Operation Paula (i)

This was a German air operation designed to destroy the remnants of the French air force and also the French vehicle manufacturing capability in the Paris area before the launch of ‘Rot’ (iii) two days later (3 June 1940).

By 3 June, the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and some French and Belgian forces had been evacuated from the continent at Dunkirk in ‘Dynamo’, the Netherlands and Belgium had surrendered, and most of the French first-line mobile formations destroyed or otherwise rendered ineffective. To complete the defeat of France, the Germans were now planning to implement ‘Rot’ (iii) as a second-phase operation with the object of taking the other parts of France they wanted, and in the process destroying much of France’s surviving ground and air forces.

The Germans rightly appreciated, as they had in ‘Sichelschnitt’, that the key to achieving this objective swiftly and with minimum losses to themselves, was total air superiority. ‘Paula’ (i) was designed to provide this by eliminating the rump of the French air force while at the same time continuing to provide support for the German ground forces. The Luftwaffe entrusted the task to a force of some 1,100 aircraft of five major air formations, namely General Ulrich Grauert’s I Fliegerkorps, Generalleutnant Bruno Loerzer’s II Fliegerkorps, General Alfred Keller’s IV Fliegerkorps, Generalleutnant Robert Ritter von Greim’s V Fliegerkorps and Generalmajor Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps.

‘Paula’ (i) was launched on 3 June, but British ‘Ultra’ intelligence had warned the French of the impending attack and the offensive did not achieve the strategic results which had been forecast by Generalfeldmarschall Hermann von Göring’s Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, although the fact was not signally important as the overall disintegration of the French military capability shrouded the fact.

General Hugo Sperrle, commander of Luftflotte III, had for some time being considering attacks on Paris, and on 22 May ordered the II Fliegerkorps and V Fliegerkorps to employ Oberstleutnant Wolf von Stutterheim’s Kampfgeschwader 77 and Generalleutnant Martin Fiebig’s 1st Fliegerdivision, and the III Gruppe of Generalmajor Karl Angerstein’s Kampfgeschwader 28 for the bombing of Paris and its environs, but adverse weather prevented this.

On 23 May, determined to press ahead with his plan, Sperrle ordered Oberst Otto Hoffmann von Waldau and Major Helmuth von Hoffman, of the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe staff and the Gruppenkommandeur of the III/KG 28 respectively, to plan ‘Paula’ (i) as a wide-ranging operation against French airfields, warplanes and vehicle manufacturing factories in and around Paris. German reconnaissance aircraft reported 1,244 aircraft (including between 550 and 650 single-engined machines) on airfields in and around Paris, and ‘Paula’ (i) was based on the intent to destroy this French air power together with the majority of the aviation factories in the area. The French anti-aircraft defences were mapped, so the German intelligence of French ground defences was therefore good. The operation was due to be carried out on 30 May, but bad weather once again prevented thew undertaking.

What the Germans did not appreciate, however, was the fact that the operation had already been compromised by poor staff work and an unquestioning confidence in the German Enigma encryption machine, whose Luftwaffe code had been broken by British intelligence, which warned the French. On 30 May the British intercepted a message sent by Grauert discussing the arrangements he was making for his corps, and the effects of this ‘leak’ were compounded by the incomplete nature of the orders received by the units earmarked for the assault. Oberst Johann-Volkmar Fisser, the Geschwaderkommodore of the KG 77, was given incomplete targeting orders and complained about this fact to the headquarters of the VIII Fliegerkorps, only to be told that his target was Paris, and Sperrle responded to Fisser’s query by removing the KG 77 from the force allocated to ‘Paula’ (i). The British intercepted Fisser’s request to the VIII Fliegerkorps and forwarded it to the French, who had themselves intercepted similar messages and in response doubled their fighter strength to 120 aircraft.

For the definitive ‘Paula’ (i) on 3 June, units of General Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II and Sperrle’s Luftflotte III were used 1.

The KG 2 and KG 55 despatched 99 and 66 bombers respectively in ‘Paula’ (i), whose total strength was 640 bombers and 460 fighters.

Faced with the task of defending the greater Paris area, the Zone d’Opérations Aériennes Nord had a small number of Caudron C.714 light fighters flown by the Polish-manned Groupe de Chasse I/145, larger numbers of Bloch MB.152 fighters flown by GC I/1, GC II/1, GC II/10 and GC III/10 among others, Dewoitine D.520 fighters flown by GC I/3, GC II/3 and GC III/3 among others, and a number of other units flying the Morane-Saulnier MS.406 and Curtiss Hawk H-75 fighters. These day fighter units were supported by night fighter units including ECMJ 1/16, and ECN 1/13, 2/13, 3/13 and 4/13 equipped with the Potez 631. The units totalled 240 aircraft, of which only 120 were made available to counter ‘Paula’ (i).

