1940 and the Problems of Coalition Air Power

[Cross posted from 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.[1] 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. In addition, 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.[2] 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.[3] Given that, the request was for twenty squadrons it is not difficult to see the response that this elicited in London.[4] However, despite the protestations that no more squadrons’ should be sent on 7 June both No. 17 and 242 Squadrons were sent over.[5] 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 highlights the problems between the strategic and operational level in the decision-making process concerning 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.[6]

By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies University of Birmingham

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

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

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

[4] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3June 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 [1985]) pp. 159-160.

[5] 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.

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

2 responses to “1940 and the Problems of Coalition Air Power

  1. Interesting post Ross! Without a doubt, there can be no arguments with the conclusion. Though, personally, I think any semblance of an alliance was dead after Dunkirk. Thereafter there was a threat of a French ‘turncoat’ move – pre-empted by the Royal Navy off the Algerian coast in July 1940. I suspect the British felt they were better off alone. Interestingly enough, the French had more reserves than the Germans by the Second Phase of the Operation (Red). Poor logistics, organisation ensured that operational ready rates were far below that of the Luftwaffe which was handed victory by French Air Doctrine. Had the FAF been as well prepared as Fighter Command, I think the ability of the Luftwaffe to influence the land actions and they would not have required British assistance in the first place.

  2. Dan,

    I am not convinced that the alliance was dead at Dunkirk. Semantically, it did not end at all, we just shifted the allegiance to de Gaulle, though that was fraught with its own problems. We have to remember that Churchill sent a second BEF to France, and that this was not evacuated until 25 June. Politically Churchill felt he was tied to France. Even in his ‘Finest Hour’ speech he said, ‘we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people’. Therefore, politically it was alive and probably did not end until the actual surrender on 22 June and then fully dead when Churchill took the decision to sink the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on 4 July. It is tricky thing pinpointing when it was decided that nothing more could be done. For example, the RAF were still operating in the south of France in mid-June in the ill-fated Operation HADDOCK (Another article to be written there!)

    The lack of preparation concerning the French Air Force it fascinating and it will be interesting what Higham has to say about it in his latest book (on order). It still remain a much under researched subject in English (I must brush up my French!)

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