Old Fighter Pilots
There was one thing about Ivan. One never knew what was coming next. Having asked Viv to meet him at Portland, he had with him a retired British general who was now the air attaché to the British embassy in Paris. The whole thing was obviously something of a lark for Ivan, but General Oxenby, beneath the usual charming presence, had something of Thoreau’s ‘air of quiet desperation’ about him. He had been a liaison officer in France during the war, and, since the middle-ranking officers of that period were now in charge, he knew more French generals better than almost any foreigner.
When they were settled in the dining room of the station hotel amid the rather pitiful Christmas decorations, he explained, “The fact is that the French have suddenly come to admit to themselves that their air force and entire aviation industry is woefully behind the German one. I’ve known your father for many years, Miss Bolsky, and he’s one of the first men I’ve thought to consult for an independent opinion. I was already aware of your experience in Spain, and we’d both like your opinion as well.”
“I’m afraid that I don’t know much about French aviation. I did happen to meet Andre Malreaux, the leader of the French air volunteers in Spain, but that’s as far as it goes.”
Ivan said, “Mainly, Viv, we want you to fly their fighters, and tell us what you think.”
“You might better ask Mutt Summers, but he’s fully occupied. Sure, I’ll give them a try.”
It was gradually explained that the French had strong mixed feelings that would have to be carefully navigated. In particular, there had been an incident, seemingly minor, involving the head of the Armee de l’Air,General Joseph Vuillemin, which was having large consequences.
Vuillemin, a fighter ace in the previous war, had achieved prominence in personally leading one of the largest and most effective air offensives of the war. Soon after the war, he had done some long distance flights of exploration, and had become almost a French Lindbergh.
Vuillemin had then spent most of the peacetime years in command of forces in France’s far-flung empire. There were sporadic rebellions, and it had taken only a flight of obsolete bombers to panic various ragamuffin armies and put them to flight. Oxenby summed up,
“There really wasn’t much else for a French airman to do in those years, but this constitutes no sort of preparation for combat against the Luftwaffe. Some men might be able to make the jump, but, not to put too fine a point to it, Vuillemin isn’t a man of great intelligence. He’s undoubtedly brave, but he should, at most, have been promoted to colonel. Moreover, his chief subordinates are men of much the same sort.”
Ivan then explained the incident to Viv. “There’s Ernst Udet, the second leading German ace behind von Richtofen. He’s a charming man, full of fun, who, after the war, took up stunt flying, mostly in America. He mixed with everyone, went to parties, and met you when you must have been about seventeen.”
Viv did remember a small hyper-active man with a funny accent and a big cigar. Ivan continued, “He’s now high up in the Luftwaffe, close to Goering. He invited Vuillemin over for a visit, the two former aces having friendly chats over beer and stronger things.”
Viv could imagine, only too well, a get-together between old fighter pilots. However, there was a twist.
“Ernst took Vuillemin up in a little two-seater for an aerial tour of the neighborhood. However, while they were flying, probably about a hundred miles an hour, he arranged to have a specially boosted HE 112 roar close over their heads at a good four hundred. Ernst carried on in his usual way, but he reported afterwards that Vuillemin was completely shaken.”
Oxenby added, “Goering was probably in on it. When he wants, he can be quite a jokester in an unpleasant way.”
For Vuillemin, this was the capstone of everything else he had seen of the Luftwaffe . He reportedly returned to France, convinced that his force didn’t have a chance.
Oxenby continued, “He there told General Gamelin, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that, in a war with Germany, his air force would be destroyed within fifteen days.”
Viv found that shocking and asked, “How can he remain in command if he thinks that?”
“There’s something like a civil war going on in the French army between the Catholic anti-Semitic conservatives and the liberal secular free-thinkers. Gamelin keeps a precarious balance between the two, and he can’t fire anyone of importance without upsetting it. Gamelin himself thinks that the rival air forces will quickly destroy one another, after which it’ll be back to trenches and infantry charges.”
“In a way. But the conservatives would rather lose a war than lose the internal struggle. They also think that Hitler would side with them because of the anti-Semitism.”
Ivan added, “The deeper problem is the aviation industry. As usual, it’s all about fighters, and the question of who can win air superiority. The French have good designers and there are some models in the development stage which might be competitive with the Spitfire and the current mark of the Bf109. But it takes them forever to get from the design stage to the production of combat-ready aircraft. So they’re about three years behind.”
Viv could only reply, “It sounds to me as if they, indeed, don’t have a chance.”
Oxenby replied, “That’s what we think. It’s much too late for them to catch up. But Vuillemin and his people are absolutely frozen in depression. They can’t do anything.”
Ivan concluded, “Our object is to see what can be done with what they have to slow down a German invasion, and give Britain, and perhaps America, time to react.”
“And you’re asking little old me?”
“We want to know what one could do, in an inferior fighter, to keep from being shot down while, at the same time, accomplishing something of value.”
“Offhand, I’d say that you’d have to engage in combat only when you have superior numbers.”
“Right. But we have to know what tactics those superior numbers should use, and how the existing French planes should be modified, armed, and flown.”
“We’ll have to have practice dogfights. Can we go against Spitfires with their fighters?”
Oxenby replied, “I think I can arrange it.”