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By Sebastien Roblin,War Is Boring
The British had their Spitfire Mark I and II and the Germans had their Messerschmitt Bf.109E — designs that set the standard for high-performance fighters at the beginning of World War II. It’s always been a small consolation to the French that they had just begun to field their own cutting-edge fighter, the Dewoitine D.520, when France fell.
Between May and June 1940, the German Luftwaffe overwhelmed the French Armée de l’Aire. While many French pilots such as Antoine Saint-Exupéry — author of The Little Prince — went on to fight for the Allied cause, most French warplanes fell into the hands of the French Vichy regime.
So while the French Dewoitine fighters did see a lot more combat after the Battle of France, they mostly fought against the Allies.
Aviation engineer Émile Dewoitine first conceived the D.520 to meet a requirement for a fighter that could exceed 310 miles per hour. His initial design mated an all-metal airframe to the most powerful V12 engine then available, an 890-horsepower Hispano-Suiza 12Y-21 inline engine.
However the relatively lightweight liquid-cooled engine was prone to overheating and bulky underwing radiators created additional drag, causing the prototype to fly just below the desired speed.
Dewoitine installed uprated 12Y-31 and -45 engines with streamlined radiators and switched from a fixed- to a variable-pitch propeller. The improved aircraft could hit 332 miles per hour in level flight, and more than 500 miles per hour in a dive. The French air ministry was finally interested and ordered 200 D.520s in 1939. This total increased to 1,400 — including 120 for the French navy — when Germany invaded Poland two months later.
Like the Spitfire, the D.520 was an elegant, all-metal design, except for the fabric-covered ailerons and tail surfaces. The elevated cockpit, situated far to the rear with an armor plate behind the seat, afforded the pilot good visibility in all directions except directly below the nose, which could pose problems while taxiing.
The French fighter came with modern features including a good radio set, self-sealing fuel tanks and a manually-operated fire-suppression system in the cockpit. The D.520’s armament of a single Hispano-Suiza 404 20-millimeter cannon firing through the propeller hub and four fast-firing 7.5-millimeter machine guns in the wings put it on par with the top fighters of the time.
Footage of the last D.520 in flyable condition prior to an accident in 1986
Dewoitines versus Messerschmitts
In April 1940, French pilots tested the D.520 in a mock air combat with a captured Bf. 109E, the principal German fighter type at the time. You can read the text of their report here. They found that the D.520 was 20 miles per hour slower than the 109 was and had an inferior climb-rate.
On the other hand, the French fighter possessed superior maneuverability to the clipped-wing 109E — and far outperformed the German fighter in dives.
The testers chastised the French fighter for its difficult handling characteristics compared to the 109. The D.520 had a tendency to fall into a spin and experience “brutal stalls.” The Dewoitine’s confusing control scheme also left it prone to cartwheeling while taxiing on the ground!
The D.520 did possess a unique advantage over the 109. It had two additional wing-mounted internal fuel tanks affording it a maximum ferry range of 800 miles, compared to between 400 and 500 for its single-seat peers. This made it feasible for Dewoitines to transit from France to colonial holdings in North Africa and the Middle East, though full wing tanks did impair maneuverability.
Unfortunately, the first batch of D.520s suffered from serious engine problems causing them to perform well below specification. Production only resumed after months of delays and tweaks.
It wasn’t until April 1940 that the first D.520 units became operational. Only 33 had D.520s made it to the 3rd Pursuit Group on the front line when German panzers rolled into the Low Countries in May 1940. In the two months prior to the French surrender, a few hundred more made it to squadrons in the 5th , 6th and 7th Pursuit Group and the Aeronautique Navale’s 1st Flotilla.
Most of the French pilots never had a chance to properly train on their new aircraft — and in fact, many flew the type for the first time on combat missions! The new French fighters suffered heavy losses, but gave better than they got.
