Douglas A/B-26 Invader


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COIN: French Counter-Insurgency Aircraft, 1946-1965

The 1950s, '60s, and '70s were the era of the "limited" war and the "low-intensity conflict." All but a handful of the wars of the period were in essence small-unit actions dragged out over years. Like the third-world conflicts and "policing actions" of an earlier generation, the struggles of the limited-war era had their roots in foreign colonial policies or local ethnic and economic rivalries. But they were also guided by ideological concerns to an extent that would have astonished a veteran of the Northwest Frontier or the Riff Wars. For the first time, generals and politicians East and West saw the grudges and jealousies of Belgian colons, Altiplano peasants, French pieds noirs, Congolese Simbas, Indochinese intellectuals, British planters, Berber tribesmen, and multinational mining cartels as parts of a single struggle. Every bombing in every Middle Eastern bazaar, every strike at every African mine, and every overseer shot in South America was suddenly a crucial battle in the Cold War, the apocalyptic death-struggle of East and West, capital and labor. This peculiar outlook colored every aspect of late 20th-century strategy and tactics and gave rise to a new understanding of the purpose, design, and use of aircraft in combat. No country contributed more to this development than did France.

France came out of World War 2 determined to recover and exploit an extensive prewar colonial empire. Yet she faced serious moral and material difficulties. She had neither defended her colonies against Axis invasion nor liberated them from subsequent occupation. She could claim her colonies neither by moral right nor by right of arms. In the eyes of her former subjects and her most important allies, she was a two-time loser. She had capitulated early to Germany and Japan and, by helping them little and breaking with them late, had shared in their final defeat. The heavily publicized but minor assistance that the Resistance and the Free French rendered the Allies during the liberation of France had done little to rebuild French prestige by 1945, and her place as a great power had more to do with emerging Cold War politics and the future makeup of the United Nations Security Council than it did with France's actual stature in the world. The body politic at home was sharply divided. The economy was still largely in ruins, and the military was noticeably weak. Manpower and finance were in desperately short supply. Conscription for overseas service was politically impossible, and the bulk of the modern arms—American Lend-Lease equipment—had to be returned to the US or used only in Europe. The undermanned Colonial forces had to make do with a hodgepodge of pre-war French relics, British surplus, American salvage, and German arms manufactured in French factories during the war. Of the wartime allies, only the rival colonial powers—Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands—could be counted sympathetic to a policy of forced recolonization. Militarily, they were in as bad a position as France. America was inclined to back the national aspirations of indigenous leaders like Ho Chi Minh, who had fought the Japanese during the war, while Soviet Russia turned increasingly from its near exclusive focus on the industrial proletariat of Europe and America to the nationalist, third-world peasantry that was sweeping Mao into power in pre-capitalist, pre-industrial China.

France's immediate, postwar colonial policy did little to reestablish French prestige or win her friends in the international community. In French North Africa, decorated tirailleurs algériens —among them the future revolutionary, Ben Bella—who had fought alongside American GIs and British Tommies saw European-born collaborators haughtily reclaim the monopoly on privilege and power guaranteed under the prewar status quo, while advancement and influence in the army went to the hoardes of fugitive SS and Wehrmacht men that France now welcomed into its reconstituted Foreign Legion. In Indochina, returning French authorities rearmed as yet undemobilized Japanese troops to oversee the disarming of Viet Minh guerillas who had fought for the Allies. This ill-treatment of fellow victors by the defeated embarrassed the United States and frightened the Soviet Union, cutting France off from its most obvious source of aid while guaranteeing an equally ready source of help for her enemies.

As so often in French military history, France's response to this dilemma was theoretical rather than practical. No serious attempt to understand either the potential value of the colonies to France under the new economic conditions prevailing in the world or the grievances of the subject peoples seems to have been made. Limited, practical reforms and early, inexpensive disengagement seem to have been overlooked or tried only half-heartedly. Nor was any great effort expended on strengthening the armed forces for the struggles that national policy would soon precipitate. Instead, the staff colleges were put to work perfecting the latest in a long series of precedent-setting, but ultimately vain theories of war.

