1940, the war lost

It’s a small booklet, bound in faded black cloth. A time-yellowed label bears a name written with a dip pen: Martin Cyril. My father’s name. Surname first as was and still is customary in France. It’s my father’s flight log in 1939-1940 at the beginning of WWII.

My father, very dapper in his freshly cut apprentice officer uniform. Probably tailor-made, knowing him. Paris, Autumn 1939. A year before, in 1938, Chamberlain for Britain, Daladier for France, had signed the Munich agreement with Hitler, basically abandoning Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The latter had sworn “Czechoslovakia is the last one. I Promise.” Promises, promises. On September 1st 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany. Hitler and Stalin, who had signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact, took over Eastern Europe, cutting Poland in two, the Soviets eventually gaining control of the Baltic republics and Finland.

France, Britain, and western Europe mobilized. My father, 21 then, a Political Science student, was drafted. First enrolled in the Army, he soon switched to the Air Force, and was admitted as “Aspirant”, apprentice officer with a rank equivalent to a Second Lieutenant, in the Air Force Academy at Villacoublay, a southern suburb of Paris. His training flight log is signed by Colonel Stoffer, on December 16th, 1939.

My father, early 1940, in his flight overalls. Airplanes were not pressurized. Flying at 3,000 ft was quite cold. He was training as an observer, taking pictures from the air of enemy positions, movements, targets. No satellites then. Just a 20lbs+ camera with a wooden frame.

First flight: December 15, 1939. Pilot: Sergent-Chef Mamy (Gunnery Sergeant in the US, I think). Strangely enough, in almost all flights, pilots in this log were non-commissioned officers. The log reads: “Vol d’accoutumance”: Habituation flight. Duration 15 minutes. My father had never flown in a plane before. I guess a quarter of an hour in the air was deemed enough for the habituation of the cadets. That was all for December, while Hitler and Stalin ripped Eastern Europe apart. Already three months into the war. No fighting yet in France. Or England.

My father, early 1940. Back from, or ready for a training flight. The plane is a Potez 540. (Had to look it up)

Potez 540. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Designed in the 30’s on WWI concepts, it was a multi-task plane capable of holding a crew of 4 to 5 men. Mixed wood and metal covering over a steel frame. Max speed: 320 kmh. The theory was that speed was less important than fire-power. No comment.

March 1940″. No flights in January or February. Wonder what they did for two months? Strategy lessons on the blackboard? Missions in March: Recon, Bombing (on targets), Photo, Navigation. Most frequent plane: Potez 25 (I’ll go back to that), Leo 137 or 45. Don’t know what that last plane was.

On march 19, a captain de la Fouchardière sneaked in among the cadets and the non-commissioned officers. A possible relative of his, Pierre, joined the Free French Forces in 1941 at 21, fought the entire war in the 2e DB (2nd Armoured Division) under General Leclerc.

Altitudes: 500 to 1200 meters. (1500 to 3,600 ft for the non-metric). No pressurization. No oxygen masks yet. Longest flight: 2h45.

March 20th was my father’s 22nd birthday. He flew with Adjudant-chef Pignolet, and Sergent-chef Choquet. Bombing training #2.

End of March 1940. 12 flights in the month, 18 hours and 20 minutes. One training flight every other day on average. In March.

On the 22 of March, the pilot was Sergeant Sziegreleski. Polish? After Poland’s defeat, many Polish officers and soldiers went to England and France to keep fighting. First radio training on that day.

By the end of March 1940, the Soviet Union had invaded and defeated Finland. The Baltic republics had been submitted by Hitler. No fighting yet in the West. France was “safe” behind the Ligne Maginot. Waiting for the enemy to strike the first blow.

Potez 25, (credit Peyot) the plane on which my father flew most of his training missions at the Air Force Academy. A twin-seat biplane fighter-bomber designed by Henry Potez industries in 1924, it was a major plane in the French Air Force. However, like the Potez 540, its design was closer to WWI than WWII. Compare the Potez 25 to a Messerschmitt 109, a Stuka, or a Spitfire… Maximum speed for a Potez 25: 230 kmh/h (140 mph) as opposed to 520 km/h (320 mph) for the Messerschmitt. Any questions?

