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Old 7th October 2019, 18:54
rof120 rof120 is offline
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French fighter scores, mainly 1939-1940

Hello Keith and all other fascinated readers!
Thanks Keith for your well-balanced, interesting comments. Too bad I am very short of time during the present period (tax office, dentist, you know, all these pleasures of life), but I’ll try to give you some replies which make sense and to continue with my explanations, for the core of the matter has still to come.

4th October 2019, 22:18
keith A

I have never understood the French decision to allow a victory for a member of a patrol even if they did not engage the enemy.

- Well, I feel they did as a matter of fact, but to varying degrees. I think it was not exceptional that some pilot(s) were credited with a victory even if they had ”only” flown top cover (which was very dangerous) and never opened fire (no doubt they would strongly have preferred to use their guns too). From the French point of view of the time all members of the formation (varying from 2 to about 40 fighters, very often 6, 9, 15, 27 and sometimes even about 40; formations of 9 or 27 were very common) were members of a team and it was this team which had the task of destroying enemy aircraft, not at all especially the leader or some other experienced pilot. Often, a fighter pilot, even an NCO, who was known as an experienced man and good in combat, led a formation which included some officer(s); rank was not the decisive element. Accart, again, gave an excellent example of this attitude: he wanted HIS ESCADRILLE to perform well, not necessarily himself. And if his unit proved itself in combat it was good for him too. (He was an outstanding pilot and a much-respected man already within the French AF).

Keith : I suspect morale was more a factor than accuracy

- Both were. Clearly the rule about « collective victories » had the aim of giving even the ordinary pilot – like a young NCO or even a young officer fresh from a training unit – satisfaction and of enhancing or protecting morale. Decorations followed victories quickly, in most cases a « Croix de Guerre » (War Cross) « avec (with) palme ». The Croix de Guerre could be obtained several times, the highest number for 1940 being, I think, 16 for Lieutenant. Edmond Marin la Meslée. They didn’t get one more cross every time but one palm was added instead (like bars to the DFC), hence the long ribbons sporting numerous miniature palms worn on official occasions (together with the other decorations won by the same man). Receiving this decoration, even once only, was certainly effective to boost morale. It corresponded exactly to the German Eisernes Kreuz II. Klasse (Iron Cross), which, too, was awarded to a pilot for one victory (red ribbon on a button of the tunic), but only once I think. Following victories were counted at HQ, a total of 6 or 7 resulting in the award of the EK I. Klasse.

Keith : but it was not an addition to air intelligence

- Here I feel I have to contradict you. All French pilots present on the scene of an air battle knew they would possibly receive the credit for one victory plus a Croix de Guerre, so they opened their eyes even better (if possible) and, anyway, there was always a debriefing after landing and they knew it. In this way several pairs of eyes, or numerous pairs, looked exactly at what happened. ”Zeugen” (”Witnesses”), as the Luftwaffe called them (they were very important for German confirmations).

(...)By the end of the war the RAF was making much more accurate assessments and endeavoured (for intelligence purposes) to make correct assessments throughout the war.

-Oh yes, I am aware of this.Using cameras and film footage says a lot. But it is not true of 1939-1940, possibly 1941 and 1942, so, as my brother used to put it, they had pretensions ”like a drunk woman”. Remember the famous air battle on 11 May 1940 when five ”Hurricanes” of 1 Squadron RAF clashed with Me 110s of ZG 76 if I remember corretly. These British pilots claimed no less than 11 Me 110s shot down : 3 pilots claimed 2 (and this was very unlikely), one claimed 3 (!) and, IIRC, 2 claimed one each. F/O Paul Richey, a very likeable man and aviator, was shot down, baled out and claimed 2 (see his book ”Fighter Pilot”). Today everybody agrees that 2 (two) 110s were lost so the overclaim rate was 5.5, which confirms my own research and conclusion (decades ago) that 1940 RAF fighter pilots overclaimed by a factor of 5. Much later I discovered that a well-known British expert, John Foreman, had come to the same conclusion: an overclaim rate of 5, but he reached this result by another method than mine (see his book ”RAF Victory Claims”). I can’t remember the details and the relevant books are still in a box.

keith A

Keith : I should add that the French method of awarding victories nevertheless was far more accurate in WW1 than that used by the British commonwealth. Although the British would argue that their scout/fighters fought most of their combats some distance behind German lines where damaged enemy aircraft could land safely, and therefore credits were awarded on a more loose framework.

