French Navy Fire Control WWII

The French battleship Richelieu shows her fire controls at Portsmouth in August 1946. She was designed to be armed with a 381mm (15in) main battery and with dual-purpose 152mm (6in) guns. The 152mm (6in) director sits atop the 381mm (15in) one. Richelieu had 14m (46ft) rangefinders (triplex in the forward director, duplex in the turrets, with an 8m/26.2ft duplex unit in the after main battery director). The rangefinder in the director had a stereo element to detect changes of course by the target. As in the previous class, the main-battery director was surmounted by two for the secondary battery, the upper one being for anti-aircraft fire. It was never completed, and it was removed when the ship was refitted in the United States in 1943. The forward main-battery director showed four rather than three windows (with armoured hatches on either side). It had a shorter rangefinder forward of the main director (about mid-length), presumably a spotting glass (this rangefinder is not listed in a book describing the ship, but it is quite visible in a photograph). Similar secondary rangefinders or spotting glasses are evident in the sides of the two secondary-battery directors stacked atop the main-battery director. The secondary rangefinders were apparently removed when the ship was refitted in the United States in 1943 (at the same time the uppermost of the two secondary-battery directors was removed). The director visible alongside the superstructure served the ship’s 100mm (3.9in) anti-aircraft guns. The 152mm (6in) directors visible atop the forward superstructure each carried an 8m (26.2ft) duplex stereo rangefinder, but the after 152mm (6in) director visible carried a 6m (19.7ft) instrument. The secondary turrets and director used single 8m (26.2ft) rangefinders (note the narrower tube). Atop the bridge was a 3m (9.8ft) stereo navigational rangefinder. Just abaft it was a 4m (13ft) stereo rangefinder for the ship’s 100mm (3.9in) tertiary battery, added during construction because the 152mm (6in) guns were insufficient for long-range anti-aircraft fire. The ship was modernised with a mixture of British and US radars, such as the British Type 285 on the secondary director and Type 284 on the main-battery director, the British Type 281B air-search antenna at the foretop, and the US SA-2 radar on the mainmast, SF (surface-search) in the small radome forward, and SG surface-search set on the foremast. Richelieu’s sister ship Jean Bart was completed postwar with a completely different main-battery director similar in shape to a British DCT, carrying a main-battery radar (ABM) on its flat face, with a 14m (46ft) triplex stereo rangefinder. Above the radar were four windows like those of the earlier Richelieu director.

Le Prieur’s combinateur was superseded by a range-keeper produced by the Direction d’Artillerie Navale de Toulon. It became the basis of further development. For the first time in France it separated own and target calculation, using two separate plateaus, each driving its own tachymeters for motion along and across. A feature used again in later systems was to indicate the trial solution by two wires: horizontal and vertical for speeds along and across. A diagonal wire indicated trial inclination. Apparently this was independent of the British work on the AFCT. The method of evaluating a trial solution did not resemble the cross-cut concept in American and British systems. In the 1922 production version the table required a supervisor and three operators (for target, shooter and wind). Although this range-keeper was successful, only eight were made (two by the Direction d’Artillerie Navale in Toulon and six by Breguet in Paris).

Working with the range-keeper were range and bearing plotters. They were the vital means of feedback, and the French also considered them essential to a ship firing at a target that might be visible only intermittently. Readings from the four main rangefinders (masthead and triplex) were averaged mechanically. Simpler receivers showed ranges from the five or seven turret rangefinders and estimates by the fire-control officer. Corrections by the gunnery officer were taken by telephone and entered manually. To allow for limited plotting-paper width, the range plot was periodically recentred.

The first full system, for PC Model 1922, was operated by eighteen men with an officer and a petty officer (chef de poste) supervising them. As in the 1917 version, it separated the target motion (range and deflection) and ballistic elements of the problem, with the target motion in the centre. As before, the supervising officer stood at the graphic plotter for range. He had his aide next to him. To his right (at right angles) was the pair of plateaus (target and own-ship) combined in one casing, each with its own operator. Next to that was the bearing plotter (IVL, indicateur de vitesse laterale), with its operator. Behind it was the deflection operator, with two tachymeter operators and the gyro-compass receiver. As in the earlier system, the ballistic corrections and wind corrections were inserted to one side, in this case behind the plateaus. Spotting corrections and transmission to the guns were all concentrated on the other side of the space, each with its own operator. Errors were registered in both range and bearing (ecartes orientées). Many of the panels and devices needed operators to follow up their indications in order to insert these numbers back into other calculators; the entire PC was hardly integrated as desired. However, its personnel included an electrician, to keep it running, a technician (the derouleur) to keep the plotters running, and a talker at a bank of telephones.

The core of this system was the new separatedelement plateau. It was tested on board the cruiser Pothuau and then installed on board the modernised 23,000-ton battleships. A plateau with the associated integrator (tachymeter) Model 1920–23 was installed for the battleship secondary batteries and on board the new 8000-ton light cruisers.

The first integrated system, the prototype for the later ones, was developed beginning in September 1925 for the new Duquesne-class heavy cruisers. Work required about 6000 man-days; it was completed in 1927. Design was complex partly because some elements had to reverse their positions up to twice a second, yet positions had to be shown precisely. Data were carried internally mainly by rods, and, to avoid inaccuracies as they twisted, it used 600 roller bearings – and 300 gear wheels in differentials to add data. Minimum complement was eight, but normally the PC required two officers and eighteen enlisted personnel. If the tachymeters were not working another six men were needed.

