Battle of France

Posted by Warbirds Pilot on 10 May 2015 | Comments

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75 years ago today, on 10 May 1940, German forces began co-ordinated attacks on The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Allied strategy was in the hands of the French High Command, itself divided as to how to best counter a German attack. The Netherlands were overrun by 17 May, Belgium surrendered on 28 May and France signed its armistice on 22 June.  British Air Forces in France were commanded by Air Marshal ‘Ugly’ Barratt and comprised 2 elements: the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force and the Advanced Air Striking Force. The many acts of bravery in the air by fighter and bomber crews during the Battle are well-documented as are the devastating losses suffered by the RAF’s Fairey Battle Squadrons and the impressive tally of Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the RAF Hurricane squadrons based in France. What is perhaps less well known is the contribution of unarmed communication aeroplanes and their crews during this period. 

Finest Hour’s initial focus is on the Tiger Moth and the Percival Q6 and although our research into relevant history has started only recently, it seems appropriate to shed some light on these often unsung players; to fly a fighter or bomber in war takes courage enough, but to fly an unarmed aeroplane and passengers at around 100 kts in the same skies takes a special kind of bravery. The stories of those who flew in these aeroplanes and their reasons for doing so paint quite a picture of the period.

dH95 Flamingo

dh95 Lady of Glamis IWM

Above images: The Dh95 Flamingo (Imperial War Museum)

The aeroplane most often used by very senior politicians and their entourages was the little-known dH95 Flamingo, a 12-17 seat airliner of the immediate pre-war period. 24 Sqn, based at RAF Hendon, operated 5 dh95s, a mixture of RAF-ordered aircraft and impressed civil machines, this mix was typical of 24 Sqn’s fleet at the time.  Both Chamberlain and Churchill flew between London and Paris in Flamingoes prior to 10 May, but what I find quite remarkable are Churchill’s travels at the height of the Battle. On 15 May, Air Chief Marshal Dowding persuaded the Cabinet to send no additional Hurricanes to France; Churchill changed his mind almost immediately and ordered a further 4 squadrons to deploy. Dowding was already drafting his famous letter, urging no further draining of the Home Defence Force to avoid “the complete and irremediable defeat of this country”. With German forces pouring through the French lines at Sedan, and following a telephone call from French Prime Minister Reynaud, who believed France was defeated, Churchill and Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air, flew by Flamingo from Hendon to Le Bourget during the afternoon of 16 May. Curiously, a 24 Sqn Percival Q6 flew empty to Le Bourget and back the same day. It was during this visit that the famous conversation between Churchill and the French CinC, General Gamelin occurred. Churchill asked “Where is the strategic reserve?” to which Gamelin replied “there is none”. Despite Dowding’s pleas of the day before, Reynaud persuaded Churchill to telegraph London to send out another 6 squadrons at once. Fortunately, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Cyril Newall, persuaded the Cabinet that the additional Hurricanes would be based in Southern England for their operations over France, rather than deployed. Churchill returned to Hendon by Flamingo the following morning.

Churchill with Flamingo

On 22 May, Churchill made a round trip to Le Bourget by Flamingo and to Villacoublay on 31 May, the height of the Dunkirk evacuation, returning on 1 June. Churchill’s penultimate visit to France was made on 11 June; he and Antony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, travelled to Le Bourget in separate Flamingoes; the French government had left Paris, so the meeting was held at Chateau du Muguet, near Braire on the Loire.  The relationship between the two pre-war allies was changing and Churchill had little to offer the French.  On the night of 11/12 June, French forces prevented the departure of RAF Wellingtons from French airfields to bomb to Italy.  Reynaud informed Churchill that Marshal Petain had decided to seek an Armistice.  Although not shown in the 24 Sqn Operational Record Book, it appears Gen de Gaulle escaped from Bordeaux in a Flamingo on 17 July  to form the Free French Government in London.

