Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The best of planes, the worst of planes

Over on the excellent Hush-Kit, there is a list of the best looking French aircraft. It's a list that is not without its talking points - like cricket, rugby and football teams, every reader will always see some 'inexplicable omissions' from such selections. Where, for example, is the Latécoère 28 (the floatplane version flown by Jean Mermoz shown previously here)? I must also confess to having a soft spot for the Nieuport-Delage Ni.52/62/72 series, despite the odd sesquiplane configuration; and for the Dewoitine D500 and the Blériot-SPAD 510, which both staggered on in service until May 1940. Indeed, all the wartime SPADs have their rugged, business-like, charm, but elegant they are not - not even the more streamlined S.20. You might also include the Caudron C.640, but whilst powerful and streamlined, it remains a knock-off of the DH88 Comet.
But no, we are not here for the best of French aviation, but for the worst - the ugly monsters that should really have never left the designer's drawing board. Goodness knows, there is plenty of choice - the nation that gave the world the Mirage, the Caravelle, and the three on the left, also gave us some slab-sided brutes. So here is a top ten (should that be a bottom ten?) of the worst offenders against aesthetics and aerodynamics (older British readers can start channelling disc-jockey Alan Freeman if they wish, but the selection is not in strict order).
 The Sud-Est SE100 was conceived as a day (two-seater) or night (three-seater) fighter. It would be armed with six forward-firing 20mm cannon, a further two in the rear compartment, and a seventh in a ventral hatch. The prototype was captured in 1940.
The five-engined Penhoet-Richard RP2 flying boat, designed for trans-Mediterranean passenger runs, first flew in 1926. After two years' development, the prototype broke up in mid-air, killing the mechanic. The designer, Richard, fled to the Soviet Union, where he was involved in the development of the Tupolev ANT-20 bomber.

Having praised the lines of SPADs above, what can we make of the SPAD A.2? It was an attempt to combine the advantages of the pusher and tractor configurations. The observer was placed in a 'pulpit', forward of the propellor, from where he could not communicate with the pilot, and was in danger of being crushed from behind following even the mildest nose-over. Additionally, the observer himself, and the cage that had to be in place so that he did not shoot off his own propellor, so restricted the pilot's vision, he could hardly see to land. Nearly 100 were produced - unsurprisingly their crews hated them, and they were quickly withdrawn. The best you can say is that the work done on the general configuration paved the way for the successful S.7 and S.13.

There looks to be something missing from the Simplex-Arnoux Racer from 1922. The answer is probably 'stability'. It was an attempt to streamline by the virtual elimination of the tail, and used control surfaces that ran the whole width of the wing. The pilot sat behind the massive, drum-like radiator, so consequently could hardly see anything. The pilot was none other than wartime ace Georges Madon, who was lucky to escape with serious injuries.
The Potez 540 entered French service in 1934 as an escort fighter / reconnaissance / bomber type. Its armament was placed in manually operated turrets and hand-cranked ventral dustbin turrets. It saw action during the Spanish Civil War, where it was promptly nicknamed the Flying Coffin. The French immediately relegated them to transport duties.

The Amiot 143 was another type fulfilling the same role as the Potez (with a cruising speed of 168 kph!), but was converted to a bomber in pre-production. It was obsolete when war broke out, but the slowness of French aircraft production meant they had to carry on regardless. The aircraft of 34e and 38e Escadres took heavy losses trying to bomb the Meuse bridges from 800m in May 1940.
The Bloch MB.200 was cut from similar cloth as the Potez and Amiot, but was designed as a night bomber, and entered service in 1935. Over 200 were produced, and it was built under license in Czechoslovakia, but was obsolete almost as it entered service.

 The Farman F.121 Jabiru may have been some kind of ancestor to all of them. The family of aircraft began with the F.60 Goliath, which began life as a bomber, but was converted for airline use after the end of the Great War. This spawned the F.120, 121, 122 and 123 - with the exception of the 121, all bombers in various configurations. The 121 illustrated is serving with Danish Air Lines.

And having found a style, the Farman company continued to follow it with the F.220 series, which included the 220 bomber (delivered to squadrons in 1936), the 221 bomber (with enclosed gunners' positions), the 222 (with retractable undercarriage), the twin-tailed 223 bomber or airliner, and the 224 airliner. With a maximum speed of 320kph (199mph) and a payload of 4,200kg, it was never going to set the world on fire, but aircraft of this type did raid Berlin twice, first on 7 June 1940 and again three days later.

An honourable mention for the Antoinette Monobloc of 1911, despite the imprimatur of pre-Great War aviation star Hubert Latham. The wheel spats give it a certain period charm, and the lack of bracing wires was ahead of his time, but it was actually too heavy to get off the ground, given the weak engines of the day.