I had a colleague called Potez in one of my first jobs after College. I asked him: “Potez, as in Potez 25?”. He nodded.

April 1940″. Still training. Heavy leather jacket for the cold. Potez 540 in the background.

April 1940″. 9 flights until the 20th. A mix of recon, vertical photography, navigation, radio training (T.S.F. Télégraphie Sans Fil, wireless); first exercise of air-to-air firing.

April 1940. When would the fighting begin? I don’t know the plane model behind my father. A Morane-Saulnier maybe? I couldn’t find it on the web. Curiously that little plane doesn’t seem to have a cockpit, as the Spitfire for example. I suspect its speed was low. At high speeds, without a cockpit, the pilot could not face the wind.

Update: Thanks to Gilles Labruyère, ( https://gilscow.wordpress.com/) that little plane has been identified, a Dewoitine D500, a fighter plane developed in the 30’s. The absence of a cockpit was a requirement of the Ministry of Air for “better visibility”…

In April 1940, Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway.

April 20th to 25th, 1940. 13 flights during the month. 16h15 minutes in total. Signed on May 8th in Villacoublay by the Commander of the Air force Academy. The last page of training flights. The rest are blank.

On May 10th, two days later, Hitler attacked France, through the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, bypassing the Ligne Maginot by the North. Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The Air Force Academy was hurriedly moved to the South of France. My father said the officers had told them “they were not ready.”

In nearly 5 months from December 1939 to early May, my father – and his fellow apprentice officers -flew 29 training missions. 38 hours. 6 missions, 8 hours flying per month on average.

Two Potez 25 fly over a city that could be Paris. (Credits below the picture…)

On May 20th, 1940, only ten days after the attack on France, the Wehrmacht cuts the Allied forces in two at the border between Belgium and France. The French military command had ignored aerial photos of Guderian’s concentration of tanks. The British and Canadian forces are evacuated at Dunkerque by the 4th of June 1940 on anything that could sail in the UK.

Paris falls on June 14th. The French Government moves to Bordeaux and gives full powers to Marshall Pétain, who asks for ceasefire on the 17th. On June 18th, De Gaulle speaks on the BBC from London, wowing to continue the fight from abroad. France surrenders on June 22nd, 1940.

Britain will keep on fighting alone for a year and a half, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 1941.

Meanwhile, in the South of France, some hear De Gaulle’s call to keep fighting. My father and a friend decide to go to London. Only problem, the bl..dy fools steal the Colonel’s car… They could have picked any other vehicle, right? No. The Colonel’s car. The Gendarmes arrest them a couple of days later.

“Cyril incarcerated (in) Carcassone. Am at your service (around) meal time, Hotel Terminus. regards. Second Lieutenant Magnan.” June 23 or 26, 1940.

The gendarmes let my father and his friend go the next day. No charges. End of the war for him.

It took five more years and 60-80 million casualties, until May 1945, to defeat Hitler. In part because Chamberlain and Daladier made the “wrong call” in 1938, not standing up to Hitler.

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. So far, only a handful of countries have sent arms and ammunitions to Ukraine. I remember President Macron recalling the French Ambassador in Washington over the Australian submarines affair… As I finish this post, I don’t believe that we have recalled our Ambassador in Moscow, or expelled the Russian Ambassador in Paris.

At this very moment, Ukraine is fighting alone. As the Czechs did in 1938. Who will stop Putin from moving on next to the Baltic republics or Poland, or any other land of his fancy?

Those who ignore History are condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over… Let us remember the old Roman saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum. If (you) want peace prepare (for) war.

125 thoughts on “1940, the war lost

  1. Thank you for this family history and the dashing photos of your father. Perhaps his life was spared by taking the wrong form of transportation. I think your comparison is very apt to current events.

    • Thank YOU Rebe. True, my brothers and sister might never have been born…
      And I’m glad you appreciate the parallel. Who knows how this will end…
      Stay safe.

