Free French Air Force

Free French Air Force

The Free French Air Force ( _fr. Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres, FAFL) were the air arm of Free French Forces during the Second World War.

Fighting for Free France — the FAFL in French North Africa (1940-1943)

On June 17, 1940, five days before the signing of the Franco-German Armistice, the first "exodus" of 10 airmen took flight from Bordeaux-Mérignac to England. Others rallied to General Charles de Gaulle from France and French North Africa during the period of June 1940 to November 1942. A contingent of volunteers from South American countries such as Uruguay, Argentina and Chile was also created, as french authorities fled personally to recruit. From a strength of 500 on July 1940, the ranks of the "Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres" (FAFL) had grown to 900 by 1941, including 200 flyers. A total of 276 of these flyers were stationed in England, and 604 were stationed on exterior theaters of operation. General de Gaulle named then-Colonel Martin Valin as commander-in-chief of the FAFL in the summer of 1940, though he was at the French military mission in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the time of his appointment. He was required to complete his assignment there by February 1941, yet it took him some 45 days to get to London to see de Gaulle. It was not until he took over from the caretaker commander, Admiral Emile Muselier, that Valin formally assumed office on July 9, 1941.

All FAFL aircraft were to be identified differently from those of the Vichy French air force, which continued to sport the tricolor roundel. The Cross of Lorraine, a cross with two parallel horizontal arms, with the lower arm slightly longer than the upper one, was the symbol of Free France chosen by Charles de Gaulle. It was chosen in order to distinguish their allegiance from those of their countrymen now having to fight, however reluctantly, for the benefit of a country friendly to the Axis powers. The cross could be seen in the same places on FAFL aircraft where the roundels used to be on all French military aircraft, that is, on the fuselage and on the lower and upper surfaces of the wings.The FAFL was formed at de Gaulle’s behest with one “mixed” unit at RAF Odiham on August 29, 1940, under the command of "Commandant" (Major) Lionel de Marmier. One of its first jobs was to try and persuade the governors-general of colonies in French West Africa not to submit to the orders of the Vichy government, and instead join the Free French in their continuing fight against the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy. An Allied plan to take control of Dakar was code-named Operation Menace. Among the units taking part was the newly formed FAFL "Groupe de Combat Mixte" (GMC) 1, code-named "Jam", consisted of four squadrons, composed of Bristol Blenheim bombers and Westland Lysander liaison/observation aircraft. Operation Menace was a failure, and FAFL envoys were arrested and imprisoned at Dakar by the Vichy authorities.

However, French forces in Cameroon and Chad, in French Equatorial Africa, rallied to the Gaullist cause. There were three detachments of French air force units — based at Fort-Lamy (now N’Djamena) (Chad), Douala (Cameroon) and Pointe-Noire (Congo) – operating a mixed bag of Potez and Bloch aircraft, and they thus became part of the FAFL. However, Gabon remained loyal to Vichy, so, in mid- to late October 1940, FAFL squadrons set out on photo-reconnaissance and leaflet-dropping missions. The first Vichy-versus-FAFL combats took place on November 6, 1940, when two Vichy air force aircraft took on two FAFL Lysanders near Libreville, resulting in both aircraft sustaining damage but making it back to base. Two days later, the first FAFL airmen were shot down and taken prisoner. Two days after that, Libreville was taken by Free French army troops, resulting, ironically, in the FAFL aircraft now sharing the same air base with their opponents of a few days before. The French attitude towards the fighting was that of a “civil war” that was being won for Free France, since now Libreville had joined the Gaullist cause. As it happened, this would be the only time when opposing factions within FEA territory would fight each other openly.

Philippe de Hauteclocque, better known by his French resistance name of Leclerc, who later became one of the most famous French army generals in history, had strong ambitions in North Africa, though, in outlining what he wanted the FAFL to do, he often revealed a complete lack of understanding of what it was actually capable of. When he demanded that the Italian-held airfield at Koufra in Libya was to be bombed, he was told, matter-of-factly, that the squadrons had no capability of carrying out such a major mission, especially given the lack of experience in navigating over vast desert territory. Leclerc’s reaction, based on his fury at lack of air support during the German invasion of France, was ugly, and relations between him and the FAFL deteriorated rapidly. A mission carried out by the recently formed "Groupe de Bombardement" (GRB) 1 ("Lorraine") on February 4 1941, ended disastrously when, out of four Blenheims sent to bomb Koufra, only a single one returned – and, even then, it was because of engine trouble. (It was not until 1959 that one of the other three aircraft was found.) On February 27, the Free French took Koufra airfield, while the enemy garrison surrendered two days afterwards. Leclerc, for his part, still regarded aviation as a kind of appendage, since he considered it to be of such minor importance that it might as well not be there to support the ground forces at all.