In his memoir Récits de Guerre, translated by Neil Page, French ace Hubert de Salaberry recalled how he scored his fourth aerial victory while on patrol in his D.520 on June 5, 1940 over Somme.
Up ahead of me I caught sight of a D.520 on its back with its gear extended, a rather unusual sight at this altitude. It was wreathed in a huge sheet of bright orange flame, blazing from the engine cowl to the tail fin like a huge torch. The cockpit seemed to have disappeared. It was a haunting sight in the bright blue sky.
Less than 100 meters behind it, a Bf 109 continued to squirt out burst after burst of fire as if at a fairground shooting range, sporadic flashes of flame dancing along its wing leading edges. I was filled with an overwhelming desire to deal this 109 some of its own medicine. After a quick glance behind to check my rear, I dropped down in behind the Fritz.
He had seen me and understood straight away that the hunter was now the prey. He did what all German fighters do when they are caught napping — he rolled onto his back and dropped like a stone, counting on being able to build up enough speed to put some distance between us.
I wasn’t about to let him go. I rolled with him and headed down vertically, my engine screaming with the throttle against the stop. I had full confidence in my aircraft, the Dewoitine was very stable and the engine and prop behaved themselves impeccably …
Reeling the 109 slowly in during our headlong dive I unleashed several brief bursts from directly astern. The German pilot didn’t react and continued on down. Suddenly I noticed the sky becoming darker, realized that the ground was rushing up toward us. Crushed by the deceleration as I eased out the dive, I lost sight of the German.
The same day, a D.520 with Sub-Lt. René Layrargues at the controls shot down a Messerschmitt flown by Werner Mölders, the first ace ever to shoot down 100 enemy aircraft. Renowned for his chivalrous conduct, Mölders asked to shake hands with the man who defeated him — only to learn that Layrargues had perished in combat a half hour after their aerial encounter.
Between 85 and 106 Dewoitines were lost during the Battle of France — though only 28 to 32 fell in air-to-air combat. In return the French fighters scored up to 114 confirmed kills and 39 probable kills. These including 32 German fighters, though the kill ratio against the 109 ran two-to-one against the D.520.
Overall this record was good but not amazing — even inferior French fighters scored favorable kill-loss ratios during the Battle of France, largely due to the abundance of vulnerable enemy bombers. The more numerous MB.152 was the next best thing to the D.520 — slightly slower and much shorter-ranged, but tougher and better-armed. It scored 188 kills for 85 losses.
Imported U.S. Hawk 75s, though only making up 13 percent of the French fighter force, were the top scorers, with 230 aerial victories for 29 losses. And the 1,000 older Morane Saulnier 406 fighters, which lagged behind with a maximum speed of 303 miles per hour, actually chalked up 190 to 269 confirmed kills in exchange for 150 combat losses.
The late-coming D.520 racked up many of its victories fighting against the Italian Regia Aeronautica during Mussolini’s wildly unsuccessful invasion of southeastern France on June 10, 1940 — well after the German victory was assured.
Dewoitine fighters scored the first aerial kills of the ill-fated Italian campaign when they shot down three BR.20 Cicogna bombers on June 12, followed by another two the next day by French pilot Pierre LeGloan, who had earlier shot down four German bombers while flying an MS.406.
On June 15, Le Gloan and his two wingmen took on 12 Fiat CR.42s of the 23rd Fighter Group. Le Gloan sent three of the biplane fighters spinning to the earth, followed by a BR.20 twin-engine bomber he encountered heading back to base. While approaching the landing field at Luc, he discovered even more CR.42s shooting up three D.520s on the ground.
Le Gloan proceeded to bag another CR.42 fighter — that of 75th Squadron commander Luigi Filippi — making him an ace in just one mission.
Despite these successes, between June 10 and 25, 1940, D.520 squadrons began evacuating to bases in French North Africa in anticipation of the French government’s defeat. But rather than reinforcing the Allied cause, the Dewoitine fighters became deadly weapons against it.
