Source (Photos and text) : Mr Etienne CERCUEIL, son of Sergeant Jean CERCUEIL
Here are some very precise memories, of Sergeant Jean CERCUEIL, kindly shared by his son, Mr Etienne CERCUEIL :I was posted to the 31st Bombardment Wing in Tours in July 1938 after the training course for observers (Cazaux and Istres bases). I was previously a certified weapons mechanic and had served in this capacity at the 7th fighter wing in Dijon (2nd group). On my arrival at the 31st Wing I was assigned to the 1st squadron and held the positions of observer-navigator or gunner-gunner, as required. Until September 1939, the 31st Wing was in Tours.
In 1938, the 31st Wing was commanded by Major Bailly, the 1st group by Captain Bouvard (future General), the 1st Squadron by Lieutenant Hirsch Robert, a polytechnician (future prefect of the I.G.A.M.E. du Nord), the 2nd Squadron by Captain De Reviers.
In March 1939, the squadron was commanded by Lcl Enslen, the 1st group by Cdt Dumas
Since the beginning of the second half of August 1940, events have been accelerating. Leave was cancelled and those on leave were recalled. Certain classes of reservists were called up and to end the month of August 1939 in style, general mobilisation was decreed. Of course, "mobilisation is not war! "but it smells like it! On the "means" side, where are we? The G.B.1/31 is the first group planned to be equipped with the Leo 45, a modern plane, very valid, but whose operational development is far from being finished. All the other bombing groups are still equipped with more or less obsolete aircraft, such as the Bloch 200 Cas of the 31st squadron, or the Amiot 143, also obsolete, other groups either of Bloch 210 or Bloch 131, a little more modern (retracting gear, variable pitch propellers, flaps) but whose performances are largely outdated - average speed 220 to 240 km/h - available load 400 to 800 kg in the best of cases. There are also a few disparate pieces of equipment such as the Potez 540, Leo 206 four-engine biplane whose use cannot be clearly defined. Heavy bombing is represented by the 15th wing which has 12 to 15 four-engine Farman221 to 222 (usable at night). For medium-range reconnaissance, there is the Potez 63 and its adapted variants - the Murreaux 115 and 117 which still equip the 31st Wing.
The information given to us on the potential adversary concerns :
For the fighter, a dominant Me.109 then the FW.190
For the bombing, the J.U.88 and the He 111, Dornier 172 and 217,
Finally, the J.U.87 tactical support aircraft (Stukas) and the Henschel 123 (ido) dive bomber, just for the record.
For military transport, the three-engine J.U.52 is the basis of these means. If the information concerning the performances of these equipments is more or less exact, those concerning the volume of these means are much more evasive.
On September 1st, the group received the order to go and occupy our operating ground, located at Connantre, in the Marne, between Sézanne and Fère Champenoise, on the grounds of the Ste Sophie farm. For the past two months, about half of the crews have been detached to the Reims base to carry out the transformation on Leo 45s, the rest of the group still uses Bloch200s. The six crews seconded to Reims on Leo 45s moved to Saconin airfield (Soisson region) when war was declared, and then to Connantre airfield around mid-September. We took off in the afternoon. I am in crew with Lt Colle and S/Lt Dupré, on the Bloch 200 No33 we land at about 17h00. The field is surrounded by small pine woods and with the means at hand we set up small cells where we will hide the planes as best we can. We also have to fill up the tanks. Bunkers filled with petrol have been set up in a corner of the field. They are equipped with a hand pump, operated by two people. It is long and tiring. The sky is overcast and a fine, cold rain is falling. The night comes and we have not yet eaten. Finally "the soup" arrives, it is a stump of bread and a can of "monkey" for two. First disappointment!
The second one follows shortly. The "cantonment" which was to be set up by the field company was reduced to its simplest expression. The company having occupied all the available means, we had to wait for the construction of barracks to allow it to be moved, and we spent the night under the wing of the planes, and that lasted, for me, about ten days. The cold and humidity are very painful, we try to improve our situation by occupying the interior of Block 200, but that is not waterproof either and just as cold. Fortunately, there are the flight effects, we put them on and manage to get through the night, as best we can. The next day nothing special happens. Two or three of us take the opportunity to build a shelter near our cell. We use fir branches and a few bunches of oats, harvested a fortnight ago and all sprouted. We manage to make an almost waterproof roof. It was during this day that we received the news of the declaration of war on Germany. This does not cause any particular emotion as everyone was more or less expecting it. The meals begin to be organised a little better, we are going to work in a mess hall and this changes many habits. Nothing new for the cantonment, we continue to "camp" on our "positions"!