On the grounds that their unusual configuration was because they were experimental machines, we could perhaps excuse the appearance of the Makhonine MAK.10 of 1931 (with telescopic wings!) Gerin Varivol of 1936 (more variable geometry), and the SNECMA C.450-01 Coléoptère of 1959 (an annular wing). Couldn't we?

Pictures: the photos come from the Virtual Aircraft Museum here, with the exception of those of the SPAD A.2 and Bloch MB.200, which are from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Full of Eastern Promise

After investigating the rolls of Napoleon's Guard and infantry, I had another browse around the Mémoire des Hommes website of the Service Historique de la Défense, and took a look at the records of the French East India company, the Compagnie des Indes. The Company was originally created in 1664 as a rival to the British and Dutch companies. Like the HEIC, it couldn't help but meddle in local affairs, and the European conflicts between the two countries were also played out in India. The French got the worse of it, and the Compagnie virtually collapsed in 1764. It was revived in 1785, but was then abolished during the Revolution. Despite this, the French retained several enclaves in India, particularly around Pondicherry (now Puducherry) on the south-east coast, and Chandernagore (now Chandanaggar) until 1954 (yep, six years after the British left).

The approach is via the tab Présence française dans le monde. You are given several options. The Orientations historiques provides links to the municipal museum in Lorient, which is also the museum of the Compagnie, as well as to a number of other museums and academic institutions

The Compagnie's archives are held at Lorient, and the Archives du port de Lorient leads you to links to the inventories. Lorient itself was the main port for the company, having grown from the shipyard where the first company vessel was built.

If you know the name of a ship in which you are interested, then click on the Armement des navires link. This leads you to search screen, but the vessel name is a drop down menu, and covers vessels from L'Abeille, brigantine (one voyage from la Rochelle to Louisiana in 1721) to Le Zodiaque, 74 (one voyage from Lorient to India and the Mascarenas, then back to Brest in 1757-62), via captured vessels like the Little Dicky, a British merchantman captured by the Zodiaque's squadron off India. For each vessel, there is a reference to the piece number within the Archives of the ship's logs, and any correspondance from, or relating to, the vessel. Under the heading Activité et opérations is a link to a list of the Company's vessels, with the location of further archive material. Under the heading Personnel et passagers are links to any surviving muster rolls.

Equipages et passagers is one of the most interesting sections, because it provides links to the digitized muster rolls of each ship. So I returned to the trusty Dupont name and stuck that in the search form. To my utter, utter surprise, given the non-indexing indexes from elsewhere in this site, the search actually worked, and there are 127 Duponts. The first is actually a soldier, bound for Pondicherry, who boarded the Duc de Bourbon, 30, on 14 March 1741 and arrived on 24 August that same year. Clicking on the icon under Nom de navire takes you to the Armement des navires page, as above; clicking on the icon under pdf takes you to a pdf of the muster roll for that voyage.

The Duc de Bourbon was launched at Lorient on 6 May 1734, and made three voyages to the Indies, in 1736, 1740 and 1744, before being condemned at Pondicherry on 31 Oct 1746. During the last voyage, she had actually been condemned at Ile de France (the modern Mauritius) in 1744, but was commandeered and refitted by de la Bourdonnais as Le Bourbon, and served in his Indian campaign

For the 1741 voyage, she managed to cram 430 people on board - crew and passagers, including a draft of replacements for the garrison at Pondicherry, amongst whom no-first-name Dupont was numbered. For each man there is his name, his father's name, age, height and hair colour, town of origin, position on board and pay, manning depot and miscellaneous remarks (although these details are not scrupulously filled in for each individual). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ship's company, from Captain Pierre Jazier de la Garde to fifteen-year-old landsman Thomas Aubert, all came either from Brittany or, to a lesser extent, Gascony. There is obviously some scope for these records to form the basis of research on manning the Company's ships.

There is little information about their passengers, however. We end up knowing nothing more about no-first-name Dupont or his comrades - neither their age nor their origins. What is striking, looking through the names, is the number of men who had nicknames, and that these nicknames became part of the official record - like Julien Ory known as Dent Cruelle, or Jean le Dun known as Rozette, or even (imagination having perhaps run low by now) Nicholas Morel known as Morel. ISTR from work I've done on other, non-military material, from the eighteenth century that such names, and their appearance in official records, were a feature of society generally at the time, and not just of army life.

Incidentally, a number of users of the site have been complaining of having problems viewing some of the digitized records using Chrome and Explorer. So be warned. I've had no trouble using Firefox (he adds smugly).

Pictures: the waterfront at Pondicherry (from Wikipedia); a view of the port of Lorient (from the museum's website);  Le Bourbon, serving under de la Bourdonnais (Wikipedia); a cross section through Le Massiac, indiaman (from the website of the museum).

