Source (Photos & documents) : Mr Roger VERGNET, Son of Chief-Warrant Officer Roger VERGNET
1 - Le GB I/31 in the Storm
In December 1939 my father, WO2 Vergnet, learned that he had been selected to be part of the crews to be rapidly converted to the brand new LéO 45 bomber at Lézignan Corbières.
On 31st December 1939, the personnel of Group 1/51 designated to join the 31st Wing met at Narbonne. It was a strange New Year's Eve for these airmen in transit, isolated from both their families and their squadron. At the time of the greetings, the atmosphere is hardly euphoric. This "phoney war", in the background, makes this situation particularly subjective and only promises an uncertain future.
On the 2nd January, he joined the 1/31 Group stationed at Lézignan-Corbières.
This group was introduced to the brand new French bomber, the Leo 45, very early on, as it was joined at its deployment site at Connantre by the CEAM experimental squadron, which was tasked with testing it. However, due to delays in the aeronautical industry, only 17 planes were delivered by 30 September 1939 out of the 1,297 ordered. In order to speed up production rates, the Minister of the Air Force asked SNCASE not to make any of the modifications required by the Air Force's technical services.
This arbitrary decision had two essential consequences: the entry into service of an aircraft that had barely been developed and the suspension of all research to improve its performance. According to the Group 1/31 logbook, transformation flights on the Léo 45 were suspended from the first days of January due to severe technical problems
Due to the design of their rear tail fins, the Leo 45s experience serious difficulties on take-off. They have a tendency to "snap to one side" on release of the wheels. This design anomaly was the cause of numerous accidents that resulted in runway excursions and crashes. The pilots of the Ateliers d'Aviation Lioré-Olivier were obliged to quickly tour the units in order to explain to the crews what to do when faced with this type of anomaly.
To compensate for these difficulties, the Group received four "Bloch 210s" to familiarise the former "Bloch 200" pilots with modern devices such as variable pitch propellers, flaps and retractable landing gear. This initiative limited the number of training accidents and reassured, on a psychological level, some older pilots who were somewhat disconcerted by all this modernism.
For the crews, this apprenticeship of modernity required a double training resulting in a levelling by speciality (radio, navigator, gunner) and a common training on the use of the weapon system and the internal coordination procedures. It has to be said that flying a bomber was above all a team effort. Close cooperation was necessary between :
- the navigator and the radio operator for the follow-up of the navigation in poor visibility and the transmission of orders,
- the pilot and the navigator for the follow-up of the trajectories essential to the precision of the bombing,
- the rear gunner and the whole crew for the surveillance of the sky and the protection of the aircraft against the enemy fighters.
This mission required each of them to be assigned a surveillance sector in order to detect the possible presence of enemy aircraft, but also to limit the risks of collision during formation flights
As you can see from this diagram, the belly of the aircraft was the most vulnerable part. Hence the idea of the engineers of the time to equip this aircraft with a retractable firing tank activated by the radio.
From the very first air battles, this innovative firing system proved to be very effective, especially as the radio only activated it at the last moment, on the gunner's orders. The rapid descent of this tank saved several crews and made it possible to shoot down enemy fighters by surprise at an unusual angle of minus 20 degrees.
"Over France, the radios essentially used a network of lighthouses capable of generating a set of beams. Of course, the operators in charge of activating this network were informed daily of the flight forecasts and the times of passage. To enter and leave enemy territory, we were already using a certain number of corridors, redefined daily, which should allow us, at least in theory, to avoid fratricidal fire from the French flak.
Note: method used during night reconnaissance missions over Germany (between Mertzig and Saarbrücken) between September and December 1939; WO2 Vergnet having performed radio duties on board a Bloch 210 belonging to G B 1/31 of Tours, deployed on the field of La Perthe in the Aube from 1st September 1939.
Extracts from the Group 1/31 logbook (period from February 1 to May 10)
The LEZIGNAN airfield is a platform rarely used in peacetime (except for some Air France planes). It had no facilities, except for a small building and a small hangar. Until wooden barracks were built, the Group used D.W. tents and offices set up in the city. The officers and non-commissioned officers were housed in LEZIGNAN.
February 1940 : the flights on Léo 45 resumed during the month with various exercises of application:
- shooting or bombing on targets at Quatre Termes (near Aix en Provence) and on the Berre and Vaccarès ponds,
- aerial shootings on targets in the Hyères area,
- shooting of good functioning in Leucate.
Difficulties encountered: very violent winds with a very difficult weather. Prohibitive distance of the ground of Lézignan compared to the various zones of exercise.
Key facts : - February 7, 1940: visit of General Pastier,
- February 28, 1940: funeral of Lieutenant-Colonel De Vitrolle, commander of the 12th Wing (accidental death).
March 1940: continuation of training activities with the arrival of 2 Bloch 210s assigned to the group.
April 10, 1940: formation of a marching group. Only ten Leo 45s were delivered to the Wing.
