The Potez 637 was one of the more modern aircraft in the reconnaissance groups, but losses were heavy. Production of this variant was limited, and the Potez 63.11 played just as important role in these group. The Potez 63.11 was also the most important aircraft in the army co-operation units, where it suffered heavy losses, mostly to ground fire and on the ground (although managed to hold its own against German fighters). By 1940 the entire family was outdated, with the lack of engine power.
The French aviation industry during the interwar period had built far more military aircraft than any of its foreign competitors. Some 1,500 Breguet 19 bombers (1922) and 3,500 Potez 25 Army Cooperation Aircraft were constructed. Between them they were the most widely used military aircraft in the world – they were extremely robust and reliable. Back in 1927 one of the bombers had flown across the Atlantic. No fewer than thirty of the Potez 25s had circumnavigated Africa in 1933. These were not the only examples of extremely good aircraft. They were famed for their technical excellence and reliability. For a three-year period, from 1924, the fast medium bomber, the Lioré et Olivier 20, beat all-comers. In 1934 the Potez 542 retained the prestigious label as the fastest bomber in Europe for two years. Comparatively speaking, a number of the French aircraft were hugely superior to other bombers being built by European competitors. The Amiot 143, of which the French had eighteen squadrons, could carry a 2-ton bomb load at a speed of 190 mph at just short of 26,000 feet.
The Germans had their Dornier Do23G, which could only carry a 1-ton bomb load. It had a maximum speed of 160 mph and could barely reach 14,000 feet.
The French beat the 30,000 feet ceiling in 1936, with the Bloch 210. It was to be the only aircraft that could reach this height before 1939. The French would eventually equip twenty-four squadrons with this aircraft. The French also had the first modern four-engine heavy bomber, in the Farman 222, built in 1936. It was designed to carry a heavy load of bombs, so it was an ideal night operation aircraft, as comparatively speaking it was slow. They also had the fastest medium bombers in the Amiot 354 (298 mph) and the Lioré et Olivier 451 (307 mph). The Bloch 174 reconnaissance bomber, which was introduced during 1940, had a speed of 329 mph, which made it the fastest multi-engine aircraft in the world. All three of these French aircraft could easily outpace the German equivalents. The fastest the Germans could muster was the Junkers Ju88A, with a top speed of 292 mph. The Dornier Do17K and the Heinkel He111e were upwards of 30 mph slower than this.
It was not just in the bomber field that the French excelled. Their fighters were of excellent quality. Of the twenty-two world airspeed records that were set between the wars, French fighter aircraft held half of them. In fact, the Nieuport-Delage 29 (1921) held seven alone. For four years from 1924 the Gourdou-Leseurre 32 was the fastest operational fighter. This aircraft was only beaten by another French fighter, the Nieuport-Delage 62. The Dewoitine 371 took the record in 1934 and in 1936 the Dewoitine 510 reached a speed of 250 mph, the first operational fighter to do so.
The French fighters were also excellent in other areas of development. In 1935 the Dewoitine 501 became the first fighter with a cannon that could fire through a propeller hub.
Whatever the shortcomings of the French Air Force in 1940, it was not a lack of technical ability, nor indeed, for that matter, lack of numbers. By May 1940 French aircraft manufacturers were producing 619 combat aircraft every month. The French were also buying American aircraft, which were being delivered at a rate of 170 per month.
The French Air Force during the First World War had suffered from the same lack of understanding and poor deployment that the majority of other air forces had experienced during the conflict. On the one hand, the army wanted to have squadrons of aircraft under their direct command. For the aviators themselves, they saw the opportunity to concentrate their forces and deliver crippling blows against the enemy at decisive points on the front line. In the end it was the aviators that won the argument and in April 1918 the 1st Aviation Division was created. It had 585 combat aircraft split up into twenty-four fighter squadrons and fifteen bomber squadrons.
The creation of this unit did not solve all of the problems. Corps and divisional infantry commanders tended to use the assets as protection for their observation aircraft. Like all of the other aviation wings the French Air Force, as it was then, was still a junior partner. The situation began to change after the First World War. The French Government passed two laws in 1928 and in 1933 that effectively created a separate French Air Force. It would no longer be subordinate to either the army or the navy.
In the period 1926 to 1937 the number of squadrons steadily rose to 134. By 1937 there were two air corps and six air divisions. Compromise in terms of command and control of these units was protracted. This meant that the army and the navy, with the connivance of the French Air Ministry, retained operational control of 118 of the squadrons. Thus, only sixteen bomber squadrons were directly under the air force chain of command.
