French WWI Aircraft


Morane Saulnier N Bullet


Spad XII


Caudron G.4

By the autumn of 1915 outdated cooperation machines like the Caudron G.4, Farman MF.11 and newer Farman F.40, all under-powered pushers completely unprotected against attack from the rear, were in desperate need of replacement. Yet for the politicians – with the vociferous support of bomber specialists like Breguet, Michelin and Voisin – heavy bombers were the first priority: ‘The most urgent task’, the army committee had insisted in July, ‘is to create a bomber force capable of long-range group operation, with the aim of striking at the lifeblood of enemy manufacturing.’ Besnard, however, ignored these pleas. Instead, he allied himself with front-line opinion, soon becoming ‘the target of a lobby that prevented him from completing his work’. When he placed orders for the Caudron R.4 three-seater and the powerful new Hispano-Suiza 150hp engine, rival manufacturers orchestrated a vituperative parliamentary and press campaign against him, and on 8 February 1916 he was forced to resign.

The post of under-secretary was abolished and replaced once more by a director of aviation, Colonel Henry Régnier, an artilleryman with a very limited view of the service. Planes, he believed, were little more than adjuncts to the guns. Barès and Besnard had worked well together, but relations with Régnier quickly deteriorated and an attempt to remove Barès from his post was thwarted only by the untimely death of Charles de Rose in May 1916. Emboldened by the success of the fighters at Verdun, Barès immediately repeated his earlier attempt to gain control of all front-line aeronautical units: ‘Recent operations have shown the value of ensuring the closest possible coordination of all elements of the aeronautical service: balloons, army corps and heavy artillery squadrons, fighters, day bombers and night bombers. The only solution is a single command. It is the only way to make best use of all our resources.’ But his proposal fell on deaf ears: in the highly politicized atmosphere of GQG, some senior officers accused him of simple empire-building, and Régnier rejected the idea outright. ‘An aviation commander reporting directly to the commander-in-chief, with rights of inspection over army corps and armies, will create nothing less than a state within a state,’ he replied. ‘The Third Bureau [GQG’s operations branch] will simply not allow it.’

With deputies and senators sniping relentlessly from the sidelines, the crisis of materiel gathered pace over the next few months. The existing Breguet-Michelin, REP-built Caproni 2, Farman F.40 and Voisin 5 bombers all lacked the power and armament required for long-range, large-scale daylight raids, and competitions run in 1915 and 1916 failed to produce any viable new designs. The cooperation squadrons were still littered with antiquated Caudron G.4, Farman MF.11 and Farman F.40 machines; the new Nieuport 12 was judged difficult to fly (and even harder to land); and Caudron’s G.6 and R.4 three-seaters were only just beginning to reach the front. Despairing of French industry, the ministry decided to act, instructing the STAé to start producing its own designs, while also purchasing a number of Sopwith 1½ Strutters from the British and then manufacturing them under licence.

The fighters so successful at Verdun and the Somme in the spring and summer of 1916 had soon been leapfrogged by new enemy types. The Nieuport 17 was already outclassed by the German Albatros D.II and D.III on its introduction late in the year, and its more powerful stablemates, the 24, 24bis and 27, were still under development. Meanwhile the superior SPAD 7 was yet to reach the squadrons in any meaningful numbers, its delivery delayed by problems with the Hispano engine and a lack of manufacturing capacity. Barès had championed the SPAD 7 from the start – ‘[Its] entry into service was entirely his doing,’ affirmed STAé engineer Albert Etévé in 1970 – and to speed up production he had asked the Michelin brothers to stop turning out their much despised Breguet-Michelin bombers and start building SPADs instead. But his appeal was in vain. André Michelin went straight to the prime minister and received permission to build another 100 examples of a type damned by Barès as ‘indubitably one of the worst machines ever acquired by the service’. By February 1917 only 268 SPADs had been received, of which just 70 had reached the front.

Twelve months of intense unrest culminated in a report drawn up in December 1916 by Radical senator Daniel Vincent, a former observer with V116, who underlined the huge number of now-obsolete machines, bemoaned the division of command between front and rear, and highlighted the weakness of the industrial infrastructure, with manufacturers incapable of streamlining production or making the necessary investment in new types. As coalition governments came and went during the spring of 1917, a new minister of war, General Hubert Lyautey, reorganized the whole aeronautical establishment and, in February 1917, it was Barès who paid the price.