The task was a difficult one. Given the crippling limitations that faced France in the post-war third world, the French theorists had to think up a winning strategy that did not put a premium on the familiar elements of military power—money, numbers, and firepower—all of which France lacked. Nor could the new strategy count on the traditional stay of a militarily weak party, moral solidarity with the populace, in the manner of the Napoleoonic-era Spanish guerillas or the wartime partisans of Eastern Europe. In the battles to come, French forces would fight with the people against them, overseas and perhaps at home as well.

All this staff-level cerebration resulted in a technical and political tour de force, the counter-insurgency or limited-war doctrine that would in large part shape international relations for the next four decades. Like many earlier French efforts, it was self-consciously revolutionary, extreme, idealistic, and short on the gritty details that often make or break real campaigns. While the French theorists conceived a whole range of practical, tactical measures, some of which form the main subject of this article, they did not place much hope in the mechanics of a material struggle that they all but conceded to the Asian and African hoardes. Instead, they recast war as an ideological, moral struggle, a crusade that would be won by the spiritually stronger society. When they tried to define the best way of using France's limited resources in the kind of war she now had to fight, they stressed the esprit de corps of small, élite units, the resourcefulness and self-sacrifice of the wholly committed individual, the professionalism and mystical, sacred honor of the army, and the supposedly world-historical, civilizing mission of France. Combined operations, mobility, intelligence, and psycho-political warfare would be important. But these tactical expedients were only ways of winning time. While France's paladins kept the enemy at bay, the real battle—the battle for hearts and minds—would be fought elsewhere, at home and, above all, in the treasury of the post-war West, the United States.

France's new military doctrine recast France's colonial problems as key battles in the larger struggle with communism, the struggle that preoccupied the United States during the postwar years. French staff officers argued that the US and Britain were feverishly preparing for threats that would never emerge and ignoring the real, present danger. The unprecedented power of nuclear weapons made armored assaults across the North-German plain or nuclear bomber attacks on North America suicidal propositions. The Soviets would never dare to mount all-out, open attacks on the West. Instead, the French insisted, Russia would concentrate on the vulnerable African, Near-Eastern, and Asian fringes of Western society, the sources of the raw materials, cheap labor, and closed markets that Western capitalism supposedly required. Seen in context, third-world nationalism and anticolonialism were thus not simply products of the inequities of colonial administration, as Americans generally assumed in the 1940s. They were fronts for covert Soviet aggression. As Washington blindly watched the European horizon for hordes of tanks and missiles, third-world agitators, trade unionists, and guerillas were quietly sapping the foundations of the Western economy and way of life. The communist assault that Washington feared was, in short, already underway, and the French were in the thick of it, fighting the good fight so that Americans could sleep soundly.

Measured by its success in converting the United States to France's vision of international relations in the nuclear age, limited-war theory was amazingly successful. The support for self- determination that drove American policy during the Roosevelt and early Truman years gave way, by the Eisenhower administration, to whole-hearted if secret support for France's colonial aims and a marked readiness to adopt her methods elsewhere in the third world. By 1952 or so, the policies that would lead America into Vietnam and a score of lesser involvements in Africa and South America were already well-established in Washington.

Initially, success proved more illusive in the field. French planners counted on achieving localized superiority in numbers and firepower to offset the superior human and material resources their opponents could muster in the overall theater of operations. Small, highly motivated bands of commandos would do the work of the much larger conventional armies that France lacked. This strategem presumed a high degree of mobility that was, unfortunately, all but unobtainable under the conditions prevailing in the colonies. In Indochina, trucks bogged down as soon as they strayed from a few easily blocked, ambush-prone roads. In North Africa, they got stuck in desert sand or broke down on rocky, mountain tracks. Armored vehicles proved incapable of providing adequate covering fire. Aging M-8 armored cars bogged down almost as badly as the trucks. In Indochina, Stuart and Chaffee light tanks could not ford the myriad waterways or use more than a handful of the bridges. In Algeria, tanks proved too slow, too short on range, and too noisy for hunting small, dispersed bands. They gave away their presence before they could close with the enemy. Amphibious vehicles, particularly the little, jeep-sized Weasels, could operate anywhere in Indochina. But, with little or no armor and limited payload, they could neither survive nor fight. The élite commandos were frequently confined to a relative handful of garrison towns, where their special skills were useless and their vaunted morale vulnerable to boredom and frustration.