The days follow one another and are similar. We are progressively setting up our little shelter; four of us, P.N. or meccanos, have dug out the centre about 20 centimetres and the earth has been filled in on the sides, consolidated with pine branches. As we are lying on the ground, this gives us a minimum of protection in case of a "hard blow"; but there is a small disadvantage: we are going to meet the "aoûtats"! The crews in transformation on Léo 45 at the C.E.M.A. of Reims were occupied an operation ground near Soissons, at Sacconin. A link was established between the two airfields, as Commandant Dumas, who commanded the 1st group, was at Sacconin. Staff Sergeant Rivière, in charge of the group's armoury, was also there. As a former B.S. armament mechanic, I was called upon to replace him for the Bloch 200 part of Connantre.
The declaration of war on 2 September does not seem to have changed much in the rhythm of life, but very strict orders were given concerning the compulsory wearing of a gas mask (in its case or bag) and individual weapons, a 7.65 mm automatic pistol for the P.N. (in this case a Ruby pistol, of Spanish origin). The surveillance is naturally reinforced and the guard tours are affected by this. There are, of course, a few moments of leisure and this allows interested "observers" to note the presence of an extraordinary quantity of wild rabbits and other more or less noble game. The quality of recruitment has enriched our workforce with connoisseurs of nature, knowing how to exploit its resources to the best. The signals service uses telephone wires, reinforced with steel wires to increase their solidity, the laying of these wires necessarily leads to falls, which are not long in coming to the advantage of our 'connoisseurs'. In a fortnight, more than 500 rabbits came to improve the ordinary and the best thing is that the environment hardly suffers from it. We must also add a few "accidents", a dozen hares and even a few "feathers". All in all, we are quietly getting organised in the war. The only notable event was the passage of a Heinckel 111 at an altitude of 2500-3000 m, probably on a photo mission. Then, here is our 2nd Saturday of war.
The mission of 9 September 1940 :
Suddenly, on September 9th, around 10:30 am, I receive the order to leave on mission; takeoff time planned for 11:30 am; crew: Lt Hirsch, Cdt of the 1st squadron, Cdt of the flight, Capt Villadier, assistant to Cdt Dumas Cdt of the 1st group, Adjt Poilane pilot and Sgt de Catalano machine-gunner completes the crew, three other crews are foreseen, the one of the wing Cdt, the representatives of the 1st group and those of the 2nd group. I only have time to rush to the armoury trailer, fill or complete the magazines, check the machine guns and mount this armament on the Bloch 200 No33 which is designated for us. Then we have to equip ourselves correctly because we can climb up to 4000m and it might be very "fresh". Finally, don't forget the parachute, you never know!
I arrive at the plane at about the appointed time and the lunch is postponed to a later date. Starting the engines is laborious. Finally it works, or almost. The right engine coughs, but it is rare that at least one of the two engines is not more or less 'cold'. Enslen is the squadron commander with in the crew: Lt Béranger pilot; Chief Warrant Officer Charpentier navigator/observer; Sgt Senot de la Londe and Master Corporal Audoux machine gunners. The third Bloch 200 is that of the 2nd group with Cdt Delozanne C.A Cdt the group
Joly pilot; WO Petton navigator observer; WO Charrère and Gaillère machine gunners. Around 11:45 we took off, heading ENE. The climb to altitude is rather laborious and we find ourselves a little behind, 200 to 300m; still this engine which slams from time to time and refuses to give its full from time to time and refuses to give its full power. With our friend Cata we divide up our shooting positions. Cata", whose name is Eric de Catalano, is an extraordinary person. In Connantre we live constantly in a tenacious, sticky, dirty white mud, the mud of the marl during the rainy season, and it rains almost every day. Cata, on the other hand, finds a way to have shoes that are always impeccable. He is a tall blond man, with the physique of a Viking, a pilot in flight or a sailor to boot! As he asked me one day what I thought his origins were, I said, "Oh, son of Neptune probably, or maybe a Viking chief. He laughed and said, "But my name doesn't tell you anything". Obviously "de Catalano" doesn't sound very Viking, "Then Spain, no doubt? "And on his acquiescence I evoked the great figure of "Don Quixote", the answer came back to me, like a boomerang, with an allusion to that of Don Sancho. This little anecdote played a part in the distribution of our posts: "As you are taller than I am, you take the top post and "Don Sanche" will have the satisfaction of putting himself "at your feet". With these good words, we set off to war against the "windmills"!
