Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Armée de l'Air (Part III)
This article is a continuation of the story of the Armée de l’Air. It follows on from the first two articles which together deal with the history of the French air force from 1909 to 1945 in Europe. This article (so far) deals with the period from 1939 to 1954 when France was facing the end of its colonial rule over Indochina (Vietnam). This article will be expanded, including a section on the activities of the French air force during the last years of French colonial rule in Algeria.
In name only: the Armée de l’Air in Indochina during the Pacific War (1939-1945)
The outbreak of the war in Europe in September 1939 did not immediately affect the status of the Armée de l’Air in French Indochina owing to the fact that it had the task of defending a wide area of Southeast Asia, including the future Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And yet its array of airplanes seemed inadequate to perform any kind of real defense against any incursion by an enemy owing to the fact that there were only nearly 100 obsolescent or else obsolete airplanes available to it. In September 1931, Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria. This was an area of northeast China, which encompassed the provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang. Nearly six whole years later, in July 1937, the Sino-Japanese War had begun. As yet, the French colonial authorities were hoping that the Japanese would not be so brazen enough to take on the might of a European power. However, it became increasingly likely after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, since Japan was part of the Axis alliance and thus Germany’s ally.
Once Japan launched the so-called “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in June 1940, the Japanese presence in China triggered confrontations with the French armed forces. The so-called “Langson Affair”, caused by the invasion of a Japanese battalion in the Tonkin (Tongking) territory resulted in savage battles, and the Armee de l’Air fought the enemy to as far north as Hainan Island, mainland China’s island province in the southeast. On September 26, 1940, Japanese troops landed in Haiphong, violating a cease-fire which had been signed only the previous day. From the middle of the following month, the French became heavily involved in repelling Japanese army assaults, since they were now being helped by Siam, whose air force included seconded Japanese pilots (in much the same way as German pilots flew aircraft on behalf of Franco’s Nationalist air force during the Spanish Civil War, which had ended a year earlier).
The signs that the French influence in this part of the world started more or less at this point (rather than after the end of World War II) when France was forced to cede territory within what are now Laos and Cambodia to Siam after a treaty was signed following the end of hostilities towards the end of January 1941. As for the air force, it had acquitted itself well, since it had only lost three aircraft, including two comparatively modern Morane-Saulnier MS-406 fighter planes.
The month of December 1941 was a watershed in the war in the Pacific, yet the French aircraft were more or less left to deteriorate on the ground from that time on as Japan began, firstly, to impose what would today be termed “no-fly” zones over the conquered territory and, subsequently, to demand that airfields in French control be surrendered. Cut off from (Nazi-occupied) Europe, the Armée de l’Air in Indochina became an air force virtually in name only, as lack of fuel and spares kept aircraft grounded, forcing the authorities to strike them off charge progressively as the war progressed.
In March 1945, Japan decided to neutralize altogether the token French presence in Indochina, initially by capturing the high-ranking French service chiefs at their headquarters in the capital, Saigon. In spite of having less than 30 antiquated aircraft remaining in serviceable condition, though, the Armée de l’Air responded to this aggression and inflicted heavy casualties on Japanese troops, who were pursuing French forces withdrawing towards China, where they did benefit from being re-armed with U.S.-built hardware.
The last years of French colonialism in Indochina (1945-1954)
Long-standing Vietnamese resentment towards French colonialism was exploited by Japan, even if it was now a defeated enemy of the Allied powers by the summer of 1945. The first signs of the beginning of the end of the French empire in Indochina came when Vietnamese insurgents attacked and killed French residents in Saigon, prompting the French to send in its 2nd Armored Division and restore order. The Armée de l’Air reinforced the army units in the guise of the so-called Groupe marchant de l’extrême-orient (the Far East Forward Group), which included U.S.-built aircraft such as the ubiquitous Douglas C-47 Skytrain, totaling eighteen in number after reinforcements had been brought in. In November 1945, the personnel of the 1st Fighter Wing (consisting of GC I/7 and II/7) arrived in Saigon, but without airplanes. Later on, those units received the F.VIII and F.IX variants of the British Supermarine Spitfire. However, interestingly enough, the complement was completed with seized Japanese aircraft, mostly ones dedicated to liaison duties. In spite of the C-47s not being bombers, a lot of them were jury-rigged in order to fulfill bombing missions over the nine years which remained to the French empire in Indochina. By March 1946, the Armée de l’Air consisted of four units, two of which were fighter units equipped with the Spitfire F.IX, a transport/bombing unit equipped with the C-47 and a further one consisting of examples of the Junkers Ju 52/3m. Indeed, the only French-built aircraft available were Morane-Saulnier MS.500 and Nord NC.702 liaison aircraft, which would be used for observation and evacuation duties as well. (The MS.500 was actually a copy of the German Fieseler Fi 156 "Storch" (Stork) aircraft.). By March 1947, the "Cigognes" and "Alsace" fighter groups had come to Indochina, and they had been joined by the "Corse" group, equipped with the de Havilland Mosquito. However, just as their RAF counterparts had experienced when stationed in Burma during World War II, the aircraft, dubbed the “Wooden Wonder” by the British, began to deteriorate as a result of their exposure to a climate that they were not designed to operate in at all. That same month, the Nam-Dinh garrison was encircled, so the transport groups were called upon to drop over 350 airborne troops in order to relieve the besieged troops and thus break the enemy's encirclement. Little by little, the insurgents, fighting the French as a guerrilla army, began to perfect the art and science of guerrilla warfare, a kind of warfare which only began to emerge onto the world scene after the war of 1939-1945 as locals initially fought to oust their colonial “occupiers” and then fought one another as sides vied for power in internal struggles after the colonial powers had left.