Air power was thus crucial to counterinsurgency strategy. When airplanes and helicopters replaced vulnerable, ambush-prone road convoys, the pace of operations and, with it, the likelihood of success increased enormously.  Guerillas could not concentrate rapidly enough to overrun outposts before reinforcements arrived. Nor could they easily disperse or evade pursuit. Since route security was no longer necessary, far fewer troops were necessary. Major operations could be mounted by relative handfuls of professional light infantry—Foreign Legionaires, paras and marine commandos. It was even hoped that, in the absence of aerial opposition, modern combat aircraft could give the airborne force the firepower that light infantry had lacked in the past. With napalm, rockets, fragmentation bombs, and machine guns, a few pilots could, perhaps, do most of the killing from the safety of the air, before the infantry arrived. Survivors could then be kept constantly on the run and never allowed to rest or regroup. Most importantly of all, air power could greatly reduce the political vulnerability of colonial operations. By reducing the need for large numbers of French troops, air strikes minimized casualties and obviated much of the need for unpopular, large-scale conscription.


When these new ideas were first tested, in Indochina in 1945, they were not very successful. French forces had too few aircraft to provide the level of support the army needed, and the available airplanes were worn, out of production, and ill-suited to their new roles. The United States refused to allow its European allies to use US-supplied equipment against their erstwhile colonial subjects, so the bulk of France's air force—P-47Ds based in Europe—could not be sent to Indochina. When nationalist Viet Minh insurgents resisted the reimposition of French rule in their homeland, Armée de l'Air units were at first forced to use abandoned Japanese aircraft, including Nakajima Ki.43 Hayabusa fighters and Aichi E13A-1 seaplanes. These were supplemented by the German wartime types tht were built in France during the occupation. The Amiot AAC.1 Toucan (Junkers Ju-52) was used for transport and paratrooping duties, and the Morane-Saulnier Criquet (Fieseler Fi-156 Storch) performed communications, observation, forward air control, and convoy escort missions. The British transferred 246 Squadron's Spitfire Mk. VIIIs in 1946, when the squadron left Tan Son Nhut to return to England, and these were supplemented by Spitfire LF.IXc and Mosquito FB.VI fighter-bombers hurriedly ferried in from Europe. These airplanes performed poorly in the colonial close-support role. The Spitfire had too short a range and too small a warload. Both types proved too fragile for long service in the tropics. The Spitfire's narrow-track undercarriages proved ill-suited to the short, uneven, PSP (Pierced Steel-Plank) runways common in Indochina. Ground-loops and undercarriage failure were common. The Mosquito had a robust undercarriage and a large disposable load, but, as the British and the Australians had already discovered during the war, its wooden structure suffered severely from heat, damp, and insects. Availability was generally low.

 In 1948 and '49, the rapid collapse of the Kuomintang regime in China and the apparently cordial relations between the Viet Minh and Mao's Communist party caused the US to relent and allow France to deploy some of its American equipment in Southeast Asia. Fifty Bell P-63C Kingcobras were hurriedly despatched from Europe. They proved well suited to the climate and the prevailing type of operations. Their range was better than the Spitfires, and were highly resistant to the ever increasing volume of groundfire that French pilots faced over Viet Minh-dominated areas. The lifting of the ban on US warplanes also let the French Aéronavale take a more active role in the conflict. The light carrier Arromanches took up station in the gulf of Tonkin and used its SB2C Helldivers, F6F-5 Hellcats, and, eventually, F4U-7 Corsairs to good effect during the remainder of the campaign. Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bombers and Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateers operated from shore bases. The Long time on station and heavy bombloads made the Privateers particularly useful. They were often pressed into service as flareships during night assaults on French positions.

