mardi 10 juillet 2012

The Luftwaffe is attacking ! How the French Air Forces reacted between 1939 and 1940 ?

Between September 1939 and June 1940, the French Fighter Command displayed against the aerial threats generated by the Third Reich, at best, average, often weak or completely absent, reacting capabilities. 

Its weakness to detect incomming planes, as to evaluate the threats and to propagate the air-raid warning changed for the worse after the breakthroug of the Guderian's armoured divisions at Sedan.

Somebody, in France, cloaked hermetically the causes having induced this bad reactivity during the ten following years. 

Later, the French memories vanished slowly because a lot of the actors of the aerial warning, its transmission and its evaluation, disapeared without any public debriefing.

Indeed, one can understand a little they had little motivation to remember what they have lived - they had few good achievements to claim. 

Nevertheless, I cannot understand why a kind of censorship on this subject occured since dozens of year until the present days.

The Lt-Col. Michel Marias (Grp III/3) summarized the perception of the fighter pilots (in Icare):
War is also a matter of organisation. War began - and continued for us - so to speak, without any warning and intelligence network. Yes, they were lookout men. But it was as if they were on guard forever in the opposite café! The few times they achieved to detect a raid, more often than not, they could not transmit us the informations.

It was certainly possible to overcome such a disaster. We prooved that by developping our own warning network. As early as an ennemy attack was known, even very far, all available fighters took off. So, we were able to attack the ennemy bombers as soon as they were in sight; Even we miss to catch them, no bombing were able to destroy our planes on the ground.


Moreover, some fighter unit commanders seemed not to have understood the need to train their pilots to take off very fast.

The fighters took off only on warning or following a schedulded time. As often as not, only three aircrafts are involved. 

Obviously, a quick reactivity of the Fighter Command was not a clear priority for the French Air Staff

The consequence of such weakness was the loss of about hundred (at least) fighters (and, obviously, many military aircrafts of other kinds ), while any loss was tactically forbidden. These results were strongly aggravated because any aircraft in need of repair - even the esasiest ones - had to be destroyed when German troops became too close.


A premonitory failure to interception


The July 2, 1933, Benito Mussolini sent the General Itallo Balbo with 25 flyingboats bombers to achieve a spectacular trip starting from vicinity of Roma to Chicago and returning home (map here). It was also a very clear show of force, with 2 legs crossing the Atlantic Ocean. 

The second leg skirted France by her East border.


As usual during the third French Republic, at the very last moment, the French deciders ordered a French Fighter squadron, based in Strasbourg, to meet the Italian planes to give them an Honor escort for a little while.

Unfortunately, the French squadron failed to catch the Italian flying boats and many of the newspaper reporters, having seen that, reported loudly that failure.

The French newspapers, which were laughing about that failure, were nevertheless unable to understand the real causes of the failure. 

They wrote that the problem stayed only on the top speed of the fighters. 

But the real question was the time taken to detect the Italian bombers, to warn the fighters and to put them at the desired altitude.


But it was not possible.

First, the fighter was the Nieuport 622, straight forwardly issued from the Nieuport 42 (just clearly more stable and robust), the winner of the 1923 (!) fighters contest. 

At sea level, her top speed was 270 kph,  at 5000 m, she achieved 250 kph. 

It was an obsolete fighter in 1933, but very cheap, robust and very maneuverable. 

About this last quality, I rely completely on the judgment of Roger Sauvage, a good fighter ace (16 confirmed victories), belonging, during the 3 last years of WW II to the GC 3 Normandie-Niemen elite unit. 

It was possible to the French War Ministry to buy much more modern planes, as the all metal Nieuport 82 or the Dewoitine D 27. 

But it seemed absolutely urgent to conceive and buy pharaonic battleships, for bad reasons 

(the Germans had launched the pocket battleships, the Italians had refurbished the Cavour series, and so on. 

All these - beautiful - toys demonstrated during the war the absolute stupidity of the men who ordered them. 

They were completely useless apart to become the most ruinous coffins ever build for their crews. 

The death toll of the eleven most famous ones - belonging to all countries at war - was about 14000, according to Wikipedia.

Unlike the aircraft carriers, none of them had achieved any serious tactical role. ) 


The Italian flying boat used was the Savoia-Marchetti S 55. 