The new design reflected the modernisation of French industry, which was moving towards standardised parts and precision measurements, particularly using standards promoted from 1925 by the Bureau de Normalisation de l’Automobile (BNA). It exploited new American machinery for precision gear-cutting and also newly improved ball bearings. More parts were interchangeable or suited for mass production. Existing commercial synchronous motors no longer seemed precise enough.

The calculating part of the system was progressively simplified, so that in 1930 the new cruiser or destroyer range-keeper required only two operators. It incorporated a parallax corrector and a single dial to enter temperature and pressure corrections. Corrections for drift and for the movement of the firing ship were now automatic. In 1937 a French artillery officer assured students at the French naval war college that the target element of the fire-control systems on board the heavy cruisers were adapted to take target turns into account.

The new cruisers were expected to fight fast, violently manoeuvering targets at ranges as great as thirty kilometres (eighteen and a half miles) (the designers worked to forty kilometres, which meant 100-second time of flight). Maximum target speed was forty knots (twenty metres [twenty-two yards]/second). That was not all: experience had already shown that a heavy cruiser could change course about two degrees per second. The system was therefore designed to take data from an inclinometer, rather than to rely on a deduced constant target inclination.

High-speed combat required that data be input instantly and that results appear instantly. Delays inherent in manual data entry could not be tolerated: even if one turn of a handle represented 500 metres (547 yards), the delay involved in turning it would be noticeable. Past calculators had generated future target position, but in this system it was displayed on a third dial so that future target bearing could be compared directly with present bearing. That did not require any new integrators, but the presentation was unique to the French navy. As in other synthetic systems with separated elements, this one used four integrators (tachymeters): two for range rate (own and target) and two for speed across (own and target). Design was greatly simplified by reducing all range corrections to changes in time of flight; range outputs were reduced to gun elevation and time of flight. A fourth dial showed wind speed and direction, because the longer ranges now desired entailed more wind effect, both because they acted longer on the shell and because the shell attained higher altitudes, where wind was stronger.

As before, the future-target dial showed horizontal and vertical wires for trial speeds along and across the line of fire. The third wire, however, was set by inclinometer (or other observation). The three wires formed a triangle, the chosen solution being its centre. A further innovation making for faster computation was a calculator that could indicate how a result could change if the inputs changed slightly, rather than require resetting.

Associated plotters (for feedback) gave range and bearing.

The first of the new battleship fire-control systems, for the Dunkerque class, was a modified heavy-cruiser system, although it was associated with entirely new directors. Like the cruiser, the battleship required twenty-six personnel in her PC; she also had a four-man computer in each main-battery turret, and three nine-man anti-aircraft control posts for her dual-purpose 130mm (5.2in) guns.

The last pre-war cruisers, the La Galissionière class (7600 tonners) had a new kind of PC designed specifically for dual-purpose fire, although they had single-purpose 155mm (6.1in) guns. (The Richelieu class had the same guns in triple dual-purpose mounts, which may also have been intended for the cruisers). The concept was to transfer the usual salvo firing from surface to air targets, using time-fused projectiles. To do that, calculations had to be completed much faster, the guns ready for instant action. Because anti-aircraft shells were much lighter than anti-ship shells, they entailed different ballistics and corrections were more critical. To accommodate its extra functions, the PC had to be larger than that of a heavy cruiser. The kinetic section was U-shaped, with a desk carrying the plateaus and the target-estimation cross-wires on one arm and the azimuth plotter on the other. The two arms were connected by a long arm carrying range and altitude plotters, with a parallax-inverter between them (parallax was particularly important). Behind this arm was the big block of tachymeters. To the usual pairs of tachymeters for range (own and target) and bearing was added a fifth, for range against an air target. The additional range calculator was needed because range rates against floating targets might be up to twenty metres (twenty-two yards)/second, but against an air target 160 metres (175 yards)/second had to be allowed for (about 315 knots). The usual separated plateau calculators were abandoned in favour of more compact ones easier to integrate into one unit. Because the inclination of the target in the firing plane might change while the shell was in the air, the opportunity was taken to split the target plateau into a plateau for current target inclination and one for future target inclination. In the case of an air target, the second plateau was used for wind at the target. Because it had to be used for air as well as for surface targets, the target plateau (current) had to have two speed scales.

Overall, the difficult requirements imposed by the dual-purpose PC pushed French designers towards greater automation, generally using electrical methods. This included a better method of averaging ranges for plotting. This technique in turn was applied to many existing 1929M plotters at the end of 1936 (as conjugateur 1929M36), the rangefinder data automatically being turned into an average curve rather than the usual series of dots, which had to be traced by eye.

The new PC required twenty-eight personnel, but only four or five of them needed much training (ie, would be required to exercise judgement); the others operated follow-ups or performed other, essentially mechanical tasks. Compared to a heavy-cruiser PC, this one used the same ‘forest’ of rods, but hid them away.

The new generation of fire-control systems changed French naval tactics. The French were very much aware that they were gaining freedom to manoeuvre while firing, to the extent that a 1937 lecturer at their naval war college commented that with such freedom much of the difference between armoured and unarmoured ships was disappearing. Manoeuvre as protection against fire became a theme in lectures at the war college, even though, as the French freely admitted, they knew little of enemies’ fire-control systems. The time scale for manoeuvre depended on the dead time between firing and making spotting corrections, which might be as little as fifteen seconds once the enemy had the range (the idea of changing speed was dismissed because the dead time involved was at least a minute). The idea of manoeuvre as protection against fire also affected ship design. The 1937 lecturer argued that the new Dunkerque- and Richelieu-class battleships were unusually well adapted to such tactics because by concentrating their armament in two superimposed turrets forward they gained unusually wide arcs within which to manoeuvre while firing.

