Operation El Dorado Canyon


Operation El Dorado Canyon by Ronald Wong



Unit: 493rd TFS, 48th TFW, USAF
Serial: LN/30451
This aircraft took part in airstrike against Tripoli, Libya in 1986.

Following a series of terrorist attacks on America in 1986, US intelligence agencies claimed that they had “incontrovertible” evidence that the incidents had all been sponsored by Libya. The Operation El Dorado was America’s response to this growing terror threat. This operation involved a British based-USAF mission to lead a bombing mission, even longer than the Black Buck Raids of 1982. The logistics of the missions were further complicated when France, Italy, Germany and Spain refused to co-operate with the US. Only UK was willing to give to the USAF some territory to serve as a base.

The bomber chosen for his mission was extremely fast, low flying F-111. Though it was a very advanced bomber, it had never built keeping such long missions in mind. Operation El Dorado Canyon would involve a round trip of 6400 miles, taking 13 hours and requiring no less than twelve in-flight refuelings, for each of the 24 F-111s. It was an ambitious mission with almost no room for error.

The targets were finalized after a joint planning with the USAF and USN. There were two targets in Benghazi, a terrorist training center and an airfield. There were three other targets in the city of Tripoli, which was a terrorist Naval training camp, the Wheelus AFB and the Azziziyah Barracks.

The 24 F-111s left British soil on April 14th, 1986. Six of them were spare aircraft who returned later on. The US Navy initiated a simultaneous attack in A-6E bombers and the F-18 Hornet. Though the strikes were successful and resulted in severe damage on key Libyan targets, it wasn’t an easy mission. The Libyan Air Defense was a state-of-the-art system virtually at par with that of Soviet technology.

Of the 18 F-111s that headed for Libya, five had aborted the mission, so the number dwindled down to 13, who finally reached Tripoli. The Azziziyah Barracks was hit by three of the bombs, while one bomb hit the Sidi Balai terrorist camp. Two others hit the Tripoli airport and destroyed many grounded aircraft.

The attack was over in just over ten minutes and the twelve F-111 turned around for the long flight back to British soil. One of the bombers was lost in the raid, possibly hit by a surface-to-air-missile and its crew killed.

The raid was considered a success. It did not topple Gadaffi, but it did put an end to the Libyan sponsored terror attacks on the US.


Bronco Bustin

An air-to-air right side view of an OV-10 Bronco aircraft firing a white phosphorous smoke rocket to mark a ground target. The aircraft is used by forward air controllers in support of ground troops. Photo from November 84 Airman Magazine.

An air-to-air right side view of an OV-10 Bronco aircraft firing a white phosphorous smoke rocket to mark a ground target. The aircraft is used by forward air controllers in support of ground troops. Photo from November 84 Airman Magazine.

Soon after arriving in Viet Nam I saw an OV-10 Bronco. It was love at first sight and I was determined to get a ride in one. Luckily my job as an information officer gave me the opportunity. The ALO (Air Liaison Officer, pronounced “aye lo”) assigned to the division flew OV-10s so I tracked the unit down.

It turned out that the current commanding officer was Wing Commander Larrard, Royal Australian Air Force. He quickly approved my flight on the condition that I would come over and party with them the night before.

The next night I finished dinner and bummed a ride over to the ALO. Larrard met me with a firm hand shake and a cold can of Aussie lager. He introduced me around to other members of his crew. We soon pulled up chairs, popped more cold ones, and talked. I asked him all the usual questions regarding the operation and his tour all the while he kept handing me fresh cans of beer. Finally conversation moved on to the Bronco itself.

He loved the plane, “She’s a pilot’s aircraft. Quick, agile, plenty of power. You love to be up in her.” A frustrated killer turned spotter, he realized the unused capacity of the aircraft. “All they give me is Willy Peter (white phosphorus) rockets for spotting. She’s a great gun table, steady, lots of T.O.T (time on target) and as I said, she’s plenty powerful. They could load me down and I could still do my mission. I’d love to have a mini on her and get in there and mix it up with Charley. It’s a pure shame they won’t let me. Waste of a great aircraft if you ask me.”

With that I heard the sound of another can top being pierced and another Swan being handed to me. Good beer, ehh mate? Not like that Budweiser piss water you chaps have to drink.

