French Airpower 1918 Part I

World War One Aviation: French Two-Seaters 1918

World War One Aviation: French Fighters 1917

World War One Aviation: French Experimental Aircraft

World War One Aviation: French Bombers

In the 14 February La Guerre aérienne, former undersecretary of air Daniel Vincent advocated forming a doctrine for aviation, a “chain linking the past to the future.” Early in the war, he recalled, aviation had lacked organization and doctrine, and had thus fallen into the excessive individualism of “sporting” aviation, with “as many principles as chiefs.” At GQG Gen. Henri Pétain and Gen. Maurice Duval planned for the French air service to achieve a new level of organization, doctrine, and operations in 1918. With sufficient resources to form larger formations, it planned to annihilate enemy aviation and gain definitive aerial mastery in tactical offensive operations. GQG’s 11 February and 2 March orders prescribed aviation’s principal role to be the destruction of enemy aviation.

Pétain, emphasizing the importance of concentrating aerial forces, ordered the formation of combat and day- and night-bomber wings. The day bomber, however, with its relatively small bomb load, would serve mainly to force enemy aviation into battle with its fighter escort. Pétain wanted to wield aviation en masse against the coming German attack. “The action of the cannon will be extended by all disposable aviation,” he advised on 15 February. “With bombs and machine guns our planes will set upon columns in march, convoys, bivouacs, and parks day and night. . . . Army group commandants will assure the concentration of aeronautical means necessary to demoralize troops destined to lead and feed the attack.” Massive, concentrated, and precise bombing attacks on carefully selected military and industrial targets behind the front would aim primarily at material destruction, although GQG expected the attacks on troops to affect principally their morale. In the 2 March directive to combat aviation, Pétain advised that its concentrated assault on enemy aviation to secure aerial superiority and mobility over the battlefield would be one of the land operations’ conditions of success. Pétain’s air chief, General Duval, would serve under the direct orders of the general commanding the armies. By March GQG had thus formulated the doctrine and command arrangement for using mass aviation in future battles.

In late February French military intelligence noted a German aviation buildup in preparation for the coming battle. The French air service, which had increased aircraft supply 17 percent between November 1917 and March 1918, was equal to German aviation by itself. Since October 1917 the French had forced fighter and bomber production at a feverish pace, and by the beginning of the German offensive on 21 March they had 11 fighter groups, 5 day-bomber groups, and 7 night-bomber groups. Compared to the September 1917 2,870-plane program and the October 4,000-plane program, on 1 April the army had 2,750 planes at the front (1,400 observation and 1,350 combat planes), while the aviation reserve had 581 planes on 21 March. The fighter and day-bomber wings were equipped with Spad 7s and Spad 13s and Breguets, a combination that would simplify production, repair, and training.

In the March 1918 battle, Pétain used airplanes to deter the German offensive. In constant operations over the battle zone between 21 March and 12 June, 400 bombers dropped 1,200 tons of bombs, over 200 tons greater than in 1916 and 1917 operations combined. During the German assault from 21 to 31 March, fighter aviation supported the ground forces and did not seek air combat. From 1 April to 14 May, General Duval emphasized the aerial battle and would not let fighter reserves be used for the observation planes’ immediate protection. The wings entered action on 2 April, when a fighter wing and a bomber wing, named after their chiefs Philippe Féquant and Victor Ménard, formed a combat group. In the raids on the attacking German army, coordinating fighter escort with the bombers proved difficult, and Féquant’s fighters sometimes seemed disinterested in bomber escort. By 5 April complaints from the armies reminiscent of the 1916 and 1917 offensive abounded. The air reserve’s liaison with the armies lessened; sweeps behind enemy lines did not help the front; patrols were too high to attack low flying enemy aircraft and unable to protect reconnaissance airplanes near the lines.

