Issue 12 - F4U Corsair: The last of the line
By: David Oliver
The Corsair in French Navy service by David Oliver - The 12,571st and very last Corsair to leave the Chance Vought Dallas production line on January 31, 1953 was an F4U-7 for the French naval air arm, the Aéronavale.
The F4U-7 was something of a hybrid variant of the Corsair, powered by the 2100hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-18W Double Wasp engine with inlets in the lower lip of the cowling of the F4U-4, the downward-sloping engine installation of the F4U-5, and the five stores pylons under each wing of the US Marine Corps AU-1 close-air support variant, although it lacked that type’s heavy armour protection. It was armed with the F4U-5’s four 20mm Mk 6 cannon and could lift an external 4000lb load of bombs or unguided rockets.
The XF4U-7 made its maiden flight at Dallas on July 2, 1952, and was followed by 94 production aircraft purchased by the US Navy and passed on to the Aéronavale through the US Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP). The aircraft retained US Navy Bureau Numbers (BuNos) while in French service.
After the war the French Navy had an urgent requirement for a powerful carrier-born close-air support aircraft to operate from the French Navy’s four aircraft carriers that it acquired in the late 1940s. The first was a former Royal Navy US-built escort carrier, HMS Biter which was returned to the US Navy in April 1945. She underwent a refit in the United States and was loaned to the French Navy renamed the Dixmude.
The second was the former HMS Colossus, a Royal Navy light carrier commissioned in 1944, but which saw no combat service during the Second World War. She served with the British Pacific Fleet in 1945-46, as an aircraft transport and repatriation ship and in 1946, she was transferred to the French Navy, renamed the Arromanches. Two other former US Navy carriers were later transferred to France under the MDAP, the former USS Langley named the La Fayette and the former USS Belleau Wood named the Bois Belleau.
Since 1945, the French had been fighting to regain its control of Indo-China, and bitter fighting had broken out with China-backed Viet Minh guerrillas. In October 1945, PBY-5A Catalinas of Flotille 8F based at Agadir in Morocco, became the first Aéronavale unit to be sent to Indo-China when they landed on Saigon’s Tan-Son-Nhut airfield. They took part in the landing of French troops at Haiphong in March 1946. One of the Catalinas provided transport for the Viet Minh leader, Ho Chi Minh between Hanoi and Halong Bay where he had an unsatisfactory meeting with French governor-general of Indo-China, Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu aboard the cruiser Emile Bertin.
French efforts to negotiate a compromise with Ho’s regime broke down in December 1946, and following the resumption of fighting and extension of air operations in the Tonkin area, the headquarters of the French Navy decided to send an aircraft carrier to Indo-China.
In January 1947, the Dixmude cast off from Toulon with Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers of Flotille 3F embarked. In March, these aircraft struck targets on the Annam coast before the carrier sailed to the Gulf of Tonkin where its aircraft supported ground forces in the north of Indo-China. Because of catapult problems, the Dixmude was forced to return to France after only a month on station. The carrier returned to its Southeast Asia station in September 1947 with the Flotille 4F Dauntlesses embarked. She also carried containers of Armée de l’Air Ju-52 transport aircraft and Spitfires.
On arrival in Indo-China, the Dauntlesses initially operated from Saigon and later from Hanoi in support of ground troops striking targets in the Tonkin area. At the end of the year, the squadron returned to Tan-Son-Nhut Air Base near Saigon and took part in missions over Camau and the Plaine of Jarres in the Mekong Delta. Flotille 4F’s aircraft and aircrews returned to Toulon on board the Dixmude in May 1948. The carrier was withdrawn from French Navy service the following year.
The following year, the French secretary of defence decided to send the recently acquired Arromanches to Indo-China with Dauntlesses and Seafire IIIs of Flotille 4F embarked. When on station, its aircraft struck Cochin-China in the centre of Annam, and Tonkin, for most of the time operating from airfields. The carrier returned to France in January 1949 after a three-month cruise during which its aircraft carried out 152 missions and 255 flight hours.
