Invader in Service with L'Armee de l'Air

Last revised August 26, 2000

Beginning in January of 1951, the French Armee de l'Air acquired Invaders from the USA to fight in its colonial wars, first in Indochina and then later in Algeria. Next to the US Armed Forces, France was the largest user of the Douglas Invader, operating at one time or another over 200 of these aircraft.


In the 19th century, France established colonial domination over much of Indochina. Politically, the territory of Vietnam was administered by French nationals, with the assistance of Vietnamese locals at low-level, low-paying jobs. State monopolies on the production and sale of alcohol, opium, and salt were imposed. Huge tracts of land in southern Vietnam were turned over to French settlers and their Vietnamese collaborators. The resulting plantation system of agriculture transformed southern Vietnam into a rice exporting area.

In September of 1940, Japanese forces occupied much of Indochina, but allowed the French (France had surrendered to Germany in June of 1940 and the Vichy government in Paris was now a de-facto ally of Germany) to continue their colonial administration of the area. A coalition of Communist and nationalist groups was established in China to fight against Japanese occupation of Vietnam and IndoChina. The organization was officially known as Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (League for the Independence of Vietnam), but usually known as Viet Minh. The leader of the Viet Minh was Nguyen Tat Thanh, who was better known as Ho Chi Minh. During the war, the Viet Minh provided the only significant organized resistance in Vietnam to the Japanese occupation. The Viet Minh worked with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a US intelligence agency, in helping to recover downed American aircrews. In addition, the OSS helped the Viet Minh to build up a small guerilla force.

In March 1945, Japan ousted the Vichy French and assumed direct rule over Vietnam. The Viet Minh duly stepped up their anti-Japanese activities. By the time Japan surrendered to the United States in August 1945, the Viet Minh represented the strongest political force in Vietnam. After the departure of the Japanese, the Viet Minh leader, Ho Chi Minh publically declared Vietnam independent on September 2, 1945. Ho attempted to negotiate the end of colonial rule but without success. Assisted by the British and the Nationalist Chinese, the French began to return to re-assume colonial control of Indochina. The French army shelled Haiphong harbor in November of 1946, and by December of 1946 open warfare was taking place between the French and the Viet Minh. On December 19, 1946, the War of Resistance against the French forces burst out. The French seized control of several cities, and the resistance forces had to withdraw from those key cities and conduct the guerrilla warfare against the French Expeditionary Army.

The French Armee de l'Air was in a rather weak state at that time, with the only combat aircraft available being a few Spitfires plus some transport aircraft that could be converted into makeshift bombers in an emergency. These were supplemented by some Bell P-63 Kingcobras delivered in 1949.

At first, the United States attempted to stay clear of the Indochina war, even expressing some sympathy for the Viet Minh cause because their anticolonialist stance. Ho's 1945 declaration of independence had, in fact, closely followed the format of America's 1776 Declaration of Independence. However, following the Communist takeover of China in 1949, President Truman's attitude toward the Indochina war changed. On May 8, 1950, it was announced that the USA would provide aid to the French forces fighting in Indochina.

Initially, the French were to supposed to get F-51D Mustangs, but the outbreak of war in Korea forced the United States to substitute Grumman F6F Hellcats instead. However, what was really needed was a force of piston-engined medium bombers. Despite the pressing needs of the Korean War, the US government decided that it could spare a squadron of Invaders for use by the French in Indochina.

In November of 1950, French crews began training on Invaders belonging to USAF units stationed in France. The following month, they moved to Indo-China and were supplied with 17 B-26B and eight B-26C Invaders drawn from USAF surplus stocks and refurbished in Japan before delivery to Indochina.

The first combat sortie was flown on February 1, 1951. By October 1, 1951, the French Invaders had dropped 1767 tons of bombs and 218 napalm containers. One of the problems was that many of the B-26Bs had as many as 18 machine guns and consumed ammunition at a prodigious rate. By early 1954, the French air units in Indochina were seriously overextended, and the war against the Viet Minh was nowhere close to being won. With the end of the Korean War, the US government decided to supply additional aircraft to support the French effort in Indochina. This brought the Armee de l'Air B-26 squadrons up to a strength of 25 aircraft each. These additional aircraft were not officially transferred to the Armee de l'Air but remained on USAF charge. In addition, USAF mechanics were sent to Indochina to help maintain the Invaders.

