Dewoitine D.520

Easily the best of the French built fighters at the start of the War, with that country’s rapid collapse in Summer 1940 the D.520 fell into enemy hands in large numbers.

Let’s take a look at one that flew with the Luftwaffe.

Like other air services the French Air Force was looking for a modern fighter in the mid-1930s. They specified a Hispano-Suiza 12Y engine and a Hispano-Suiza HS.404 20 mm cannon firing through the propeller boss. The 12Y engine was smaller and less powerful than many contemporary engines in development which led to a smaller fighter overall. Dewoitine did also work on variations of the D.520 with a Rolls-Royce Merlin and Allison V-1710 although nothing came of this (according to Charles Lindberg they also attempted to purchace a Daimler-Benz DB 601, but no documentation has been found on this). Like so many new designs the D.520 had its share of development issues, not least was the parent company being acquired by the state aircraft company (SNCAM) which led to almost a year lost in administrative chaos (Emile Dewoitine himself finally funded the project with his own money to get the ball rolling again).

When production examples entered service in 1940 they were clearly among the top tier fighters of the day. A little on the small side, but with 950 hp it was capable enough. It was more maneuverable than the Bf 109, but less so than the Hurricane. Armed with one 20 mm cannon and four light machine guns its armament was reasonable. It had pilot armor, self sealing fuel tanks, a fire suppression system and reflector gunsite. Pretty thoroughly “modern” at the time. British test pilot Eric Brown described it as “a nasty little brute”.
Considering the drama of introducing a new combat type during the Battle of France, the D.520 performed well. 114 victories against 85 lost, the top Ace in the type was Pierre Le Gloan with 18 kills (16 in D.520).

After the fall of France the D.520’s history is odd to say the least. Most D.520s remained in service with the Vichy Air Force, some escaped to Britain and later served with Free French forces. The Germans and Italians captured many in flyable or repairable condition. Apart from the usual air intelligence sort of testing, both countries put the type into service with their own air arms; as both a fighter trainer and second rate air defense fighter. Additionally, some were reconditioned and sold to Bulgaria for combat use. In 1941 the Vichy government was allowed to put the type back into production because demand was high. Total built was around 900, 200 of those by the Vichy. After the Germans occupied Vichy at the end of 1942 their remaining D.520 were put into service by Germany and Italy.

Obviously this particular aircraft is in Luftwaffe markings. The date listed for it is 1943, which seems late. But as I’ve mentioned before, the Germans were often short of a whole range of hardware. From the end of the Battle of France through at least 1944, the Germans used the D.520 as a trainer. It was a demanding high performance aircraft that tested new fighter pilots. Over 100 were lost in training accidents in 1943 and 1944. They also equiped home defense fighter squadrons with the aircraft on at least two occasions, but this never lasted long in that role because it was simply too different from German types. Its strengths and weaknesses made it problematic to equip squadrons trained in German tactics; in short, it was an aerobatic and maneuverable fighter that was not ideal for vertical/kinetic type fighting.

Early War types. The Bf 109 at right was the fastest of the group, the Hurricane at left the most maneuverable. The D.520 was somewhere in between by most measures.

This is the Tamiya kit with Aeromaster decals. A simple and fun build.

The D.520 was used by the Luftwaffe to get new pilots some experience with a modern fighter before moving to actual combat types. It was less powerful, but tricky to fly and taught new pilots some hard lessons.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; 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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15 Responses to Dewoitine D.520

  1. a gray says:

    Nice build. It is always interesting to learn how captured weapons were employed by the victors. Thanks.

    • atcDave says:

      Its a little surprising to me when they get put back in service! But I guess it was too useful and modern not to.

  2. “….among the top tier of fighters in 1940 ..” Possibly. The first D.520s only went into service in mid-May 1940 with GC I/3 who managed just 75 victories during the campaign May-June 1940, a long way off the top score for French fighter groups who flew US-built H-75 Hawks. Here’s a quote from Andre Carrier, the first D.520 pilot shot down and killed – “..C’est la barbe, ces avions inexpérimentés..” – what a pain these unproven aircraft are!. ..” (see Avions magazine Hors série 14, GC I/3 “Les rois du D.520..”).The Communist Party of France controlled the CGT union and production was very slow too. The French workers still took their weekend break even though they were being invaded! (The Communists took their instructions from Moscow of course – allies of the Nazis at this time..until June 1941) D.520 pilots were great at aerobatics and stunting but couldn’t shoot..