The Mediterranean Fleet battleships conducted their first experiments in long-range firing in 1926, ships opening at extreme range (in one case at 22,000 metres/24,060 yards, in others between 16,000 and 20,000 metres/17,500 and 21,872 yards). Such ranges were far short of the theoretical maximum, but they were set by the limits of the guns and, for ships without directors, by the limited visibility from the turrets (maximum 16,000 metres/17,500 yards). Another surprise was that long range made for a slow fire-control tempo (ie, the entire fire-control cycle) because of the long time of flight. Typical reloading time was forty-seven seconds, and spotting time was fifteen seconds. Thus if time of flight (plus fifteen seconds) was less than reloading time, the ship had to be able to fire salvoes faster than she could reload, so half-salvoes were the rule. However, at a range of 22,000 metres (24,060 yards) time of flight was forty-seven seconds, so the guns had to await spotting to fire. The crossover came at 15,000 metres (thirty-two-second time of flight). This was the logic of the British ladder technique, apparently unknown as yet in the French navy, despite the presence of French officers in the Grand Fleet. At this time the French apparently assumed that they would need four salvoes to begin to hit, which at 22,000 metres (24,060 yards) (interval sixty-one seconds) meant four minutes four seconds. Overall, the rate of fire might fall to a third of that at shorter range, say from eighty to twenty-six shots in ten minutes. Yet speed would be increasingly important in combat. Earlier practice was to expend initial salvoes to correct for line, before correcting for range. With so few salvoes available, that meant wasting too much time. It might be possible to avoid the initial salvoes altogether. In seventeen runs ships usually got line correct on their second or third salvo (three on the first, eight on the second, six on the third). Perhaps salvoes could be fired for line and range. The fleet also found that its dispersion was increasing, in some ships doubling to 600 metres (656 yards) in three years. Director control did not seem to affect performance.

The fleet also tried two concentration shoots (three ships each time), one using centralised control, one using a mixed system of autonomous and paired control. In centralised control, coordinated by short-wave (HF) radio, the first salvoes of the ships (three, three and five rounds) included nine rounds falling within 175 metres (191 yards), and four on target, all within about forty seconds. Firing autonomously, the three ships got seven rounds on target during the first two minutes and thirty seconds of fire.

Despite considerable talk about future ranges of 40,000 metres (43,744 yards), and the design of guns capable of firing to ranges as great as 35,000 metres (38,276 yards) (in response to the French commission on naval lessons of World War I), as late as March 1934 a student thesis accepted by the French naval war college began with the statement that almost nothing had been done to push range beyond 18,000 metres (19,685 yards). Only very recently had tests been conducted with the cruiser Colbert.39 However, shells were redesigned for greater range, the last pre-World War II generation being boattailed with long windshields (approaching half the length of the shell). Maximum range of the 381mm (15in) gun (thirty-five-degree elevation) was 41,700 metres (45,600 yards), compared to 42,260 metres (46,216 yards) for the Italian 15in/50 and 35,550 metres (38,877 yards) (at thirty degrees) for the German 381mm/15in/48.4.40 The last ships to fire extensively pre-war were the Dunkerque-class light battleships; on at least one occasion Dunkerque fired to a range of 41,000 metres.

As late as 1936, the US naval attaché reported that the French preferred to use director fire in train and pointer fire in elevation. Typically salvo bells allowed a six-second interval, during which pointers could fire if their sights were ‘on’. These comments presumably applied to old battleships rebuilt before modern director systems had entered service. In these ships the director was inside the conning tower. In cruisers, however, it was combined with a rangefinder at the masthead, and in destroyers the director was a large structure above the bridge. Ships fired ladders (echelons) with a 183-metre (200-yard) step, typically comprising three steps above rangefinder range (plus a ballistic correction). US observers considered French use of aircraft for spotting undeveloped by their standards. However, they did note that the French conducted offset firing for realism (they thought an air spotter would find it almost impossible to correct fire under such circumstances). Dispersion between turret guns was small, a figure of fifty metres (fifty-five yards) at 28,000 metres (30,621 yards) (presumably for a heavy cruiser) being quoted. Delay coils were introduced in 1941 to reduce salvo spreads.

Pre-war interest in concentration fire was revived. As modernised, the Bretagnes could fire beyond the horizon; three of them firing together could deliver twenty-six tons of shells on target. The French therefore became interested in master-gun tactics, the ship closest to the target (the director) carrying the observer. Ranges would be transmitted by radio every two seconds, alternating with target bearing. All ships would fire together on order, each interpreting the data sent by the directing ship, and using her own computer to work out range and range rate. Each ship would keep track of the position of the directing ship. To this end each of the Bretagnes and Courbets was fitted with a separate central de telecommande forward of the PC for her main battery. Her foremast carried a 2m-(6.5ft-) diameter range dial (marked in hm increments, 0 through 9); a second range dial was on her mainmast. Concentration dials also appeared on board other French warships, down to destroyer size.

Concentration was particularly important for the super-destroyers (contre-torpilleurs), organised in divisions of three; the French hoped that a division could overwhelm a light cruiser. Beginning with the Fantasque class, they had special HF radio circuits to pass range, target course and speed, deflection, and spots (using dedicated antennas strung from the foremast to B gun platform). A separate higher-frequency circuit was provided for a bridge-to-bridge radio telephone, for tactical control of the division. Master ship concentration (directed by the division leader) required that each ship know not only the range to the target but also the range and bearing of other ships from which target data could be taken (to determine parallax). To this end they had pairs of 0.8m (2.6ft) coincidence rangefinders, one for each possible engaged side (they were replaced in 1939 by 1m (3.2ft) stereo units, which could also be used for antiaircraft control).

