Vichy Air Force At War by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

This fascinating history looks at a less known aspect of the war.  Starting with an overview of Armee de l’Air performance in the Battle of France, and then exploring operations in a variety of far flung and minor theaters for the next couple years.

Join me for a brief look at a unique (?) history.

This really is unique as far as I know.  The writers claim no one else has covered this material, although several have written about the various French aircraft types used during the war.  I’m inclined to believe the claim, I’ve certainly never seen another like this.  And it covers more than just the Vichy Air Force; really a look at the whole range of Vichy military operations during World War II.

Some attempt is made to explain and justify the actions of those French who chose loyalty to their Nazi puppet government.  Apart from feeling some sympathy for the difficulty of their position, I have a hard time accepting how hard and well they sometimes fought.  The first major operation discussed is the extremely difficult issue of how the British dealt with scattered French naval forces, and how this ultimately involved air power.

Half the book is devoted to eastern Mediterranean operations.  When a coup in Iraq led to a pro-Nazi ruler being briefly in power there, the French allowed their bases in Syria to be used by Germany and Italy to fly forces into Iraq.
No surprise, once the uprising in Iraq was put down the British made dealing with French Syria a priority.  This war was sharp and violent.  As an aviation nerd the variety of odd types involved is exciting.  Particularly interesting that Australian and South African Tomahawks seemed to be the alpha predators of the campaign, with D.520s being their only capable opposition.  But Hurricanes, Gladiators, Fulmars, Swordfish and Blenheims all saw heavy use by the allies; while French also used MS.406, LeO 451, Potez 63 and Martin Maryland in large numbers.

The next significant operation is the British Invasion of Vichy Madagasgar, to keep it from  being used by the Japanese to attack shipping around the tip of Africa and the Indian Ocean.  At 20 pages this is one of the more detailed accounts I’ve seen of this operation, but Vichy air operations were actually very few.  It’s still very interesting for Royal Navy and South African Air Force operations.

Ironically the briefest treatment is of the Torch landings, the American and British Invasion of North Africa.  I’ve read far more about this in other sources.  But with the focus here on the French, their air power was neutralized pretty quickly and perhaps doesn’t need too much more said.

There is an assortment of related supplementary material, much of which is very interesting.  I wish there was more about the air war between French Indochina and Thailand, with over 100 aircraft on each side and combat lasting for three months there is certainly more to the story than I’ve yet seen.

This was an interesting read.  Maybe a little dry, but it explored one of those odd nooks of the war that’s intriguing with little embellishment.

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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8 Responses to Vichy Air Force At War by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

  1. It’s certainly not an area covered in any great detail that I’ve seen, perhaps this is because of their political position.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah that definitely makes it complicated. And given how ugly things started with the Royal Navy having to neutralize the French fleet, I think there were bad feelings on both sides.

  2. jfwknifton says:

    I would also recommend “Hitler’s Gulf War” which I bought at a much reduced price recently. That deals with the conflict of British v Iraqis, Germans and Fascist French and it’s not a bad read.

  3. Neil Page says:

    don’t know Hitler’s Gulf War, must check it out. I’m not a big fan of Sutherland and Canwell’s work although it is a fascinating period of history – much of their text is taken from an old Grub St. title ” Dust clouds in the middle East” by Shores and Ehrengardt. But just how many Allied pilots died during ‘Torch’ killed by the very people they were liberating ?! Crazy. French aces like Le Gloan shot down aircraft from just about every combattant nation; he has Hurricanes and Spitfires in his claims, not to mention Italians and Americans. In Syria and at Mers el Kebir we gave them (Vichy French) a good kicking which was entirely deserved IMHO. Although, I agree, they did find themselves in a difficult position, ultimately some French pilots – at great personal risk- did know where their duties really lay. People like Jean Tulasne who defected with his Ms 406 from Vichy in Syria and went on to lead the Normandie Niemen in Russia. Here’s a couple of my blog pieces that look various areas covered by this book with some pics.

    http://falkeeins.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/air-war-in-syria-and-iraq-may-june-1941.html
    http://falkeeinsgreatplanes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/normande-niemen-groupe-de-chasse-3.html

    • atcDave says:

      The research sure seemed like Shores’ work, that might explain it!

      I do have the highest respect for those pilots, or any Frenchmen, who found a way to fight for the Free French forces. No doubt they were the ones on the right side morally and historically. Although I can see struggling with the idea of “legitimate” authority (Vichy could make a more direct claim than deGaulle), or even some sort of “what’s best for France” argument if you assume Germany will win the war. But fighting, killing, dying for that Vichy cause is profoundly tragic.

      Wow you do have some great pictures! Thanks for sharing.

  4. A good friend of mine is French, and he is still very sore st us Brits about Oran and Mers el Kebir! Fascinating post Dave, thank you.

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