Source: Mme FRELOT Sonia, daughter of Lieutenant JEAN Henri.
From the very complete chronicles, realized by Mrs FRELOT according to the memoirs of her Father, I extracted the part before the war explaining the course of Lieutenant Henri JEAN, and of course, the account of his Campaign of France. The continuation of his combat within the Allied Forces is indeed beyond the scope of my site, but his commitment, described in the biography below, was total until the end of the conflict.
1 - Preamble 2 - Biography 3 - Memories of old wars 3-1 A vocation as an aviator: April 1935: 3-2 Gallery of portraits and anecdotes: - The origins of the word 'trap' 3-3 The bridges of Sedan (14 May 1940) Citations and War Crosses Flight books of Lieutenant Henri JEAN
1 - Preamble
Sonia Frelot-Jean - December 2019
All the facts related are authentic and were experienced by my father Henri JEAN. He entered the Air Force School in 1935 and participated in the whole of the Second World War from 1939 to 1945.
The period covered by these accounts goes essentially from 1935 to 1945: entry into the Ecole de l'Air, of which he was the first promotion, waiting in Algeria during the summer of 1939, then the French campaign in 1940 within the 2/38 group, episodes lived in the 3/15 Transport Group from 1941 to 1943 and bombing missions within the Tunisia Group, one of the two Heavy Bombing Groups that were integrated into the Royal Air Force in 1943.
These accounts were written in the form of articles published in the Ecole de l'Air magazine between 1978 and 1999. They are therefore written in a very direct style, by a soldier talking to other soldiers. There are certain constants:
- technical terms that are not explained, as they are addressed to an audience of initiates,
- a few 'jabs' at the other arms (Navy, Army), which is traditional and which the other arms practice cheerfully in all fairness...
- mockery of the various high military hierarchical authorities, which generally appeals to operational officers who like to criticise the decisions of the staffs
- a few good 'slights' towards the English, the hereditary enemy since the Middle Ages, because even if the two nations were allies during the war, the agreement was not always perfectly cordial...
It is clear that the texts that follow are not precisely politically correct, but they have the force of experience, and even if a certain irony is never absent, the author shares some truly moving, even poignant moments.
My father flew some difficult missions, notably during the Battle of France in 1940, and then finished his tour of operations in the RAF safely, along with all the members of his crew. The bombing missions of 1944 to 1945, even if Germany was weakening, remained dangerous as shown by the loss rate of the Heavy Groups, nearly fifty percent. So, in his role as aircraft commander, my father always tried to stay close to the men in the crew and help them keep their morale up.
His wartime actions were rewarded with the Légion d'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre, five commendations and a British Distinguished Flying Cross.
However, if I wanted to collect these texts, it is not with the intention of presenting my father as an exceptional character. Many others distinguished themselves during this war, both military and civilian. I especially wanted to highlight his contribution as a witness who took the time to write down what he experienced on a personal basis and did not forget to mention those who particularly marked him or those to whom he was close. These memories are to be considered mainly as a contribution to the duty of remembrance. They are a testimony of the life of an airman during the Second World War.
Moreover, I recently learned that the members of the Heavy Groups, once they returned to France after the end of the war, were not particularly well received. There are various reasons for this: some of them, having left on their own initiative for England, were considered practically deserters on their return, or at least as individuals with an annoyingly independent spirit. On the other hand, heavy bombing missions received bad press after the war for causing many civilian casualties. In particular, they were reproached for their relentlessness over Dresden. In the end, these men were often sent on 'sidelines' after 1945. Many were, for example, assigned as instructors and not given prestigious missions and posts. Long after his retirement, my father continued to suffer from a lack of recognition and I hope that these stories will contribute to the rehabilitation and remembrance of the crews of the Heavy Groups.
A final note: a number of footnotes were part of the original texts, those followed by the words "Note 2019" were added when the documents were assembled.
2 - Biography
Henri Simon Célestin JEAN was born in Toulon on 17 March 1915.
After secondary school at the Lycée St Charles and studies in scientific preparatory classes at the Lycée Thiers, in Marseille, he was admitted to the entrance examination for the Ecole de l'Air in 1935. This was the first competitive examination for this newly created school.
