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Historical Dictionary

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AIR FORCE, FRANCE

At the outset, the French Air Force’s role in the war was small compared to that of the ground forces. Part of this was due to the fact that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) had no air force of which to speak and the guerrilla war remained the main concern of the Expeditionary Corps until 1950. The paucity of planes in the French Air Force after World War II also explains why French airpower paled compared to that of the ground forces. Most of the planes used in Indochina came from Allied stockpiles from the Pacific War, mainly Spitfires, King Cobras, and C47s.

The Chinese communist victory of 1949 and the enemy’s acquisition of a modern army, nurtured by Chinese aid, forced the French Air Force to assume a more active role in what was no longer a guerrilla affair. The French defeat at Cao Bang in 1950 had made this clear. In order to integrate and coordinate air support and bombing missions with the ground forces now fighting the DRV army in set piece battles, the French Air Force created three tactical air groupings or Groupements aériens tactiques. In order to offset the increased financial burden this entailed, the French began receiving large-scale American aid in the form of planes, munitions, fuel, and eventually civilian pilots as part of the Civil Air Transport (CAT). Thanks to the U.S. Military Assistance Program, the United States Air Force and Navy provided F6F Hellcats, F8F Bearcats, F4U Corsairs, and B26 Bombers. French and American CAT pilots flew perilous missions to supply besieged troops at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. (None of the Americans were active members of the French or American Air Forces; they flew for the CAT.) 10,000 sorties were made and 62 planes were lost during this battle.

In July 1954, when the Geneva Accords put an end to the Indochina conflict, the French Air Force had committed 388 planes to the theatre, meaning some 20 percent of the service’s total. 10,000 men served in the air force in Indochina or about 7.5 percent of its total personnel. Between 1946 and 1954, the French Air Force lost 434 men, an unknown number of missing in action and 11 wounded.

The core problem for the French Air Force during the Indochina War was one of priorities and money. From the moment the Indochina War intensified with the Chinese communist victory in 1949, French military strategists and politicians at the highest levels had to reconcile two costly but conflicting priorities: maintain a serious air force presence in Indochina and create an equally credible air force as part of the defense of Western Europe, required by the Treaty of Brussels in 1948 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of 1949. From 1953, the air force chiefs of staff made it clear that NATO would have to take precedence over Indochina as the government’s main priority. The government explained this to General Henri Navarre before sending him to take command in Indochina. That decision coincided with the DRV’s acquisition and effective utilization of heavy artillery, ending the French Air Force’s unchallenged domination of the skies in the Indochina War. See also FINANCIAL COST OF THE INDOCHINA WAR.