were concerned.
From the "Drôle de guerre" to defeat (September 1939 – June 1940)[edit | edit source]
When war inevitably did break out, the Armée de l'Air would suffer greatly as a result of the total chaos that was reigning within government, armed forces and industry that allowed only 826 fighter planes and 250 bombers to be anything like combat-ready. Indeed, many more airplanes were not ready when they ought to have been, and it was not just a question of the airframes but also the defensive armament they were carrying, with a lot of machine-guns not even calibrated properly, and some bombers allegedly had not even a bomb-sight fitted when they were finally delivered to the squadrons. This would only make the Germans’ victory over France that much quicker. Furthermore, unlike in the UK, which benefited from the services of the (non-combat) pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) (of which famed aviatrix Amy Johnson was one until her death on 5 January 1941), front-line pilots in France became responsible for ferrying "combat-ready" aircraft from the factories to the squadrons, thus temporarily depleting the front-line strength at any one time even if invasion was hanging over France’s head.
When the invasion did come on 10 May 1940, the Germans were not only in possession of more aircraft and weapons than the western Allies (among them were approximately 400 aircraft from the RAF, including Hawker Hurricane fighters and outclassed Fairey Battle bombers), but many of them were veterans of the war in Spain and so had brought their comrades up to speed as to how to conduct the air element of the war by "preparing the ground" for the Panzer divisions of the German Army.
The doctrine of the German armed forces was Blitzkrieg – "lightning war" – very modern, geared solely for fast-paced attack, while the doctrines of the defenders were hopelessly out of date and based heavily on the events of the 1914–1918 war, even if Hitler had allegedly said years earlier that the next war would be very different from the last. Whereas the Luftwaffe had their infamous Stuka dive-bombers, the western Allies had absolutely nothing like it in their inventories. Even so, the German Army had been thoroughly drilled in shooting down enemy aircraft which might attack Panzer and infantry divisions on the march by use of their mobile Flak units.
One farcical situation occurred owing to the aforementioned French inter-service rivalry: a Potez reconnaissance aircraft crew had allegedly spotted a huge concentration of Panzers and supporting infantry units concealed in the Ardennes forests two days after the start of the invasion – yet the army commanders refused to take any action because they believed that the air force was indulging itself in scaremongering. This certainly added meaning to the French phrase, Drôle de guerre, which was referred to by the English-speaking world as the "Phoney War", except that it referred to the period in western Europe between the outbreak of war and the invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg and France. That "Phoney War" was well and truly over.
The Armée de l'Air was beset by two problems: first the lack of modernization in strategy, tactics, aircraft, weapons and even in communications, and second the staggering lack of availability of much of the hardware owing to "technical problems." Both became apparent when the Germans advanced swiftly through France and decimated, almost with contemptuous ease, all opposition including British army and RAF units. On 11 May, for instance, nearly 20 French bombers and over 30 escorting British fighters were destroyed in an attempt to stop the Germans from crossing the Meuse river. This was merely the beginning, for French fighter and bomber strengths became rapidly depleted during May as Luftwaffe fighters plus ground-based Flak units shot down the aircraft, which had been sent to attack the advancing Germans. Worse was the fact that the squadrons were often out of contact with any French army units that they were supposedly supporting owing partly to the poor coordination of communication between the army and the air force and partly to the outdated, unreliable army communications equipment being used.
As it became clear that the war was lost for France, the high command ordered what remained of the Armée de l’Air to French colonies in North Africa in order, so they believed at the time, to continue the fight, such that Armée de l’Air units were stationed at places like Alger-Maison-Blanche and Oran in Algeria and Meknes and Rayack in Morocco. Yet the Vichy government, which became the official German-approved power in occupied France after the armistice, ordered the dissolution of many of the air force squadrons, including the fighter unit designated GC II/4, nicknamed Les Petits Poucets.
GC II/4 had been formed at Rheims in May 1939, but had relocated to Xaffévilliers by the start of the war. It flew U.S.-built Curtiss H-75A fighter planes, with which the unit claimed the first two French air victories on 8 September 1939, namely two Bf 109s of I/JG 53. Just 17 days later, it lost its commanding officer, Captain Claude, in combat, yet the pilots were especially shocked to discover that his body had been discovered with two bullets in the head, suggesting that a German pilot may have deliberately murdered him when he was descending to the ground by parachute after bailing out of his plane, though this was never confirmed given that no other French pilot would suffer such a fate.