- Yes many victories were won where there could be no official confirmation. French pilot René Fonck reported after the war (and certainly during the war) that he often prowled over and near German airfields and shot down numerous aircraft there but he never got any confirmation (this would have been easy after the war with the help of German documents). So Fonck was by far the actual top ace of WW I, far above famous Richthofen (80), for he scored 75 confirmed victories and survived; he died long after WW TWO.

Keith : On the subject of the perception of French pilots by their allies, I have not read of British pilots making comments

- They hardly fought side by side, each Allied air force having their own sectors and their own missions (except perhaps in the battle of Sedan, especially on May 14, 1940, and probably a few others), so British and French fighter pilots were rarely able to watch each other. I remember one instance, in Brian Cull’s book « Twelve Days in May” I think, where French fighters were escorting some British light bombers which were attacked by 109s « but the French fighters chased the 109s away », or something of this kind (this book, too, is still in a box). Regrettably BC wrote te following too : « As a diplomat (???) said, (The exhausted) French fighter pilots did not push their attacks with the last ounce of energy ». This is perfect nonsense. Dozens of them were killed, and even more shot down – killed or not – by German rear-gunners only, precisely because they were pushing their attacks beyond reasonable (or safe) limits. This is even more valid of French pilots flying the Curtiss H-75 (alias export P-36) for this good fighter carried only 4 or 6 light machine-guns (7,5 mm) which did not have the necessary punch and range so they had to come much too close for comfort. The decision to remove the .50 calibre machine-gun mounted, together with a .303 MG, on the engine-cowling of the 1938-1940 P-36 Curtiss, was taken by French HQ but they didn’t realize it was a disastrous decision for only this .50 gun and the superlative French cannon HS 9 or HS 404 (later adopted by the RAF) had the range to attack German bombers, and other E/A, safely. Air HQ certainly wanted to avoid multiple ammo calibres within the French AF, which was using the excellent Hispano-Suiza 20 mm cannon too, so the .50 gun would have added one more calibre but it would have been a thousand times worth the small effort and burden.

As it was numerous French fighter pilots were killed or badly wounded because of this, including, among others, two very great aces : sergent-chef François Morel (killed by German bullets in his head on May 18 after 10 victories (won alone or not) in 8 days) and famous capitaine Jean Accart, later a top-ranking general, who was almost killed by a bullet in his head already on May 11 (it missed only by a few millimeters (about 1/8 of an inch at most) and made exactly the same experience again, as I explained in my first post here already, on June 1st (11 days later – he had had time to think), receiving a German MG-bullet exactly between his eyes and surviving – after having baled out – by the skin of his broken teeth (he hit the tailplane when leaving his aircraft). These two instances are no exception, there are many others. Well, perhaps Brian Cull’s nameless diplomat was right to a certain extent, when the leader of a French fighter formation chose not to attack bombers because return fire was all too dangerous, and experience proved this decision to be right: it didn’t make any sense to perhaps win one victory at the cost of several fighters and several pilots killed or badly wounded. In such cases it was better to live another day and atack E/A with a vengeance. Some pilots from all countries did not take this into account and attacked in any case, and often paid with their lives.

Keith:… but Jan Zumbach (Polish) was very disparaging of those he met.