Tuesday, 7 January 2014


To celebrate 5,000 page views of this here blog since it began in February, we go for the usual selection of eye candy aviation-themed posters, but this time, posters from the other side of the Wire (? of the Hill? of the Clouds??) - Germany.

Straubing is in eastern central Bavaria. The Volksfest was first held in 1812, following a decree by King Maximilian I Joseph, as a festival organised by the agricultural societies of the kreis. It declined in the course of the century, but was revived in 1898. It is now one of the biggest fairs in Bavaria outside Munich.

Sad to relate, the 1912 centenary event was completely rained off, so no-one will have seen the action depicted in the poster (designed by Edwin Hedel).

What a striking, unearthly image (by Ernst Riess)! The pilot with helmet, goggles and protective clothing hardly revealing any skin at all; above him flies a Taube, with another large biplane in the distance. The Prinz Heinrich event was a trial for prototypes, set up in 1911, but named after one of the Kaiser's sons in 1913 (who was a career naval officer, but an enthusiastic aviator). That year's route was Wiesbaden – Kassel – Koblenz – Karlsruhe – Stuttgart – Straßburg. The participants included the airship LZ 17 'Sachsen' under the command of Hugo Eckener. The winner of the competition was Lieutenant Ernst Canter (1888-1956), who would later achieve fame for his aerial reconnaissance work during the battle of Tannenburg in 1914.

Perhaps the last view that many had of a Fokker Monoplane. Antony Fokker began his manufacturing company at the Johannisthal airfield on the south-east side of Berlin in 1912, but it rapidly became too busy to accommodate his factory. So, at the end of the following year, he moved lock, stock and barrel to the northern coastal town of Schwerin, in Mecklenburg. Amazingly some of the original hangars still exist, on Bornhövedstraße, and are the subject of a restoration effort by the Fokker In Schwerin Foundation. In 1919, he moved again, this time to the Netherlands.

The Blue Max at top left must surely celebrate the pilots who flew Fokker's machines - Boelcke? Immelmann? It doesn't really look like either man.

The Motorenfabrik Oberursel was founded in 1891 in the central German town of Oberursel (!), near Frankfurt. Willy Seck, the company's founder, invented a light rotary engine that he named the Gnom. He licensed it for manufacture in France under the name Gnôme, where it powered many pre-war aircraft. Its success outstripped its originator's company, and Oberursel began building licensed versions of the French engines. The Gnôme Lambda 80hp rotary became the Oberursel U.0, and powered the first versions of the Fokker E.I. A 100hp engine, the Rhône Delta, became the Oberursel U.1, and was used in most of the Fokker and Pfalz monoplanes. In 1916, Fokker bought the company to ensure the supply of engines, but rotaries could not develop the same power as the latest in-line engines. The company survived both world wars (just) and now makes aircraft engines for Rolls Royce.

The artwork is by the distinguished graphic artist Ludwig Hohlwein (1874-1949), who did a number of posters for the company.

Another Hohlwein poster, advertising the famous Albatros works. The aircraft itself is something of a hybrid, with a tail that resembles those of the D-series of fighters, but with the double interplane struts of the C-series of two-seaters. But I suppose this was just to give a flavour of the company's products, not to provide an aircraft recognition class.

Albatros was also based at Johannisthal, where it remained throughout the war. In April 1914, it opened a second factory in Schneidemühl (now Piła in Poland), and in 1916 a third in Friedrichshagen (now the Berlin suburb of Köpenick, and close to Johannisthal). In 1931, it merged with Focke-Wulf.

LVG (Luftverkehrsgesellschaft) started life in 1911 as a passenger and freight company using Parsifal airships. The company moved into aircraft manufacture in the following year, likewise at Johannisthal (no wonder Fokker moved away!). Their C-series of two-seaters was one of the mainstays of German cooperation squadrons during the war, and they produced more aircraft than any other firm except Albatros. This poster, signed F. Neumann, appears to depict a post-war civilianised version, perhaps with Deutsche Luft-Reederei (a forerunner of Lufthansa), or one of its competitors.

BFW was founded in 1909 by Albrecht Otto. He dealt initially in the products of the French company Blériot and the Alsatian Aviatik company. After the outbreak of war, the company made Albatros aircraft under licence. But Otto got into financial difficulties, and in 1916, the company was renamed Bayerische Flugzeug Werke. They continued to produce Albatri, and this is what the poster, signed H.L. Braune, depicts.

After the end of the war, the firm could not survive, and in 1922 was bought by a Camillo Castiglione, who amalgamated it with an engine company he already owned, and turned to making motor cars, under the name Bayerische Motor Werke, usually abbreviated to BMW (wonder what happened to them?).

A second Bayerische Flugzeug Werke was created in 1926 from the remains of the old Rumpler concern. Soon afterwards they became part of Messerschmitt.

Thanks to everyone who has visited. Here's to the next five thousand!