I’d held my own in college drinking bouts but the Aussies were professionals. My dad had run into them in Casablanca toward the end of WWII and had been mightily impressed. “All you had to do was run the bar rag under a Frog’s nose and they’d get high, but the Aussies, well they were another story. We’re all sitting around in a bar one night in the French area and one of the guys had a fifth of bourbon we were passing around. An Aussie sergeant wandered by and we offered him a taste. The bottle must have been two thirds full. ‘Don’t mind if I do mates.’ he said, then he tipped the bottle back and damn near drank it all in one swallow, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smacked his lips and said, ‘Thanks, mates. Not bad at all.’ He walked away leaving all of us looking at the bottle in amazement. You don’t want to drink with those Aussies.” His wisdom was rattling around in my cranium but I was finding it more and more difficult to locate. I began trying to nurse my drinks but Commander Larrard would have none of it. “You can’t bugger off now, mate, we’ve still got a fair amount of beer to kill.”

I hung on as best I could. Somewhere along the line we all began to sing Waltzing Matilda rocking back and forth with arms draped around each other’s shoulders. I struggled to keep dinner inside my churning stomach and reason inside my head. Both insisted on being free. The night ended with a toast or two to Yank – Aussie friendship and my forced pledge that I had never tasted better beer than Australian beer: not in Canada, not in Germany and certainly not in Britain. In truth, by the end of the night, all beer was starting to taste alike and I was coming to the sad conclusion that I might never want to taste another one regardless of its nationality.

I have no idea how much sleep I got that night. The tent kept spinning in opposition to the world’s rotation. My stomach growled and pitched like an angry sea. My head throbbed, my feet and hands felt swollen and stiff. But the sun came up and I felt compelled to rise to the challenge.

I cleared enough cobwebs from my mind to locate my dopf kit and towel, step into my Ho Chi Minh flip flops and aim my suffering body in the direction of the shower point. For once the breath stealing chill of the water felt good. I let it fall straight onto my noggin, the water massaging my temples, cooling my fever. I finished the shower and then, razor in hand, I acknowledged the grim face in the mirror. Thoughts of suicide were balanced against the idea of living out the work day feeling the way I did. Suicide was ahead on points going into the final round but I finally convinced myself that all of this would pass. Plus, I really did not want to miss that ride in the OV-10. I finished my shave and padded back to my hooch to dress stepping, lightly for fear I would further bruise my aching brain.

The smell of breakfast pulled me into the mess hall. I passed on the oatmeal and the S.O.S. and sought the warm comfort of greasy bacon and eggs to pour oil onto my troubled stomach waters. But though I was hungry I could not force the food down. I sat and stared at my plate wondering what had happened to my appetite between entering the mess and sitting down. I chewed on the edges of my toast, the crunch of each bite echoing painfully in my ears. I knew I had to eat something or my torture would continue unabated, but knowledge was easier to obtain than cure.

I carefully selected my route to the office tent, deliberately avoiding anyone I would either have to salute or whose salute I would have to return. I was sure the sudden lifting of my arm would jerk my stomach out of balance and bring about a sudden and violent up chuck of epic proportions. I made it to the tent unimpeded by military courtesy and sought the sanctuary of the coffee pot. Thank God Colonel Vicienza was either in a staff meeting or sleeping off his own “night before.” The office could not have contained two such hangovers simultaneously.

Willy and Wayne wandered in and we worked for a while on selecting our sound bites for the show. I was in no mood to write script and so I procrastinated, telling them I would get back to the script before we left for Long Binh the next day. Then I sent them off for more interviews while I wandered down to the PX just so I could walk around and try and clear my head. By now I had reached the point where aspirin and a cold Coke could be brought into play and speed my recovery. I got both at the PX and then headed back toward the mess hall for lunch. I was able to get the soup and sandwich down and my tummy thanked me for not putting in more poison.