Because of lack of aircraft, Aéronavale Seafires and Dauntlesses were being taken out of service, and its Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats and Curtiss SB2C Helldivers were starting to replace them, no carrier was sent to Indo-China for more than two years until the Arromanches set sail again from Toulon in August 1951 with Flotille 1F Hellcats and Flotille 3F Helldivers remaining in Indo-China waters until May 1952. The main missions of its squadrons were those of attacking roads, bridges, railway tracks and providing close air support for ground troops. During one of these missions two Hellcats and a Helldiver were lost to ground fire along with their crews.
At the end of August 1952, the Arromanches sailed again from Toulon under the command of Capitaine de Vaisseau Lahaye with Flotille 12F Hellcats and Flotille 9F Helldivers. On the carrier’s arrival off Indo-China, its aircraft struck communication routes between North Vietnam and China while most of the missions were CAS for the troops fighting in the delta of the Tonkin. Because of re-occurring problems with the carrier’s catapult, its aircraft operated from shore bases during which time one of the Helldivers was shot down by ground fire and its two-man crew killed. In January 1953, the squadrons struck targets in central Annam and at An-Khe in Central Highlands and provided CAS during amphibious operations at Qui-Nhon.
The following month, aircraft from the Arromanches were deployed to Cat-Bi Air Base in Haiphong where they took part in more CAS missions alongside Armée de l’Air units. In April, the La Fayette arrived at Halong Bay where the surviving 9F and 12F aircraft landed on. The French were now fighting on extended fronts stretching from the mountainous Xieng-Khouang region of north Laos to the Plaine of Jarres. As a result more and more Aéronavale aircraft were required fly extended missions of up to three hours in length and often in bad weather. Following a challenging deployment the La Fayette and its aircraft returned to France at the beginning of June.
It was replaced in October by the Arromanches with 3F Helldivers and 11F Hellcats whose primary mission was providing CAS over North Vietnam during which a Hellcat was lost to ground fire north of Hanoi on December 5, 1953.
Faced with the ongoing Indo-China conflict, in October 1952, several Aéronavale pilots had been sent to NAS Oceana in the United States to be trained on the Corsair that was entering service. On January 15, 1953 Flotille 14F, commanded by LV Pierre Ménetttier, and based at Karouba Air Base near Bizerte in Tunisia, became the first Aéronavale unit to receive the F4U-7 Corsair. Flotille 12F began replacing its Hellcats with the Corsair on June 10 and it was followed by 15F in October 1953. Between January 1953 to April 1954, the pilots trained extensively to gain their carrier qualifications with their new mounts prior to being deployed to Indo-China. Flotille 14F pilots arrived at Da Nang on April 17, 1954, but without their aircraft. The next day, the carrier USS Saipan delivered 25 former USMC AU-1 Corsairs that had been flown by VMA-212 ‘Devil Cats’ for the last year of the Korean War.
The AU-1 variant of the Corsair was developed specifically for the Marine Corps for use in the Korean War and first flew at the end of January 1952. Designed as a dedicated ground attack aircraft powered by 2300hp R-2800-83WA Double Wasp, the first of 111 AU-1 Corsair flew at the end of January 1952, the last being delivered on October 10. The heavily armoured AU-1 was optimised for low-level performance and better suited to airfield rather than carrier operations, especially when carrying a full weapons load.
After seven years of fruitless and costly fighting against the Communist Viet Minh guerrillas, the commander-in-chief of French forces in Indo-China, General Henri Navarre, sought a decisive pitched battle on what he considered suitable ground, a three mile wide and nine mile long valley at Dien Bien Phu, deep in the hills of north western Vietnam close to the Laos border. Here he established a series of strongpoints in November 1953 manned by 14,000 French troops.
The Viet Minh, led by General Gap, ringed the valley with 72,000 fighters, and in an offensive which began on March 13, 1954, poured in fire and quickly knocked out the only two airstrips, thereafter making the French dependent for ammunition and supplies on parachute drops. The Viet Minh, tightening a circle of trenches around the French defenders, attacked constantly with mortar and artillery fire, over-running the strongpoints one by one.