A preserved D.520
Vichy French Dewoitine fighters in the Middle East
After the French surrender in June 1940, Hitler permitted a collaborationist rump state to remain in southern France, with its capital in Vichy. Only a minority of the French armed forces rallied to the anti-Nazi Free French forces under Gen. Charles de Gaulle.
The ostensibly neutral Vichy French retained control of the remnants of the globe-spanning military — and thus, France’s extensive overseas colonies. Adolf Hitler reasoned this was a convenient way to prevent these assets from aiding the British war effort, among them numerous warships and hundreds of combat planes.
In fact, Germany even allowed the continued production of D.520 fighters — which in 1941 were marked with vertical red and yellow stripes on the fuselage — but explicitly forbade the French from installing the more powerful engines the type badly needed. This led to the abandonment of the up-engined D.521-through-D.525 prototypes.
Some later-production D.520s received slightly improved 12Y-51 engines, the lack of more serious upgrades prevented the Dewoitine from keeping up with the much-improved late-model Spitfire and 109 fighters.
The Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain hunted down anti-Nazi resistance fighters, implemented racist laws and deported Jews to German concentration camps. It also detested the British with a passion, and was ready to fight them at every turn to prove French honor after the defeat with Germany and retain overseas colonies it assumed the Brits were keen on stealing.
The preemptive British bombardment of French battleships at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940 reinforced Vichy antipathy.
In June 1941, Commonwealth troops invaded French Syria and Lebanon. Axis air power had supported an Iraqi nationalist revolt through Vichy airbases, and Winston Churchill worried Syria might become a staging ground for a German pincer attack on Egypt.
The Vichy fought tooth-and-nail for the colony — and ferried 168 of the long-range D.520s through elaborate transit lines running from France or North Africa to Italy, then nearly 750 miles to the Greek island of Rhodes, before finally landing in Damascus. This was extraordinarily long and dangerous run for an early-war single-seat fighter with a ferry range of 800 miles! However, 92 percent of the Dewoitine fighters survived the journey.
Over Syria, D.520s of the 3rd and 6th fighter group and the navy’s 1st Flotilla scored a roughly three-to-one kill ration tussling with lower-performing opponents including British Hawker Hurricane fighters, Gladiator biplanes and Royal Navy Fairy Fulmars.
For example, on June 9, 1941, nine D.520s escorting 10 French bombers shot down four Hurricanes — although the British pilots did take out two or three of the French bombers, and a Hurricane and a D.520 destroyed each other in a mid-air collision.
The ace Pierre Le Gloan contributed to Allied woes, shooting down five Hurricane fighters and an outdated Gladiator biplane fighter. Weirdly, though, the obsolete Gladiators did surprisingly well against the D.520, shooting down three — including Le Gloan, who parachuted to safety.
However, when five Dewoitine intercepted a squadron of Blenheim light bombers escorted by Australian-piloted Tomahawk fighters — British variants of the American P-40 — things did not go so well. The French fighters sent four of the bombers down in flames, but lost all but one of their number to the escorts.
However, the French air arm suffered the same problem it had during the Battle of France — it was terrible at protecting its combat aircraft on the ground.
Roald Dahl, a Hurricane ace and famous author of children’s books, recalled the air war over Syria in his autobiography Going Solo.
They had American Glenn Martins [B-10s] and French Dewoitines and Potez 63s, and we shot some of them down and they killed four of our nine pilots …
Once we went out to ground-strafe some Vichy French planes on an airfield near Rayak and as we swept in surprise low over the field at midday we saw to our astonishment a bunch of girls in brightly-colored cotton dresses standing out by the planes with glasses in their hands having drinks with the French pilots, and I remember seeing bottles of wine standing on the wing of one of the planes as we went swooshing over.
It was Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front-line aerodrome. Every one of us held our fire on that first pass over the flying field and it was wonderfully comical to see the girls all dropping their wine glasses and galloping in their high heels for the door of the nearest building.
