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Old 28th March 2005, 18:07
Hawk-Eye
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Fighter pilots' guts

Fighter pilots of all countries



In a thread (see below) which now is locked I reported how 1940 French fighter pilots were, and still are, the victims of wholesale insults and libelling : « they were not brave, some of their officers flew away from the combat zone or stole Polish pilots’ victories » etc.



You have to be very mean or very simple-minded indeed not only to SAY but to PUBLISH such ludicrous nonsense. But why is it nonsense? In theory these things are possible aren’t they. I guess that spontaneously everybody will say : « No, I don’t believe such accusations, fighter pilots simply ARE brave and eager to fight », although when the libelling is signed by a Peter Townsend you could hesitate… (May I repeat that he never took part in the French Campaign and had no personal knowledge of it!)



So let us have a closer look at this matter, which could prove interesting for the « rest » of the war until 1945, especially about the Luftwaffe, and even afterwards (Europe (cold war), Korea). I guess – but I have no proof – that before WW II started fighter pilots (FPs) of all countries including for example Japan and the USSR were volunteers, young, fascinated by flying, most of them eager to fight, too. This is part of their character. 1940 there were only very few FPs older than 30, mostly majors / squadron-leaders. Most pilots were aged about 20-25, captains up to 28. There is no doubt that 1939-40 FPs of all European countries, including France of course, were exclusively volunteers and they had to prevail against numerous competitors (not all candidates could be accepted).



Back to the particular case of the French FPs. They all grew up in an atmosphere of legend (and of truth too) about the great French FPs of WW I : Guynemer, Fonck, Navarre and many, many others. There was an almost religious worship for these heroes. Many books were published on them as well as many articles in magazines, not to mention the cinema. « France had won the war » (but not quite alone, far from it, and it was a very costly victory) so French morale was at its peak. French FPs enjoyed superb training in flying and also in aerobatics, which 1940 German FPs often reported, sometimes with surprise or amusement. Some of them added that their French counterparts displayed remarkable abilities in aerobatics but were not so dangerous in combat, which can’t be true. As most of you know the aerobatics practiced by FPs during their training (even when they are confirmed pilots) has the aim of giving them total confidence in their own flying abilities and complete mastery of their aircraft, the type of which may change, in order to have better abilities to master a critical flight situation. Sophisticated aerobatics are not necessary in actual air combat – in most cases.



1940 active French fighter pilots obviously had volunteered several years before, almost all of them AFTER Hitler had come to power in Germany in January 1933. It became plain very soon that a new war was possible, then probable, then inevitable – the latter as early as 1938 or earlier. So whoever had not the stomach to be a fighter pilot, fly in war operations, fight and risk his life had several years at his disposal to quit, or abstain from volunteering, and try to get a less dangerous job, especially flying one of the numerous desks in some office in Paris or even somewhere in the depth of the French territory (1 000 km across, or 620 miles, from the North Sea to the Mediterrenean and from the Rhine to the Atlantic). Nobody ever thought that the German army would invade the whole country, not even a large part of it, so people who didn’t fanatically want to fight could feel safe in the rear.



Conversely those French FPs who stayed with the Armée de l’Air (A.A. ; unfortunately this can result in confusions with anti-aircraft weapons or forces in English, AA) not only accepted to fight but often they – just like their German colleagues - very impatiently waited for the opportunity to do so, to prove themselves, to win victories, decorations and fame, etc., and to teach those bl… Germans, for there certainly was a strong anti-German atmosphere in France, not quite without any reason. Remember for example that the Germans started to massively use poisonous gases against Allied troops during WW I, just as if they, in particular the French, had been vermin like lice and rats. When they invaded neutral, weak Belgium 1914 in order to avoid French defences they behaved with the greatest brutality towards civilians who hadn’t done anything, killing 600 in a particular village, just to « show who’s boss ». Today we call this war crimes and there were many German war crimes during WW I, in France too, and terrible destructions (none in Germany…). So in any case there were strong anti-German feelings in France and those young men who all had VOLUNTEERED to be fighter pilots were eager to teach’em. Chicken? Certainly the exact opposite of this.



What’s more, most combat-ready French fighter units were stationed in the potential combat area, in Eastern France, when WW II started on 3 September 1939. Very soon some fierce fighting started between French and German AC, in particular fighters. According to Paul Martin 74 French AC were lost in combat during the Phoney War, including 18 Morane 406s and 11 Curtiss H-75s totalling 29 fighters. The 45 others were close or long-range recce AC (and some bombers used for recce missions). Conversely French fighters alone won 70 victories including 39 Me 109s (mostly 109 Ds but Es too) and 3 Me 110s. There was no French victory unless you could show the corresponding wreck or have equally convincing evidence (like reports from the Army). There were some errors but in both directions, plus or minus. As usual the Luftwaffe claimed an enormous number of victories, mainly on the French (see figures in Prien’s volume n° 2).



