Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No. 73 Squadron RAF, based at Rouvres, France.
The day before Britain declared war on the 3rd of September the Advanced Air Striking Force was dispatched to France, in it were ten squadrons of Fairey Battles. During the Phoney War one of the missions that the Battle undertook was photo reconnaissance. For these missions three aircraft would take off, conduct their mission and return.
Throughout the autumn and winter of 1939 and the spring of 1940, activity on the Western Front was largely limited to the interception of enemy reconnaissance aircraft. Flying Officer W.O. ‘Boy’ Mould of No. 1 Squadron drew first blood for the RAF, downing a Dornier Do 17 over his own airfield on 30 October. Flying Officer E.J. ‘Cobber’ Kain shot down another on 8 November, opening what was to be an impressive score. This first engagement took place at 27,000ft and marked the highest air combat recorded to that date. On 23 November, Kain downed another Do 17 and on that same day No. 73 Squadron accounted for three Do 17s, while No. 1 Squadron bagged a pair of Heinkel He 111s. The tempo of air fighting increased in March 1940, giving Kain the chance to become the RAF’s first ‘ace’ of World War II, downing a single Bf 109 on 3 March, followed by two more on 26 March.
While Nos 1 and 73 Squadrons served with the Advanced Air Striking Force in France, and Nos 85 and 87 with the BEF’s Air Component, Fighter Command units in the UK were also getting to grips with the enemy. Nos 43, 111 and 605 Squadrons in particular saw action against German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft attempting to attack Scapa Flow, several Hurricane pilots opening their scores with Dornier Do 17s and Heinkel He IIIs.
The period of genteel jousting over the French borders came to an end on 10 May 1940, when Hitler revealed his strategy for avoiding a frontal assault on France’s heavily fortified frontier. He attacked through the Netherlands and Belgium, ignoring the neutral status of the two countries. The Netherlands fell after only four days, its air force being virtually annihilated on the ground, while Belgium lasted little longer. The supposedly impregnable Fort Eben Emael fell to a glider-borne assault force, cracking open the entire Belgian defences.
The Germans captured the key crossings of the Albert Canal and this allowed the Wehrmacht to continue its advance. The German forces involved in the offensive (136 Divisions) were actually smaller than those of the combined British, French, Belgian and Dutch armies which faced them. Yet they were better equipped, considerably more mobile, with more and better armour and artillery, and the advantage of surprise and well-rehearsed plans. Crucially, the German forces on the ground were supported by a bigger, experienced and well-equipped air force, and operated under a unified command structure. Germany fielded 3824 warplanes for the attack on France, including 860 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, 350 Bf 110s, 380 dive bombers, 1300 bombers, 300 long-range reconnaissance and 340 short-range reconnaissance aircraft. This represented massive superiority, with the Bf 110s alone outnumbering the combined strengths of the Belgian and Dutch air forces, and with Germany fielding more Bf 109s than the entire frontline strength of the French Armee de l’Air.
Quite apart from the situation at the front, France was in deep trouble. A pervading pessimism (verging on defeatism) permeated government, the populace and the armed forces. As if this were not bad enough, the armed forces were equipped with obsolete and inadequate weapons, a direct result of the rampant corruption of the recent years. During the immediate pre-war period a favoured furniture manufacturer had been given the contract to build an all-metal aircraft, for example, while a paint-maker had gained the contract for parachutes. The newly-nationalised aircraft industry was in chaos, and modern aircraft ready to enter service failed to reach the front in time to make any real difference. Crippling shortages of spare parts and modern servicing equipment further eroded preparedness, while ill-trained aircrew received little direction from a General Staff which had no real grasp of strategy or modern tactics, and lacked a modern reporting system. Small wonder then that the French air force ‘Shattered into a thousand pieces at the first blow’. Thus the small (but highly professional) British force in France was of disproportionate value.
Britain’s BEF under Lord Gort had moved forward into Belgium as the German offensive began, forming part of a defensive chain stretching between the Meuse, N amur and Antwerp. But any chain is only as good as its weakest link, and when the retreating Belgian Army failed to fill the gap between the BEF and the French. Seventh Army, von Rundstedt broke through on 13 May. This cut off the BEF and the Seventh Army from the rest of France, and marked the beginning of the end.