I returned to the tent so that Specialist Huckaby could give me a lift to the ALO office. There I was met by Larrard and his Aussie band. They were unbelievably chipper. I tried to pretend that I had not been seriously wounded by the activities of the previous night but I’m sure I detected a few winks and smirks on their part. They knew I was hanging on, praying for the bell to save me from the knockout punch. They fitted me up with a parachute, a shoulder holster with a Smith and Wesson .38 and a flight helmet. The parachute was a flat, lumpy sort of back pack. The bottom fourth of it rested on my rump ending about three inches south of the gluteus maximus crease. I tromped around feeling like a toddler with a load in a baggy diaper, all the while Larrard and the sergeants briefed me on emergency measures. They spent time explaining how you had to grip the ejection seat ring and tug it free. I tired to imagine my willingly ejecting from a plane and always came to the same conclusion that I would end up inside a pilot-less aircraft trying to fly and land her rather than bailing out. Larrard ended my internal debate by saying, “Don’t worry mate, if we do get in a bit of a fix I’ll launch you before I go myself.” If those words were supposed to bring me comfort they failed.

We piled into their jeep and began the ride toward the aircraft. I was easily able to suppress whatever fears I harbored as I contemplated the OV-10. She looked like a P-38 from my father’s war. I felt the little boy in me imagining the exhilaration of a combat flight. I eagerly climbed into the back seat noting that the second seat sat about a foot higher than the pilots. Then I waited as the sergeant strapped me in. I listened intently to each instruction, noted the maze of controls, located the black and yellow stripped ejection seat ring and then squirmed a bit to settle the parachute into a comfortable position. I remembered there was a red arrow on the fuselage marking the plane’s center of gravity and realized the arrow pointed directly to where my hips were located. The cockpit was closed and Commander Larrard’s confident voice came through the earphones inside my flight helmet. “She’ll be a bit hot Lieutenant until we get airborne. There’s a vent you can move about but there’s not much escape from this sun.”

I hadn’t thought about such things prior to asking for a flight. The huge greenhouse on the OV-10 was designed with mission, not comfort, in mind. The inside of the plane had baked all morning as she sat on the flight line. The sun streamed through the plexiglass making a solar oven out of the cockpit. The sweat poured out of me, trailing down the sides of my face, running down my arms and legs, finding all the baggy places in my uniform to gather. Meanwhile, Larrard was going through his check list, revving the engines and talking with the tower. We taxied into position. He locked the brakes and pushed the throttle forward for one last test, then released the brakes and we began to roll. By now the heat was making things uncomfortable. I fidgeted to make the parachute comfortable and found that it wasn’t to be. I might as well have been sitting on the bare metal seat itself for all the cushioning affect the chute offered. Still, my excitement reached a crescendo as we rolled toward the end of the strip, I watched as our shadow raced along the ground after us, saw the nose tip up and felt the power and speed of the plane. The angle of climb increased and I was pushed back against the rear of the seat but I could now feel the cooler air flowing into the area. We leveled off and I began to admire the design of the aircraft. The wings were above and behind us and the greenhouse bulged out over the fuselage. From the air the view was spectacular, clear and unobstructed in all directions.

WE flew on straight and level and then Larrard’s voice came on again. “We’ll be flying out to our run here for a minute and then I’ll start my first orbit.”

I gave an “OK” back as if I understood what was really going to happen. I imagined that we would fly in straight lines following the boundaries of the division’s AO, or that we would fly in some huge, lazy circle. I had no idea of orbits.

“Here we go Lieutenant.”

With that I saw the left wing tip drop and the plane turn until I was looking almost straight down. My respect for the aircraft’s design increased as I took in the incredible size of the vista. We seemed to hang as straight as a sword, as if a giant wire were attached to the top wing dangling us parallel to earth. Once, twice, three times we orbited and then Larrard would snap her back and we would fly straight for a few minutes until the wing would drop again and we would begin another tight orbit. I soon became used to the idea that I would not fall out and that I could move my head in all directions and see even more. Larrard pointed out things he was looking for: trails, bunkers, changes in the landscape from previous missions, anything that might develop into intelligence of enemy activity or, even better, a fire mission for artillery or a ground target for a fighter bomber.

At first it was fascinating and time moved quickly. But then the continual orbits began to wear on me. The parachute had not grown any softer and the importance of that “center of gravity” marker was finally coming into play. During each orbit the G-forces went right through the center of gravity. That meant they went right through me. At the beginning of each orbit I felt myself being squeezed tighter against the bottom of my seat. I grasped the sides of the seat with my hands and pushed up, lifting my legs and my butt off of the metal but then I would have to sit down again. Circulation was cut off and I began to feel the tingle of my legs and butt “going to sleep.” I looked at my watch and swore the hands had not moved for the past half hour.

