The Vichy French Air Force: A Mixed Bag

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McDonnelDouglasvia Harry GannThe First Joint Operationngland was relieved whenAmerica entered WW II inDecember 1941. The Britishhoped that the U.S. would soon collaborate with them in operationsagainst the Nazis. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, under pressureat home and from the Soviet Union’sdictator Josef Stalin to open a secondfront, pleaded with President FranklinRoosevelt to join British forces in an invasion of the North African coast.The Vichy French, and the FreeFrench, under General Charles DeGaulle, were furious that Britishaircraft had bombed French ships inE24SBD Dauntlessesfly upwindof their carrierafter a Torch mission.of WW II1940, even though the attacks were toprevent the ships from falling into German hands. (Vichy is a city in southernFrance where a puppet governmentwas set up when the Nazis conqueredFrance in June 1940.) The Britishknew that to invade by themselveswould probably mean intense Frenchresistance. Only a joint operation withAmerican forces leading the waystood any chance of acceptance.With the Japanese advance haltedin the Pacific, America turned some ofits attention to other theaters.Roosevelt agreed to join Churchill inOperation Torch, the invasion of NorthAfrica. American and British naval airplayed major supporting roles inneutralizing any French opposition tothe amphibious landings. It was one ofthe few times that American naval airpower fought in a major campaign outside the Pacific.The Vichy French AirForce: A Mixed BagOn paper, the French forces wereformidable and included surface ships,submarines, numerous antiaircraft artillery emplacements, and some 500aircraft of various types andNAVAL AVIATIONNEWSNovember-December1992

Operation TorchBy Cdr. Peter Mersky, USNRcapabilities,Before the war, the French boughtseveral U.S. Army Air Force aircraft,and Vichy squadrons now flew the Curtiss Hawk 75A (an export version of theP-36 single-seat fighter), the MartinM&y/and twin-engine light bomberand reconnaissance aircraft, and theDouglas DB-7, the export version ofthe A-20 light twin-engine bomber. IfLt. Mac Wordell, VF-41 X0 (right), leadsthe squadron in song in the squadronready room onboard Ranger before thestart of Torch.NAVAL AVIATIONNEWSNovember-DecemberAmerican crews encountered aerialresistance, it would be one of the fewtimes that American-built aircraftwould engage each other in actualcombat in the history of aerial warfare.The Allied LineupThe British fleet included seven carriers in three task forces to cover twolanding areas along the North Africancoast. Five American flattops made upthe Western Naval Task Force, led byRanger (CV-4). The American forcelanded at Casablanca, while twoBritish forces landed at Oran (Center)and Algiers (Eastern). The thirdBritish task force (Task Force H)covered operations in the Mediter,ranean, mainly to defend against anyopposition from the Italians.Suwannee (ACV-27) had a mixedair group of four squadrons: VGFs 27and 28 and VGSs 27 and 30. Sangamon (ACV-26) had VGF-26 andVGS-26, while Santee (ACV-29) included VGF-29 and VGS-29. Anotherescort carrier, Chenango (ACV-28) ferried 76 U.S. Army Air Force P-40 Warhawks across the Atlantic for use oncea beachhead had been establishedand the first enemy airfields secured.1992(The designation ACV (auxiliaryaircraft carrier) preceded CVE (escortcarrier). VGF (fighter) and VGS (scouting) squadrons embarked in ACVs.)For most of the crews, this was theirfirst combat operation, and apprehension and discussion went through allthe ready rooms. Ashore, the Frenchcrews felt the same way. ManyFrenchmen harbored resentmentagainst the British, especially after“l’affaire de Mers-el-Kebir,” whereRoyal Navy dive-bombers struckFrench ships in African ports in July1940 to keep them from falling intoGerman hands. However, there wasno such feeling toward the Americans.Indeed, many Frenchmen hoped thatthey could soon join the U.S. forcesagainst their German oppressors.