- Zumbach was a very good fighter pilot I think.
The Polish pilots were considered very good by the French but strangely some of them – not all of them – really HATE(D) France and the French. Well, I’d say this is their private fun and pleasure and they’d better HATE nazi Germany. I guess they were very disappointed when they arrived in France but were not given Dewoitine D.520s immediately. Not even the best French units had got D.520s yet and the first units fighting with these superb aircraft were GC I/3 on 13 May 1940 (after months of training in Cannes on the Mediterrenean Sea) and II/3 on 15 May, then GC II/7 around June 1st. Polish pilots were members of at least GC II/7. In England they didn’t get any Spitfires before 1941. It is not true that the worst worn-out fighters, mostly Morane 406s coming from fighter schools, were reserved for the Poles but it seems that Zumbach at the start had bad luck in this respect. He flew mainly with various „chimney flights“ which often were hastily improvised units with few pilots and miscellenaous fighters, mostly not the best ones, of different origins (the aircraft factory nearby or some fighter school etc.). I guess if he had flown a Dewoitine 520 with GC I/3 he would have been full of praise for the French and rightly so. At the end he even flew the superlative and very rare Arsenal VG-33 (only 10 were produced before the collapse) but some people are simply rancourous.

I’d like to add that there was an official Polish air force in France 1940 and that fighters flown by Poles displayed a big Polish flag on both sides of the fuselage, replacing the French cocarde! Within the RAF Poland and Polish pilots never enjoyed such privileges. The pilots painted SMALL Polish flags but on the nose of their fighters. They never were allowed to replace the British fuselage roundels by the Polish flag. So if they absolutely want to hate people they ought to choose the British not the French, who just gave them the fighters they had including the best types: Curtiss H-75 and D.520. Many Morane 406s were left (but less than half the fighter strength in May 1940) but most pilots of these were French.

I would be grateful for all information on Jan Zumbach in France 1939-40. I hardly know anything on him except what was published in a few French magazine issues like „avions“.

Keith: (…) I have no doubt the French may have too by only attributing confirmed kills among several pilots when it may be several enemy aircraft were hit and damaged by pilots but just one confirmed destroyed.

- Not quite: in many cases only one E/A was shot down but the rule of one victory credited to several pilots was applied in many cases. Every single E/A s/d was counted.

Keith: British over-claiming in France and the Battle of Britain was heavy but in many instances the result of several pilots claiming the same aircraft oblivious of damage inflicted by another friendly fighter.

- Oh yes, this seems to have been commonplace among fighter pilots of all countries. Frankly, in many cases it was impossible to know that an E/A had been mortally hit already so these claims were filed in good faith. It seems that most French COs (of Groupes de Chasse) were aware of this trap, filtered all the claims and compared them to each other. This certainly avoided a number of such errors. At least 1940 victory claims were not checked and not confirmed within the RAF. This didn’t really matter. What did was to actually shoot down the Huns. The Armée de l'Air did just that very effectively, contrary to what most people believe still today, in France too : they imagine that French fighters were largely ineffective or absent. This is a big, very BIG error.

In May-June 1940 German fighter pilots knew better and they feared French fighters much more than British ones. See for example JG 2 and JG 3. I recommend a book very strongly : Kampfgeschwader 27, by Walter (?) Waiss, volume 1 covering the 1940 French Campaign. This book is interesting because I feel 1940 this unit had a typical activity for a German bomber unit (about 80 bombers, He 111s in the case of KG 27). Page after page describes the numerous missions flown over France and how these German bombers often were shot to pieces by French fighters, all the time (but not on all missions). Sometimes „Hurricanes“ were called „Moranes“, the reverse probably occurred too in spite of the very different armament of both types, but were German crews informed at all about such differences? Doubtful.

I wanted to explain (today) why the French victory system was very good and why melting collective victories together to get decimal scores is wrong but unfortunately it’s late now and I have to stop. Perhaps tomorrow. Be good in the meantime all of you.

Last edited by rof120; 10th October 2019 at 15:54.