During the battle for Dien Bien Phu, which lasted from March to May of 1954, seven Invaders were lost in action. Four of them were shot down over the besieged garrison itself, with a fifth crashing in Laos due to damage received over Dien Bien Phu. Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh on May 8, and 14,000 French troops surrendered. The loss of Dien Bien Phu had a disastrous effect on French morale. Most of the air crews had to be grounded after the end of the battle due to fatigue. The decision was made to negotiate a settlement with the Viet Minh. The Geneva Accords were signed on July 21, 1954, followed by an armistice on August 1 which formally ended the war. France surrendered all claims in Indochina and relinquished control in Vietnam north of the 17th parallel to a new Communist government headed by Ho Chi Minh. The country was partitioned into two separate states of North and South Vietnam. According to the terms of the Geneva Accords, Vietnam would hold national elections in 1956 to reunify the country, and the boundary at the 17th parallel would vanish. 

During the fighting, a total of 113 B-26Bs, B-26Cs, and RB-26Cs had been supplied to French forces in Indo-China, enough to equip three bomber groups (Groupe de Bombardement 1/19 *Gascogne*, GB 1/25 *Tunisie* and GB 1/91 *Bourgogne*, plus one reconnaissance flight (Escadrille de Reconnaissance Photographique ERP.2/19 *Armagnac*). The B-26 units had flown 33,000 hours in 15,000 missions, delivering 18,500 tons of ordnance. During the Indochina War, 25 Invaders were lost either in combat on in flying accidents. Armee de l'Air Invaders operating in Indochina were usually in natural metal finish (sometimes with black nacelles) or in overall black. The Armee de l'Air did not issue new serial numbers to the Invaders, and they continued to carry their USAF serials. They often also kept their USAF "buzz numbers" on the rear fuselage, consisting of the letters "BC" followed by the last three digits of the serial.

Before they left Indochina, the French B-26 units were disbanded and their aircraft were returned to the USA. Not a single one of these aircraft was purchased by the Armee de l'Air for use in France.


In the early 1950s, a total of seven surplus Invaders was purchased by the French government for use in various test and training programs. The first of these arrived in July of 1951. Seven more were acquired in 1953.

The North African nation of Algeria had been annexed by France in 1834. Shortly thereafter, France began to colonize Algeria in earnest, and European settlers poured into the country. To encourage settlement, the French confiscated or purchased lands at low prices from Muslim owners. Algeria became an overseas department of France, controlled for all practical purposes by the European minority, the colons (colonists). All colons shared a passionate belief in Algérie Française-a French Algeria. The Muslim population of Algeria remained a disadvantaged majority, subject to many restrictions. By French law they could not hold public meetings, carry firearms, or leave their homes or villages without permission. Legally, they were French subjects, but to become French citizens, with full rights, they had to renounce their faith.

Algerian nationalism began to surface immediately after the First World War. There were some attempts to set up an Algerian national assembly, but these were scuttled by stubborn resistance to reform on the part of the colons. After the Second World War, the Algerian Organic Statute (1947) set up Algeria's first parliamentary assembly, with an equal number of European and Muslim delegates, but this satisfied neither natives nor colons and proved ineffective.

In March of 1954, a revolutionary committee known as the Front de Liberation Nationale, or FLN was founded in Egypt. It had the goal of total independence for Algeria. In November of 1954, armed guerilla action began with coordinated attacks on public buildings, military and police posts, roads, bridges, and communications installations.

The initial uprising failed, and the French Army quickly pushed the rebels back. However, popular support for the FLN gradually grew. The uprising spread rapidly and soon forced the French to send in more troops. A series of bloody reprisals and counter-reprisals followed. Indiscriminate murders and kidnappings of Europeans and Muslims who did not actively support the FLN took place on a regular basis, and colon and French army units raided Muslim villages and numerous massacres of civilians took place.

It was decided that a couple of squadrons of B-26 Invaders were needed for the Algerian war, pending the availability of Vantour jet bombers then under development in France. In July 1956, an initial batch of 36 Invaders were allocated to MDAP project 6B541, followed by 12 more in August, and two more in September.

The Invaders were drawn from surplus stocks and overhauled in the USA before being ferried to France. The first Invader arrived at Oran in Algeria in August of 1956. Two bomber squadrons, Groupe de Bombardement 1/91 Gascogne and GB 2/91 Guyenne were set up at Oran to receive them. The two bomber squadrons became operational in early 1957. Most of the French B-26s retained their dorsal gun barbettes (which were fully armed), but only a few of the planes had the ventral barbette in place (without guns).

During the first year of combat in Algeria, the Invaders were used for level bombing as well as for dive bombing and strafing. When dive bombing or strafing, they usually operated under the direction of a forward air controller, which marked the target with white phosphorus. In addition, B-26s sometimes operated patrols over "free fire" zones, which were areas from which all civilians had previously been evacuated and where anything moving was assumed to be hostile.