At dawn on 10 May 1940, the day of the German invasion, Luftwaffe aircraft attacked the air base at Xaffévilliers, destroying six Curtisses. By the 15th, after various combats, GC II/4 had only seven serviceable aircraft available for operations, yet their pilots distinguished themselves by shooting down one Heinkel He 111 bomber, four Bf 109s and, allegedly, a Henschel Hs 126 observation plane which had accidentally strayed into the combat area. In return, none of the seven GC II/4 aircraft was shot down, but some were ridden with bullet-holes. The good luck continued for GC II/4 when four enemy aircraft were destroyed the next day for no loss. Unfortunately, the aforementioned state of chaos with regard to preparing France for war was still evident when some GC II/4 pilots were shocked to discover that new Curtiss H-75A-3s being prepared at Châteaudun had vital equipment missing – including radios.
On 16 June, GC II/4 lost its second commanding officer in nine months when Commandant (Major) Borne took off by himself in order to carry out a reconnaissance mission near Châtillon-sur-Seine, only to end up being shot down after being intercepted by three Bf 109s. The next day, in accordance with orders from high command, nine Curtisses that were not airworthy were deliberately set on fire by ground personnel at Dun-sur-Auron before 23 remaining ones were flown to the other side of the Mediterranean to Meknès in Morocco. GC II/4 eventually fell victim to the post-Armistice "hatchet" by being disbanded on 25 August 1940, having been credited with 14 aircraft shot down during the Drôle de guerre and another 37 after the German invasion for the loss of eight pilots killed, seven wounded and one taken prisoner.
Altogether, during the Battle of France,the French record 750 aircraft lost while the Germans lost over 850. Hence, it is fair to say that the French did inflict considerable losses on the Germans during their so-called Fall Gelb ("Case Yellow"), even if France did fall within six weeks of the start of the invasion. Blitzkrieg had, indeed, brought a rapid victory for the Germans, a far cry from the four years of "mud-and-blood" trench warfare that had raged during the previous war, yet even the Germans were feeling the pinch: Albert Kesselring, who would soon be promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall, reflected that the Luftwaffe’s effectiveness had been reduced to almost 30 percent of what it had been before the invasion of France. This would explain why it was that nearly a month passed before the Luftwaffe began to attack Britain, giving the British much-needed time to reorganize its defenses.
France’s defeat was complete when Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain signed the armistice with Germany on 22 June 1940. Yet that did not necessarily mean the end of the war for French pilots, because now they were split into two camps: those who escaped from France and were now fighting for the Free French Forces (Forces Françaises Libres) and those flying for the French Armistice Air Force on behalf of the Vichy government although it should be noted that the Germans had originally wanted the air force to be disbanded completely, with personnel demobilized by mid-September. Yet a certain event that took place on 3 July 1940, would help to change the German attitude towards France still having armed forces, even as a conquered nation.
Defending Vichy’s interests (June 1940–December 1942)[edit | edit source]
In a parallel of what had happened to Germany after World War I, the French government, now with its seat moved to Vichy, was forced by the Germans to accept its terms for a reduced army and navy, both of which would be only strong enough to maintain order in France and in its colonies. (It is of interest to note that France was allowed to keep her colonies, whereas Germany had been forced to cede all of hers under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919.) Germany ordered that, with regard to the warplanes that had survived the Battle of France, including those now stationed in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, they were to be surrendered, either in whole or else already disassembled, if not destroyed altogether – again a parallel of what had happened to Germany’s air force in 1919.
However, Vichy’s air force was spared (for the moment) from non-existence owing to the consequences of an event, which would damage, if not completely change, the relationship between occupied France and free Britain. Winston Churchill had no intention of allowing the French Navy’s capital ships to remain intact so long as there was any chance of them essentially becoming adjuncts of the Kriegsmarine (German Navy). The last thing he wanted was for the Kriegsmarine to bolstered enough to attempt an invasion of Britain.
He implemented the plan – codenamed "Operation Catapult" – for a British fleet, coded "Force H" and based in Gibraltar, to sail to the harbor of Mers-el-Kébir, near Oran in Algeria, where four capital ships and other vessels were stationed, in order to persuade Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul to disobey orders from Vichy and have his vessels sail either to British waters or else to those of French colonies in the Far East or even to the (still neutral) USA with a view to preventing them from being used against the Allies. The overture was soundly rejected, so Royal Navy Admiral James Somerville gave the orders to destroy the French vessels. More than 2,000 sailors allegedly died in the attack, which saw one battleship sunk and two others severely damaged. The incident predictably stunned the French and gave the Germans a golden propaganda tool to discredit the British as France’s real enemies.
