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Dewoitine D.520: The Best World War II Fighter You Never Heard Of

After the rather rapid Fall of France to Hitler’s Wehrmacht in 1940, WWII-era French military troops and equipment tend to receive short shrift. However, that’s not entirely fair to the Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen; seeing how it’s currently International Women’s History Month) or machines of the time. 

The Free French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque was a genuine war hero who wasn’t the least bit lacking in courage or fighting prowess, and he definitely merits having a certain main battle tank (MBT) named in his honor. On the equipment side of the ledger, there was a certain French-made fighter plane that more than sufficiently proved its worth in combat, the rapid capitulation of her country of origin notwithstanding. The Dewoitine D.520 was a worthy aircraft in the skies.

Dewoitine D.520 Early History and Specifications

The Dewoitine D.520 made her maiden flight on October 2, 1938, and was officially introduced into French Air Force (Armée de l’air) in January 1940, four months before the Battle of France began. This warbird was named for the leader of her design team, Monsieur Émile Dewoitine (1892-1979), and she was manufactured by the SNCAM/SNCASE aircraft manufacturer headquartered in Toulouse, France. 

The plane had a length of 28 feet 3 inches, a wingspan of 33 feet 6 inches, a height of 8 feet 5 inches, an empty weight of 4,680 pounds, and max takeoff weight was 6,140 pounds. Max airspeed was 350 miles per hour (300 knots), with a range of 670 nautical miles and a service ceiling of 33,000 feet. Armament consisted of a Hispano-Suiza HS.404 20mm cannon that fired through the propeller hub, and four wing-mounted MAC 1934 M39 7.5mm machine guns in the wings. 

Combat Performance Before and After the Fall of France

According to an article by Alan Chanter and Tony Littlefield for the WW2F (as in World War 2 Fighters) website, “The D.520 was considered to be the best French fighter of WW2” and “as considered to be on the same level with the [Messerschmitt] Bf 109 … During the Battle of France, which the Germans named operation Paula, the D.520 units acquitted themselves very well, valiantly fighting the Germans until France capitulated. The Germans then undertook the final phase, operation Fall Rot (Case Red) to crush the French Air Force. However, in the midst of this calamity the Dewoitine acquitted itself well and were credited with 114 confirmed “kills” and 39 “probable” – slightly less than a two to one kill ratio.”

However, as noted by Sébastien Roblin in an article for War Is Boring, “Despite these successes, between June 10 and 25, 1940, D.520 squadrons began evacuating to bases in French North Africa in anticipation of the French government’s defeat. But rather than reinforcing the Allied cause, the Dewoitine fighters became deadly weapons against it.” 

Though the D.520 started off as an Allied warbird, she ended up spending most of her history fighting on behalf of the Axis, namely Vichy France, the Regia Aeronautica of Fascist Italy, Bulgaria, and a few flew for training purposes with the Luftwaffe. 

Fortunately, the D.520 did manage to finish the war on a positive note. As Roblin wrote: “Finally, after the liberation of most of France in the fall of 1944, the Free French 11th Fighter Group acquired former Vichy D.520s and incorporated them into the 1st Free French Group under Marcel Doret.

Based in Toulouse, these aircraft served purely in the ground attack role against fortified pockets of German resistance in southwestern France in the siege of Royan and around Bordeaux. Thus the D.520 at least ended its wartime service like it began it, defending French territory from invaders.”

Where Are They Now?

I first became familiar with the Dewoitine fighter plane back in 1987, when I was in the 6th grade and at the height of my plastic model airplane building craze; specifically, it was a Hasegawa brand 1:72 scale model that I saw in the Squadron Mail Order catalog. 

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The plane was officially retired from service on or about September 3, 1953. Out of the approximately 900 D.520s built, only three survive today, all at museums in France. Tail number 603 is on display at the Conservatoire de l’air et de l’espace d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux–Mérignac; tail number 650 is undergoing restoration at the Musée National de la Marine in Rochefort; and tail no. 862 is on display at the Musée de l’air et de l’espace located at the south-eastern edge of Paris–Le Bourget Airport.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. If you’d like to pick his brain in-person about his writings, chances are you’ll be able to find him at the Green Turtle Pasadena in Maryland on Friday nights, singing his favorite karaoke tunes.



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