A very good plane, several times upgraded, and some 10 kph faster than the old French fighters. 

OK, it was a good occasion for Balbo to ridicule France and to strengthen the confidence of the Italian peoples in Mussolini. 1

It was very simple for the Italian pilots to fly above the scheduled flying level and, when the French fighters were taking off, to put the planes in a very shallow dive, accelerating the speed by at least 40 or 50 kph, leaving the so-called Honor escort stunned. 


Nevertheless, I'm sorry for the newspapers and their writers, any fighter plane was ever able to intercept any heavy plane if they belong to not too distant generations. 

Obviously, in any case, the fighters must took off in time. 


If the air-raid warning organisation were really efficient, it could be easy for her to warn since Colmar, at least. 

So, the French aircrafts could be sent in the Air earlier and if they were flying at a sufficient altitude, they could catch easily the Balbo's unit. 

Another solution would have been to dispatch a Morane 225 squadron to Strasbourg, with a 50 kph superiority in top level speed.


Prerequisite for any interception


To intercept any aerial intrusion, before the radar became operational, induced some needs:

  •  Knowing that the enemies are attacking us, sufficiently in time to warn the fighter squadrons. It is a problem of extracting a pattern, leading to the identification of a clear signature. E.g. for an audio signal, recognizing the sound of German engines, or, for a visual signal, identifying the German warplanes.
  • The nearest fighter squadrons must be warned to gather their pilots and the mechanics to prepare quickly the take off.
  • Simultaneously, the Air Force High Staff must also be warned. Then, it is possible to define how strong is the attack. This point will induce two possible reactions: 

    • the capacity to engage distant squadrons ; 
    • the relevance to launch a counter-attack.

  • If the attack seems to penetrate deeply in the friend territory, one must define the trajectory to anticipate what are the most probable targets. So, the AA guns crews must be in place as also the team in charge of discriminating the friends from the foes.
  • Launching the fighter squadrons to fight the enemy attackers before they had damaged any of the friendly installations, plants and so on. This, obviously, implies:

    • the pilots must quickly be seated in their fighters;
    • the heading for the interception must have been communicated to the pilots;
    • all aircrafts must take off quickly and climb like the hell to the relevant level. 
May be, I forgot something...

 The French warning system in 1939 (source: L'aviation militaire Française en 1939, P Barjot)


In this system, the first technique is the optical one, with the use of field binoculars, because, in many cases, the identification of the planes is more accurate (depending of the training of the sentries). In UK, the RAF used such means even during all the Battle of Britain. 

However, during the night or with bad observation condition, this method was useless. 

An all-weather method was needed and the simplest one was an audio method. 



Personal collection of the author - This system is only acoustic: 2 soldiers defined the sound location
with their wheels, the 3rd transmitting the heading
The devices (in French: télésitemètres) gathering the sound from very large ear trumpets in two audio channels for each observer. 

So, the sound was perfectly stereophonic. 

An individual plane (spy plane for example) was detected at least at 10 km, and, with good conditions, sometimes much more.


I have personally known, as an University student (in the 60's!), a woman (Professor in neuro-physiology at the Sorbonne University) who served as a volunteer auxiliary during the Battle of France in 1940. 

She said us how precise was such a system.

Nevertheless, most of these devices have been in service at the end of the WWI and were quite useless when the enemy planes were flying above 320 kph. 

To my knowledge, there was no electrical amplification of the signals. 

If it have been proceeded, the warning distance could have been twice the unamplified one and it could be possible to record the true sound of the German raids, allowing a more easy discovery of the different sound signatures for each German, French and Allied planes. 

The audio-devices were laid at about every 10 km from each other on some lines in order to create mesh of about 100 x 100 km in the warning network. 




Personal collection of the author - schematic view of a mesh of the French Aerial Defense warning system


In this layout, several audio devices were connected by telephone to a relay station which had to transmit the warning by the same way to a local Aerial Defense (DAT) Intelligence Center, which, at last, warned the fighter squadrons.

In one single mesh of this network, there was an average of 400 audio-devices, involving may be 20 to 40 relays. 

One can understand the amount of time wasted for the fighters...