I tried to think of how to broach the subject of mission length with Larrard. “Sir, how long do these missions run?” We overlap on each end so that at least one ALO is always in the air but the basic mission is three hours unless things get hot; then you go till the mission’s over or your out of fuel and ammo.”

Any enthusiasm I might have had to get involved in a real combat mission ended with that thought. I looked at my watch again and swore the hands had moved backwards. The day was stretching toward eternity. My butt was turning into pancake and the natural force of gravity was trying to locate my stomach and bladder.

We reached the final orbit on our line and began to work our way back toward Lai Khe following the same path and the same pattern we had used on the way out. The heat, the movement and the G-force were beginning to win the uneven contest. “Sir, what do I do if I have to blow lunch?”

“We keep a bag for that, Lieutenant. Here you go.”

I saw his hand reach back and dangle a barf bag in front of me. I had no more grabbed it and brought it to my area when the headphones began to crackle. “Sidewinder 4, this is Dauntless 6. I got fire from my front. Can you take a look? Over.”

“Dauntless 6, this is Sidewinder 4, Roger that. On my way. Give me your position.”

I could hear faint sounds of small arms fire in the background. I looked down but saw nothing on the ground. The two voices, Larrard and the ground commander, calmly exchanged information. I was amazed at the lack of emotion, just direct, business like, straight forward exchanges of facts.

Before I had time to think about it Larrard spotted his target on the ground. I sensed the right wing come all the way over. All blue disappeared from my field of vision. The nose of the craft sought a point on the ground and the plane bored straight toward it. I felt the craft twist, a long smooth spiral. Sky reentered my sight but the ground was racing up to meet us. My stomach and other vital organs hung suspended inside my body cavity, that crazy feeling you can get as you crest a small rise on a country road except that this continued the length of our dive. I looked past Larrard’s head and could see the ground clearly. I spotted a few isolated figures, men in jungle fatigues either lying on the ground or moving about hunched over, all looking in the direction we were headed. A short distance behind them was a slowly rising spiral of yellow smoke, marking their position for Larrard. I heard a whoosh emerge from outside the Bronco and suddenly saw two rockets trailing smoke and flame and heading for a clump of trees. Just before they hit, the nose of the OV-10 suddenly lifted and the earth disappeared from view. I was slammed back into the seat and then felt the craft spin hard to my right. I could look back and see the white smoke rising from the green trees as the Willy Peter burned in place.

Larrard and the ground commander were talking again. We went into a tight orbit, the plane seeming to snap into various angles and flight lines. The two rockets made it easy to spot the ground troops now. I could see the bursts of red tracer from the American M-60 drawing a line a bit to the west and south of the burning rockets. I heard “Roger, out.” Through the head phones, and looked up just in time to see the right wing once more flip over my head. Again the sky disappeared, again my stomach floated, again the earth raced toward me.

Larrard adjusted his point to just where I had seen the tracer going. Then whoosh, no earth, slammed against seat, tight spin, and snap, into another orbit.

The ground commander’s voice was back in my headset. Confirming the accuracy of Larrard’s rockets. A third voice came on announcing the cooperation of an artillery unit. We moved away from the target and went into another orbit, Larrard’s eyes focused on the area we had marked. We hung around long enough to watch the first rounds slam into the enemy area, and heard the adjustments being made. Not much was needed. Seconds later the target was smothered with red orange bursts and the dark gray smoke of artillery explosions. We flew on to our next orbit.

Things had happened so fast, I hadn’t had time to be sick. I had been upside down, rolling over, diving, climbing, spinning. My stomach had no idea where it was and even less an idea of in which direction to push things in order to throw up. I felt awful but I no longer felt nauseous. I guessed that was progress.

We continued our string of orbits and then I heard the welcome voice of Lai Khe tower coordinating Larrard’s landing approach. The heat, nowhere near as bad as when we took off, began to return to the cockpit. At last we rolled to a stop and the canopy was rolled back. I was stuck to my seat almost unable to move. My legs tingled from the lack of circulation and my uniform was damp and shapeless. The same sergeant that had strapped me in was there to help me out. I stood up, felt my legs wobble a bit, and then feeling began to return.