He enrolled at the Versailles Air School on 25 November 1935. He was integrated into the first class named "promotion Guynemer", after the famous aviator. After obtaining his pilot's licence (n°25129) on 27th July 1936 and his observer's licence (n°3658) on 1st October 1937, he left for Istres to follow a training course on multi-engine aircraft and joined the 38th Air Wing in Metz in March 1938.
He followed the 38th wing to Sétif (Algeria) in August 1939, then returned to France in October 1939.
He took part in the French campaign in May and June 1940 with the 2/38 group and was cited for his reconnaissance and bombing missions, in particular the bombing mission over Sedan on 14 May 1940, an attempt to counter the advance of the German army.
In August 1940 he was assigned to the staff of the South-East air defence sub-sector at Salon de Provence.
In August 1941 he joined the 3/15 transport group as a pilot, then in August 1942 the 1/15 transport group in Rabat (Morocco).
On August 8, 1943 he was assigned to the 1/25 "Tunisia" bombing group. This group embarked for England on September 28th 1943 and landed in Liverpool on October 8th. The Tunisia Group was integrated into the Royal Air Force Bomber Command as Squadron 347. A training period of several months began at various bases. Dumfries, from January 1944, for the training as navigator, then Lossiemouth from February 1944 for the crew training, Rufforth from June 16th 1944, where the mechanic joined the crew and finally Elvington on August 14th 1944, from where the bombers will leave for their missions until the end of April 1945. Henri Jean became commander of the 18th crew (in chronological order of arrival) of the 1st squadron of the Tunisia Group. The crew started its tour of operations on August 25th, 1944 and completed it on April 18th, 1945 after thirty-one bombing missions, and four transporting fuel for the ground troops. He obtained four commendations for the missions carried out over Germany.
On May 22, 1945, he was placed at the disposal of the French air force, then in August he was posted to Salon de Provence at the reserve cadet school, then to the Air Force School as an instructor. After being a trainee at the technical staff course, he joined the 3rd office of the Air Staff in Paris in October 1946.
In January 1949 he returned to Salon de Provence to the school base 701 as assistant to the training commander; in November 1950 he was assigned to the 1st office of the Air Staff.
In November 1951, he joined the Ecole supérieure de guerre aérienne as a trainee and then as an instructor officer.
In September 1955, he was transferred to the Allied Forces Europe High Command as a staff officer.
In January 1958, he joined the French Embassy in the USSR as an air attaché. Appointed to the rank of colonel on 1 July 1960, he returned to France in July 1961 and joined the Centre des Hautes Etudes Militaires as an instructor.
In July 1963, he left France to be posted to the Joint Staff in Algeria as Deputy Chief of Logistics.
In July 1964 he was transferred to the joint military education as group leader of foreign trainees.
Once again transferred, he joined the General Inspectorate of Operational Territorial Defence as head of the Air Office.
Placed on aircrew leave in March 1966, he was recruited by the RATP to welcome and organise the visits of numerous foreign teams to the construction site of the first RER line. He worked there until 1972.
He retired from the Air Force on 17 March 1972 and became an honorary colonel in March 1977.
He died on 9 May 2000, at the age of eighty-five.
Commander of the Legion of Honour, Croix de Guerre 39/45 with 2 palms, 2 silver stars and one bronze star, decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross by Great Britain, he flew a total of 3,735 hours, including 45 war missions in 230 flying hours.
Married in September 1938 to Gisèle Tardy, he had four children: Christian, born on 20 September 1939 in Sétif (Algeria) and died in 1990, Erik born on 20 June 1942 in Valence (Drôme), Patrick born on 30 September 1945 in Valence and Sonia born on 17 December 1959 in Stockholm (Sweden). Widowed in 1971, he remarried in 1977 to Yvonne Morandi.
Career in the French Air Force
Cadet: 4 November 1935, entry to the Air Force Academy
Second lieutenant: 1 October 1937
Lieutenant: 1 October 1939
Captain: 25 December 1943
Commander: 1 October 1948
Lieutenant-Colonel: 1 July 1952
Colonel: 1 July 1960
3 - Memories of Old Wars
The stories that follow, from wartime or peacetime, I dedicate them as a whole to the memory of René Guastalla, teacher of French, Latin and Greek in the third and second grades at the Lycée Saint Charles in Marseille in 1929 and 1930. This admirable teacher, who made us play Antigone in the text at the theatre in Gémenos on 26 June 1930, used to take us to the beaches of my native Provence on Sundays when the weather was fine with a book of Greek under his arm... Unforgettable memories...