“How can the Americans think offighting us?” the Vichy aircrews asked.“After all, we’ve been waiting for themfor two years, and don’t we fly manyAmerican aircraft? And are we not thedescendants of the EscadrilleLafayette?”Ironically, one of the Americans’potential opponents would be Frenchfighter squadron GC II/5 at Casablanca. This squadron’s insignia was thefamiliar American Indian’s head firstused by the Lafayette Escadrille inWW I, a squadron made up largely ofAmerican aviators and expatriates,who couldn’t wait for their country toenter the war. It was going to be hard,for everyone when the battle wasjoined.Intelligence was not as complete asit should have been as far as the flightcrews were concerned. Much of the information for aircrews came fromtravel brochures and NationalGeographic.Vichy squadrons were spread alongthe coast, with Casablanca hosting astrong fighter force of Hawk 75As andDewoitine 520s considered the bestFrench fighter. (A few had seen actionagainst the Germans in 1940 and hadacquitted themselves favorablyagainst the vaunted Messerschmitt Bf109.)Torch represented the largest assembly of Allied ships and aircraft in25

the war up to that time; however, thehuge fleet was never intercepted byGerman patrols. The Germansbelieved that the Allied ships wereheaded for the beleaguered Mediterranean island of Malta.The British carriers had a wide assortment of aircraft, ranging frombiplane Fairey Swordfish and Albacoretorpedo bombers to Grumman Mart/et(the British name for the GrummanWildcat), Hawker Sea Hurricane, andnewly arrived Supermarine Seafirefighters. The Hawker and Supermarineaircraft were “navalized” variants ofthe highly successful land-based versions that had made such a name forthemselves in the Battle of Britain.Torch would be the Seafire’s first combat operation.resolve strengthened and severalVichy destroyers and submarines sortied against the Allied forces outsidethe harbor. Ranger’s Wildcats andDauntlesses bombed and strafed theFrench ships and targets ashore. Theyalso engaged in unexpectedly intenseaerial encounters with their French opponents. In the first battles, 16 Vichyfighters were shot down for the loss offour Wildcats. Even biplane CurtissSOC liaison floatplanes contributed bybreaking up a French tank column withdepth charges using impact fuses.The SOCs flew from cruisers and battleships and usually carried messagesand spotted for artillery.On November 9, Ranger launchedits three Army L-4 Piper Cubs, whichwould be used as observation platforms. The three little single-engineplanes were led by Captain Ford E.Allcorn, who took off into a 35-knotheadwind, 60 miles from shore, running into antiaircraft artillery from U.S.ships, which were obviously unawareof the identity of the three aircraft.French shore batteries also fired atthe Pipers as they went over thebeach. Capt. Allcorn was woundedand his aircraft set on fire. He wasbarely able to sideslip his strickenplane to the ground, then drag himselffrom it before it exploded. He thus hadthe unique, and somewhat dubious,distinctions of flying the first Cub froman aircraft carrier, becoming the firstArm.y aviator to be wounded in thecampaign, and the first to be shotdown in the campaign.Chenango began launching its loadof Army P-40s most of which made itashore. However, damage from theAmerican and British air attacks wasso great that the airfield at PortLyautey had to be repaired. Theremainder of the Warhawks flewThe Battle Is JoinedAs the British fleet sailed throughthe Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean on November 6 (theAmericans stayed in the Atlantic), thecarriers sent out fighter patrols toscout for any enemy aircraft. Asidefrom one or two French scouts, theBritish and American combat airpatrols found the skies quiet as theyapproached the North African coast.On Sunday, November 8, the firstwaves of American and British Armytroops hit the beach at dawn. At first,French resistance was relatively light.Vichy shore batteries opened fire andwere answered by the guns of the assembled surface ships. The Frenchbattleship Jean Bad, immobilized inCasablanca harbor, turned its 15-inchguns on the American landing force.The battleship Massachusetts sent a16-inch shell into Jean Bart, jammingits one working turret.As the battle progressed, FrenchNorth AfricanLandingsSpain -Eastern Task ForceCenter Tack ForceSafi? .