1940 and the Challenge of Coalition Air Power

It would be difficult to assume that any air power historian, or for that matter any general military historian, is not aware of the letter that Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding wrote to the Secretary of State for Air on 14 May 1940. In the letter, Dowding declared that not one more squadron be sent to France lest the fighter force be drained away and lead to the irrevocable defeat of the United Kingdom. Indeed, it has pervaded the public imagination most notably in the 1969 film The Battle of Britain as seen below. Personally, I have watched the film enough that I can now virtually recite the main passages verbatim. Detailing squadrons sent to France to reinforce Air Marshal Barratt’s British Air Force in France (BAFF), the letter’s significance relates to it being the starting point over the issue of control and/or removal fighter units from the continent in order defence the UK.

However, a counterpart to Dowding’s request exists from a French perspective, which I came across many years ago while searching through the AIR files at the National Archives. General Joseph Vuillemin, the commander of the French Air Force in 1940, wrote the letter to Barratt and its tone struck me as similar to Dowding’s.[1] It was written on 3 June and prophesised defeat in France if more fighters were not sent to France. Possibly the most emotive paragraph, and the one that had a similar tone to Dowding’s letter, stated that:

The failure to obtain from the British supreme authorities the complete and immediate assistance required will probably result in the defeat of French forces and the loss of the war for Great Britain as for France.

Therefore, in essence he is arguing the opposite of what Dowding argued in that he is asking for more forces to be concentrated in France to aid in the defence of his country. In many respects, this is a natural response given his predicament.

From the British perspective, written as the completion of DYNAMO is underway and French forces and the remnants of BAFF are retreating over the Somme in preparation to fend off the second phase of the German operations, Fall Rot, the context of this letter is vitally important. That France was defeated was not completely clear at this point and indeed the RAF was sending forces to Southern France to deal with the entry into the war of Italy in Operation HADDOCK. In addition, the second BEF, sent to Normandy under the command of General Alan Brooke, therefore, it was, perhaps, natural for the RAF to reinforce BAFF if the British Army was attempting to do the same. However, the difficulty for the RAF was the rapidity of the German advance and the problem of setting up effective bases that was logistical more difficult as BAFF was retreating on its own lines of communications.

Barratt, the man caught in the middle of communications with the French and the Air Staff back in Britain, wrote a three-page letter with a copy of Vuillemin’s to lay out the argument for reinforcing the forces in France.[2] He did his best to convince the Air Ministry that using fighters based in Britain was inefficient.  However, the rest of the correspondence shows what views extent in Britain. Churchill sent a memo to General Spears in Paris stating the Vuillemin’s demand were unreasonable.[3] Given that, the request was for twenty squadrons it is not difficult to understand the response that this elicited in London.[4] Sent on 7 June, despite protestations concerning squadron deployments, the dispatch of No. 17 and 242 Squadrons show the sensitivity of the situation.[5] However, both of these squadrons would be back in the Britain shortly and prior to these RAF Fighter Command squadrons deployed in flights to operate on the continent while returning to home bases in the evening.

What is important about this episode? Firstly, I think it illustrates the problems the operational commander, in this case Barratt, faces when trying to deal with a coalition partner that is in need of help but is also aware of the dire state this ally was in. It says much for Barratt that despite probably being aware of the situation of the ground he was still willing to fight for Vuillemin in trying to get more aircraft sent across the channel. Secondly, it highlights the problems between the strategic and operational level in the decision-making process concerning deciding what help to give an ailing coalition partner. In the end the reticence of the Air Ministry to reinforce BAFF did not directly lead to French defeat but it had the effect of insuring that enough squadrons, and most importantly their effective cadres of experience pilots, were in Britain to aid in the defence of the country. Ultimately, it was, to borrow a phrase from contemporary leadership theory, a ‘wicked problem’. One of many that confronted the Anglo-French alliance of 1940 to which no simple solution existed. So whose impassioned plea was the right one? Dowding or Vuillemin?

Perhaps Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sholto Douglas sums it up best, at the time he was DCAS and dealt with many of the issues relating to the reinforcement of BAFF, when he wrote in his autobiography that:

We would have been left wide open to defeat in the air battle against Britain which we were sure was about to be launched by the Germans.[6]

By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

[1] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3 June 1940.

[2] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Air Marshal Barratt to the Under-Secretary State for Air, 3 June 1940.

[3] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Churchill to General Spears, 5 June 1940.

[4] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3June 1940, Denis Richards Royal Air Force, 1939-1945: Volume 1 – The Fight at Odds (HMSO, 1953) p. 145, John Terraine The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945 (Wordsworth, 1997) pp. 159-160.

[5] Stuart Peach ‘Air Power and the Fall of France’ in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (Eds.) Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (Frank Cass, 2002) p. 164, Richards, The Fight at Odds, p. 145, Terraine, Right of the Line, p. 160.

[6] Lord Douglas of Kirtleside with Robert Wright Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas (Collins, 1966) p. 71


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