We went round again, but this time we were no longer a surprise and they were ready for us with their ground defenses, and I am afraid that our chivalry resulted in damage to several of our Hurricanes, including my own. But we destroyed five of their planes on the ground.
By the end of the Syrian campaign on July 14, 1941, the D.520s had scored 27 to 32 kills for 11 losses in aerial combat according to one count — but ground fire, air attacks and accidents accounted for 24 more of the French fighters. The remainder of the Vichy D.520s had to flee back the way they came.
A D.520 at Le Bourget air museum. Photo via Wikipedia
French fighters over North Africa
More than a year later in November 1942, American and British forces launched Operation Torch — the invasion of Vichy French North Africa and the first major U.S. ground operation across the Atlantic.
Earlier that year, D.520s based in North Africa had already shot up a British Catalina seaplane on May 18, 1942, forcing it to crash-land, and dueled with Fairey Fulmars fighters from HMS Argus — with one Fulmar and one Dewoitine destroyed.
However, during secret negotiations with dissident French military leaders, the Americans had the impression that Vichy French forces could be persuaded to change sides and would refrain from firing as Allied ships and airplanes dropped of troops at key harbors and airfields around Algiers, Oran and Casablanca — especially if the troops were, mostly, American instead of British.
In fact, this plan did mostly work out in Algiers. An amphibious landing coordinated with a Free French coup attempt secured the city while facing minimal opposition. The Hurricanes of 43 Squadron landed at the Vichy airfield of Maison Blanche in Algiers — and parked themselves next to the D.520s of the 3nd Pursuit Group. This was fortunate, as the British fighters did not have enough fuel to return to base if they had met with a hostile reception!
However at Oran, Algeria, two U.S. sloops that tried to slip into the harbor were blasted to pieces by Vichy French vessels — leading to a bloody two-day naval battle involving the incomplete French battleship Jean Bart.
As the Vichy revealed their intention of resisting, the British carrier HMS Furious dispatched an air strike to hit the two major French airfields of La Senia and Tafaraoui. The force composed the eight Albacore biplanes torpedo bombers of 822 Squadron, 16 Sea Hurricanes and six new Seafire fighters — navalized Spitfires.
The British aircraft swooped down upon the airfield of La Senia at 6:45 AM and were greeted by a storm of flak and 12 defending D.520s of the 3rd Pursuit Group. In the ensuing dogfight, the French fighters sent one Sea Hurricane and four of the British bombers plummeting to the earth. Anti-aircraft guns knocked down another Albacore and a Seafire.
However, despite losing 62 percent of their strength, the Albacores had achieved their mission, blasting 23 French aircraft on the ground with their bombs. Fortunately, all but two of the British bomber crewmen survived to be placed in brief captivity by the Vichy.
The British fighter also held their own. The Seafire flown by Sub Lt. George Baldwin scored the first aerial victory ever for the type in a dogfight with the D.520 of Sergeant Caussée. Hurricanes and Albacore tail gunners shot down three more French fighters. An hour later Dewoitine fighter bounced strafing Sea Hurricanes at La Senia, sending one crashing to the ground in flames.
C-47s forced landed in Sebkra
America’s first combat jump
But the drama over the French airfields didn’t end with the British air strike. At 7:00 PM the previous day, 556 American paratroopers of the 2nd Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment took off from Cornwall, England aboard 39 C-47 transports from the 60th Troop Carrier Group.
Their mission was to seize both French air bases in a coup de main known as Operation Villain. They proceeded under the “peace plan” assuming the Vichy were non-hostile — and were never informed otherwise.
As they cut across Spanish air space at night, bad weather and a mix up on the radio frequency used by a British ship responsible for sending navigational signals wildly scattered the transports across Spain, causing some to force land in Morocco!