-J-Y-%?(K)Seao‘-Itakes off fromA Curtiss SOC is catapulted from acruiser during Operation Torch.Several Americanairfield, perhapsSBD on the left isvarious ruts inNavy aircraft stand on a Vich!Cazes, after the ceasefire. Theminus its vertical tail. Note thethe grass made by the aircraftashore later.The British Central Naval TaskForce landed its assault troops atOran on November 8, encountering litItle resistance except from Frenchshore batteries. Royal Navy carriersFurious, Biter, and Dasher launchedstrikes against the airfield and droppedleaflets. Sea Hurricanes from Biter andDasher shot down five French fighters.The Eastern Naval Task Force attacked Algiers, also finding little or noresistance except for shore batteries.A quickly arranged ceasefire broughtmost of the fighting to an end in thisarea late on the 8th. By November 10and 11, all the French forces hadcapitulated.Aerial EngagementsMorocco226ii MediterraneanArmy Capt. AllcornRanger in his L-4.mgeriaAs the first waves of Americans hitthe beach at Fedala (15 miles north ofCasablanca), Mehdia (70 miles to theNAVAL AVIATIONNEWSNovember-December1992

north), and Safi (140 miles south ofCasablanca), Ranger’s VFs 9 and 41orbited Cazes airfield. The Frenchthreat had to be clear before Americanaircraft went into action. However, asthe Wildcat pilots saw several aircrafton the roll, Lieutenant CommanderTommy Booth, CO of VF-41, called,“Batter up!” In response to the prearranged signal, Ranger radioed, “Playball!” The fight was on.Although Cazes was a base forbombers and transports, there wereseveral fighter squadrons on the fieldwith Curtiss Hawk 75As and Dewoitine520s. Most of the French aircraftsported one of the most colorfulschemes ever applied to a large numb& of combat aircraft. There werevariations but the basic markings werebright yellow-and-red striped cowlingsand tails. The eye-catching colors contrasted dramatically with the duncolored American Wildcats and SBDsfzzfzNot too much room as P-4OFs launchfrom Chenango. Besides the yellowringed national insignia, the Armyfighters also carry American flags forward of the usual insignia.that now ranged over the enemy airfields.The dogfights over the Moroccancoast were fierce at any rate, andAmerican Naval Aviators found themselves up against an experienced, wilyfoe. Many French pilots had seen combat against the Luftwaffe during theBattle of France; some were evenaces. Their American opponents,while some had a relatively high number of flight hours, were all untested incombat. To an extent, this differencein operational experience offset the disparity between the Wildcat and theelderly Hawk 75A, although less so the0.520.Two D.520 surprised Lieutenant(jg) Charles Shields of VF-41. However, the young pilot turned into thethreat and dropped the lead Frenchfighter. Hardly catching his breath,Shields spotted three more aircraftdirectly over the field. When he dovetoward the trio, Shields found twoHawks pursuing a lone Wildcat,piloted by Lieutenant Chuck August.The two Americans turned the tableson the Vichy pilots, shooting both Curtiss fighters down.After strafing the airfield with the*last of his ammunition, Shields wasbounced by four more Hawks and hadto abandon his aircraft. As he hungfrom his chute, he was surprised thenangry to see the Hawks lining up onhim. They intended to shoot him whilehe hung helplessly in midair.Desperate, Shields shot it out withhis .45 pistol as the Hawks buzzedhim, occasionally firing at the loneAmerican. Neither side scored andShields descended to the ground andcapture. He was not alone. Severalother Navy Wildcat pilots spent a fewdays as prisoners of war.VF-9 also saw action. LieutenantCommander Jack Raby led hisThe Dauntless in Action29-GF-10 ran into trouble during arecovery onboard Santee. Note