03 July 2012

The Complexities of Aiding the Free French Air Force in World War II

Free French Air Force pilot wings with the Cross of Lorraine
With war clouds in Europe looming on the horizon, the British were first to send a mission to the United States in 1938 to determine if their aircraft needs could be met by the Americans since British industry was still barely getting spooled up on a war footing. Encouraged by the British, the French also sent a mission in the same year that resulted in the order of 100 Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters (P-36 being the US Army Air Corps equivalent). In the following year further contracts were finalized for more aircraft which also included the first orders by any nation, including the United States, for the Douglas DB-7 light bomber which would later enter US service as the A-20 Havoc. With the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939, deliveries temporarily ceased according to the terms of the US Neutrality Acts, but an amendment was quickly put in place that allowed British as well as the French to "carry" their own war materiel on their own ships. Following the fall of France and the signing of the French-German armistice in June 1940, the outstanding contracts with the United States were transferred to the British. The unoccupied portion of France became Vichy France with Marshall Petain as its leader. As part of the armistice agreement with the Axis, a German-Italian commission was put in charge of the activities of the Vichy Air Force that were full of restrictions and disbandment of French units as the Axis powers feared continued defections of French pilots to the Allies. French units in North Africa, however, were not under the jurisdiction of the German-Italian commission and continued to operate their US-built aircraft and it was these forces loyal to the Vichy regime that briefly resisted the Allied landings during Operation Torch. 

British Blenheims were some of the first aircraft given to the Free French.
A nucleus of French forces under General Charles De Gaulle (made up mostly of those evacuated from Dunkirk and other defections from the Vichy regime) tried to get Allied support as the "Free French", but this proved to be complex given that the legal French government at the time was Marshall Petain's Vichy regime which signed the armistice following the fall of France. And if that wasn't hard enough determining how to support a group fighting what was recognized as the legal government of France, the Roosevelt Administration even had recognized the Vichy regime as the legitimate French government! De Gaulle's efforts weren't helped any when despite a promise to Roosevelt to not seize the Vichy-controlled islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon off the Canadian coast, he did anyway. But on a perhaps moral level, aid would have to be provided to the Free French forces. Initially aircraft for the new Free French Air Force were diverted from British deliveries with the approval of the Roosevelt administration. In 1941 the Free French formed the French National Committee with General De Gaulle as its head to represent French interests independent of the Vichy regime. 

The Cross of Lorraine was used in addition to the French roundel.
With the coming of the landings in North Africa during Operation Torch, the Roosevelt Administration tried to develop an alternative to De Gaulle as he was seen as too difficult to work with for the war in Europe. Secret contacts had been made with dissidents within the Vichy government and General Henri Giraud was seen as an altnerative to De Gaulle- General Giraud had been captured by the Germans during the fall of France and sent to a prison camp, from which he had escaped back to Vichy France. This dissident element in the Vichy regime were promised large infusions of American aid if they could get the Vichy forces in North Africa to not contest the Torch landings, the idea that this group would then be put under Giraud's command as an alternative to De Gaulle. It would have worked as there were many French personnel who were loyal to Giraud and considered De Gaulle a traitor for having escaped to Britain before the fall of France. On the day of the landings on 7/8 November 1942 the Allies found themselves juggling three French factions- De Gaulle's Free French forces, Giraud and the dissidents in Vichy France, and Marshall Petain's defense minister, Admiral Francois Darlan, who was in North Africa at the time of the invasion and lobbied to halt Vichy resistance to the Allied landings. In exchange, Darlan would be made head of the new French government. This ended up enraging De Gaulle. Vichy resistance did end and Darlan ordered the French fleet at Toulon scuttled to prevent their takeover by the Germans. Darlan would later by assassinated in December 1942 and replaced by General Giraud, but by this point De Gaulle managed to emerge as the uncontested leader of the Free French following a 1943 agreement between Giraud and De Gaulle to unify their forces with Giraud as commander in chief and De Gaulle as the political head of the Free French. 

French B-26 units had their Cross of Lorraine on the nose in blue.
On 3 July 1943 De Gaulle's Free French Air Force was formally merged with Giraud's forces in North Africa with the set up of a joint commission with both US and British representatives in addition to the Free French to determine the aircraft needs of the Free French Air Force. By this point most aircraft used by the Free French could be identified with the use of the Cross of Lorraine in addition to the French roundels. Perhaps symbolically, the Escadrille Lafayette would be the first Free French unit to be re-equipped with American aircraft, Curtiss P-40 Warhawks diverted from USAAF stocks that were North Africa already. Over the next several months more aircraft arrived direct from US factories, from Bell P-39 Airacobras, Lockheed F-4/F-5 Lightnings for reconnaissance duties, to Douglas A-24 Dauntless dive bombers and C-47 transports. French trainees were sent to to the United States for flight training and completed their operational training with French units in North Africa prior to the liberation of France. The French Navy also received American aircraft to include Consolidated PBY Catalinas, Lockheed PV-1 Venturas and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, but rather than operated under De Gaulle's command like the Free French Air Force, the French naval air arm units were placed under US Navy command. 

French Lend-Lease deliveries would continue for most of the war but were cut off prematurely in April 1945 by order of President Harry Truman before war's end due to a diplomatic dispute started when French units chose to obey orders from General De Gaulle instead of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower. De Gaulle had agreed earlier to Eisenhower's overall command and those deliveries outstanding were never released due to the German surrender on 7 May 1945. These issues would continue to simmer between De Gaulle and the United States in the post-war period that would complicate matters in French Indochina and ultimately result in France's withdrawal from NATO in 1967. 

Source: Air Arsenal North America- Aircraft for the Allies 1938-1945 Purchases and Lend-Lease by Phil Butler and Dan Hagedorn. Midland Publishing, 2004, p17, 105-114.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Note that according to a French book I read, De Gaulle once almost died in a plane crash during WWII. He was in England at the time and was scheduled to take a special flight, then cancelled at the last minute. The plane crashed right after take off, killing all aboard. De Gaulle always suspecting Roosevelt of ordering a hit on him and never trusted the US government afterwards.