April 15, 1940 : a serious accident plunged the Group into mourning. Following an unexplained breakdown during take-off, a Leo 45 became unbalanced and caught fire when it crashed on the ground. (See page 2).
Four people were killed: Lieutenant Gillet, Chief Warrant Officers Pochard and Doideau, and Staff Sergeant Deguil.
April 24, 1940: taking up arms: the flag of the 31st Wing is entrusted to the Group for one year.
End of April: the Group is informed that it can be recalled to the front after a very short notice. Training continued nonetheless.
It is precisely during this month of April 1940, that the first crews of the 1/31 Group were going to take part in missions of convoying new aircrafts between the airfield of Lézignan-Corbières and the production sites attached to the airfields of Villacoublay, Marignane and Ambérieu.
These missions, which were quite ordinary, were not well received by all the crews designated to take part in them, and the distressing spectacle put on by the various managers of the warehouses and the State services was particularly disappointing. Confronted with cynicism and a certain form of entropy, they quickly became aware of the discordant realities of French society at that time.
While the squadrons had to deal with the daily shortage of aircraft and spare parts, the production centers were overflowing with new aircraft, but lacked essential equipment such as propellers, landing gear and onboard instruments.
It is true that since the declaration of war, this production (airframes and engines) had made a remarkable effort by managing to produce many aircraft at a very sustained rate; one hundred and twenty aircraft per month, a figure that was reached in June 1940 for the Leo 45 alone. Unfortunately, the equipment manufacturers (i.e. those who made the propellers, landing gear, sights, radios, etc.) were unable to keep up with the imposed rate, thus annihilating this production effort by encouraging the arrival in the squadrons of new but totally unusable aircraft.
For the airmen, the sight of these aircraft piling up on the parking areas was particularly scandalous. All the testimonies denounced the lamentable conditions of storage of these aircraft, voluntarily delivered to the bad weather, while resolutely empty hangars were obstinately reserved for "possible unexpected deliveries! "
Another controversial subject was the ambiguous attitude of certain depot managers who deliberately refused to deliver to the air units the various operating instructions, firing tables or specialized tool kits. These materials had to be included, in an accounting manner, in the aircraft acceptance procedures before the delivery notes could be validated.
In this area, the controllers of the Receiving Department remained inflexible. They refused to accept the aircraft at the slightest lack, such as the absence of the instruction manual for the "Vion" compass, a widely used piece of equipment.
Group GB 1/31 in the battle:
While on Friday May 10th, the various French air bases were undergoing the first serious attack from the Luftwaffe, the 1/31 Group, still considered as under instruction, continued its training at Lézignan-Corbières. It is only the next day, at the end of the afternoon, that it is put on alert and then designated to come and reinforce the bombing forces of the North Air Zone.
Recopy of the Group 1/31 marching log (Document SHAA) :
On Sunday May 12, a first crew joined the field of Soissons-Saconin to prepare the cantonment. On May 13th, the Group received the order to join not the Soissons airfield, but the one of Roye-Any, located at about 40 km north of Compiègne. The first Léo 45s left the Lézignan airfield in the late morning. No incidents were reported. In one month, the Group changed airfields six times:
"May 13 to 16: Roye-Amy,
"May 16 to 19: Persan Beaumont,
"May 19 to 21: Claye-Souilly,
"May 21 to June 3: Chartres,
"June 3 to 15: Chalon/Saône,
"July 15 to 26: Arles les Chanoines.
In spite of these constant moves, the Group took part in the Battle of France by attacking enemy armored and motorized columns with bombs at low altitude. The "Lioré" with which it was equipped had certainly not been created for this use.
The losses it suffered in personnel were made up for by untrained "Lioré" personnel that had to be trained. As for the losses in material, they were made up for by aircraft that had to be collected from the rear, hence the numerous convoys, at the expense of the Group's flying personnel (P.N.).
It would be unfair not to mention the assistance provided to the Group by the Airline Companies. For each of its trips, the Group has found the most efficient and dedicated help from them.
Installation on the field of ROYE-ANY (13 - 16 May 1940):
- May 13 - In the afternoon, 6 "Lioré" landed at ROYE, 4 other aircraft, delayed at the start by mechanical incidents, joined, during the day of May 14. The last three aircraft were unavailable due to important verifications and modifications, they joined a few days later.
- The field of ROYE, located at approximately 5 km south of the village, presents a beautiful platform of 1000 by 1200 meters, with a layer of grass growing drastically.
On the field are two barracks occupied by the Air Company assigned to the field, a "Bréguet 690" aircraft was abandoned there by the 54th Wing which was moved a short time ago.
The Group's officers and non-commissioned officers, who were few in number, were billeted in the village of BEUVRAIGNES, which, although it did not have great possibilities, at least had the advantage of being very close to the airfield.
Meals were taken in the Compagnie de l'Air's canteen, installed at Any. The bombing aviation group on which the Group depends, is installed in SOISSONS.