  2. Particularly with yesterday’s events in Ukraine, the parallels with 1939 are very apparent and very frightening. I will watch the President’s State of the Union address tonight to see what the US plans to do besides economic sanctions.

  3. This is a great story (and pictures) about your father becoming an airplane fighter, Brian. Luckely he didn’t actually have to fight. According to the pictures the Luftwaffe didn’t have to be all that afraid of the French Armée de l’air. The Russian invasion of the Ukrain is ofcourse talk of the day/week over here. About every measure except getting involveded in the actual fighting is done by now. Every country in Europe is alert. Even the Germans are awake. We’ll have to see how this is going and what Russian goals are. Nato very likely is not going to defend the Ukrain. But further steps into European soil probably won’t be tolerated. An important difference between 1940 and now are the presence of nukes. These are…. interesting times.

    • Interesting indeed. I do agree that the Western response seems to be building up. (And no, the Luftwaffe wasn’t afraid… we were sadly a war behind…)
      What I understand now is that Ukraine would be the last fontier. Or Poland again!
      And the nukes do make a difference.
      Thanks for your visit and comment.
      Stay safe.

    • I don’t know what I think. All I know is that bullys should be stopped early. (My whole point about Munich and Czechoslovakia, then Poland…)
      Problem is, Europe has been… negligent.
      One case in point: the French Army has about 200,000 soldiers, out of which only about 36,000 are fully operational. That is: could be deployed. (All public data).
      But. We don’t even have decent military aircraft transport. In Mali, we rent planes from the US and the Russians… It seems we don’t even have drones…
      We are behind. I suspect the UK is about the same and Germany is worse.
      Putin has deployed close to 200,000 troops around and in Ukraine… 🇺🇦

  4. Très intéressante leçon d’histoire à partir des documents venant de ton père .
    J’ai un oncle qui était mobilisé et a été tué par l’aviation allemande à SPIEKER près de DUNKERQUE .
    j’ai des souvenirs très précis de 1940 . Amitiés

    • Merci Michel. Notre génération est la dernière à se rappeler, nos grand-pères et nos pères ont fait les deux guerres.
      Ce carnet est effectivement une leçon d’histoire à lui tout seul…

  5. Tragédie !
    LéO est le diminutif de Lioré et Olivier. Il y a bien un LéO 451, un bombardier. Pas de LéO 137. Pour le peut-être Maurane-Saulnier, je suis sceptique mais je n’ai pas mieux. Le train me paraît également bien rudimentaire pour un chasseur. Une hélice bipale ? Un avion d’entrainement ?
    Belle journée, Brieuc.

    • Tragédie en effet. Quand ça commence, on ne sait jamais où ça finit…
      Je pensais bien que quelqu’un m’aiderait sur le Léo. Je ne connaissais pas Lioré et Olivier… (Je vais demander à mon frère aîné, il est très branché sur le Matos…)
      Sur le carnet il es écrit Léo 137, mais c’est peut-être le Nº de l’avion. Il y a un autre vol sur un Léo 20…
      Sceptique aussi pour le “Maurane”. L’hélice pourrait indiquer un avion d’entraînement mais je crois qu’il n’y a qu’une place. Un avion d’observation?
      Bonne soirée Gilles.

  6. Great Blog-Post…EXCELLENT RESEARCH, and very well WRITTEN!!! All the BEST; and YES…THE WORLD SHOULD have BEEN TAUGHT a LESSON-from September 1939, to May AND September, 1945!!! Yours Aye-Brian CANUCK Murza…Killick Vison, W.W.II Naval Researcher-Published Author, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

  7. What a post. Wow. When I was trained to fly, the instructors drummed this into our heads. “Air speed not altitude.” in case you are wondering, Laskowitz is Ukrainian.

    • So you were Air Force? I was Army. And I remember that after six months I could fire just about anything from 9mm to 81mm mortar (I was a mortar 3 men unit chief) Now? I don’t know.
      Ukainian? Not suprising… I’m very sorry for your country (of origin maybe, but still) and I am very much in admiration of the Ukrainians’ attitude and courage… An example to all of Europe…
      My very best wishes to 🇺🇦

      • I was an Army aviator, a Huey driver who flew medivac missions. I zipped around thy jungles in Vietnam. My heritage is Ukrainian. I really only speak about ten words, but when I listen to new in which the speaker only speaks the Ukrainian language, it feels normal to me.