In the summer of 1936 the French navy began widespread use of K shells, which had coloured dyes to distinguish splashes from different ships firing together. This technique so impressed the Royal Navy that it adopted the French shells in modified form during World War II.

Although the French navy had little chance to demonstrate long-range gunnery during World War II, it did show impressive capabilities in its few battles against the Royal Navy. At Dakar in September 1940 the super-destroyer Le Fantasque claimed hits at 20,600 metres (22,528 yards) (using the ship’s roll to extend the usual maximum range of 20,000 metres/21,872 yards). The cruiser Georges Leygues claimed two hits on the battleship HMS Barham at 16,000 metres (17,500 yards) and she and Montcalm duelled British heavy cruisers at ranges between 24,000 and 27,000 metres (26,250 to 29,530 yards) (the French cruisers were straddled constantly but not hit).


The Russian Campaign 1812: Ultimate Chance for Peace?


French Fusiliers in Bardin Regulation. This is how these men would have looked in the 1812 Russian campaign.


Russian Army. Flügel-Adjutant of Infantry, campaign dress (1812), Field officer, Infantry, summer dress (1812), Capt., Izmailovski Lifeguard, summer dress (1812)


Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graph showing the decreasing size of the Grande Armée as it marches to Moscow (brown line, from left to right) and back (black line, from right to left) with the size of the army equal to the width of the line. Temperature is plotted on the lower graph for the return journey (multiply Réaumur temperatures by 1¼ to get Celsius, e.g. −30 °R = −37.5 °C).

War having been declared on him, in fact if not in law, could Napoleon have avoided the invasion of Russia? Briefly, he considered waiting in Poland for Alexander to attack him. He quickly perceived that the tsar had no such intention. Alexander feared a new Friedland that would not, this time, lead to a new Tilsit. Time was on Alexander’s side. He had a sufficient period to complete the mobilization of the most powerful army ever possessed by Russia. He had all the time he needed.

From Napoleon’s perspective, the situation was completely different. It was obviously not in his interest to await the completion of Russian military preparations. He could only maintain for a short time the enforced allied mobilization that provided his new Grand Armeé. Above all, he needed to act prior to the opening of a British front in Western Europe. The war in Spain gave him enough concerns by itself! He regretted even having waited until summer. A spring offensive would probably have permitted him to avoid the coming catastrophe.

Napoleon issued his traditional order of the day to the Grand Armeé on June 21:

Soldiers: The second Polish war has begun. The first ended at Friedland and Tilsit. At Tilsit, Russia swore eternal alliance with France and war against England. Today Russia violates its oaths. Does it believe that we are degenerate? Are we not still the soldiers of Austerlitz? Russia has placed us between war and dishonor. There can be no doubt as to which we will choose.

Beginning on June 24 with a spectacular yet unopposed crossing of the Niemen in the Kovno area, the war with Russia ended in tragedy in December. This war consisted of two very distinct phases: first, a diabolic pursuit of the Russian army to Moscow, marked by the indecisive victory of Borodino or the Moskva; next, a catastrophic retreat back to Poland from October to December.

The Diabolical Pursuit

Once again, no desire for territorial conquest underpinned the Russian campaign. The goal of Napoleon’s campaign was to destroy the enemy army, thereby forcing Russia to make peace.

The army operating in Russia approached a total of 600,000 men. Half were assigned to hold occupied territories and provide logistical support, while the other half were first-line combat troops.

The invading force consisted only of the attack echelon of the Grand Armeé, whose unprecedented strength of more than half-a-million men stretched from the Rhine to the Niemen. Its international composition was one of the more original aspects of this gigantic military amalgam. Frenchmen represented only a third of the total force and half of the attack echelon. It was a true European army, an army of “twenty nations” as it was labeled at the time.

The largest foreign contingent, 100,000 men, came from the Confederation of the Rhine (Bavaria, Westphalia, Württemberg, Baden, Saxony, and several duchies and principalities). Next in descending order were Poland (50,000), Austria (32,000), Italy (30,000), Prussia (20,000), and Switzerland (10,000). The Netherlands, Denmark, Naples, Spain, and Croatia also provided contingents of several thousand soldiers each.

Such a disparate and uneven ensemble could not go far without experiencing problems of cohesion and logistics. It was a long way from the minuscule and uncouth Army of Italy of 1796!

Barclay de Tolly, Peter Bagration, and Alexander Tormasov commanded the Russian armies, more than 300,000 men with some 900 guns. The Russians deployed thusly: (1) Barclay de Tolly’s main body of 140,000 blocked the axis from Vilna to Saint Petersburg; (2) a secondary body of 60,000 men, commanded by Bagration, operated on Barclay de Tolly’s left on the axis of Moscow; and (3) and Tormasov’s reserve army was being formed south of the Pripiat Marshes.

Napoleon operated on four axes: (1) in the north, Macdonald with the Prussian and Bavarian contingents; (2) in the center with the emperor were Prince Eugene, Oudinot, and the Imperial Guard; (3) in the south, Davout and Jerome; (4) in the extreme south, Charles-Philippe Schwartzenberg’s Austrian corps as flank guard against Tormasov along the Pripiat Marshes.