From the evening of May 12, the Group was confronted with problems of supply of weapons (bombs in particular) insofar as the Roye-Any airfield had not been prepared to receive bombing units.
The Compagnie de l'Air was not in a position to make bombs available to the Group immediately. Urgent requests were not met until the afternoon of the 13th.
The loading of the planes ended at night, around 9 p.m., and the personnel were released only after dinner, around 10 p.m.
Campaign of France of the GB 1/31 : 15 May 1940 - 21 June 1940:
- May 15 - The alert position was taken at 5 a.m., but the first mission did not take off until early afternoon. These long waiting periods, all too frequent, had a deplorable effect on the personnel, further aggravated by the lack of means to rest on the spot.
Operations - Mission received: bombardment of a convoy stationed at the northern edge of the village of MONTHERME.
Manpower : 6 planes in section of two N° 74 - 122 - 27 - 90 - 95 - 106.
Loading : 640 kg per plane (44 x 10 AP + 20 x 10 incendiary) except the 122 (6 x100) and the 27 (16 x 50).
Protection : formation of hunting from 18h30 on the FERE-COURBE.
Execution : five planes only, carry out the mission. N°106 turns back, incident of propeller. Violent fights are recorded between fighters, but the protection proves to be effective since the "Lioré" carry out their mission without being attacked. On the other hand, the Flak (DCA) of medium and small calibre appears. Two planes were hit: the 122 and the 90 returned with bullet marks.
Tonnage launched : 3T.320.
WO2 Vergnet took part in this first war mission of the Group. "He remembered the somewhat tense atmosphere at the start, the relief of finding the Bloch 152s (protection fighters) at the rendezvous time and the surprise of the Germans when they detected them. Obviously, he said, we were disturbing them, probably surprised to see us so combative! Having gone down into the tank to operate the machine gun, I fired long bursts while sweeping the weapon very lightly from left to right, without really aiming. On the ground, it was hell, if I may say so. When our bombs exploded, they blew up the vehicles like chaff. Hundreds of men were jumping up and down in the middle of this huge line of trucks, running for cover. We were fired upon a few times, but not seriously, as our plane was moving away very quickly.
May 16 - Operations - Mission received: bombardment of a large enemy column reported to be moving along the road from LIART to MONTCORNET.
Manpower : 5 Leo 45 : N° 27 Captain HIRSCH - N° 90 Lieutenant CHABOUREAU - N° 106 Lieutenant HOURTIC - N° 18 S/Ltt PIGELET.
Loading : 720 kg by planes (8 x 50 x 10 AP + 8 x 10 incendiary).
Execution : the attack is pronounced at very low altitude on a particularly vulnerable objective because the column is stopped and gathered at the entrance of the village of MONCORNET. In spite of the surprise, the reaction of the enemy is violent: 3 aircraft are seriously hit:
- N°27 - Captain HIRSCH, shot down in flames must be abandoned by the crew which jumps in the northern region of SISSONNE.
Balance sheet: * 1 seriously wounded : S/Lt RAOUL, will not be able to join the Group because of a long hospitalization.
* 2 light casualties : Captain HIRSCH - Chief Warrant Officer PERRIGOUARD. Staff Sergeant MERIGNET was unharmed.
- N° 18 and N° 90 were damaged and returned to the base with difficulty.
- The N° 106 and the N° 79 : nothing to report.
Tonnage launched : 3T.600
Note: I found in the ICARE magazine the testimony of Captain Hirsch:
"We followed the road from La Fère to Rozoy-sur-Serre at very low altitude. It was crossed by the sad heterogeneous procession of vehicles of the exodus, among which were requisitioned Parisian buses.
As soon as we reached Montcornet (we were less than 100 meters above sea level), the German flak attacked us. Our bombs (50 and 100 kg) were dropped on the armored vehicles - decidedly German - and I realized, while returning, that my plane had been hit. There was fire on board and it was spreading very quickly, to the point that the molten metal was condensing on my suit. My observer, Lieutenant Raoul, had been shot in the shoulder and was unconscious.
I gave the order to evacuate and Raoul owed his life to Staff Sergeant Mériguet, the radio operator, who revived him to help him jump. The gunner, Chief Warrant Officer Perrigouard, having jumped too, I was left alone on board with the impression of being a horse stuck in a burning stable. The plane in a dive, the badin at 600. I jumped in my turn. "
Once on the ground, Hirsch accompanied the wounded man to the hospital of the Mailly camp. He continues his account: "I then noticed that my suit was pierced and my shirt full of blood. I had three pieces of metal (shrapnel or airplane debris) in my elbow that had to be removed without anesthesia. It was necessary to go through that...! That done, being an active officer and respectful of the rules, I was going to present myself to the general commanding the camp, a polytechnician, like me - Captain Hirsch, I said. I was shot down earlier. The Germans are 50 km away and ..., the general pressed a bell and an armed patrol immediately arrested me as an enemy parachutist.
The incident was quickly resolved and Hirsch was reunited with his group a few days later.
