Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Kings of the Air: Of Penguins and Men part 1

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the French aviation service could call upon 126 aircraft in front-line service and a further 126 in reserve, plus 486 qualified military pilots to fly them. It was perhaps this surplus, and the expectation of a short war, that prompted the Director of Aviation, General Félix Bernard, to close all the flying schools, and to dispense with the skills of men like Maxime Lenoir. Lenoir had learned to fly in 1913 and immediately became a professional aviator, celebrated for his aerobatic displays and a specialist in looping-the-loop. Recalled to service on mobilisation, he was fully expecting to be directed into aviation. But no. 'When I mentioned my pilot's licence to the recruiting officer, I might as well have been talking about my school certificate. “Oh, it's you,” he said. “The pilot. Aviators are lunatics. You'll have to switch, son! No place for mavericks in wartime. You can [go back] to the cavalry [Lenoir had performed his military service with 7th Hussars]!” As I was a cavalryman already they gave me a superb mare, so I got a ride of sorts, although definitely not the one of my dreams. And the poor beast … soon fell victim to one of those chance accidents so common in war: she was shot out from under me.'

But, with no sign of peace, and huge expansion plans already in place, it soon became clear that many more flying personnel were needed. By October 1914, GQG was already circularising the armies in search of suitable candidates for training: 'For the duration of the hostilities, the minister has decided to authorise the training of military pilots. To guarantee recruitment into this category of personnel, I ask you to identify those among the officers, NCOs and men under your command desirous of becoming a member of aircrew and capable of serving quickly. Only those candidates with previous pilot training, good vision and a robust constitution should be nominated.' All candidates had to be in perfect health, physically fit, and weigh (clothed) no more than 85kg (pilots) and 75kg (observers). Lenoir volunteered again and was accepted, receiving his military wings in December 1914. 

Throughout the war, many of those who volunteered for aviation were attracted by the thrills and glamour of it all. 'The period before the 1914 war was the time of the first flights, and like all young men of my age I thought it all very exciting,' recalled André Luguet, later one of France's leading film actors. 'I knew [pilots] like [Hubert] Latham, [René] Labouchère [and] Louis Chatelin, who all became close friends of mine. … I spent a lot of time at the airfields, [including] Mourmelon, where I watched the Wright brothers make their early flights. Because I had aviators to take me onto the airfields at Villacoublay, I was present at the first trials conducted by what we then called “flying men” before they were renamed aviators.'

The numbers required were partly met by incorporating dismounted cavalrymen, and in 1915 most volunteers came from that arm. As the war progressed, however, the cavalry was eclipsed as a source of aircrew by both the infantry and the artillery. Further recruits were found amongst men whose wounds had left them unfit for front-line service. The celebrated film director Jean Renoir, originally a cavalryman, suffered a leg wound and developed gas gangrene while serving in the Vosges with the chasseurs alpins. He was passed fit as an observer, although to his disappointment not as a pilot, and transferred to aviation in 1916 (he later tried again, and got his wings). 

Dr Guilbert, the MO at the flying school of Le Crotoy, felt 'that trainees recruited among the sick and the wounded should comply [with medical standards] even more strictly than the others.' But for many of the injured and wounded, experience and talent seems to have weighed more heavily. Lieutenant Paul Tarascon, for example, had lost a foot in a pre-war crash landing. Fitted with an artifical replacement, he rejoined the aviation service in 1914 and finished the war with twelve victories. Roland Garros was so short-sighted that he wore glasses beneath his goggles. François Coli continued to serve after losing an eye in a crash in March 1918, and in the same year Raymond Berthelot qualified as a night bomber pilot after heart problems had driven him from the artillery!

William Wellman, an American volunteer, was given 'heart tests, after I had hopped about the floor a few times; eye tests by reading a few letters across the room; balancing on one foot with my eyes closed to prove that I had a fair sense of equilibrium; and a few other balancing tests, during which I was whirled around on a piano stool with eyes closed and then requested to walk a straight line, with them open. Weight and measurements followed, and it was all over.' Sometimes, even these cursory efforts were waived or circumvented. When André Duvau was rejected by his original medical board, he reapplied using personal contacts within the army and was accepted without further ado. Arriving at the aviation depot at Dijon-Longvic in April 1917, 'The doctor literally shoved me out the door. True, it was apéritif time and it looked as if he was keen to swap the camp for the café.'

Most of those who served as members of aircrew between 1914 and 1918 were in their early twenties, aged between 21 and 26, and more than 80% of them were unmarried. But on the outbreak of war, the typical airman was somewhat older than this. The squadron commander, a lieutenant, tended to be in his mid-thirties, while his four or five junior officers were normally slightly younger, in their mid-twenties or early thirties, with around four years' service. NCOs were a mixture of long-service personnel, in their late twenties, and the current classes of conscripts (1911-1913); many of them had transferred to aviation within a month of their call-up, while others had entered direct. By 1918, casualties had wrought considerable changes, and the war in the air had become a young man's game. 'Youngsters,' said pilot Marcel Jeanjean. 'By and large they're just big kids.' The NCOs were drawn almost exclusively from the wartime classes of 1914 to 1918 (i.e. aged between 18 and 20 on call-up), while their commanding officer was just a couple of years older, often from the class of 1912.

