by Greg Baughen
Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2018. Pp. 322.
Illus., maps, plans, tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 178155644X
How and Why the French Air Force Lost Its Way
British aviation writer Baughen, who has done considerable work on the interwar period, gives us what is apparently the first comprehensive history in English of the French Air Force through the disaster of 1940.
Baughen opens with two chapters discussing the origins of French military aviation through the end of the Great War. Drawing on a history of lighter-than-air aeronautics, notably during the Franco-Prussian War, with the coming of heavier-than-air technology, France was among the first nations to integrate aviation into its military establishment. By the end of World War I France possessed a large, battle tested air force that had proven effective in securing command of the air and in supporting the ground troops to help secure victory.
Baughen titles his next chapter “The Air Force Loses Its Way”, arguing that increasing fear of the bomber led France to neglect most forms of military aviation save the bomber, on the assumption that a massive bomber force – which would always get through – would deliver devastating blows on any foe before they could do thusly unto France. Over the next few chapters he looks at how this policy decision led to the neglect of promising fighter, recon, and ground attack designs, or the development of “jointness” between the Army and Air Forces. Baughen covers the events of 1939-1940 well, and he offers a valuable critique of French decision making in the campaign of 1940.
Baughen’s conclusion is that the French lost in 1940 not by relying on the methods of the earlier war, but by ignoring them, most notably the importance of a combined arms air force and of air-ground cooperation.
In his treatment of the French Air Force between the wars, Baughen neglects two important issues. Firstly, he fails to point out that the French aviation industry did little to improve its plant between the two wars, resulting in low production rates. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he overlooks the matter of France’s belated start on rearmament for the coming war, later even than Britain, which saw Hurricanes and Spitfires coming into production during the final days of peace and the early months of war, while France’s rather good Dewoitine D.520 only began entering service as the panzers were overrunning the county.
Nevertheless, The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force, offers the first comprehensive look at some of the causes of France’s failure in the air in 1940.
Note: The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force is also available in several e-editions.