I walked away glad to have the whole thing behind me. I climbed into the back seat of the jeep and did not turn and look longingly back at the Bronco. My Aussie friends helped me out of the parachute and shoulder harness. I was whipped. They offered another beer and I knew that this was the final test. I accepted the challenge. If the flight had not turned my insides out one more beer was not going to matter. I finished it up, thanked Larrard and the sergeants, and began to walk back toward the office.

I was glad I had gone, but one ride on the Bronco was enough for this cowboy.

Note: by Forrest Brandt

‘Jamming’ operations for D-Day


Boeing B-17 Fortress II ‘BU-A’ SR386 of 214 Squadron.

No account of Operation Overlord would be complete without mention of the deception operations conducted against the Germans. Since there was no disguising the imminence of the invasion, it was essential to its success that the enemy be misled about the actual location of the assault.

Imaginative, elaborate and realistic intelligence deceptions, for example utilising double agents, `dummy’ forces and `spoof’ radio traffic, played no small part in this campaign over the weeks and months preceding D-Day.

As the date for the invasion drew closer, the air campaign continued to sow confusion by attacking more targets north of the Seine and in the Pas-de-Calais area than in Normandy. However, on the eve of D-Day the lion’s share of the credit for successfully blinding, confusing and misleading the Germans, must go to the air operations conducted by a relatively small number of specialist aircraft and crews. So successful were these operations that the German High Command retained Wehrmacht divisions north of the Seine and in the Pas-de Calais, even after the invasion in Normandy had occurred, in the belief that this was where the main blow would fall. These enemy forces could, potentially, have made a major difference if they had been deployed to Normandy early enough. They might have turned the tide entirely and they would, at the very least, have inflicted greater casualties on the Allied troops during the initial break out from the invasion beaches.

From the night of June 4-5, 1944, the specialist RCM aircraft of 100 (BS) Group, including USAAF B-17 Fortresses of 803 Squadron, which were attached to 100 Group, set up a radar jamming `Mandrel screen’ to cover the invasion fleet from the `eyes’ of those German radars which had survived the earlier attacks by Allied fighter bombers.

On the eve of D-Day, June 5-6, all the jamming squadrons of 100 Group were in the air performing their specialist duties. First up, around dusk, were 199 and 214 Squadrons. 199 Squadron Stirlings took up station at 15,000ft at intervals along the south coast of England, spread from Dorset to Dover.

Flying at precisely determined intervals, heights and bearings the aircraft jammed German radar across the entire central and eastern English Channel, masking the invasion fleet.

Meanwhile, B-17 Fortresses of 214 Squadron and a small force of 101 Squadron Lancasters were heading east to fly over Calais and along the Somme Valley, penetrating 80 miles into France then turning around to fly back and forth across the Channel.

On each inward run `Window’ bundles were tossed out as fast as possible. Just 10 aircraft created on German early warning radar a `ghost’ bomber stream of hundreds of non-existent raiders heading for precisely those targets that would have been chosen if the invasion were taking place near Calais, distracting the German’s attention from Normandy. The Fortresses also jammed the German fighter control radio frequencies with their special on-board equipment.

An electronic wall, blocking all German communications and radar, was established for several hours over northern France, masking the presence of the huge and vulnerable force of Allied transport aircraft and the gliders they towed, on their way to deliver airborne forces as the precursor to the invasion.

D-Day ‘Spoof’ operations

While the specialist `jammers’ of 100 Group did their work, three other special air operations added to the trickery that the Germans had to contend with on the eve of the invasion. Operations Taxable and Glimmer, flown by 617 Squadron Lancasters and 218 Squadron Stirlings, created `spoof’ invasion fleets, while Operation Titanic conducted by Special Duties Halifaxes and Stirlings generated decoy airborne landings.

The effectiveness of Taxable and Glimmer

The real D-Day assault into Normandy was supposed to have been completely masked by the radar jamming of the specialist 100 Group RCM aircraft.

That jamming, it transpired, was insufficient to overcome the powerful German radars that had survived earlier attacks, whose operators did in fact detect and report the real invasion fleet heading towards Normandy. By that point, however, the Germans were in a state of disarray and confusion, which had been added to by the `spoof’ invasion fleets simulated by Taxable and Glimmer.

