The French observation / recce planes have suffered very heavy losses during the 40 days of the Battle of France.
Especially the Potez 63-11 which was the main prey of the German fighters (376 losses - for any reasons - over 723 built).
A very interesting analysis has been published some years ago by Lt. Colonel F.R. Kirkland, of the US Air Force (in Air University Review, Sept.-Oct. 1985):
"Pilots in operational units wanted an ultrafast singleseater for long-range reconnaissance and a light two-seater capable of landing on unimproved fields for short-range observation missions.
The air staff, preoccupied with political issues and indifferent to the views of men on squadron duty, ordered the Potez 63.11, the fastest, heaviest, most complex observation plane in the world. With a top speed of 264 miles per hour, it was 40 miles per hour faster than its German counterpart (Henschel Hs 126 B) and 50 miles per hour faster than the British Lysander.
With twelve machine guns, it was the most heavily armed machine in any air force.
Too fast and heavy to land on improvised strips yet too slow to escape German fighters, it was an elegant and graceful coffin for its crews."
My purpose today is to wonder about the relevance of some tactical concepts illustrated by the losses of the observations planes.
French miltary deciders acting during the pre-War period were completely focalized on the speed of the planes that they want to buy (but for fighters...).
They had forgotten that, at war, the success never relies on a single quality.
The strafing aircrafts punching the airfields
Concealment of the planes, or protecting them with merlons, were known solutions used by some fighter units (as, for example, the GC I/5 under the command of Cdt Murtin).
Another solution could have been to put the observation squadron airfields far away from the front line.
For the greedy Bf 109 E, a run increased by 200 km above the French territories could have been a bit problematic.
The last defense was, at last, the AA gun fire.
However, our AA artillery soldiers were not thoroughly trained to such a fight, they were neither accustomed to plane recognition nor to the real gun fire on mobile target (it was the responsibility of the high ranking command, not of the soldiers).
The German Flak
That was the second cause of losses.
Among the acknowledged 106 Potez 63-11 directly downed by the Germans, 50 were destroyed by AA fire, most of them by the awful 20 mm guns of the light Flak.
This Flak had almost completely forbidden to fly under the 2,000m (6,600 fts) level.
|Potez 63-11 - An amazing replica build by Mr Garric in the USA as it appeared in 2009|
If you are wondering why the French observation or recce planes flew at so uncomfortable altitude during the whole Battle of France, the first answer is: It was by orders of their Generals.
The true answer might be found in the WWI practices:The observation and recce flights were not seen as different, the balloons were at risk, but the observers flying at a 2000' altitude were quite comfortable to see what they need to see.
You can read my other blog, L'Aviation selon Drix, in French, to have an idea of the actual work from war letters of my own Grandfather André Delpey to my GrandMother, when he was photo analyst in a recce squadron (MF22) from the end of 1916 to the victory of 1918.
In 1939-1940, the men in command were all WWI veterans, chosen for their outstanding courage.
But very few were fans of technology...
The newborn WWII was completely different but only the young pilots were knowing that.
Using the Potez, the solutions were either to fly over that "light Flak ceiling" while using better optical devices to get good pictures or to fly at a more high level until the place to be observed was sufficiently close and to dive as fast as possible until 20 m AGL.
The last cause of losses was obviously the Jagdwaffe, for which this job was absolutely critical.
Some French pilots or gunners have downed their ennemies.
But, almost all of them perished in the final crash of their planes.
Ok, the Potez, even in the 63-11 version, was very nimble.
But, also, the crews were very poor radio-users, they did not know the frequency to call for a fighter help.
The escort by French fighters was quite impossible, as the more numerous available fighters were the Morane 406, which were slower than the Potez!
The most sad thing in this story is that the report delivered by these heroic men were rarely taken into account by their generals!
When an officer had reported, the May 12, that he had seen many tanks in the vicinity of Sedan, the staff officer of the 9th Army, of more high rank, answered him: "if the Germans were so close to Sedan, we were already knowing that !".