Eugene’s slowness of movement permitted Barclay de Tolly to escape encirclement in the area of Vilna, which fell without fighting on June 26. The tsar sent his police minister, Balashov, to Napoleon with a message offering negotiations if the Grand Armeé returned to Poland. In full retreat, the vanquished dared to dictate unacceptable conditions to the victor. The purpose was obvious. Alexander sought only to gain precious time to permit Barclay de Tolly to recover and to complete the concentration of Tormasov’s army. If he genuinely wanted peace, why did he not ask to open negotiations without preconditions? Why, at Vilna before hostilities began, did he refuse to receive Ambassador Lauriston, who was carrying a final attempt at peace?

Continuing its advance under weather conditions so extreme that they slowed its progress, the Grand Armeé occupied Vitebsk without opposition on July 27.

The heat, dust, thirst, mud, and mosquitoes inflicted an inhuman trial on the men. Unit strengths visibly declined under the effects of illness.

Barclay de Tolly and Bagration linked up at Smolensk. The city resisted an initial attack on August 16-17. Napoleon believed that he finally had found an opportunity for a great, decisive battle. Once more, however, Barclay de Tolly retreated after setting the city on fire.

The scorched earth policy of the Russian army owed more to the force of circumstances than to a deliberate choice. The Russian army’s leadership was divided into two groups: those who wished at all costs to prevent the Grand Armeé from reaching Moscow, the historic and religious heart of Russia, and those who sought at any price to preserve the army from disaster by evading a great battle against the invincible Napoleon. Up until Smolensk, Russia was fortunate to have in Barclay de Tolly a partisan of the second group; otherwise, the Russian campaign would have reached its conclusion before Vilna or Vitebsk.

Barclay de Tolly’s refusal to defend Smolensk set off a crisis in the Russian high command, a crisis that had been brewing from the start of the campaign. The aristocracy rebelled against a retreat that was without end and that damaged its dignity. Without doubt, the aristocrats also feared that the presence of the Grand Armeé in the heart of Russia might encourage an uprising among the serfs. Alexander eventually yielded to his aristocracy by replacing Barclay de Tolly with Kutusov, the brave vanquished of Austerlitz.

The new commander-in-chief decided to stop Napoleon at a position between Borodino and the River Moskva.

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.

François Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg, (1628-1695)

Pierre Denis Martin (1663-1742), French School. The Battle of Fleurus, July 1st, 1690. Oil on canvas, 2.66 x 3.11 m. Versailles, Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon.

Maréchal de France. Like his cousin the Great Condé, Luxembourg fought in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). He saw action at Lens (August 10, 1648), one of the last fights of that long and dirty conflict. Also like Condé, during the Fronde, Luxembourg turned against the monarchy and entered the service of Spain. He was captured at Rethel (October 15, 1650) but was soon released. He spent the next eight years fighting Louis XIV. He fought reluctantly at the Dunes (June 4/14, 1658). He returned to France and relative favor, along with his then more famous cousin, following promulgation of a royal amnesty that accompanied the Treaty of the Pyrenees (October 28/November 7, 1659). He led a French army that occupied Franche-Comté in 1668 during the War of Devolution Luxembourg, François Henri de Montmorency, duc de 26 (1667-1668). He fought again during the Dutch War (1672-1678), so well at the beginning in the campaign around Cologne, and so well and often thereafter, that in reward, the “Grande Monarque” raised him to the rank of “maréchal de France” in 1675. Luxembourg fought at Seneffe (August 11, 1674) alongside the Great Condé, and later commanded in the Rhineland as the successor to Turenne. He saw more action at Cassel (April 11, 1677). He opposed William III (then still Prince of Orange) at the needless battle of St. Denis (August 4/14, 1678).

Luxembourg fell from royal favor in 1679 over an odd court scandal concerning supposed use of black magic and performance of sacrilegious acts. He was confined for some months. He was back in favor at court within two years, following the intercession of Condé, and served as captain of the Gardes du Corps. One year into the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697), he was restored to command of the main French army. He retained command in Flanders until his death in 1695, fighting and winning several minor and three major battles during those years. Most dramatically and daringly, he defeated Waldeck at Fleurus (June 21/July 1, 1690), after which he besieged and took Mons in March-April 1691. He commanded the French army of observation during the first siege of Namur (May 25-June 30, 1692). He beat William in the field at Steenkerke (July 24/ August 3, 1692) and again, and most bloodily, at Neerwinden (July 19/29, 1693).

Yet, Luxembourg’s field victories changed little in the larger context of the war. His main tactical and operational preoccupation remained maneuvers and positional warfare, which always dominated the Flanders theater of operations. The noted reluctance or inability of Luxembourg to pursue a beaten enemy after each of his battlefield victories is sometimes attributed to restraints placed on his freedom of action by Louis XIV. However, a greater commander would have made the case for hard pursuit and insisted upon carrying it out.

Partisans in the Franco-Prussian War

The war between France and Prussia began in mid-July 1870; two months later the French armies were beaten, the emperor had abdicated, Paris was under siege and Moltke, the German commander in chief, was reasonably certain that he would be back on his farm in Silesia in October in time for the hunting season. But outside Paris a government of national defense had taken over with the ringing slogan, guerre à l’outrance, and a huge new army was mobilized by Gambetta and his military deputy, Freycinet. The underlying concept was that this new army should act as a vast guerrilla force, harassing the enemy rather than engaging in frontal attack. Memories of the Vendee and of Spain were conjured up; some of the partisan units were commanded by officers who were descendants of leading Vendee rebels such as La Rochejacquelin. The guerrilla concept did not lack plausibility; the Germans had an efficiently organized fighting machine, but they might well find themselves hard pressed to adjust to an unfamiliar type of war. It was thought, furthermore, that guerrilla warfare would give the French soldier a chance to exhibit his real prowess. In the first phase of the war the soldiers had fought well, whereas the higher command had failed. Guerrilla warfare, however, demanded no staff experience and planning; it could be carried on by zealous citizens even if they had no profound knowledge of strategic theory or its practice.