      • So you were in Nam? Wow. I went to Grad school in the US in ’77. I had several friends who’d been there and went to College on Vets’ benefits. I forget how the programme was called. A few israeli fighter pilots who’d done Kippour too… I was 3 weeks out of the Army. Intense training but no fighting. France was not at war then,
        And I can imagine that if you hear the language the music must sound familiar…
        Ukraine! 🇺🇦

      • I was in country 70-71, out of high school. I enlisted because my ping pong ball number was 13. Infantry or rifleman. Certain death. I tested very well so I went to army flight school and ocs. Most pilots are warrant officers . Because I enlisted I was regular army and therefore a second lt. when I returned I went to college.

      • Infantry is first contact. (Been there, though in peace times.)
        Warrant officer is a non-commissioned officer? I get confused sometimes between English and American. 😉
        (Thank you for your service).
        And you went to College under Vet “benefits” or whatever they called it? (I was in grad school a little later, ’77-79) we might have crossed path. Where did you go to school?

      • Yes. Infantry first with armor and air support from another branch. Warrant officer are non commissioned experts in whatever their MOS is… job description. They have no command responsibility, you’d better listen to a senior WO. My vet benefits were left over WWII benefits as compared to Middle East vets who have post 911 benefits. My BS is from San Jose State University. MS one is from Ohio University. MS 2 is from Loyola New Orleans. PhD is from University of New Orleans. I studied throughout the length of my career.

      • Got it. So WO’s would be staff, not line? A structure I don’t remember in the French Army. ‘could use a bit more of that.
        San José to Ohio to Nawleens? Well done. D’yer speak Sudern? I went to Grad school at the Univershity of Alabamer, Tuscalooser… Roll Tide! Learnt mahself a new lenguage…

      • We have field or staff positions so I guess they would be field. I speak Brooklynese where I was born, which sounds like a subset of New Orleans language called Yat. The two are similar because both were once the biggest port cities in the country and sailors travelled from one to the other. Real New Orleans language sounds like the singer Harry Connick Jr. Not southern at all.

      • Yat? One always learns something new. I only went once to N.O. Briefly. I did have a teacher from Bâton-Rouge, boy, he spoke Sudern, all raght.

  8. Excellent fascinating read and recount of your father’s life during WWII!
    It’s amazing you still have his flight record. Looking forward to the second chapter of this post.
    Indeed, who will stop Putin…the west will be too slow once again – history seems to be repeating.

  9. Excellet and very intersting story. 🙂

    My late father, as a very young lieutenant, was stationed in southeastern (western) Germany as a of the NATO soldier in 1956 in connection with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary – they did not know if the invasion would continue. The entire eastern Europe and Balticum could be next now.

  10. Please allow me to remain silent on this one, just mentioning my playing with tiny plastic airplane models in my childhood, some of them incidentally being Spitfires and Messerschmitts.

    • I did too. Probably both. That’s when I realized I was slightly colour-blind, painting the camouflage on the models. I suddenly realized I could not tell some browns from some greens…

      • Personally I strongly dislike both green and brown so I could be color-blind too and not care about it.

        Those models were likely about 4-5cm long max and plastic was already green, nothing to paint there. Curiously I didn’t have this problem with the green at that young age.

      • It did play tricks on me in the Army… Can’t tell one form the other.
        So those planes were one piece? Not to mount?
        Green? You must have a dislike of uniforms. 😉

      • Oh the models were mountable but there were very few pieces given the small size. Later on there were much larger models on sale but they were too expensive for my cheap parents so I barely got a couple or so: a Concorde (TU-144) and a helicopter (AN-8) – obviously russian versions because… back then. Although the models were built in Germany (DDR) 🙂
        Those did came with small tubes of silvery paint (to mimick aluminum) besides stickers. I preferred to leave them white though.