WW2-vintage aircraft were getting decidedly old and tired by 1949, however. None were particularly fresh when they arrived in Asia, since most had flown operations during the war. Months of operating from PSP, in hot, dusty conditions, and with far heavier loads than their designers had intended took their toll on these veteran airplanes. Many had engines that were designed for high output and good economy at high altitudes. Low-level operations no doubt took a toll in the form of increased wear, higher operating temperatures, and heavy fouling of engine components. Serviceability was poor by the end of the '40s, and spares were getting hard to find. Many of the French airplanes were types that were no longer in active, US service (P-63, SBD, F6F) and thus no longer supported by the normal American supply channels. Others—like the Toucan—had never been wholly satisfactory and were now totally obsolete.

The Korean War was thus a lucky break for France. While the immediate needs of the US services at first precluded delivery of aircraft the French especially wanted—notably B-26 Invaders, F-51 Mustangs, and additional Corsairs—Russian and Chinese involvement seemed to confirm France's interpretation of third-world nationalism. A global communist conspiracy seemed more plausible in Washington when Chinese soldiers were crowding round the Pusan perimeter. In 1950, after considering and rejecting a large-scale supply of B-25s and F-47s—replacement parts could no longer be had in the quantities required for operatinal use—US authorities decided to supply France with a single squadron of B-26 Invaders—25 aircraft—as an interim measure. The French would also be given priority access to all materiel not immediately required by frontline UN units.  Ex-USAF C-47 transports soon replaced the inadequate Toucan in the transport role. The Aéronavale received additional Hellcats in lieu of Corsairs (though the specially built F4U-7 and some surplus AU-1s were supplied later), while the Armée de l'Air got the Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat, a type relegated to Navy Reserve and National Guard units in the US. A further five RB-26C reconnaissance airplanes and 16 B-26C bombers arrived in 1952. Armed with napalm, 500-lb demolition bombs, M1A1 fragmentation clusters, 5-in HVAR rockets, and .50-cal machineguns (up to fourteen on the B-26s, most of which had the late-war, 6-gun wings and both turrets) or 20-mm cannon (many F8Fs and F6Fs and all the Corsairs) the new strike aircraft were reasonably effective. But they were still too few, and the single-engined types lacked the range and endurance that were increasingly necessary now that Viet Minh were now concentrated in Laos and along the Chinese border (the mainstay of the fighter-bomber force, the F8F, had, after all, been designed as a short-range, high-performance interceptor of Kamikazes).

With the end of the Korean War in early 1954, the United States greatly stepped up its involvement in French Indochina. But, to maintain the "plausible deniability" that rendered so many poorly thought-out Southeast-Asian schemes palatable to American administrations, the intervention was placed in the hands of the CIA and its proprietary airline, Air America. To meet France's need for airlift capacity and long-range, high-endurance strike aircraft, USAF C-119 transports and B-26s were flown from Korea to Taiwan and the Philippines for overhaul. They were "sanitized" (rendered anonymous and hopefully untraceable), then transferred to the CIA for use in Indochina. USAF volunteers were "sheep-dipped"—stripped of the most obvious signs of their ongoing service connections—and transferred to Air America as C-119 pilots and loadmasters. 200 active-duty USAF B-26 mechanics were quietly seconded to the Armée de l'Air to maintain the CIA's bomber force, on the condition that they serve only in secure areas, where they could not be captured or spotted by reporters.