While some German officers wanted to respond to the real invasion, others refused to accept it for what it was and would not believe the reports they were receiving. The fact is that potent German forces were kept in the Pas-de-Calais area, even after the invasion in Normandy had occurred, in the belief that this was where the main blow would still fall, proof indeed of the success of the numerous deception operations, including Taxable and Glimmer.

The commander in chief of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, sent a message to the air crews involved which said: “It is already established that the operations on which you engaged on the night of June 5-6 were very successful and it may well be when the full facts are known it will be found that you achieved results of even greater importance than can be known at present.”



At the onset of Great Patriotic War on 22 June 1941, 425 Yak-1 were built, although many of these were en route or still disassembled. Just 92 machines were fully operational in the Western Military Districts – but most were lost in the very first days of the war. Yak-1 was designed with the goal of providing direct coverage of the Il-2 attack planes from enemy fighters. Thus, most of the air combat took place below 4,000 m (13,123 ft), at low altitudes, where Yak-1 performed the best. The Yak-1 proved to have a significant advantage over its Soviet competitors. A full circle turn took just 17 seconds in the Yak-1M. The MiG-3, which had the best high-altitude performance, did poorly at low and medium altitudes, and its light armament made it unsuitable even for ground attack. The LaGG-3 experienced a significant degradation in performance (as much as 100 km/h/62 mph on some aircraft) compared to its prototypes due to the manufacturer’s inexperience with its special wooden construction, which suffered from warping and rotting when exposed to the elements. The Yak-1’s plywood covering also suffered from the weather, but the steel frame kept the aircraft largely intact.

The aircraft’s major problem early in deployment was fuel leaks caused by failure of spot-welded fuel tanks from vibration. Also troublesome was the fact that the canopy could not be opened under certain conditions in earlier models, potentially trapping the pilot in a falling aircraft. As the result, some pilots had the sliding portion of the canopy removed altogether. The first 1,000 Yak-1 had no radios at all. Installation of radio equipment became common by spring 1942 and obligatory by August 1942. But Soviet radios were notoriously unreliable and short-ranged, so they were frequently removed to save weight.

Like most early carburetor-equipped engines, the M-105 could not tolerate negative G forces, which starved it of fuel. Moreover, they suffered breakdowns of magnetos and speed governors, and emitted oil from the reduction shaft.

The Yak-1 was better than Bf 109E but inferior to Bf 109F  – its main opponent – in rate of climb at all altitudes. And although it could complete a circle at the same speed (20–21 seconds at 1,000 meters) as a Bf 109, its lack of agility made dogfights difficult, demanding high levels of concentration. In comparison, a Bf 109, with its automatic flaps, had a lower stall speed and was more stable in sharp turns and vertical aerobatic figures. A simulated combat between a Yak (with M-105PF engine) and a Bf 109F revealed that the Messerschmitt had only marginally superior manoeuvrability at 1,000 meters (3,300 ft), though the German fighter could gain substantial advantage over the Yak-1 within four or five nose-to-tail turns. At 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) the capabilities of the two fighters were nearly equal, combat essentially reduced to head-on attacks. At altitudes over 5,000 meters ( 16,400 ft) the Yak was more manoeuvrable. The engine’s nominal speed at low altitudes was increased to 2,550 rpm and the superiority of the Bf 109F at these altitudes was reduced.

Its armament would be considered too light by Western standards, but was perfectly typical of Soviet aircraft, the pilots of which preferred a few guns grouped on the centerline to improve accuracy and lower weight. Wing guns were rarely used on Soviet fighters, and when they were they were often removed (as they were from US-supplied Bell P-39 Airacobras). Avoiding wing guns lowered weight and demonstrably improved roll rates (the same was true with the Bf 109F). The US and Britain considered heavy armament and high performance necessary even at the cost of reduced agility, while the Soviets relied on the marksmanship of their pilots coupled with agile aircraft. Even with the Yak-1’s light armament, to reduce weight, modifications were made both on front line and on about thirty production aircraft: the 7,62 mm ShKAS machine guns were removed, retaining only the single ShVAK cannon. Nevertheless, those lighter aircraft were popular with experienced pilots, for whom the reduction in armament was acceptable, and combat experience in November 1942 showed a much improved kill-to-loss ratio. Also, in the autumn of 1942 the Yak-1B appeared with the more powerful M-105P engine and a single 12,7 mm UBS machine gun instead of the two ShKAS. Although this did not increase the total weight of fire by much, the UBS machine gun was much more effective than the two 7,62 mm ShKAS. Moreover, the simple VV ring sight replaced the PBP gun-sight, because of the very poor quality of the lenses of the latter. The Yak-1 had a light tail and it was easy to tip over and to hit the ground with the propeller. Often technicians had to keep the tail down and that could lead to accidents, with aircraft taking off with technicians still on the rear fuselage. This was true of other aircraft as well; an almost identical complaint was made about the Supermarine Spitfires in Soviet use, although in that case it was compounded by a very narrow landing gear track.