        Come to think about it, the issue with green may have appeared due to the army. But besides that it must have deeper roots now. Something broken in my brains maybe. Well, not maybe – definitely. 😆

        Enjoy the week-end! 🙂

      • The TU 144 was an “exact” replica. 😉
        DDR was “on the other side” then. I think I’ve seen some of those silvery tubes in some “western models.”
        The green/army issue I can relate to. My Captain was a madman. He gave me 8 days arrest. I had to report to the camp’s prison very night after supper. LOL.

      • Yeah, I was a bit confused about the TU-144, saw it exactly resembling the Concorde and thought which was actually the original. But it didn’t matter, I was too happy to have something. 😉

        Countries were manufacturing good stuff back then, and there were distinct labels on the boxes so we could choose – when we had a choice – between german stuff, polish stuff, russian stuff, chinese stuff and so on. Now it’s at best “Made in the EU” but the vast majority reads “Made in China” or “Made in the PRC” – which is the same thing. And sorry to say but the current chinese stuff being brought to our country is extremely lousy (and I believe it’s on purpose) compared to what they used to export back then.

        Fortunately I didn’t get arrest in the army but the whole organization, the hierarchy and apparent lack of logic in certain activities made me hate it with a passion and exacerbated my problem with authority. I’d rather shoot the captain in the head than murder other soldiers – or worse: civilians – for the pleasure and/or profit of some morons living in luxury in their huge villas.
        On that note I hope and wish they all get what they truly deserve for the current messy situation.

        Enjoy the week-end! 🙂

  11. The personal always brings it home, what a horrible thing war is, and how dangerous when it involves family and friends. Poor deluded Chamberlain.

  12. No body ever wins in a war. — At least not the average person. My granfather was not in the army. He didn’t have to join because he worked for the train. Close to the Polish boarder. He never talked about what he saw in his life.
    Si vis pacem, para bellum. — Scheiße …

    • War is a terrible thing. Glad your grandfather didn’t have to fight.
      My grandfather fought WWI. He never, ever talked about the war either.
      Scheiße indeed…
      Stay safe…

  13. Brian, Thank you for creating this moving post. You are fortunate to have these photos and records from your father’s time in service. The bravery of people then, and now, is astonishing. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge- he survived, but the war affected him negatively for the rest of his life, as I am sure it did most soldiers who lived through it. Let’s hope for peace in the Ukraine soon. 💙💛

    • Thank you Jane. Yes, it’s good to have that. See if one can keep the memory alive…
      Battle of the Bulge? Ardennes right? With Patton I guess. Ardennes was a very messy battle. The counteroffensive almost turned the war around.
      I can imagine the impact on your father… But again, he fought so we could all be free…
      Let’s hope for peace in Ukraine soon. Loved how you did a “flad” with two hearts… Don’t know how to do it. I’ll stick to the flag: 🇺🇦

  14. just curious! Why did you asked me whether I was in Hyderabad in my 18th February 2022 post? That was not nice Guglu, You are one of my closest friends for say more than six or seven years??? I have not been to Hyderabad since 31st October 2015, since 1st Nov 2015 I am prisoner of toxic concrete tomb called Kolkata or Calcutta. ;p

  15. What an interesting and timely post given what’s happening right now! All wars are tragic, it’s unfortunate mankind still has to resort to it. No family or widow wins when a child, husband, or sister, fails to come home. No amount of money or taking care of the war dead’s family will change that.

    • I wish the post were not so “timely”.
      In WWI, my grandfather went to war with his a half a dozen or more brothers. Only my grandfather and two brothers came back.
      The ministry of defence has digitalized all military death certificates of the “Great war”. I have all the certificates of my great-uncles. And I think of their mother, my grea-grandmother, in those days when there was not much mail, when she saw the postman coming down her street. Probably crossing herself and praying that the telegramme would not be for her.

  16. Taking a peak back in history is always fascinating, but to be able to hold onto something an incredible as your father’s flight log ~ wow, and the accompany photo is quite heroic. Be very proud 🙂 A couple weeks ago, I finished reading a book about the Munich Agreement and thought what was happening in Ukraine is almost identical, and it was until Putin actually pushed through with this insane invasion. But your point is made even deeper with the understanding that unchallenged, the Soviet bloc nations should be extremely worried…as should all of Europe.

