By 10 May 1940, when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, 228 D.520s had been manufactured, but the French Air Force had accepted only 75, as most others had been sent back to the factory to be retrofitted to the new standard. As a result, only GC I/3 was fully equipped, having 36 aircraft. They met the Luftwaffe on 13 May, shooting down three Henschel Hs 126s and one Heinkel He 111 without loss.
The Germans were still able to launch surprise raids. A prime example took place on 17 May, when German Do17s hit Maubeuge airfield, which was then home to GC2/6. The eighteen Morane 406s were destroyed and just two of their aircraft could be salvaged. French squadrons in forward positions were now beginning to take a severe beating.
Amidst all this chaos, units were still receiving new consignments of aircraft, including Glenn Martin 167s and Douglas DB7s. While some squadrons were receiving long-awaited aircraft, other squadrons were still perilously under strength when they were called into action. GBI/21 and GBII/21 were eagerly awaiting Amiot 354 bombers, but only a handful had arrived when they were ordered to the front line.
Over the period from 22 to 23 May the French Air Force were launching bombing sorties against towns that their army counterparts had recently abandoned. Their mission was to block the main roads with debris. It soon became apparent that one of the key areas in this crucial stage of the war was around Cambrai, Arras and Amiens. The French Air Force threw everything they could against this region. Attacks were made on German troop concentrations. A notable attack was made on 22 May by Potez 633s of GBAII/51, with just nine available aircraft.
In fact, this aircraft was never meant to be used in France at all. The French Government had decided that all of these aircraft would be sold to foreign air forces. It had come as no great surprise when three Potez 631s were attacked by half a dozen Dewoitine 520 fighters during the evening of 20 May.
The Dewoitine aircraft belonging to GCII/3, based at the tiny airfield at Betz-Bouillancy, engaged a large formation of He111s to the south-west of Senlis on 21 May. No fewer than eight German bombers were shot down here. They, too, made the mistake on their return flight of engaging a Potez 631. One of the Dewoitine fighters buzzed the Potez five times. By this time the pilot of the Potez, Adjutant Martin, was convinced that the French aircraft had probably been captured by a German. His air gunner, Adjutant Guichard, opened fire, shooting down the Dewoitine to the north of Senlis.
There were other incidents such as this, which only serve to prove that communication within the French Air Force was rudimentary to say the least. A Potez was flown from base to base so that all of the French pilots could recognize its configuration.
The French army did try to launch an armoured counter-attack in the Cambrai sector and GCII/3 provided eighteen aircraft as cover on 22 May. They encountered a large number of Ju87s. The air combat began at around 1710 hours and in a matter of minutes eleven of the German dive bombers had been shot down. Suddenly, ten or more Bf109s arrived; they managed to shoot down one of the Dewoitine 520s, a second was lost when it ran out of fuel and a third had to be crash-landed.
The auxiliary units, known as the Escadrilles Légères de Défense (ELD), or Escadrilles de Chasse de Défense (ECD), had been mobilized on 11 May 1940, although some local defence units were already established. These auxiliary units were mainly reservist pilots. Some of them were test pilots attached to aircraft factories. At the Châteaudun base one of the pilots flying a Bloch 152 shot down a He111 on 12 May. More of these local defence flights were called up to protect aircraft plants. In the majority of cases the aircraft they were flying had come straight off the production line and others were there for repairs. Many of the pilots were not, in fact, French Air Force at all, but were employed by aircraft companies. The majority of the units could muster no more than six aircraft. Most of them flew Bloch fighters, others Morane 406s or Dewoitine 501s and 510s. A number of Dewoitine 500s were also being flown.
One peculiar aircraft that was also used was the Koolhoven FK-58A. It was Dutch built and there were fourteen of them parked at Romorantin. Four of them were sent to Lyons-Bron, where former Polish Air Force pilots were being trained to use French aircraft. The Ecole de l’Air based at Salon was ordered to create another Polish unit with seven of these aircraft on 16 May. It actually received nine of them. The school itself had its own local defence flight with Dewoitine 520s. At Bourges, the defence flight was equipped with Curtiss Hawks, where ten were in service. They managed to shoot down a number of German aircraft.
Meanwhile, on the front line, small numbers of French aircraft threw themselves at the advancing German ground forces. Little by little, attrition was beginning to make its mark. Between the period 26 May to 3 June 1940 the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BAE) and large numbers of French troops was being undertaken at Dunkirk. The RAF provided much of the air cover for this operation, but Bloch 152s of GCII/8, operating out of Lympne, were also on hand. These aircraft had left France on the afternoon of 30 May and had been ordered to support the 1st French Army, which by this time had been surrounded. There was a delay in being able to deploy them, as the engine oil designed for Hurricanes did not meet the Bloch 152s requirements. Oil did not arrive until 31 May. Also at Lympne were some Potez 63s belonging to GRI/14 and a pair of Glenn Martin 167s of GBI/63.