the control cables protruding from the fuselage,and the overlappingof the squadronnumbers into the national insignia.NAVAL AVIATIONNEWSNovember-Decembersquadron to Port Lyautey where theyshot down a twin-engine Potez 63 one of the many light-bomber/observation twins that the French produced inthe late 1930s.VGFs 26 and 27 had been in thesame area and encountered severalFrench fighters and bombers, shootingdown several. Unfortunately, VGF-27Wildcats attacked a Royal Air ForceHudson from Gibraltar, which they hadwrongly identified as a French aircraft,The Lockheed twin crashed, with onlyone survivor of the four-man crew.Lieutenant Commander Tom Blackburn of VGF-29 ditched his Wildcatafter running out of gas trying torecover onboard Santee. It was an ignominious beginning to what would become an amazing combat career,albeit in the Pacific, with another typeof fighter, the Vought F4U Corsair.Blackburn spent 60 hours in his liferaft until a destroyer plucked him fromthe water. When he returned to hissquadron, Blackburn, who had senthis junior pilots ashore before ditching,learned that four of his squadronmateshad crash-landed and were captured.As Lieutenant Malcolm Wordell, X0of VF-41, strafed an airfield, antiaircraft artillery hit his aircraft, wounding him. He crashed in a cow pastureand made his way to a “neighborhood”wineshop. The shop owner and wifeministered to the wounded American,plying him with rum.Local infantry troops soon arrived tocollect their prisoner. The corporaldemanded Wordell’s pistol, which thelieutenant reluctantly handed him,after requesting a receipt.It had been a rough initiation for theuntried fighter squadrons. TheWildcats had lost seven F4Fs toenemy action - fighters and flak - and16 to operational causes.1992SBDs from Sangamon, underLieutenant Commander J. S. Tracy,flew over Fedala, while Santee’sDaunNesses covered the landings atSafi, southwest of Casablanca.Several SBDs dive-bombed Jean Barfin Casablanca harbor, while others attacked the French destroyers that hadmanaged to sortie from the harbor at0600, intent on hitting the Allied troopships offshore.Accompanied by Wildcats, whichdid their best to strafe and disrupt thedestroyers’ defenses, the SBDs struckthe Vichy ships. One SBD was shotdown, the crew lost. It took severalhours, and additional attacks by SBDsand the few TBF Avengers with the27

American task force, to halt the determined enemy attack.With all the landing forces ashore,aerial action on November 9 centeredaround supporting the Allied troopsand ending whatever French resistance remained. VF-9’s Wildcats found16 Hawks and shot down five of theCurtiss fighters for the loss of oneGrumman aircraft, whose pilot was rescued. VF-9 also lost three morefighters in the course of the day duringstrafing missions to Port Lyautey.By the time an armistice was.aAircraft Carriers and Squadronsof Operation TorchUnited StatesRanger -27VGF-28VGS-27VGS-3027 F4F-427 F4F-418 SBD-31 TBF-1WildcatsWildcatsDauntlessesAvenger(ACV-26)12 F4F-4 Wildcats9 SBD-3 Dauntlesses9 TBF-1 Avengers(ACV-27)Santee catsWildcatsAvengersWildcats14 F4F-4 Wildcats9 SBD-3 Dauntlesses8 TBF-1 AvengersChenango (ACV-28)76 USAAF P-40F Warhawksreached with the French authorities onNovember 11 - an appropriate datesince it was also the date that an armistice ending WW I went into effect 24years earlier - American Wildcat pilotshad claimed 22 French aircraft, for theloss of five F4Fs in aerial combat.(The claim included one or twomisidentified British aircraft, and theFrench actually admitted to losing 25aircraft.) Fourteen Wildcats had beenlost to operational causes. In total, 23percent of all F4Fs in the Americancarrier force had been lost, a significant attrition rate. Captain C. T. Durgin, Ranger’s CO, visited Cazes onNovember 12. After meeting with thepilots from his air wing who had beencaptured, he remarked on the stoutdefense by the French: “If this battlehad continued at the pace of the firstday, I would have had to return to theU.S. for replacements.”The SBDs and TBFs of the WesternTask Force had been in actionthroughout the operation, bombingenemy airfields and gun positionsashore. They also attacked whateverFrench ships ventured out of their harbors. However, the Dauntless andAvenger squadrons suffered relativelyhigh loss rates. Santee’s squadronslost four SBDs and seven TBFs in thefour-day operation. Some of the losseswere due to fuel starvation and pilotingerrors rather than direct enemy action.On November 10, Ranger’s Daunt-HMS FormidableNo. 