So I had a lot of trouble grasping, intellectually speaking, the great masquerade of 1968! Had I aged so much or had the University changed so much?
Each particular story: the bridges of Sedan (14 May 1940), the perches of the Oued Tenafodh (Rio de Oro, 1942), the 'flak' fields of the Ruhr (Gelsenkirchen, 11 September 1944), etc... bears the name of a former student of Le Piège, who died on the Field of Honour.
I knew and loved all these dead while they were alive. I do not forget them...
Glimmers on a title
These stories of the past have a title which was inspired by a poem of Victor Hugo that René Guastalla had read to his class, during this blurred period of July which was already not the school year and not yet the holidays...
Memories of the old wars
For France and the Republic,
In Navarre, we were fighting,
If sometimes the ball is slanted,
All the rocks are bastions.
Our leader, a grey beard,
The captain, had fallen,
Having received, near a church,
The rifle shot of an abbot.
The crescent shone on our heads.
And we, pensive, thought we saw
As we walked across the plain
Towards Pamplona and Teruel
The captain's collar
Which appeared again in the sky.
Songs of the streets and woods
In memory of my "Mole" comrade (1932-1935) Albert Preciozi of the Guynemer promotion, Captain in the Normandy-Niemen fighter regiment, killed on the Field of Honour during the battle of Orel (U.S.S.R.) on 28 July 1943
There are precocious children, even prodigies, who from a very young age, before the amazed eyes of their blissful parents, proclaim loudly while beating their chests: "I will be a great surgeon... I will be an admiral... I will be an illustrious writer... etc.". In order to restore a fair balance, others do not decide until the last minute: this was my category.
In April 1935, as a "mole cube" at the Lycée Thiers, in Marseille, I had no idea about a future profession. According to the routine of the students of Special Mathematics, I had registered for the month of May, for the entrance exams to the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Normal Supérieure, Science section.
In the previous classes I had always considered the annual and eternal French composition subject: "What will you do later? ". I didn't know, and I wasn't the only one, so much so that in Seconde A (Latin and Greek), a delegation of students went to see our teacher René Guastalla to tell him about the indecision we were having about our future career choice. With an easy approach, this teacher was willing to admit our point of view and, with a wry smile, replied: "I'll give you another subject... Since Andromache is on the programme, you'll imagine this lady's farewell to Hector, at the Sealed Gates. You are not allowed, of course, to take your inspiration from the Illiad! "
Some people moaned that we had fallen from Charybdis into Scylla, but we played the game: if it was not easy for fifteen year olds to recreate, from scratch, the heartfelt outpourings of the Trojan warrior and his grieving wife, it was better than breaking our heads to invent a profession that we would probably not practice!
...In an unforeseeable twist of fate, in the early days of April, I found a white-covered booklet on a dilapidated table in the no less dilapidated Physics and Chemistry class, giving the syllabus for the competitive entrance examination to the Ecole de l'Air. So there was an Ecole de l'Air...first news! The book had Preciozi's name in pencil. I went immediately to see him. He had every intention of entering the competition. Why shouldn't I do the same?
As we leafed through the document more closely, we noticed to our horror that the deadline for submitting applications had passed by a few days. Without wasting a minute and in short strides, we went to the Prefecture of the Bouches du Rhône to see the official in charge of receiving the files of the candidates for the Grandes Ecoles: he was a small, scowling man, a real bookworm, his arms corseted with glossy sleeves. He told us, with visible satisfaction and a mocking smile, that all we had to do was go back with our papers... in 1936! I was about to start cursing when, his Corsican temperament getting the better of him, Preciozi threw a volley of invectives at this awful man which made a few of the leatherheads spread around the vast room look up. Sensing that things could go too far, I pulled my comrade by the sleeve and said to him: "Let's go back to the Lycée, let's get the Administration (the "strass" in Mole slang) involved. They have to get us out of this mess, as they were unable to inform us about the Air Force Academy.
