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Old 29th March 2005, 15:38
Posts: n/a
Escaping to England?

In another thread (« Fighter pilots chicken? ») Alex Smart remarked that « the ONLY French Air Unit to evacuate to the UK from Europe (so once more we see the UK is not in Europe !) was one of the Polish manned units within the French AF ». How naive can you be ?

Sure, I don’t really know (yet), I only know that all Czechs and Poles who so wished – they all did I think – were offered the possibility of sailing, sometimes flying, to England, but this unit A.S. mentioned went to England without its aircraft : they didn’t have the range to fly. As I already mentioned, the French not only did not prevent them from going to England, they helped them as best they could, which was a good thing. They could have closed all borders and harbours…

Fleeing to England was not made easier by the fact that the German invasion of the French territory started in the extreme North (Dunkerque, Arras, Calais, etc.), where the British army had been, and continued south- and westwards, so that all French forces which were not captured or destroyed retreated in the same directions, mainly southwestwards, towards central France and the Atlantic coast near Spain and the Pyrénées (including in the East on the Mediterrenean coast : Perpignan). It was out of the question to fly fighters to England before the end of June for the fighting was going on, French fighters (and AA) flying under orders in organised units were still demolishing a lot of German aircraft and airmen so there was no reason to leave, and it would have been desertion – to an allied country (or was it an allied country?) but nevertheless desertion. Nobody is allowed to leave his unit during the fighting. In any case no French pilot would have dreamed of doing that BEFORE June 17, when Pétain made his disastrous and terrible speech on the radio (« I am telling you that we must cease fighting » - the Germans took more prisoners after that (in 8 days) than before (in 38 days). He was irresponsible for he didn’t mean « cease immediately », he was meaning « after an agreement with Germany » but almost everybody understood the contrary, and marshal Pétain was the by very far most prestigious, most glorious living Frenchman at the time. Stress « at the time »! I strongly resent what he did afterwards, including NOT really retaliating for the Mers el-Kébir aggression : only a few dozen French bombers dropped bombs on Gibraltar, many of them missing purposely. Pétain could at least have had a few British naval ships sunk by the French fleet, which possessed some very fast battleships, including the brand-new Richelieu, and cruisers, not to mention 60 excellent submarines (much more than Germany possessed 1940).

Those French fighter pilots who wanted to escape to England after 17 June couldn’t simply fly their fighters northwards, they didn’t have the range. Many (several hundred) were in North Africa already. Besides, their own units and COs still existed and they had no real, urgent reason to go to England. It is not really simple to leave your country, your family, your units and your brothers in arms, not even knowing if it is the right thing to do. The situation of Poland at the end of September 1939 was entirely different, there is no comparison.