That same day, at 10 a.m., a second mission was requested. Operations - Mission received: bombing of the same column which seemed to be withdrawing towards Rozon-sur-Serre.
Manpower : 4 planes.
Load : 720 kg per plane.
Protection : hunting.
Execution : the 95 which has an incident of propeller, does not leave. The 3 others carried out their missions without notable incident.
Tonnage launched : 2T.160.
Of this mission, LCdr Vergnet kept the anecdotal memory of this particularly stormy debriefing between his pilot, Major Schmitter, and the various hierarchical authorities. Indeed, after each sortie, the pilots had to report their observations to the Zone Aérienne Nord. The latter centralized all the information transmitted and sent a summary to the Army Command N° 1 in charge of designating the objectives.
When he recalled this debriefing, he could not help but raise his voice. He had been indignant at the way in which certain senior military officials had tried to deny the realities, ruthlessly dismissing the representatives of the crews. For daring to affirm that the German armored columns had passed the village of Montcornet, they were called incompetent and incapable.
Poor Schmitter," he said, "had tried everything to make himself heard, swearing on his honor as a soldier, vociferating in front of so much bad faith, but nothing made it. As group leader, he even asked to speak to General Têtu, but all his requests remained unanswered. The former 1918 airman hung up his phone angrily. He turned to his crew and said: "They don't want to hear anything, they are clinging to their maps and leading us straight to disaster. It's unbelievable, we are losing this war...! "
Installation on the field of
PERSAN BEAUMONT (May 16 - 19):
The track is very large but has
only 3 wooden barracks for any installation. It has already been occupied
for some time by the 1/12 Group and the Service Company. The 2/12 Group
has been on this field for a short time.
May 17 - A move of the Group, on the field of EVREUX, is considered. A plane was sent to this field and found it occupied by other formations. This relocation project was abandoned. Despite the lack of available aircraft, operations were resumed.
Operations - Mission received: bombing of the road from CHIMAY to TRELON. Expedition directed by the 1/12. Protection of the hunting planned.
Manpower : 3 planes : N° 74 Commander SCHMITTER - N°122 S/Lieutenant BOUDOT - N° 61 S/Lieutenant RIGOURD.
Loading : 720 kg by plane.
Execution : the air artillery
and the enemy fighters make devastations in this mission. The
drama is fast. The enemy projectiles form a curtain in which the
planes are forced to pass. The 3 planes were hit and went down
Friday, May 17, 1940:
In the history of my family, this day of May 17, 1940 embodies the tragedy of this unthinkable defeat. In fact, it marks the beginning of a series of painful events directly linked to the life of our parents:
- like the memorable aerial combat experienced by our father and the long sanitary wandering through a defeated country and totally left to itself,
- or the physical fear felt by our mother at the moment of the first German bombings on Rochecorbon or during the crossing of the demarcation line, in total clandestinity.
Unquestionably, if the history of a life is generally declined around characteristic dates (birth, marriage, children, death), this day of May 1940 will symbolize for our parents the brutal end of a happy time forever disappeared: that of a youth confident in the future, lulled by the carefree attitude generated by the myth of a strong and pacifist France. When my father evoked these dramatic events, his memories were always very precise. He relived the mission of May 17 with astonishing vigor and lucidity, so intense were the hours lived during that day and the strong emotions.
Aware of the importance he attached to his testimony, I have endeavored to reproduce the main lines, taking care not to magnify them unnecessarily; my father never had the soul of a hero, but of a man of duties and convictions.
As if to better grasp the atmosphere that prevailed among the crews at that time, he always began his story with this clarification:
"From the beginning of the German offensive, we had to admit that we were already confused, so much so that the events had rushed. Since our baptism of fire, we were conscious of having escaped the worst, but for how long? On each mission we were confronted with the enemy's flak and its curtain of fire of an astonishing density.
However, we found it difficult to continue without losing some feathers. However, our confidence was not diminished. Our "Leo 45s", so severely tested, held on and brought us back in most cases despite often irreparable injuries. "
After a short night, due to an alert set for 5 a.m., our Group was designated, on the morning of May 17, 1940, for a bombing mission with three planes on the TRELON road junction.
We took off from Persan Beaumont around 11:00 am in the direction of Guise - altitude 1200 meters - speed 380 km/h. The sun was shining brightly, no clouds on the horizon, but a blue sky as far as the eye could see. Decidedly, that day, the sky was not with us; a cloudy ceiling would have allowed us to escape from the Flak and most probably from the enemy hunting...!
As we approached Guise, the fighter protection was still not there and our formation broke up. Each of the three planes continued its route at very low altitude according to predetermined axes of attack.
Unfortunately, as soon as we changed course, we were attacked by German flak, which set off a veritable firework display around us. The pilot energetically tilted the aircraft in the opposite direction of the fire, towards the east. Despite a few hits, this decisive maneuver allowed us to quickly get out of this hell. Macombe, the navigator, proposed to maintain this course by following the course of the Oise, then to carry out our phase of approach on the objective by slipping above the dark mass of the forests of Hirson and Trélon.