French FPs had 13 of their number killed in combat plus 15 wounded and 24 killed and 11 wounded in accidents (mainly due to very poor and hard winter weather) : 37 FPs killed, 26 wounded. 12 were killed in the first month alone – September
(27 days) - so even if there was no wholesale slaughter it was plain that this was a very dangerous business in spite of the mostly low aerial activity, that it would be much worse when the fighting would start in earnest, and that the Germans meant business – which nobody had doubted – even though in the first months the French fighters enjoyed a clear superiority ; this changed when the Luftwaffe engaged the Me 109 E – they became about even.



So those who were chicken, if any, and did not have the guts to fight it out, received ample warning of the danger and they had no less than 8 months and four days to quit and take cover behind a desk or something of this kind. I am absolutely convinced that this did not occur, or perhaps in very few instances like everywhere else, if at all.



Then came the German offensive on 10 May 1940 and the shooting war started in earnest. The total of French fighter victories won during the phoney war, 70, was reached on the 3rd day of the campaign already : 60 in 2 days, 94 in 3 days. Remember that 912 French fighters were deployed in first-line units in France itself (some facing menacing Italy) and the Luftwaffe sent thousands of AC so there was rarely a lack of targets in the first days.



Soon the German army was winning a lot of ground in France, which provided French airmen with one more reason to fight even more fiercely, if possible, on top of all the rest (really disagreeable nazism, German aggressions in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium – no less than six neutral countries : everybody hated Germany and the Germans!) : from the sky they could see all the destructions caused by the hated « Boches », the misery of millions of refugees (many from Belgium-NL), the burning villages and towns of their country, which they loved so much (at the time this was a normal feeling…). Of course they were enraged and full of the desire to take revenge and kill the bastards who were killing women and children on the roads and in their houses, even machine-gunning roads full of civilian refugees. British FPs in France felt exactly the same, by the way.



By the way, we can read many combat reports written by German FPs or crew members of bombers etc. and they confirm HOW BRAVE French FPs were. German FPs often reported how one single French fighter pilot all alone attacked a whole German formation (even fighters) and sometimes got away with this, sometimes was quickly killed. In the history of the bombing unit KG 27 you can read that a particular German air-gunner had shot down « 3 Moranes » out of an attacking French formation (or so he claims!) but the 4th Morane attacked too, this time before he had managed to replace his empty ammunition magazine, and hit the German bomber heavily with cannon and machine-gun-fire. Some coward ! But it has to be said that many air-gunners had a tendency to be overoptimistic and to overclaim heavily, last but not least the American boys (many really were just boys) who 1943-45, if we believe them, destroyed the whole German fighter arm single-handed. According to Adolf Galland he once lost 2 fighters to American air-gunners, who claimed 104 (or 102, I don’t remember) and a grinning Galland explains for us that yes, if 52 American air-gunners had fired, aiming at one of the 2 lost fighters, the total really is 104. « Aviators‘ mathematics are not so simple », he added.



All these factors make in particular Peter Townsend’s comments extremely ludicrous and shameful. Besides, on 3 June 1940, the day of the fairy-tale on French fighter pilots he told us, no fighter unit was stationed at Villacoublay, the place where he claimed several people saw them eating lunch instead of fighting the German bombers. There were fighters all around Paris but not at « Villa ». So Mister T's story is not true, that's all. On this very day, June 3rd, hundreds of French fighter pilots took off amongst exploding German bombs or under attack by 109s. 17 French fighters were shot down, most of them under these terrible circumstances (one of them, a Potez 631, had a crew of 3). 13 were killed, 5 badly wounded, only 1 pilot escaped unhurt. This is French "cowardice" ŕ la Townsend. These losses are appalling, almost all fighter pilots shot down being killed too.



Finally I am in a position to confirm that the French Air Force, in particular the FPs, in no way felt that they had been beaten when the German-French cease-fire came into effect, quite on the contrary. This is what Danel and Cuny wrote in their superlative book « L’aviation de chasse française 1918-1940 » (Docavia, Larivičre). Those who had escaped to French North Africa eagerly expected orders to fight on and they were devastated when they learned that they had to cease fighting. They were deeply discouraged and disgusted but certainly nobody believed this to be final. They all were trapped either in
France – surrounded by the German army – or in North Africa, from where only a few, the most resolute and the most lucky ones, succeeded in escaping to Gibraltar, at a high risk to themselves and to their comrades who were left on the airfields. The others stayed where they were because they were professional soldiers and THEY OBEYED ORDERS. The strongest reason for staying seems to have been the will not to let down the comrades together with whom they just had been fighting for 5 weeks, not to let down their unit and their leaders, whom they highly respected and admired (at least in most cases).