The Belgian army had surrendered on 28 May and on 31 May one of the Potez aircraft, escorted by Hurricanes, undertook a reconnaissance mission. Another Potez took off in the afternoon of 1 June, protected by eight Bloch 152s and Hurricanes. The mission was to spot German artillery positions so that the French artillery could zero in on the target. The aircraft arrived just as the Germans were launching a bombing attack against Dunkirk. The Bloch fighters shot down a He111, but then they were nearly attacked themselves by Hurricanes and French anti-aircraft batteries. Once the Dunkirk withdrawal had come to an end GRI/14 and GCII/8 returned to France.
The heaviest fighting had been taking place around the Somme. The French had lost 112 aircraft up to 25 May.
By the beginning of June the Luftwaffe was hitting French cities, raiding Marseilles on 1 June and Lyons on 2 June. On the following day, Polish pilots belonging to GCI/145 and flying Caudron Cr714s had their first taste of action. The unit was at Villacoublay, but by this time it had been ordered to Dreux to help defend Paris. Nominally they had thirty-four aircraft, but only eighteen were serviceable.
The Luftwaffe struck Paris on 3 June and not only was this Polish unit involved in the interception, but also elements of a number of other units. The alert was sounded at around 1306 hours. An estimated 200 German bombers were inbound, escorted by Bf110s for close support and Bf109s for cover. The Polish-manned aircraft intercepted at around 1310 hours. This was at about the same time as seventeen Dewoitine 520s of GCI/3, out of Meaux, also made contact. The Poles shot down a pair of Bf109s. The Dewoitines shot down three Do17s and a Bf109 for the loss of two fighters.
More units now joined the swirling air battle, with the French then the Germans then the French again ambushing one another’s formations. In total, the Germans lost twenty-six aircraft plus a number of others that were badly damaged. Some twelve French pilots lost their lives. On the ground the Germans had hit motor car plants, other factories, railway junctions, and the airfields at Le Bourget and Orly. This was just a taste of what was to come, as on the ground the Germans were about to launch a major attack around the River Aisne.
Significantly, Colonel Charles de Gaulle had been appointed the commander of the new 4th Armoured Division, with a strength of 5,000 men and eighty-five tanks. He would spearhead the counterattack. De Gaulle would later play a confusing role in the Allies’ struggle with Vichy France.
Over the next few days the French Air Force did their utmost to support the ground effort. In the period from 10 May to the morning of 5 June 1940 the French had lost 473 fighters, 194 reconnaissance and observation aircraft and 120 bombers. In comparison, French fighters had had over 375 confirmed kills out of a claimed total of 550.
On 5 June the German preceded their ground attacks with a series of air strikes, coming in at around 0400 hours and primarily aimed at French aircraft on the ground. At this point the French could deploy three fighter and six bomber squadrons.
Three whole German panzer corps manoeuvred to attack across the River Somme. The French army managed to effectively halt the advancing enemy, having been able to create a number of strong points. But by the evening of 7 June German armoured units, led by Rommel, were just short of the River Seine and Rouen. The halting of the German main force was ably assisted by the French Air Force. Some eighteen Breguet 693 bombers, escorted by Curtiss Hawks, had inflicted great damage to lead units of the German ground forces close to Amiens. The Luftwaffe pounced on the bombers and their escorts on the return flight. The Germans, in the ensuing battle, only managed to down one of the Curtiss Hawks for the loss of eight of their own fighters.
There were other attacks that day, notably against German armour near Bray Sur Somme, when eighteen Glenn Martin 167 bombers, protected by twenty-three fighters, attacked.
Over the course of 5 June the French bombers had flown 126 sorties. The counteroffensive continued into the night, with attacks even being made on Frankfurt and Bonn. It was never going to be enough, however, as the French army was ultimately forced to continue its retreat, which meant that the air force had to abandon large numbers of bases. It is believed that some fifteen French fighters were lost over the course of 5 June, but they had claimed some sixty-six German aircraft.
Over the next few days the pilots of GCI/6, GCII/2 and GCIII/7 in Morane 406s valiantly tried to blunt the German armoured attacks using their 20 mm guns. Around thirty-six aircraft were used in these attacks, of which about a dozen were shot down. It was a case of desperate measures for desperate times.
By 12 June the Germans had successfully established three bridgeheads on the lower Seine River. Day by day, more French towns and cities were falling to the Germans. The momentous decision to abandon Paris was made on 13 June. For the French Air Force, the hundred or so fighters that had been detailed to protect the capital managed to concentrate at Auxerre.
