On May 16, 1939, General Maxime Weygand made several public statements in London. Among them was the remark that the theories of Italian General Douhet, one of the earliest proponents of massed airpower, had few partisans in France; and the French general further declared that "infantry remained queen of battle." A little more than one year later, the Armistice was signed at Compiégne, and the land of Guynemer and Blériot was under the German heel.
The sudden and crushing defeat of this cradle of democracy did not entirely disprove General Weygand's opinion as to the power of infantry. But infantry alone had not conquered France, nor had the job been done by airpower. Rather, as in countries which had fallen earlier, France again proved the value of the German Wehrmacht which had forged a fighting machine by welding such diverse arms of the service as air forces, infantry, mechanized troops, and engineers into one mighty battering ram.
Other armies had all of these units other armies had tacticians who saw their future value, and France was not lacking in this foresight. Along with one of the greatest land armies in Europe, she had General Charles De Gaulle, who early recognized the ultimate possibilities of mechanization. Why De Gaulle's ideas were ignored is not yet clear the best guess is that they countered the emphasis placed on defensive fortifications by Marshal Henri Pétain.
But in the field of airpower, among high ranking authorities, France seemed to lack even a prophet. Presumably, the land of the fleur-de-lis was awake to the possibilities of military aviation, and had laid some groundwork with the development of commercial airlines.
Perhaps it was bureaucracy, perhaps close ties with armament makers of Middle Europe, perhaps the turbulent times connected with the Front Populaire but French military aviation was sadly lacking at the time when it may not have won the battle, but might have delayed the inevitable conclusion. It is no secret that a contributing factor to Daladier's agreement at Munich was the inefficiency and bad order of the Armée de l'Air; the world soon found out that the French people did not recognize the air force as a first line of defense.
And the world wrote off the French Aircraft Industry as a total loss, but the incoming Germans, budgeted for total war, have revived this industry and made it pay dividends. Taking over, they found six state-owned Sociétes Nationales engaged in the manufacture of military aircraft, plus at least eight independent companies also engaged in manufacturing planes and parts for the military. In the first phase of German control, the companies in Occupied France were turned to production of German aircraft, while those in Vichy France were permitted to continue to develop their own designs always, of course, in collaboration with ranking officers of the Luftwaffe.
By October of 1941, Vichy authorities had embarked on a campaign of closer cooperation with Germany, had reduced the Sociétes Nationales to one central organization, and had contracted to produce 234 Messerschmitts, 419 Focke-Wulfs, 52 Dorniers, and enough other planes to make up an initial order of 2,000 aircraft for the Nazis. While these contracts were being fulfilled, Allied troops invaded North Africa, the Wehrmacht completely occupied France to make the Vichy government a mockery, and aircraft production slowed down.
In the early months of 1943, all aircraft plants in France were shut down under German order, and the rumor that these industries were to be moved to Germany was public property. Perhaps an alternative was offered at any rate February saw the plants again in production under a central organizing committee, producing aircraft almost exclusively for German consumption. But these products are still not all of German design. Parts for Dornier, Henschel, and Junkers are being made in France today, but she is once again designing and producing her own aircraft although for German uses. This twin-production plan is evidently the result of a thorough inventory of French aircraft types Teutonic efficiency weeding out those planes which fit German needs and scrapping aircraft of French design too obsolete for modern warfare.
Fighter types, bombers have been almost ignored. It is obvious from reports of the last few months that German bombers are either being hoarded or much of their manufacture has been discontinued. Fighter production has certainly increased in the Reich, and the Luftwaffe is sticking to its own essential designs. With German plane factories engaged in fighter manufacture, the burden of workhorse aviation has been left to France. A survey of the known native-designed French aircraft now being made for Hitler's air force indicates a concentration on transports, mail planes, courier aviation not machines of actual combat, but planes for the auxiliaries: aircraft to haul personnel, mail, and freight.
The Germans are bearing down hard on large French planes, presumably to use for the Lufthansa, the transport section of the Luftwaffe. Three giant seaplanes, the Potez-SCAN 161, the Sud-Est 200, and the Latecoére 631 all developed before German control are probably fated to haul Nazi munitions.
Another type of transport now in production is the former Bloch 161, now renamed the SO 161. This is an all-metal cantilever low-wing monoplane with four power plants, Gnome-Rhone radial engines of 1,050 hp. The huge ship, loaded for a 1,700 mile range, has a gross weight of 46,297 pounds and cruises at 230 mph, achieving a maximum of 267 but landing at an easy 62 mph. Another Bloch, known as the 800, was completed toward the end of 1942. A low-powered ship weighing about 9,000 pounds, it carries eight passengers, is powered with a Bearn motor generating from 375-400 hp.
The well-known French Amiot series has not been ignored both the 370 and the 356 are now in German hands. Better-known to the public, the 356 is a fat-bellied, all-metal, high-wing monoplane, cruising at 240 mph on two Rolls-Royce Xs of 1,010 hp. This ship can step up to a maximum of 363 mph, a notable speed among transports. With a 29,500-foot ceiling and a range at cruising speed of 4,300 miles, the plane is a welcome addition to any air force even though its useful load is only a little more than 3,500 pounds.
Farman, another name well-known to French fliers, is handling subcontracting on a large scale and has recently produced a twin-engined plane for mail and courier services, probably powered with deHavilland Gypsy engines while Breguet, also in the lighter plane field, has at least two types in service. One of these, the 500, is a twin-engined, all-metal monoplane with two Gnome-Rhone engines of 1,590 hp, cruising comfortably at 248 mph over a 1,240-mile range.
Although news of French fighter planes in German hands has never made the front pages, rumors out of France mention renewed Nazi interest in another Bloch product the 157 built by SNCA du Sud-Ouest. Paced by a 14-cylinder Gnome-Rhone 14R twin-row radial engine, with a two-speed supercharger, this ship has been reported in a tidy performance of 398 mph at 23,000 feet and that's still in the running with much of today's combat aviation.
In the trainer field, a company formed by Dewoitine is now subcontracting on the German Arados Morane-Saulner is also putting out a two-seater fighter-trainer, employing a veneer and aluminum fuselage. Designed for a maximum speed of 250 mph, the ship is said to be powered by a 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled Hispano-Suiza with a takeoff punch of 670 hp.
There are undoubtedly many more planes on the drawing board in French factories today planes to aid the Luftwaffe but manufactured by unwilling French slave labor.
But the end of Nazi domination is in sight. The French people the workmen, designers, and engineers who tried to bring efficiency to a bungled aircraft industry, look ahead to their chance in a free world.
This article was originally published in the March, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 2, pp 52-54.
The original article includes 20 photos of various French aircraft types.
Photos credited to Three Lions, British Combine, International, Monkmeyer.