Before the breakthrough, the RAF had eight Hurricane squadrons in France, with Nos 3, 79,501 and 504 Squadrons reinforcing the BEF’s Air Component from 10 and 11 May. These were reinforced by No. 11 Group squadrons flying patrols from their English bases. On 13 May, pilots from home-based squadrons were sent to reinforce the French-based units. No. 3 Squadron received pilots from Nos 32, 56 and 253 Squadrons, No. 85 from Nos 145 and 213, No. 607 from Nos 151,242, and 245, and No. 615 Squadron from Nos 151,229 and 601 Squadrons.
In one week from 10 May, no less than 27 Hurricane pilots became aces, while during the entire Battle of France up until 21 May, Hurricane pilots claimed 499 kills. Some 299 of these were subsequently confirmed as falling to RAF fighters by a post-war study of German records. The battle as a whole produced 41 RAF fighter aces. This was a remarkable achievement, and one accomplished despite the RAF’s continuing reliance on discredited tactics, and despite the fact that many of the aircraft involved were early Mark I Hurricanes, with two-bladed wooden propellers. It would be a mistake, however, to regard the Battle of France as having been fought by the Hurricane alone. British fighters based in France formed only a small proportion of the overall Fighter Command effort, and the Spitfire also played a major role, albeit while operating from airfields in southern· England. Even the Defiant had a part to play No. 264 Squadron actually amassed a tally of 65 victories by 31 May, and accounted for 17 Bf 109s and 11 Ju 87s and Ju 88s in a single day. But the undoubted achievements of the RAF fighters in France were quite naturally over-shadowed by the terrible losses suffered by the Battle and Blenheim light bombers, and, of course, by the fact that the campaign ended in humiliating defeat.
Many called for greater efforts, and pushed for the despatch of further squadrons to France to try and stem the German advance. ‘Where’, asked some, ‘were the Spitfires?’ Air Marshall Sir John Slessor, for example, pointed out that ‘500 or 600 good short-range fighters sitting in England’ would be unable to influence the course of a war which would effect Britain’s future. ‘Our quite natural and proper obsession’ with the danger of a knock-out blow in France, he thought, was leading to an over-insular outlook. Defeat in France would, after all, inevitably increase pressure on Britain, and the battle to save England was effectively already being fought over Belgium and France.
Churchill and his war cabinet were quite ready to respond to French Premier Reynaud’s appeals for more fighters, but Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding objected in the most forceful manner. On 16 May he reminded the Air Council that it had been agreed that a force of 52 Squadrons was felt necessary to defend Britain against even unescorted raids from the East (let alone raids launched simultaneously from France and the Low Countries, and escorted by single-engined fighters based on the French coast). He pointed out that he was now down to only 36 Squadrons, having lost the equivalent of ten units to the French campaign within the last few days.
In a remarkably candid letter he advised Churchill that ‘if the home defence force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country… I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if home forces are suitably organised to resist invasion we should be able to carry on the war single handed for some time, if not indefinitely.’ Privately, Dowding worried that the ‘Hurricane tap is now full on’, and that his Command was in real danger of being. ‘bled white’.
As a result of Dowding’s timely intervention, plans to send yet more whole squadrons to France were put on hold, though aircraft and pilots continued to be sent out piecemeal as replacements. Fighter Command also formed three composite squadrons (later six) from single flights of six (later twelve) Hurricane squadrons, and these were despatched across the Channel to operate from French bases on a daily basis. The first of these units (56/213, 111/253, and 145/601) began operations from French bases on 16 May.
Their fight was to be short, however, since the BEF’s Air Component began withdrawing to UK airfields on 19 May, and had completed its withdrawal by 21 May. As early as 18 June, Churchill had stated baldly that ‘What General Weygand has called the Battle for France is now over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.’ The withdrawal of the Air Component left only the AASF Squadrons (retreating to the south and west) actually in France, though RAF fighters continued flying from their British bases. The BEF soldiers, meanwhile, were themselves becoming encircled, and the possible ports which could be used for an evacuation fell one-by-one, until only Dunkirk remained.
On 23 May, Goring announced that the Luftwaffe would now destroy the British singlehanded, and told Milch that he had ‘managed to talk the Fuhrer round to halting the Army. The Luftwaffe is to wipe out the British on the beaches.’ On 24 May, Hitler did order the Panzers to halt, but probably because von Rundstedt and von Kleist worried that the armoured divisions might be worn out if they pushed on through the lowlands of Flanders, which had, by now, been flooded. The Panzer divisions had also raced ahead of their logistical tail, rendering them vulnerable to counter attack, and they had left the extended southern flank dangerously exposed. Suggestions that the tanks were halted specifically to give the Luftwaffe a chance of glory, or to allow Hitler to negotiate with the British (capturing the BEF being felt to be somewhat provocative, and perhaps likely to undermine peace talks), would seem to be somewhat far-fetched.