Vichy and Berlin agreed, if reluctantly, that the Armée de l'Air de Vichy (as it was termed) was still needed in case French interests were to be attacked by the British once again – and, of course, for attacking the British themselves. Goering ordered that all Armée de l'Air aircraft would now be identified by special markings on the fuselage and tailplane of each one. Initially, the rear fuselage and tailplane (excluding the rudder) were painted a bright yellow, yet the markings were later changed so that they consisted of horizontally-oriented red and yellow stripes. In all cases, French national markings (roundel on the fuselage and tricolor on the tailplane) were retained as before.
Nearly three months afterwards, on 23 September 1940, the Vichy air force saw action again when the British tried to take Dakar, the capital of Senegal, after a failed attempt (as at Mers-el-Kébir) to persuade the French to join the Allied cause against the Axis. This time, however, the French managed to repulse the British torpedo-bomber attacks launched from the carrier HMS Ark Royal during several days of fighting with only light casualties on their side.
Syrian-based Vichy air force units saw action against the British from April 1941, when a coup d'état in Iraq briefly installed the nationalist Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani as prime minister of in order to secure the vital oil supplies at Kirkuk (under British control since 1934) in northeastern Iraq for the pro-Axis nationalists who wanted the British to be expelled from the country. However, the RAF base at Habbaniya withstood the nationalists, and in May the British, Indian and Commonwealth "Iraqforce" invaded Iraq via Basra. The ensuing Anglo-Iraqi War ended with Iraqforce defeating the nationalists at the end of May and restoring a pro-Allied government in Iraq.
Allied operations during the Anglo-Iraqi War included attacks on Vichy air force bases in Lebanon and Syria, which served as staging posts for Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe units flying to Mosul to support the Iraqi nationalist coup. Then in June 1941 British, Commonwealth, Empire and Free French forces invaded Syria and Lebanon. Vichy French air units, some of which were equipped with Dewoitine D.520 fighters and US-built Martin Maryland bombers had initial air superiority, but the Allied invaders inflicted heavy casualties on Vichy air and ground forces. By mid-July the Allied invasion was victorious and put Syria and Lebanon under Free French control.
Operation “Torch”: the last battle for the Vichy French air force (November 8–10, 1942)[edit | edit source]
The last major battles against the Allied forces, in which the Vichy French air force took part, took place during Operation Torch, launched on 8 November 1942 as the Allied invasion of North Africa. Facing the U.S. Navy task force headed for Morocco, consisting of the carriers Ranger, Sangamon, Santee and Suwannee, were, in part, Vichy squadrons based at Marrakech, Meknès, Agadir, Casablanca and Rabat, which between them could muster some 86 fighters and 78 bombers. Overall, the aircraft may have been old compared to the F4F Wildcats of the U.S. Navy, yet they were still dangerous and capable in the hands of combat veterans who had seen action against both the Germans and the British since the start of the war.
Wildcats attacked the airfield at Rabat-Salé around 07.30 on the 8th and destroyed nine LeO 451 bombers of GB I/22, while a transport unit’s full complement of various types was almost entirely wiped out. At Casablanca, SBD Dauntless dive-bombers succeeded in damaging the French battlecruiser, Jean Bart, and Wildcats strafed the bombers of GB I/32 at Camp Cazes airfield, some of which exploded as they were ready for take-off with bombs already on board, thus ensuring their mission never went ahead. The U.S. Navy did not have it all their own way, though, as several Wildcat pilots were shot down and taken prisoner.
The day’s victory tally of enemy aircraft shot down by the French fighter pilots totaled seven confirmed and three probable, yet their losses were considered heavy – five pilots killed, four wounded and 13 aircraft destroyed either in combat or on the ground – when one considers that GC II/5, based in Casablanca, had lost only two pilots killed during the whole of the six-week campaign in France two years before. In the meantime, Wildcats of U.S. Navy Fighter Squadron VF-41 from Ranger strafed and destroyed three U.S.-built Douglas DB-7 bombers of GB I/32, which were being refueled and rearmed at Casablanca, leaving three others undamaged.