The GQG’s next organizational measure, which marked a significant milestone in the concentration of French aviation, was forming the autonomous Aerial Division (Division aérienne) under General Duval on 14 May. The division was not a strategic arm, as GQG considered strategic aviation premature, but rather a tactical one. It included all the day bombers and half the fighters, the other half going to the armies. For bomber escort the division gradually replaced single-seaters with heavily armored and armed three-seat twin-engine Caudron R11s or Breguets, and it shortened the distance of the raids when German Fokker D7 fighters appeared. Ultimately, on 15 June the first and second aerial brigades were formed, the first under the command of Major de Goÿs, who had escaped from Germany after more than two years of imprisonment, the second under Féquant.

The Aerial Division’s critics, such as A. P. Voisin, judged that the airplane still lacked the offensive capacity to be more than an auxiliary to the ground forces. The division did not wreak much destruction on its land targets, while the Germans did not necessarily challenge the fighters. In general, the Aerial Division could not simultaneously fulfill the two contradictory demands of a combined fighter and bomber offensive and an air reserve to reinforce the armies’ air units. Voisin’s guiding assumption remained that the air arm serve as the army’s immediate auxiliary protecting army cooperation planes, while Pétain and Duval intended the Aerial Division for wider-ranging duties in support of the army.

Between the spring and summer the air arm and, more crucially, the proportion of its newer-model aircraft, grew. Sen. Gaston Menier, visiting Féquant’s second group at the front on 23 April, detected improvements since 1917: fewer unusable planes, reinforced frames and better motor-mount attachments that decreased the Spad’s engine vibrations, and better-trained pilots. On 25 April, however, Pétain noted that the implementation of the 5 April 1917 2,870-plane was not yet completed, while the 8 October 1917 4,000-plane program had not yet begun. He still needed more new fighters and observation planes, as Sopwiths and ARs still served in frontline squadrons. By the summer these circumstances improved. In April the air arm had 797 fighters, 1,605 artillery and army corps planes, and 413 bombers; in July it had 1,090 fighters, 1,733 artillery and army corps planes, and 438 bombers. The force in April comprised 1,723 modern and 1,092 obsolescent types, and in July it had 2,827 new types and 434 old models, an increase in modern types from 61 to 87 percent.

As the French army took the offensive that summer, in the 12 July Directive number 5 the air arm described its principles of attack, which emphasized simplicity, audacity, and rapidity to gain tactical surprise. After secret preparations, the preliminary artillery and bomber strikes would be as brief and violent as possible to enable tanks to rupture enemy lines. Aviation would thus assure aerial superiority. This document also emphasized the importance of air-artillery cooperation, but did not envisage liaison between tanks and airplanes. When Allied commander Gen. Ferdinand Foch stated the necessity for better communication between the Aerial Division and the army on 23 July, Duval blamed inadequate liaison on the army commanders, who had made no effort to improve communication with the division’s small staff, gave his officers no information, and did not respond to his liaison efforts. The army commanders did not understand the division’s purpose, General Duval concluded, and viewed it merely as a reservoir of reinforcements to protect their observation planes, rather than understanding its offensive mission in connection with the armies. General Duval believed that the army commanders wanted to control the division and use it to protect their observation planes. Army commanders also ignored the division’s efforts. In July Gen. Charles Mangin complained to a visiting parliamentary deputy about the insufficient use of bombers during the intensive bombardment of battlefield targets. Despite the criticisms and problems, the Aerial Division continued its offensives in 1918 and later formed the nucleus of Billy Mitchell’s 1,400-plane force in the fall Saint-Mihiel offensive.

If Commander Foch had concerns about Aerial Division liaison, he was pleased with the quality of aerial reconnaissance for the high command. The Weiller group—three squadrons of Breguets commanded by Paul-Louis Weiller—served directly under Foch as of 28 July. Each day they flew over the lines in groups of three at altitudes of nearly 8,000 meters to take a photographic map of enemy territory from 20 to 100 kilometers behind the rear. Every evening at GQG Foch used these photos to choose targets. For his unit’s work, Weiller was awarded the légion d’honneur, becoming one of its youngest recipients.

