Vichy Pilots Flying for the Luftwaffe


LeO 451T Unit: IV/TG 4


LeO 451 Unit: 10./TG 4

In the earlier stages of the war the Germans had an extremely negative attitude towards foreigners serving in the armed forces. Notable exceptions were those considered to be Germanic. This essentially meant those from Flanders, the Netherlands and from Scandinavia. These men were generally assigned to the Waffen SS.

To a larger extent the question of foreigners in the armed forces presented difficult decisions for Germany. On the one hand, there were many groups that were not considered to be racially acceptable. On the other, if conquered countries provided manpower the point might come when those countries demanded concessions from Germany on the basis that their men had already contributed towards Germany’s ultimate victory.

For many key German politicians and members of the armed forces the question was somewhat simpler to answer. At this stage of the war, having successfully annexed portions of Poland and Czechoslovakia and having achieved union with Austria, Germany did not need them to supplement the manpower. As the war progressed and expanded, Germany began to take the more pragmatic view that certain nationalities could make a valuable contribution. After all, there were well trained soldiers, naval personnel and pilots that had belonged to conquered races languishing without a role, yet willing to contribute.

By 1941 Germany had recruited French, Belgians, Spaniards and Croats. Later, the Germans would welcome Russians, Indians, Tunisians, Ukrainians, Serbs and Vietnamese.

Despite this, the fundamental ideological reservations remained. This is exemplified by a speech made by Generaloberst Jodl (Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces) on 7 November 1943: ‘But the drawing upon foreign nationals as fighting soldiers must be viewed with great caution and scepticism.’

Paradoxically, many of the foreign nationals joined the German armed forces after the tide had turned against Germany. There were huge numbers in the Waffen SS, as well as the Wehrmacht (regular German army). The Kriegsmarine (German navy) had a fair number too, but for the most part the Luftwaffe had restricted its recruitment of foreigners to provide manpower for anti-aircraft batteries. The Luftwaffe felt, and with some justification, that if a pilot from a conquered country was given an expensive piece of equipment he would simply fly the aircraft to the nearest enemy airfield and switch sides.

This cautious scepticism had not been the case in the last great conflict, before the outbreak of the Second World War. In Spain during the civil war both the Republicans and the Nationalists had used foreign aircrew and pilots. A mix of adventurers, idealists and a fair few mercenaries, led by the Frenchman André Malroux, had served in the Escuadrilla España for the government in Madrid. Many foreigners flew for the Nationalists, mostly Portuguese. In fact, the German-built Ju52S and the Italian-made SM79S of the Missão Militar de Observação were flown by Portuguese.

Even later, in the winter war between the Russians and the Finns in 1939 to 1940, at least 200 foreign aircrews had volunteered for service in the Finnish Suomen Illmavoimat, and even Swedes had served in the F19 volunteer squadrons. Russia had its own foreign pilots, including Czechs in fighters, Latvians flying night bombers and the Normandie-Niemen French fighter regiment. Offers from foreign nationals had not been met with rejection by the RAF either. Indeed, in the dark days of the Battle of Britain the RAF had been desperate for trained pilots to replace the ruinous losses from the Battle of France and to cope with the attrition caused by day and night Luftwaffe attacks on Britain throughout the summer and autumn of 1940. The RAF had willingly embraced French, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Belgians, Dutch and Norwegians. All of them made telling contributions to the air war.

Regardless of the Luftwaffe’s unwillingness to actively recruit foreign pilots and aircrew, it is estimated that by 1943 to 1944 at least 100 foreigners were serving in this capacity in the Luftwaffe, from a solitary Brazilian of German descent to Spaniards, Russians, Estonians, Latvians, Norwegians, Czechs, Croats, Danes, Italians, Dutch, Belgians and men from Alsace-Lorraine. Most of the instances were still isolated cases; there were no plans to group the nationalities together to form complete foreign units. This was probably a great mistake and a missed opportunity for the Germans. Had they created distinct foreign units no doubt they would have been excellent propaganda tools and effective recruitment models.