The future capitals of North and South Vietnam would witness the presence of Armée de l’Air fighter units during the summer and autumn of 1949, as the situation began to deteriorate. Units were relocated from North Africa to Indochina, including I/5 "Vendée" and II/5 "Ile de France" which were equipped with the Bell P-63 and would remain in theater until January 1951. Firstly, they were stationed at Saigon’s main military airbase at Tan Son Nhut before being relocated to the future North Vietnamese capital, where II/6, better known as the famous and highly decorated "Normandie-Niemen" fighter regiment from their stint in the Soviet Union between 1942 and 1945, joined them. They were certainly needed, as they participated in counterattacks against Viet Minh guerrillas encircling French army positions in the Tonkin region.
Fresh from establishing the People’s Republic, the new Maoist government of mainland China began to provide logistical support to the insurgents short of actually supplying troops, something that China would do during the war in Korea, which would start in late June 1950. Communist expansion into what remained of “free” South-East Asia (apart from Japan, which was still under U.S. occupation at the time) seemed inevitable, and so the U.S. government under Harry S. Truman began to revise their position. In March, General Hartmann, who commanded the Armée de l’Air in Indochina until his death in an air crash in April 1951, wanted to create a "Battle Air Corps" composed of four fighter, two bomber and four transport groups. Jets were in service with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy at this time, yet Hartmann believed that they were actually not up to the task of dealing with insurgents as opposed to fighting conventional armies on the ground.
As a result, piston-engined fighters, such as the F8F "Bearcat", an aircraft from the Grumman stable with one of the most powerful piston engines ever developed for a single-engined aircraft, the Pratt & Whitney P&W R-2800 radial engine, would be used to combat the insurgents. With this powerful engine (2100 hp), the Bearcat was probably the fastest propeller-driven aircraft with a maximum speed of over 450 mph. (The Americans would follow their lead in their war against the Viet Minh by using the Douglas A-1 Skyraider piston-engined aircraft during the 1960s.) For the task of dropping large “hardware” on guerrilla groups, the twin-engined bomber Douglas B-26 "Invader" would also be chosen. A revised command structure for the Armée de l’Air in Indochina was also put in effect with the creation of three Groupes aériens tacticques (Gatac) (“Aerial Tactical Groups”): Gatac North in Hanoi, Gatac Center in Hué and Gatac South in Saigon/Tan Son Nhut.
Renewed fighting between the French and the insurgents (in the guise of the 308th and 312th Divisions, commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap) broke out in January 1951 at Vinh Yen, located in the Tonkin region. Air cover for the French army’s “mobile groups” led by de Lattre was provided by two fighter groups, namely III/6 "Roussillon" and I/9 "Limousin", which were able to muster about forty P-63s, and these were reinforced by eight F6Fs lent from II/6 "Normandie Niemen" and I/6 "Corse". During the month, more than 1,700 fighter sorties were flown by 114 out of the 147 aircraft, mostly from Gatac North, then in service protecting Hanoi, while the "Normandie-Niemen" fighter group was charged with the protection of the southern sector. French bombing capability was very much enhanced with the operational missions flown by dedicated B-26 bombers, assigned to GB I/19 "Gascogne", during the battle for Mao-Khe (which was the center of the coal mine region in northern Vietnam, and its loss would hurt the French) to protect Haiphong. Giap himself was partly to blame for the fact that the Viet Minh had been trounced, since air power, which had seen Vinh Yen remain in French hands, and naval power, which had seen Mao Khe remain in French hands, were beyond his experience, and he had thus not planned for them.
The Armée de l’Air, now under the command of Chassin, Hartmann’s successor, managed to support the French army in repelling a new insurgency from late May to early June 1951, having at its disposal some 48 F8Fs and 23 P-63s in the fighter groups, yet its bomber arm was down to a mere eight B-26s. In support were a combined total of 40 C-47s and Ju-52s. Several months later, after about 6,000 French troops had been killed by Viet Minh insurgents, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny became commander-in-chief of all the then-190,000-strong French Expeditionary Corps in Indochina (having previously been the commander-in-chief of the Free French forces during the Second World War). He decided to reverse the trend and have the French armed forces adopt an offensive stance as opposed to a defensive one, yet initial successes were followed by setbacks as the Viet Minh gained strength to resist and pushed the French forces back as far as the Red River delta by the end of the year, by which time de Lattre had been repatriated on medical grounds. He would die of cancer in January 1952 after being promoted – almost posthumously - to the rank of Marshal of France. Despite Chassin’s call for substantial reinforcements for the Armée de l’Air, whose personnel in theater had been subject to the punishing pace of conducting operations for months, it was ignored. Gatac-Laos, grouping fighters and bombers aircraft which had been requisitioned from various units, was created as a reaction to a Viet Minh offensive in Laos, launched in April 1953. Three months later, 56 F8Fs and ten B-26s, as well as MS.500s and helicopters, participated in Operation Hirondelle (“Swallow”), whose objective was to destroy the matériel provided to the insurgents by Maoist China, yet the Viet Minh did not suffer significantly as a result. The arms were being transported along what became famous as the so-called “Ho Chi Minh trail”, and, in November 1953, to counter this, the French military decided to choose a site near the border with Laos, from which missions could be launched to strike against both Giap’s insurgent army in order to eliminate it altogether. Its name was Dien Bien Phu, and it became operational on the 24th of the month, four days after General Henri Navarre launched Operation “Castor”.
