The Dewoitine D.520 was a French fighter aircraft that entered service in early 1940, shortly after the beginning of the Second World War and carries the unusual reputation of being one of the few WWII aircraft to be used initially by the Allies against the German Axis forces, only to later then be used by the Axis forces against the Allies after the surrender of France. This was to be reversed once again after the liberation of France by the Allies. In its chequered and varied career it was successful in shooting down fighters from nearly every side of the WWII conflict - Allied and Axis alike.
The D.520 was designed in response to a 1936 requirement from the French Air Force for a fast, modern fighter with a good climbing speed and an armament centred on a 20 mm cannon. At the time the most powerful V 12 liquid-cooled engine available in France was the Hispano-Suiza 12Y, which was less powerful, but lighter than contemporary engines such as the Rolls-Royce Merlin and Daimler-Benz DB 601. Other fighters were designed to meet the specifications but none of them entered service, or entered service in small numbers, too late to play a significant role during the Battle of France.
The Dewoitine D.520 came close to being a match for the latest German fighters, such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109. It was slower than the Bf 109E but superior in manoeuvrability. Because of a delayed production cycle, only a small number were available for combat against the Luftwaffe. The D.520 proved to be relatively capable as a dogfighter against the Luftwaffe's inventory, but lacked sufficient numbers to make a difference.
Following Frances surrender and subsequent occupation by German forces, the D.520 continued to be used, being operated by both the Free French Air Force and the Vichy French Air Force. The type was also returned to production during 1942, although it was manufactured at a lower rate than it had been during 1940. Additional examples were operated by the Luftwaffe, Regia Aeronautica, and the Bulgarian Air Force. The D.520 saw combat service in North Africa, Bulgaria, and the Eastern Front, as well as use in France and Germany for training and defence purposes. During the type's later life, it was used as a trainer aircraft. On 3 September 1953, the last D.520s were finally withdrawn from service.
On 2 October 1938, the first prototype aircraft, D.520-01, powered by a Hispano-Suiza 12Y-21 engine that temporarily drove a fixed-pitch, two-bladed wooden propeller, performed its maiden flight. Completion of the prototype had been delayed somewhat by the need to incorporate modifications requested by the STAe following their examination of a wooden mock-up of the type. During early flight tests, the first prototype managed to reach only 480 km/h, and suffered from dangerously high engine temperatures.
In April 1939, the rate of production of fighter aircraft throughout France was far beneath official expectations. With the outbreak of war, a new contract brought the total of D.520s on order to 1,280, with the production rate to be 200 aircraft per month from May 1940. During January 1940, the Aéronautique Navale placed its own order for 120 aircraft. Another French Air Force order in April 1940 brought the total to 2,250 and increased production quotas to 350 a month. In addition to domestic orders, Poland was interested in acquiring around 160 D.520s.
The manufacturing process was deliberately optimised, each aircraft consumed a reduced 7,000 man-hours each to produce which was far less than many other fighters of the time but around 50% greater than a Bf 109E (4,500 hours). The French Air Ministry planned for over 300 aircraft a month to be built and managed to reach this goal, especially in June 1940, but it was too late to affect the tide of battle.
In April 1941, during the aftermath of the armistice with Germany, a new programme was launched in which the production of 1,074 new aircraft were to be manufactured in the unoccupied zone of Vichy France. Of these, 550 were to be D.520s, which were confirmed as ordered under contract No. 157/41 on 8 August 1941. The intention was for the type to replace all other single-engine fighters that remained in service with the Vichy French Air Force and to eventually equip additional units that were to be reformed from September 1942 onwards. An initial batch of 22 D.520s were delivered during August 1941. In total, a further 180 machines were constructed, bringing the production total to 905.
The D.520 was designed to be maintained easily with many inspection panels, a rare feature for its time. Recharging the D.520 ammunition was swift and easy; the machine gun magazines required five minutes each and three minutes for the 20 mm cannon. To fill the machine gun ammunition boxes took 15 minutes, while five minutes were needed to empty the 20 mm box (the cartridges were not expelled). The D.520's cockpit was set well back in the fuselage, aft of the trailing edge of the wings. This gave the pilot good downward visibility, but the long nose in front of him was a drawback when taxiing on the ground.
A self-sealing fuel tank with a capacity of 396 litres was mounted between the engine and cockpit, along with two wing tanks which, combined, carried another 240 litres, for a total of 636 litres this was considerably more than the contemporary Bf 109E, Spitfire I and early Italian fighters, each with about 400 litres fuel capacity. The ferry range was from 1,300 km to 1,500 km at 450 km/h which, from June 1940, allowed D.520s to escape to North Africa when France fell to the German forces.
Production-standard armament consisted of a 20 mm HS.404, which had an ammunition capacity of 60 rounds, firing through the propeller hub, and four belt-fed MAC 1934 M39 7.5 mm machine guns in the wings, each with 675 rounds per gun. The MAC 1934 machine guns had a high rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute, while the effective HS.404 fired at 600 rpm and was accurate up to 500 m; the ammunition capacity meant that the machine guns could be fired for a total of 30 seconds, while the cannon had six seconds worth of ammunition.
The Groupe de Chasse I/3 was the first unit to get the D.520, receiving its first aircraft in January 1940. These initial examples were unarmed and used for pilot training. In April and May 1940, operational units received 34 'war-capable' production D.520s; the type quickly proved to be highly popular with pilots and ground crew. During comparative trials on 21 April 1940 at CEMA at Orleans-Bricy against a captured Bf 109E-3, the German aircraft had a 32 km/h speed advantage owing to its more powerful engine. However, the D.520 had superior manoeuvrability, matching its turning circle, although displaying nasty characteristics when departing and spinning out of the turn repeatedly during the tests. The Bf 109, owing to its slats, could easily sustain the turn on the edge of a stall.