Smith Tiger May 1940

Smith Tiger May 1940 02

Tiger Moth flight logs for Flt Lt D A Smith, May 1940

At the other end of the scale, the Communications Squadron, subsequently renamed 81 Sqn, deployed from Andover to France, Fg Off D A Smith leading the advance party by road via Southampton on 11 September 1939, its Tiger Moths following soon after.  81 Sqn’s records dry up at the end of March 1940, but Flt Lt Smith’s logbook provides more of an insight into the Squadron’s operations in support of the BEF. By 21 Sep, 81 Sqn was based at Laval and Smith was flying passengers and mail between there and Rouvray, Nantes, Rouen and Boos. On 1 October, the Sqn moved to Boos and by mid-October ‘HQ Standby’ duties became a feature.  November saw aerial inspection of camouflage, AA batteries and railheads added to the mix of duties, with 22 November including ‘overshot aerodrome and crashed at Arras’.  Smith’s next accident was on 11 March, when his aircraft was written off while landing in a field at YPort (Fecamp) to deliver spares to a Whitley. This period also included co-operation with Anti-Aircraft units. Having force landed in a field near Le Treport on 12 April due to low cloud and a rainstorm while making for Dieppe via Amiens, Smith was next forced to turn back due to fog near Le Treport on 3 May, flying from Montjoie to Brize Norton via Shoreham as a formation of 5 aircraft later in the day, returning with new aircraft the following day. Once the Battle of France commenced, his flying included the delivery of operations maps to 87 Sqn (Hurricanes), a search for parachutists and ferrying an air gunner to 18 Sqn (Blenheims). On 18 May, Smith flew from Montjoie to Boulogne; Amiens had been evacuated and on the 19th he was carrying out recce of Boulogne for landing sites due to the bombing of Boulogne airfield. The increasingly desperate situation between 20 and 22 May is apparent from his ‘recce of airfield AA defences - all abandoned’, flying to St Omer ‘for orders’ and then on his return from St Omer and Lille ‘field attacked by Me109s on landing’. Five 81 Sqn Tiger Moths departed France via Calais on 23 May, making their UK landfall at Hawkinge ‘fired on by AA’.

Tiger Moth arrives Nuncq nr St Pol France Pic Imperial War Museum

Tiger Moth arrives at Nuncq, France (Imperial War Museum)

Phoney War 81 Sqn French AA

There were other escapes from France bordering on the incredible; on 16 June, one AASF staff officer describes flying his Miles Magister back to England “Avoided N Coast of France which is now all in enemy hands”, while Paul Richey describes how Jean ‘Moses’ Demozay, 1 Sqn’s French interpreter, escaped demobilisation by finding an abandoned RAF Bristol Bombay at Nantes. Despite its broken tailwheel and rudder, and Demozay’s lack of both a map and any experience on ‘twins’, a fitter started the engines and Demozay flew 15 RAF personnel back to England.

Another light single making its presence felt was Percival’s elegant Vega Gull, forerunner of the Q6. From November 1939, 24 Sqn was established for three Vega Gulls, one being based at Amiens form the 10th, with Plt Off Trevor Southgate and 2 ground crew detached to La Boule (La Baule?) from 20 November to run a ferry service between there and Amiens. A Vega Gull was based in Amiens while the UK-based example was also employed to convey notable personalities between England and France.  One particularly interesting passenger carried to Le Bourget at the height of the Battle, on 20 May 1940, was the Earl of Suffolk. The exploits of this more than unconventional aristocrat could fill an entire volume; suffice to say that by 21 June he had returned to London, having ‘liberated’ a very large quantity of diamonds from Parisian bank vaults.

The real workhorse of the period has to be considered the dh89a Dragon Rapide. Records show that the majority of mail, routine and VIP flights both in-theatre and between England and France were flown in this vulnerable 120kt biplane. Typical of its tasks were in support of the Air Despatch Letter Service (ADLS), carrying the wounded to medical attention and the routine carriage of personnel of all ranks, such as the crews who delivered aircraft to replace those lost in France. Perusal of the passenger lists of all aircraft types reveals many prominent names of the period, including Noel Coward, who was running the British propaganda office in Paris and Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar, who travelled to Amiens on 13 May, when the Battle was far from over.