We are still climbing and the details of the ground are gradually fading. Visibility is good overall, just a little misty. We must be approaching 1000 or 1500m altitude, we leave on the left, at 7 or 8 km a rather important city, Chalon s/ Marne without doubt, then here are the Argonne hills, Verdun is not very far, we must be around 2000 or 2500 m. We leave Verdun slightly to the right, and suddenly, just above us, I recognise the Douaumont ossuary. This is enough to get us going! The navigator corrects the course because we are too far north of the road. We turn right by 15 to 20°. We continue to climb, at around 3000-3500m we pass between Metz and Thionville in the direction of Saarbrücken. The border is approaching, we are only about 30 km away. I suddenly remembered that Captain Villadier had made an 'imperative' recommendation to us, to open fire only on his authorization. This poses a serious problem, because how to warn him in case of emergency? On the Bloch 200, there is a system of voice communication between the main posts on board, the aviophone. It is a system of pipes that are plugged into the ear protectors of the flight helmet, at least in the helmets designed for this use, (about 1 in 5) at the other end of the pipe, a sort of funnel where one speaks. This system of acoustic horn had its moment of vogue during the Second Empire. As my flight helmet never had the necessary adaptation, I am hardly qualified to speak about the efficiency of the system. However, I have retained a rather pleasant anecdote from its existence; the acoustic horn in question is doubled, nearby, on the plane, by another horn, almost identical but whose use is quite different. It is used to evacuate, in case of emergency, certain waste products of the human organism, and it is more commonly known by the crews under the name of "pissoir". The great distraction consists, on the arrival of the "novices", in inviting them to carry out the test run. A mechanic, who is usually quite experienced, gives the "novice" six good tips and, while explaining the operating principle of the device, obligatorily hands him the acoustic horn (naturally, the other one), then the conversation tests begin, "After enough unsuccessful attempts, you have to go and see the equipment mechanic. Same scene, until the latter declares - "in good faith", I'm not surprised, you've got the wrong horn. Naturally, there are always a few witnesses, as discreet as possible, at least for a while. All this does not solve the problem of communications with Captain Villadier, so given the circumstances, my decision is taken. I'll do what's best and then report back. I am at this point in my reflections and a familiar landscape appears below me. Here is Saint Avold and its fortress, the Porcelette mill, the Odrefang pond, and then the Quartier Ardent du Picq, where I spent nearly a year with the 16th B.C.P. The firing range, the towns of l'Hopital and Merlebach, between the two the Saarland border (German now).we continue, straight ahead, between Forbach Sarrebrüch on the left and Sarreguemine on the right, further ahead Zweibrüchen and Pirmasens. We are now at home, it's not the time to close your eyes or to daydream, but everything seems to be calm. We have been sailing for about ¼ of an hour in a foreign land, always 300 to 400m behind our formation leader.
Suddenly I see a formation of 3 planes, in close formation. They are below me, maybe 400-500 m and very far back, but they quickly gain speed and altitude. They are silver-white and the black cross is clearly visible on the wings. I pull Cata's leg and signal to him; 3 black crosses coming towards us, no doubt, they are Me 109s. I cock my gun and get my clients in the crosshairs, but they are already out of my range. I operate the tank turret control, but the engine refuses any service. There is an emergency crank that I engage in its housing; I manage to make the system do ¼ of a turn but the protective glass has been broken by stones thrown up either during take-off or landing. The wind that I receive in my face blinds me completely, I bring back the turret in its initial position, facing the rear. I have almost completed the manoeuvre when the crank escapes me and goes through the machine gun clearance towards the Siegfried line. I hear some crackling of machine guns. I see a 109 crossing in the middle and I let off two or three bursts, a bit haphazardly. Cata also fired almost at the same time. Then I see the ground suddenly fleeing towards the tail of the plane and it swings the other way. I feel myself drawn towards the ceiling irresistibly. I cling to my gun, which remains my only point of support. I float for a while between heaven and earth. I see Cata, in more or less the same situation, he is engaged in the turret up to below the shoulders but is clinging in better conditions. I find myself thrown, this time towards the bottom of the tank. I am only half reassured because the bottom of the tank is all oxidised and does not inspire me much confidence. Moreover, I only have the parachute harness with me, the canopy is still hanging near the door (it is an ORS parachute). I hold on to my gun with all the more energy, and we crash, me at the bottom of the tank, fortunately very narrow, my gun against the walls of the same tank. My left little finger acts as a shock absorber and takes a good part of the kinetic energy. This leaves a few marks but this is not the time for tenderness. The ground has come much closer and I am looking for our two travelling companions. I look for our two companions. Far behind, maybe 1km - 1.5km, I see a long trail of black smoke that swirls towards the ground, and an impressive quantity of D.C.A. flakes among which the 3rd Bloch 200 is evolving as best it can. Evolving nearby are two or three silvery silhouettes, difficult to identify but, undoubtedly, Me 109'sWe continue to head south, continuing to descend to maintain maximum speed. I recognise Bitches and its fortress, its airfield, certainly rendered unusable as it is too close to the lines. We turn west and head for Connantre. We have lost a lot of altitude, here we are around 1000m, the right engine is less and less reliable, it runs at ½ rev. Poilane decides to cut it and the altitude is affected. Here we are almost back on the road of the outward journey, in front of us the highs of Meuse and behind appear the mounts of Argonne. I got out of my tank and hooked the parachute canopy to its harness. It beats me on my buttocks, one feels less alone! The ground is very close now; too low to jump in good conditions. Villadier has come back to the rear near the door, I tell him of my intention to open the door, he does not object because it may facilitate the evacuation. We must hold on and pray to God that everything goes well. A road lined with fairly sturdy trees, a blockhouse no less solid, a sliding bend on the left and a providential beetroot field, 300m long and 40m wide, facing NNW at the end of this field a curtain of poplars, borders what seems to me a small stream. This is the image I retain before our next contact with the ground. Soon the wheels touch the ground, without too much rigour and we drive a few dozen meters more or less normally. But the ground is not as flat as expected, we find ourselves crossing a vague ditch whose embankment sends us back unceremoniously to a height of about ten metres.