Since January, Aéronavale units had been in action over Dien Bien Phu with 11F Hellcats based at Haiphong’s Cat-Bi Air Base, and 3F Helldivers based at Hanoi’s Bach-Mai Air Base. On a separate operation LV Doë de Maindreville was killed when his Hellcat was shot down over Halong Bay on March 13, but LV Lespinas was the first Hellcat pilot to be shot down by ground fire and killed while operating over Dien Bien Phu. Aéronavale losses mounted with LV Andrieux, the commanding officer of the 3F crashing close to Meos on March 31, LV Laugier shot down and killed on April 9, while LV Klotz managed to bail out of his damaged aircraft on April 23. SM Robert was another pilot whose Hellcat was hit by anti-aircraft fire and although he was also able to bail out on April 26, he was captured by the Viet Minh and died later in captivity.
The USMC AU-1 Corsairs delivered to the Aéronavale were in a war-weary condition, and 24 of them are immediately declared unserviceable. Two days later, after a formidable effort by French and US technicians, 16 of the aircraft were on the flightline and were flown to Hanoi’s Bach Mai Air Base on April 23.
Although the French ground forces fought back as well as their acute shortage of ammunition would allow, their last three strongholds were over-run on May 7, 1954, and the defenders surrendered. However, the fighting did not cease. By now the Corsairs of 14F were in the thick of the action for the first time, and began to take losses. LV Nicodémo was the first casualty when his Corsair was brought down on May 26, followed by SM Lestourgie who was killed in action on July 7. The Aéronavale continued to mount operations over the area until July 21, when an international agreement to split Vietnam into the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, and the Republic of South Vietnam was signed in Geneva.
During the two-month action, the Corsairs flew 959 sorties totalling 1335 flight hours. They dropped some 700 tons of bombs and fired more than 300 rockets and 70,000 20mm rounds. Six aircraft were damaged and two destroyed. In September, 14F’s F4U-7 Corsairs were loaded aboard the Dixmude which brought them back to France in November. The surviving AU-1s were taken to Manila in the Philippines on board the La Fayette where they were returned to the US Navy. In early 1956 she returned to South Vietnam which had been partitioned after the ceasefire, equipped with F4U-7 Corsairs of Flotille 15F and TBF Avengers which carried out the last Aéronavale’s last missions in Indo-China in June 1956, only months before it played a central role in a short but sharp operation much nearer to home.
The 120-mile long Suez Canal, a vital trade link between Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, was completed by the French in 1869 but after the 1888 Suez Canal Convention, Britain assumed overall responsibility for keeping it open to world shipping. In 1914 Egypt was declared a British Protectorate with His Majesty’s Government providing protection for the Canal Zone. After the end of the Second World War, Britain continued to occupy the Canal Zone as anti-British feeling reached its zenith in 1951. After Egypt’s King Farouk was ousted in a coup masterminded by the Egyptian Army, led by Colonel Abdel Nasser took power in 1954.
Tensions began to rise as Nasser formed close ties with the Soviet Union When Britain refused to sell arms to Egypt and withdrew funding of the Aswan Dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on July 26, and seized all of its revenues.
Having failed to convince the United States to take action over the issue, Britain and France began planning to send a naval task force to retake control of the Canal, with the covert support of Israel. On October 29, 1956 Israel invaded Sinai Peninsula and headed for Suez. The following day the Israeli and Egyptian governments were handed an Anglo-French ultimatum stating the British and French forces would occupy key positions on the Canal unless military activity ceased and the belligerents withdrew 10 miles either side of the Canal.
As planned, Israel agreed to the terms but Egypt did not and a joint Anglo-French force was despatched to the eastern Mediterranean. In the early hours of November 1, RAF bombers based in Malta attacked Egyptian airfields with the task of destroying the Egyptian Air Force. These missions continued for two more nights with Aéronavale Corsairs from 14F and 15F Flotillas embarked on the Arromanches and the La Fayette joining in the action codenamed Operation Mousquetaire, (Musketeer). They were tasked with destroying Egyptian Navy ships at Alexandria but adjacently moored US Navy ships prevented the successful completion of the mission. On November 3, six F4U-7s from the Arromanches and 12 from the La Fayette, attacked airfields in the Delta during which LV Lancrenon was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft fire. Two more Corsairs were damaged when landing back on the carriers.
