A Brief History of the French Air Force from 1934 to 1945
Contributed by Tim Larribau
The French Air Force (Armée de l’Air) was born on July 2nd, 1934. The French aviators had had to struggle since the end of the 1st World War to see an independent Air Force created. After the victory in 1918, the French Army generals were quick to forget the true reasons of allied superiority – air power – and to boast themselves and their military genius. The Air Service (Aéronautique aux Armées) was reduced to a very small service only able to do some little Close Air Support and some tactical or logistic transport, as in Morocco during the Rif War of 1925. In 1928, however, an Air Ministry was created to deal with aviation, both civilian and military. From 1928 to 1934, the Air ministers cautiously passed a series of laws that gave the aviators more independence and power.
The Armée de l’Air uniform was designed after the regulation 1928 Air service uniform. It was made dark blue with a single row of four gold buttons and a golden stripe on each shoulder. The rank insignia was on the sleeves, just like the Army and Navy at that time. The cap was to be worn blue from October 1st to April 1st and white the rest of the year. The aviators chose a dagger as ceremony side arm where the Army and Navy had sabers. The black tie tradition was kept. (The French aviators of the famous Cigognes Squadron chose to wear black ties as a sign of mourning on September 11th, 1917, when Ace Georges Guynemer was shot down)
The very weak French Air Force started equipment plans in 1935 and slowly strengthened itself, still in strife with the Army and Navy over budgets. In 1938, the old fighter pilot metal insignia of WW1 was reintroduced for all pilots after the Air Force Chief of Staff’s visit to the German Luftwaffe. The French Air Force was thrown into battle on September 1st 1939 at the beginning of World War Two. After 9 months of severe skirmishing over the border, the French Air Force was hit hard by the Luftwaffe on May 10, 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg started. The French were outnumbered, had planes of less quality than the Germans and had no air doctrine. While the Army kept calling for Air support, the French Air Force was caught between the Messerschmitt fighters and the heavy anti-aircraft fire. Despite the technical and doctrinal problems, the French Air Force managed to fight back and to destroy an estimated number of 600 of the 1400 planes the German lost in May and June 1940. The total surrender of France on June 25, 1940 ended the Battle of France but some French aviators were able to escape to England and fight with the Royal Air Force in the Free French Air Forces built up by General de Gaulle. The official French Air Force of Maréchal Pétain (called Armée de l’Air de Vichy) had to fight the Allies in Syria and Senegal but was defeated by the United States during the North Africa Landings in November 1942. In 1943, the Free French Air Forces and the Vichy Air Force were reunited and equipped by the Allies. General de Gaulle sent a squadron to the USSR (the Normandie-Niemen squadron) making France the only western ally to fight on both Western and Eastern Front. The reunited French Air Force participated in the Air war over France and Germany before the Normandy Landings and fought over Germany until May 8th 1945. The French Ace of aces of WWII was Captain Pierre Clostermann of the Free French Air Forces who shot down 38 German planes and hundreds of ground targets on Spitfire, Typhoon and Tempest aircraft.