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Casemate - The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force

ISBN Number:
178 155644
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Fonthill Media
Retail Price:
Reviewed By:
Danny Egan

The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force



This is going to be an unusual review for at least three reasons: first, we don't often do reviews related to air forces; after all, this is a tank-modeling club. Second, my interest in this book stemmed directly from a previous review we did of Robert Forczyk's Case Red, on the French campaign. That otherwise-outstanding book left me wondering, essentially, "where was the French air force in 1940?". This book attempts, among other things, to answer that question. Third, this book actually came about because of a plastic model kit. Here's the author, quoted on his facebook page: 

"It was the early 1960s and I was on my way to primary school when I spotted the construction kit above (A 1/72 scale Fokker D.21 - DE) in the window of the local sweet shop. It was a Dutch Fokker D.21.So the Dutch had an air force in 1940 as well as us! I soon discovered the French did too, indeed a very large air force. So what happened to it in 1940? What was the RAF doing? Why did we come so close to defeat? So it began. I started creeping into the adult section of my local library, where the books were more interesting. I began visiting the IWM and RAF Hendon libraries. At university I spent too much time in the history department and not enough dong the maths I was supposed to be doing. I started visiting the archives in London and Paris. I began writing my findings down, just to get things clear in my own mind. I wasn't thinking of publishing anything but then, when I retired, I thought "Why not?"" - Greg Baughen

With that in mind, I think this book review is completely appropriate for AMPS ;) 

The Book

Just to get the basics out of the way: This is a 320 page, 23 X 56cm hardcover history of the French Air Force from its origins before WW1 to the debacle of 1940. It is not a modeling reference, of course, but we modelers tend to have a strong interest in history. The few photos and maps are of aircraft and personalities. This is the book for you if, like me, you've studied the French campaign of 1940 and you've wondered why the French air force seemed absent from the battle. 

Few campaigns in history had more influence on armor than the French campaign of 1940. While it was not the first use of AFVs (which happened in WW1) nor even the first operational-level use of mechanized, combined-arms operations (which had happened in the Polish campaign of 1939) there is simply no question that the French campaign was a watershed. In 1940, everyone "knew" the French army was the world's strongest. Six weeks later, after France collapsed and Britain had evacuated the BEF, the world's militaries scrambled to address the threat posed by modern, high speed combined arms warfare, or what some journalists had started calling "blitzkreig". It was the French campaign that led directly to the creation of the US Armored Force and the development of the M4 tank. It also led to the creation of additional British armored divisions (only one existed in 1940, and it was destroyed in France). It led to the creation of the Canadian Armoured Corps. Finally, of course, it led directly to the Red Army re-establishing the Tank Corps it had so recently disbanded, setting the stage for the eventual defeat of nazi Germany. Thus, an understanding of the French campaign is essential for the student of mechanized war.    

The author begins with a brief description of the origins of French military aviation, and a detailed description of the organization and operations of French air units in WW1. I knew virtually nothing about the state of the art in air-ground operations in 1918. Their doctrine and operations were more advanced than I knew, and in many ways more advanced than they would be in 1940.

Somehow, however, this knowledge was lost between the wars. The author devotes most of the book's length to the interwar period, which laid the foundation for the failure of the French air force in 1940. The book is very strong on development of French aircraft and basic doctrine between the wars. It is less detailed on actual operations in 1940, but this background provides much of the reason for the 'absence' of the Armee de L'Air in 1940. 

As was the case for the French Army, the interwar period for the French Air Force was the shaky foundation that seemed to guarantee collapse. The popular myth that the French forces intended to fight a WW1-style war all over again has long been debunked. However, much of the strategic and tactical thought of the 1920s and 1930s may have been as harmful as an attempt to fight that last war would have been. The author identifies many events and ideas that led to the disaster of 1940, but a few stand out for me. 

The first was the French air force's shift of directions several times, often to extremes. At first it put enormous effort into multi-role aricraft that the technology of the time could not support. They wanted aircraft that could bomb, fight and perform reconnaissance, all in one airframe. When that failed, they began adopting specialized aircraft and refused to use them in roles for which they had not been designed. Unlike the western allies in 1942-45, they would not use older fighters for ground attack, for example. 

A second influence was the terror of bombing that gripped the western world in the 1920s and 30s. It is hard to believe nowadays, after all the massive conventional bombing of WW2, the combat use of two atomic bombs, and the 70 years of mutual assured destruction we survived in the cold war, but the tiny aerial bombing effort of WW1 struck a very high level of fear into western politicians. There was a fear that a few bombing raids would result in massive civilian casualties, create widespread panic, and lead to the swift downfall of regimes. This was heightened by the Spanish Civil War and the publication of Douhet's "The Command of the Air". By the eve of WW2, the western allies were intimidated by the possibility of German bombing. 

This led to France emphasizing bomber aircraft as a means of deterrence and retaliation. In France and other nations, the desire of airmen to gain political independence from ground forces led them to emphasize strategic bombing as a role that could only be performed by independent air forces. Lost in all of this was the need to provide direct support of ground forces. The Germans, despite having a nominally independent air force, did not make this mistake. 

A final 'nail in the coffin' was simply timing. France was not remotely ready for war in 1939-40, although a delay might have resulted in a much higher state of readiness and a very different campaign. Like everyone else who fought the Germans, France lost the initial battles. However, unlike the British, US or Soviets, they didn't get additional chances to learn and fight again.

The author makes it very clear that, not only was it not ready in 1940, but the French air force expected a long war and husbanded their resources to enable it to carry on a sustained fight. Thus hundreds of fighters were deployed to defend cities against German bomber attacks that never came, instead of being deployed forward. In the summer of 1940, German divebombers would prove easy meat for the RAF...if you wonder why they survived May-June 1940 unharmed, it was because French fighters weren't sent to shoot them down. Production of promising aircraft was grossly mismanaged; again, had the timing been just slightly different, France might have overcome this error, but the campaign was too soon and too fast for them to make th needed corrections. There was very poor coordination between air and ground units. This was a flaw in almost every force in the world at the time, by the quick campaign meant the French never had the opportunity to learn, correct and improve. Losing airfields, short of pilots, shackled by 'bomber terror' and commanders who were not learning fast enough, cut off from the ground forces, the French air force wasn't in the fight in 1940. They had a very low sortie rate compared to their opponents, weren't where they needed to be, and didn't support the main effort. 


Highly Recommended for Beginner to Advanced builders who want to understand what happened in 1940.

Thanks goes out to Casemate for this review sample.

Reviewed by Danny Egan


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