    Taking a look at your photos of the book, your father, and wondering just how it would feel to live with the pressure and inevitability of war. For you to read the journal entries must have been a treat ~ such a closeness to this period of history. I have to say, your father was a creative adventurer (which explains how you got the same spirit), and this is a bit of a classic “Cyril incarcerated (in) Carcassone. Am at your service (around) meal time, Hotel Terminus. regards. Second Lieutenant Magnan.” Which in hind sight is a godsend, as the French air-force did not perform too well against the Luftwaffe… and you are with us today. Your final paragraph and thoughts is truly the weight which leaders are silently debating: this war in Ukraine must be stopped, we must step up. Great, great, post Brian. A bit of not only history, but of personal insight and political thought. Cheers to you, my friend!

    • Thanks Dallo. All the bits and pieces fit together, right? And had he not stolen the Colonel’s car, my brothers and sister and I might never have been born.
      Yes, step up? But when? Our leaders are so ignorant of history… I think the Poles, Baltic republics are not. (Finland either. Hungary with Orban is a bit of a weird case…)
      And I do like the telegramme too. I’d heard about it, but never seen until my eldest brother (half-bro) the son of my father’s first wife, sent me a scan.
      And to wrap it up, my mother was a Wac in may 1945. You will never guess where she was sent in May 1945. I can post the link if you’re interested.
      Cheers back.

      • Yes, I’d like to see the link to your Mom adventure. It is crazy. And as for your Dad stealing the Colonel’s car, good for him as it was the proper destiny for him to follow 🙂 Never question a decision too much after it’s been made, just go with what lies ahead!

  17. Hi
    The ending call to help Ukraine was well added and powerful

    And enjoyed seeing the photos and learning tidbits about your father – so many little details like the heavy leather jacket and pages with stamps and dates!
    Last year I spent some time immersing into WWI and WWII (not both wars on purpose but you sure can’t understand WWII without the details of WWi ) and that helped me extract a bit more from this post today!

  18. Thank you for sharing your father’s exploits and the history from your side of things. The parallels to the Russia/Ukraine situation are scarily eerie. Proof as you say that when we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.
    No one in my family fought in any war (that I know of) and I am always in awe of those who did.

    • You were lucky. As my brothers and I were. I think we were the first men in the family to not go to war in a very long while…
      Indeed my father never had “a chance” to fight. Which is just as good, we may never have been born. His brother-in-law, my uncle Gérard fought the entire war in the FFF, with General Leclerc… All the way to Berlin.
      Il doit se retourner dans sa tombe, comme on dit, avec ce qui se passe. Du genre: “C’était bien la peine!”

    • Yes. And not just him. I think the family was a bit on the hoarder side. I have pictures all the way to the 19th century. The oldest is one of my great-grandmother when she’s about 10, around 1860. Photography barely beginning.

  19. Wow Brian, what a piece of history! You put it together so interestingly. Seems like you also keep lots of old stuff like me.
    Will people ever learn from history? No! As long as there are psycopaths and narccisists who like to control people, it will carry on forever!

    • We are hoarders, that’s why you and I are “twins”. 😉
      But sadly, ignorance and apathy lead us to waht is happening right now. I’ve mentioned Camus so often that I don’t remember who with. IN 1943 he said: “The Spirit will always loose against the Sword. But the Spirit armed with the Sword will always defeat the Sword alone. And it did then. We’ll just have to pick up the sword again. And fight.

  20. It’s astonishing to see that democratic politicians seem to commit the same mistakes… Chamberlain and Daladier believed Hitler’s lies in 1938 just as Macron and Scholz believed Putin’s lies in February 2022.

    • I have a theory, very personal, that those who aim at politics are not the “best”. The “best” go into science, engineering, or business where there is a lot of competition based on excellence. Not so in the public sector or politics. Other… “talents” come in play, excellence not part of the “palette”. Look at Johnson in the UK or Trump in the US.
      So, yes, they make the same mistakes over an over again…

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