The new government nevertheless decided on 29 September 1870 to put the franc tireur units under the general command of the army. In all, some fifty-seven thousand officers and men enlisted in the free corps (corps francs); some small units of perhaps two to three thousand men had been in existence even before then.64 But the original enthusiasm for a vast chouannerie did not last, for several reasons. Above all, Gambetta realized that it would take time to organize a people’s war, longer time than was available to lessen the pressure on the besieged capital. Hence, priority had of necessity to be given to the establishing of a new regular army which could be readied more quickly to help relieve Paris. Secondly, there was passive resistance on the part both of army officers and the civil administration. There were reports that the franc tireurs were misbehaving, scandalizing the population by their brigandage, and that they were none too eager to engage the enemy. New measures were proclaimed to intensify control over the free corps; each such unit was to be directly responsible to the local military command, every officer had to report twice weekly on the activities of his unit. On 14 January 1871 it was announced that no new free corps would be established.

The opposition to franc tireur operations stemmed partly from the innate conservatism of unimaginative army officers who feared that with the spread of partisan units the line between soldier and civilian would be blurred.66 But their aversion was not entirely unjustified, for the franc tireurs indeed lacked discipline, they were incapable of carrying out sustained military operations, joining or absenting themselves from their units as it suited them. Lastly, patriotic enthusiasm was strongest in the towns and weakest in the countryside. The peasants did not receive the Germans with open arms, and more often than not they refused to collaborate, but neither was there any great willingness on their part to leave home and farm to join the franc tireurs. There was a general feeling of apathy, and since the Chouans lacked enthusiasm, there could be no chouannerie.

The jranc tireurs were badly equipped, their leadership was indifferent and they missed countless opportunities. Even their two most spectacular operations were of no military significance. By the time they mined the viaduct of Fontenoy (22 January 1871), the railway line was no longer of vital importance for the Germans. And the capture of the village of Le Bourget, north of Paris (the site long since of a famous airport), by Parisian franc tireurs on 27 October 1870 provided a psychological boost but little more; the Germans took it back four days later.

And yet, uncoordinated and badly executed as partisan warfare was, it produced some startling results. As the war progressed — and as it emerged once it was over — the Germans had to deploy some hundred and twenty thousand men, a quarter of their total force, to protect their lines of communication, mainly the railways. The people’s war between the Seine and Loire caught the Germans altogether unprepared, both politically and militarily. Politically, because Bismarck feared that the longer the war lasted, the more likely the diplomatic intervention of the other European powers, which would deprive the Germans of at least some of the fruits of victory. On that count alone, Bismarck had every incentive to bring the war to a speedy end. Militarily, the Prussians were superbly prepared to fight against a regular army, but an elusive enemy was not that easy to destroy. France is a big country, the German armies combined numbered fewer than half a million soldiers and the farther they advanced, the more thinned out they became, for garrisons had to be left behind in every town and strongpoint that was occupied; not too small garrisons either since an attack or an insurrection could never be ruled out. Altogether the Germans lost more than a thousand men in franc tireur warfare, a not insubstantial figure in terms of casualties in general. Of more import was the pervasive atmosphere of insecurity generated by franc tireur operations, and German commentators freely admitted after the war that the irregulars had caused them serious problems. A people’s war conjured up the specter of a revolution. The Germans would have greatly preferred to make peace with the emperor; instead, they had to deal with a republican government, and there was the danger of further radicalization.

The war was conducted cruelly on both sides; the franc tireurs committed acts of individual terror, the Germans retaliated by executing hostages and burning villages. French publicists, including Victor Hugo, called blatantly for total war, the extermination of every last German; Frau Bismarck was not alone in suggesting to her husband that all Frenchmen should be shot and stabbed to death down to the smallest infant. But Bismarck and the old emperor, despite occasional expressions of violent anger, were sober and farsighted enough to reject such advice. They rightly feared the incalculable consequences for the future relations between France and Germany if these atrocities should spread and become common practice.

The franc tireur war consisted of innumerable small actions such as destroying railway lines and bridges; the French irregulars also tried to blow up tunnels but lacked the know-how and sufficient quantities of explosives. On several occasions they succeeded in freeing transports of French prisoners of war. Thus, on the road from Soissons to Chateau Thierry, between three to four hundred prisoners escaped during a franc tireur attack. Telegraph lines were cut and supply columns attacked. The scope of franc tireurs activities would have been wider but for the lack of cavalry which restricted their movements on the whole to forests and other inaccessible regions. They engaged in night attacks on small German garrisons, as at Chatillon in November 1870. In this instance the Germans lost 192 officers and men. Many of these were taken prisoner and the French threatened that they would be executed unless the Germans treated captured irregulars as prisoners of war. Auxon, near Troyes, had to be evacuated temporarily under franc tireur pressure, and a first German attempt to enter the city of St. Quentin and to arrest the local prefect was beaten back. The Bavarians and the troops of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg ran into difficulties near Orléans, on the road to Chartres and in the Dijon area, and almost invariably in hilly or wooded country.

