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Old 2nd October 2019, 17:25
rof120 rof120 is offline
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French fighter scores, mainly 1939-1940

The scores of French fighter pilots (not the aces only) are a difficult field of research. A few months ago a TOCH-member, meaning well, honestly posted his version of “French aces’ decimal scores”. Unfortunately this version and similar ones are wrong, often strongly biased (not in this case) with various aims.

The origin of the problem is the decision of the Armée de l’Air to award one full victory to all fighter pilots who took part in the destruction of an enemy aircraft. I suppose that after they returned to base the formation leader decided what members of his formation should be awarded one victory. In most cases all the pilots thus selected had fired at the E/A – possibly without inflicting any serious damage or even without scoring any hits – but having opened fire was not mandatory: pilots who had flown top cover (which demanded good, experienced pilots and was the most dangerous part in the case of an attack by enemy fighters and not as satisfactory as taking part in the destruction of an E/A) were considered just as useful in this air battle as those who had actually scored hits.

This is why presumably hundreds of French fighter pilots were awarded at least one victory, often several ones (in 5-6 weeks), even without having been instrumental in the destruction of the corresponding E/A, from September 3, 1939, through June 24, 1940. The scores of Free-French fighter pilots from July 1940 through May 8, 1945, are an entirely different matter. The two French top-scorers, Clostermann in the West (England-France-Netherlands-Germany) and Albert (they don’t pronounce the t) with the Soviet Air Force, are credited with about 20-23 victories including fractions. Interestingly both Clostermann and Albert (as a Free French) started scoring first 1943. Albert had won one victory 1940. Demozay (more recently “discovered”) is credited with about 20 in the West, slightly behind Clostermann. These scores were calculated according to RAF or Soviet rules. When applying the FRENCH rules even to those pilots who had not fought 1939-June 40 Clostermann’s score reaches 33 + 5 probables but many people dispute a few of his victories (not a massive part – 11-12 less – as the late CJE did). According to this same French system Albert scored 23 + 2, Demozay 21 + 2. Interestingly the 4th highest score of this kind was achieved by Pierre Le Gloan (18 + 3, of which 11 + 1 were won 1939-June 40). But, as already mentioned, victories won entirely or partly after June 1940 are off topic.

I asked the late French general Jean-Mary Accart, one of the greatest Allied fighter pilots, not only a top-scorer but above all an exceptional air force officer and combat leader, why this “multi-victor” rule was adopted. 1939-40 he was a capitaine and led the by very far most successful “escadrille” among the 53 French escadrilles having taken part in the fighting. (A French escadrille corresponded exactly to a German Staffel of 12 and more or less to a British squadron of 16, of which at most 12 flew at the same time. Accart led an “escadrille” of 12 fighters of the type Curtiss H-75 (export version of the Curtiss P-36); a maximum of 9 of these fighters flew at the same time, the 3 others, or more, being in reserve or undergoing maintenance or repairs).

He seemed not to have thought about this question before (presumably because he considered this rule just fair and because he, too, had accepted and applied it at the time) and he tried to find an explanation: he replied “Well… in this way there was no jealousy…”. Obviously he had always found this all right, which is interesting because he was himself “THE” perfect officer, leader and fighter pilot: he never tried to reach – no matter how - even more victories than he did (12, all shared, + 4) but to make his unit as a whole as effective and as successful as possible. He achieved this goal very brilliantly and with great distinction even though he very nearly was killed when he received a German machine-gun bullet exactly between his eyes on June 1st, 1940, fired at close range (about 100 meters or yards) while he once more was attacking a Heinkel 111 with too weak an armament of six light machine-guns which had much too low a punch and range.

This happened exactly after half the French Campaign had elapsed so he missed the fighting, and more victory opportunities, from June 2 through 17 for he was very heavily wounded. The French Campaign ended on June 25 slightly after 00 hours but the French government had ordered all aircraft which had the range to fly to French North Africa in order to avoid capture by the Germans and save the best aircraft. For fighters this meant all units equipped with Dewoitine 520s (about two hundred aircraft) or Curtiss H-75s (about 150).

Interestingly in his big book “The Battle of France Then and Now” (released 2008), aka TBOFTN, Peter Cornwell credits Accart with no less than three (3) more confirmed victories during the “Phoney War” and the French Campaign. Cornwell’s book contains a good alphabetical index which makes it easy to find all mentioned victories won by Accart. I think 2 of these 3 were considered “probables” before. This raises Accart’s score to 15 certain victories, including at least 12 in 3 weeks, making him the 2nd French top-scorer of 1939-1940 and possibly the first one (it would be too long to elaborate on this). This simple example, among many others, shows that French fighter pilots did NOT overclaim in the proportions given by some people but often UNDERclaimed.

I am giving all these details in order to show that Accart, among others, was an expert and knew what he was talking about. By the way, this man was incredibly modest, which is well-known in France. He would never have claimed anything without being sure. Some misguided geniuses, admiring (almost) exclusively the German pilots and their often astronomical scores, laugh at Accart, remarking that he didn’t win one single victory alone. Doing so they just show that they don’t understand much of fighter combat (even though they pretend to do so), especially within the French Air Force 1939-40 and in May-June 1940. OF COURSE these pilots were perfectly able to shoot down an E/A entirely alone if they so wished, like their counterparts in all other air forces, but in most cases they preferred team-work. More on this a little later, right here.

These 3 “new” victories credited by Peter Cornwell on the basis of French and German evidence show that 1939-40 French scores were NOT the result of the wild overclaiming which was usual within the Luftwaffe and the RAF. The latter did not confirm any victories and their pilots could claim whatever they fancied and they did. In my eyes this was a modest reward for very young men who were risking their lives, and often lost them, as soon as they were airborne and sometimes on the ground.