Pictures (top to bottom): Maxime Lenoir (from Wikipedia); André Luguet learning to fly at Buc (from the ever-excellent albindenis), and, below, second from the right, the dapper leading man he became (in the 1931 French-language Buster Keaton film Buster se marie); Jean Renoir, later in life (his masterpiece La Grande Illusion was surely informed by his experiences in Aviation); Paul Tarascon (left) and François Coli in 1925; William Wellman (who also became an actor, then a film director - what was it with the film industry? Could it be that aircrew were all basically show offs?)

The penguins? They appear in part 2!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Kings of the Air: Some posters

3,000 posts since starting this blog in February! Thanks to everyone who has checked it out. To celebrate, here's a little eye candy of posters advertising early aviation events..

'The world owes its wings to France' - a poster commemorating the first one kilometre flight on a closed circuit by Henry Farman in one of his own machines, 12 January 1908. Farman was the son of a British journalist living in France, but he took French nationality. He went on to make a two kilometre flight on 21 March, and the first cross-country flight, from Châlons-sur-Marne to Reims, a distance of twenty-seven kilometres in twenty minutes, on 30 October. He opened his own flying school at Châlons in 1909, and began manufacturing aircraft of his own design later that year.

The First Paris Aero Salon, at the Grand Palais, 25 September - 17 October 1909. The star exhibit was the machine that Blériot flew across the English Channel earlier in the year (it is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in Paris). One critic wrote in the magazine 'L'Illustration', 'Mechanical travel through the air, with its mysterious problems and constant evolution, cannot but fail to excite popular interest. The number of people trying to get in was immense; a special squad of policeman had to be drafted in to control the sea of people around the machines of wood and canvas, with the Wright above them all like a bird.'
Le critique Louis Baudry De Saunier décrit ainsi ce premier Salon dans L'Illustration : « La locomotion mécanique dans l'air, avec ses mystérieux problèmes et ses révolutions prochaines, ne pouvait manquer de réveiller l'enthousiasme de la foule. Le nombre des entrées au Grand Palais a repris son niveau le plus élevé ; il a fallu un service d'agents de la force publique pour contenir la mer des visiteurs autour des bouts de bois et de toiles sur lesquels Wright a joué à l'oiseau ! - See more at: http://www.grandpalais.fr/fr/Le-monument/Histoire/Les-evenements-du-Grand-Palais/Innovation-et-modernite/p-121-Le-Salon-de-l-aviation-1909-1951-.htm#sthash.afWIQ47x.dpuf

Reims Aviation Week, 22 to 29 August, 1909, offering 200,000 francs in prizes. This was also a massively popular event, with some 500,000 people passing through the turnstiles, including the President of France, Armand Fallières, and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. Thirty-eight aircraft were entered, of which twenty-three actually took part. The principal event was the Coupe Gordon Bennett (the publisher of the New York Herald), a time trial of two laps of a 10km course. The winner was Eugène Lefebvre, in a French-built Wright. The Grand Prix de Champagne et la Ville de Reims, a distance event, was won by Henry Farman. Other winners of smaller events included the American Glenn Curtiss, Louis Blériot and Hubert Latham.

An aviation meeting in Nice, 10-25 April 1910. It did not attract many of the top names - Hubert Latham was there (a Frenchman despite his name), Britain was represented by the Hon. C.S. Rolls, but the most successful pilot, in speed and distance events, was the Russian, Effimoff.

Lyon Aviation Week, 7-15 May 1910, also with 200,000 francs in prizes. Flight reported 'some extraordinary flying' at the meeting. Latham was there, as was the Belgian Charles van de Born. Making one of his first appearances on the European circuit was Louis Paulhan, who was one of the meeting's successes, breaking records for height, speed and weight on a Henry Farman.

Paulhan joined the Aviation Service in 1914, and was given command of MF99 (later MF99S, then MF399), which was posted to Serbia in support of the Serbian campaign against the Austrians.

The second Champagne Aviation Week at Reims, 3-10 July 1910. It was hoped that this would be as big a success as the previous year's event, and seventy-five aircraft were entered, but inclement weather disrupted many of the events. For Flight, the star of the meeting was the Belgian Jan Olieslagers, breaking distance and endurance records. Olieslagers served with the Belgian Air Service during the Great War, and scored six confirmed victories.

The Fourth Paris Aero Salon, Grand Palais, 26 October - 10 November 1912. 'What a crowd!' commented Flight's correspondent, 'What enthusiasts the French are over their beloved aviation.' The previous event had attracted 43 aircraft, but this year's included 77, of which 27 belonged to the Army's Aviation Service. 'Every stand has an air of progress and prosperity about it, an effect for which the French constructors have to thank an encouraging government.' Unlike, he thought, the British. Certainly, the schemes for expanding the service that the Inspector of Aviation had proposed made the Army the biggest customer of the nascent aviation industry.

