Thursday, 15 June 2017

Curtiss Hawk in Armée de l’Air service, French Hawk H-75s vs the Bf 109 - photos by Scott Fellows from Flying Legends 2014

Despite the nationalisations of the Front Populaire during the mid-1930s, French industry was still manufacturing fewer than 100 aircraft per month during the period late 1938 to early 1939. The output from all French aircraft factories in total per month during early 1939 amounted to far less than the output from a single German producer. But by August 1939, France's aviation industry was beginning to shake off the shackles of obsolescence - although aircraft factories still closed for the weekend break, in some cases even after 10 May 1940. So the process of modernisation was still moving only at snail’s pace. On the out-break of war in September 1939 the Armée de l’Air’s entire fleet of aircraft was still essentially out-dated, including its most modern fighter, the Ms 406. In an effort to make up the shortfall the French placed huge orders for foreign types. Most significant of these were the American Curtiss Hawks (H-75).

Above; the port fuselage side of the Curtiss H-75 restored to flight by the Fighter Collection at Duxford representing H-75 A1 N°82 as seen on a period photo taken at Villacoublay during July 1939. Note the riveted finish characteristic for a fighter aircraft of late-thirties vintage, some way removed from state-of-the-art for a WW II fighter. Below; the starboard fuselage side is finished in the markings of a 3rd escadrille GC II/5 fighter as seen in 1940 complete with Sioux emblem, also the emblem of the Fighter Collection.

The French pilots were enthusiastic about the American fighter - here was a (relatively) fast, maneuverable machine that didn't leak oil or hydraulic fluid, whose cockpit was comfortable and well-appointed and whose brakes worked! Many converted straight from the elderly pre-war open-cockpit Dewoitine monoplane fighters.

In September and October 1939 both the Curtiss Hawk and the MS 406 fighters (800 hp engine) still held the edge over the Me 109 Ds (700 hp engine) they met in combat. In one of the most celebrated encounters of the Phoney War three flights of GC II/5 ran into the Messerschmitt Bf 109 D fighters of JGr. 102. The highly manoeuvrable Curtiss fighters secured a number of victories duly feted in the French media as the battle of the « the 9 vs. the 27 ». At least one French source claims that the Doras were led in the air by the leading Luftwaffe ace at the time, Maj. Hannes Gentzen. From November 1939 the Luftwaffe introduced the Emil variant of the Bf 109 (1,000-1,100 hp engine with the advantage of fuel injection), which was clearly better in the air and immediately worried the French. However the 109 E was introduced only progressively. Deployed only from the spring of 1939 on, production was very slow. The 109 D was still widely used at the end of 1939 and at the beginning of 1940. Both France and the UK raised their fighter production frantically and soon overtook Germany. The French 'equivalent' of the 109 was the D.520 but when it finally came into service -like most new French aircraft being introduced into service during early 1940 – it suffered considerable teething problems. As it was 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. "..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..").

Below; excerpts from the 50-page RAE report of the comparison flights flown at Boscombe Down with a French Hawk during the winter of 1939-40 against the Spitfire and Hurricane..while the type was a lot slower than a Spitfire I ( and thus the Bf 109 E) it was very manoeuvrable - as Lionel Persyn put it in his monumental history of the H-75, " could not hunt, but when hunted it could bite back..."

 Why does the Hawk H-75 have such a relatively poor reputation? Lionel Persyn in his summing up says;

".. the H-75 may have been the plane of the French aces but it was also the plane of defeat. "

Whereas of course a comparable type -the Hurricane for example ( in close collaboration with the Spitfire ) - was the plane of victory.

The Hawk performed relatively well over France - but during the Westfeldzug the Germans were flying a lot more low level missions in support of the ground troops in France, than, say, they were during the Battle of Britain. The low altitude engines of the Hawks (and the two speed Cyclone wasn't any lower than the DB 601) may not have been a large disadvantage in France. There are a lot variables between the the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain including perhaps pilot experience/training and the average height of combat. Expecting the Hawk to do as well over England where, in general, the altitudes were higher and there were fewer 'tactical' aircraft flying may be a different story.

