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The forgotten air force


The Forgotten Air Force: French Air Doctrine in the 1930s

by Anthony Christopher Caine. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. 230 pp., $34.95 (hardbound).

Starting in 1933, the French air force devoted its annual maneuvers to the problem of intercepting German bombers. In 1938 it rehearsed an land-air battle very like the one it eventually had to fight. Even after the country went to war, it had eight full months to get ready for the blitzkrieg.

Why did it fail? Colonel Caine lays the blame on French air doctrine, which put the Armee de l'air in a defensive posture where it could only react--too little and too late--to German initiatives. Worse yet, the supposedly independent air force was parceled out to army commanders, who used the airmen for reconnaissance or tied them closely to soldiers on the ground.

Unable to fight a coherent battle, the Armee de l'air was chopped to pieces. With an assigned strength of 52 aircraft, one group managed to lose 80 planes, and of 240 officers and NCOs, more than half became casualties. Another group had the ill luck to be assigned to the 5th Army, which pulled out without telling the airmen, who for the final 12 days of the Third Republic were obliged to defend it like so many freebooters, on whatever ground and by whatever means seemed best to them.

I would have liked more such anecdotes, along with a narrative of the French campaign. But Caine is more interested in causes than effects. His is a cautionary tale for war planners, and it devotes only four pages to the actual Battle of France.

The photographs are telling, as are the three-views of French warplanes, many of them comically obsolete. Even the serious ones aren't as formidable as they seem: the liquid-cooled Dewoitine 520 looks like a Spitfire or Bf-109, but is hobbled by an 850-hp engine. Worse than the design was the execution: France had only a handful in service when the fighting began, and when pilots came to Toulouse to pick up more, they were given fighters that hadn't been armed nor fueled, with guns that hadn't been sighted.

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