On 11 June Italy had declared war on France and on 13 June a formation of Fiat CR42 biplanes appeared over the airbase at Le Luc, on the French Riviera. The field was the home of GCIII/6, with their Dewoitine 520s. As the Italians appeared, some of the French aircraft had just landed from a patrol, but others were still aloft, including Adjutant Le Gloan. In the ensuing air battle he shot down four Italian Fiat fighters and shot up an Italian bomber. That night French bombers hit targets in Italy.
On 14 June it was decided that the bulk of the French bomber force would be withdrawn to bases in North Africa. Bombers were to make their way south and cross the coast between Marseilles and Marignane. Other units were ordered to fight on and began to assemble at airfields at Salon de Provence and Istres. Altogether, some eleven groups would remain to fight to the very end.
It is believed that the last mission flown against German targets took place on 24 June 1940. The targets were German pontoon bridges. Before that, the French fighters continued to support the army’s weakening efforts. Dewoitine 520s of GCIII/3 attacked and shot down several German aircraft in the Auxerre area on 16 June. The following day an order was issued instructing all fighter groups with Dewoitine, Curtiss or Bloch aircraft to leave for North Africa. The day after, Charles de Gaulle made his famous speech, urging the French to continue to fight. By now, de Gaulle was safe in a BBC studio in London. Fighter groups began moving to Algeria. The ground crews were left to fend for themselves and to get on any available ship transport to take them across the Mediterranean.
In the period 20 to 24 June, reconnaissance aircraft made their way to North Africa. The armistice was finally signed on 22 June, but this was not the end of operations. There were still scattered elements of bomber and fighter formations bombing German units near Lyons, Genoa, Grenoble and Chambéry. Morane 406s of GCI/6 hit German armoured units and trucks around Beaurepaire. Second Lieutenant Raphenne was shot down in the attack and killed. This was just four hours before the armistice came into effect. The lieutenant was probably the last member of the French Air Force to be killed in the battle for France. The Germans would later bury him with full military honours.
For all of the problems that the French Air Force had been struggling with in the run up to hostilities, and the appallingly bad showing that the French ground forces had exhibited during the campaign, the French Air Force’s record was comparatively good. In all, although the figures can only ever be approximate, the French Air Force lost 1,200 aircraft to all causes. Despite this, the strength of the French Air Force at the end of operations on 25 June 1940 was actually greater than when war was declared in September 1939. In the period from 10 May to 12 June, French industry had delivered 1,131 new aircraft; some 668 of these were fighters. Many of the French aircraft losses during this period had been of older types of aircraft, but all of the replacements were obviously modern ones.
The exodus of French aircraft from the mainland was by no means complete. Large numbers of aircraft, many of which had literally just been delivered, fell into German hands. This included 453 Morane 406s, 170 Dewoitine 520s, 260 Bloch 152s and a host of other aircraft, including Curtiss Hawks and Glenn Martins.
Armistice arrangements meant that a large proportion of France would become an occupied zone. The rump of France, or the non-occupied zone, was centred round the spa town of Vichy. Around three-fifths of France, including all of the Channel and Atlantic ports and Paris, were occupied. The French continued to administer their colonies without any interference from the Germans. In fact, the Germans had no interest in the French colonies in Africa, or, for that matter, the Middle East. What did remain a problem, however, was the French fleet. Like the French Air Force, some of the vessels had made their way to Britain, while the majority had fled to North Africa.
The new head of the Vichy Government was Philippe Pétain. He was a career soldier and by February 1916 had risen to the rank of general. He had taken command of the French 2nd Army at Verdun and, despite crippling casualties, had held it against the Germans, so gaining his reputation. A year later he became commander in chief of the French army. Pétain had ridden a grey charger on Bastille Day, 14 July 1919, at the head of a victory parade in Paris. It was sixteen days after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which for many would be one of the prime reasons for the outbreak of the Second World War.
Out of the post armistice chaos of 1940, Pétain emerged as a man that could end an unpopular war. He was determined to secure France’s future, perhaps to become Germany’s partner rather than another occupied country. France was still powerful. Its air force was still strong and its navy was intact. Although scattered and under armed, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers protected France’s colonial possessions. Pétain was as sure as the Germans that it would only be a matter of weeks before Britain was forced to come to terms with Germany. In this certainty, Pétain was determined to preserve what he could of France and to rebuild. He would not risk what remained of the empire on a throw of the dice by continuing to support the cause against German aggression.
So it was that many thousands of Frenchmen found themselves cast adrift from their homeland and ordered to protect and to preserve France until the time came when she could rise again as a true force in Europe.