The Sixth Paris Aero Salon at the Grand Palais, 19 December 1919 to 4 January 1920. The first post-war Salon shows the manufacturers scrambling to produce aircraft for a peacetime world. Unfortunately, most of them are doing it by shoehorning cabins onto military aircraft. The results vary between the plainly ugly and the downright hideous. 'Now and then', says the Flight correspondent, 'the French designer scores with his sense of the artistic, with his eye for the graceful outline or flowing curve.' The side views here and here shows precious little evidence of it, to be honest - the Blériot Mammoth (no.4), the Caudron C.25 (no.13) and the Potez SEA7 (no.37) are all fine examples. Streamlining cannot come too soon!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Kings of the Air: Night and Day

The shift from day to night bombing brought some measure of relief to the crews of the obsolete Farmans, Capronis and Breguet-Michelins. In his post-war history of the French bombing effort, René Martel claimed, 'The pilots had eventually acquired real expertise with these much reviled aircraft and drew a respectable return from them.' Moreover, 'the slowness of the French aircraft became an advantage at night because the pilot [needed time] to assess his position … He had to fly slowly to make accurate observations. The old French planes with rear-mounted propellors offered all these advantages.' Which sounds a lot like special pleading.

Flying by night required particular piloting skills. There were none of the electronic aids familiar from the Second World War, and navigation was by dead reckoning. 'We had precious little training when you think about it,' recalled Major Paul Gignoux (VB101). 'I set off on my first night bombing raid with a total of just 53 hours' flying time. Needless to say, if I'd had any sort of technical problem … You can see nothing when you first fly at night, absolutely nothing at all, just a black hole beneath you. … Eight or nine raids in, I started navigating solo. I coped well enough but I still couldn't see anything to begin with. … You check your compass, you check the time, [so] you know, for example, you've covered 15km in eight minutes. The target's 50km away. Even if you can't see the ground, you still know roughly where you are, and that's when you start keeping your eyes open. The target is often illuminated and quite distinctive: a station, a railway, a factory. Now to what you learn from experience. Eventually you learn to see the ground. I was able to take comrades up with me and show them how to navigate. … The enemy could only identify us through sound; very few aircraft were brought down. Engine failure was the biggest danger; the engine in the Voisin Peugeot 220hp had its hiccups. The Voisin broke down on me several times and that's when I was most at risk.'

What changed the game was the introduction of the Breguet 14. This was a powerful, fast, robust aircraft that could hold its own against German fighters. They were not invulnerable, however. One of the previous problems that had bedevilled day bombing operations had been the lack of escorts with sufficient range to get to the bombers' target and back. The introduction of the twin-engined Caudron R.11 solved this. The Caudron had been designed as a reconnaissance aircraft, so had the range (3 hours at 183 kph); it also included a heavy defensive armament of five machine guns. So rather than using it in the role for which it had been designed, it was employed as a long-range escort.

But even this combination found it difficult against determined opposition. On 14 September twenty-three Breguet 14 from BR131 and BR132 (Escadre de bombardement 13), escorted by five Caudron R.11 from C46, under Major des Prez de la Morlais, undertook a raid on the marshalling yards at Conflans, some thirty kilometers behind the German lines. The French were organised in three waves, and flew in and out by the same route. The first two waves from BR131 got through with the loss of only one Breguet and one Caudron; the full weight of the German riposte fell on the third wave: eight machines from BR132 under Captain Jannekyn and a single Caudron. Six of the Breguets were shot down. That night, the Capronis of C115 struck again against the same town, with some aircraft making two sorties; at the same, US railway artillery was bombarding the town and its facilities.

But this remained essentially tactical bombing. The French Aviation Service, despite the clamour of politicians and press, refused to get involved with the mass bombardment of German cities. Research papers complied by senior aviation staff officers in 1917 for next year's campaign all came down on the side of giving priority to battlefield use - striking against industrial targets on the Sarre and Moselle remained a possibility, but it depended on the progress of the land battle. There would be little point, they concluded, in trying to bomb Essen if the Germans were only a few days' march from Paris.

General Maurice Duval (Head of Aviation at GQG, and later Pétain's Chief of Operations) was strongly opposed to the creation of an Independent Air Force in July 1918, claiming that all the forces in the field should be under a single commander. The following month, he grudgingly admitted that perhaps a strategic bombing force acting against military targets was possible, but only if sufficient extra resources existed.

After the war, many experienced aviation officers, such as de Goys (who had wanted to flatten Constantinople in 1914 to shock Turkey out of the war) and Orthlieb, would claim that this lack of strategic bombing was a major cause of France losing the peace - had, say, Bavaria known the full horrors of war through aerial bombardment then it might have seceded from the Reich and made a separate peace, thus bringing a speedier end to the conflict. Yet the effect of the German raids on Paris had been negligible - how would French raids have been more terrifying (other than by being French of course, and thus to de Goys and Orthlieb in some indefinable way superior)? While the French Air Force developed heavy bombers in the inter-war period (and some hugely ugly bombers at that), the official focus was always on bombers as a part of the land battle, and nothing else.

Pictures: the Breguet 14 in the Air and Space Museum at le Bourget from the Pyperpote site; Major Paul Gignoux; the Caudron R.11; the railway yards at Conflans; General Maurice Duval