When we returned to the school, still in small strides, the administration was informed of our approach. Aware of its negligence, it struggled so much and so well - it is quite rare, it must be said - that the paperwork was ready the next day, the civil status certificates and other documents having been taken by a secretary full of audacity, from the individual school files.
There remained the very formidable test of the medical examination. Here, unlike Rodrigue's battle against the Moors, we left with eight and returned with four, two students having had the unpleasant surprise of learning that they were colour-blind and two others that they did not have sufficient visual acuity...
It was in Paris, at the Capoulade restaurant (six-franc menus), that my mathematics teacher, who had followed those eligible for the Normale Supérieure, announced to me that I had passed the written exam for the Ecole de l'Air. I had just finished the last oral examination at rue d'Ulm, n°45 - a rather disastrous chemistry 'paper' on the oxidising properties of I don't know which metalloid - and my chances of admission to 'Gnouf' were slim. The Ecole de l'Air therefore seemed to me to be the haven of salvation: all I had to do was to review the whole history and geography programme, sciences unknown in the Mole class.
As I was staying at the Cité Universitaire, with a former fellow student of the Lycée Saint Charles, who was studying law in Paris, we put together a hasty revision programme... with some solid dead ends. I was lucky enough, in the geography oral, to get "the Mediterranean coast from Perpignan to Nice". I was more lacklustre in history on the beginnings of the 1914 war, the VII plan, the Schlieffen plan and other nonsense that had never really attracted my attention. This high school friend, a long-legged athlete, did me the immense service of training me on the asphalt track - most of the time deserted - of the Cité Universitaire, to reach the end of the 800-metre flat race, which had to be run in 2 minutes 20 seconds to obtain the maximum mark of 20. At the first attempt, I had to stop, with a terrible stitch in my side, after 400 metres and collapsed on the grass. Gradually everything settled down as I trained hard, early in the morning and late at night. In the competition, I managed 2 minutes 35 seconds (which gave me 17 points out of 20), running behind that great devil Lamaison (1936), who almost stuck the spikes of his running shoes in my kneecaps several times! He led the train from start to finish. He was a splendid boy...
As I was accepted without any glitter - but with the hindsight of time, the thing does not matter any more - 56th out of 60 admitted, I wonder if this sporting "exploit" was not the decisive element of my entry to the Air Force School !!!
And so, in the space of four months, from April to July 1935, I was slowly transformed into a future aviator...
- The origins of the word 'trap'.
In the existence of any promotion, there are ups and downs. The class of "Guynemer", who was stationed in Versailles from 1935 to 1937 at the Petites Ecuries, was no exception to the rule. In the depressing periods of the "lows" it was common to say: "This School is a real Piégeac". This semantic contraction of three words into one does not require any superfluous explanation... This curse was especially uttered when the promotion left, in bumpy trucks, to fly to Villacoublay, where they did the soldier's school, the bad weather - Villacoublay being a real meteorological chamber pot - forbidding any flight on the famous Potez 25 of the time. The three brigades therefore spent a few dreary hours doing "right turns", "section, halt", etc...
It must be said that this first promotion, which included a good number of former 'moles' over-saturated with mathematics, did not like theoretical studies very much and was only really happy in the air, with the joysticks of the good old planes of those very old days - Morane 315, Morane 230 and Potez 25. My goodness, these young people had a natural desire to be aviators... So they were very depressed by the "biffe" sessions in front of the Villacoublay hangars!
One day in 1936 when the class was waiting, in a freezing mist, for I don't know what or I don't know who, at the foot of the "Villèle" staircase in the greasy cobbled courtyard of the Petites Ecuries, the cadet Marvier, of the third brigade, went to engrave with the point of a penknife, on the stone blackened by the grime of the centuries, the word "PIEJAC" in letters ten centimetres high. Below these six letters, he drew an arrow pointing to the staircase which served as the official entrance for the students. I would like to point out in passing that with the time wasted waiting by the class, we could have instructed at least two other classes!
This inscription defied time and remained there for more than thirty years, standing out in light yellow on the increasingly black stone. Only a very few initiates knew of its existence.
...It disappeared in the great washing of public buildings and monuments, undertaken by Mr Malraux: the stones found their beautiful original colour, but the "PIEJAC" died...