This infusion of airpower was, however, too little and too late for the French in Indochina. They never achieved the level of mobility and the firepower that their new tactical doctrines required. Nor had they put the necessary effort into civil action and political operations. Air transport and strike forces were manifestly inadequate, despite US involvement. When the French mounted their last and greatest exercise in counterinsurgency warfare in Indochina, the battle of Dien Bien Phu, it was a disaster. The plan called for a modest garrison of élite paras and Legionaires to parachute into a remote valley deep in enemy territory. Aerial resupply and aerial firepower would turn this seemingly exposed and isolated position into an impregnable fortress. Viet Minh troops would rush out into the open plane, intent on swallowing up the deceptively vulnerable French position, and air strikes would annihilate them, winning the war more or less at a single stroke. Unfortunately for the paras, French and American planners had seriously overestimated their ability to resupply and support the force deployed from the air. C-47s and C-119s could not mount enough sorties or carry enough food and ammunition in the face of bad weather and heavy enemy fire. At first, only B-26s and PB4Y-2 Privateers could provide any useful coverage of Dien Bien Phu. Bearcats could manage only a single strafing run over the target areas and, even then, had to carry so much extra fuel for the round trip that they could carry no bombs or rockets. By building an airstrip inside the perimeter at Dien Bien Phu, the French were able to base a half-dozen Bearcats at Dien Bien Phu. The strip was long enough for C-47s (but not C-119s), so the French, were for a time, able to supply bombs, ammunition, and food and could evacuate some of the wounded. They even flew in a bulldozer and a couple of dismantled Chaffee tanks. But the flying artillery that the plan counted on was no match for the 75- and 105-mm howitzers that Gen. Giap's soldiers had laboriously hauled cross country to Dien Bien Phu. Heavy shelling quickly made the airstrip unusable, drastically reducing the flow of supplies into the base. The Bearcats could no longer operate from the valley, sharply reducing the volume and timeliness of air support. Giap's heavy automatic weapons—12.7-mm machine guns and 37-mm antiaircraft guns emplaced on the heights above the valley—took a heavy toll of the strike aircraft and transports. Much of available strike capacity had to be dedicated to flak suppression, just so the C-119s could drop desperately needed ammunition and plasma into a rapidly shrinking French perimeter. When Dien Bien Phu finally collapsed, the French war effort in Southeast Asia collapsed with it, and colonial rule came to an end.

As the last, ragged defenders of Dien Bien Phu were being overrun, in May 1954, US President Eisenhower came close to repudiating France's subtle, limited-war strategy in the bluntest way possible—a nuclear strike on Viet Minh positions using unmarked USAF B-29 bombers. Only the difficulty of identifying a worthwhile target and the rapidity of the final collapse prevented him. The idea of low-intensity conflict seemed to have failed miserably, so much so that only massive escalation seemed capable of containing the Red menace. Half a world away, however, French officers were already applying the lessons of Indochina to a new insurgency on France's doorstep, in Algeria.

Algeria presented France with a set of tactical and political problems as different as the North African terrain differed from that of Indochina. Politically, Algeria was an integral part of the French Republic rather than a colony. Its native Berber and Arab people were technically French citizens. But discrimination was rife, and the European immigrants, the pieds noires, had a stranglehold on local government, owned most of the arable land, and controlled the police. When Arabs and Berbers were belatedly allowed to vote for half of a constituent, provincial assembly in 1948 and 1951, blatant fraud gave the pieds noire candidates a sweeping victory. The resulting anti-European riots were savagely repressed, at a cost of thousands of lives.

When long-simmering resentments erupted in open rebellion by the Front pour la Libération Nationale (FLN) in 1954, the Armée de l'Air deployed its best and latest equipment in defense of French Algeria: the new SNCASO SE.535 Mistral jets (license-built DeHavilland Vampires).  But they proved woefully ineffective. They lacked endurance and proved hard to maintain in the sand and dust of North Africa. Worse, they were too fast. It was all but impossible to spot and attack small groups of guerillas from a fast jet. The Republic F-47D Thunderbolts of the advanced training units proved more effective, but they were old and parts were all but impossible to obtain. Since there were no propellor-driven replacement fighter-bombers available in 1955, local French commanders began to arm light transports and trainers. Dassault MD.311 Flamants, Morane-Saulnier MS.500s, and the SIPA S.111s and 211s were fitted with machine guns and 37-mm rockets. These airplanes were formed into Escadrilles d'Aviation Legère d'Appui (EALA)—Light Tactical Aviation Squadrons—and used to good effect. With an observer spotting targets from the rear seat, such an aircraft was roughly twice as likely to spot a target as a conventional fighter-bomber and, given the relative unsophistication of the adversary, its light armament (no more than four rockets or two machine guns for the SIPAs and MS.500s) was not too great a handicap.


