On 14 September 1918, escorted by five Caudron R.11 from C46, Major Armand des Prez de la Morlais led twenty-three Breguet 14 from EB13 to raid the marshalling yards at Conflans-en-Jarnisy, near Metz, some 30 kilometres behind German lines. The French were organized in three waves and flew in and out by the same route. The first two waves, both from BR131, got through relatively unscathed, losing one Breguet and one Caudron, but the full weight of the German riposte fell on the third wave – eight machines from BR132 under Captain Jannekyn, plus a single Caudron. ‘A westerly wind was blowing at over 20m/s [i.e. 72km/h],’ reported EB13. ‘Our fighters could not escort us all the way so we were anticipating some tough fighting with the enemy aircraft which have been very aggressive in this sector…. A slight delay on take-off meant the squadrons crossed the lines too far apart to assist each other. The enemy fighters spotted us and we came under heavy fire. One patrol, then two, then three – twenty-five planes in all – attacked each flight in waves. Our aircraft held their ground and continued towards the target. The fighting was fierce …. Our aircraft arrived over the target. The enemy planes flew off, clearing the way for the anti-aircraft batteries, which battled hard, but in vain, to defend Conflans station. Our planes flew over [the station] then turned for home into a headwind. The enemy fighters were lying in wait for us. Progress was slow and our planes spent another half hour under relentless attack above the enemy lines. It looked as if the Germans had all agreed to meet around our bomber flights. It soon turned into a real free-for-all, tracer bullets criss-crossing the sky in all directions. From time to time a plane abandoned the field after a mortal blow: a vertiginous spin, fire on board … the awful death always awaiting those who crash. Our ranks thinned out and the survivors closed up to fill the gaps … Eventually we regained our lines, and the Fokkers – which had also taken heavy losses – withdrew. We took stock on landing: six crews missing, one gunner dead, and a pilot and observer wounded. All the missing had been seen to fall – four in flames and the other three in hopeless circumstances. One gunner, Corporal Valat, was spotted wreathed in flames, frantically firing his machine guns. One pilot, Corporal Mestre, stood in the cockpit of his blazing plane and saluted his comrades before leaping into the void: a wave betokening farewell … and his willing embrace of the glorious death awaiting him. How many similar acts of heroism will remain for ever unacknowledged due to the modesty of survivors? … In this difficult situation every man went above and beyond the call of duty. The nine enemy planes downed by our bombers give ample demonstration of the courage and high morale displayed by all during this tough test. Our dead were splendidly avenged.’
That same night the Capronis of CAP115 followed up the attack, striking again at Conflans, some aircraft making two separate sorties, while US railway artillery simultaneously bombarded the town and its infrastructure.
Like Weiller’s Breguets, the robust, well-armed Salmson 2 A.2 machines of the cooperation squadrons normally operated across the German lines in groups of three or four – one photographic aircraft accompanied by two or three escorts from the same squadron. They were also authorized to call on ‘immediate support from the fighter groups, especially for long-range reconnaissance missions’. But Marcel Jeanjean (MF/AR/SAL33) doubted the effectiveness of his fighter escorts: ‘The SPAD’s Hispano [engine] is nowhere near as reliable as the sturdy Canton-Unné in our Salmson,’ he claimed. ‘And then there are all the “infernal” temptations our fighter escorts find so hard to resist. As soon as they spot an enemy dawdling in the clouds they completely forget about their protégés and dash over. Who’ll be next to add a victim to his tally?’
By late September, as the allied advance continued, the Germans were largely confined within their own lines – but still they posed a threat. ‘Permanent enemy patrols are active in strength ahead of our front,’ reported II Colonial Corps. ‘Our planes come under attack as soon as they cross the lines.’ And while the Salmson could look after itself, it was not invulnerable. ‘At 11.40 am, in the Chambly sector, six Fokker D.VII attacked a photo-reconnaissance mission flown by four planes from Squadron SAL47,’ reported II Colonial Corps on 25 September. ‘After a dogfight lasting several minutes, one of the Salmson escorts – flown by Sergeant [Alfred] Chauffour, with Maréchal des Logis [Raymond] Alby as his observer – was shot down by close-range enemy fire and broke up around 1,000 metres.’
Sidelined for a month after crash-landing in the trenches in August, Ernest Maunoury returned to the fray by downing a drachen unopposed from 800 metres. But he still had the German guns to contend with: ‘The artillery was off target, though as usual they were firing at anything and everything. But one gun-layer [must have] miscalculated and just as I spotted a huge explosion, I felt a real jolt. My ears were ringing and I rubbed my eyes to make sure the engine was still running. My lower left wing had been completely shredded and now had a 60-centimetre hole in the middle. Obviously, I was rather shaken! Very gently I tried the controls and got a response. What a relief. The lines were still some distance away, so all I was bothered about after that was getting home. I’d felt the full force of a 105mm shell which had snapped one of my struts in passing and cut three-quarters of the way through my aileron control.’
After that close shave Maunoury had one more fright in store: ‘During the final attacks on the Aisne we were strafing the trenches on a morning of dreadful weather. Suddenly I was blinded by flames. My plane was on fire. No ifs or buts, I was done for. I shut everything down and landed immediately. No time to bother about trenches or barbed wire. I jumped from my soon-to-be funeral pyre, tore off one of the access panels and realized it was the only thing burning. The exhaust pipe had set it alight.’ Maunoury had landed within French lines and ended the war with a total of eleven victories, eight of them balloons. He later became an instructor, before dying in an accident at Cazaux on 15 September 1921.
