Vichy French Air Force
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The Vichy French Air Force (French: Armée de l'air de Vichy) was the aerial branch of the armed forces of Vichy France - the government of France that collaborated with the Axis powers following the defeat of France by Germany in 1940.
The Vichy French Air Force existed between December 1940 and December 1942 and largely served to defend Vichy French territories abroad.
After the defeat of France, Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain was forced to sign the armistice with Germany on 22 June 1940. This was however not the end for the French Air Force. The branch was soon split into two camps: those who escaped from France and joined the Free French Forces (Forces Françaises Libres) and those who stayed and flew for the French Armistice Air Force on behalf of the Vichy government. Initially the Germans wanted to disband the air force completely, and all personnel were to be demobilized by mid-September. However, on 3 July 1940 the British Royal Navy attacked the French fleet anchored in the Algerian ports of Oran and Mers-el-Kebir. Angered, the French broke all connections with the British. The Germans now agreed to the forming of a Vichy French air force.
Defending Vichy's interests (June 1940 – December 1942)
In a parallel of what had happened to Germany after World War I, the French government, now with its seat moved to Vichy, was forced by the Germans to accept its terms for a reduced army and navy, both of which would be only strong enough to maintain order in France and in its colonies. Germany ordered that military aircraft that had survived the Battle of France, including those now stationed in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, were to be surrendered either in whole or else already disassembled, or destroyed altogether – again a parallel of what befell Germany's air force in 1919.
However, Vichy's air force was spared (for the moment) from non-existence owing to the consequences of an event, which would damage, if not completely change, the relationship between occupied France and free Britain. Winston Churchill had no intention of allowing French Navy capital ships to remain intact so long as there was any chance of them becoming adjuncts of the Kriegsmarine (German Navy).
Churchill authorised a plan – codenamed "Operation Catapult" – for a British naval formation (Force H) based in Gibraltar to sail to the harbor of Mers-el-Kébir, near Oran in French Algeria. Four capital ships and other vessels were stationed at Mers-el-Kebir, Force H was to persuade Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul to disobey orders from Vichy and take his vessels out of the war in Europe; by sailing to British ports or to French colonies in the Far East or even to the (still neutral) USA. The overture was soundly rejected, so Royal Navy Admiral James Somerville gave the orders to destroy the French vessels. 1,297 French sailors died in the attack and one French battleship was sunk and two others severely damaged. The incident descredited the British in French eyes and gave the Germans a golden propaganda tool placing the British as France's real enemies. On July 18, the French air force half-heartedly bombed Gibraltar in response to the attack on the French Fleet. The bombing did little damage.
Vichy and Berlin agreed, if reluctantly, that the Armée de l'Air de Vichy (Vichy French Air Force) was still needed in case French interests were to be attacked by the British once again – and, of course, for attacking the British themselves. Goering ordered that all Vichy French Air Force aircraft would henceforth be identified by special markings on the fuselage and tailplane of each one. Initially, the rear fuselage and tailplane (excluding the rudder) were painted a bright yellow, although the markings were later changed so that they consisted of horizontal red and yellow stripes. In all cases, French national markings (roundel on the fuselage and tricolor on the tailplane) were retained as before.
Nearly three months later, on 23 September 1940, the Vichy air force saw action again when the British tried to take Dakar, the capital of French West Africa (now Senegal). As at Mers-el-Kébir, after an attempt to persuade the Vichy French to join the Allied cause failed, British and Free French forces attacked the Vichy forces. However, this time the Vichy French managed to repulse the British torpedo-bomber attacks launched from the carrier HMS Ark Royal during several days of fighting with only light casualties on their side.
On 24 September, in response to the British attack at Dakar, the Vichy air force bombed British facilities at Gibraltar from French bases in North Africa. The bombing stopped the following day — the same day that the British withdrew from Dakar — but only after Gibraltar suffered heavy damage.
Syrian-based Vichy air force units saw action against the British from April 1941, when a coup d'état in Iraq briefly installed the nationalist Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani as prime minister of in order to secure the vital oil supplies at Kirkuk (under British control since 1934) in northeastern Iraq for the pro-Axis nationalists who wanted the British to be expelled from the country. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Habbaniya withstood the nationalists, and in May the British, Indian and Commonwealth "Iraqforce" invaded Iraq via Basra. The ensuing Anglo-Iraqi War ended with Iraqforce defeating the nationalists at the end of May and restoring a pro-Allied government in Iraq.
Allied operations during the Anglo-Iraqi War included attacks on Vichy air force bases in Lebanon and Syria, which served as staging posts for Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe units flying to Mosul to support the Iraqi nationalist coup. Before the campaign in Iraq was over, the Allies decided to attack Vichy forces in Syria and Lebanon and occupy those countries. The Vichy French air force was relatively strong at the start of the campaign. In 1940, many of the aircraft stationed in Syria and Lebanon had been sent back to France. This left the Vichy French with only a number of obsolete models. However, alarmed by the growing threat of invasion, Vichy dispatched a fighter group from Algeria. Once the fighting began, three more groups were flown from France and from North Africa. This brought the strength of the Vichy French air force in Lebanon and Syria up to 289 aircraft, including about 35 Dewoitine D.520 fighters and some new, US-built Glenn Martin 167 light bombers. This initially gave the Vichy French a numerical advantage over the Allied air units.