In August observation units theoretically comprised Breguets, Salmsons, and the Caudron R11. However, inadequate Salmson and Breguet-Renault engine production left Petain six squadrons short of the 2,870-plane program, while 24 of 53 Breguet squadrons were equipped with Fiat engines that were inferior to the Renault. Consequently, on 20 August, of 142 observation squadrons only 29 were equipped with Renault Breguets and 55 with Salmsons; two-seat Spads continued in service as a stopgap. During another visit to army corps squadrons on 13 August, Senator Menier observed that while army corps planes were supposed to protect themselves, they in fact required fighter protection over the German lines and did not always receive it; though pilots were skilled, gunners and mechanics tended to be inexperienced. At least the Breguets and Salmsons, valued for their strength and performance, gave army corps crews a chance against German fighters.

In bomber aviation, inadequate Breguet deliveries caused large gaps in the 15 day-bomber squadrons. Two Caproni night bomber squadrons needed refitting, while production of the Farman F50 night bomber, which already equipped two squadrons, needed to be stopped until the planes could be perfected. By September a Breguet with a 450-hp engine was under test. General Duval advised Dumesnil that the Caproni giant with 900 total horsepower was nose heavy, carried a small bomb load, and was not ready for wartime service. Most critically, exhaust flames from the engines threatened to set the gas tanks on fire. Night bombers remained a weakness of French aviation to the war’s end, but it was clear that the air arm was obtaining more and better tactical aircraft for daylight operations throughout 1918, though not as quickly as desired.

The emphasis on mass aviation required substantial expansion of training to increase aircrews and to replace losses. The French trained 6,909 pilots in 1918,21 and although they claimed that in 1919 they would be training 1,000 pilots a month, the number breveted annually from 1914 to 1918 (134 in 1914, 1,484 in 1915, 2,698 in 1916, and 5,609 in 1917) suggested that the rate of increase had peaked in 1917. French casualties in the war’s last six months, from May through October, totaled 2,327 killed, wounded, and missing at the front and in the rear. Combat casualties at the front reached 1,324, while 632 casualties were from accidents at the front and 371 were from accidents in the rear. Casualties peaked in June at 470, after which they declined steadily to the war’s end.

For massed tactics in aviation, the French fighter force had to relinquish some of its individualism to function effectively in 1918. In January Daniel Vincent advised that “the extreme individualism that gave aerial mastery in 1915 is no longer useful today.” This sentiment was echoed later by Jacques Mortane, editor of La Guerre aérienne, when he indicated that aviation was no longer a sport but an “arm” with rigid discipline and prepared operations similar to an infantry assault. Vincent attributed the change to the sense of discipline brought by newer recruits from other branches, although he might have acknowledged the importance of GQG’s leadership. However, individualism was too ingrained to be eliminated, and Mortane’s article was probably intended as much to remind pilots of the new order as to show the modification of tactics.

French ace of aces René Fonck exemplified the continued emphasis on individual tactics. In 1918 he firmly established himself as Guynemer’s heir in victories. He had 19 confirmed kills at the end of September 1917, 32 by the end of March 1918, and ultimately 75 by the war’s end, although he claimed 127. He twice shot down six planes in one day. Fonck continued to prefer individual combat, although at the war’s end he acknowledged that German group operations “compelled us to do one thing that was formerly exceptional, that is to fly in groups of generally four fighters. A lone encounter against ten would be too unequal.”24 In 1918 the Germans and English were operating in units of far more than 10 airplanes.

French bomber aviation emerged in 1918 as a tactical arm. At a conference with the British on 22 December 1917, General Duval had disagreed with the British policy of bombing enemy industrial centers and warned that the French did not intend to join British operations. He feared German reprisals and contended that neither Britain nor France had sufficient forces to conduct an effective strategic bombing campaign. The French revised their bombing scheme on 18 November 1917 and 5 January 1918, noting that their ideas were a “result of evolution during action, rather than a strategic plan.” Attempting to curtail railroad traffic in iron ore from the Saarbrücken and Lorraine basins, the French designated nine railroad stations within 45 miles of the line as targets. In January, following German simplification of their rail network into two independent traffic systems, economic and strategic, the French decreased the number of targets to four stations in the more vulnerable economic network to blockade the iron ore.

