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Why France Fell to the Nazis: The Air Component Before the War 

By Raul Colon
November 4th 2008 

After a visit to France in early January 1940, Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, summed up his impressions of the French Army like this: “I must say that I saw nothing amiss with it on the surface. The Generals are all tired men, if a bit old from our view-point. None of them showed any lack of confidence…Will the Blitzkrieg, when it comes, allow us to rectify things if they are the same? I must say I don’t know. But I say to myself that we must have confidence in the French Army. It’s the only thing in which we can have confidence…All depends on the French Army and we can do nothing about it”. Those were telling words from the top British commander before the start of the Second World War. Unfortunately for the Allies, his fears proved to be right. When Germany finally attacked the West on May 13th 1940 they did it with such a force that caught the Allies by surprise. Fifteen days after the initial attack wave, Belgium capitulated and the combined might of the French Army and British force were defeated time and time again.

Maginot Line

Between May 26th and June 4th, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some remaining elements of the French Army were successfully evacuated from the French Channel port city of Dunkirk. On June 10th, the French government relocated its seat of power from Paris. Four days later, the Germans marched victorious into the Parisian streets. On June 22nd, the new French government caved in and signed an humiliating Armistice, ending one of the most lopsided military campaigns in modern times. The immediate aftermath of the defeat saw the emerging of the “search for scapegoats” syndrome. A syndrome that is still with us today. The questions regarding the fall of France have resonated since the tragic events of May-June 1940. There are many factors why France was mauled so effortlessly by a numerically inferior adversary. Did the French rearmament investment came too late? Was the Army’s combat doctrine too rigid? Did the French and, to an extend, the BEF; lack innovating and refreshing combat ideas; and so on? In the end, the fall of France is viewed as an example of a what disastrous planning and even more poorly execution can lead to. 

Since the mid 1930s, France main effort to gear up for a possible German attack was rearmament. Since the mid 1920s, because of the country’s misplaced belief that its newly developed Maginot Line (a series of reinforced structures/forts along the common German/French border) would contain the expected German columns, not much effort was put on rearming the French armed forces. This is all that changed during the emerging of Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930s and only by the middle of the decade, did French rearmament be finally given top budgetary priority. But the sad state of all three services (army, navy and the air force) made progression towards rearmament painstaking slow at best. The worst problem was experienced by the air force.

The French air force began rearmament in 1934 as part of Plan I, which called for the production of 1,343 new aircraft. Nevertheless, the assembly of such a force was doomed from the beginning. In the mid 1930s, the French aircraft industry was more one of scattered complexes rather than a cohesion structure. One in which up to forty organizations had input in nearly all aspects of aircraft design, development and production. While at the same time competing for those precious newly designated funds. As they originally were setup, France’s aircraft industry was not structured to handle such big orders, thus the structure needed to be altered which would cause further delays in production. Those delays had an adverse effect on the air force’s rearmament effort. Because of them, most of France’s developed aircraft from the late 1930s came through a narrow technological window. One which prevented the newly developed aircraft from achieving its top technological capability thus making them obsolete before they reached operational status.

The problem was compounded by the type of airplanes the French government began to order. Plan I called for the construction of multirole air platforms capable of performing as bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft. Instead of building dedicated platforms, the French government invested on various single type planes. Such aircraft were indeed able to carry out, on a pedestrian basis, each of the various types of missions they were called for, but they could not to distinguish themselves in any single one of them. The decision to develop such platforms was a painful compromise between the Army, the newly formed Air Force and the government. Many inside the air force believed, with passion, in Giulio Douhet’s strategic theory which called for the destruction of the enemy’s economic strength by destroying its infrastructure. While on the other hand, the Army’s top brass desired that the new air force serve as a supporting package rather than an independent unit.     

In September 1936, France developed a new strategic plan, Plan II. Plan II was different from its predecessor in one major area. The new Plan called for the production of up to 1,339 dedicated bombers with a complement of 756 fighters of all types. This shifting in priority towards the bomber had its roots on new Air Minister Pierre Cot’s passion for Douhet’s strategic vision. Unfortunately for France, Plan II had the no more chance of success than its predecessor. Chaos ruled in nearly all French aircraft factories. The problem was accentuated by the Popular Front’s nationalization effort of the mid to late 1930s. As a result of those two factors, France’s aircraft production actually fell during these years. Between the spring of 1937 and the first three months of 1938, French factories were producing an average of forty units per month. Five less than in 1936, the year the Germans overtook France in sheer number of available airframes.

The fact that Germany overtook France as Europe’s top air force should had not surprised anyone. On a conference visit to London later that year, Joseph Vuillemin, France’s Chief of Air Staff, plainly  put the situation of the French air force as this: “In a war, our air force would be destroyed in a matter of a few days”. That blunt statement shocked all British commanders. They were well aware of the German advances in quantity but they held the belief that once fighting erupted, the French could hold their own with Germany in the air and that the aircraft the Royal Air Force (RAF), which had just began to deploy in northern France, would tip the balance towards the Allies. Unfortunately for British commanders, their French counterparts not only held the belief that Germany was superior in all air-related aspects, but in fact reinforced it early in 1938. Again, the culprit was Vuillemin. In the spring of 1938, he went to Germany to evaluate for himself the much talked about Luftwaffe. When he came back, the fate of France’s air force was sealed. Later that year, Vuillemin sent a private letter to Prime Minister Edouard Daladier stating once again that in the event of war, Germany would destroy the country’s air force in less than a week. This was the same letter Daladier carried with him to Munich. 