British and French paratroops were dropped on November 5, over Port Said and Port Fuad in order to take both towns. British troops seized Gamil – west of Port Said, while French troops seized Port Fuad near a twin-bridge that connected the town with the road to the south. When the French had trouble taking the twin-bridge, the Corsairs were called in to attack defensive gun emplacement, after which little difficulty was experienced. The following day, the first amphibious landings took place with Royal Marine Commandos landing to the east of Port Said and French marines landing at Port-Fuad.
However, November United Nations resolutions condemned the Anglo-French operation and when it was clear that the United States was not backing it, the invasion came to a halt. On November 7, the UN decided to establish a peace force and the first contingent arrived Abu Sueir airfield on November 15. After the ceasefire, British and French troops maintained patrols in the Port Said area until the arrival of UN troops. The French aircraft carriers arrived back at Toulon in early December. The Corsairs engaged in Operation Mousquetaire had dropped a total of 25 tons of bombs, and fired more than 500 rockets and 16,000 20mm rounds, with every mission flown from the carriers.
Algeria became part of Metropolitan France in 1848, but independence movements spurred on by the French humiliation in Indo-China, led to uprisings in 1954 which developed into full-scale war involving hundreds of thousands of French soldiers and airmen, and of thousands of French and Algerian casualties.
On November 1, 1954, six months after the disastrous end of France’s war in Indo-China, several bomb attacks were made against the ‘black feet’, French citizens born in France and living in Algeria. These acts led the French Army to another conflict, this time against rebel Arab factions who wanted independence for their country. During the eight-year war, between 50,000 and 400,000 soldiers and airmen were involved in the conflict. The Aéronavale carried out various types of missions over North Africa, ranging from tactical transport to reconnaissance and close air support.
Hardly had they disembarked from the carriers that took part in Operation Mousquetaire at the end of 1956, all three Corsair Flotillas, normally based at NAS Hyères in southern France and Karouba in Tunisia, moved to Telergma and Oran airfields in Algeria from where they provided CAS and helicopter escort. They were joined by the last Corsair unit, Flotille 17F established at Hyères on April 17, 1958. Between February and March 1958, several strikes and CAS missions were launched from the Bois-Belleau, which was the only carrier involved in the Algeria War. Aéronavale Aquilons of the 16F and 11F also intervened in 1958 from Karouba and Algiers-Maison Blanche, where a small naval air station had been built.
The bitter struggle between French forces and indigenous Arabs was reaching crisis point. Warfare was endemic but the many thousands of French settlers saw no reason to abandon their homes and businesses, and were becoming a potent political force. In May 1959, the settlers rioted and the French Army was given special powers to restore order. The Army, however, was on the settlers’ side and called on war hero General Charles de Gaulle to take charge. On June 1, 1960 de Gaulle was appointed French Prime Minister and subsequently managed to persuade the settlers to accept a free election to decide the future of Algeria. Following that election, de Gaulle became President in January 1960 and began peace negotiations. On March 18, 1962, agreement was reached at Evian-les Bains between representatives of the French government and the Algerian provisional government to terminate the civil war and for the granting of full autonomy to the Algerian state that resulted in Algeria gaining its independence in July 1962.
In the meantime, the carrier Bois Belleau had been withdrawn from North African waters and was returned to the United States in September 1960 and she was stricken from US Naval records the following month. Although the La Fayette played no active part in the Algerian War, she took part in the repatriation of some of the more than 900,000 French Algerian citizens to metropolitan France during 1962. After more than a decade of French Navy service, the carrier was returned to the United States in March 1963. The last Algeria-based French Naval Forces did not leave Mers-el-Kebir until 1968.