In May debates with the British, the French opposed both strategic aviation and aviation’s autonomy. General Duval commented on 31 May that “if we are defeated on land, the bombardment of Cologne is without interest.” Duval continued to judge Allied aviation insufficient to act both strategically and tactically at once and thus emphasized the tactical role in subordination to land forces. The French, though dismayed about Trenchard’s independent bomber force, were willing to provide it with airfields. However, when the Supreme War Council established an Inter-Allied Independent Air Force on 24 September, they insisted that requirements for land operations take precedence over any independent operations.

In 1918 French bomber crews in Breguets, usually carrying 24 10-kg bombs, aggressively raided across the lines in massed formations. Protected initially by single-seaters and later by a few heavily armed and armored Caudron R11 three-seaters or Breguet 14 escorts, the Breguets manned by skilled crews, their gunners armed with twin Lewis guns and carrying six circular drums of 97 cartridges for each gun, were not easy prey, even when alone. Gunner Sergeant André Duvau, at age 32 often called “Père Duvau” by squadron mates, had spent nearly 10 months in the back seat of Sopwiths and then Breguets. Returning from a raid in mid-July, he and his pilot lost their squadron in clouds. Duvau spotted five German fighters climbing to meet them, warned his pilot, who then did a climbing banked turn to give Duvau a clear shot at them. As German bullets struck the Breguet, Duvau fired only seven shots in two short bursts at the leader, who spun and then plunged earthward, while the others turned away. Duvau survived those raids without incident, but he recalled the risks—of frostbite, antiaircraft fire, German fighters, accidents—and the fears engendered by witnessing the fate of other aircrew, fears of crashing in flames just off the field and of being badly burned.

During the spring and summer Pétain and Duval apprised Undersecretary Jacques-Louis Dumesnil of their rapidly escalating goals for aviation. On 24 April, emphasizing the necessity for more and better airplanes, Pétain proposed a 6,000-plane air arm of new types, including 300-hp fighters, night bombers, two-seat fighters, three-seat battle planes, improved Breguet day bombers, and armored Salmson observation planes. They would require 26,000 personnel, including 800 officers and 9,000 trained technicians.

On 24 May Pétain asked for the following aircraft types: high- and medium-altitude single-seat fighters; a long-range reconnaissance plane to penetrate 200 kilometers into the enemy rear; a well-armed, fast, high-altitude, medium day bomber that could operate from unprepared airfields to extend the artillery by attacking railroads and troops; a medium night bomber; and a long-range heavy bomber to attack German industrial centers as far as the Ruhr. The last was intended to “paralyze the economic life of Germany and its war industries by methodical, massive, and repeated action against principal industrial cities, important marshalling yards, and to weaken the morale of its population by giving them a feeling of insecurity in a zone extending as far as possible into enemy territory.” Pétain’s priorities, in order, were to obtain new model two-seat combat planes, heavy and medium night bombers, armored assault planes, and three-seat combat planes, and to perfect present single-seat fighters and then day bombers.

On 24 August Pétain insisted, as “an absolute necessity,” that he have the 148 squadrons of Renault-Breguets and Salmsons with more powerful engines by 1919’s first trimester. He hoped to use the Breguet models and more powerful 200-hp Capronis as night bombers.

Fulfilling these requests depended on either unpredictable technological progress or increased production. For the latter, however, the French also had to consider the Allies’ air arms. Although the War Committee on 27 May determined to assure that Allied requests for materiel did not injure French interests, on 17 September Dumesnil contended that they would have been able to realize the 4,000-plane program if they had not had to deliver large amounts of equipment to the Allies. The United States, given the same priority as the French army, received 1,430 first-class planes (Spads, Breguets, and Salmsons) between 1 April and 16 September. If the United States were self-sufficient by early 1919, the French could achieve the 6,000-plane program, which they had initially intended for 1 April 1919.

Another reason for France’s failure to achieve the 4,000-plane program on schedule was the underestimation of aircraft losses. The expected 33 percent monthly wastage of bombers had reached at least 50 percent in recent battles, and replacements dominated the supply. By late September supplies sufficed to create the new units, since Renault-Breguet production increased.

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