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Old 28th January 2005, 22:38
Posts: n/a
1940 French fighters

Hawk-Eye alias Yves Michelet is watching ya with an eagle's eyesight!

Sorry I discovered Ruy's questions only after 2 days.

I feel the replies - if correct and comprehensive - would be very long and complex : a book!

I regret I can't get into any detail right now but all the replies before mine contain correct information. Taken together they already give a fairly good picture.

Unfortunately this topic is terribly complex because the Armée de l'Air was precisely changing aircraft types, including fighters, frantically from 1938 on - reequipping with "modern" aircraft (arrival of the first "Curtiss", as the French say, 1938; they kept coming (improved versions) right until June 1940 and eventually equipped 5 groupes totalling approx. 150- 160 AC). Armament too light : 4, then 6 light MGs. The Bloch 150 was never used (prototype only?), about 14O Bloch 151s were produced 1939-40 but considered "not fit for combat" (non bons de guerre) but they did see some action within Bloch 152-units, in "chimney flights" (local fighter units in the deep territory) and also with the Aéronavale, and they were replaced on the production lines by the much-improved Bloch 152, which certainly was able to put up a good fight in spite of still too weak an engine (max speed about 500 km/h like the Curtiss but the Bloch probably was more sluggish). The 152 was quite formidable against German bombers for it had a very powerful armament for the time : 2 excellent cannon and 2 light machine-guns, all in the wings. According to former pilots when they hit an AC it often disintegrated. German AC had very little armor at the time (109s had none). On May 10 the AA possessed a grand total of 363 Bloch 152s (production was continuing, about 500 were produced, then came the even more improved Bloch 155, which saw very little action.) The Morane 406 was a modern AC too but it really was obsolescent and its replacement by the D.520 was an urgent matter (1939 it was clearly better than the Me 109 D). Nevertheless it, too, put up a very good fight and downed hundreds of "Huns". Contrary to the usual legend Morane losses were not appalling. According to Paul Martin's 1991 figures, which are not entirely accurate, 99 Moranes were lost in air battle (and 24 to Flak, mostly in stupidly ordered low-level attacks) during the French Campaign; perhaps a total of 500-800 including replacement AC had been engaged. 67 Bloch 152s (and 2 Bloch 151s) were lost in air battles (about 400 (?) had been engaged) as well as 54 Curtisses and 46 D.520s (figure published by Martin in 2001); perhaps approx. 300 D.520s were engaged all in all, including replacement AC. "There was a war on, remember?". Of course you suffer some losses in a big war and they always hurt but this has been wildly exaggerated. The Morane was NOT the most numerous French first-line fighter any more on 10 May 1940 (it was overall by far the most numerous, especially in the rear, in fighter schools etc.) for more frontline-units were equipped with other types than with the Morane. One more unit to be exact, 3 more on 19 May etc.

Yes the D.520 was a superlative AC. About 100 were engaged on 3 June 1940, approx. 150-200 on 17 June (then they were ordered by the French government, like the Curtisses, to fly to French North Africa to avoid capture by the enemy). The D.520 is too well-known for me to insist now.

When you ask "what fighter type was the best in combat" it's NOT simple at all in this case. The 4 first Curtiss Groupes had been equipped 1938, long before the war started on 3 Sept. 1939, starting with 5th Escadre : GC I/5, GC II/5. Obviously the pilots had had plenty of opportunies to get accustomed to this new AC, which they liked, and to train air combat. A 5th Groupe was equipped with Curtisses in the middle of the campaign : GC III/2. GC does NOT mean "Groupe de combat", as many foreign authors think, but "Groupe de chasse" (chasse = hunting, hunt, fighters) (2-squadron fighter wing would be the closest RAF equivalent). On average they possessed 28 fighters but the actual figure reached 36 for the D.520 groupes.

So the French Curtiss pilots (except GC III/2) knew their AC perfectly well when the shooting started, they were able to get everything they could give. The Curtiss was best in no respect but it was mediocre or bad in no respect either, it was a good allround whole. 1939 it, too, was clearly better than the 109 D. Only the armamment was too light, which most pilots really bitterly lamented (including capitaine Accart although he won 12 confirmed victories but in 3 weeks only and he probably was one of the very best fighter pilots in the world). Morane pilots had the same advantage and even more but their AC was much more sluggish. You know how important it is that fighter pilots control their AC perfectly - most Morane-pilots certainly did and this was an advantage. Of course if they met German pilots who were a match but flying 109 Es they had a lot of problems and simple survival was one of these. Nevertheless Morane units often really triumphed and won many victories including on Me 109 Es (see book "Le Morane 406", published by Lela-Presse). There were some instances of heavy Morane (and Curtiss and Dewoitine...)losses caused by surprise, a tactical disadvantage etc. Such things always happened during WW II - even to Spitfires in the BoB and Mustangs over Germany.

GC I/3 pilots had had the advantage of flying the D.520 for a few months before starting to fight on 14 May. They won many victories but suffered rather heavy losses. Perhaps this was simply bad luck. Other units were re-equipped with D.520s as fast as possible : GC II/3 came back to the front on 19 May. GC II/7 including Werner Mölders' victor René Pomier Layrargues (this is the correct spelling of his name) used its 520s for the first time on 1 June, GC III/3 on 3 June. You can see at what breathtaking pace the small, fast, nimble fighters were being turned out.

Nevertheless most Dewoitine-pilots flew a superlative fighter but had had no time to get accustomed to it and were not able yet to get everything of its great possibilities. Some people say that some D.520 pilots flew her for the first time... in combat. The D.520 was faster than the 109 at high altitudes and it was markedly faster in a dive : "A 109 diving in front of a D.520 was dead", a pilot recalled. And this was precisely German pilots' favourite "evasive action" 1940 already, and still 1944-45. With a 520 on their tail some of them never had time to regret it.

All Dewoitine-units had been flying Moranes before.

Because it's all so complicated we can't say what AC was the best French fighter but what units were most successful and on average these were clearly the Curtiss units - in spite of the 6 light machine-guns and top speed of "only" about 500.
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