‘Barès was confronted by a coalition of powerful industrialists whose aircraft he quite rightly rejected, politicians who demanded control of the aviation service … a complete failure of a minister … anxious to divert the gathering storm and find a scapegoat for his own mistakes, [and] embittered and unhappy pilots whose incompetence … had been spotted by a good judge of men who deliberately refused to promote them,’ claimed one supporter on 28 February 1917. ‘All of them whispered against [him]. Completely ignorant of the issues involved but aware that [the war] wasn’t going well, the general public joined in the clamour to dismiss a man who resolutely kept his own counsel.’

Barès was exiled to command the fighter and bomber groups of Eastern Army Group, and later a front-line infantry regiment, thus depriving the air service of his knowledge and experience for the rest of the war. ‘Barès dragged aviation from the abyss,’ continued the same anonymous voice. ‘He created it, he gave it life…. He had an unparalleled knowledge of every member of the service. He travelled continually all over the front and made things happen wherever he went.’ Jean de Pierrefeu, author of GQG’s daily communiqués, also admired the man: ‘[He] was one of those [officers] with a real understanding of the psychology of the troops under his command. It was his idea to mention pilots in despatches, first Guynemer, then everyone. Within the ministry, he was loved and loathed in equal measure. This kind of division permeated the aviation service, whoever was in command. Those with real influence seemed to be civilians working for heaven knew what interest…. His successor Major du Peuty later aroused equally violent opposition. Naturally impatient, he couldn’t endure the Paris cabal. He returned to active service as soon as he could and sadly was killed shortly afterwards. Major du Peuty was a man of absolute rectitude and loyalty, completely unsuited to intrigue.’

The collapse of the government on 20 March 1917 ushered in a new minister, Paul Painlevé, and a new under-secretary, Daniel Vincent, whose appointment coincided with the belated arrival of some new bomber and cooperation types. ‘At last,’ commented an optimistic Major Antonin Brocard (GC13), ‘we have squadrons with aircraft capable of looking after themselves.’ True enough in theory, but in practice most of these new types proved less than satisfactory. The Voisin 8 bomber was no match for the German fighters; the Paul Schmitt 7 – designed in 1915 but delayed in production – was a complete and costly failure; and by the time the Sopwith 1½ Strutter entered service, it too was obsolete, so much so that GQG eventually pleaded with the minister to stop sending them out and supply the superior new Breguet 14 instead. But, with long contracts, the minister’s hands were tied: ‘I have to,’ he replied. ‘I don’t have anything else. With the best will in the world, I can’t turn out Breguets from a factory currently producing Sopwiths.’ The army committee was unimpressed: better to cancel the contract, it suggested, than supply squadrons with an obsolescent type. Meanwhile, the STAé-produced designs were little better: the A.R.2 was little improvement on the Farman it replaced, while the Letord was so big it caused overcrowding problems on the airfields. Vincent, whose tenure lasted just six months, immediately ordered the STAé to stop designing aircraft and return to its original function of offering research and technical support to existing manufacturers.

Accusations of profiteering muddied the waters throughout: Caudron’s receipts grew thirtyfold in 1914–15 alone; Nieuport’s, fortyfold. In his bitter 1917 polemic Les Profiteurs de la guerre, the pseudonymous ‘Mauricius’ railed at ‘the degree of incompetence or complicity required of officials when the army was charged 42 francs for an altimeter worth 3½ francs and was still paying 14 francs even after the renegotiation of prices in 1917’. Manufacturer Henry Potez became a leading supplier of the French Air Force in the 1930s: ‘[Manufacturers] clearly had fairly substantial costs,’ he observed. ‘[Nevertheless] constructors like Blériot, Caudron etc. [were] very nicely placed. It was certainly … a very happy period for them.’

On his appointment as commander-in-chief in May 1917, Pétain introduced new operational ideas based around limited offensives launched only after achieving sudden, overwhelming local superiority in firepower – and aviation was key to his plans: ‘To achieve tactical surprise we must attack without warning,’ he explained, ‘using either our artillery and bomber squadrons in as short and intense a period of preparation as possible or tanks to make the breakthrough and clear the way for the artillery and infantry without any preliminary bombardment. Aviation is now vital to overall victory. We must acquire air superiority.’