Dien Bien Phu: the last gasp in Indochina (January-May 1954)
By the beginning of 1954, Dien Bien Phu alone required 20 C-119s and 50 C-47s, so, on January 2, Navarre’s second-in-command asked for additional aircraft and crews under the so-called “Navarre Plan”. U.S. President Eisenhower, fearing both domestic and international backlashes if he were to send in U.S. troops, sent an American mission to Indochina to determine the extent of help that the French needed. Following a personal letter from the French prime minister, Joseph Laniel, Eisenhower authorized the loan of aircraft with French markings painted on them and flown by crews from Civil Air Transport (CAT), a commercial airline, which had been started in 1946 by then-retired Major General Chennault, the famous commander of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the “Flying Tigers”, in China during World War II, and then purchased by the CIA in the year war broke out in Korea. He further authorized the dispatch of American “specialists” to Indochina, that is, mechanics from the Far East Air Force (FEAF) of the USAF. Once sworn to secrecy owing to the political ramifications of their presence, they would go to work on B-26s at Da Nang (then called Tourane) in the south and on C-47s at Do Son, located south of Haiphong, in the north, respectively. (In fact, Eisenhower was so concerned about their presence, which itself caused the Chinese government to label the American mechanics as “combatants”, that he told U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that he wanted them withdrawn by the end of June 1954 no matter what the situation in Indochina was at that time.)
The first Viet Minh artillery attacks against the base came on March 16, 1954, as a result of which six French F8Fs, five MS.500s and two helicopters were destroyed. The French response could only come from bases located in the northern sector. The Armée de l’Air mustered two fighter groups with F8Fs, two bomber groups with B-26s, while the Aéronavale (naval aviation) could muster F6F Hellcats, SB2C Helldivers and four-engined PB4Y Privateers (navalized versions of the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber). The transport groups provided approximately 100 C-47s, but there were also the twelve Fairchild C-119Cs "Boxcars" crewed by 24 CAT personnel, to air-drop to the French garrison personnel, food, ammunition, and artillery pieces, as well as tons of barbed wire and other supplies. There was some initial friction between the French and the Americans, as the French commander at the base lodged complaints that the CAT crews were not actually following instructions directly, though this was more to do with a language barrier, as few, if any, of the CAT crews had any francophone linguistic skills that could allow them to communicate well with the French air traffic controllers. Fortunately, the French garrison included British-born Legionnaires, so they were used as interpreters. As a result, the 37 CAT pilots excelled at their duties, flying a total of 682 missions over Dien Bien Phu and earning the respect of the French. (This respect was finally recognized half a century later when seven of the surviving CAT pilots were created Chevaliers de la Légion d’Honneur at a special ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on February 24, 2005.)
At the same time, however, the insurgents were equipped with Soviet-made weaponry, including 37-mm antiaircraft guns, which were to take a toll of the U.S. and French aircraft trying to attack their forces, including with napalm, in an effort to repel them and thus relieve the besieged garrison, which eventually capitulated to Giap's troops on May 7, 1954. In total, the French lost sixty-two aircraft destroyed or severely damaged in the last major battle fought in French Indochina, which, as a colony, was consigned to history with the signing of an agreement in Geneva in July to carve up Vietnam into two countries along the 17th parallel. France, though, was permitted to maintain a small military presence in the new Republic of Vietnam, known to the West as South Vietnam, and the Americans still present were also permitted to remain, servicing the Armée de l’Air’s contingent of B-26s and C-47s, plus the C-119s. They even packed parachutes for French airborne troops. The Americans left Vietnam eventually on September 6, 1954, albeit five days after the original leaving date promised by the French. Other Armée de l’Air units were meanwhile dedicating itself to the training of Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) technical and flight personnel at Nha-Trang.
- Armée de l’Air Marcel Paquelier’s website on his experiences in the Armée de l’Air also includes a history of the involvement of this air force in Indochina
- Embassy of France in Washington, D.C Article about the honor ceremony for the seven CAT pilots who participated in the Dien Bien Phu battle
- Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) website Article called “Mechanics at the Edge of War: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1953-1954”, written by John Prados
- The History Net website Article called “Setting the Stage in Vietnam” by David T. Zabecki
- On War website “A timeline of events, 1800-1999: French Indochina War, 1946-1954”
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