In 1954, the French Government decided to stop deploying military forces in Tunisia which had been a French protectorate since 1883. Nationalist agitation, sparked by the uprising in Algeria, forced France to recognise Tunisian independence and sovereignty in 1956. The constituent Assembly deposed the Bey on July 25, 1957, declared Tunisia a republic, and elected Habib Bourgiba as its first president.
However, France continued to station military forces at Bizerte and in fact planned to extend the airbase. In 1961, probably in response to pressures by other Arab leaders, Bourguiba asked France to evacuate the base, which, according to the agreement on independence, was to remain a French military and naval base. When the French government did not respond, Tunisia imposed a blockade on the base on July 17, hoping to force its evacuation. This resulted in a battle between militiamen belonging to the ruling Neo-Destour party and the French military which lasted three days.
French paratroopers carried by Armée de l’Air Noratlas transports and escorted by Corsairs of the 12F and 17F Flotillas, were dropped to reinforce the base and the Aéronavale went on the offensive with air strikes on Tunisian troops and vehicles. Corsairs armed with guns, bombs, rockets, and Aquilons of the Flotille 11F armed with guns and rockets went into action between July 19 and July 21, carrying out more than 150 sorties during the battle. Although none of the French aircraft were lost during the operation, three were damaged by ground fire. After heavy Tunisian casualties, a ceasefire was declared on July 23, 1961 and the Corsairs from 12F and 17F Flotillas finally left Bizerte by the end of the year. France finally ceded the city and base to Tunisia in 1963 after the war in Algeria had ended.
On the Homefront
Between their many overseas deployments, Aéronavale Corsairs returned to their shore base at NAS Hyères in the south of France close to Toulon. Apart from the four operational Flotillas, several other shore-based units were equipped with the Corsair.
Escadrille 10S, attached to the Centre d’Experimentation Practique de l’Aeronautique (CEPA) used a few Corsairs based at St Raphael which was an experimental establishment for testing new equipment, two of which were lost when the nearby Fréjus-Malpasset dam broke in December 1959 and flooded the airfield. Others were assigned to Escadrille 57S, a training unit based at NAS Khouribga in north western Morocco.
In early 1959, the Aéronavale experimented with the Vietnam War-era Nord SS.11 wire-guided anti-tank missile on the Corsair. The 12F pilots trained for this experimental programme were required to manually ‘fly’ the missile at about two kilometers from the target at low attitude with a joystick using the right hand while keeping track of a flares mounted on the rear of the missile, and piloting the aircraft with the left hand, a challenging exercise in a single-seat aircraft under combat conditions. Despite some effective results being reported during the tests, the weapon was not adopted by operational Corsairs during the ongoing Algerian War.
By the early 1960s, two new modern aircraft carriers, the Clemenceau and the Foch, had entered service with the French Navy and with them a new generation of jet-powered combat aircraft. The Corsairs’ days were numbered. Flotille 15F was the first unit to replace its Corsairs with the Dassault Etendard IVM in June 1962 followed by 17F in January 1964. Flotille 12F was disbanded at the end of 1963 but would be re-formed and re-equipped with the Corsair’s jet-powered successor, the Chance Vought F-8E(FN) Crusader in March 1965 along with Flotille 14F.
Flotille 14F departed Bizerte for Hyères at the end of 1963 to become the last Aéronavale unit to fly the Corsair. In its 11-year service with 14F, they had flown 40,845 hours, made 4690 deck landings and 2201 catapult launches. A total of 163 Corsairs, 94 F4U-7s, and 69 AU-1s most of which were used for attrition replacements and spares, were operated by the Aéronavale over a 12-year period, and for most of that time they were involved in combat operations in Indo-China, the Middle East and North Africa. By mid-1964, the surviving F4U-7 and AU-1 variants of Flotille 14F made the short 15 kilometre hop from Hyères to Cuers, a major overhaul and repair base for Aéronavale aircraft. It was at Cuers that the last French Corsairs were withdrawn from service on October 1, 1964 following a 16-ship flypast on September 28.