On 26 September 1918 René Fonck repeated his astonishing feat of six victories (numbers sixty-one to sixty-six) in one day. Still he was left dissatisfied: ‘I could have had another eight if my gun hadn’t jammed,’ he grumbled. Fonck had devised a highly effective method of solo combat appropriate to this era of group manoeuvring. After three years in a German prison camp, Roland Garros (MS23/SPA26) had not – yet old habits died hard. On 5 October 1918 Garros was part of a patrol that encountered a group of seven Fokker D.VII over Vouziers, 10 kilometres inside the German lines. His CO, Captain de Sevin, ordered him to stay in formation, but the ace had other ideas: ‘[he] darted straight into the Fokkers, followed by [de Sevin], who fought for a few seconds with several opponents. Eventually [the CO] managed to break off – but Garros, with a huge number 30 painted on the upper wing of his aircraft, had disappeared. There was no sign of him.’ SPA 48 had several pilots in the vicinity, one of whom had spotted a SPAD taking on three Fokkers: ‘Two of them banked, while the third waited calmly for the attack. Suddenly, at point-blank range, the SPAD broke up into fragments small enough to have been playing cards scattered on the wind.’ Ironically, given his role in its development, Garros may have shot off his own propeller after his synchronizer gear malfunctioned. Leutnant Hermann Habich of Jasta 49 probably administered the coup de grâce.
The Air Division had proved a powerful weapon in this final year of the war, showing itself capable of decisive intervention in the land battle. In September 1918, for the battle of the Saint-Mihiel salient, some 1,500 allied aircraft took to the air under the overall command of the US general Billy Mitchell, so impressing Pétain with their performance that he was planning a second Air Division for his operations in Lorraine in 1919. But Duval had a tough time keeping his squadrons together until he was promoted to become Pétain’s chief of staff that same month. He faced criticism from all sides: from the armies, from fighter commanders like Victor Ménard, and from the bomber enthusiasts led by de Goÿs. ‘One can with some justification ask why [Duval] rejected the lessons of 1917,’ complained Ménard after the war. ‘GQG was obsessed with the idea of the aerial battle. It used the bombers as bait to provoke the enemy and devoted considerable resources to their protection. The armies protested vehemently, but daylight bombing raids escorted by the Air Division’s single-seater fighters continued until the armistice. The aerial battle never came to pass, and most of these combined fighter/bomber missions failed in their stated objective. Nine out of ten were completely futile. In 1918 we had a formidable reserve of 600 fighters at our disposal, nearly all of them squandered in pursuit of an independent air war.’
‘The armies misunderstand the role of the Air Division,’ commented Duval in response to his detractors. ‘In general they view it as no more than a pool from which to draw the extra cover they require for their reconnaissance machines. They cannot grasp the concept of an army group commander ordering squadrons from the Air Division to fly offensive missions over their front, in liaison with the armies, but not under their control.’
At the other extreme, de Goÿs and his parliamentary allies wanted a return to strategic bombing and reprisal raids. Duval, however, was unconvinced. Despite the provocation of the enemy attacks on Paris, he refused to participate in the British Independent Force set up in June 1918 to bomb German cities: ‘Aviation is capable of much more than the subsidiary role it has so far played as an offensive force in the land battle,’ he argued. ‘Adopting British ideas would require us to divert at least some of our bomber force away from [that] battle. It would also require us to redirect resources towards the production of bombers instead of fighters and reconnaissance machines, so undermining or halting the development of aircraft directly employed in ground operations. Our overriding objective is to win the land battle. If we lose that, there is little point in bombing Cologne…. Our current bomber force is too small to divide and still provide effective cover for long-range and battlefield targets.’
The French remained aloof until the autumn, when a joint allied bombing formation was created under the direct orders of Marshal Foch, although it was scarcely operational by November 1918. To further appease the bomber lobby, the Mixed Brigades were broken up on 22 September and replaced by specialist bomber and fighter brigades, under de Goÿs and Duseigneur respectively.
In the post-war period the aviation service remained an integral part of the army, thwarting any movement towards independence and serving only to emphasize its role in supporting land-war objectives. ‘In practice, the air service has to operate in conjunction with the armies,’ argued Colonel Duval. ‘It would be impossible to give it complete autonomy.’ Bomber enthusiasts like Pierre-Étienne Flandin felt this hampered development: ‘Participation in land and sea operations clearly determines the role played by the military and naval aviation services,’ he complained. ‘Those responsible for these operations cannot possess the vision to conceive, prepare and execute an air plan completely independent of land and sea operations and the aerial operations conducted in their support.’ The army and the navy successfully blocked a plan to create an independent third force in 1929, and it was 1934 before the Armée de l’Air eventually came into being. Its first commander, in his final three months before retirement, was General Édouard Barès – such a key figure in the wartime service and for so long a proponent of an independent force.
The last confirmed victory achieved by any French fighter pilot came during a patrol over Reims on 4 November, when Sous-lieutenant Jean Morvan, Lieutenant James Connolly and Lieutenant Cook (SPA163) surprised a flight of four Fokkers and shot down two of them. But the final confirmed French victory of all was the work not of a pilot but a gunner, Sergeant Pierre Raveneau (SAL277), who shot down one confirmed (and one unconfirmed) enemy aircraft over the Vosges on 5 November. The unfortunate German was probably Sergeant Gustav Albrecht (Jasta 64w).