On 3 June, the French units were warned an hour before the German bombers took off, but as a result of poor staff work only a few of the French squadrons received the scramble signal when it was transmitted by radio from the Eiffel Tower, and some units were therefore caught on the ground. Only 80 fighters in fact rose to intercept the incoming German formations. The German progress was monitored by shadowing Potez 631 aircraft, of which one was shot down. The French fighters and anti-aircraft defences downed 10 German aircraft, including four bombers. One of these was flown by Oberst Josef Kammhuber, the Geschwaderkommodore of the KG 51, who was wounded in action and then taken prisoner: Kammhuber was released after the French surrender, and eventually became the creator and commander of Germany’s night fighter arm.

The German formations also attacked 28 railway nexuses and marshalling yards, but the damage these suffered was light and none was out of action for more than 24 hours. Most of the German bombers had an altitude advantage over French fighters, which were still trying to gain the height they needed for interception, so skirmishes were few. Even so, some French units suffered heavy losses.

The Germans believed they had inflicted a decisive blow on the French air arm, and their post-operation analysis indicated a resounding success as suggested by a long list of wrecked French factories and aircraft destroyed both on the ground and in the air. The Germans claimed to have destroyed 75 French aircraft in the air and 400 on the ground. Such was the level of perceived success, moreover, that the Germans henceforward concentrated their air effort against ports on the north coast of France.

However, the damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe was far less than the Germans believed: only 20 French aircraft (16 of them fighters) were destroyed on the ground and 15 shot down in aerial combat; six of the 16 airfields hit reported serious damage, while 15 factories reported slight damage; and French casualties on the ground were moderately heavy with 254 dead and 652 injured. The French shot down 10 German aircraft, including four bombers.

Although ‘Paula’ (i) did not achieve its objectives, the ‘Sichelschnitt’ first phase of the German invasion of France had already cost the French their best formations. Now, on the front along the Somme river, the French forces were for the most part reserve divisions of poor quality without heavy artillery, armour and even motorised infantry. So the failure of ‘Paula’ (i) did not have a significant effect on the German success in ‘Rot’ (iii). The main reason for German air superiority was the poor state of French air units’ operational readiness. The Luftwaffe had a smaller margin of numerical superiority over the French air force at the start of ‘Rot’ (iii) than at the start of ‘Sichelschnitt’ as the French aviation industry was starting to reach a higher level of its production capability, and the French had 2,086 aircraft on 5 June as ‘Rot’ (iii) started. Unfortunately for the French, however, component production did not match the airframe and engine production, and as a result only 599 of these aircraft (340 fighters and 170 bombers) were serviceable. So from the start of ‘Rot’ (iii) the Luftwaffe had what was in effect a free hand over French air space, and so great was the German air superiority that some German air units were sent back to Germany to rest and refit.

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These included the bombers and attack aircraft of Oberst Alfred Bülowius’s Lehrgeschwader 1, Oberleutnant Ernst Exss’s KG 1, Oberst Johannes Fink’s KG 2, Oberst Wolfgang von Chamier-Glisczinski’s KG 3, Oberst Hans-Joachim Rath’s KG 4, Oberstleutnant Otto Höhne’s KG 54 and Oberst Alois Stockl’s KG 55, escorted by single-engined fighters of Oberstleutnant Harry von Bülow-Bothkamp’s Jagdgeschwader 2, Major Hans Hugo Witt’s JG 26, Oberstleutnant Max Ibel’s JG 27 and Oberstleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Cramon-Taubadel’s JG 53, and the twin-engined fighters of Major Friedrich Vollbracht’s Zerstörergeschwader 2 and Oberst Walter Grabmann’s ZG 76. The KG 1, ZG 76 and LG 1 were under command of the I Fliegerkorps; the ZG 2, KG 3 and II/KG 2 of the II Fliegerkorps; the KG 55 and III/KG 54 of the IV Fliegerkorps; the KG 51 of the V Fliegerkorps; the KG 4 and JG 26 of Generalleutnant Joachim Coeler’s 9th Fliegerdivision; and the JG 2 and JG 27 of the VIII Fliegerkorps. Oberst Gerd von Massow, heading the Jagdfliegerführer 3 command, lent the JG 53 for the operation.