MILAVIA > Specials > Why France Fell to the Nazis: The Air Component before the War Last updated: 24 February 2013
MILAVIA Military Aviation Specials

Historical Article : Why France Fell to the Nazis: The Air Component before the War


Raul Colon investigates the poor state of the French air component before the second World War and why it contributed to the fall of France.

Why France Fell to the Nazis: The Air Component Before the War

After a visit to France in early January 1940, Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, summed up his impressions of the French Army like this: "“I must say that I saw nothing amiss with it on the surface. The Generals are all tired men, if a bit old from our view-point. None of them showed any lack of confidence. …Will the Blitzkrieg, when it comes, allow us to rectify things if they are the same? I must say I don'’t know. But I say to myself that we must have confidence in the French Army. It’s the only thing in which we can have confidence…. All depends on the French Army and we can do nothing about it”."
Those were telling words from the top British commander before the start of the Second World War. Unfortunately for the Allies, his fears proved to be right. When Germany finally attacked the West on May 13th 1940 they did it with such a force that caught the Allies by surprise. Fifteen days after the initial attack wave, Belgium capitulated and the combined might of the French Army and British force was defeated time and time again. Between May 26th and June 4th, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some remaining elements of the French Army were successful evacuated from the French Channel port city of Dunkirk. On June 10th, the French government relocated its seat of power from Paris. Four days later, the Germans marched victorious into the Parisian streets. On June 22nd, the new French government caved in and signed a humiliated Armistice ending one of the most lopsided military campaigns in modern times.
The immediate aftermath of the defeat saw the emerging of the “search for scapegoats” syndrome. A syndrome that is still with us today. The questions regarding the fall of France had resonated since the tragic events of May-June 1940. There are many questions as to why France was mauled so effortlessly by a numerical inferior adversary. Did the French rearmament investment come too late? Was the Army’s combat doctrine too rigid? Did the French and, to an extent, the BEF; lacked innovating and refreshing combat ideas, and so on? In the end, the fall of France is viewed as an example of what a disastrous planning and even more poorly execution could lead.

Since the mid 1930s, France main effort to gear up for a possible German attack was rearmament. Since the mid 1920s, because of the country’s misplaced believe that its newly develop Maginot Line (a series of reinforced structures-forts– along the common German/French border) would contain the expected German columns, not much effort was put on rearming the French armed forces. All that changed with the emerging of Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930s and by the middle of the decade, French rearmament was finally given top budgetary priority. But the sad state of all three services (army, navy and the air force) made progression towards rearmament painstaking slow at best. The worse problem was experienced by the air force. The French air force began rearmament in 1934 as part of Plan I, which called for the production of 1,343 new aircrafts. Nevertheless, the assembly of such force was doomed from the beginning.
In the mid 1930s, the French aircraft industry consisted more of scattered complexes rather than having a cohesive structure. One in which up to forty organizations had input in nearly all aspects of aircraft design, development and production. While at the same time they were competing for those precious newly designated funds. As they originally were setup, France’s aircraft industry was not structured to handle such big orders, thus the structure needed to be altered which would cause further delays in production. Those delays had an adverse effect on the air force’s rearmament effort. Because of them, most of France’s developed aircraft from the late 1930s came through a narrow technological window. One which prevented the newly developed aircraft from achieving its top technological capability, thus making them almost obsolete before they achieved operational status.
The problem was compounded by the type of airplanes the French government began to order. Plan I called for the construction of multirole air platforms capable of performing as bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft. So, instead of building dedicated platforms, the French government invested on various single type planes. Such aircrafts were indeed able to carry out, rather on a pedestrian basis, each of the various types of missions they were called for, but they could not to distinguish themselves on any. The decision to develop such platforms was a painful compromise between the Army, the newly formed Air Force and the government. Many inside the air force believed, with passion, in Giulio Douhet’s strategic theory which called for the destruction of the enemy’s economic strength by destroying its infrastructure. While on the other hand, the Army’'s top brass desired that the new air force serve as a supporting package rather than an independent unit.

In September 1936, France developed a new strategic plan, Plan II. Plan II diverted from the predecessor in one major area. The new Plan called for the production of up to 1,339 dedicated bombers with a complement of 756 fighters of all types. This shifting in priority towards the bomber had its roots on new Air Minister Pierre Cot’s passion for Douhet’s strategic vision. Unfortunately for France, Plan II had the same opportunity to success as its predecessor: None. Chaos rained on nearly all French aircraft productions factories. Trying to handle such big orders the problem was accentuated by the Popular Front’s nationalization effort of the mid to late 1930s. As a result of those two factors, France'’s aircraft production actually fell those years. Between the spring of 1937 and the first three months of 1938, French factories were producing an average of forty units per month. Five less than in 1936, the year the Germans overtook France in sheer number of available airframes. The fact that Germany overtook France as Europe’s top air force should not had surprised anyone.
On a conference visit to London later that year, Joseph Vuillemin, France’s Chief of Air Staff, plainly put the situation of the French air force as this: "“In a war, our air force would be destroyed in a matter of a few days”." That blunt statement shocked all British commanders. They were well aware of the German advances in quantity but they held the believe that once fighting erupted, the French could hold their own with Germany in the air and that the aircraft the Royal Air Force (RAF) had just began to deploy in northern France, would tip the balance towards the Allies. Unfortunately for British commanders, their French counterparts not only held the belief that Germany was superior in all air-related aspects, but in fact cemented it early in 1938. Again, the culprit was Vuillemin. In the spring of 1938, he went to Germany to evaluate for himself the much talked about Luftwaffe. When he came back, the fate of France’s air force was sealed. Later that year, Vuillemin sent a private letter to Prime Minister Edouard Daladier stating once again that in the event of war, Germany will destroy the country’'s air force in less than a week. This was the same letter Daladier carried with him to Munich.