I see the strut of the left train coming out of its housing and hanging downwards. Through the open door, I see the strut of the left landing gear come out of its housing and hang downwards. The wheel hits the ground and sends everything upwards and the strut enters the plane, crosses the fuel tank and comes out on the top surface of the wing. Naturally the tip of the plane touches the ground and the whole thing ends up as a "wooden horse". We hardly used more than a hundred meters of the available ground, but the beets suffered a bit, as did the plane. It will be good for "scrap". There is an urgent need to evacuate, the petrol is leaking out of the punctured tank and falls straight onto the exhaust pipes of the engine below. The smell, which is characteristic of such circumstances, leaves no doubt about the risks involved. I, Cata, with our two guns and Capt. Villadier did not hang around. We put our equipment under cover about 20 metres away and returned as quickly as possible to see if we could assist our two other companions. Lt Hirsch came out as well as Poilane, and we all started to breathe. It was then that a good twenty soldiers galloped in, but without weapons, which was unusual. I was surprised to recognise, among the first, an old acquaintance from Base 102, in Dijon, a man called Fortin, who had been a nurse during his military service. I asked him what he was doing in such good company, and he told me that he belonged to a company of nurses, based in the area and... waiting for customers. It's really providential, I hand him my left little finger, quite swollen and swollen and, after having conscientiously examined it, he gives me a bandage and advises me to go and see "my doctor" as soon as possible. Of course, I intend to; but when is "as soon as possible"? We then grouped all the salvageable material, starting with the weapons. Then our nurses take us to their home; to the premises of a 'requisitioned' school in Manheulles I believe, if my memory serves me right. A lorry was to come and collect us, with the equipment, to take us back to Connantre. But we will spend Sunday here. We take advantage of this, with Cata, to go to mass in Fresnes en Woëvre. It's not very far and transport is provided. We'll go in flight suits, as I haven't had time to wash up. I put on the flight suit over a blue twill suit, which was quite dirty and not in accordance with regulations. I realise that if the same thing had happened to us on the "other side" it could have got me into serious trouble. I'll keep that in mind for the future. On Monday, the truck arrives, we load our equipment and we join Connantre.
We have the confirmation of what we feared, all the Delozanne crew was killed, the Enslen crew was taken prisoner and this will earn Sgt Sennot de la Londe the title of 'kriegsgefangennen No1 der ostfront'. The results of the operation were not very good: three planes and three crews and three crews engaged, one crew killed, the other taken prisoner, all three planes destroyed. If it was a question of testing the capabilities of the adversary, we know what to expect! One result, however, is that the Bloch 200s of the group will no longer be engaged in the day's missions.
Mid-September arrived, the field company was now occupying its barracks, and with the comrades from the shelter we were "settled" in the village. I found myself, with 4 or 5 other comrades, occupying 2 rooms on the first floor of a house, which had been unoccupied for quite some time, no doubt. It's not heated, the windows are broken, it's been a long time since any broom has been there. There's also a strong musty smell. We're going to replace the broken windows with cardboard, sweep and wash a little, then install a heating system as best we can. Finally, we organize ourselves little by little. It was around this time that the Leo45 group joined the field. The Leos were to carry out long-range photo reconnaissance missions during the day, which was not their main mission, but they were intended to. The Bloch 200s were assigned to night missions, for the distribution of leaflets or brochures for psychological warfare.
