Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE FALL OF FRANCE
THE FALL OF FRANCE
THE GERMAN INVASION of France and the Low Countries—and the end of the ‘Phony War’—came with startling suddenness on 10 May 1940. From this time Royal Air Force bombers were required to undertake a new role, one for which they were not designed—the support of the armies in the field.
From the moment the attack began, Bomber Command with the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF)—a force of medium bombers (Battle and Blenheim aircraft) which had been stationed in France since 2 September 1939—endeavoured in every way possible to check or delay the advance of the German armies. The first targets attacked—by Blenheim aircraft—were Dutch airfields known to be in German hands. On the night of 10 May, 36 Wellingtons, three of them from the New Zealand Bomber Squadron, attacked Waalhaven airfield in Holland, and many hits were reported among the buildings and on the runways.
By 14 May the situation had become very bad. The Germans broke through at Sedan and, in addition, crossed the Meuse near Dinant. A huge gap was opened, and next day, with virtually nothing to stop them, the Germans poured through towards the Channel. In the north the Belgians were retiring to the Antwerp defences and the resistance of the Dutch was in its final stages.
During the period before the break-through the AASF operated by day bombing enemy columns, principally in the Luxembourg area. Most of the aircraft in which they flew were the single-engined Battles, even then regarded as obsolescent. They were slow, unmanoeuvreable, and carried little protection against enemy fighters. At first the aircraft flew at 1000 feet until a target was sighted, when they came down to ground level, lifting to avoid hedges and other obstacles. The attack was made down the length of a column in order to take advantage of the larger target so offered; no bombsight was used. Another method of attack was to bomb whilst diving from 5000 feet to 2000 feet. The AASF suffered heavy losses from the moment it first operated, and in one instance eight Battle aircraft despatched to attack an enemy column inside Germany were never heard of again.
Home-based Blenheims, as well as the two AASF Blenheim squadrons, at this time suffered many losses in attacks on communications targets. On 12 May, for example, ten out of 24 Blenheims which took off from England to bomb bridges and road junctions in the Maastricht area failed to return. Three of those lost were captained by New Zealanders. Nothing is known of the fate of Pilot Officer T. G. Bassett21 and Pilot Officer C. R. Frankish.22 Pilot Officer O. H. Keedwell was shot down in flames by fighter aircraft which attacked his formation after it had been broken up by intense anti-aircraft fire.
By night during this critical period New Zealanders flying Wellingtons, Whitleys, and Hampdens bombed enemy mechanised columns, bridges, roads, and road junctions many miles behind the battle area. Bombing accuracy was not as high as in daylight but at least losses were light.
By attacking bridges and communications the AASF attempted to stop the Germans as they began breaking through at Sedan on 14 May, but, with the force available, could do little. The path of the Battles and Blenheims was bitterly contested and at least 40 of the 71 aircraft which took part in this operation were lost. Pilot Officer V. A. Cunningham23 lost his life whilst making a brave attempt to machine-gun a pontoon bridge; Pilot Officer T. B. Fitzgerald24 waspage 9 page 10
No. 75 (NZ) SQUADRON
A WELLINGTON OF THE SQUADRON about to take off for Germany
PROPAGANDA LEAFLET DROPPED OVER GERMANY
PROPORTION OF LOSSES
(Only those firmly established as shot down are here
taken into consideration.)
|German British Proportion||German British Proportion|
AND IN GERMANY …
Day and night British flyers bomb vital points of Hitler's war machine in, among others:
IS THIS PROOF OF GERMAN AIR SUPERIORITY?
DISCUSSION BEFORE TAKE-OFF FOR NARVIK
Flight Lieutenant A. A. N. Breckon (second from left) and crew
ON THE FLIGHT which lasted for 14½ hours and covered more than 1900 miles. Pilot Officer D. J. Harkness receiving a message from the wireless operator
A SQUADRON GROUP
Squadron Leader C. E. Kay (1), Flying Officer J. Adams (2), Flight Lieutenant N. Williams (3), Wing Commander M. W. Buckley (4), Flight Lieutenant A. A. N. Breckon (5) and others
OPERATIONS OVER NORWAYpage 16
The Fall of France
A flight to Germany
TARGET & RETURN FLIGHT
A NIGHT ATTACK ON A GERMAN CITY
The figures (1) and (2) show bomb bursts, and (3) marks incendiary fires, whose apparent curvature is due to the weaving of the aircraft while the camera shutter is open.
Preparations for another flight
wounded but crash-landed successfully and was later awarded the DFC for his part in the attack; Pilot Officer H. L. Oakley25 was also shot down but baled out from his aircraft just in time. The German advance was halted for a few hours but that was all.
During the first few days following the break-through, the AASF, now operating only by night because of the earlier heavy losses, and hampered both by continual moves from one base to another and the resulting breakdown in supply and communications, made few attacks on the enemy. Bomber Command flew mainly by night, directing as many sorties as possible against enemy troop movements and communications in the fighting area, but could do no more than harass the enemy's advance.
FRANCE RAF OPERATIONS, MAY-JUNE 1940
On 21 May the Germans reached the Channel Coast, severing the Allied armies in the north from those south of the Somme and Aisne Rivers. The British Expeditionary Force and units of the French Army retired towards the sea and, hemmed in from every side, formed a defensive perimeter at Dunkirk. In spite of all the enemy could do by land, sea, and air, more than 330,000 troops were evacuated to England.
The evacuation began on the night of 26 May. In the days and nights immediately before this date the AASF, having neither the range nor the detailed information necessary, was unable to take any part in supporting the Northern Armies. The only direct part that Bomber Command could play in influencing the course of the land battle was to detail such Blenheims as were available to attack enemy columns near the battle zone and to bomb pontoon bridges over rivers and canals.
Home-based bombers and AASF aircraft continued to operate by night, directing their attacks partly against the Upper Meuse crossings and partly against the great railway network in Germany west of the Rhine. As usual, men from New Zealand serving in RAF squadrons took part in these flights. The New Zealand Bomber Squadron, too, was in action on several occasions and on the night of 21 May suffered its first loss when Flight Lieutenant J. N. Collins failed to return. On this night several claims were made for hits on permanent and temporary bridges over the Meuse near Dinant and Namur.
During the period of the evacuation from Dunkirk—26 May to 4 June—Blenheims made daylight attacks on roads and communications near the evacuation area; by night, other home-based bombers carried on the offensive. The majority of the New Zealanders in Bomber Command, operating in Wellington aircraft, flew over Nieuport, St. Omer, Aire, Courtrai, and other towns occupied by the Germans, bombing as many road and rail junctions as they had bombs. Unfortunately the results of these attacks were often not seen because of the prevailing low cloud.
After Dunkirk the Germans turned their attention to the Allied armies in the South then disposed along the Somme and Aisne. Within less than two weeks the French forces were overrun and on 17 June Pétain asked for an armistice.
During this period the men of Bomber Command and the AASF continued to harass the enemy by attacking troop movements near the battle area, usually where the pressure was heaviest on the French. As the German forces crossed the Somme, and later the Seine, the strongest possible effort was made to hinder their progress. Bridges over the Somme, the Seine, and over other natural barriers were bombed and attacks made on the enemy's communications system as far behind the lines as the Ardennes.