The franc tireur units, hastily established, were a mixed bag and it is almost impossible to generalize about their composition, political orientation and military efficiency. Some bands had only a handful of members, others several hundred. Most were set up on a local basis, with the men fighting in the vicinity of their homes, but there were also partisan units from Bretagne, from Nice and from North Africa, not to mention Garibaldi’s irregulars. They wore every kind of fantasy uniform, and some wore no uniform at all. Some were radical left wing in inspiration, a number had a conservative and monarchist bias. Some were relatively well organized and disciplined and operated to all intents and purposes as small military units would have done. Others, wandering aimlessly from village to village, showed greater proclivity for marauding than fighting the German enemy.

After all the initial enthusiasm for a people’s war, French resistance collapsed during the early months of 1871. France was not the Vendée or Spain; the great majority of Frenchmen, much as they hated the Germans, lacked the fanaticism and the stamina for the guerre à l’outrance which had been so loudly proclaimed at the start. The psychological shock of the defeat had been immense; for two centuries, if not longer, Frenchmen had believed their country to be militarily superior to all other European powers, and the surrender of their armies had destroyed their self-confidence — it was not just a crisis but a national disaster, the collapse of a whole world. To prolong resistance now, was the despondent attitude, would be but to devastate their towns and villages further, to no conceivably different end. It is idle to speculate what might have happened if resistance had continued for six more months or even a year. Moltke and the war party were only too eager to carry on the campaign, but domestic pressure on them to end it was growing. It was not only Bismarck’s apprehensions about diplomatic intervention, but the war was becoming increasingly expensive, and daily more unpopular at home. Even the front-line troops were weary and the war minister, Roon, wrote that it might take years to occupy the whole of France. But the years were not called upon: French resistance faded and died away first. Guerrilla warfare, as the average Frenchman saw it, would never bring about the liberation of his country, whereas peace would perhaps open new perspectives and possibilities for a national recovery. Which all points up the more strongly that the operations of the franc tireurs neither could nor did change anything insofar as the military results of the war or — even less — the conditions of the peace treaty were concerned. German demands certainly did not become more moderate as the people’s war continued. It was political considerations at the last, however, quite unconnected with events on the battlefield, that fairly narrowly circumscribed the terms that Germany could finally impose on her defeated neighbor.

The Vendée I

Fighting in the Vendee broke out in 1793 and, after some initial setbacks, the Vendean army was defeated with relative ease by the forces of the Republic. But this was not the end of the affair, for the second phase of the revolt, the Chouannerie, lasted for three more years and there were further, albeit short-lived risings in 1799,1815 and 1832. The fighting affected large sections of western France, the marais and the bocage, the marshes and the forests on the left bank of the Loire; it also spread to Anjou and Haute Poitou. The rising has entered the annals of history as a classic manifestation of a counterrevolutionary movement, consisting of the most backward, ignorant and fanatical elements among a population that had not yet broken the shackles of their feudal masters, and the clergy, obscurantists unaware of the benefits of the revolution. The army, as the Republicans saw it, consisted of “deserters from all European armies, smugglers, gamekeepers and poachers.” These men, living in darkness, were manipulated by the royalists and the Church, which had joined forces in a giant conspiracy against the forces of reason and progress. This, very briefly, is the traditional interpretation of the Vendean rising and it is, of course, correct in so far as the movement was directed against Paris and the new revolutionary authority. Religious inspiration was strong, stronger, in fact, than royalist influence. But there was no conspiracy; the risings were largely spontaneous, and had more to do with the unwillingness of young people to serve in the army and with the traditional conflict between town and country than with the speeches of Robespierre and the program of the Jacobins. The peasants bitterly resented the attempts of the bourgeoisie to dominate their communes. Aristocrats were prominently represented among the military leaders of the rising but there were even more commanders of very humble origin, more, actually, than among the generals of the Republic; the “nobles,” moreover, were not dukes and viscounts but usually mere country squires. Finally, there was the resentment of local people against foreigners speaking another language, heirs to different traditions. The Vendee uprising was, in short, a bloody civil war, cruelly fought on both sides; it devoured about a hundred and fifty thousand victims, more than French losses in Russia.

From a military point of view, the campaigns are of considerable interest because the Republican army, itself the practitioner of revolutionary new tactics, had to face a new mode of combat which disconcerted it greatly. “Amid fire, skirmish lines, the exploitation of difficult terrain, rapid concentration of force, unhampered by any logistic straitjacket.” According to Joseph Clemenceau, who was captured by the Vendeans, their generals

could never form the Vendeans into a permanent army or keep them under arms; it was never possible to make them remain to guard the cities they took; nor could anyone make them encamp or subject them to military discipline. Accustomed to an active life, they could not stand the idleness of the camp. They went to battle eagerly, but they were never soldiers.

There had been a wave of unrest in western France, inchoate, without clear direction, even before the Revolution; a first small-scale armed rising took place in August 1792, near Chatillon, but the general attack started on 10 March 1793, when the tocsin was sounded in six hundred villages throughout the Vendée. At first the Vendean generals, such as Cathelineau, Bonchamp, Stoffet and d’Elbee, succeeded in making some headway against the Republican forces, of which there were not many in western France. They were beaten, however, at Lucan and Cholet in late autumn. By the beginning of 1794 they had lost their best officers and soldiers as well as most of their war material. Instead of avoiding direct confrontation and the siege of big cities, the Vendeans committed all the obvious mistakes; instead of retreating after their defeats into the interior of Brittany, where the Republicans could have followed them only with the greatest difficulty, they again went to battle against superior forces equipped with artillery which they themselves lacked. If, despite the capable leadership of Hoche, Ber thier, Kellermann, Marceau and other famous generals, the armies of the Republic did not defeat them more quickly, the main reason was that the troops at their disposal were untrained and of inferior quality. Even more to the point, there was no unified command, political commissars sent out from Paris interfered constantly and gave orders which were, at best, unhelpful.