By early 1958, the French armed forces had largely obtained the upper hand over the FLN. Collective punishment was meted out to entire villages suspected of harboring guerillas. Whole groups were deported to refugee camps. An electrified fence was installed along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders to cut off the FLN supply lines. However, despite their military successes the French were unable to achieve any sort of political settlement to the war. The armed suppression of the Algerian insurrection was increasingly being criticized internationally as a "dirty colonialist war", and France's NATO allies were worried its commitment of so many forces to an unpopular war.

In May of 1958, irritated at what they saw as vacillation, the colons and French army officers in Algeria conspired to overthrow the French government in Paris. The insurrection spread rapidly and threatened to bring civil war to France. A Committee of Public Safety was set up, which demanded the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle. The General was returned to power in June of 1958 to serve as premier, and the French National Assembly gave him the power to rule by decree for six months and to supervise the drafting of an new constitution. The Fifth Republic was approved by a referendum on September 28, 1958, and on December 21, 1958 General de Gaulle was elected as President. The General has as one of his important goals the defeat of the FLN and the maintenance of a French Algeria.

On July of 1959, the Armee de l'Air acquired an additional 26 Invaders from the USA. These planes had originally been authorized for reclamation at the Chateauroux Air Depot in central France. It is not clear whether the Invaders were provided under MAP. Since the war in Algeria was a politically-sensitive matter, it is probable that this transfer was actually done "off the record", with the French being told simply to walk into Chateauroux and help themselves to whatever they could find.

One of the more interesting missions of the Invader during the Algerian war was that of night fighter. In 1961, ECN.1/71 was equipped with eight Invaders that were specially modified as night fighters to intercept aircraft that were attempting to supply FLN guerillas from bases in Tunisia. These aircraft were B-26Cs with glass noses replaced by a British AI Mk. X radar taken from surplus Gloster Meteor NF.11s. They were armed with a twin 0.50-inch machine gun package underneath each wing. In addition, there were two Matra type 122 rocket pods, each containing nineteen SNEB air-to-air rockets. They were unofficially known as B-26N. However, by the time that the B-26Ns became operational, supply aircraft coming in from the Tunisian side of the border were increasingly rare, and only a few interceptions were made.

Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, the French forces were generally victorious in most of their battles with the FLN. President de Gaulle initially had the support and backing of the military, since he had given orders for the French armed forces to pursue the Algerian campaign to full victory. However, by 1959 President de Gaulle found himself looking at a seemingly endless conflict in Algeria that promised to consume a ever-increasing toll in lives and treasure, and was becoming increasingly willing to negotiate with the FLN for the creation of a semi-independent Algeria to bring the conflict to an end. He announced his intention to allow Algerians to choose between independence and continued association with France.

This made the military in Algeria extremely unhappy, and many officers who had initially backed de Gaulle's return to power now turned bitterly against him. An unsuccessful revolt against de Gaulle was staged in early 1960. Four generals carried out a coup in April of 1961 in Algeria and made plans to send a squadron of paratroopers to seize Paris and depose President de Gaulle. However, the Air Force and Navy remained loyal to de Gaulle, and all military operations by the B-26-equipped units were temporarily suspended. The coup collapsed within a few days, but some of the rebellious officers set up the Organisation Armee Secrete (OAS) to continue the struggle for a French Algeria. The OAS carried out a brutal campaign of terrorism against both the FLN and the French authorities in Algeria.

The operations of the B-26 combat units in Algeria were essentially halted by the military coup against President de Gaulle. A ceasefire was finally signed on March 18, 1962. The last operational use of the Invader in Algeria was actually against remnants of the OAS, being a flyover of the OAS stronghold at Bab el Oued in Algiers before it was stormed and taken by regular army units.

Algeria voted overwhelmingly for independence in July of 1962, the country officially being named the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria and the B-26-equipped units left for France shortly thereafter. Most of the French colons had left Algeria by the end of 1962.

The Armee de l'Air began to withdraw its B-26s from service in April of 1962, with some being scrapped and others being stored. Some ended up on the civilian market, and four were preserved in museums in France.


  1. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

  2. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920: Volume I, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1988.

  3. American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  4. Foreign Invaders--The Douglas Invader in Foreign Military and US Clandestine Service, Dan Hagedorn and Leif Hellstrom, Midland Publishing, Ltd, 1994.

  5. US Library of Congress Country Study--Vietnam

  6. US Library of Congress Country Study--Algeria

  7. US Library of Congress Country Study--France