A few minutes before the attack, the pilot gained altitude (400 to 500 meters).
The radio activated the descent of its tank and seized the machine gun. Suddenly discovering the road cluttered with tanks, he opened fire instinctively.
On the ground, our incendiary bombs generated huge fireballs in the middle of the vehicles, while a hail of bullets and shells dangerously surrounded our plane, shredding the metal sheets and piercing the fuselage. "
"The bombing was quickly carried out and we were already on our return course when the voice of Panay, the gunner, rang out: 'Messer' at 08:00 inbound.
Pulling up his now useless radio tank, the radio man went to the right of the pilot near the window. He saw clearly the "five black square ends" which were melting on them. By the time he executed the sudden evasive action ordered by Panay, the tracer bullets were framing the aircraft, tearing through the metal of our wings while focusing on the right engine.
Amidst the deafening noise of the engines being pushed hard and the crackling of the gun that shook the aircraft, we heard Panay victoriously shouting "I've got one"! Indeed, one of the "Messers" broke off the fight by gaining altitude, discovering in its wake a characteristic plume of smoke.
Like a swarm of wasps, the Messerschmitt 109s returned to the charge, but this time from the rear. According to my father, these fighters already knew the weak points of the Leo 45: a little below the aircraft, in the blind spot created by the tail fins, at the precise point where the gunner could not reach them.
Schmitter tried as best he could to evade by making the plane evolve brutally around its axis. But in a fraction of a second, the fighters made a devastating firing pass. The bullets hit the fuselage and the planes like a deadly hail, shredding the steel and the metal sheets with a hellish noise. The right engine, after a few misfires, instantly burst into flames releasing a thick black smoke, while points of fire pierced the rear compartment shattering my radio.
For the second time we heard Panay's victorious voice, but it suddenly stopped with a significant rattle. Immediately the radio rushed to the back. In some places the walls of the aircraft were completely shredded and a power supply was on fire.
Panay was still at his post. His left leg, hit by a shrapnel, was bleeding profusely. The radio operator removed his tie and applied a tourniquet, when suddenly the plane swerved violently. Thrown violently on the floor of the aircraft, he heard simultaneously the impact of enemy fire and the sound of an explosion.
Returning to the nose of the aircraft, he saw Schmitter wince from the impact of a shrapnel wound in his knee, while Macombe, curled in on himself, held his bloodied right arm. The front canopy was all but disintegrated, and the wind rushing through the shattered nose made movement impossible.
With a loud bang, he reached his pilot and gave him an account of the damage. In spite of his wound, the latter held on and kept his plane level with the treetops, in the direction of the French lines. But it was clear that the German fighters were not willing to let them go. After their frontal attack, our father could clearly see the three Messers maneuvering for a new firing pass.
On my mark, he said, Schmitter tried a final evasive maneuver. The plane swerved dramatically, almost stalling, and then began to vibrate under the enemy's fire. Bullets crackled again on the wings and fuselage.
A jet of gasoline, escaping from the left trailing edge, ignited instantly. The pilot nodded and pointed to the right engine, then waved his hand to indicate that he was going to attempt a forced landing.
When the radio operator returned to his station to release the only existing escape door, he was confronted with a hellish vision. Huge flames were escaping from the gutted feeders and were clogging the interior of the compartment, giving off an unbearable heat.
Protecting himself with his leather, he managed to reach the emergency door, but without succeeding in dropping it. Deformed under the action of the heat, it resisted all manual solicitations.
In a burst of energy, he assailed it brutally several blows of feet, until the moment when it rocked in the vacuum. The brutal ejection of this one provoked instantaneously a violent call of air which reactivated suddenly the fire. Surrounded by the flames which started to bite him, the radio threw itself back seeking a refuge against the floor of the gunner.
Realizing by the sound of the engine that the plane was about to crash, he waited for the first shock to rush out of the aircraft. Fortunately, when the Leo 45 hit the ground, it bounced back, which certainly prevented it from hitting the tail fin.
For the radio, contact with the mainland was quite violent. He made several rolls and stopped like he could. Although "rang", he managed to get up somehow, while his plane was immobilizing a hundred meters further in a sheaf of smoke and mingled earth. Instantly he raised his head, to see over him two messerschmitt launched at full speed. Fortunately, these pilots did not use their weapons. Only the leader, flying over the wreck of Leo 45, quickly beaten wings before starting his resource.
By approaching the plane, which began to take a dangerous fire, our Father discovered Commander Schmitter and the Macombe Sub-Lieutenant in the process of extirporating the device. Joining them, they went out the Sergeant Panay of his post by climbing on the cannon.
Very quickly the four men were moving away from the wreck, while the remaining ammunition were already beginning to explode, precipitating the final embrace. "
Although injured, these men were going to support each other to travel on foot the few kilometers separating them from French lines.