During 1939–1940, French H-75 pilots claimed around 230 kills (although the oft-quoted total of over 1,000 victories by the French Air Force during the 1939-40 time period is exaggerated). Losses were just 29 aircraft in aerial combat. While making up only 12.6% of the French Air Force single-seater fighter force, the H-75 accounted for almost a third of the victories during the 1940 Battle of France. Of the 11 French aces of the early part of the war, seven flew H-75s. The leading ace of the time was Lieutenant Edmond Marin la Meslée with 15 confirmed and five probable victories in the type. On 12 May 1940 the Curtiss H-75s of GC I/5 ran into the Junkers Ju 87 B Stukas of 1./StG 76 south-west of Sedan and claimed as many as 11 shot down in air combat - this happened in the locality of Bauillon-Ste Cecilé-Poury St. Remy. This may well have been the first time that the Stuka´s 'vulnerability' was demonstrated in large scale air combat. GC I/5 was as close as the Armée de l'Air had to a crack unit - claims for six Stukas, plus 12 more probably destroyed, were filed following this action by the five French pilots including Marin-la-Meslée, Sous-Lieutenant Jean Rey, Sous-Lieutenant François Perina, Sergent-Chef Dominique Penzini, and Sergent-Chef François Morel.

Some of the claims were as follows;

 1./StG76 Junkers Ju 87 B-1. Shot down by Curtiss H-75s of GC I/5 in action south -west of Sedan 8.30 a.m. Crash-landed and burned out behind German lines east of Bouillon. BF Uffz Richard Kny badly wounded, FF Lt [ ] Haller unhurt. Aircraft 100% write-off.

 1./StG76 Junkers Ju87 B. Badly damaged in attacks by  south-west of Bouillon 8.30 a.m. Belly-landed near Bellevaux. BF Fw Friedrich Petrick badly wounded in stomach, FF Oberlt Wolfgang Unbehaun unhurt. Aircraft S1+KH 15% damaged but repairable. On return to base, radio contact was established with 'Zaratza' Unbehaun by the Staffelkapitän, Oberlt Dietrich Peltz, who picked up the crew by Storch within the hour.

 2./StG76 Junkers Ju87B-1. Engine badly damaged in attack from below by Curtiss H-75s of GC I/5 during sortie east of Sedan and crash-landed in the Semois valley at ‘Les Longs Champs’ outside Dohan, east of Bouillon, 9.00 a.m. BF Uffz Helmut Gäth badly wounded in chest – died shortly after landing, FF Lt Heinz-Georg Migeod unhurt. Aircraft S1+MK 50% damaged but repairable. Helmut Gäth was originally buried in a field grave in an orchard off the Route du Sati on the north-eastern approach to Dohan. He now lies in Noyers-Pont-Maugis Cemetery, Block 3, Grave 1835.

 2./StG76 Junkers Ju87 B. Returned damaged by Curtiss H-75s of GC I/5 during sortie east of Sedan 8.30 a.m. BF Gefr Ludwig Kirner slightly wounded, pilot unhurt.

Two Czechoslovak members of GC II/5, from left Sgt. František Chábera (pilot) and mechanic Cpl. Chef Vilém Nosek standing in front of the Curtiss H.75 N° 58, white "1", Toul-Croix-de-Metz, May 1940. Photo: Pavel Vančata collection.

 Below; " French machine brought down by anti-aircraft fire .."

 French aviation blogger "Drix" is more scathing about the "Curtiss", as the French usually refer to the H-75;

 " the qualities of the Curtiss have been largely overestimated - it achieved what it achieved thanks the high quality of the French aces that flew it.."

This is a reference of course to Accart, Marin la Meslée of GC I/5, top scorers in the Battle of France. GC II/5 appears to have been the only group to fly the Wright-engined Curtiss fighters on combat operations over the anchorage at Mers el-Kébir. S/Lt Trémolet (N° 2) and S/C Gisclon (N° 7) clashed with Skuas over the harbour on 3 July 1940. When Ark Royal's Swordfish attacked the Dunkerque for a second time on 6 July Gisclon claimed a Skua downed after a long dogfight, but although shore-based witnesses confirmed the 'kill' all of Ark Royal's aircraft returned safely..

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