When more than two dozen remaining transports, desperately low on fuel, finally approached the air bases in Algeria around 8:00 AM, flak and Dewoitine fighters chased the C-47s away. A few C-47s with empty fuel tanks landed anyway — and were surrounded by troops on horseback who took the paratroopers prisoner.
Six of the transports dropped their paratroopers, including the unit commander, to ambush an armored column they sighted from the air — which turned out to be American!
The remainder landed on Sebkra, a dry salt lake near the French airfields.
Maj. William Yarborough decided to make a second attempt to capture Tafaraoui. After siphoning fuel between the grounded C-47s, the paratroopers put five of the transports back in the air to make a second attempt at an airdrop.
However, six Dewoitine fighters of the 3rd Pursuit Group immediately intercepted at least three of the C-47s and riddled them with cannon fire, forcing them to crash-land back onto the dry lake. The D.520s made two more strafing runs on the grounded transports, crippling the aircraft and killing or mortally wounding seven paratroopers — the first in the airborne force to fall in action during World War II.
The French recorded their pilots as scoring “five C-47 kills” though there is some debate on whether the transports can be considered to have been “shot down” or not. Aviation historian Christian Jacques Ehrengardt later interviewed surviving French pilots and noted on an online forum “pilots I interviewed either ignored this incident (or pretended to) or refused to talk about it. That’s obviously something they were not too proud of.”
American troops from the amphibious landing force captured Tafarouri that afternoon. Some of the C-47s flew there instead. Three D.520s from La Senia promptly strafed them on the landing field at 5:00 PM. It was then that they bumped into Spitfire Vs of the U.S. 31st Fighter Group, which were transiting from Gibraltar to the newly-captured base. The unit was one of two U.S. Army Air Force fighter groups operating the British fighter plane.
Misidentifying the French fighters as British Hurricanes, the American pilots only realized their mistake after a D.520 shot down the Spitfire of Lt. Joe Byrd. A flight of American fighters promptly counterattacked.
“I saw three French Dewoitines diving upon the field with guns blazing,” Maj. Harrison Thyng recalled. “I then immediately attacked them, taking snap shots at them. I was then following two of the fighters.”
One of them broke away and as he left I gave him a good long deflection shot and saw no results. I started climbing after the first who was above out of range of me. As I closed within range I gave him a good three-second burst, seeing an explosive shell strike his wing.
He half-rolled and an aileron turn downwards – I followed and he pulled up into a steep climb or Immelmann – I closed fast upon him and at close range my machine guns peppered his fuselage and wings. I had run out of cannons shells by this time.
His right wing exploded and caught on fire. The pilot [Sgt. Pierre Poupart] bailed out at 5,000 feet.
The Spitfires also shot down the two other Dewoitines, whose pilots, Commandant Paul Enger and Captain Mauvier, did not survive.
Most of the surviving French fighters had evacuated La Senia by the following day when troops of the 1st Infantry Division captured it.
U.S. troops land in North Africa. U.S. Army photo
Wildcats over Casablanca
The Vichy also received the American landing force at Casablanca with open gun barrels. Coastal defenses and French bombers blasted away at amphibious landing ships and pinned troops down on the beach. At 6:00 AM, five French Navy D.520s strafed the landing craft and unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down Kingfisher floatplanes spotting the naval gunfire of U.S. ships.
Navy F4F Wildcat fighters based on USS Ranger provided air cover for the invasion in one of the rare U.S. fleet carrier operations in the Mediterranean theater of operations. Eighteen Wildcats of VF-41 squadron strafed Vichy DB-7 bombers at Cazes airfield. They were engaged by 10 patrolling D.520s and six Hawk 75s — which, ironically, were U.S.-made export fighters.
In the ensuing Franco-American fur-ball, four Wildcats were shot down in exchange for six Hawk 75s and three Dewoitines 520s. A fourth suffered a fatal takeoff accident. Fortunately, all of the Wildcat pilots survived to be captured and released within 24 hours
That day and the the next, Wildcats destroyed additional D.520s in strafing attacks on the airfields at Cazes and Mediouna. U.S. anti-aircraft fire destroyed another two of the French fighters while on armed reconnaissance sorties on Nov. 10, 1942.
