Great Britain and France declared war on Germany shortly after the invasion of Poland had begun, and a British Expeditionary Force was deployed to France. This included an air component with bomber and army co-operation squadrons, and four fighter squadrons of Hurricanes. Little action could be undertaken by the Allied ground forces, but interception of reconnaissance aircraft of both sides over France and Germany, and clashes in the air along the border, became fairly frequent events.
The basic tactical unit of l’ Armée de l’ Air was the Groupe de Chasse, which consisted of two or three Escadrilles of about twelve fighters each. This was roughly equivalent to the Luftwaffe Gruppe and its constituent Staffeln, although the French unit had no counterpart to the German Stab. In turn, two or three Groupes combined to form an Escadre de Chasse, which, although similar to a Geschwader in composition, differed from it in being tied to a fixed base. Redeployment from one base to another thus involved a change of designation for the unit concerned. Abbreviations were commonly used: for example, GC II/5 was the second Groupe de Chasse of the fifth Escadre.
Tactically, l’ Armée de l’ Air had continued where it had left off in 1918. The basic fighter element was the three-aircraft patrouille in Vic formation, spaced at about 600ft laterally and 160ft vertically with the low man on the sun side. The standard attack was from the beam, which in theory ended in a difficult full-deflection shot but more often resulted in a curve of pursuit to bring the fighter on to its opponent’s tail. Early warning was by lookout, linked by the unreliable French telephone system. It was backed by a form of radio-location which, using alternate transmitters and receivers, could produce an approximate location for an aircraft, albeit with no indication of height, out to about 31 miles, but was unsatisfactory against a formation.
On the outbreak of war, the two main French fighter types were the Morane Saulnier MS.406 and the American-built Curtiss Hawk 75. First flown (as the MS.405) in August 1935, the former was powered by a Hispano-Suiza liquid-cooled engine rated at 860hp and armed with two wing-mounted 7.5mm machine guns and an engine-mounted 20mm cannon. Maximum speed was 304mph at 16,405ft and initial climb rate 2,559ft/min. Wing loading at 331b/sq ft made it a fairly agile aircraft. Although generally outperformed by the Bf 109E, if well handled it was a worthy opponent. Rather better was the Hawk 75. It was of comparable performance to the MS.406, but with a superior rate of climb and significant handling advantages, and its Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engine was less vulnerable to battle damage. Two-thirds of all confirmed Armée de l’ Air victories up to 25 May 1940 were scored by Hawk 75 pilots.
The first fighter engagement over France came on 8 September when a Schwarm of Bf 109Es of I/JG 53 clashed with five Hawks of GC II/4. Spanish Experte Werner Mölders was one of the victims, forced to land with a shot-up engine, although it was not long before he restored the balance. A more significant combat took place on 6 November 1939. Polish campaign top-scorer Hannes Gentzen, at the head ofJGr 102 (I/ZG 2 was still equipped with Bf 109s), was patrolling the frontier between the Maginot and Siegfried Lines. Well below he spotted a French Potez 637 on reconnaissance, escorted by nine Hawk 75s of GC III5. Everything was in his favour—altitude, combat experience, and a numerical advantage of 3:1. He dived to the attack.
The French fought back fiercely. During the ensuing dogfight four Bf 109s were shot down and another four force-landed. The sole French casualty was a Hawk 75 which belly-landed but was repairable. A German fighter unit had attacked with every advantage in its favour, yet had been thoroughly trounced. How could this happen?
There were three main reasons. First, the alertness of the French pilots prevented JGr 102 from achieving surprise. Secondly, the Hawk 75 was in some ways far superior to the Bf 109D. Although performance was slightly inferior, it was far more manoeuvrable, thanks to a lower wing loading combined with finely harmonised controls, which gave a smaller turning radius coupled with a much faster rate of roll which allowed it to establish itself in a turn faster than the German fighter could manage. An automatic constant-speed propeller enabled the 1,200hp Twin Wasp to run at maximum efficiency throughout the speed range, unlike the manually adjusted propeller of the Messerschmitt, which in combat was more of a distraction than an asset.
The third reason is conjectural, but it seems probable that, Spanish experience notwithstanding, JGr 102 used the wrong tactics! Almost certainly they stayed and mixed it with GCII/5 instead of using the much safer dive and zoom. The reason for this was probably overconfidence, born of experience in Poland and the dogfighting tradition of the Great War. Gentzen, as the ranking Luftwaffe Experte (Spain was of course Legion Kondor, not Luftwaffe), would have zealously been trying to maintain his lead. The ‘fangs out, hair on fire’ syndrome is widely known among fighter pilots of all nations and all periods and has led many a budding ace to overreach himself. In fact such rashness was not confined to the Jagdflieger, in both Poland and France there were several recorded instances of German bombers attacking enemy fighters!
A further factor was that, at this stage, many Geschwader were still led by ‘old eagles’ of the Great War, men such as Ritter Eduard von Schleich and Theo Osterkamp, who imposed their own tactical ideas on their units and whose exploits were worthy of emulation. Certainly, from British and French accounts of the period, the Jagdflieger showed no disinclination to dogfight. Their first clash with the RAF came on 22 December when III/JG 53 accounted for two Hurricanes of No 73 Squadron, one of which fell to Mölders.
Flying was restricted that winter by particularly bad weather, and months passed with no more than occasional skirmishes in what had become known as the ‘Phoney War’ or ‘Sitzkrieg’. But restricted opportunities or no, many future high-scoring Experten opened their accounts during this period. Amongst them were Heinz Baer (with a final total of 220 victories), who as an NCO pilot claimed his first victory, a Hawk 75, on 29 September; Anton Hackl (192); Max Stötz (189); WolfDietrich Wilcke (162); Joachim Müncheberg (135); and Erich Leie (118). The ‘Sitzkrieg’ did, however, give l’ Armée de l’ Air time to expand and re-equip its fighter force. By the beginning of May 1940 two new types were entering service, the Bloch MB.151/152 and, best of all, the Dewoitine D.520, although the latter only appeared in small numbers before the surrender.