In mid-September, Bloch 200s and Leo 45s of the group were assembled at the Connantre airfield. The training and transformation of the crews continued. Lecarme, test pilot in charge of the Leo 45, assists and advises. The development of the airfield continues. From the end of September to the beginning of December, 5 to 6 such missions will be carried out, resulting in the loss of one crew. The Leo 45s are used for long-range photo reconnaissance at high altitude, 7 to 8,000m, which is an unusual level of flying for the time. A field to explore, with its peculiarities that are yet to be discovered by most of us. The group has been equipped with a photo section for the exploitation of the results. It also benefits from the services of an artillery commander, detached, and a 'specialist' in camouflage. The methods he used were curious enough to be noted. He imagined cutting down a certain number of small fir trees, which were quite abundant around the field, to place them in holes prepared on the aircraft taxiways and even the take-off strip. Naturally, everything has to be removed in case of air activity, which is quite frequent. This keeps about ten soldiers busy for half an hour, for the laying or removal. The Heinckel 111 on duty, which passed by 3 or 4 times a week, certainly brought back photos which did not fail to intrigue the German intelligence services. Let us also note the assignment of a pilot estafette, reservist amateur pilot mobilized with his plane, a Caudron Phalène " Le grand Cafa ", it is the Sgt de Cafarelli, familiarly known under the name of the " grand Cafa
One day, we were summoned, N.P. NCOs included, to the shop truck for additional equipment. We came out with a magnificent pair of wooden clogs and a small sleeveless rabbit skin waistcoat. We are ready for a long trench war. trenching for a long time. One afternoon in the last two weeks of September, I was appointed as a taskmaster to go with a truck and a group of 4 or 5 soldiers to load rolling grates for the terrain. intended for the equipment of the ground. The loading must be done at the station of Saint Lié, on the line from Paris to Troyes. At about 1.30 p.m., we leave for St Lié, it is raining cold and fine, the loading is quite long and difficult. The grids are about 4m long and 1m wide for a weight of 50 to 60 kg. It is necessary to put 5 tons on the truck. At nightfall we take the road to Connantre. It remains to unload the truck in an unused part of the ground, near the use of the grids. The installation is done practically in the dark, just with the darkness, just with the vehicle's night lights. A corporal, a mechanic's helper, who was part of the chore, stood at the back of the truck to give directions, as some manoeuvring had to be done in reverse. During this manoeuvre one of his hooves slips on the wet ground and despite the driver's quick intervention, his leg is caught under one of the rear wheels. We get him out as quickly as possible and he has to be evacuated to hospital with a broken leg. Also during this period, the group received an unexpected visit from the then Minister of Air Affairs, Mr Guy Lachambre. He came to ask about our working conditions and the visit was without any particular ceremony. He asked us about our workplaces, asked about our problems and shook hands with everyone.
The first mission on the Leo 45 was to be carried out between 16 and 20 September, if I remember correctly. The designated crew consisted of Commandant Dumas, Group Commander, WO2 Regnoux as pilot and two other crew members, a gunner and a radio operator whom I unfortunately do not remember. a radio operator whose names I unfortunately do not remember. At take-off, the plane rises up to 30 or 30m then starts a nose-down turn to the right and suddenly comes back to the ground. Cdt Dumas was evacuated to hospital with both legs broken and WO2 Regnoux was also hospitalised for spinal problems. The radio man and the gunner are doing well; as for Léo, he will be discharged. From our radio friends, who, by professional deformation no doubt, listen a little to everything that passes within their reach, we learn that the 1/31 has, quite often, the honours of the 'traitor of Stuttgart'. The 'information' it gives is, in general, accurate and precise enough to generate an unpleasant climate of suspicion. Fortunately, however, it does not go very far.
On September 30th, I am designated for a photo reconnaissance mission. Crew : Slt Colombet navigator, Sgt Pochart pilot, Sgt Bertrand radio, Leo 451 No4 plane. I am in charge of the operation of the H.S.404 gun in case of need and of the camera, a Labrely of 200mm focal length (automatic or semi-automatic according to the needs). We are equipped for high altitude flight, heated suit, oxygen mask, etc... The Leo is equipped with an onboard telephone. All this equipment requires a number of connections. Fortunately, everything is connected to a single relay box, worn on the chest. Fortunately, everything is connected to a single relay box worn on the chest, which can be turned and pressed to release the total if necessary. We take off mid-morning and head northeast, climbing quite quickly. At about 3500m I open the oxygen taps, about 40 minutes after take-off we cross the border at the border of Luxembourg and Saarland. The altitude is approximately 6000m. A little later I see Trier on the left side. Some time later Slt Colombet asks me to put the camera on. I set it to "automatic", as expected, but nothing starts. I switch to manual, the handle resists a little, then finally gives way, a first picture is taken, I switch back to automatic and everything seems to work normally. But, after about 20 minutes, below us, an almost continuous cloud layer appears, the mission becomes impossible, there is nothing left but to return to Connantre. When we were counting the photos, we realised that no photos had been taken, the very low temperature (-60° at least) had caused the film to freeze on its support. When the handle was operated, the film had been torn off and the camera had run empty. To prevent a recurrence of this incident, the engineer in charge decided that in future the camera would be fitted with a heated suit for use by the flight crew. This was the first setback of the high altitude flight and the lack of adaptation of the equipment.