The "Groupe Bretagne" was formed on January 1, 1942, with certain objectives in mind: U.S.-built Maryland aircraft would carry out long-range reconnaissance missions, the Lysanders close-support missions and the Potez liaison and transport missions. Yet it was not until March 3 that the first operational missions were carried out from Uigh el-Kébir, which had only been captured the previous day. The very next day, however, a Lysander crashed on landing, injuring its pilot, who had to be evacuated to hospital. On the 7th, the FAFL had some success when some Lysanders successfully destroyed three enemy aircraft on the ground at Um el-Aranel; one of them was chased by an Italian fighter plane, but it managed to get back to base, albeit sustaining considerable damage.

For most of 1942, the "Groupe Bretagne" concentrated mostly on liaison and training flights, yet, in late autumn, Leclerc wanted to count on the FAFL for supporting ground offensives against the Italians in the wake of the victory of the British 8th Army against the Afrika Korps at the Second Battle of El Alamein and the Anglo-American invasion of Morocco during Operation Torch. However, lack of co-operation between Leclerc’s general staff based at Algiers and the Allies seemed to indicate a power struggle between him and de Gaulle since the latter was in charge of the Free French forces in London. Though FAFL airplanes from the “Rennes” squadron of the "Groupe Bretagne" did engage Italian forces towards the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943, problems with both weapons and the aircraft themselves (mostly engine trouble resulting in forced-landings) dogged the efforts of the aircrews. January 23, 1943, witnessed the fall of Tripoli – and the end of the air war for the "Groupe".

The Anglo-American landing in North Africa in November 1942 was the starting point for the rebirth of the French Air Force, thanks to the commitment by the U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, of 1,000 planes, and the French began to receive U.S.-built aircraft to replenish its squadrons. On July 1, 1943, the Algiers-based "Armée de l'Air" general staff (which received its orders from de Gaulle and General Giraud) and the FAFL general staff were merged and placed under the command of General Bouscat. He conducted the reorganization of the French Air Force, incorporating all elements coming from the ex-Vichy French Army in North Africa and the FAFL. Those forces included about twenty various Groups equipped mainly with Dewoitine D.520s, LeO 45s, Glenn Martin bombers, Bloch MB.175 reconnaissance aircraft, and an assortment of Amiots, Farmans, and Potez 540 transport aircraft.

One squadron, two identities: GC 2/7 (No.326 “Nice” Squadron) (1943-1945)

Altogether, under the umbrella of the USA (not just in North Africa, but also in Sicily and Corsica), there were nine FAFL fighter groups, three of which were (interestingly enough) designated as RAF fighter squadrons, namely No.326 (“"Nice"”), No.327 (“"Corse"”) and No.328 (“"Provence"”) Squadrons, with other units similarly named after regions in metropolitan France, namely Roussillon, Champagne, Navarre, Lafayette, Dauphiné and Ardennes. Similarly, there were six bomber groups (Bretagne, Maroc, Gascogne, Bourgogne, Sénégal and Franche-Comté), one reconnaissance group (Belfort) and one transport group (Anjou).

Following the dissolution of the Vichy French naval aviation arm, the second "escadrille" of the combat fighter group GC II/7 accepted several navy pilots into its ranks. In March 1943, it received its first British aircraft, namely examples of the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb fighter plane. When GC II/7 was broken up in August, the squadron received two designations - one of which was French, the other British - by virtue of the fact that its complement included both French and British pilots. While the British designated the unit No.326 Squadron of the RAF, the French knew their squadron as GC 2/7, even though it was attached to No.345 Wing of the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force (MACAF). Its first mission as GC 2/7 was an armed reconnaissance mission on April 30, 1943, during the final phase of the war in North Africa, by which time the "Luftwaffe" had all but vanished, but ground-based "Flak" units still remained. By May 13, the Germans had surrendered in North Africa, and GC 2/7 had by then flown 42 missions, accumulating 296 sorties. On June 18, the squadron supplanted its aged Mk.Vb Spitfires with the more agile and maneuverable Mk.IX variant, built originally to combat the much vaunted Focke-Wulf Fw 190, an example of which had been credited to GC 2/7 just seven days earlier.