Nonetheless, the Yak-1 was well liked by its pilots. For Soviet pilot Nikolai G. Golodnikov, overall, in its tactical and technical characteristic, the Yak-1B was comparable to the Messerschmitt Bf 109G at low to mid, but vastly inferior in top speed and high altitude performance. French Normandie-Niemen squadron selected the primitive model Yak-1M (that had a cut-down fuselage to allow all-round vision) when it was formed, in March 1943. Twenty-four of these aircraft were sent to the elite all-female 586 IAP whose pilots included the world’s only female aces: Katya Budanova, with 11, and Lydia Litvyak (11 plus three shared). Litvyak, the most famous fighter pilot woman of all time, flew Yak-1 “Yellow 44”, with aerial mast, at first in 296.IAP and then with 73.Gv.IAP, until her death in combat, on 1 August 1943. Another famous ace who flew the Yak-1 was Mikhail Baranov, who scored all his 24 victories on it, including five on a day (four Bf 109s and one Ju 87, on 6 August 1942). Yak-1s were also the first type operated by the 1 Pułk Lotnictwa Myśliwskiego “Warszawa” (“1st Polish Fighter Regiment ‘Warsaw'”).

The importance of this type in World War II is often underestimated. Soviet naming conventions obscure the fact that the Yak-1 and its successors — the Yak-7, Yak-9 and Yak-3 — are essentially the same design, comparable to the numerous Spitfire or Bf 109 variants. Were the Yaks considered as one type, the 37,000 built would constitute the most produced fighter in history. That total would also make the Yak one of the most prolific aircraft in history, roughly equal to the best known Soviet ground attack type of World War II, the IL-2 Shturmovik. But losses were proportionally high, in fact the highest of all fighters type in service in USSR: in 1941-1945 VVS KA lost 3,336 Yak-1s; 325 in 1941, 1,301 the following year, 1,056 in 1943, 575 in 1944 and 79 in 1945


The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was established as an independent service in March 1921, but military aviation in Australia predated World War I, and the four squadrons of the Australian Flying Corps had fought on the Western Front and in the Middle East from 1914 to 1918. In the interwar period the air force made do with limited resources; it successfully resisted attempts by the army and the navy to divide it between themselves, and it concentrated on local defense capabilities and the pioneering of civil aviation infrastructure. In 1939 Australia signed the agreement which set up the Empire Air Training Scheme (also known as the Commonwealth Air Training Plan) to provide aircrew for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Europe, and this was to have severe long-term implications for the RAAF in Australia. Thousands of Australians served in Europe throughout World War II, and the British government demonstrated a marked reluctance to release them for return to Australia even when, in the latter part of the war, many of them were surplus to requirements.

At the beginning of the Pacific war the RAAF was small in size, suffered from a lack of training, and was equipped with obsolescent aircraft. Four squadrons were deployed to Malaya, and these were the first RAAF units to see action against the Japanese. Nos. 1 and 8 Squadrons flew Hudson bombers, while Nos. 21 and 453 Squadrons were equipped with Brewster Buffalos—and both were outclassed by the Japanese in a campaign that established the enemy’s early dominance in the air. In Australia itself there was as yet no integrated air defense system, and when the Japanese bombed Darwin in the first of a series of heavy air raids on February 19, 1942, numerous Australian and U.S. aircraft were destroyed on the ground.