Now, misguided and often hostile persons the names of whom I prefer to forget (I think most of them are poorly informed French people) rushed forward and took the numerous French multi-pilot victories as a welcome pretext to sardonically and gleefully claim that in France all fighter pilots’ scores were added, resulting in a ridiculously inflated grand total of approximately 735, 991 or 1,009 (perhaps 1,005), depending on sources. They never gave any evidence to this claim, which is evidence enough that it is unserious.

Of course the above claim is perfectly wrong. If all the individual scores are added (everybody can do this) we’ll not find about 700-1,000 but approximately 3,000 to 4,000 (this is only a provisional evaluation).
The so-clever critics add, even more gleefully, that those French victories which were won by more than one unit (in this case this means the Groupes de chasse or GC; this abbreviation does NOT mean “Groupes de combat”, as many Englishmen believe) were counted several times, at least twice. They never gave any evidence of this either and it is wrong too; in any case these were only about 20-25 victories as compared to 700-1,000 but I repeat this claim is wrong. Likewise a few victories were won by both British and French fighters fighting side by side. Such victories were so few (only a few ones) that we don’t need to take them into account in our assessment.

Now, how can I claim that they did NOT add all pilots’ scores to know the grand total for the whole French fighter arm? This is simple but possibly hard to understand to people who are accustomed to the German and British systems only and are not used to the French procedure of 1939-40.

French Air HQ obviously took the question of victories and their official confirmation very seriously. They didn’t want, or understand, any funny business here. In order to get an official confirmation for a victory you had to follow a whole meticulous administrative procedure: it was not simple. In fighter units everybody was aware of this (fighter pilots even more) and of the fact that it was rather hopeless to file unserious or unproven claims.

So victories were checked already in the minds of the very pilots who had won them. Oh yes overclaiming did occur “like in all air forces”, as simplistic, poorly informed people use to claim. No the overclaim-rate was not at all the same in all air forces, this is not true. Experts know that there were great differences and that the most reliable claims were Finnish and… French. Well, overclaiming did happen sometimes (not all the time like with the RAF) but the reverse too: detailed, serious studies show that UNDERclaiming did occur too, in particular among French fighter pilots. I guess their claims – in good faith – were lowered by their fear to be considered unserious or an eager overclaimer. Contrary to RAF fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (many were amateurs and “Sunday fliers”) almost all French fighter pilots were well-trained, experienced PROFESSIONALS and they didn’t fancy be considered unserious and have negative comments in their personal files – they were thinking of their continued career too. On top of this all fighter pilots were very serious about victories and they hated anybody who dared knowingly overclaim. A famous ace told me this.

The next hurdle was the “escadrille” leader (corresponding a Flight Lt with the RAF), almost always a capitaine (sometimes a lieutenant) and a great professional expert. He, too, didn’t fancy be considered unserious. It didn’t fit into his career to be considered unserious in any way, and he disliked overclaiming anyway.

Immediately after the chef d’escadrille (or Flight Lt) came the actual CO of the unit. This unit was the Groupe de chasse or GC with two escadrilles (flights of 12 each) equipped with a total of 24 (more often 26) to 36 fighters, more or less corresponding a German Jagdgruppe or two RAF squadrons. The CO of a French GC was almost always a commandant (corresponding an RAF Squadron Leader) with only two exceptions (capitaines) and, contrary to both his chefs d’escadrilles, he was not expected to take part in the fighting but to organize and lead his unit and see to it that everything was all right: airfield locations, petrol, oil, spare parts, ground crews, replacement aircraft, repairs, the hated paperwork, defence against air and ground attacks etc. In a nutshell, he had the overall responsibility for his groupe.

Most commandants couldn’t resist the temptation – after all they were fighter pilots – and sometimes they did take part in the fighting with corresponding losses: about 30 % were killed in 6 weeks only… Some hateful people still today claim that French fighter pilots would not fight and even flew a course opposite to the course leading to battle. Just look at the REAL number of victories (my evaluation is above 800 mainly in 5 weeks) and of killed pilots (about 160 and over 140 wounded totalling over 300 among 735 pilots, possibly 1,000 including replacements during the campaign). Polish and Czech fighter pilots who fought within the French air force gave a very good account of themselves, which was confirmed by the continuation battle over England, and some of them were killed in action over France.

The COs of GCs fancied even less than their pilots and both their chefs d’escadrilles to look unserious. Obviously they were fully professional officers and they did mind their continued career within the Air Force, even after the war (they didn’t know it would last for 5 more years). The victory claims were filtered and judged by them, and they knew that HQ, which gave confirmations or not, had other sources to do so: AA and Army units, German wrecks etc. It must be admitted that they often simply hadn’t the time to do this paperwork properly but I repeat that this matter was a very serious one within the Armée de l’Air. They did as best they could so, as a whole, French victory claims must be considered very serious albeit not infallible. Most were never confirmed, or much later, because this procedure took at least weeks if not months (same thing in Germany) and the fighting was over after only 46 days (approx. 6.6 weeks). © Nobody nullifies tens of thousands of German victories (1939-1945) just because they still were not officially confirmed by RLM after 2 weeks ! © (the end)

Now- what about French shared victories, shared between 2 to 16 pilots? 16 did happen but this is very unusual. In most cases a victory was shared by 2 to 4-6 pilots. In some cases it was decided that only one pilot would get credit for it even if several pilots had taken part in the fight but the main victor had played a clearly decisive part.

To be continued