The misson of 3 October 1940:This mission could not be considered as successful, so on October 3rd we are again designated for a new reconnaissance mission. The plane is still the Leo 451 No4, only the pilot has changed, WO2 Magnan replacing Staff Sgt Pochart who is unavailable. We We take off at the very beginning of the afternoon, heading N.E. and we climb as quickly as possible and as high as we can. We follow almost the same route as for the briefing and only the navigator knows about it, maybe also the pilot. We cross the border at around 6000 or 6500m, between Luxembourg and Saarland, visibility is good with just a little bit of haze, but it is very very cold at the altitude we are flying. I have the impression that the heating of my suit and especially that of my oxygen mask is not working. My feet, in spite of the lined slippers, are both icy and painful. I keep wiggling my toes and kicking the floor of my foot to avoid freezing. I feel a painful bar in my forehead and it feels like it's going around my entire skull. Then I realise that the rubber tube of my oxygen mask, which is used to evacuate the exhaled air, is almost completely blocked by a plug of ice that is spilling out. I crush this ice between my fingers and the pieces end up being evacuated little by little, but what gymnastics! And this will continue as long as we are at high altitude. We must be around 8000m when a long silvery ribbon appears, oriented NW-SE, probably the Rhine. I don't have a watch, my personal watch has been damaged and the on-board watch at my station has not been installed. I have the impression that the ground is moving faster than usual. We cross the Rhine, probably a little south of Koblenz, which I don't notice because I have to keep an eye on the sky to avoid surprises. It is on this occasion that I make an extraordinary discovery for me. Having had the idea of looking upwards, I discover a sky that is not blue, although it is cloudless, but of a deep and luminous blackness, like that of a very bright night, I could count the stars, at least a good number of them. I don't have much time to dwell on this phenomenon, we have to keep an efficient watch, because below us the alert has surely been given to Mr Messerschmitt's "watchdogs".
How much time had passed since we crossed the Rhine when Colombet told me to start the Labrely? 10, 15, 20 minutes! I couldn't say, especially as my gymnastics made me find the time long. The start-up is done normally, the heating suit must have proved effective for the Labrely. I posted an interval time of 26 s to get a 1/2 overlap. If we take 80 shots we have 35 minutes. From time to time I observe the ground, we enter on a very little uneven and very wooded area, there are very marked valleys and from time to time one of its German castles, high perched, very characteristic, roads, a railway which disappears from time to time, rivers not very important, then the landscape changes the relief lowers, one recognizes a much denser settlement. We fly almost vertically over a fairly large town. To the southwest and very close to it is an airfield in full activity. I can easily identify three-engine J.U.52s. I spot three or four of them in flight, far below us. The airfield looks "well furnished", there are hardly any places available around the take-off or taxi strips. To try and estimate the number of people; I divide the field into ' quarters and count the population on one of these quarters. I count 35 with the feeling of forgetting some, and then there are those who are in the air. At the very least, there are 150 J.U.52 tri-engines on this field. I'll report on them when I get back. It is already quite some time since I started the Labrely. Colombet gives the return course and a cloud layer of cirrostratus starts to appear, we are a little above it, but we are pulling behind us a "beautiful wedding veil" which are the condensation trails of the engines. Not good for us, the German fighters are no more squinty than the others. Fortunately the cirrostratus layer is becoming more and more continuous. We flew for a while at the top, then Magnan decided to go under it. After a few minutes in the clouds, probably 200 or 300m, we come out with a slight turn and a descent. We find a fairly discontinuous layer of unstable altostratus below. We continue to lose altitude, the temperature is noticeably warmer. At one point I hear Colombet ask Bertrand for a Q.D.M. (magnetic heading to take to get to the station), Strasbourg answers. A C.M. in the 260°, we are probably quite south of the normal route. We are now flying towards 4000m altitude and continue to descend slightly, keeping a maximum of speed, below the thickening altostratus layer and above the still discontinuous but increasingly dense altostratus. Suddenly, above the right plane, I see a dozen "big sausages" emerging from the clouds and at about our height.
sausages" marked with the black cross. The distance is difficult to judge exactly, between 800 and 1200m. They form a more or less straight line forming an angle of 30° to 40° with respect to our road axis. They are probably balloons protecting a potential target. I signal their presence to SLt Colombet and the pilot via the on-board telephone. The balloons are passing through on the right side and there is no need to change course. I would have liked to be able to fire one or two short bursts of H.S.404 in this "ready-made" objective but 58 rounds is a bit short in case of a bad encounter. You have to work economically and it's not always profitable. Some time after the passage of the balloons Magnan said to me on the on-board telephone, you can put back "the cap" we are in France, (The cap is the small glazed device which can be, by the action of hydraulic jacks, raised of 20 to 30 cm to improve the visibility of the gunner) I hardly had time to answer his invitation that the D.C.A. unleashes itself on the right and on the left. The shots are not very accurate, fortunately for us. The discontinuous cloud layer must be a nuisance to them and Magnan naturally avoided keeping a straight flight which would make their work easier. Finally, the silver ribbon of the Rhine appears. It is welcome; we have passed under the second layer which has become continuous and its base clings to the summits of the dark barrier of the Vosges. We stay below, Magnan enters a valley, quite wide at the beginning, but which narrows quite quickly, as the bottom of the valley rises, there is less and less room to pass. The branches of the fir trees, in the middle of which dark rocks often appear, are getting closer and closer. At one point I hear the pilot say to SLt Colombet: "Ah, I know the area, we're coming to the Bonhomme pass". A turn a little tighter than the previous ones and the plane takes a brutal brake. I'm convinced that we haven't hit anything, the bottom of the valley is still a hundred metres away, not much but enough. So, maybe a cable? Then I hear the pilot say to SLt Colombet, I think it's the landing gear that has just come out, I haven't done any manoeuvre for that! Indeed, the landing gear hangs below the engines, but this has as a consequence that our speed drops to around 200 km/h. In compensation