Adm. Francois Darlan, commander of Vichy forces in North Africa, agreed to a ceasefire the same day, Nov. 10. As Allied forces advanced eastward to meet German troops in battle in Tunisia, some French D.520 units apparently flew combat air patrols on behalf of the Allies, but did not engage in air-to-air combat.
As their radios were incompatible with Allied aircraft, the French fighter units gradually converted to American and British fighters. Tragically, the D.520 ace Pierre Le Gloan perished on a training flight on Sept. 11, 1943 when he attempted to crash land his P-39, perhaps forgetting that it had a combustible underbelly fuel tank still attached.
U.S. Army Air Corps B-24s bomb Italy in 1942. U.S. Air Force photo
Italy’s French fighter squadrons
Immediately following the Vichy surrender of North Africa, German troops occupied southern France and confiscated the 246 remaining D.520s on French air bases. Many went on to serve in four German fighter training units, JG. 101, 103, 105 and 107, as well as a special target-towing unit used for gunnery practice. Dewoitine even built 62 D.520s for German service. Germany also pawned off the fighters to its allies Italy and Bulgaria.
By the end of 1942, U.S. B-17 and B-24 strategic bombers had begun launching daytime raids on Italian cities, and the Italian Regia Aeronautica badly needed more cannon-armed fighters to have any hope of shooting the huge aircraft down. Therefore, the Italians traded LeO 451 bombers they had confiscated from France for 30 German-held Dewoitine D.520s. They had already captured 45 at Montelimar.
The Italian pilots appreciated the 20-millimeter cannon on the D.520 when compared to the slow-firing and jam-prone Breda SAFAT .50-caliber machine guns equipping most Italian warplanes. However, the D.520’s underpowered engine struggled when intercepting the high-altitude bombers.
Italian pilots ferried dozens of D.520s across the Apennine mountains to southern Italy early in 1943. These served in nine different Italian fighter groups, including the 22nd Stormo defending Naples — a frequent target for Allied bomber — the 13th Group defending Sardinia, and the 161st Autonomous Group stationed in Reggio Calabria, which covered the skies of Sicily. Each Group received a squadron of between six and 13 D.520s.
Details on their combat operations are sparse. The type’s first kill in Italian service is accorded to Maj. Vittorio Minguzzi, who shot down a B-24 Liberator on March 1, 1943. The type was involved in frequent dogfights with Allied bombers over Naples, and later Sicily in preparation for the Allied landing in July 1943.
One combat report describes D.520s and Italian MC.200 and 205 fighters dropping air-bursting bombs on top of B-24s attacking Messina, apparently destroying at least one bomber with the unconventional weapons.
On Sept. 13, 1943 King Emmanuel III and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio surrendered Italy to the Allies. The last three Italian D.520s ended their service life as trainers for the air units serving the fascist rump state known as the Italian Social Republic.
A Free French D.520
Free French D.520s
Amidst the extensive history of the D.520s service on behalf of the Axis, there are a few redemptive episodes. After the fall of France, at least three D.520s escaped to the United Kingdom, where they served Free French pilots as trainers — particularly the Normandie Niemen unit, which went on to see heavy combat in the Soviet Union.
Finally, after the liberation of most of France in the fall of 1944, the Free French 11th Fighter Group acquired former Vichy D.520s and incorporated them into the 1st Free French Group under Marcel Doret.
Based in Toulouse, these aircraft served purely in the ground attack role against fortified pockets of German resistance in southwestern France in the siege of Royan and around Bordeaux. Thus the D.520 at least ended its wartime service like it began it, defending French territory from invaders.
After hostilities ended, 13 D.520s based in Tours were modified with a backseat to serve as dual-control trainers for the new French Air Force, with the last of the French fighters not leaving service until 1953.