Nevertheless, having been reinforced by two other bombers, GB I/32 carried out a bombing mission against the beaches at Safi, where more U.S. soldiers were landing, the next morning. One of the bombers was damaged and attempted to make a forced landing, only it exploded upon contact with the ground, killing the entire crew. Fighter unit GC I/5 lost four pilots in combat that day (9 November) and it was on that same day that Adjudant (Warrant Officer) Bressieux had the distinction of becoming the last pilot in the Vichy French air force to claim a combat victory, in this case a Wildcat of VF-9. Shortly afterwards, 13 Wildcats attacked the airfield at Médiouna and destroyed a total of 11 French aircraft, including six from GC II/5.
On the morning of 10 November 1942, the Vichy French air force units in Morocco had a mere 37 combat-ready fighters and 40 bombers left to face the might of the U.S. Navy Wildcats. Médiouna was attacked once again and several of the fighters were left burning, while two reconnaissance Potez were shot down, one by a Wildcat and the other by an SBD over the airfield at Chichaoua, where three Wildcats would later destroy four more Potez in a strafing attack.
Ultimately, the presence of Vichy France in North Africa as an ally of the Germans came to an end (ironically) on Armistice Day, 11 November 1942, when General Noguès, the commander-in-chief of the Vichy armed forces, requested a ceasefire; that did not stop a unit of U.S. Navy aircraft from attacking the airfield at Marrakech and destroying several French aircraft, apparently on the initiative of the unit’s commander. Once the ceasefire request was accepted, the war between the Allies and the Vichy French came to an end, after two and a half years of what was termed “fratricidal” fighting.
“Torch” had resulted in a victory for the Allies, even though it was fair to say that the French had no choice but to engage the Americans, otherwise the Americans would (and did) engage them since they were technically enemies. As a result, 12 air force and 11 navy pilots lost their lives in the final four days of combat between (Vichy) France and the Allies during World War II. Barely two weeks later, the Germans invaded the then-unoccupied zone of metropolitan France and ordered the complete dissolution of the Vichy French armed forces on 1 December 1942. Those units then not under Vichy control would then be free to join with their Free French colleagues to fight the common enemy: Nazi Germany.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Lafayette Escadrille
- List of military aircraft of France
- List of aircraft of the Armée de l'Air, World War II
- World War I
Bibliography[edit | edit source]
Ballarini, Phillippe (2001), “Where is the French Air Force?”, article translated by Mike Leveillard and posted on Aerostories website 
Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (2000), La chasse française: le GC II/4, in Aéro-Journal magazine, edition #16 (December 2000–January 2001), Aéro-Editions SARL, Fleurance, pp. 60–63 (print edition in French)
Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (2004), Casablanca: 8 novembre 1942: les Américains débarquent, in Aéro-Journal magazine, edition #35 (February–March 2004), Aéro-Editions SARL, Fleurance, pp. 4–31 (print edition in French)
Larribau, Tim (2001), “A Brief History of the French Air Force from 1934 to 1945”, posted on the ww2wings.com website 
Osché, Philippe (2000), “Mécano aux Cigognes”, in Aéro-Journal magazine, edition #13 (June–July 2000), Aéro-Editions SARL, Fleurance, pp. 51–56 (print edition in French)
References[edit | edit source]
- "France: Air Force (Armée de l'Air), in Christopher H. Sterling, Military Communications: From Ancient Times to the 21st century (ABC-CLIO, 2008) p168
- http://www.theaerodrome.com/aces/france/index.php?pageNum_names=12&totalRows_names=182 Retrieved on 24 June 2010.
[edit | edit source]
- Acepilots.com article on the Lafayette Escadrille
- Acepilots.com article on Raoul Lufbery
- City of Rheims web site A comprehensive history of aviation as pertains to the city of Rheims (in French)
- Official Government of France Defense Department Website pages detailing the history of the Armée de l'Air to 1914 (in French)
- Official Government of France Defense Department Website pages detailing the history of the Armée de l'Air from 1914 to 1918 (in French)
- Official Government of France Defense Department Website pages detailing the history of the Armée de l'Air from 1918 to 1939 (in French)
- SLHADA (Société Lyonnaise d’Histoire et de Documentation Aéronautique) website SLHADA is a Lyons-based society dealing with the history of the city and its aviation roots in particular (in French)
- Spartacus (UK-based) – a web site for schools
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