By May 1944 the Luftwaffe had enormous numbers of foreign nationals in their ranks. This led to the creation of the post of General for Foreign Personnel, as head of a new department. The first incumbent was Generalleutant Grosch and later General der Flieger Julius Schulz. The role was designed to represent the foreign nationals with the exception of the eastern recruits and volunteers. These men were handled by Generalleutant Heinrich Aschenbrenner (the Inspector for Foreign Personnel). By December 1944 its role came under the control of the Chief of the General Staff of the Luftwaffe.

Many of the recruits (a mix of volunteers, auxiliaries, former soldiers, prisoners of war and deserters) joined as they were fundamentally anti-Bolshevik. The men saw the worsening situation for Germany as a battle they needed to fight in order to stave off the threat of Soviet domination of Europe. As the war progressed the training schedules for pilots and aircrew were drastically cut from 210 flying hours in 1942 to around 160 hours by 1944. In fact, by the middle of 1944, Luftwaffe losses were mounting to unsustainable levels. On average, a Luftwaffe pilot had a 50 per cent chance of being shot down before he had even flown ten sorties.

For a large number of the men, particularly in the annexed areas of Europe, they were obliged to serve in the German military. A role, in fact any role in the Luftwaffe, was deemed to be a distinctly better option than finding themselves fighting for their lives on the crumbling Eastern Front. As far as the French serving in the Luftwaffe were concerned, the decision was a far more ideological one than a choice between a softer option with the Luftwaffe or a brutally short existence fighting against the Russians. Soon after the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa against Russia in June 1941, a French voluntary legion was created. It was known as the Légion des Volontaires Français (LVF).

The group was based in Paris and headed up by the collaborator Pierre Costantini. Costantini was a former First World War pilot, violently anti-British and the leader and founder of the Ligue Français. He also planned to create a separate Aviation League (Légion des Aviateurs Français).

Considerable numbers of French pilots and aircrew volunteered. On 7 July 1941 Otto Abetz, the German ambassador in Paris, wrote to the Berlin-based German Foreign Ministry: ‘The number of trained airmen who have put down their names for the LVF has increased to fifty, including thirty well known bomber pilots.’

On 1 November 1941 the LVF moved into a permanent headquarters in the former British Railways building at Rue Godot de Mauroy in Paris. Costantini would be disappointed by the German reaction to the Frenchmen rallying to National Socialism; they were not supportive of a French aviation contribution. Undeterred, Costantini, along with Captain Caêl, set up flight-training courses. It was to no avail; instead, by 1942 the National Socialist Motor Corps (NSKK) was operating out of the building. They were recruiting drivers for the Luftwaffe. Seven companies were created and other men would serve in a ground role against partisans in Italy. Following the disbandment of Vichy armed forces, the Germans were keen to transfer French airmen directly into the Luftwaffe en bloc, but in a non-flying capacity.

The German High Command War Diary, dated 27 November 1942, noted:

On request of the Luftwaffe, the Führer has declared that personnel from the disbanded formations of the French armed forces can at once be taken over for service in the German armed forces, preferably for air defence reporting tasks, in AA artillery and coastal artillery; the men are to be put up and looked after according to the pre-war French conditions and put under German military law.

This command had, however, arrived too late. Luftwaffe Operations Staff received a report from Luftflotte 3 on 29 November 1942: ‘The demobilization of the French air force had already taken place so quickly that the servicemen could not be taken over for the German service use.’

Some Frenchmen were determined to serve with the Luftwaffe despite all of the hurdles. The Vichy Government had ordered 225 Loiré et Olivier 451 aircraft in August 1941. This was with full German agreement. After the German occupation of all of France in November 1942, another thirty transport versions of the aircraft, the 451T, were completed.

By 1943 a French-crewed transport squadron had been established. It was known as the Hansa Transport Squadron. Elsewhere, a fair number of 451 aircraft served with the Luftwaffe’s IV/TG4 (in fact, as of March 1944 110 of these aircraft were on the Luftwaffe’s books, with around seventy-three of them operational). Many of the transport flights, particularly in France, were handled by French personnel. By the summer of 1944, the IV/TG4 was disbanded and the aircraft and their crews were transferred to the Hansa squadron. Initially, there were plans for there to be nine full French crews, with supporting mechanics.

