The French Air Force in June, 1940: Why did so many planes get captured on the ground?


#1

In Assignment to Catastrophe, Edward Spears, Churchill’s liaison with the French government wrote in Chapter XVI Friday June 14th:

On we went, haunted by a fear of a breakdown. I wrote as best I could on my knees. A word or so every minute, as the jolting allowed, but listening to the sound of the engine all the time.

By now the roads were clear, but every town and village swarmed with people.

I passed several long French Air Force convoys, their planes on enormous floats. Well-fed officers in touring cars led the way. In most of the convoys I saw there were also cars in which sad ladies whose ample proportions and commanding looks proclaimed them to be wives of senior officers.

These processions, which I had met with everywhere on my journeyings, the advance-guard of the flying armies, filled me with anger and contempt. Why was the French Air Force on the ground instead of in the air with our lads, trying to beat the swarming Luftwaffe off the helpless infantry?

William L. Shirer, in The Collapse of the Third Republic, has a fascinating section on the disposition (or should that be “indisposition”) of the French Air Force in Chapter 29: The Battle of France 1: The Armies Close In, where he shows that the Allies actually had larger numbers of modern fighter planes (but fewer bombers) through much of the Battle of France, but details several instances of the French planes being effectively “hoarded” rather than deployed for combat.

Has there been any sensible explanation for this inability or unwillingness to use the strength of the French Air Force in the battle?


#2

It’s strange because if an aircraft was serviceable he would be flown from airfield to airfield, not ferried by floats. But I might be wrong.
What could happen, seeing the state of the french aviation industries in 1940, in total panic, was that lots of aircrafts were not ready, missing essential parts, mostly engines, and were ferried away in the hope of continuing the combat later after finished assembling or taking them away from the enemy.

The french in 1940 has received modern planes but many were not “finished”, missing guns or engines or combat propeller (some had to keep their “ferry” wood propeller because the intended variable pitch propeller never arrived, for instance).

Many aircrafts still in crates (just received from the US for instance) would be sent to Britain and sold there by the Free French, one of their first source income starting an exile government in Britain.


#3

The above pretty much matches what one may find if you read Unflinching Zeal. The French aircraft delivery system was a little… loose with the facts. An aircraft was considered delivered onceit had been handed over to the French Air Force. That does not, however, mean that the aircraft was handed over completed and ready to fly, or that there were the pilots to fly them.


#4

And there’s one country that didn’t want to send its latest aircraft to France. :slight_smile: (spitfires!) (they also refused to sell any to the french, or demanded enormous amount of money for them).

As far as I know the french were not reluctant to send their latest fighters/bombers to the front. The brand new from the US Glenn Martin 167 (Martin Maryland) flew 400 sorties (and they were all sent to the colonies after the armistice).

7 of the 11 french aces of the Battle of France flew Curtis H-75. Antoine de Saint Exupery flew the new Bloch MB.174 reconnaissance/bomber.


#5

The French had nothing to lose. The British were arguably correct to not throw the good in after the bad. Whatever was happening in the air, the ground was lost, and they were absolutely correct that they needed the Spits for the next fight.

That said, there is an interesting theory which has some merit, that the French Air Force won the Battle of Britain. If you look at the Luftwaffe’s strength before and after the France campaign, you’ll see that their numbers and pilots had been reduced such that it may well have sufficiently attritted the Germans to deny them victory later.


#6

While the French may have pleaded for the RAF to send every last plane, according to Shirer the French air force actually had more new combat aircraft available at the point of surrender than they did at the start:

As to the wide discrepancies in the figures given by French military sources between
the number of new planes on hand and those which participated in the battle, Gamelin comments:
“We have a right to be astonished.” So has the historian trying to make sense of these confusing
figures, and the astonishment is all the greater when one comes across the testimony of General
Vuillemin himself that at the end of the Battle of France, despite considerable losses, he had more
first-line planes than at the beginning.

William L. Shirer, “The Collapse of the Third Republic”, pp. 614-615, Pocket Book edition copyright 1969.


#7

Also, neither France or England, I believe would not had enough oil/refined gas being imported from the US to conduct a prolounged war campaign.

sean


#8

The US was the biggest producer, but not the only one. I’m not sure where the French sourced much of their oil and refined oil products, but Britain certainly imported from the Middle East (Iran and Iraq primarily), Burma, Venezuela, and Trinidad. The Allies didn’t have a lot of oil sources within their direct control, but the Axis had far fewer sources (USSR during the Nazi-Soviet “peace”, Romania of course, but not much else that couldn’t be interdicted by the Allies, even before the US was in the war).

An interesting, but not necessarily authentic report on world raw material productions (possibly a League of Nations publication) was linked from one of the pages that came up on a web search - http://digital.library.northwestern.edu/league/le0280ah.pdf that the linker summarized as (where Mt is metric tons):
USA 182.657 Mt
USSR 29.700 Mt
Venezuela 27.443 Mt
Iran 10.426 Mt
Indonesia 7.939 Mt
Mexico 6.721 Mt
Romania 5.764 Mt
Columbia 3.636 Mt
Iraq 3.438 Mt
Argentina 2.871 Mt
Trinidad 2.844 Mt
Peru 1.776 Mt
Burma 1.088 Mt
Canada 1.082 Mt
Egypt 0.929 Mt


#9

Yes, on paper it’s true that the french had more modern planes in June 1940 than on the 10th of May.

According to french magazine “Fana de l’aviation”, (issues of May/June 2016) there were: 2,348 planes (1,084 fighters, 519 bombers, 745 recon planes).

In reality, 60% of those planes were not fit for service. They were lacking weapons or equipments. Only 600 planes were really useful.

And as for the serviceable planes, from an official report: the american made DB-7 bombers of the Groupement 2 for instance had incomplete equipment. Internal telephones were not correctly set. Weapons had no time to be adjusted correctly. Bombs launching equipment were not tested and found faulty during combat. Crews had no instructions on the plane, due to the lack of time and mean. They were flown in to combat anyway.

Then, in the beginning of June, came another problem: the lack of men, having sometimes flown 3 sorties per day with huge losses:
On the 12th of June, only 27 crews were available for 111 LeO.451 modern bombers of the groupe de bombardements 6 and 7.

On the 16th of June, General Vuillemin would order available planes capable of crossing the Mediterranean sea to fly to the colonies in North Africa.

As a side note, the british bombers managed to drop twice as many tons of bomb as the french in May/June 1940.