    • atcDave says:

      No doubt the French had some serious problems! And introducing a new fighter while being invaded is a sure recipe for trouble. And yes of course, the D.520 was uniquely challenging.
      But all that said, the D.520 did have some success when flown by able pilots. That the new fighter and able pilots were both in short supply is not particularly a fault of the aircraft. Whatever it’s difficulties and challenges were, it was the one French fighter that could have a meaningful impact at the time.
      It even did reasonably well when flown by the Bulgarians against US P-38s and B-24s.

      • .good point! Going back to GC I/3 – they’d had the D.520 since January 1940 and had moved south to Cannes to get trained and to get them ‘flown-in’. They really should have done better. There’s a very good memoir, almost unknown in the English-speaking world, written by one of these pilots, Pierre Salva, entitled ‘Le temps des Cocardes’. A good read if you can manage French…

      • atcDave says:

        French is beyond me! I was under the impression they didn’t have a squadron worth of planes actually serviceable until May? But yes, more should be expected of them. France’s problems were many and deeply imbedded at the time. I did not mean to suggest the D.520 could have solved all those problems, only that it would likely have performed better than most of the types they actually had. I believe the Hawk 75 was actually their most successful type, which is really another indictment of their domestic industry.

  3. jfwknifton says:

    You’ve made a lovely job of the mottled sections! I’m currently reading a book about the fall of France, and it’s interesting to see the problems the British had with an ally whose troops ran away so quickly that they had difficulty working out where the front line was.

    • atcDave says:

      I could start this the same way I did the previous comment, “the French had some serious problems”! I think that country in 1940 had no chance in a war at that time, way too many issues from top to bottom.

  4. some interesting stats for you from the standard French source (Ehrengardt). By May 10 – German invasion start date – 228 D.520s had already been constructed, but of this total only 75 had been accepted into service because of teething issues and faults. Only 34 D.520s took part in the fighting up to May 14 (GC I/3), 68 from May 15 on (GC I/3 and II/3), which had grown to about 102 on June 1 (add GC II/7).437 built by the time of the French capitulation, some 238 had seen combat. In terms of performance the type was handicapped by the old Hispano 12Y, barely 900 hp… which dated from the early 1930’s. The same engine which had powered the first Morane MS-406’s.

    • atcDave says:

      Getting a modern fighter into service was obviously a major problem for the French. I know some of the later D.520s had an improved engine, but it was still a 12Y. That may be where the “950 hp” figure I usually see comes from. Its also easy to see why the French were interested in the Merlin and Allison engines, although given how small the D.520 is (its really funny to see a fighter smaller than a Bf 109!) I can only imagine its handling problems would have been even worse. Eric Brown commented the type needed a firm hand all the way to shut down or you could end up spinning around any which direction while taxiing; imagine a heavier engine with 20% more power on the thing!

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    Surprising how small it looks in comparison with the others. One of those early
    “what if” models I suppose. But then there were a lot of what-ifs in the early days and the battle for France.

    • atcDave says:

      It is a small plane! I was surprised how small it looked next to the Messerschmitt.
      Although not really a “what if”. Its real and the markings here are real as a Luftwaffe trainer. Unless you mean how things could have been? No doubt a lot of the delays the type encountered seem silly, from change of ownership to labor disputes. It might have made some difference if it had been available in greater numbers from the start. Although probably not a huge difference since French organizational problems were so deeply seated, and they lacked a radar net to effectively block incoming attacks.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Yes, I meant a real-life what-if, though my unfortunate use of model to refer to the real thing confused the issue. As it was the French had a much more powerful military than Germany, most of whom never got the chance to fight. Not exactly a triumph of organization and logistics. Their inability to control their own airspace was just another aspect of that.

      • atcDave says:

        They actually had the largest army in the world at the time!

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