History records that an extraordinary fleet (including some small and barely seaworthy rivercraft commandeered for the operation) lifted 338,226 men to safety between 26 May and 4 June, snatching a moral (or morale) victory from the jaws of what remained a military defeat. Churchill had expected that only about 30,000 men would be evacuated, but the total number was more than ten times this, and included about 50,000 French and Belgian troops. This meant that only some 60,000 members of the BEF were left behind in France killed, missing or as Prisoners of War. This was a great achievement, not least for the unpopular Lord Gort, of whom little had been expected beyond personal bravery. But it was the ‘brusque and pedantic’ Gort who realised that his allotted task (to advance on and relieve Calais and re-join the main body of French troops advancing from the Somme) could no longer succeed, and it had been he who rapidly drew up a new plan to withdraw west to Dunkirk, and to save his soldiers with their hand-guns and personal weapons.
The Battle of France continued after Dunkirk, with the Germans launching Fall Rote (Plan Red) the next day, storming south across the River Somme. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel broke through at Amiens on 6 June, and the Germans took Paris on 14 June. Mussolini, eager not to lose out, had joined the war on 10 June (the very day that Norway surrendered), but even at this very late stage, it seemed that Hitler was not bent on the total defeat of Britain and France. The original communique announcing the formation of the German/Italian axis read: ‘Germany and Italy will now march shoulder to shoulder and will not rest until Britain and France have been beaten’. Hitler personally crossed out the last few words and wrote instead’ … will fight on until those in power in Britain and France are prepared to respect the rights of our two peoples to exist.’ This made little difference in France, where it was as easy to complete the campaign and take Paris, as it would have been to halt the advance. France finally surrendered on 22 June, with Hitler taking great delight in ensuring that the surrender was signed in the very same railway car that had been used for the German surrender in 1918. This was a powerful symbolic gesture, and at a stroke wiped out the humiliation and shame of Germany’s Great War defeat. Hitler himself was so excited that he danced a jig as he waited to enter the railway carriage.
But even in France, Hitler stopped short of invading the whole country, and left a massive swathe of territory nominally independent under the Vichy regime headed by the Great War hero, Marshal Petain. That portion of France actually under direct German control was fairly small, and arguably sufficient only to safeguard Germany’s own borders and prevent the Allies having an easy ‘back door’ for invasion. But France was, decisively, out of the fight. Former President Reynaud had wanted to send the army to Switzerland to be interned and to move his government, air force and navy to North Africa to continue the fight (just as British contingency plans saw a move to Canada). Unfortunately, his deputy Petain, and General Weygand, the head of the armed forces, had been more in tune with the defeated mood of the country, with many famously preferring ‘slavery to war’. When Reynaud’s group was finally outnumbered in the cabinet by the defeatists, he resigned and was replaced by Petain, and full surrender became inevitable. His order to hand over 400 Luftwaffe pilots (held as POWs by the French) to the British for safe-keeping were overturned, and Petain refused to let the fleet escape to Canada, fearful of German reprisals should he agree.
Meanwhile, large numbers of British troops remaining in France retreated in good order to western ports for evacuation, covered by the three remaining AASF Squadrons and by UK-based fighters. Nos 17 and 242 Squadrons briefly joined the AASF in France on 7 June, but all fighters had been withdrawn from France by 18 June, the last No. 73 Squadron Hurricanes flying from Nantes to Tangmere on that date.
By 22 June, RAF losses in the West had reached 959 aircraft of all types, including 66 in Norway. Of these, 509 were fighters, with 435 pilots killed, missing or captured. Only 66 of the hundreds of Hurricanes dispatched to France made the return journey, and many of these were severely damaged – some so badly that they were scrapped on the spot. Even as early as 5 June, Fighter Command had an operational strength of only 331 single-engined fighters. But fortunately German losses had been heavy too, including 247 of the much-feared Bf 109s and 108 Bf 110s.
French efforts included 67,000 air missions and about 600 air victories, of which only 277 can be officially confirmed. The French air force suffered the heavy toll of 557 losses.