I can tell you this : in spite of all MANY French FPs and other airmen, even whole units, were on the verge of escaping to Gibraltar when the British Navy – without any valid reason – attacked the French ships (not the whole fleet, which was more than 12 times bigger) at Mers el-Kébir on 3 July, only 9 days after the German-French armistice. After this incredible crime, which is unique in world history, it was impossible to step over the bodies of 1,300 murdered French seamen and join the British to fight side by side with them! Besides, the British force had come from… Gibraltar. Can you imagine the situation? Almost all French escapees who joined the RAF had escaped BEFORE the MeK attack. If they had been forced to wait until after this attack I am convinced that they, too, would have given up this plan. After the attack almost no Frenchmen came to England. They needed months to start again but most of them gave up the idea once and for all. This loss of several hundred remarkable, highly combat-hardened French fighter pilots very nearly brought England defeat in the Battle of Britain (remember « The Narrow Margin » - it was narrow indeed). Besides, those who joined the RAF 1940 were almost exclusively pilots who had not fought in the French Campaign.



Later in the war FPs of certain countries probably avoided combat. I don’t believe they were cowards etc. as Townsend suggested of the French. There were other reasons : I suspect in the USSR they didn’t care much about pilots being volunteers only, and I suspect they just told you where and as a what you had to fight (perhaps Christer can inform us better on this). In his book Rudel reported how he heared the radio traffic of Soviet fighters who were shadowing his Ju 87 without attacking : « This is probably the bastard who destroys the tanks », etc. Finally Rudel escaped unscathed. He was very good but if several fighters had attacked him « with every ounce of vigour » he would not have come back this time.



During the last phases of the air war over Germany it did happen that German FPs did not want to fight but this is fully normal : these young guys, hardly older than 20, maybe 22, hadn’t received the necessary training (for lack of petrol and instructors), they were scared even of their own aircraft, these powerful monsters (imagine flying a FW 190 without being sufficiently good to do so !) and they knew they hardly stood any chance. They were not all volunteers, part of them simply were ordered to become fighter pilots. I know a man in Germany who was supposed to become a FP (1944 I think) but he knew this would mean his certain death and he managed to vanish. When I asked him how (1976) he didn’t reply. I think he still feared the revenge of fanatic nazis. I think it is a fact that in many instances German FPs baled out even before their AC was hit, or as soon as it was. We can’t blame them, they had no chance against a « Mustang » anyway, their AC were lost in any case so what point would there have been in dying stupidly in an AC, like the old-fashioned captain of a ship! Göring was aware of this phenomenon but, strangely, he didn’t force them to fly without any parachute. He probably understood all too well what was going on and he couldn’t blame them either.



Last but not least : Fighters turning away from the bombers they were attacking. In some instances yes, they thought there was no point in suffering heavy losses instead of living to fight another day. These were exceptions, particularly during the 1940 French Campaign, for the defensive armament of German bombers was very weak even though many French FPs reported that it was very impressive to see almost a « carpet » of tracer around them, so intense was the return fire from the bombers. But almost invariably they did attack the bombers and often they suffered some losses when the engine or the pilot was hit.



Nevertheless many air-gunners of all countries, just like AAA soldiers, think and claim that the enemy AC turned back when they saw their heavy defensive fire. As we know the reason was quite different in most cases. When fighters flew away it simply meant – in most cases – that they were short of petrol or ammunition, or both, or that they were under attack by enemy fighters. Bombers were almost never scared away by AAA fire but they HAD to fly back at some point, after having dropped their bombs. In such instances it was mainly the propaganda which claimed that the defensive fire had forced the enemy bombers to fly back to base, or simply scared them.



My conclusion : let us avoid any insulting and any libelling of any fighting men, whether they are/were German, British or «even» French! 60 years and more after 1940 it is really incredible to see some people still ignoring French fighter pilots’ great deeds and their graves, which hardly can be disputed. England ought to be grateful : they destroyed a large part of the Luftwaffe, including hundreds of highly-skilled aircrew, before the Battle of Britain started. Without their bravery – they could have fought but with less determination – the BoB would most probably have ended the other way for over 600 more German bombers (including the damaged ones) and hundreds of Me 109s more in the LW would have made the difference.

Last edited by Hawk-Eye; 29th March 2005 at 01:11.
 

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