Here is the pass crossed, the valley descends again, there is more and more space to manoeuvre. We quickly find a flight altitude of 400 to 500m above ground level, but we "crawl", we have almost found the performance of the Bloch 200. Finally here is the camp of Mailly, Sommesous, Fère-Champenoise, Connantre. We almost land in a hurry because the oil lights are red. We left 4h30 ago. We spent almost 3 hours in enemy territory, and more than 2 hours at around 8000m. We have about 2 hours of fuel left but there is not a drop of oil left and the engines will have to be checked as they have heated up.It's not quite over yet as we still have to operate the mission. The photographic section which recovered the film, will work all night to take pictures which will be diffused towards the various interested organizations, intelligence offices and operations of the French and
English. As for us, after the C.R.M. mission, we can go and eat and rest. I noticed that my statement about the number of J.U.52s on the ground overflown was met with undisguised scepticism. I am however quite sure of my statements. I still have two itchy feet for a few days, a fairly persistent sinusitis, and the inside of my nose which is burning, as if it had been passed through a welding lamp. The nose lasted for about eight days.The next day, I had resumed my work in the armoury. Towards the end of the morning I was urgently summoned to the photo section. All the pictures are good, but nobody can locate them on the map. Gerardot who has just taken command of 31 Wing, replacing Lt. Enslen, who was taken prisoner on 9 September, is clearly angry. He asked me rather abruptly to indicate on the map the place where I had taken the photographs. I replied calmly that, not knowing at the outset where we were to take the photographs, it was not easy for me, especially as I was without a watch. He then asked me if I thought we might have passed Cassel. Reflecting on the impression of the ground moving faster, my answer is "I think so". With this answer I am allowed to go back to my duties. At the beginning of the afternoon I learn that the photographs could be identified and our route restored on the map. We had indeed passed Cassel, a little to the south-east and the photographic strip ends in the area south-west of Magdeburg, north-west Leipzig. The terrain reported by me, with its J.U.52, is probably that of Nerdhausen. The reconstruction of the elements of our navigation, by confrontation of the times, shows that we were subjected to N.W. winds of the order of 200km/h. This seems incredible. A ground speed for the Leo 451 of more than 600km/h is something to dream about. But the time spent on the return journey, less than 300 km/h and the extent of the drift confirm it, the region protected by the dam balloons being without doubt that of Stuttgart. We have just discovered a meteorological phenomenon which will be highlighted a few years later by the long-distance flights of the North Atlantic and baptized "Jet Stream" by the Anglo-Saxons.
The photo coverage Koblenz-Cassel by the valley of the Lahn remains to be done, Lcl Gerardot decides to carry it out himself. On November 5th, he leaves with a crew composed of: himself, the pilot Slt Aouach, a radio, whose name unfortunately escapes me and the gunner Sergeant Aubert. This crew was shot down in the Cassel area. Sergeant Aubert, wounded during the fight, will not survive his wounds. We will learn later that the landing gear
We would later learn that the landing gear, which had not yet received the modifications planned after our previous mission, had 'accidentally' gone out during the engagement. From October onwards, the pace of missions, both night missions with the Bloch 200 and day missions with the Leo 45, slowed down. The command of the 31st wing was entrusted to Col Dévé, the commander of the 1st group to Maj. The 12th wing, formerly based in Reims, completed its transformation on theReims, completes its transformation on Leo 45 in the region of Caen. One settles little by little in a war which is not a war. One has the impression that it is increasingly frightening to the political leaders who have declared it. It is true that the disproportionality of the equipment is becoming more and more obvious, if not in terms of the quality of these means, which largely bear comparison, at least in terms of their importance.
Towards the end of November, I was appointed to go on a ten-day training course at the Cazaux base. The aim was to teach me how to handle the H.S. 404 gun and its Boysson carriage. I have been using it for more than two months and my duties as an 'auxiliary' armourer have enabled me to familiarise myself with its particularities. The gun sight used for the training is very different from that of the Leo 45 (since it equips the Farman 222, a four-engine night bomber, in principle). The end of the year 1939 arrives, without particular events. The 1/31 group was withdrawn from the operational zone and based at Lézignan-Corbières where it was to undergo its complete transformation on the Leo 451. The Bloch 200s were withdrawn, but the transition period was carried out with Bloch 210s while keeping the Leo 45 for the terminal phase.
At the very beginning of January 1940, the group joined the field of Lézignan. It had to be recompleted, transformed, and fully equipped with Leo 45s. The transition was made by switching to Bloch 210s (retractable landing gear, flaps etc.). In April, all crews were fit for the Leo 45. On May 13th, the 1/31 moves to Roye (Somme) where it joins the G.B. 1/12 which lost 6 crews in 2 days.