The influence of the army and the navy was even deeper. Back in 1932 the air force had argued for the creation of large, heavily armed aircraft that could engage in bombing, reconnaissance and aerial combat. They were not designed for close cooperative support of any battle on the ground. As a consequence, the army had an undue influence on the type of aircraft chosen and their deployment. In January 1936, of the 2,162 front-line aircraft 63 per cent were primarily observation and reconnaissance aircraft, which would work directly with the army. A further 20 per cent were designed to protect observation aircraft.
Even after disastrous military manoeuvres in 1935, which seemed to indicate that Bloch 200 aircraft were not ideal for attacking motorized columns, there was still refusal to consider introducing dive bombers or assault aircraft. As far as the French Air Force was concerned, it was not their job to attack targets on the battlefield; they were a strategic force. This point of view was supported by the French Air Minister, Pierre Cot (June 1936 to January 1938). He authorized the tripling of the bomber force through acquisition and reorganization. Observation was now the role of air force reserves. This meant that the majority of regular air force units were designated as strategic bombing units. Cot dealt with the opposition from the Superior Air Council by getting the French Parliament to reduce the mandatory retirement age of senior officers. This swept away all of the senior commanders in the French Air Force. Cot simply replaced them with men that supported his own military viewpoint.
The air force was thrown into even greater confusion in 1938 when Guy la Chambre took over from Cot as the air minister. Not only did the new man not agree with this strategic bombing role of the air force and do a u-turn, ensuring that the air force would focus on close support for the army, but he also removed all of the men that Cot had promoted. As a result of this the air force now found itself fighting a secretive war with the government, the air minister and parliament. They simply continued following the strategic bombing approach, while making comforting noises to their opponents.
In their preoccupation with this strategy, vital elements of air warfare were ignored. The airfields were under-funded, command, control and communications were poorly developed and there was a very rudimentary ground-based observer corps. This would ultimately mean that when the French Air Force faced the Luftwaffe in 1940 they would find it impossible to track and to intercept incoming streams of enemy aircraft.
The chief of the French Air Force, General Vuillemin, found himself in a very difficult position in January 1939. He was told that in 1940 the aircraft production schedules would provide him with 600 new aircraft per month. Owing to the lack of aircrew and ground crew, Vuillemin responded by saying that he only needed a maximum of sixty per month. In the end he settled for 330, which was forty fewer than the French factories were to produce per month alone. Vuillemin was aware that to expand the training programme would take up almost all of the time and effort of the air force. He called up reservists and many of these men would fly in frontline aircraft, but it was still not enough. Consequently, he began imposing modification requirements on the new aircraft. This meant that newly delivered aircraft were not even commissioned, as they required additional components, such as extra guns and radios. The air staff kept up this ridiculous pretence by instituting incredibly complicated acceptance inspections. American aircraft arriving in crates were simply left in the crates and were never unpacked.
As the French Air Force moved toward combat with Germany in 1940 it had insufficient aircrew and ground staff, a pitiful infrastructure, and secrets to be kept from the government, the air minister, the army and the navy. The net result was that the air force would end up fighting an entirely different war from the army when the Germans launched their attacks in May 1940.
In the early hours of 10 May 1940 three German army groups began an assault on the Low Countries and France. The Germans had a nominal strength of some 3,634 aircraft. Of this total just over 1,000 were fighters, 1,500 were bombers, 500 were reconnaissance aircraft and 550 were transports. The German plan was precisely the same as it had been in Poland – to destroy the Allied air force on the ground.
The French faced the invasion with 4,360 combat aircraft. By this stage 790 new aircraft were being delivered by French and American manufacturers every month. As we have seen, the French Air Force was neither prepared nor organized to cope with these numbers of new aircraft and it was also not organized to fight a war.
Just 119 squadrons were deployed on the north-eastern front. This was out of a total of 210 squadrons. All of the others were either based in the Colonies or were in the process of being re-equipped. This all meant that the combined Allied air force was decidedly weaker than their German counterparts.
If the Germans had expected to catch the French napping, however, they would be sadly mistaken. The Morane 406s of Groupe de Chasse II/2, based at Laon-Chambry, attacked incoming Do17s. A pair of Curtiss Hawks out of Suippes engaged Bf110s. Over Verdun, Do17s and their Bf110 escorts were also engaged by Curtiss Hawks. Elsewhere, the Germans were luckier; the Curtiss Hawks of GCII/4 at Xaffevillers suffered a total of six write-offs.
GCII/5, at Toul-Croix de Metz, came under attack from a formation of He111s. The Curtiss Hawks of the French unit were widely dispersed, with some preparing to take off as they had already spotted a reconnaissance flight of Do17s. Two of the Hawks managed to get aloft and engage the German raiders. Meanwhile, at Norrent-Fontes, Morane 406 fighters engaged a number of He111s, destroying several of them.