Paris had assumed at first that the Vendeans would be defeated in a matter of days, whereas the generals on the spot soon realized that they faced a mass insurrection and that pacification would be at best a long drawn-out undertaking. Kleber bemoaned that the Vendeans were always much better informed about the movements of his forces than he was about theirs, that they were constantly sending out patrols and attacking small Republican detachments. From the very beginning, Hoche stressed that pacification was a political rather than a military problem: “For the twentieth time I repeat,” he wrote to the Directoire in Paris, “if one does not grant religious tolerance, one has to give up the idea of peace. This country needs civil administration — military administration does not suit it.” And, on another occasion: “If you are not tolerant, we shall go on killing Frenchmen who have become our enemies, but the war will not end.” The Paris authorities were loath to show clemency to the enemies of the Republic, nor were they as yet fully aware of the extent of the revolt. Instructions were that all rebel leaders and soldiers were to be executed as well as anyone trying to evade conscription or who was found bearing arms. Since there were no game laws in the Vendee, everyone had a rifle, and thus could be shot without trial. Subsequently more lenient orders were issued. Only the leaders of the revolt were to be executed, a ruling more honored in the breach than the observance. When the Vendeans, for instance, killed their prisoners at Cholet, Westerman countered by killing prisoners and civilians and, from 1793, there was a vicious circle of terror and counterterror. In punitive raids women were raped and tortured, children killed, houses and crypts systematically burnt. Relatives of Chouans were seized as hostages and executed. All over the west of France “traitors” and “enemy agents,” however innocent, were sought out and arrested. Far from breaking the popular movement, such measures made it only more popular. The manifestos issued in Paris, claiming that the insurgents were creatures of the British, never gained credence.

The generals and the political commissars had reported to Paris as early as October 1793 that the “Vendée no longer exists.” Such confident reports were correct to the extent that the rebels were no longer able to raise an army of fifty thousand, as they had done in the beginning. But for all that, they remained in effective control of the country and their guerrilla tactics made it far more difficult to attack them; Hoche needed more than a hundred thousand men, including the whole army of Mayence, to suppress the rebellion. Three years later, in July 1796, he could report with greater justification that the Vendee had been pacified. But even this was not final victory, for though all the major leaders had been taken prisoner and executed, and their troops decimated, unrest on a small scale still continued. Two thousand peasants attacked Nantes in 1799. The Vendean army was royalist in its sympathies, but the last thing the Comte d’Artois (the future Charles X) wanted was to accept the generalship that was offered to him. The leaders of the insurgents were a mixed lot; Chouan was apparently the nickname given to the four Cottereau brothers (Jean being the best known), who were smugglers at the little city of Laval, but they played no leading role in the war. The first generalissimo was Cathelineau, a wagoner and church sexton and son of a mason. He was a native of Anjou; intelligent and fearless, but no great master of strategy. He was killed in the very first months of the uprising and was succeeded by d’Elbée, a former captain of the cavalry, and La Rochejacquelein, a very young lieutenant, who is mainly remembered for having admonished his followers: “Let us find the enemy. If I retreat, kill me; when I advance, follow me. If I am killed, avenge me.”

Bonchamp, also a former army captain, was killed early on in the campaign. One of the two principal leaders of the revolt was Stoffet, who had been a corporal in the army and subsequently a gamekeeper, an Alsatian by birth and son of a miller. A good leader of men and a capable officer, he had nothing but disdain for the nobles and always stressed that he fought for religion and the Church, “which makes all men equal.” He had the reputation of being a cruel man and many atrocities were ascribed to him. Mercier du Roche, who fought against him, wrote that he would have been a good general of the Republic. The other important military commander was Charette, a former naval lieutenant, who, like Stoffet, was hunted down in early 1796, captured and executed. Napoleon is said to have thought highly of him. To repeat, the notion that the Vendean revolt was a movement inspired and commanded by feudal chiefs is not borne out by the known facts. Caillaud was a locksmith, Forestier, the son of a shoemaker. There were not a few adventurers in their ranks, the outcasts of all classes. By and large, it was a popular movement with anticapitalist undertones; the operations of the Chouans struck terror among the bourgeois of the cities.

The popular character of the rebellion has to be stressed because it provides the key to an understanding of the roots of the Chouannerie. It was a movement of national liberation of sorts, even though its ideology was diametrically opposed to the ideals of the French Revolution. The enthusiasm of the Chouans surprised and mystified Republican observers. One of them commented: “One goes to battle like to a fête — women, old people, children aged twelve to thirteen, I have seen them killed in the front line.” Hedonville, who commanded the Republican forces in the later stages of the rising, reported to Bonaparte that the local population invariably gave the army wrong information about the whereabouts of the Chouans. There was no such solidarity among the Republicans. “We never lacked ammunition because your soldiers sold it to us,” Coquereau wrote mockingly to the leaders of the Convention in Paris. Contemporary observers noted the prominent role played by women, both in the preparation of the rising and the actual fighting; they urged their sons and husbands to go to war, and many accounts have it that they were the most fanatic proponents of a guerre à l’outrance.