Even after the Normandy landings in June 1944, these Frenchmen were still serving with the Luftwaffe. Some were French pilots and crews that had been trained in Germany; others were former Vichy crew, whilst another group had flown with Air France. A German order dated 18 September 1944, recognising Allied air superiority in France, led to the Hansa squadron being disbanded.

Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Air France had used the Bloch MB200 monoplane on its short-haul European network. It could carry sixteen passengers. By 1944 Lufthansa had taken all of the remaining Bloch MB200s to replenish its losses. Lufthansa had leased eleven of these aircraft as early as November 1942. Lufthansa had lost a great deal of aircraft during the war.

There were conventional losses from having aircraft shot down, but the majority were requisitioned and most of what remained did not have sufficient spares to keep them airworthy. In fact, the Lufthansa air fleet had shrunk from 151 aircraft in early 1939 to just forty-seven by the end of 1943. Despite the fact that the Bloch MB200 was not that reliable, ten were still in service by the end of June 1944.

The annexation of Alsace and Lorraine meant that from 1942 the male population there was expected to serve in the German armed forces. A large number of the affected men had simply melted away. Some had fled to find refuge in Switzerland; others had disappeared into unoccupied France; others were lying low with relatives and friends, in the hope that they would never be found. For others who found themselves recruited by the Germans the experiences and approach of the men was markedly different. Some actively embraced National Socialism; others took a more pragmatic view that sooner or later they would be mobilized. It was better to volunteer; at least that offered the opportunity to choose the branch of service, rather than being posted. Clearly, the Luftwaffe was the best option, followed by the Kriegsmarine and a last resort was the Wehrmacht.

Charles Kern was born in Alsace in 1924. His father worked for the German Civil Administration and had warned him that following annexation all men in Alsace would be liable for conscription. Charles Kern was already a member of the Aviation Hitler Youth (Flieger HJ) and as such he volunteered to become an officer in the Luftwaffe in 1941. He spent the next two years in training, by which time his father’s prediction had been proved correct. By September 1943 he was a lieutenant and had been posted to 2/NJG4, operating out of Laon-Athies. At the beginning of 1944 he flew his first operational sortie. On 30 May 1944, having taken off from Florenne in Belgium, he shot down one of the United States Air Force’s 801st Bomber Group’s B24 Liberators. On 17 June 1944, flying his Ju88 over the English Channel, he had engine problems. Kern managed to nurse the aircraft back towards Laon-Athies and here he was ambushed by an RAF Mosquito. Kern’s Ju88 was shot down, all of his crew were killed and Kern was badly scarred with burns.

At the end of the war Kern, then at Eggebek in Schleswig-Holstein, was captured by the Allies. He was released on 19 January 1946 and headed home. For his collaboration he was sentenced to five years’ hard labour and ten years of exile from Alsace, which was once again French.

The other side of the coin is the story of René Darbois. His experiences proved the Germans’ worst fears about letting conquered foreign nationals fly their aircraft. Darbois was also born in 1924. He attended basic training at Oschatz and then Officer Candidate School (Luftkriegsshule 7) at Tulln, close to Vienna in Austria. He undertook more pilot training with JG103 (at Chatereau and Orleans) until May 1944. After that he was sent for further training at Stargard in Pomerania with the Replacement Fighter Wing belonging to Replacement Group West.

On 25 June 1944 he was piloting an Bf109G on a ferry flight from Maniago to Ghedi in Italy. Darbois had never seen active service. Maintaining radio silence as instructed, Darbois indicated to one of his colleagues that he was feeling unwell and was returning to base. He pulled away from the formation of fifteen other Bf109s. When he was out of sight he climbed to 26,000 feet and made for the south. He landed behind Allied lines at Santa Maria and surrendered himself. From the outset he maintained that it had always been his intention to desert at the first opportunity.

To prove himself loyal to the Allies and to a Free France he volunteered to fly with the de Gaulle Groupe de Chasse Corse. He adopted the false name of Guyot in case he was shot down and captured by the Germans after having baled out over enemy territory. Had this happened then the Germans would have realized his true identity and Darbois would, undoubtedly, have been executed as a deserter.

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