Some of the other French units were not as lucky; the Groupes Aérines d’Observations (GAO) and Groupes de Reconnaissance (GR) were hit particularly hard. A single raid did for all of the aircraft of GAO2/551, while GAO4/551 lost all but three of their nine aircraft in a single raid. At Monceau le Waast, the GRII/33 were attacked by Do17s. They lost one aircraft in the raid and another two were damaged.
With the Germans finally having shown their hand, it quickly became apparent that the key bottleneck would be the Albert Canal in Belgium. German troops had crossed it on the first day of the assault. If the Allies could destroy the bridges across the canal, along with the crossings in the Maastricht area, over the River Maas, this would mean slowing, if not halting, the German advance. The Lioré et Olivier 451s of GBII/12, based at Persan-Beaumont, and those with GBI/12 at Soissons-Saconin were earmarked for the attack. The twelve bombers were escorted by eighteen Morane 406s belonging to GCII/6. The first attack in the morning of 11 May 1940 was unsuccessful; the Germans had brought up flak guns and positioned them around the bridges and there was also German fighter cover. A second attack only succeeded in causing slight damage to one bridge.
On 12 May a French reconnaissance flight over the area stirred up a hornet’s nest of German defences. German airborne troops had taken the Vroenhoven and the Veldwezelt bridges across the Albert Canal. Both the RAF and Belgian aircraft had tried to destroy these bridges. The French now threw the assault bomber group, GBAI/54s Breguet 693 twin-engine bombers, at the target. They attacked in three waves of three aircraft. German troops were crossing one of the bridges when the attack came in. The French managed to destroy some German transports, but accomplished little else. The task of dealing with these bridges now passed to the RAF.
On the night of 11/12 May one of GRII/33’s Potez reconnaissance aircraft had taken off from the airfield at Athies-sous-Laon. To the horror of the pilot, he spotted that the roads to the south of the River Meuse in the Ardennes region of Belgium were packed with German transports. On the morning of 12 May a second mission was flown and as the Potez 63 approached the small town of Marche the spearhead of a German armoured division was located. From the French aircraft’s advantage point German armoured cars and motorcycles could be viewed moving freely across the countryside, directly towards the French border. The Potez, flown by Adjutant Favret, along with an army observer and an air gunner, dropped down to as low as 65 feet and even engaged German ground targets. The crew were not believed when they returned to base and tried to describe what they had seen. Quite simply, the commander of the French 9th Army did not believe them.
A little later, another Potez of GRII/22 spotted German troops crossing the River Semois at Bouillon in Belgium. Once again, their observations were largely ignored, this time by the French 2nd Army. By the time it dawned on the French that what the pilots had seen was not only correct but also highly dangerous, it was too late and the Germans had crossed the River Meuse at Montherne and Sedan. The French Air Force launched waves of bombers against the German motorized columns near Sedan, suffering a number of casualties. German ground losses were particularly high in the area.
On 13 May 1940 came the arrival of the Dewoitine 520. One of the squadrons, GCI/3, entered combat for the first time, shooting down a number of German aircraft, including an He111. For a time the squadron was based at Wez-Thuisy. On the following day the squadron added to their tally, shooting down two Do17s, three Bf110s and a pair of Bf109s. So far, the squadron had only lost one aircraft.
These kinds of kill ratios were replicated across a number of different aircraft types. Certainly, in many instances the kill-to-loss ratio of French to German aircraft was decidedly in the French favour. There were eight squadrons equipped with Curtiss aircraft and they claimed 220 confirmed German aircraft kills for the loss of just thirty-three pilots. In seven major aerial battles, where Curtiss aircraft engaged combinations of Messerschmitt Bf109es and 110cs, the French destroyed twenty-seven of the former and six of the latter for just three aircraft. In the aerial battles that pitched the Morane 406 against Messerschmitts the kill-to-loss ratio was 191 to 89. There were eighteen squadrons equipped with the Morane 406 in May 1940.
Even the Bloch MB150, or 152, which was even faster and more powerful than the Morane, performed extremely well. On 10 May there were twelve squadrons equipped with these fighters and another half a dozen became operational before the campaign was over. The kill-to-loss ratio was again in favour of the French, with 156 to 59.
Whilst the French Air Force was more than holding its own in the skies, the army was suffering disaster after disaster. On 15 May the French 7th Army in Belgium withdrew and the 9th Army practically ceased to exist.
Throughout 16 May the French Air Force threw everything they could at the Germans to halt the advance. It was all in vain, however, as huge numbers of German troops had already crossed the River Meuse. There were now so many conflicting priorities; on the one hand steady retreats, which threatened to turn into routs, had to be covered, while on the other hand the piercing German armoured columns had to be stalled. Added to this were the other targets, which still included bridges and river crossings.