After an hour of chaotic walking in particularly difficult conditions, this wilder equipped was intercepted by a patrol led by a corporal.
"This one, by noting our wounds and uniforms, quickly understood that we were not German paratroopers disguised but on the contrary of the miraculous airmen. Very quickly we were rescued and conducted towards a medical emergency medical position."
"A doctor examined in priority the traces of burns on my face and made me drive in a convent located near the post:" The Virgin of Falyl Walnut ".
There, a nun thoroughly cleaned my face with a solution based on ether before covering it almost entirely with dressings. At the end of the afternoon, we were all transferred by truck to Châteaudun Hospital, Amiens (Somme).
Commander Schmitter, slightly injured, remained only a few days with us. Panay, the gunner, was operated on the same evening as well as macombe who had received four balls in the right arm. "
It is through this short medical synthesis that my father completed his story and deliberately ended the discussion. As by modesty, it was naturally refusal to address the delicate issue of its physical and moral suffering. It is only very few occasions that he consented to confide somewhat.
In the image of his comrades, he expressed some fatalism towards the risks of this craft that made it possible, into a flash, the sky and the earth in a deadly spiral. By saying that, he referred to the famous sentence of Mermoz: "The accident, for me, would be to die in a bed!"
On the other hand, like all the airmen of that time, he feared particularly fire and his terrible manifestations: the intense heat brutally asphyxizing the lungs, the flames slowly devouring the tissues to the bones, staring forever the eyelids and ravagent forever. A face or a body.
"My first night at the hospital was particularly difficult. The effect of the sedative was short-lived I constantly reluctant the air commitment, awakening me, waiting for the flames. As I arranging from this fire, he said I had the impression to have carried away in my murdered flesh, the insidious torture of the flames and their terrible bites. Beyond my multiple bruises who threw all my movements, it was these burns that had become the center of all my anxieties and my thoughts.
In the first days, the nuns withdrew my dressings with a lot of precaution. I had the unpleasant impression that part of my skin was taking off with them. My face was spoken, but I have never been able to realize it personally. These women particularly treated me, because my burns were only superficial and shallow, I never had to bear apparent scars on my face. "
Back on this day of May 17, 1940:
No. 74 fell at Rogecourt.
Now wounded and totally cut off from her group, he would have to directly suffer the effects, changing five times a hospital within one month.
On this first photograph we distinguish traces of burns on the right of his forehead. His hair has been protected by the wearing of leather head equipment.
During his visit to the Caen Hospital (between May 27 and June 12) his state of health deteriorated somewhat. The Palus remembered his good memory in the form of gastric fevers and troubles. His problems required him to follow a special treatment in a specialized establishment and to separate, despite himself, of his two comrades of 1/31.
Photographs made during his visit to the Saint-Lô's Hospital (Manche).
A word summed up all his worries: "prisoner". Unlike Russia, France did not have this geostrategic depth offering the country the opportunity to recover militarily. Français in Brittany, he found himself, like so many others, backed with the coast of the Atlantic and the Channel with the mortal leak in Great Britain or a probable captivity in Germany!
Very quickly a transfer project to England was developed. A night appointment with a fisherman was taken. But it was without counting with the tide requirement that forced him to wait until the full sea, scheduled in the evening of June 22nd.
At the so-called time, he presented himself by a civilian with another aviator. They embarked along a beach aboard a small fishing boat, before it compels to regain the coast as soon as possible. Two German patrollers had been spotted on the horizon, prohibiting any escape.
Failure to be able to join England, he decided to return to the hospital to Quimper and according to his expression: "to make the dead until the signature of the armistice". Sage decision since the latter was ratified on June 25, 1940.
From that date, and without being informed, he officially changed status. According to the armistice conventions, it should no longer be considered by the German occupier as a potential prisoner of war but as a hospitalized injury. He could benefit, according to the gravity of his condition, a right to return to his homes to be demobilized.
However, if this new status appeared to avoid it immediately a deportation to Germany, its administrative position within the military institution would be complicated somewhat. Indeed, on June 30, 1940, in execution of the requirements of a ministerial directive (no more than six weeks of its unit), it was removed from the controls of the group 1/31 and donated to the airline of Toulouse deposit Franzal.
From this moment, he will continue to rise to multiply the requests to reinstate as soon as possible his group, now parked in Istres.
The end of France campaign of group 1/31:
Since its commitment to the battle, May 15, 1940, group 1/31 had seen its human and air potential irreparably degraded at each of its outings. If the losses suffered, on May 17, had accelerated this process of attrition, those recorded between 19 and May 20 had directly contributed to its annihilation.
On the evening of this day, he only had a single leo 45 in a state of flight, which forced the high command to put it "at rest". Sweet euphemism, if one considers that in five days of combat, the group 1/31 had lost fourteen aircraft (6 leo 45 slaughtered, 7 seriously damaged, 1 destroyed by accident) and nine crews (wounded or killed).