In the course of time, the imprecation became civilized, courteous and only the "Piège" remains...
- On the use of Arabic numerals at the Setif air base (August 1939)
In the hot summer of 1939, the 38th Bombardment Wing, usually based at Metz Frescaty, was in Algeria, at Ain Arnat airfield, a few kilometres from Sétif. This month of August had a strong smell of war: nobody had any doubt about the German dictator's aims. Only Italy's intentions remained unclear. The 38th Wing was in a waiting position: in case the Latin sister followed Germany, the Wing would operate from a field near Kairouan and throw its bombs on Sicily and the south of the peninsula.
The Amiot 143s sat, dark, weathered masses, on the sides of the fuselage huge Roman numerals next to the squadron insignia. Why Roman numerals? A mystery! Perhaps they are more legible from a distance.
On 25 August a state of alert was declared. Staff Sergeant X was ordered to replace the Roman numerals with Arabic ones. This non-commissioned officer, a good boy who had not invented gunpowder, had the serious defect of being caught between two wines at dawn. In Algeria, he had opted for anisette. The group's mechanic officer had taken away his concern for maintaining an aircraft in good condition and entrusted him with the less responsible function of storekeeper.
So, with the help of some soldier-painters, he was given the task of redoing the Amiot's costing, and he laughed: "Wow! That's a bit strong! Because we are in Algeria, we have to paint Arabic numbers! ". Goguishly, his more intelligent friends explained to him that since the "école communale", he had only counted that way!
An "Oh really?" was his only comment.
Italy having not moved an eyelash at the declaration of war on September 2, 1939, a few days later the 38th Wing, via Tunis, Bastia and Istres, was going to take up its winter quarters in Auxerre.
In memory of second lieutenant Vial, of the Astier de Villatte promotion, killed on the Field of Honour on 16 May 1940
In the early hours of the 14th May 1940, after landing at Chaumont-Semoutiers airfield, the crews of the 2/38 Bombardment Group who had just shelled road and rail junctions at Recogne (Belgium) were ordered to wait on the spot and therefore, as a direct consequence, not to go to their billets in Chaumont or in the neighbouring villages.
I was staying with a couple of farmers in their sixties in the village of Villiers-le-Sec (within cycling distance of the field), where from early morning the din of roosters, tractors going to the fields and all the morning work in the countryside made sleep impossible. The day before, on my return from a previous night mission, my host, full of concern, had welcomed me at four o'clock in the morning with a glass of a brandy that must have been about sixty degrees! Out of courtesy I swallowed without flinching at this too early morning swill, but I firmly insisted to this good man that he should not bother any more, my return times being fanciful, even subject to the hazards of war: in fact I was apprehensive about the routine risk of the little morning drink.
The wait in the field was motivated by very serious events: the military situation was rapidly becoming catastrophic in Sedan and the Amiot 143s were called up for a daytime mission on the bridges of the Meuse.
Let us listen to Lieutenant Christophe (1935), who wrote the history of the G.B. 2/38 in September 1940:
"On the morning of 14 May, on returning from the missions, the crews were warned that they had to be ready to leave at dawn. The planes are reloaded immediately, the crews try to rest a little, lying on air mattresses. Despite the fatigue, little sleep is given. Everyone thinks: for Amiot 143s to be sent on a daytime mission, the situation must really be tragic.
In the morning, the orders became clearer and the objective was set: to bomb the boat bridges that the Germans had built on the Meuse, towards Sedan. The take-off, initially set for six o'clock, was gradually delayed until eleven o'clock. Everyone took advantage of this extra time to comfort themselves in the mess and to finalise the setting of the machine guns. But were we really defending ourselves on Amiot 143? The hope that one might have had of not encountering the enemy's fighters, if it was permitted at six o'clock, was no longer permitted at noon. At eleven o'clock the six planes finally took off and headed for La Fère, where they were to meet up with the friendly fighters. The order of march was as follows: Captain Destannes, Captain de Contenson, Lieutenant Christophe in the first section, Lieutenant Marey, Lieutenant Jean and Lieutenant Jeanne in the second section. On arrival at La Fère, the fighters took off and took up positions to the left of the bombers. Four Amiot 143s were positioned in front of those of the G.B. 2/38. They were planes of the 34th squadron, under the orders of Captain Véron. The whole group - 10 planes in total - took the road to Sedan, accompanied by the fighters. According to the information given before the departure, the Germans had just reached the Meuse and nobody assumed they were settled. The 'crews' were quickly disabused of this belief: as soon as they reached Sedan, a plane of the 34th Wing, left wing, was shot down in flames. The others continued eastwards, at an altitude of 800 metres, in the middle of a sheet of black flakes. The shots were perfectly timed and the shrapnel hammered the metal sheets of the planes and fuselages. At their posts, the gunners and radios fired every time a Messerschmitt came within range, while at the front, the aircraft commander waited to bomb the signal of the section leader. The Blochs provided impeccable protection, but could not prevent two aircraft of 34th Wing from being shot down and an aircraft of G.B. 2/38 from having an engine hit.
