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Showing posts from July, 2013

Kings of the Air: Day and Night

For the raids on Ludwigshafen and Dillingen, the French bombers flew in a loose gaggle, arriving over the target in ones and twos, but by September 1915, the threat from German fighters was sufficient to force the bombers into a close mutually-supporting group. 'Flying in close formation provides vital protection against enemy planes,' commented one bomber pilot. 'During the raid on Dillingen, an Aviatik dogged us every inch of the way, watching us drop our bombs and ready to pick off any straggler, but unwilling to strike against the group.'
The increased availability of the Fokker Eindecker posed problems for the French, and they struggled to find a response. Pusher aircraft were always vulnerable to attacks from the rear, and providing an escort of Nieuport scouts was no help, because the fighters did not have the range to escort the bombers all the way there and back. Arming some Voisins with a 37mm cannon was no more effective, because the weapon was so unwieldy.

Kings of the Air: Approaching the target

Blame Clément Ader. Having failed to achieve flight, he abandoned active testing, and turned to lobbying about aviation instead. Writing in 1907, he prophesied that a failure to invest in air power would leave France facing a doomsday scenario: great Anglo-German air fleets menacing the capital itself. 'These airborne cohorts will fly methodically over the ten main arrondissements of Paris, bombing as they go, sparing neither museums nor historic monuments, and dropping on average four or five bombs on each dwelling.' Naming Britain as a potential enemy so soon after the conclusion of the Entente Cordiale cannot have helped him get an official hearing, but his lurid writings certainly grabbed the attention of excitable politicians and excitable newspapers.
At this early stage of aircraft development the sticking point was weak engines which could not develop sufficient power to carry both crew and a large offensive payload. What was billed as an attempt to encourage manufacture…

Kings of the Air: Queens of the Air

It's close enough to the birthdays of Amy Johnson (1st July) and Amelia Earheart (24th July) to take a look at French women pilots (or aviatrix as they said at the time) before and during the Great War.
The first woman in the world to obtain a pilot's license was Elise Deroche (1882-1919). She was originally an actress, but was bitten by the aviation bug after seeing a demonstration of the Wright flyer. Amongst her friends was the manufacturer Charles Voisin, and through him she learnt to fly, gaining her license (no.36) on 8th March 1910. She took part in many international meetings and set several altitude and distance records. She was killed in a flying accident at the Caudron airfield at Le Crotoy (Somme) in 1919.
The second ever women to get a pilot's license was Hélène Dutrieu (1877-1961). She was actually Belgian, but did much of her flying in France, eventually taking French citizenship, and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur.
The second Frenchwoman was Marthe N…

A race run: French cyclists in the Great War

Many of you reading this will also be watching the television coverage of the 100th Tour de France, which has just left the Pyrenees, and is heading for Brittany. This year's route doesn't go anywhere near the north of France, but next year's will certainly pass across the battlefields of the Great War. The actual route has not yet been announced (apart from the Grand Depart and three stages dans le Yorkshire profond), but already there is talk of a stage in Belgium with a finish in Ypres, a stage passing along the roads near Albert and Péronne, and of course something in Verdun. The Tour also intends to commemorate the battle of Bouvines, whose 800th anniversary is on 27 July next year.

Three Tour winners were killed during the Great War.
Lucien Petit-Breton (whose real name was Lucien Mazan) was born in Plessé (Loire-Atlantique) in 1882, but his family moved to Argentina, and he became an Argentinian citizen. Nevertheless, he was called up into the French Army in 1902, …

Kings of the Air: special missions

Mention of Jules Védrines in my last post leads me inevitably to Special Missions. While the French had some success intercepting German wireless communications, they also wanted to establish a network of agents behind the German lines, either for intelligence or for sabotage.
The basic plan was to fly over the Front at night, at an altitude of around 3,000m, deposit the agent, and leave him to it. The first mission seems to have been in November 1914, and they continued for the rest of the war, but their peak was during the Champagne offensive of autumn 1915, with twelve taking place between 23 and 25 September. After several days, the agent would be collected either at a pre-arranged location, or one set up by the agent, communicating with the pilot by carrier pigeon. The technique evolved during the course of the war, with some agents inserted by parachute (the first in October 1915), and exfiltrated through the Netherlands. At first, the Dutch route was an expedient whenever the c…