Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Kings of the Air: Not just a tennis player ....

Since the French Open Tennis Championship is being played at the Stade Roland Garros at the moment, it provides the perfect cue to talk about the man after whom the stadium is named (not about tennis, which is dull. Dulldulldulldull. Ohgodhowdull. Not altogether that keen, to be frank.).

Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros, to give him his full name, was born in Saint-Denis on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion on 6 October 1888, but went to school in Paris. He began his aviation career in 1909 flying Alberto Santos-Dumont's Demoiselle monoplane, an tiny aircraft that only flew well with a small lightweight pilot like Garros. He gained his pilot's licence in July 1910. In 1911 he changed to Blériot monoplanes and entered a number of European air races, including the 1911 Paris to Madrid air race and the Circuit of Europe (Paris-London-Paris), in which he came second. In September 1912, he established a new world altitude record of 5,610 m (18,410 ft) in the skies over Tunis. By 1913 he had switched to flying the faster Morane-Saulnier monoplanes, and made the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean from Fréjus to Bizerte in Tunisia - a feat that earned him the Légion d'Honneur. There's a short documentary on Vimeo here with some marvellous contemporary footage.

At the time, he was also serving in the Army, as a sous-lieutenant. His actual arm of service was the infantry, but he seems to have done no footslogging at all, posted instead directly to the Service des Fabrications de l'Aviation, responsible for research and testing, where he could use his aviation experience to some effect. One of his projects was connected with the arming of aircraft, collaborating with Charles de Rose. It was obvious that the best position for a gun was firing forwards, but the pesky propellor would get in the way. Both men started working on deflector plates, which were fitted to the propellor blades, and would deflect bullets away from the blades themselves, leaving them undamaged. Ninety percent of the bullets passed the blades without hitting, but the remaining ten per cent would ricochet in every direction, including back at the pilot and aircraft.

The technology had not been perfected by the outbreak of war. De Rose was sent to the Front, but Garros remained as a test pilot with Moranes, and continued to work on the deflector plate idea. Posted first to MS23, then to MS26, he had the opportunity to test his ideas out under combat conditions. And on 1 April 1915 over Westkapelle, he was successful: 'I'd taken off on my own with ninety-five kilos of shells to drop them on a German station. Arriving over my target, ten kilometres from our lines, I saw a plane in the middle distance around 500 metres above me. Our batteries were firing at it. I reached the right height, came closer, the batteries were firing at us, I opened fire from thirty metres: the Teuton replied with his rifle, I reloaded my machine gun three times. After a few rounds the enemy fled in disarray descending full speed. I didn't give him a metre. The combat lasted ten minutes and and finished at 1,000 metres: shot through like a sieve the Albatros suddenly caught fire, it was smothered in flames and came down like a whirlwind. It was tragic, appalling.' Over the next few weeks, he shot down another two Germans. What was even more remarkable was that Garros was so short-sighted he had to wear glasses under his goggles.
But on 18 April, either a blocked fuel line or ground fire forced him to land near Inglemunster, on the enemy side of the lines. He set his machine alight, but was captured. The popular story was that the deflector plates inspired Antony Fokker to produce his synchronizer gear, but Fokker had been working on the idea before Garros's fall. There's a YouTube video on this part of his career here.

In February 1918 two outwardly disreputable characters presented themselves at the French embassy in The Hague. They were Garros and his comrade Anselme Marchal (C66), newly escaped from their German POW camp at Magdeburg. During his three years of captivity, Garros had been moved from camp to camp – Küstrin, Trier, Gnadenfrei, Magdeburg, Burg, then back to Magdeburg – in response to his repeated attempts to escape by tunnel, sea – and even air. Marchal had been a prisoner since 20 June 1916, when the engine of his specially modified Nieuport 12 seized up over Austrian-occupied Poland after a daring leaflet raid on Berlin. This time the pair succeeded by the simple expedient of disguising themselves as German officers and walking out through the gates. Marchal spoke German so, rather than head cross-country, they took the train to Aachen and eventually swam to freedom across the river marking the Dutch border.