"On May 21, this unique aircraft was transferred to the field of Chartres. In a week, the group rebuilt around a dozen new brand new and personal training centers.
On May 28, he was launched again in the battle, despite the inexperience of his young crews. Carried out in the turmoil of defeat, group 1/31 continues the fight until the signature of the armistice with Italy from Mussolini, June 25, 1940.
On June 22, it is foreseen to be deployed in North Africa, but the execution orders were very quickly suspended and then canceled.
On June 25, the French government decreed a national mourning day. Five officers and five non-commissioned officers are sent to Istres to participate in a ceremony at the People's Monument.
The staff of groups 1/31 and 2/31 are gathered in the courtyard of the Beonieves (near the base of Istres) for an internal ceremony in memory of fallen comrades. "
GB I / 31 after the armistice:
The drama of El-Kebir seas, who seal the fate of 1,297 French marine on July 3, 1940, had considerable repercussions on both French-French, Franco-British and Franco-German relations. The most surprising in this tragedy, was the consequences of this British aggression that would allow Vichy France to save in extremis his aviation of scheduled destruction.
Indeed, the sharp reaction of the Air Force to the English attack led in fact the suspension of Article 5 of the Armistice Convention. Germany and Italy, surprises by the French determination to enforce the arms clauses, granted Vichy the air means necessary for the defense of its empire, while allowing the maintenance of a number of units first line in unoccupied zone.
This unexpected suspension would allow bombing aviation to maintain nineteen groups (plus two assault groups). The two commissions (German and Italian) fixed their staffing at thirteen online aircraft (six by Escadrille plus a staging plane) and three aircraft in "spare".
Training flights were also limited to four hours per month and crew. If these quotas were to be respected in France, because of the controls exerted by these commissions, they will be far exceeded in French West Africa.
The 1/31 group, although very hard, would also benefit from this respite to rebuild. On July 26, 1940, despite insufficient workforce, he was transferred to Istres alongside his counterpart, group 2/31.
On August 25, these two groups were obliged to merge in order to respect the quotas imposed. Of this fusion was born the new group 1/31 of the armistice
Always placed under the authority of Commander Schmitter, he was composed of thirteen Leo 45 divided into two squadrilles and a staff of the Staff presented above.
That it was then good or bad side, even between the two, the army of the armistice had become a reality, recognizable by its yellow bands affixed to its wings, synonymous with defeat and 'humiliation.
This ambiguity was going to continue with the "disastrous deal of Syria", or the group 1/31 lost between 10 June and 9 July 1941 Six Leo 45 on a total number of fourteen devices in fighting against the English and their allies.
Finally, if the "historically correct" version of France from black years is referring to Toulon's sabordage, it seems to ignore with which cynicism the Vichy regime delivered its aviation in the hands of the Nazis. Rare are the works that report the circumstances of this catch and even more present the testimonies of these airmen totally surprised in the early morning by the German soldiery.
Group 1/31, was officially dissolved on November 27, 1942. While it had been ordered to deploy on the basis of Ambérius, the German troops invested the land in the early morning, seizing all the planes available on This platform.
For the group's airmen and mechanics: "The sight of their brave Leo 45, tackled with these cross claims, was totally unbearable. It was a real trauma, touching our deepest feelings, to our pride of soldier and souvenirs Always perennials of our missing comrades. Instantly, the bitterness and the disarray we experienced had turned into hatred ..., hatred towards all those who had led us to such a forfeiture ".
2 - Story of the tragic day of May 17, 1940: Excerpt from the book "Missing in the sky" dedicated by the author, Mrs. L'Herbier-Montagnon at Warrant Officer Roger Vergnet
In his book "disappeared in the sky", Madame Germaine The Herbier-Montagnon traveled his moving crusade to try to locate and identify all the French airmen fallen during this battle.
This nurse-driver and rescuer of the air had not failed to evoke this day of May 17th where "three crews from Leo 45 of the group 1/31 had gone on the mission of bombardment of the German armored columns, towards Chimay."
His attention was mainly on the tragic end of Leo 45 n ° 122. In a few pages, she presented the various testimonies that had allowed him to explain the circumstances of the disappearance of the Chief Warrant Officer Gast, (a friend of my father) and Lieutenant Boudot.
"As I beat the Aisne's campaign in search of an empty plane, hence an aviator would have jumped in parachute, a farmer of Rocquigny tells me this:
"On May 16, 1940, when we knew that the Front of Sedan had been depressed, the horses were hitched, charged with all that had been valuable, and provisions for our animals. We opened the doors. Stables and "taken the exodus. It was believed, as in 1914, leave Aisne for years; But the Germans have caught up and ordered to go home.
When we arrived two weeks later, close to the court, we found the corpse of the parachutist. He had to fall very high, for he had made a big hole in the earth, he had the legs returned to the body and broken belly. The parachute strings were all tangled, and even the poor dead had tightened between his jaws.