This aircraft, forced to land, managed to reach the Mourmelon area. As soon as the bombs are dropped, the survivors dive to the ground and leave this inhospitable area as quickly as possible. At 1.30 p.m. five planes landed at Chaumont-Semoutiers.
It is remarkable that during this expedition, there was no loss of life or even the slightest injury to G.B. 2/38. In all the planes, the floors were pierced through and it is a miracle that no one was hit. Miraculous also was the return of two aircraft with damaged control cables...'.
What Lieutenant Christophe does not say, I will write, even if his natural modesty suffers; I found again, with great pleasure a few months ago in the great city of Marseille, this comrade of promotion.
Not having been part of the night wave of crews that had bombed Recogne, Lieutenant Christophe had been awakened at dawn - in his lodgings - on the orders of his squadron commander, Captain de Cotenson. The crews for the Sedan expedition having been designated, he spoke this Cornelian language to his captain: 'My captain, if you are shot down during this mission, tomorrow I will have no moral authority to succeed you as commander of the squadron. So I have to do this mission. The captain, who always made decisions quickly, agreed and informed Chief Warrant Officer W. that his crew was no longer designated. I don't know what the chief warrant officer's reaction was, but when, at the beginning of the afternoon, five of the six Amiot 143s - safe and almost sound despite some severe abrasions - landed, he had this charming word: "Ah, my lieutenant, you took my place to get the Croix de Guerre faster! "
The sixth plane, with Lieutenant Jeanne in command - an engine on fire - had been superbly landed by Chief Warrant Officer Boussicut, a pilot of rare mastery, near Tahure, about twenty kilometres north-east of that dreadful "seaport" of Mourmelon where the class of Guynemer had spent three long weeks of very dusty manoeuvres in 1937. At Mourmelon, in the first third of the 20th century, the showers were, as the saying goes, replaced by a long whistle: Glory to the French Army!
The group commander, Captain Destannes, was quite happy to have got everyone out of this infernal pit. On 15 May he wrote the following letter to Lieutenant-Colonel Aribaud, commander of the 38th Wing - a moving memory, for he was to be killed, following an engine failure on take-off, with Second Lieutenant Vial, on the evening of 16 May a few kilometres from the airfield:
15 May 1940
Yesterday, I apologise for not waiting for you at La Fère; I followed the 34th Wing which left La Fère at 12:22 p.m. I do not regret having done this mission (since I was lucky enough to bring back all my people) because I was able to realise the danger of this kind of operation, where the enemy is not always on the alert. I do not regret having done this mission (since I was lucky enough to bring back all my people) because I was able to realise the danger of this kind of operation, where you expose a large number of crews for a mediocre and null result. At night, we would have done the same job much better with infinitely less risk. I have the impression that these daytime attacks do not pay off when they are carried out with equipment like ours.
As soon as we arrived at the objective, we were engaged by an extremely dense D.C.A. - cannons and machine guns - and a few seconds later, the hunt.
Out of four aircraft of 34 Wing, one was shot down by the fighters just behind me, in territory occupied, I believe, by our own. I saw three parachutes come down before the plane crashed.
As far as we were concerned, all our planes were hit and by an incredible stroke of luck, neither the crews nor the essential parts of the planes were hit... It is better, if possible, not to repeat this kind of expedition which does not pay off, because I insist, the results of the bombing seemed to me to be mediocre. The 12th Wing, with its Le O 45s, could perhaps have done better, as they were faster and had less trouble than we did...
