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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Monday 23 January 2023

Vichy Air Force at War

I am drawn to books about Vichy France recently, or maybe it's just obscure WW2 forces. I recently picked up this 2011 book by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell as a remainder copy, although I see it is still available in the Kindle format. It covers the Vichy Air Force that fought against the Allies in several WW2 campaigns.

The French aviation industry in the interwar period supplied more aircraft than any of its competitors, and they were still in service in air forces worldwide when war broke out. The Potez 542 was the fastest bomber in Europe, and the Bloch 210 was the first to beat the 30,000 feet ceiling. I have always had a soft spot for their fighters, including the Dewoitine 501, the first fighter with a cannon firing through the propeller hub. The Bulgarian Air Force used the Dewoitine 520 to defend against Allied bomber raids until quite late in the war. The French Air Force was itself substantial, with the aircraft industry producing 619 combat aircraft every month by May 1940 and buying 170 American planes per month. They faced the Luftwaffe with 4,360 combat aircraft, although poorly organised for war, and many squadrons were based in the colonies. When the Armistice was being signed, those aircraft which could flew to Algeria.

The Dewoitine 520 is my favourite French WW2 fighter (on display at Le Bourget).

It was in the colonies that the Vichy air force fought against the Allies. Firstly, at Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar as the British sought to sink the French Navy. The land-based French fighters outmatched the Fleet Air Arm's Swordfish and Skuas. Even the American Curtiss Hawks were faster. The Italians also attacked French Somaliland in East Africa before the Armistice and then largely kept out of the subsequent campaign until overrun in December 1942 by the British.

The Iraq revolt was supported by the Germans and Italians, who used French bases in Syria. French aircraft attacked Royal Navy ships off the Lebanon coast, and the grateful Germans released 7,000 French PoWs and cut the occupation payments. The British responded with attacks on French airfields in Syria, which led to several air combats against French fighters. 

This led to the Allied invasion of Syria, Operation Exporter. This proved to be a much tougher campaign than expected, and the Vichy air force played an important role in its defence. This is covered in more detail in last year's Osprey Campaign book. Additional squadrons were flown in from Algeria. At the end of the campaign, again, as many as possible sought to escape, mainly via Athens. Of 273 aircraft, they lost 169 planes to all causes. The British lost 41.

In the Far East, Vichy France largely came to terms with the Japanese. Churchill was particularly angered by the use of French bases by Japanese torpedo bombers, which sunk the Prince of Wales and Repulse. I was surprised to learn that France and Thailand fought a war between October 1940 and 9 May 1941, another for the obscure conflict folder. Operation Ironclad was the Allied invasion of Madagascar in 1942, primarily to stop the Japanese from using the main harbour to intercept convoys. Russell Phillips has written an excellent history of the campaign. The French only had a handful of Potez 63-11s to defend the island.

Finally, there was Operation Torch, which involved some initial clashes with Allied air forces. The French had upwards of 500 aircraft in North Africa. While French fascists fought on the Eastern Front, the Germans were less keen on collaboration pilots. Presumably, on the basis that a pilot could just fly off to the Allies. The Legion des Volontaires Francais (LVF) included around 50 pilots, but these mainly served in ground roles.

Most of the campaigns in this book have been covered in other publications. However, the focus on the air force and its aircraft are interesting and well worth the read. At under a fiver on Kindle, it's a valuable addition to the library of obscure WW2 armed forces.

I have French colonial troops in 28mm, but no aircraft.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review.
    I do have a soft spot for the more obscure (non-mainstream) campaigns of WW2 - East Africa and Lebanon/Syria are both interesting sideshows. Obsolete or at least not frontline, state-of-the-art kit and assorted rag-tag forces fighting in weather and terrain which posed many difficulties. Certainly a challenge for all concerned.