885 SquadronNo. 888 SquadronNo. 893 SquadronNo. 820 SquadronHMS AvengerNo. 802 SquadronMO. 883 Squadron6186886121212167sA pilot of GC Ill/3by his Dewoitine 520.6 Sea Hurricane Ils8 Sea Hurricane Ils18 Seafire IlBs12 Seafire ICs12 Seafire IlBs8 Albacores28had a lot of MarylandMartin Maryland 167s. Thesefast reconnaissancebombersflew with both Armee de I’Airand Aeronavale squadrons.Seafire IlBsMartlet IVsMartlet IVsAlbacoresHMS FuriousNo. 801 SquadronNo. 807 SquadronNo. 822 SquadronHMS BiterNo. 800 SquadronVichy forcesin 1941.Sud-Est Leo 451 four-place bombersequipped several squadrons of theArmee de I’Air and Aeronavale.Fulmar IlPsMartlet IVsSeafire IlBsAlbacoresAlbacoresHMS ArgusNo. 880 SquadronHMS DasherNo. 804 SquadronNo. 891 SquadronCdr. Mersky is a naval reservist and assistant editor of Approach magazine.(launched)BritainHMS VictoriousNo. 809 SquadronNo. 882 SquadronNo. 884 SquadronNo. 817 SquadronNo. 832 Squadronlesses made the final attack againstthe determined, but battered battleshipJean Bart, whose crew had returnedone turret to operation. The SBDsscored two hits with 1 ,OOO-poundbombs and the French BB was out ofthe war for good. Nine Dauntlesseshad been lost during Torch, most tooperational causes.Operation Torch began the finalstages of expelling the Germans fromNorth Africa. It also let the Frenchknow that they were not forgotten.Torch was also the first time the Alliesused joint planning to forge a majoroperation, setting the pattern for futureinvasions, particularly the June 1944invasion of Europe and amphibiousoperations in the Pacific. Torch alsofirmly established the aircraft carrierand its planes and crews in the closeair support role, ready on arrival, andclose to the action. wAn unusual view of two Dewoitine520s of GC l/2.Hawk 75As of GC l/5 over Rabat, Morocco, 1942.30i!!GQ56 Sea Hurricane Ils6 Sea Hurricane Ils15 Sea HurricaneIlsrakech in March1941.Musee de I’Air et de I’Espace

The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in OperationBy Cdr. Peter Mersky, USNRDewoitines. The Royal Navy fightersclimbed to meet the threat, and although low on ammunition, shot downanother D.520 and damaged severalothers. It had been an auspiciousopening for the Seafires.Seafires flew armed escort andreconnaissance missions throughoutthe day. Two British pilots landed theirSeafires near American columns. SubLieutenant Peter Twiss - who wouldbecome a famous postwar test pilot offered to fly short reconnaissance missions for a U.S. Army tank column,even though his aircraft had onlyabout 50 gallons of fuel left.Sub-Lieutenant P. J. Hutton crashlanded alongside another armoredcolumn and made his way to the US.Army Air Force’s 31 st Fighter Group,which had flown its Spitfire VCs intoOran at the end of the day. The nextday, November 9, Hutton borrowed anAmerican Spitfire and flew a missionbefore being ferried back to Gibraltarby a Royal Air Force Hudson.(American Spitfires were ferried, alongwith British aircraft, aboard British carriers to Gibraltar.)The Royal Navy also tried to finishthings up in Algeria. The task wasmade harder by the not-unexpectedappearance of German and Italianbombers, which attacked the task forces offshore. Martlets and Seafiresflew combat air patrol against

foe. Many French pilots had seen com- bat against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of France; some were even aces. Their American opponents, while some had a relatively high num- ber of flight hours, were all untested in combat. To an extent, this difference in operational experience offset the dis- .

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