By 10 May 1940, when the Phoney War came to an end as Germany launched the invasion of France and the Low Countries, a total of 246 D.520s had been manufactured, but the French Air Force had accepted only 79 of these, as most others had been sent back to the factory to be retrofitted to the new standard. As a result, only GC I/3 was fully equipped, possessing a force of 36 aircraft. These met the Luftwaffe on 13 May, shooting down three Henschel Hs 126s and one Heinkel He 111 without suffering any losses. The next day, two D.520s were lost while a total of ten Luftwaffe aircraft (4 Messerschmitt Bf 110s, 2 Bf 109Es, 2 Dornier Do 17s, and 2 He 111s) were confirmed to be killed.
In air combat, mostly against the Italians, the Dewoitine 520s claimed 114 air victories, plus 39 probables. Eighty five D.520s were lost. By the armistice at the end of June 1940, 437 D.520s had been constructed, 351 of these having been delivered.After the armistice, 165 D.520s were evacuated to North Africa. GC I/3, II/3, III/3, III/6 and II/7 flew their aircraft to Algeria to avoid capture. Three more, from GC III/7, escaped to Britain and were delivered to the Free French. A total of 153 D.520s remained in unoccupied mainland France.
One of the most successful D.520 pilots was Pierre Le Gloan, who shot 18 aircraft down (four Germans, seven Italian and seven British), scoring all of his kills with the D.520, and ranked as the fourth-highest French ace of the war.
In April 1941, the German armistice commission authorised Vichy authorities to resume production of a batch of 1,000 military aircraft for their own use, under the condition that 2,000 German-designed aircraft would later be manufactured in France and delivered to Germany. As part of this agreement, 550 examples of the D.520 were ordered to replace all other single-seat fighters in service. However, no D.520 units were to be stationed on the French mainland, thus individual aircraft were instead stored or dispatched to units overseas, such as in North Africa.
The plan was to have the Dewoitine eventually equip a total of 17 Groupes with 442 aircraft, three escadrilles of the Aéronautique navale with 37 aircraft each, plus three training units with 13 aircraft. The agreement stated that aircraft of this new batch were to be similar to the ones already in service. From serial number 543 on, however, D.520s used the 12Y-49 engine that had a slightly higher rated performance than the 12Y-45, although the German Armistice Commission explicitly prohibited replacing the original power plants with the more powerful 12Y51 or 12Z engines.
In 1941, D.520s of GC III/6, II/3 and naval escadrille 1AC fought the Allies during the Syria-Lebanon campaign. The Vichy French Air Force was already relatively strong, but several units were sent to reinforce it. D.520s were the only French single-seat fighters capable of making the trip to Syria.
The ferry trip was very difficult for a 1940 interceptor and the pilots pushed their planes as far as their fuel tanks would allow them to. They flew from France to Syria with intermediate stops at Rome, Brindisi or Catania. Another route was available through Germany and Greece (Athens), but it was seldom used. The trip always included a stopover in Rhodes (which had an Italian base at the time), before the final flight to Syria. This meant several thousand kilometres were flown over mountains and sea. Of the 168 French aircraft (of all types) sent to Syria, 155 accomplished their mission and arrived successfully. The Vichy Air force was numerically strong, but with very few ground crew and spare parts, which meant that the operational flying time for the D.520s was very limited. D.520s of GC III/6 first saw action against British aircraft on 8 June 1941, when they shot down three Fairey Fulmars, losing one D.520 (its pilot was taken prisoner). Over the following days several escort missions were flown to protect Martin, LeO and Bloch 200 bombers from British Royal Navy fighters. Two Hurricanes were shot down (with another D.520 lost) on 9 June.
During the Syria campaign, a total of 266 missions were conducted by the Vichy French Air Force. The D.520s were therefore the most active of the French aircraft in the campaign, where they claimed 31 kills over British and Australian units while losing 11 of their own in air combat and a further 24 to anti-aircraft fire, accidents and attacks on their airfields. On 10 July, five D.520s attacked Bristol Blenheim bombers from No. 45 Squadron RAF that were being escorted by seven Curtiss Tomahawks from No. 3 Squadron RAAF. The French pilots claimed three Blenheims, but at least four of the D.520s were destroyed by the Australian escorts, including two by Flying Officer Peter Turnbull. The following day, a Dewoitine pilot shot a P-40 down from 3 Sqn, the only Tomahawk lost during the campaign. This Dewoitine was in turn shot down by F/O Bobby Gibbes. The initial advantage that the Vichy French Air Force enjoyed did not last long, and they lost most of their aircraft during the campaign. The majority of them were destroyed on the ground where the flat terrain, absence of infrastructure and absence of modern anti-aircraft artillery made them vulnerable to air attacks. On 26 June, a strafing run by Tomahawks of 3 Sqn, on Homs airfield, destroyed five D.520s of Fighter Squadron II/3 and damaged six more.
In December 1942, as French forces formerly under Vichy sided with the Allies, there were 153 D.520s left in French hands in North Africa. They flew a few patrols during the Tunisia Campaign, but were considered obsolete, and their radio sets were incompatible with Allied equipment. From early 1943 on, they were relegated to training duties at the fighter school in Meknes, and progressively replaced by Supermarine Spitfires and Bell P-39 Airacobras in combat units.
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