The French, Prime Minister Clemenceau in particular, wanted the newly-returned Garros to remain in Paris in some staff position, but the pilot insisted on returning to the Front. But the Front of 1918 was not that of 1915. Pilots like René Fonck had devised an effective method of solo combat appropriate to the new era of group manoeuvring. After three years in a German prison camp, Garros had not – and, despite a course at the air gunnery school at Cazaux during the summer, old habits died hard. On 5 October 1918 he took part in a patrol that encountered a group of seven Fokker D.VII over Vouziers, ten kilometres inside German lines. His CO, Captain de Sevin, ordered him to stay in formation, but Garros had other ideas: '[he] darted straight into the Fokkers, followed by [de Sevin], who fought for a few seconds with several opponents. Eventually [the CO] managed to break off – but Garros, with a huge number 30 painted on the upper wing of his aircraft, had disappeared. There was no sign of him.'

SPA48 had several pilots in the vicinity, including one who had spotted a SPAD taking on three Fokkers: 'Two of them banked, while the third waited calmly for the attack. Suddenly, at point-blank range, the SPAD broke up into fragments so small they might have been playing cards scattered on the wind.' Ironically, given his role in the development of fighter armament, Garros may have shot off his own propeller after his synchronizer gear malfunctioned. Leutnant Hermann Habich of Jasta 49 probably administered the coup de grâce.

Garros is buried in Vouziers. The military airfield on Saint-Denis, Base Aérienne 181, is named in his honour. In 1928, a new stadium was being built in the Bois de Boulogne for France's defence of the Davis Cup. The site was the location of courts that Garros had enjoyed attending and playing on when he lived in Paris, so the new complex was named the Stade Roland Garros when it opened in 1928 (history of the championships here, if you must).

Pictures: Garros in pre-war days (both from Gallica); Garros in uniform; Garros's personnel card (from Mémoire des Hommes); Anselme Marchal; Xavier de Sevin (from Albin Denis).

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Kings of the Air: Bibendum and Bombing

The company of Michelin is well-known for tyres, and has been since the nineteenth century. But André and Edouard Michelin, who ran the company were aviation enthusiasts as well; in particular, they were bombing enthusiasts. 'You should decide whether aeroplanes were just a reconnaissance tool, or if they could become a terrible weapon of war,' they wrote to the president of the Aéro-Club de France in August 1911. 'Perhaps they could cut a country's mobilisation in two ... and more - destroying arsenals, supply centres, enemy powder works. ... We are making available to you the sum of
150,000 francs, to be used in four prizes to be called the Michelin Air Aiming Prize [prix de l'aéro-cible Michelin].'

They followed this up by issuing a series of postcards showing how the Michelin competition would improve the nation's defences. 'It could,' André thundered in the pages of Le Matin, 'be as indispensable to a country's defences as rifles and artillery. [But] since the Government has forgotten its duty, and our deputies have not said a word to remind them, [it is down to] public
opinion alone, aware of the gravity of the situation, to get them to act. ... That is why I'm uttering a cry of alarm, not as an interested supplier, since my company has no interest in aviation, but as a simple Frenchman who believes he should do his duty.'

Two Michelin competitions would take place, in August 1912 and in August 1913. For the first test, each competitor had to drop fifteen 7kg bombs from 200m in one passage over a 20m-diameter target. The best performance
earned 50,000 francs. The second test, for 25,000 francs involved dropping a projectile from 800m onto a rectangular target the size of a zeppelin hangar. Each competitor had forty-five minutes to complete the course, and had to land with ten minutes of completing the tests.

Not content with this, the brothers created the Comité National d'Aviation Militaire, a pressure group to raise the money to buy aircraft for the military, and the create a network of airfields in strategic locations. Four million francs was
collected, which were solemnly presented to the minister of war on 22 January 1914 - enough to buy 120 machines (but of fourteen different types) and build 70 airfields (including the one at Faubourg Pavé, at Verdun, where Jean Navarre made his name in 1916).

