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

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