September 1943 witnessed the participation of GC 2/7 in the liberation of Corsica, claiming seven enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of two of its pilots. On the 27th, the squadron, alongside GC 1/3, had the distinction of becoming the first "Armée de l'Air" unit to be stationed on French soil, since the dissolution of the Vichy French air force the previous December, when it occupied the airfield at Ajaccio-Campo dell’Oro. Now part of No.332 Wing, the squadron’s duties encompassed patrols over the island of Corsica itself, interception of German bombers attacking the island, protection of Allied convoys traversing the Mediterranean, attacks against German shipping berthed in Italian ports, and, from January 1944, the escort of USAAF bombers attacking targets in Italy. From the spring of 1944, GC 2/7 would involve itself both in strafing and dive-bombing attacks against ground targets in coastal regions of western Italy as well as the island of Elba, famous as the place of temporary exile of Napoleon in 1814 prior to his escape.

Finally, in September 1944, GC 2/7 found itself based in metropolitan France itself and was assigned to the same kind of missions that it had conducted over Italy. However, its commanding officer, Captain Georges Valentin, was shot down by "flak" over Dijon on the 8th, while another, Captain Gauthier, was shot down a week later, only he managed to reach Switzerland from where, having been interned, he “escaped” to rejoin his unit. As the front line advanced eastwards towards "Reich" territory, GC 2/7 went to Luxeuil, from where missions flown in early October resulted in four enemy aircraft being confirmed destroyed and another one counted as a “probable”. Christmas Eve saw GC 2/7 escorting B-26 bombers. “Around 20” enemy fighters attacked the formation, and GC 2/7 claimed four of them destroyed, but the French lost one of their pilots in the process.

GC 2/7 frequently clashed with the enemy as the Allies advanced farther into Nazi Germany – including a sighting of two Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters on March 22, 1945, who were just too fast for the piston-engined Spitfires. On April 14, sixteen of the squadron’s aircraft were escorting Lockheed F-5s when they were intercepted by a mixed formation of Bf 109s and Fw 190s, two of which were claimed by GC 2/7 pilots, yet one pilot was shot down and became - for the brief duration that the war in Europe yet had to run - a prisoner. By the time the war did end on May 8, GC 2/7 had, since its formation two years earlier, accomplished just over 7,900 sorties.

Red Star: the "Régiment Normandie-Niemen" fighting for Russia (1942-1945)

Six months after the Germans invaded the USSR, talks aimed at closer co-operation between Free France and the Soviet Union resulted in a squadron being especially created with an initial core of twelve fighter pilots being sent east. The "Groupe de Chasse" GC 3 "Normandie" was officially promulgated by de Gaulle on September 1, 1942, with "Commandant" Pouliquen in command. Mechanics, pilots and hardware were transported by rail and air via Tehran (Iran) to Baku (now the capital of Azerbaijan). A period of training on the Yakovlev Yak-7 was completed by mid-February 1943 when "Commandant" Jean Tulasne took command of the "groupe", which finally headed for the front on March 22, 1943.

The first campaign of GC 3, equipped with the Yakovlev Yak-1 fighter plane, lasted until October 5, and encompassed the area of Russia between Polotniani-Zavod and Sloboda/Monostirtchina. From an initial aerial victory over an Fw 190 on April 5, the tally rose dramatically and the squadron became the focus of much Soviet propaganda, so much so that "Generalfeldmarschall" Wilhelm Keitel (who was executed in 1946 after the Nuremberg trials) decreed that any French pilot captured would be executed.

Tragedy struck the squadron when the much-decorated Tulasne was reported missing in action after combat on July 17, requiring "Commandant" Pouyade to take command. In spite of the loss, GC 3 started to receive many Soviet unit citations and decorations as well as French ones. On October 11, de Gaulle accorded the "groupe" the title of "Compagnon de la Libération". By the time GC 3 relocated to Toula on November 6, 1943, there were a mere six surviving pilots from the "groupe", which had accumulated 72 aerial victories since joining the fighting.

1944 witnessed the expansion of the "groupe" to become a "régiment", with a fourth "escadrille" joining its ranks. After training at Toula was completed on more advanced Yak-9D fighter planes, the new regiment rejoined the front line for its second campaign. This lasted until November 27 and took in the area between Doubrovka (in Russia) and Gross-Kalweitchen (in East Prussia, Germany). It was during this campaign that Joseph Stalin allowed the regiment to style itself "Normandie-Niemen" in recognition of its participation in the battles to liberate the river of that name. On October 16, the first day of a new offensive against East Prussia, the easternmost part of the "Reich" home territory, the regiment’s pilots destroyed 29 enemy aircraft without loss. By the following month, the regiment was itself based in "Reich" territory. By the end of the year, Pouyade had been released from his command of the regiment and he, along with other veteran pilots, returned to France.