Percival Vega Gull

Percival Vega Gull

From January 1940, 24 Sqn placed a detachment of two dh89 Dragon Rapides and a Percival Vega Gull with HQ Advanced Air Striking Force at Reims to provide a regular mail service and communications; the pilots were Plt Off McMonnies, FS Cutler and FS Fraser. This was an eventful period for all concerned. On 23 Feb, McMonnies force landed dh89 G-AEAM, which resulted in a write-off and its replacement by G-ADBV, which broke a piston on 28 April; Plt Off Trevor Southgate delivered dh84 Dragon G-ACIO to maintain 3 aircraft in-theatre. Plt Off McMonnies wrote this aircraft off the following day. ‘BV became serviceable on 10 May and the detachment retreated to Le Bourget on 16 May. On 18 May, Southgate was delivering 3 other pilots (Sqn Ldr Collard, Sqn Ldr Budd and Plt Off Ken Smales, ADC to AVM Playfair, AOC AASF) to Reims to recover 3 Hurricanes which had been left behind in the path of the Germans’ advance. His Vega Gull attracted machine gun fire from the ground; whether from German or French troops is unknown; Southgate was shot in the chest and slumped over the controls, unconscious. Collard pulled Southgate off the controls, while Smales reached across from the right hand seat and used the left side control column to take off downwind. With a punctured port fuel tank and a flat tyre, Smales landed at 73 Sqn’s base at Villeneuve, where Southgate was treated by 73 Sqn’s Medical Officer and placed into a dH89.  

Dragon Rapide IWM

Dragon Rapide (IWM)

Last, but most certainly not least, we come to another little known aeroplane, but one very close to our own hearts, the Percival Q6. The day after the outbreak of war, 4 September 1939, the RAF’s Chief of Air Staff, Sir Cyril Newall flew to Le Bourget on board P5636. This particular aeroplane was a frequent visitor to France, flying between Hendon, Le Bourget, Amiens and other French destinations throughout the ‘Phoney War’ period, its passengers including the Ministry of Information’s Lord Strathallan, Air Cdre Leslie Runciman (later Viscount Runciman), Lt Col Francis Festing (later Field Marshal Sir Francis), Air Liaison Officer to the Norway Expedition and, on 22 March 1940, the Personal Secretary to Mr Winston Churchill. Runciman’s visit to 607 Sqn of the Auxiliary Air Force at Vitry on 24 February was in his capacity as Honorary Air Commodore and former Commanding Officer of the Sqn, deployed on operations with its Gladiator biplane fighters. The diary of one of 607’s pilots, Francis Blackadder, sheds some light on the atmosphere and lifestyle prevailing in France at the time, with Runciman being taken to Liile to meet an already-inebriated ‘advance party’ before dining “well and long” chez Madame Audri. The following day, 25% of the Sqn went to Paris to watch the British Army XV play France, while Runciman and Blackadder flew a Magister.


The Percival Q6 at Vassincourt. Image credit: From Paul Richey's Book, 'Fighter Pilot'

Miles Magister 01 IWM

Above: Miles Magister (Image: Imperial War Museum)

Magister escape FMV May

Flight log of the Magister showing evacuation

Air Marshal Barratt based a Q6 in Reims.  Although we have yet to find documentary evidence of this aircraft’s identity or specific flights, it is probable that the machine was the civilian-registered aeroplane owned by Lord Londonderry and impressed into RAF service; this aircraft was flown to France by Plt Off McMonnies on 5 March 1940. On 10 March, McMonnies flew AASF staff officer Wg Cdr Dermot Boyle from Amiens to HQ AASF at Reims by Q6; Boyle later became Chief of the Air Staff and founder of the RAF Museum. During March 1940, Air Marshal Barratt invited the first pilot to shoot down a Messerschmitt 110 to dine with him in Paris. On 29 March 1940, Flt Lt ‘Johnnie’ Walker of 1 Sqn did exactly that and the following day, the Q6 arrived at Vassincourt to collect Walker and his wingmen, Plt Off ‘Stratters’ Stratton and Sgt ‘Taffy’ Clowes and transport them to a slap-up dinner at Maxim’s. We believe this Q6 was subsequently abandoned during the fall of France.

