In 1928, with war clouds in Europe looming on the horizon, the British were the first to send a mission to the United States to determine if their aircraft needs could be met by the Americans – the British industry was still barely getting spooled up on a war footing.
Encouraged by the British, the French also sent a mission in the same year that resulted in the order of 100 Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters (P-36 being the US Army Air Corps equivalent). In the following year further contracts were finalized for more aircraft which also included the first orders by any nation, including the United States, for the Douglas DB-7 light bomber which would later enter US service as the A-20 Havoc.
The World at War
With the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939, deliveries temporarily ceased according to the terms of the US Neutrality Acts, but an amendment was quickly put in place that allowed British as well as the French to ‘carry’ their own war materiel on their own ships. Following the fall of France and the signing of the French-German armistice in June 1940, the outstanding contracts with the United States were transferred to the British. The unoccupied portion of France became Vichy France with Marshall Petain as its leader.
As part of the armistice agreement with the Axis, a German-Italian commission was put in charge of the activities of the Vichy Air Force but fearing defections of French pilots to the Allies, they were full of restrictions and required the disbandment of French units. However, French units in North Africa were not under the jurisdiction of the German-Italian commission and continued to operate their US-built aircraft and it was these forces, loyal to the Vichy regime, that briefly resisted the Allied landings during Operation Torch.
A nucleus of French forces under General Charles De Gaulle (made up mostly of those evacuated from Dunkirk and other defections from the Vichy regime) tried to get Allied support as the ‘Free French’. This, however, proved to be complex given that the legal French government at the time was Marshall Petain’s Vichy regime, which signed the armistice following the fall of France. Also recognized by the Roosevelt Administration as the legitimate French government, it was difficult to determine how to support the Free French forces.
De Gaulle’s efforts weren’t helped any when despite a promise to Roosevelt not to seize the Vichy-controlled islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon off the Canadian coast, he did it anyway. But on a perhaps moral level, aid would have to be provided to the Free French forces. Initially aircraft for the new Free French Air Force were diverted from British deliveries with the approval of the Roosevelt administration. In 1941 the Free French formed the French National Committee with General De Gaulle as its head to represent French interests independent of the Vichy regime.
Finding an Alternative to De Gaulle
With the coming of the landings in North Africa during Operation Torch, the Roosevelt Administration tried to develop an alternative to De Gaulle as he was seen as too difficult to work with for the war in Europe. Secret contacts had been made with dissidents within the Vichy government and General Henri Giraud was seen as an alternative to De Gaulle.
General Giraud had been captured by the Germans during the fall of France and sent to a prison camp, from which he had escaped back to Vichy France.
This dissident element in the Vichy regime were promised large infusions of American aid if they could get the Vichy forces in North Africa not to contest the Torch landings. The idea being that this group would then be put under Giraud’s command as an alternative to De Gaulle. It would have worked as there were many French personnel who were loyal to Giraud and considered De Gaulle a traitor for having escaped to Britain before the fall of France.
On the 7 and 8 November 1942, the day of the landings, the Allies found themselves juggling three French factions – De Gaulle’s Free French forces, Giraud and the dissidents in Vichy France, and Marshall Petain’s defense minister, Admiral Francois Darlan, who was in North Africa at the time of the invasion and lobbied to halt Vichy resistance to the Allied landings.
In exchange, Darlan would be made head of the new French government. This ended up enraging De Gaulle. Vichy resistance did end and Darlan ordered the French fleet at Toulon scatter to prevent their takeover by the Germans.
In December 1942, Darlan was assassinated and replaced by General Giraud. But by this point De Gaulle managed to emerge as the uncontested leader of the Free French following a 1943 agreement between Giraud and De Gaulle to unify their forces; Giraud would become commander in chief and De Gaulle the political head.
By this point most aircraft used by the Free French could be identified with the use of the Cross of Lorraine in addition to the French roundels.
On 3 July 1943 De Gaulle’s Free French Air Force was formally merged with Giraud’s forces in North Africa with the set-up of a joint commission with both US and British representatives in addition to the Free French to determine the aircraft needs of the Free French Air Force.
Perhaps symbolically, the Escadrille Lafayette would be the first Free French unit to be re-equipped with American aircraft – Curtiss P-40 Warhawks diverted from USAAF stocks that were in North Africa already.
French trainees were sent to the United States for flight training and completed their operational training with French units in North Africa prior to the liberation of France. The French Navy also received American aircraft to include Consolidated PBY Catalinas, Lockheed PV-1 Venturas and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers. But rather than be operated under De Gaulle’s command, like the Free French Air Force, the French naval air arm units were placed under US Navy command.
Over the next several months more aircraft arrived direct from US factories; from Bell P-39 Airacobras, Lockheed F-4/F-5 Lightnings for reconnaissance duties to Douglas A-24 Dauntless dive bombers and C-47 transports.
French Lend-Lease deliveries would continue for most of the war but in April 1945, before the war’s end, they were cut off prematurely by order of President Harry Truman due to a diplomatic dispute which started when French units chose to obey orders from General De Gaulle instead of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower. De Gaulle had earlier agreed to Eisenhower’s overall command and due to the German surrender on 7 May 1945, those outstanding deliveries were never released. These issues would continue to simmer between De Gaulle and the United States in the post-war period that would complicate matters in French Indochina and ultimately result in France’s withdrawal from NATO in 1967.