When General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Australia in April 1942, he assumed control over all forces in the Southwest Pacific Command. With the arrival of General George C. Kenney in August to take command of the Allied Air Force (AAF), he established separate command and control systems for the RAAF and the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), creating RAAF Command and the Fifth Air Force. On a personal level Kenney respected his Australian counterparts and generally enjoyed good relations with the senior officers of that service. The great weakness in the RAAF was of the Australians’ own making. At the beginning of the Pacific war the chief of the Air Staff had been a British officer on detached service, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Burnett. When he retired in May 1942, he was succeeded by Air Vice Marshal George Jones—not by Air Vice Marshal W. D. Bostock, who had been Burnett’s choice; Jones was junior in rank not only to Bostock but also to seven other senior officers on the air force list. Bostock became air officer commanding RAAF Command and was responsible to Kenney for RAAF operations in the Southwest Pacific Command, while Jones had administrative responsibility for the air force. Relations between the two were poisonous, and the corrosive effect this had on the RAAF as a whole played itself out for the remainder of the war. But ill will among senior officers had been a feature of the interwar air force as well.

As a result of the divisions at the top, the RAAF generally failed to develop a strategic doctrine acceptable to the United States, which in turn prejudiced attempts to acquire frontline aircraft for the RAAF from the Americans, which in its turn meant that Australian squadrons were relegated to lower-priority roles and tasks. Senior command postings to No. 9 Operational Group in 1943 reflected the feuding in the high command and further undermined U.S. confidence in the RAAF’s capabilities.

The Australian government was aware of the problem but lacked sufficient resolve to do anything about it. This high-level rancor and the far smaller size of the RAAF meant that the air service was fated to play a subordinate role in the Pacific war. Nonetheless, the RAAF expanded to impressive size and strength: At its peak in August 1944 it numbered 182,000 personnel, which by war’s end had declined to 132,000 as the government partly demobilized in response to the manpower crisis. In August 1945 the RAAF fielded fifty squadrons and some six thousand aircraft (3,200 operational and the rest trainers).

In June 1944 the air forces in the theater were reorganized, with Kenney announcing the formation of the Far East Air Force comprising the Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces, both American. This meant that the Allied Air Force, of which he retained command, henceforth comprised only Australian, New Zealand, and Dutch East Indies squadrons, although U.S. squadrons could be attached to the AAF for specific tasks. The AAF, like its army counterparts, was assigned “mopping-up” duties against bypassed enemy forces in the islands to Australia’s north while the U.S. forces proceeded to the reconquest of the Philippines and the contemplated invasion of the Japanese home islands.

First Tactical Air Force (1st TAF) was formed in October 1944 from No. 10 Operational Group and began operations against Japanese positions from bases on Morotai in November. Dissatisfaction with their role grew among the squadrons, and in April 1945 a group of eight senior officers attempted to resign in protest. The “Morotai mutiny” prompted the removal of the commander of the 1st TAF and an inquiry which confirmed that decision. When Jones threatened disciplinary action against the eight, Kenney—who had spoken to the officers concerned and concluded that they had acted in good faith— declared that he would appear in their defense in any court martial.

In June 1945 with a strength of 21,893, of all ranks, the 1st TAF supported the Australian landings in Borneo and continued to fly against Japanese targets elsewhere in the Dutch East Indies until the war’s end. In the war against Japan the RAAF suffered some two thousand casualties—killed, wounded, and prisoners of war.

The performance of the RAAF in the Pacific war was disappointing, in that it failed to conduct a leading role in the Southwest Pacific Command, its primary theater in the defense of Australia. The weakness in senior command explains much of this failure, and blame both for creating and then for sustaining this situation must lie with the government of the day. On the other hand, by 1945 the RAAF had grown into a large and capable organization, with many combat-experienced aircrew and officers who had held senior command and staff positions. Although aircraft acquisition had been a difficult problem in the first half of the war because of competing priorities elsewhere, by 1945 the RAAF possessed large numbers of modern aircraft and the capability to support them. The failures at the top were not matched by a lack of performance elsewhere in the organization.


Gillison, Douglas. Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942 (1962).

Odgers, George. Air War against Japan 1943–45 (1957).

Stephens, Alan. Power Plus Attitude: Ideas, Strategy and Doctrine in the Royal Australian Air Force 1921–1991 (1992).

Armée de l’Air 1940 Part I

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.

Armée de l’Air 1940 Part II

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.