P5636 returned to France on 15 May 1940, bringing the RAF’s Inspector General, Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt on a tour of many airfields between 15-20 May, at the height of the Battle. Paul Richey’s account of his visit to 1 Sqn paints a picture of contrast between the scruffy, filthy and bearded pilots (Richey had been shot down twice in the previous 4 days) and the spit and polish of their visitors, but Ludlow-Hewitt produced a typically pithy report on his visit, citing the false economy of not equipping units to be mobile in the field, thus leading to haste and waste when short-notice moves were called, the efficiency of squadron-based engineering and the pilots’ satisfaction with the Hurricane. On 19 May, he left his Q6 to be flown from Arras to Merville by Fg Off Ian McLeod in a Dragon Rapide, receiving a bullet in one of the oil tanks during the flight. Ludlow-Hewiit was qualified to fly the Q6 and flew them throughout the War, more of which in a future instalment. He visited Bekesbourne in Kent by Q6 on 23 and 29 May 1940, presumably in association with this airfield’s brief role as a base for Lysander army co-operation aircraft during Operation DYNAMO, the Dunkirk evacuation.  

The last word should be saved to reflect on what became of the young men mentioned above who flew this motley assortment of craft during the very earliest days of the War. On the disbandment of 81 Sqn, Flt Lt David Smith was posted to 13 OTU at Bicester for a refresher course on the Blenheim, his previous aeroplane.  After converting to the Hampden, he joined 49 Sqn at RAF Scampton, making his first operation against Duisburg on 22 November 1940.  After a further 17 operations, many against heavily-defended targets in the Ruhr, Sqn Ldr Smith and his crew did not return from an operation to lay mines off the French coast on 27/28 May 1941. By 1944 David McMonnies was commanding 296 Sqn, flying the Albemarle from Brize Norton and training for D-Day. At 0021 on 6 June 1944, he was one of the first aircraft over Normandy, dropping the advance party of 5 Para, including Brigadier Poett, near Caen as part of Operation TONGA. Wg Cdr McMonnies was back over France on the night of 7 June, dropping troops of the 4th French Para Battalion near Brest as part of Operation COONEY. July and August 1944 saw him dropping supplies in support of SOE Operations in occupied territory, before being posted to the Washington Office of the Ministry of Aircraft Production; he retired from the RAF in 1959. Trevor Southgate returned to 24 Sqn, flying VIPs in a wide variety of aircraft.  As 24 Sqn grew, his tasks changed, with Southgate flying 19 hazardous ’shuttles’ to Malta via Gibraltar in the Lockheed Hudson and, latterly, the C47 Dakota, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross.  512 Sqn was formed in 1943 with a nucleus of 24 Sqn crews; early 1944 saw Sqn Ldr Southgate and his 512 Sqn colleagues training for their part in Operation OVERLORD, D-Day. In the early hours of 6 June 1944, Southgate and his Dakota crew dropped 20 soldiers behind enemy lines as part of Operation TONGA, returning to 512 Sqn’s base at Broadwell to tow a Horsa glider to Normandy as part of Operation MALLARD. On 18 September 1944, Southgate and his crew were towing a Horsa glider towards Arnhem as part of Operation MARKET GARDEN when they were hit by flak. With the aircraft burning severely, Southgate ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft, but jammed exits and low altitude precluded this. The second pilot made a wheels up landing, for which he received a Distinguished Flying Cross.  The Dutch population assisted the crew, all of whom were injured or burned, to return to British lines. Trevor Southgate now lives in Ottawa. On his return from France, Fg Off Ian McLeod rejoined 24 Sqn and resumed VIP flying duties, including carrying Anthony Eden to Leeds and back in the prototype Q6. He joined 7 Sqn at RAF Oakington on 5 September 1941, flying the Short Stirling. On 3 October 1941, McLeod and his crew bombed Brest and returned to Cambridgeshire, but were shot down by a Ju88 as they neared their base; 2 crew members survived but 25 year old Sqn Ldr Ian McLeod was killed.