The French trainers—particularly the SIPAs, French-made Arado 396s powered by French-made Argus As 410 engines—were, however, too light and too fragile to make efficent warplanes in the long term. As the war dragged on and as the sophistication of the enemy increased, the French had to look for more powerful substitutes. Happily, one of the hastily adapted trainers had proved well-suited to its new tasks. Surplus, American and British T-6 Texans, SNJs, and Harvards turned out to be rugged, easily maintained, and efficient attack aircraft when equipped with a pair of pods housing twin, 7.5-mm machine guns and racks for fragmentation bombs, rockets, and napalm canisters. The Tomcats, as they bevcame known, stood up well in the face of ground fire, had a good endurance, and were still available in quantity. Four escadrilles were formed on the T-6 in 1955. By 1958, the total had risen to more than 30. (Note: the French were perhaps the first to use the T6 in this way, since operations preceded the USAF FT-6 program by some years. Many of the French airplanes were subsequently passed on to third-world clients, including Katanga.)

Given the relative success of the B-26 Invader in Indochina, the French were anxious to obtain the aircraft for use in Algeria (the Indochina aircraft were CIA-owned and, at the conclusion of hostilities, were returned to secret Agency depots on Taiwan and at Clark Field in the Philippines). In 1956, France requested B-26s under MDAP, the US Mutual Defense Aid Program. The aircraft were ostensibly stopgap equipment for France's European bomber squadrons, pending availability of the Vautour twin-jet bomber. They were overhauled by Fleetways in California and Fairey in the UK, then ferried to France. The aircraft equipped two groups, GB.1/91 Gascogne and GB.2/91 Guyenne, both based at Oran. A photoreconaissance squadron, ERP.1/32 Armagnac, received RB-26Cs.

While, in Indochina, B-26s were flown both in bare metal and black, with USAF serials, and with French cockades in the four positions used by the USAF, French B-26s in Algeria were without exception black and marked in French fashion (French serials and six-position national insignia). The top half of the fuselage was usually painted gloss white in order to reduce the heat inside the fuselage. While both 6- and 8-gun B-26Bs were common, most B-26s lacked the the six, built-in wing guns of the late-model aircraft. Consequently, both B-26Bs and B-26Cs carried two or four of the early type twin gun pods under the wings. Turrets were now generally unarmed and were often removed altogether. Most(but not all) received the late-model blown canopy during refurbishment.

By 1957, newly independent Tunisia had become a major source of supply for the FLN. The French responded with the Morice Line, an elaborate system of sensors, electrified border fences, mine fields, and forts stretching the length of Algeria's eastern border. When an incursion was discovered, either by sensors or reconnaissance aircraft, B-26s and Aéronavale Privateers, Lancasters, and, later, Lockheed P2V Neptunes would attack the intruders continuously until helicopter-borne paras could arrive on the scene. The border fortifications worked reasonably well, but French authorities were aware that they could be easily breached by light aircraft. When air-defense radars at the Bône naval base seemed to show multiple tracks at low altitudes and low air speeds over the line, two radar-equipped MD-315 light transports were hastily despatched for night fighting duty. Predictably, they proved too slow and too short on endurance. The French then decided that they needed a special colonial night fighter. A small number of Invaders were thus converted and given the designation B-26N. The aircraft had British AI Mk.X radar (from French Meteor NF.11s), and an armament of two underwing gun pods, each housing two .50-cal machine guns, and two MATRA 122 pods for SNEB air-to-air rockets. By 1961, the B-26N fighters had intercepted 38 light aircraft and helicopters, downing nine.