The Germans ordered us to bury him right away, because of hygiene. We did not have the right to search him, because it had to be done later by the official services, but we had the time to read his plate. His name was Louis Gast. We told the village that he had to fall on May 17 "
What plane in perdition does this unfortunate jumped? 23 kilometers southwest of Rocquigny, a press correspondent had reported me a big plane fallen to Esqueheries.
Indeed, in the so-called pasture, I found, calcined, the debris of Leo No. 122, crushed on May 17.
Alongside, a humble tomb contained, tell me the carbonized remnants of an airman found at the cockpit. Classic tribute to the dead pilot, I had dragged a blade of propeller on this tertre, and I could not defend myself with a strange emotion when I saw flow of his soul a golden oil, as alive again, and who seemed to be the blood of the plane.
In the village I am told that the pilot had to be called Gast, because we had found near him a piece of sweater marked on that name.
This coincidence threatened the situation. Rocquigny's paratrooper belonged to the clock of Bombardier No. 122 and it was not the carbonized airman on the aircraft called Gast.
The other death of Leo 45 n ° 122, which slept in the garden of the farm of Lassau between the hopper roses and the humble vegetables, was actually Lieutenant Gilbert René Boudot. "
"Subsequently, I could reconstruct the epic hallucinating, thanks to the report that the chief sergeant The Guellec (only survivor) wrote to his captain; report made to a death by the way, because the captain had been shot down in flames two days later. "
"We had to attack the ground, tragic phase with the tremendous and precise enemy DCA. Yet the mission was accomplished.
But back, the first earth shot broke out between the barrel and the bombs launcher. Two bombs remained to drop; The Chief Sergeant The Guellec Largua by hand. Other shells pierced inside the cabin; The bullets sounded on the steel spars and a flushing engine. In the midst of this hallucinating hell, everyone remained calm. And the mitraille continued to crackle, members of the crew were affected.
The machine gun, Chief Warrant Officer Gast, jumped. Lieutenant Boudot had received stomach bullets. The pilot, Sergeant-Chief Gombert, wounded in the head, bullet or shine of shells, was blind, with blood dripping on his face. The Guellec, noticed it, and quickly, began to direct the maneuver by phone: "Come on, pushes not so much from the foot on the right. Straightening! And while the plane burned, the driver with the dead eyes performed the movements.
Naturally it did not last long. When the aircraft had started to crash, he had good that they all jump in parachute.
The Guellec had thrown over his vanishing and bloody lieutenant overboard. He had tried to do the same with the Gombert driver, but he lost consciousness, he had managed to send it.
The Guellec, the last, jumped, but fleeting on the ground, he opened his parachute only 150 meters. He landed between the lines very heavily, while Leo 45 was damaged, road pasture, in a thick column of smoke.
Half fainting, with his two bullets in the body, and the cruel tasation of the vertebrae had inflicted by the fall, the Guellec saw his lieutenant injured in the same field as he, but unable to move.
He rushed to look for help. He traveled the village panicked by the bombings, and whose inhabitants were fleeing. He shouted: "Rescue, rescue for my injured lieutenant". But no one answered his anxious calls.
At the spinning, he was taking a bicycle and pedaled towards a doctor; But already the German chenks appeared on the horizon. And when the Guellec returned to a PC of the French lines, he was told that she was in the hands of the enemy. "
"Lieutenant Boudot, Blood, lying in the pasture, with his appalling belly injury, died softly alone next to thousands of people who passed. Interminable parade of the French retirement army, mixed with terrified refugees. Not an ambulance. Not an ambulance Full of dead and dying mourants did not stop. No help never came from the road.
Then, two humble women of the village transported the airman agonizing on a ladder, at the farm Lassau, and treated him as they were clean. In the early morning, he died in the engine of the engines and the bearing of the Invasive German Army. "
These testimonials, borrowings of dignity, perfectly illustrate the chaotic atmosphere that reigned in the campaigns of northern France at this time.
They also emphasize, without grandiloquence, the incredible fight of these unknown crews, sacrificed in the most total indifference.
If for cultural and doctrinal reasons many books have been devoted to hunting aviation, there is no work specifically dedicated to the history of bombardment aviation in 1940.
Unlike the recognition aviation, magnified by Saint Exupéry, the facts of weapons of the bombing crews have always remained in anonymity and have never attracted a great literary interest.
Yet their actions of bravery were hardly very different from those claimed by the other groups of the Air Force. They would, however, deserve to be better in our collective memory, such as history:
- From the commander Laubier of the 34 Wing, former pilot of the Great War, who gave up a younger sergeant of his unit to replace it just before takeoff. At the head of his group, he left "neutralize" the famous bridges of the Meuse, May 14, 1940. After an unequal fight, his ambit 143 crashed into flames near Sedan. He was the father of seven children.
- or that of the Captain Monchaux and the chief sergeant are, whose inhabitants of Berny-sur-Noye told their heroic fight against the German hunting and how, short of ammunition and irremediably surrounded, they cast their Leo 45 on an enemy hunter By dragging it in their deadly fall.