January 14, 1945, saw the "Normandie-Niemen" regiment start its third campaign (from Dopenen to Heiligenbeil), concentrating in the East Prussian part of the German "Reich", until victory in the east was formally announced on May 9, the day after V-E Day in western Europe. By that day, the regiment had shot down 273 enemy aircraft and had received many citations and decorations. Stalin expressed his gratitude to the regiment by offering the unit’s Yak-3s to France, to which the pilots returned to a hero’s welcome in Paris on June 20, 1945.

Thus, the regiment became the only air combat group from a western European country (apart from the brief intervention by No. 151 Wing RAF when introducing Hawker Hurricanes to Russia) to participate in the war on the Eastern Front. Its flag bore the testimony of its battle experience with names such as Bryansk, Orel, Ielnia, Smolensk, Koenigsberg (later renamed Kaliningrad by the Soviets), and Pillau. It received the following decorations: from France, the Companion of the "Légion d'Honneur", the "Croix de la Libération", the "Médaille Militaire", the "Croix de Guerre" with six "palmes"; from the USSR, it received the Order of the Red Banner and the Order of Alexander Nevsky, with eleven citations between the two orders.

The history of the "Armée de l'Air" is continued in the article "".

Axis Powers Aircraft Captured by Free French Forces

*CANT Z.1007bis Alcione
*Heinkel He 46C-1
*Heinkel He 177
*Junkers Ju 88

Aircraft of Free French Air Force

*Amiot 143M
*Bloch Bl 131 RB4
*Bloch Bl 174 A3
*Bloch Bl 175 B3
*Caudron C.272 Lucione
*Caudron C.400
*Caudron C.445 Goeland
*Caudron C.600 Aiglon
*Caudron C.630 Simoun
*Caudron C.714C1 "Cyclone"
*Dewoitine D.520
*Farman F.222.2 BN5
*Farman C.222.3 BN5
*Lioré et Olivier LeO 451 B4
*Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 C1
*Potez 25 TOE
*Potez 29-2
*Potez 540
*Potez 63.11
*Potez 65
*Bell P-39D Airacobra
*Bell P-63A Kingcobra
*Curtiss P-36A (Hawk 75A)
*Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk
*Curtiss P-40N-20 Warhawk
*Douglas A-24B
*Douglas DB-7B Boston
*Lockheed F-5A/B Lightning
*Martin 167A-3 Maryland
*Martin A-30A Baltimore
*Martin B-26B/G Marauder
*North American B-25C/H Mitchell
*North American F-6C Mustang
*Republic P-47D Thunderbolt
*Universal L-7A
*Airspeed A.S.10 Oxford Mk.II
*Bristol Blenheim Mk.IVF
*Bristol Blenheim Mk.V
*British Burnelli OA-1
*Hawker Hurricane Mk. IIC
*Supermarine Spitfire L.F.Mk.VB
*Supermarine Spitfire L.F.Mk.VC
*Westland Lysander Mk.III
*Yakovlev Yak-1
*Yakovlev Yak-1M
*Yakovlev Yak-3
*Yakovlev Yak-7B
*Yakovlev Yak-9
*Yakovlev Yak-9T

External links

* [ Air War over Indochina] William Alcott’s web site is about the aircraft that participated in the wars in Indochina/Vietnam from 1945 to 1975. It includes links to photos of (mostly 1/72 scale) models of period military aircraft that he has made.
* [ Axis history web site] Includes details of the French forces during World War II (1943-1945)
* [ "Chasse de groupe Normandie-Niemen"] French-language web site detailing the history of the "Normandie-Niemen" fighter regiment which fought in the USSR between 1943 and 1945
* [ ""] French-language web site detailing the history of the Free French forces during World War II
* [ Flags of the World (FOTW)] Web site that contains graphics of current and historical flags from all over the world
* [ Official web site of the Defense Department of the Government of France] Page dealing with 1939-1945 period
* [ ""] French-language web site about World War II

ee also

*Free French Flight
*Free French Naval Air Service
*France during World War II
*Free French Forces
*French resistance
*History of France
*List of military aircraft of France
*List of aircraft of the Armée de l'Air, World War II
*Pierre Clostermann The top-scoring Free French air ace in western Europe with 38 victories
*Pierre Le Gloan Fighter pilot who flew with the Vichy French air force in North Africa


*Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (2000), "La Croix de Lorraine sur le Tchad: les Lysander de la France Libre", in " Aéro-Journal" edition #13 (June-July 2000), "Aéro-Editions SARL", Fleurance, pp.4-16 (print edition in French)

*Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (2003), "Le GC II/7 (2ème partie 1940-1945): GC 2/7 "Nice" (No.326 Squadron) ", in " Aéro-Journal" edition #32 (August-September 2003), "Aéro-Editions SARL", Fleurance, pp.66-70 (print edition in French)

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