To implement these ideas two key appointments were made: Colonel Charles Duval replaced Paul du Peuty as GQG’s aviation commander, and Deputy Jacques-Louis Dumesnil, a former observer with C13, succeeded Daniel Vincent as under-secretary for aeronautics. The pair quickly established a good working relationship, soon threatened when incoming prime minister Georges Clemenceau moved the SFA from the ministry of war to the ministry of munitions, distancing aircraft procurement still further from front-line operations and divorcing it from the STAé’s research and development function. Duval and Pétain were incensed: ‘All rear area services should be combined under a single firm hand,’ Pétain complained to the minister of war. ‘The recent reorganization … has fragmented responsibility and destroyed any effective chain of command…. The decree of 19 November 1917 completely failed to specify how the new command structure will operate. It is vital that we develop a close working relationship between front and rear and this will only serve to make it more difficult.’

Dumesnil became deputy to the minister of munitions, Louis Loucheur. ‘The job before me is undoubtedly the hardest I have ever faced,’ Loucheur warned the parliamentary munitions sub-committee on 6 December 1917. ‘I am not sure whether I’ll be equal to it. You can rest assured I will do my best, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to sit in my place and assume such a terrible responsibility.’ The current expansion plan called for a force of 4,000 aircraft by March 1918, but Loucheur remained deliberately vague: ‘I am reluctant to make predictions, to promise you this or that number of aircraft,’ he continued. ‘My programme is the maximum.’

Despite Pétain’s forebodings, the personalities involved managed to make the system work. By the spring of 1918 Loucheur, Dumesnil, Duval and new director of aviation Colonel Paul-François Dhé had overseen a substantial increase in production, using a large number of sub-contractors to manufacture just half a dozen types, among them a number of significant new aircraft. The fighter squadrons were equipped with the new SPAD 13, a powerful, manoeuvrable type armed with twin Vickers machine guns and superior to any of its opponents. The day bomber squadrons received the Breguet 14B2, a stable but agile platform, armed with three machine guns and capable of carrying over 250 kilos, while the night bomber squadrons were first given the Voisin 10 – with a payload of 300 kilos and a Renault engine to replace the under-powered Peugeot – and eventually the Farman F.50. The Caudron R.11 long-range fighter replaced the Letord as a bomber escort, while the reconnaissance squadrons received either the Breguet 14 or the new Salmson 2 A.2. Paul Waddington (SPA154) certainly appreciated these new types. ‘By mid-1918 our planes were more powerful than their German counterparts. It gave us a considerable advantage and conferred a certain peace of mind on anyone capable of using his aircraft’s rate of climb.’

In a time of rapid technological change, producing the right planes in the right numbers at the right time was no easy task. ‘The aviation service made steady progress throughout the war while apparently in a state of perpetual crisis,’ recalled Dumesnil. ‘After each advance some new requirement forced itself upon us, and obviously there was always enough of a gap between the appearance in prototype of a wonderful new aircraft and its subsequent testing and entry into production for the appearance of an improved design that superseded its predecessor.’ Yet by November 1918 a massive state-sponsored mobilization had transformed the embryonic aviation industry. The sector was now worth some 5 million francs, equivalent to almost 13 per cent of pre-war national output, and employed 183,000 people – almost a quarter of them women. During the conflict French manufacturers turned out over 52,000 aircraft in 365 different types, annual production of airframes rising from 541 in 1914 to 24,652 in 1918, and output of engines from 860 in the last five months of 1914 to 3,502 in November 1918 alone. The French aircraft industry was also vital to the wider allied effort, supplying some 10,000 airframes and 25,000 engines to the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy, Belgium and Romania.

Sixty-two different companies operated just over a hundred factories, with the early inventor-constructors like Blériot, Caudron, Esnault-Pelterie [REP], Farman, Nieuport and Voisin gradually eclipsed by newcomers initially employed as subcontractors. Among them were firms which later came to dominate the inter-war aviation industry, such as Latécoère and SECM (Amiot) for airframes, and Hispano-Suiza and Lorraine for engines, as well as the Michelin tyre company, which pioneered ‘American mass production techniques in the aeronautical industry, as well as working from templates, undoubtedly becoming the leading French constructor in terms of daily output’.

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