The missions were medium altitude bombing missions on the bridges of the Meuse, in Belgium, then in France. The altitude varied from 300m (anti-personnel bombs) to 800 - 1200m (100 - 200 kg bombs). From May 15th, the "expeditions" fall to 5 or 6 planes and are made exclusively on the French territory (May 15th 6 Leo 45 bombing Monthermé region, 3 planes on 6 return seriously damaged) (May 16th 5 Leo 45 bombing German columns near Montcornet. Due to lack of intelligence 2 are at low altitude. Four planes return to the field 1 crew (Capt. Hirsch) had to jump by parachute, another Leo No90 (Lt Chaboureau bomb-nav, Nadaud pilot, Sch Cercueil gunner) took 2 shells of 23 m/m is not repairable; the three others are seriously damaged.
On 17 May, the group joined the Persan-Beaumont airfield, with what remained of groups 2/31-1/12 and 2/12. All these groups form the G.B.6 bombing group No6 commanded by Colonel Lefort.
In the early morning of the 18th, the field was bombarded by a formation of 20° of JU 88. One of the Leo 45s, ready to take off, exploded, six other Leos were seriously damaged, two N.P. of the group were killed and two others wounded.
Around the 20th, what was left of the group moved to Claye Souilly airfield; then on the 22nd, it joined Chartres.
Chartres airbase was the birthplace of the 22nd Bombardment Wing. However, the 1/31 Group was stationed on Chartres airfield, in May-June 1940 (approximately from May 25th to June 5th or 6th). We were bombed by about thirty German bombers (Dorniers or Junkers 88) in the very last days of May:
On 31 May, we were stationed in Aisème, a village very close to the airfield, waiting for take-off orders and to "occupy the time", we had started a game of bridge, three pilots, Sgt Martin, Sgt Bougault, Sgt Verna and myself obs.-mit., the card game was ending when the take-off order was given for Sgt Bougault's crew. This crew did not return. The second crew, Sgt Martin, took off about half an hour later and returned to the base. The third crew, that of Sgt Verna, did not return to the Base, the only survivor of the crew, very seriously burned, he joined the group in Istres three months later. Last to take off, our crew went on a bombing raid in the Abbeville area. We were flying between 1500 m and 2000 m, in a sky darkened by the smoke of the numerous fires, of farms or crops. A strong smell of scorching, and even of burnt flesh could be felt at this altitude. Within minutes, (5 to 10 minutes before the objective) I saw the first French aircraft, a Mureaux 115 descending vertically, swirling and trailing its long plume of black smoke. A Potez 63, still upright, twisting and smoking as it swooped towards the ground. Visibility was only 2 to 3 km and it is likely that the situation was not much better beyond that. Sergeant Martin, a reservist from Caen, was demobilised after 25 June 1940; he was killed in the liberation bombing at Caen. Sergeant Verna, who was undergoing treatment at the Val de Grâce, and had to undergo various surgical operations (grafts) to recover from his burns, was shot in 1943 or 1944. I would therefore be the only survivor of our bridge game. One interesting detail: for the last card game, I was the dead man!
The missions become individual expeditions. For example: on 31 May, four individual expeditions took place in the Abbeville region. Only two crews returned, including the one to which I belong (Lt Chaboureau, SchNadaud). It was around this date that the crew of Capt Monchaux, Commander of the 2nd squadron was shot down.
On June 5th, new mission in the same region. The group joined the Chalon Chamforgueil airfield.
On June 6th, my crew carries out a mission in the Roye-Chaulnes region; forced landing on Nangis airfield, another one on June 14th in the Châlons sur Marne region (interrupted because of the weather) and on June 15th we take part with two other crews in the bombardment of the Romilly airfield installations On June 16 the group moved to Istres- Les Chanoines. My crew carries out a reconnaissance mission with bombardment of enemy columns in the Avallon region (bombardment not carried out: presence of many civilians); We take part in a landing mission at Saint Yan (Paray le Monial) on 21 June bombing mission in the Voreppes region (bombardment not carried out because of the weather; the decision to return is taken between Romans and Voiron).
From the 21st, orders were contradictory. Bombardment of Italian targets "load the bombs" order to move on the A.F.N. "unload the bombs, load the baggage". This type of order was given five or six times. On June 25th, the Leo 45 units regrouped on the Istres base. The G.B. 1/31 is in group I, south of the base, the B.B. 1/12 is in group II, the groups 1/38 and 2/38 in group III. Groups 2/31 and 2/12 were disbanded and the remaining crews were assigned to replenish the retained units. Between 9 September 1939 and 21 June 1940 the G.B. 1/31 lost about fifteen crews (out of thirteen enlisted) its strength had to be replenished twice; at Lezignan, in January 1940 and at Chartres, in early June 1940.