Finally, I have the impression that we were expected on the objective (this is also the impression of everyone here): it seemed unbelievable to us that there was such a concentration of D.C.A. and enemy fighters, by chance, at that hour...
I brought my group back to ten metres altitude by diving as quickly as possible as soon as the bombardment was carried out and I believe that it is to this manoeuvre that I owe, in part, the avoidance of the Messerschmitt.
My whole group followed me and stuck together very well, they all kept their cool and bombed calmly. Vial, in particular, who was in my aircraft, took aim as if on the firing range...
To be perfectly clear, it must be said that the six Amiot 143s of the G.B. 1/38, which had left Troyes with Lieutenant-Colonel Aribaud at the head of the unit, had missed the rendezvous with the hunters at La Fère due to a navigational error, and had therefore not carried out their mission.
Lieutenant-Colonel Aribaud, in spite of being well into his fifties, was always on the breach. He was an admirable and tireless war leader. After the armistice he wrote the history of the 38th Wing. I extract from it these lines relating to the Sedan affair: "...the situation is dramatic at Sedan. The enemy has created a bridgehead on the south bank of the Meuse. The idea is to destroy the peacetime bridges and the new bridges built by the enemy on either side of Sedan, between Vrigne sur Meuse and Bazeilles, with 50 and 100 kg bombs. These proper names bring to mind the sad capitulation of 2 September 1870.
Will take part in the expedition of immediate support:
- 6 Lé O 45 of group 6,
- 6 Amiot 143 of group 9,
- 12 Amiot 143 from group 10.
Thirty to forty fighters, based at La Fère, will provide protection.
This operation was to repeat, in the air, the final charge of the Margueritte division on 1 September 1870.
General Escudier stated that he had not been able to get the old and slow Amiot 143s to take part in this sacrificial mission from the Grand Quartier Général. The command uses what it has at hand...'.
Finally the bridges of Sedan had been attacked by 6 Lé O 45 of the 12th squadron and 10 Amiot 143! It was pathetically derisory! As a "fire officer" in the group, I had in hand in peacetime the "consumption tables" which gave, according to the size of the objectives to be destroyed, the tonnages of bombs necessary. Having had the opportunity to deal with a few particular problems, notably that of bridges, one-off targets that are not very sensitive to blasts if the shots are not on target, I had seen that giant expeditions were needed to destroy them. This was far from the case with the sixteen planes sent to Sedan!
The presence of the six Lé O 45s, faster, equipped with a more accurate sight than the old Amiot pinnae sight, had not changed anything. Here is the testimony of General Genty, too soon deceased, then lieutenant-commander of aircraft in the 2/12 bombing group:
"...We could not believe our ears that morning, 14 May, when we were given the mission: to attack the eastern exits of Sedan. How could it be that the German armoured vehicles were already there? If they crossed the Meuse four days after the Rhine, where would we stop them? on the Marne? as in 1914, but miracles only happen once, as is well known. So? it was the invasion again, but this time it was carried out at an incredible speed by a mass of armoured vehicles, supported by an air force of unsuspected efficiency. Numbers and quality! These were two assets whose power we had not properly assessed. And yet, we had been told often enough that the Luftwaffe, pushed too fast, suffered from a congenital malnutrition: few pilots, few mechanics, few reserves. On that 14th May 1940, over Sedan, the situation had become painfully obvious to me: the deserted town, the old "bahut" where I had been a schoolboy a few years earlier; this Ardennes countryside that I had so often travelled through, the heights of Floing, from where William in 1870 could not help but admire the desperate charges of the cavalrymen of the Imperial Guard: "Ah! the brave people! "All these places of my childhood, I had hardly had time that day to recognise them: only the gatherings on the Meuse, to the south of our objective, attracted my attention; already the Germans were crossing the river on boat bridges and gaining a foothold on the other bank.
Like the previous ones, the mission had been tough. The Flak, dense and precise, had once again seriously tested us: a Lé O 45 shot down, all the others hit, but the most painful thing for us had been to come across an expedition of 12 Amiot 143s on the way back, which were climbing towards the hell we had just left and, like us, at low altitude. What madness! and what distress if the command had to throw these slow, poorly defended, old-fashioned aircraft, armed with a few bomblets, into the battle during the day...".