The byproduct of Vuillemin’s obsession with a German air wipe-out was Plan V. In March 1938, the French government decided to make the air force the main recipient of budgetary disbursements, 42 percent of the entire budget went to air rearmament. The new Plan called for doubling the country'’s fighter capacity (41% of all funds were allocated to new fighter development) and somewhat relegated Plan II’s emphasize on bomber construction (34% for bombers). The shifting in position was attributed to two main elements. On one hand, the French decided to rely on the much advanced and better prepared RAF Bomber Command to carry out its missions. Sort of outsourcing its tactical and strategic bomber capability to a second party.
The other factor was the gradual change in the air force’s air doctrine. In France, Nazi Germany role in the Spanish Civil War was a topic of heated discussions, specially its air component. In Spain, elements of the Luftwaffe provided constant close air support to Franco’'s ground troops, paving the way for Franco to assume control of the country. This fact was not lost on French commanders, many of whom began to move the air force from a strategic bomber force to a more robust air-ground combat arrangement. Close air support was now France's main air doctrine. Although a change in doctrine was made, the air force was painfully slow to pair doctrine with hardware. A clear example of this “operational deficiency” was the fact that France never developed a top flight dive bomber aircraft, a platform that proved highly successful over the Spanish countryside.

Table I. France’s Aircraft Industry Workforce
Date Workers
11/1934 21500
12/1936 35200
5/1938 48000
1/1940 171000
5/1940 250000

The newly developed Plan V was twice scaled up between the painful Munich conference and the German invasion of the Low Countries. Nearly four billion francs were invested in the air force from January 1938 through the end of combat activities in June 1940. In charge of Plan V was a brilliant engineer named Albert Caquot. Besides having impeccable engineering credentials, Caquot had one other trait coveted by many, superb managerial skills. Skills France sorely needed at the time. Caquot immersed himself in the task at hand and by late 1938 he had the French aircraft industry cracking new airframes at a rate of 41 units per month, peaking at 298 planes per month in September 1939. What Caquot and his team did was nothing less than remarkable. Almost overnight, France had consolidated its scatter aircraft industry and developed an integrated skilled workforce.
On August 23rd the French high command met to discuss the state of the air rearmament. The ultra conservative General Maurice Gamelin, France’s top military commander, spoke eloquently about the country'’s ability to match Germany step by step on all dimensions of combat. Guy La Chambre, the Air Minister, was more sober, but nevertheless, expressed high confidence in his unit. “There would be a shortness of bombers until the winter of 1940, but they could be supplemented by the RAF’s bomber force stationed in the north”. Vuillemin was more cautious, stating that France’s bomber situation has not improved much since the disgrace of Munich. But as caution as Vuillemin sounded that day, he did express optimism for the future. “There’s a good chance that within six months, the combined French and British air forces will match that of the Germans”. Not a ringing endorsement for war but more optimistic than some of his previous statements.

Table II. Aircraft Production Numbers From October 1939 through May 1940
Month Planned Figure Actual Figure
October 422 254
November 615 296
December 640 314
January 805 358
February 1066 279
March 1185 364
April 1375 330
May 1678 434

Everything seemed to be moving ahead. Plan V was revised two times before the declaration of war and the factories were putting out airframes at a record pace, but underneath the numbers laid a tragic picture. Mobilization had an adverse effect on rearmament, especially, of the air component. Because a high percentage of the skilled workforce was activated, the factories were deprived of their expertise as well as sheer manpower needed to keep up the rearmament pace. By the late 1939, aircraft production had actually fallen, prompting Caquot’s resignation in January 1940. Also by that time, the aircraft industry was producing planes at such a high rate that spare parts manufacturers just could not keep up with demand. The situation was so grave that after the disaster of Munich, Daladier send his trusted adviser Jean Monnet to the United States with a simple order to buy as many airframes as he could get “his hands on”. Monnet responded in a big way. By February 1939, the prominent French banker had placed orders for 550 aircraft. Later that spring, Daladier made Monnet the head of the powerful Anglo-French Purchasing Committee. Vested with new powers and an even bigger cache of funds, Monnet arranged the acquisition of 4500 new airframes. Unfortunately for France, the delivery of all those newly purchased aircraft was painfully slow. When the Germans attacked only 200 of those units were actually deployed and ready for combat.

France's dreams of achieving parity with the Luftwaffe by February 1940 were beginning to fade by November 1939. Beside the numbers, French aircraft lacked quality in comparison to the Germans. One clear example of this was the world’'s first “bomber gap”. French bombers were mostly obsolete with the newest of them only just arriving at the front when war broke. On the fighter front the situation was almost the same. The best French fighter at the time, the Dewoitine D-520, was as good as any German airplane. But again, the best aircraft, such as the D-520, were only just commencing to arrive in limited quantities when the hostilities started. Only eighty D-520s were deployed when Germany attacked on May 1940.
More telling was the fact that even with counting the 416 RAF’ aircraft deployed in France, the Germans possessed a two-to-one aircraft advantage over the Allies (1711 to 3530) at the time of the attack. Add all those factors together and is easy to see why France fell in such a dramatic way. Better combat planning and tactics could have prolonged the fight, but the French air force’s inadequacies in equipment and its poorly maintained industrial base would have cracked under the strain of attrition.

  • Budiansky, Stephen (2004). Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War, Penguin Group.
  • Dunnigan, James F. & Albert A. Nofi (1996). Dirty Little Secrets of World War II, HarperCollins.
  • May, Ernest R. (2001). Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France, Hill And Wang.
  • Neillands, Robin (2001). The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany, Overlook Press.
  • Hammerton, Sir John, (ed) (2001). The Second World War, Trident Press.

Article copyright 2008 Raul Colon,