Most of the German bombers were cruise flying at ~360 kph (100 m/s), so 10 km must be translated as 100" - 1 minute and 40 seconds. Just the time to warn.

Such a system would have been efficient in 1918, it was completely obsolete in 1939.

Worst, there was absolutely no possibility to elaborate a synthetic view of the intrusion!


Remote communication


As it is easy to understand, the remote communication is a key of any warning system.

The most ancient known system was the messengers, illustrated by the runner of Marathon.
It was efficient for relatively short distances (from 20 to 200 km). In modern times this method is still used. 

General Charles De Gaulle reported in his War Memories (l'Appel) he used this method during the battle of Abbeville in May 1940, with motorcyclists.

The first true remote system was the Chappe telegraph (1790), for which the word telegraph was created. 

The French Revolution has developed quickly this modern system, which allowed a considerable change in all kinds of communications. 

At the same time in the same Nation, the Vendean rebels used their windmill as telegraphic station:


Example of windmill orders on the site of the Puy du Fou Park

With the electric telegraphy - middle of the XIX Century - and some years later, the radiotelegraphy, the possibility of instantaneous transmissions changed more clearly the situation. 

The Chappe telegraph needed only the human forces. The electric one needed an electric plant and the radiotelegraph implies as many electric generator as numerous are the emitters or receivers. 

During WWI, the French Army was leading clearly this trend.
A good series of synthetic articles on these subjects may by found in the gorgeous French review GBM.

Nevertheless, after the fall of the Third Republic, all French fighter pilots complained about the use of the civilian PTT network for the warning transmissions.


The best is the enemy of the good


A radiophonic emitter/receiver used to transmit short and clear messages would have induced very faster execution. 

But its needed a good and complete experimentation.


When the Finnish commander Gustav Erik Magnusson arrived in France in 1933 for an embedded period in a French fighter group, he was very disapointed by the total absence of radio-communication, a mean his colleague and him used daily since 5 years.

This illustrate perfectly one of the French problems: Any technical innovation induced always a lot of discussions about the norms needed to avoid any shortcomings. 


The first perceived shortcoming was the use of the common language which is a not coded one. 

That's true, nevertheless Germans used a lot the radio-communications in their natural language. 

Unfortunately, the French officers appeared unable to use that as an advantage...


The second shortcoming was likely foreseen by some excessively rigorous engineers.

They thought that in a squadron, the officer in command needed to be heard by all pilots, so they have imposed to use of 2 separate frequencies, one to receive, one to emit. 

Obviously, the officer in command was most of the time stuck in the airfield and cannot steer his squadron, but he had a good radio station in a car... 

This is the reason for which you can see two antenna for each French fighter of this period.

When Seargent Pierre Boillot (see in the review Icare, la Chasse) saw the squadron of German Captain W. Mölders attacking his own team mate, he must remain silent because he cannot emit any warn to them. 

After that bad experience, all the radios of his group were put on the same frequency... too late.


The responsible engineers, apparently, had never thought that fighter pilots need to speak together! 

This behaviour was enhanced in 1936 when the Air High Staff ordered multi-engined planes to command the fight. 


Such an idea was a very advanced one and the AWACS are an excellent materialization of this concept, but, as the first experiences demonstrated in 1938, it was only a dream.


Some late promises... 


In his book on the French military Aviation in 1939, Pierre Barjot (later admiral in command of the French fleet during the Suez operation in 1956) underlined the key role of the climbing speed. 

The choice of the Morane 406, very bad in that exercise, was of no help, as was the local anchoring of the fighter squadrons.


A better arrangement would have been to centralize all the informations in a unique building put near the center of France (e.g. Poitiers). 

In such a case, the High Staff of the French Air Forces would have stay there to give instantaneous answers to any attack.

However, late in 1939,  some generals seemed to be awaken. They launched works to equip France with radars. 

French engineers were at work on this subject since many years (see that site).

The production models were able to detect the incoming aircrafts at 80 km, i.e. 13 minutes before the attack. 

They are installed the June 5, 1940, too late... unfortunately. 



One may link to such an idea the experimental ordering of 18 Dewoitine 551 fighters at the end of 1939.




click here to read the post describing the climbing capability of the Allied fighters during the Battle of France.












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