What emotion and what style in these few lines!
As for the 34th Wing, its four Amiot aircraft - led by Captain Véron, who commanded the 1/34 G.B. - met a tragic fate.
Commander de Laubier's plane, which, on leaving Amiot No. 56, which was already on the move, had brought down a machine-gunner to take its place, was shot down in flames. I saw him, a terrible sight, to my right and a little behind, dive towards the ground, a ball of fire which crashed with the commander, Lieutenant Vauzelle and Sergeant Occis. Only Sergeants Ankaoua and Gelly managed to parachute out.
Lieutenant Foucher's aircraft, although severely hit, escaped the chase at ground level and was able to reach its base.
Lieutenant Marie's Amiot was shot down by Messerschmitt 110s. The five crewmen left the plane by parachute, although the aircraft commander and the pilot, Warrant Officer Speich, each claiming the privilege of jumping last, only managed to evacuate at the last second!
Captain Véron had his plane badly damaged by a burst of 20-millimetre shells. The pilot, Warrant Officer Milan, managed to land it, one engine cut, on a field.
At the dawn of 14 May 1940, the author of these lines (or of this compilation of stories, as you wish) had a furious desire to sleep soundly and he did not welcome with a light heart the idea of going to drop his bombs, in broad daylight, with a dark brown aircraft, a very nice target in the bright May sunshine!
Some cried treason because, on our arrival at Istres on 11 October 1939, coming from North Africa (where the 38th squadron had waited in vain in Sétif for a possible decision on belligerence from Italy), the command had said that the slow and old Amiot 143s would only operate at night. But how could such a promise be kept in the face of the German advance? The young executor that I was - a million miles away from any high strategic cogitation - could not help thinking that the 'great leaders' of the war must have been tragically desperate to resort to these old machines.
I learned after the war from a senior officer, who later became a distinguished air corps general, that the sending of the Amiot to Sedan had been the subject of very bitter and heated discussions between the ground and air high commands, the latter refusing to send these kites to the carnage, but having to bow: the roundels had to be flaunted at all costs, assuming that the fighter on the ground had the leisure to look up.
This ill-prepared affair - it would have taken dozens and dozens of bombers to destroy such tiny targets as bridges - left a very bitter impression on me.
The French campaign continued until 13 June, when the humiliating flight southwards of the 38th Bombardment Wing began, via Nuits, Feurs, Avignon, Perpignan, Avignon again and finally Saint Martin de Crau, which had certainly fought bravely but with very little result.
A poignant memory: when I left Villiers le Sec, the good villagers who had sheltered me for five short weeks, realising that the fate of France was settled, wept loudly. No matter how much I told them that nothing was definitively lost, that the bombing planes were still far behind the front lines, nothing did it... I left them, with a heavy heart, full of anger towards the politicians who had thrown France into this abyss.
Four years later, on my first operational sortie over Halifax - seven crewmen, seven thousand two hundred horsepower in four powerful engines, four hundred kilometres of hourly speed, five tons of bombs, sophisticated navigation and bombing equipment - when I saw my sixteen two hundred and fifty kilo bombs rushing towards the German target, six thousand metres below, I quickly forgot - revenge was finally here - the sinister day of the bridges of Sedan...
the order of the Air Division - General Order n°4 of 4 June 1940
Confirmed aeroplane commander, proved to be remarkable for his calmness and tenacity during multiple reconnaissance and night bombardments. On May 14, 1940, during an expedition of bombardment of day of the bridges used by enemy armoured formations, carried out its mission with the greatest calm, in spite of the severe intervention of the hunting and the anti-aircraft defense adversaries.
This citation includes the award of the Croix de Guerre 39-45 with Silver Star
To the order of the Air Brigade
- Order n°322 of November 29, 1944
To the order of the Air Division
- Order n°347 of February 8, 1945
In the order of the Air Force
- Order n°981 of July 28, 1945 (J.O. of December 2, 1945)
To the order
of the Air Force - Order n°96 of March 16th 1946 (J.O. of May
1st citation: 14 May 1940, mission
on the bridges of Sedan on the Meuse
Knight: 19 November 1945
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