Posts Tagged 'French Air Force'

French Air Operations over Libya

It has been a while since we posted anything on the blog so I am happy to bring some photos taken by one of our contributors, Thomas Withington, of French air operations out of Solenzara AFB in Corsica. As Thomas writes:

Since the French Air Force commenced Operation Harmattan, the national component of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, over Libya in March, Solenzara Air Force Base (AFB) on the Mediterranean island of Corsica has been at the heart of the flying activity. The air force’s multirole Dassault Rafale combat aircraft have flown regular reconnaissance and air-to-ground sorties from the facility. These latter missions have seen the Rafales employ weapons such as the precision Armement Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM/Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon) which performed its combat debut in Afghanistan in April 2008 against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi‘s key leadership and military targets in Libya. It was reported on 12th July that the Rafales could redeploy from Solenzara to Sigonella AFB in Sicily in order to reduce their transit times from their reconnaissance orbits and ground targets in Libya.

Here are the pictures…

Armement Air-Sol Modulaire PGM – The French version of Paveway IV

GBU-12 on a Rafale

Bling-Bling’s Private Jet

Rarely has a French-built airliner generated such controversy in the land of Lafayette and Victor Hugo, but a new Airbus A330-200 to be operated by the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) is doing just that. Is this new aircraft to be used for refuelling, medical evacuation or troop transport? No, it is the new plane which will fly the Chef d’État around the world to meetings and official functions. Dubbed ‘Air Sarko One’, the plane was thrust into the headlines during President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent visit to South Korea to attend the G20 summit, when it conveyed him to Seoul for the meeting.

It seems that it is not so much the aircraft’s existence which is causing much more than a Gallic shrug on the eastern side of the Channel. After all, the US President travels in Air Force One, his Russian counterpart has an official aircraft, as does the Japanese Royal Household. The cause of the anger is instead directed at the aircraft’s cost. Press reports speak of €176 million being spent on the acquisition of the aircraft second-hand from Air Caraibes, plus the modification of the interior which has seen the addition of a meeting room, high-tech secure communications and seating for 62 passengers; among other features. It seems that some quarters of the French public are finding it slightly galling that the Exchequer can shell out the cash for the new plane while the government talks about belt-tightening and austerity.

The President previously had the use of two Airbus A319CJ aircraft, although these were said to have an inferior range of around 7,000 kilometres, compared to the 12,000 km of the new aircraft. One of the A319s has since been sold to Senegal for €32 million. While this offsets some of the cash spent on the new airliner, it still leaves a bill of around €144 million. The French head of state’s love of luxury gave him the nickname ‘President Bling Bling’ following his election in May 2007. Using government coffers to purchase a new airliner when many of his compatriots are facing redundancy, suffering wage freezes, and working hard to make ends meet, is unlikely to help him shake this image as he works hard to appear as a politician serious about keeping French public finances under control.

By Thomas Whithington

1940 and the Problems of Coalition Air Power

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

It would be difficult to assume that any air power historian, or for that matter any general military historian, is not aware of the letter that Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding wrote to the Secretary of State for Air on 14 May 1940 declaring that not one more squadron should be sent to France lest the fighter force be drained away and lead to the irrevocable defeat of the United Kingdom. Indeed it has pervaded the public imagination most notably in  the 1969 film The Battle of Britain as seen below. Personally I have watched the film enough that I can now virtually recite the main passage verbatim. However, the letter is most important as the starting point for the removal or control of the no. of squadrons that were being sent to France to reinforce Air Marshal Barratt’s British Air Force in France (BAFF).

While searching through the AIR files at the National Archives I came across an interesting letter, see below,  from General Vuillemin, the commander of the French Air Force in 1940, to Barratt that struck me as having similar tones to Dowding’s letter.[i] It was written on 3 June and predicted defeat in France if more fighters were not sent to France. Possibly the most emotive paragraph, and the one that had a similar tone to Dowding’s letter, stated that:

The failure to obtain from the British supreme authorities the complete and immediate assistance required will probably result in the defeat of French forces and the loss of the war for Great Britain as for France

Therefore, in essence he is arguing the opposite of what Dowding argued in that he is asking for more forces to be concentrated in France to aid in the defence of his country. In many respects this is a natural response given his predicament.

From the British perspective it is worth considering the context of this letter. It is written as DYNAMO is being completed and the French forces and the remnants of BAFF are retreating over the Somme in preparation to fend off the second phase of the German operations, Fall Rot. That France was defeated was not completely clear at this point and indeed the RAF was sending forces to Southern France to deal with the entry into the war of Italy in Operation HADDOCK. Also the second BEF, under the command of General Alan Brooke, was in the process of being sent to Normandy so it might be argued that it should be natural for the RAF to reinforce BAFF if the army was prepared to do the same. However, the difficulty for the RAF was the rapidity of the German advance and the problem of setting up effective bases. This problem was being made even more difficult as BAFF was retreating on its own lines of communications.

Barratt, the man caught in the middle of communications with the French and the Air Staff back in Britain, wrote a three page letter with a copy of Vuillemin’s to lay out the argument for reinforcing the forces in France.[ii] He did his best to convince the Air Ministry that using fighters based in Britain was inefficient.  However, the rest of the correspondence shows what views were being taken back in Britain. Churchill sent a memo to General Spears in Paris stating the Vuillemin’s demand were unreasonable.[iii] Given that the request was for twenty squadrons it is not difficult to see the response that this elicited in London.[iv] However, despite the protestations that no more squadrons’ should be sent on 7 June both No. 17 and 242 Squadrons were sent over.[v] However, both of these squadrons would be back in the Britain shortly.

What is important about this episode? Firstly, I think it illustrates the problems the operational commander, in this case Barratt, faces when trying to deal with a coalition partner that is in need of help but is also aware of the dire state this ally was in. It says much for Barratt that despite probably being aware of the situation of the ground he was still willing to fight for Vuillemin in trying to get more aircraft sent across the channel. Secondly, it highlight the problems between the strategic and operational level in the decision-making process with regards to deciding what help is given to an ailing coalition partner. In the end the reticence of the Air Ministry to reinforce BAFF did not lead to French defeat but it had the effect of insuring that enough squadrons, and most importantly their effective cadres of experience pilots, were in Britain to aid in the defence of the country. So whose impassioned plea was the right one? Dowding or Vuillemin?

Perhaps Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sholto Douglas sums it up best, at the time he was DCAS and dealt with many of the issues relating to the reinforcement of BAFF, when he wrote in his autobiography that:

We would have been left wide open to defeat in the air battle against Britain which we were sure was about to be launched by the Germans.[vi]

By Ross Mahoney


[i] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3 June 1940

[ii] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Air Marshal Barratt to the Under-Secretary State for Air, 3 June 1940

[iii] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Churchill to General Spears, 5 June 1940

[iv] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3 June 1940, Denis Richards Royal Air Force, 1939-1945: Volume 1 – The Fight at Odds (HMSO, 1953) p. 145, John Terraine The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945 (Wordsworth, 1997) pp. 159-160

[v] Stuart Peach ‘Air Power and the Fall of France’ in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (Eds.) Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (Frank Cass, 2002) p. 164, Richards, The Fight at Odds, p. 145, Terraine, Right of the Line, p. 160

[vi] Lord Douglas of Kirtleside with Robert Wright Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas (Collins, 1966) p. 71


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