Tuesday, 30 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.

The September offensive in Champagne was the catalyst (or perhaps the excuse) for the French to abandon long-range daylight bombing. From being directly under GQG's orders, bombing groups were transferred to individual armies to concentrate on missions against targets like railway stations, to disrupt the movement of German reinforcement and supplies. A proposal to create an escadre of 100 Breguet-Michelin bombers under Lieutenant de vaisseau Dutertre was at first scaled back, and then abandoned completely.

One of the casualties in September was Captain Albert Féquant, serving as an observer with VB102 during a raid on Sarrebrück. Fequant had galvanised the Army in 1910 by a long-range flight from Châlons-sur-Marne to Versailles with Captain Charles Marconnet as the pilot. The flight proved that aircraft could be used not just for directing artillery fire, but also at long-range for bombing and reconnaissance. He was killed by a well-aimed burst from an Aviatik. His pilot, Sergeant Charles Niox, managed to hold him in the cockpit while he brought the aircraft back to their home airfield at Malzéville (Meurthe-et-Moselle). Féquant's brother, Philippe, was the group commander.

In January 1916, Joffre ordered every army group to produce a bombing plan encompassing, 'ongoing assignments such as attacks on major stations, rail hubs, known factories or airfields; missions in liaison with the operations planned on each army group's front, in particular targetting enemy communications and installations, in the rear or close to the front line' Meanwhile the French parliament continued to press for reprisal raids against Germany, so Joffre was obliged to add provision for, 'reprisal raids on German towns in response to any kind of enemy action against French towns.'

The French bombers may have been outclassed by the German fighters, but they continued with their missions. One journalist recognised their contribution: 'The bomber pilot, is by definition, a hero. … He flies a plane that is most often heavy, poorly armed, difficult to manoeuvre and incapable of defending itself, carries large quantities of explosives, never deviates for an instant from the direct route to his target, treats guns and planes with disdain, is aware of the awful death which awaits him if an attack is successful, and still continues on because it is his duty to do so.' 

Major Maurice Happe, the commander of GB4, recorded his displeasure in the group's war diary: 'without the fighters we have requested over and over again, GB4 is doomed to die without our being able to defend ourselves.' Happe experimented with different formations to make the best use of his aircrafts' armament, trying line abreast and line astern before settling on a V-formation.

One answer was to transfer from day bombing to night bombing. This would allow the French to continue to use the old Voisins and Breguet-Michelins that had otherwise become obsolete. 'We took off by moonlight, and arrived at 1500m over the lines ninety minutes before sunrise. We throttled back so we were making as little noise as possible and silently glided down to 1,000m. We identified the target, and carefully placed our bombs from low altitude so they were almost forced to land in the right place. We then finished things off with the machine-gun before regaining our lines, firing on German convoys, railway lines and batteries as we went. Not all my bombing raids met with the desired results, but two were pretty successful: the first derailed a train, the second blew up a munitions dump. This latter result was particularly noticeable, and I was well rewarded for the risks I had taken when I saw the fantastic firework display produced by my bomb: an hour later I was back over our lines, and 40km from the dump, but I could still see huge explosions coming from the heart of the blaze and big flames climbing up to 500m into the sky.'

Pictures: a Fokker Eindecker; two paintings of the death of Albert Féquant by Henri Farré, who served in the Air Service at the same time; Major Maurice Happe, commander of GB4; a painting of the return from a night raid by war artist François Flameng.

There will be no post next week. Normal service will be resumed in a fortnight.

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