Osprey Publishing has released another new title in the ever-expanding Aces series, Morane-Saulnier MS.406 Aces.
As the title reveals, this time around the subject is the French Morane-Saulnier MS.406 and the aces who flew it. This book is slightly different than most others in the series, as it covers not only MS.406 aces of the French Air Force, but also those flying for the Finnish Air Force. Additionally, as several MS.406 pilots went on to become aces while flying different aircraft with the RAF or the Russian Air Force, this area is also touched upon.
As the French involvement in WW2 was comparatively short, the number of pilots who became aces while flying the MS.406 exclusively is a small one. Offsetting this to some degree was the French method of assigning a full kill to any pilot who participated in shooting down an enemy aircraft. In comparison, in the USAAF, RAF, and most other air forces of the time, if two pilots brought down a single enemy aircraft together they would each receive credit for 1/2 of a kill. The authors of this book point out that sometimes eight or nine French pilots would all receive full credit for destroying the same enemy airplane! This is explained as being done for morale reasons, and in 1940 France I suppose they needed all the morale boosters they could find.
Having said all this, the book essentially follows the same format that anyone familiar with this series will recognize. A brief developmental history of the aircraft is covered, followed by chronological coverage of the involvement of men and units flying the MS.406 in combat. The airplane was clearly outnumbered and outmatched by Luftwaffe machines from the onset of hostilities. Personal narratives taken from diaries and interviews feature heavily in the text, and over and over again one reads of the lopsided battles that took place above France in 1940. At the end of many a pilot’s personal narrative the authors continue on to explain his subsequent history. Many went on to fly with the RAF, the Russian Air Force, and even the Vichy Air Force (Occupied France’s pro-Axis government). Those who survived quite often attained a high rank in the French Air Force after the war.
One topic covered by the authors that I found particularly interesting was the disposition and actions of pilots based in some of the French colonies after the country surrendered. Units in Indochina and Syria-Lebanon remained active, flying on behalf of the pro-Axis Vichy government. There are several interesting descriptions of combat between MS.406 pilots and Japanese aircraft over the skies of Cambodia, Vietnam, and parts of Thailand as Japanese-supported Thai forces attempted to re-take lands occupied by the French. This was quickly put to a halt by the Vichy government, as it was supposed to be a pro-Axis regime! Interestingly, the authors point out that Vichy pilots tasked with defending Hanoi purposely vectored away from American aircraft during a bombing raid on that city (considering them allies), and in doing so encountered and tangled with Japanese fighters. I found this confusing aspect of the war in Southeast Asia fascinating, and became motivated with the idea of building a model of an Indochina-based MS.406. As it turns out, not only is there a good profile in this book of just such an aircraft, but the Classic Airframes 1/48 kit of the MS.406 was issued in the markings of the same!
Moving beyond French operations, the last half of the book is dedicated to Finnish aces that flew the MS.406. In a story somewhat reminiscent of Finnish use of the Brewster Buffalo, the Finns took an aircraft that was outmatched and obsolete, and turned it into an effective fighting machine. Immediately following the Russian attack on Finland in 1939, the Finnish government scrambled to bolster its air forces with anything they could obtain. About 30 MS.406s were purchased from France and quickly deployed. Nine Finnish pilots became aces flying the French fighter, and another nine scored somewhat less than five victories in the Morane, but ultimately became aces flying other aircraft. 25 MS.406s were purchased from German war booty after the French surrender, and another 30 MS.406s were later purchased from Vichy France. The Finns also experimented with fitting a higher-output captured Soviet engine into the MS.406. The authors describe this process, and the resulting Mӧrkӧ (Ghost) Morane that was created. Most existing airframes were eventually upgraded, but delivery of Messerschmitt 109s to Finland negated the urgency for these.
Between the French and Finnish sections of the book, there are nine pages of well-done color plates. Like every other title in this series, each plate shows a side view of a particular ace’s aircraft. Each plate is numbered, and there is a separate text section at the back of the book tied to these numbers with a detailed history of the particular aircraft and the pilot. You will also see profiles of a few non-MS.406 aircraft flown by aces that moved on to other air forces.
Finally, there are some useful appendices at the end of the book listing several relevant pieces of information, such as the tactical organization of the French Air Force, an explanation of the French method of marking victories (as mentioned earlier in the review), and tables of the various aces that flew the MS.406.
Overall, this book is yet again what one comes to expect from the Osprey Aces series. There is a good overview of the flying operations of the MS.406 in French, Vichy, and Finnish service. This is interspersed with stories about individual aces (many in their own words). All this is complemented by nicely-done color plates, lots of good photos, and a few useful appendices. Highly recommend to those interested in the topic. I would consider the fact that this book has inspired my interest in building an MS.406 in a particular scheme to be solid praise (at least from this reviewer)!
One last note, I will mention again (as I have in an earlier review) that I noticed the publisher’s website shows that this and many other titles are also available in e-formats. These e-books are almost half the full retail price of the print copy, and they may be a cost-effective way to add more titles to your library!
My thanks to Osprey publishing for providing the book, and to IPMS/USA for allowing me to review it!