The by-product of Vuillemin’s obsession with a German air wipeout was Plan V. In March 1938, the French government decided to make the air force the main recipient of budgetary disbursements, forty two percent of the entire budget went to air rearmament. The new Plan called for doubling the country’s fighter capacity (41% of all funds were allocated to new fighter development) and somewhat relegated Plan II’s emphasize on bomber construction (34% for bombers).

The shifting in position was attributed to two main elements. On the one hand, the French decided to rely on the more advanced and better prepared RAF’s Bomber Command to carry out its missions. In effect, outsourcing its tactical and strategic bomber capability to a second party. The other factor was the gradual change in the air force’s air doctrine. In France, Nazi Germany role in the Spanish Civil War was a topic of heated discussions, especially its air component. In Spain, elements of the Luftwaffe provided constant close air support to Franco’s ground troops, paving the way for Franco to assume control of the country. This fact was not lost on French commanders, many of whom began to move the air force from an strategic bomber force to a more robust air-ground combat arrangement. Close air support was now France main air doctrine. Although a change in doctrine was made, the air force was painfully slow to match doctrine with hardware. A clear example of this “operational deficiency” was the fact that France never developed a top flight dive bomber aircraft, a platform that proved highly successful over the Spanish countryside.  

The newly developed Plan V was twice scaled up between the painful Munich conference and the German invasion of the low countries. Nearly four billion francs were invested in the air force from January 1938 through to the end of combat activities in June 1940. In charge of Plan V was a brilliant engineer named Albert Caquot. Beside having impeccable engineering credentials, Caquot had one other trait, coveted by many, superb managerial skills. Skills France sorely needed at the time. Caquot immersed himself in the task at hand and by late 1938 he had the French aircraft industry producing new airframes at a rate of 41 units per month, peaking at 298 planes per month in September 1939.

What Caquot and his team did was nothing less than remarkable. Almost overnight, France had consolidated its scattered aircraft industry and developed an integrated skilled workforce. On August 23rd the French high command met to discuss the state of the air rearmament. The ultra conservative General Maurice Gamelin, France’s top military commander, spoke eloquently about the country’s ability to match Germany step by step on all dimensions of combat. Guy La Chambre, the Air Minister, was more sober, but nevertheless, expressed high confidence in his unit. “There will be a shortage of bombers until the winter of 1940, but they could be supplemented by the RAF’s bomber force stationed in the north”. Chambre finished his presentation with one of the most memorable lines in French history: “the situation of our air force no longer needs to wait on government decisions as it did in 1938”. Vuillemin was more cautious, stating that France’s bomber situation had not improved much since the disgrace of Munich. But as cautious as Vuillemin sounded that day, he did express optimism for the future. “There’s a good chance that within six months, the combined French and British air forces will match that of the Germans”. Not a ringing endorsement for war but more optimistic than some of his previous statements.

Table I. France’s Aircraft Industry Workforce 

                               Date                                                    Workers

                                11/1934                                                    21500

                                12/1936                                                    35200

                                5/1938                                                     48000

                                1/1940                                                     171000

                                5/1940                                                     250000   

Everything seemed to be moving upwards. Plan V was to be revised two times before the declaration of war and the factories were turning out airframes at a record pace, but hidden behind the numbers was tragic situation. Mobilization had an adverse effect on rearmament, specially, the air component. Because a high percentage of the skilled workforce was activated, the factories were deprived of their expertise as well as sheer manpower needed to keep up the rearmament pace.

By late 1939, aircraft production had actually fallen prompting Caquot’s resignation in January 1940. Also by that time, the aircraft industry was producing planes at such a high rate that spare parts manufactures just could not keep up with demands. The situation was so grave that after the disaster of Munich, Daladier send his trusted adviser Jean Monnet to the United States with a simple order to buy as many airframes as he could get “his hands on”. Monnet responded with a large gesture. By February 1939, the prominent French banker had placed orders for 550 aircraft. Later that spring, Daladier made Monnet the head of the powerful Anglo-French Purchasing Committee. Vested with new powers and an even bigger cache of funds, Monnet arranged for the acquisition of 4500 new airframes. Unfortunately for France, the delivery of all these newly purchased aircraft was painfully slow. When the Germans finally attacked, only 200 of these units were actually deployed and ready for combat. 

Table II. Aircraft Production Numbers From October 1939 through May 1940 

                        Month                         Planned Figure                      Actual Figure

                        October                       422                                          254

                        November                   615                                          296

                        December                    640                                          314

                        January                        805                                          358

                        February                      1066                                        279

                        March                          1185                                        364

                        April                            1375                                        330

                        May                             1678                                        434 

French dreams of achieving parity with the Luftwaffe by February 1940 were beginning to fade by November 1939. Beside the numbers, French aircraft lacked quality in comparison to the Germans. One clear example of this was the world’s first “bomber gap”. French bombers were mostly obsolete with the newest of them just arriving at the front when war broke. On the fighter front the situation was almost as bad.

The best French fighter at the time, the Dewoitine D-520 was as good as any German airplane but they were only arriving in limited quantity when the hostilities started.  Only eighty D-520s were deployed when Germany attacked on May 1940. More telling was the fact even adding up the 416 RAF’s aircraft deployed in France,  the Germans possessed a two-to-one aircraft advantage over the Allies (1711 to 3530) at the time of the attack. Add all those factors together and is easy to see why France fell in such a dramatic way. Better combat planning and tactics could had prolonged the fight, but the French air force’s inadequacies in equipment and its poorly maintained industry base would had cracked under the stress of attrition.

Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War; Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
Dirty Little Secrets of World War II
; James F. Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi, HarperCollins 1996
Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France
; Ernest R. May, Hill And Wang 2001
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany
, Robin Neillands, Overlook Press 2001
The Second World War
; Edited Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press 2001