The invasion began on 8 June 1941. RAF and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons launched direct attacks on Vichy airfields, destroying many French aircraft on the ground. D.520s of GC III/6, II/3 and naval escadrille 1AC faced the Allies in air to air combat, where they claimed 31 kills over British and Australian planes, while losing 11 of their own in air combat and 24 to AA fire, accidents, and attacks on their airfields. However, No. 3 Squadron RAAF — which had just converted to the new P-40 Tomahawk I — claimed five D.520s destroyed for the loss of one P-40 in air combat. In all 179 Vichy aircraft were lost during the campaign, most having been destroyed on the ground.  In mid-July 1941, after heavily losses, Vichy French forces surrendered Syria and Lebanon to the Allies.
Operation Torch: the last battle for the Vichy French air force (8–10 November 1942)
The last major battles against the Allied forces, in which the Vichy French air force took part, took place during Operation Torch, launched on 8 November 1942 as the Allied invasion of North Africa. Facing the U.S. Navy task force headed for Morocco, consisting of the carriers Ranger, Sangamon, Santee and Suwannee, were, in part, Vichy squadrons based at Marrakech, Meknès, Agadir, Casablanca and Rabat, which between them could muster some 86 fighters and 78 bombers. Overall, the aircraft may have been old compared to the F4F Wildcats of the U.S. Navy, yet they were still dangerous and capable in the hands of combat veterans who had seen action against both the Germans and the British since the start of the war.
F4Fs attacked the airfield at Rabat-Salé around 07.30 on the 8th and destroyed nine LeO 451 bombers of GB I/22, while a transport unit's full complement of various types was almost entirely wiped out. At Casablanca, SBD dive-bombers succeeded in damaging the French battle-cruiser, Jean Bart, and F4Fs strafed the bombers of GB I/32 at Camp Cazes airfield, some of which exploded as they were ready for take-off with bombs already on board, thus ensuring their mission never went ahead. The U.S. Navy did not have it all their own way, though, as several F4F pilots were shot down and taken prisoner.
The day's victory tally of enemy aircraft shot down by the French fighter pilots totaled seven confirmed and three probable, yet their losses were considered heavy – five pilots killed, four wounded and 13 aircraft destroyed either in combat or on the ground – when one considers that GC II/5, based in Casablanca, had lost only two pilots killed during the whole of the six-week campaign in France two years before. In the meantime, F4Fs of U.S. Navy Fighter Squadron VF-41 from the USS Ranger strafed and destroyed (ironically) three U.S.-built Douglas DB-7 bombers of GB I/32, which were being refueled and rearmed at Casablanca, leaving a mere three others undamaged.
Nevertheless, having been reinforced by two other bombers, GB I/32 carried out a bombing mission against the beaches at Safi, where more U.S. soldiers were landing, the next morning. One of the bombers was damaged and attempted to make a forced-landing, only it exploded upon contact with the ground, killing the entire crew. Fighter unit GC I/5 lost four pilots in combat that day (9 November) and it was on that same day that Adjudant (Warrant Officer) Bressieux had the distinction of becoming the last pilot in the Vichy French air force to claim a combat victory, in this case an F4F of VF-9. Shortly afterwards, 13 F4Fs attacked the airfield at Médiouna and destroyed a total of 11 French aircraft, including six from GC II/5.
On the morning of 10 November 1942, the Vichy French air force units in Morocco had a mere 37 combat-ready fighters and 40 bombers left to face the might of the U.S. Navy F4Fs. Médiouna was attacked once again and several of the fighters were left burning, while two reconnaissance Potez were shot down, one by an F4F and the other by an SBD over the airfield at Chichaoua, where three F4Fs would later destroy four more Potez in a strafing attack.
Ultimately, the presence of Vichy France in North Africa as an ally of the Germans came to an end (ironically) on Armistice Day, 11 November 1942, when General Noguès, the commander-in-chief of the Vichy armed forces, requested a cease-fire – although that did not stop a unit of U.S. Navy aircraft attacking the airfield at Marrakech and destroying several French aircraft, apparently on the initiative of the unit's commander. Once the cease-fire request was accepted, the war between the Allies and the Vichy French came to an end after two and a half years of what was termed "fratricidal" fighting.
"Torch" had resulted in a victory for the Allies, even though it was fair to say that the French had no choice but to engage the Americans, otherwise the Americans would (and did) engage them since they were technically enemies. As a result, 12 air force and 11 navy pilots lost their lives in the final four days of combat between (Vichy) France and the Allies during World War II. Barely two weeks later, the Germans invaded the then-unoccupied zone of metropolitan France and ordered the complete dissolution of the Vichy French armed forces on 1 December 1942. Those units then not under Vichy control would then be free to join with their Free French colleagues to fight the common enemy: Nazi Germany.
General Jean Romatet: 23 September 1940 – 21 December 1942
- Bloch MB 155
- Bloch MB 174
- Breguet 695
- Dewoitine D.520
- Lioré-et-Olivier LeO 45
- Martin 167F
- Morane-Saulnier MS.406
- Potez 63.11
- France was allowed to keep her colonies, whereas Germany had been forced to cede all of hers under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles signed in June 1919.
- Brown, Russell. Desert Warriors: Australian P-40 Pilots at War in the Middle East and North Africa, 1941–1943. Maryborough, Australia: Banner Books, 1983, p. 17. ISBN 1-875593-22-5.
- Mollo, Andrew. 1981. The Armed Forces of World War II, Crown, ISBN 0-517-54478-4, p. 146