But the Michelins did not stop there. On 20 August 1914, they offered to donate 100 bombers of a type to be decided, to be manufactured at the Michelin works at Clermont-Ferrand, provided the government supplied the engines, and to supply further examples at cost. The choice fell upon a pusher design by Breguet, powered by a 200hp Canton-Unné engine, which at the time was the only bomber capable of carrying the 400kg payload the Michelins were seeking. The type would enter service as a Breguet-Michelin BM.1

Michelins constructed a new building at their works and introduced American production-line techniques. By November 1915, only 47 examples had reached the Front, and 75 by January. Their production was dogged by delays in producing the engines, and in maintaining the aircraft. Many pilots had accidents, getting used to handling the new type. It was proposed to create three squadrons equipped with the Breguet-Michelin, formed into a single wing, the Escadre Breguet-Michelin, manned largely by naval personnel. But by the time the squadrons were reaching full strength, the aircraft themselves were obsolete, their slow speed, difficult handling and blind spot to the rear making them too vulnerable for day bombing. Indeed, with pushers the only types available, GQG was going off day bombing completely, and the wing was broken up before it was fully formed, and the aircraft relegated to night work.

In 1916, the Aviation commander at GQG, Edouard Barès, had had enough of what he referred to as 'the worst aircraft ever to enter service'. What the service needed was more fighters and cooperation machines, not bombers. He asked that Michelins cease producing bombers, and go over to producing SPAD fighters as a sub-contractor. In a report, he denounced the 'purely commercial' idea that Michelin bombers should form a Michelin wing, and that the company ought to produce what the Aviation Service actually needed, rather than devoting all their efforts to self-publicity, unacceptable during wartime.

André Michelin thought the comments were 'tendencious and lying', and immediately wrote the minister of war and to the president in protest. The result was that Michelins were allowed to build another hundred examples of a plane no-one wanted. Michelin's mouthpieces in the Chamber of Deputies, Alain d'Aubigny and Pierre-Etienne Flandin, stood up and lied through their teeth  extolled the virtues of Michelin and his bomber. Ludicrously, d'Aubigny suggested that everyone at GQG hated Michelin because they had gone to the Ecole Polytechnique (a science-based university-level institution), whereas Michelin had gone to the Ecole Normale Supérieur (an institution of a similar level, but with a wider curriculum). 'If there are bad rumours about the Breguet-Michelin,' countered General Castelnau, 'they do not eminate from GQG, but from the crews who actually fly them.'

Michelins finally agreed in 1917 to produce the excellent Breguet 14 bomber, but for many years after, André Michelin would denounce the 'noxious placemen' who, he claimed, were irrationally biased against his products. After the war, Michelins ceased to produce aircraft, and concentrated on their core business of tyre manufacture.

The Michelins were not the only manufacturer to try and use whatever means they could to influence decision makers within the aviation heirarchy, but they were one of the most persistent. 'This kind of division permeated the aviation service, whoever was in command.' mused Jean de Pierrefeu, who spent the war writing GQG's daily communiques, and so knew many of the personalities involved. 'Those with real influence seemed to be civilians working for heaven knew what interest.'

Pictures: André and Edouard Michelin; a contemporary postcard of the bombing competition - 'Once it was the sword of Damocles, now it's the droppings of Bibendum' says the Michelin Man (known in France as Bibendum) to a dutiful reporter; Lieutenant Georges Mailfert in a rather precarious position as the pilot of a Farman at the Michelin competition, the bomb-aimer is seated behind him; two more competitiors, Renoux and Senouque; Jules Védrines leaflet bombs the Place de la Concorde on behalf of the Comité Nationale, February 1912 (from Le Petit Journal); the Breguet-Michelin; Edouard Barès as a captain; Flandin; Pierrefeu, when older

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The heat, the sand, the flies: across the Sahara

Having just watched a repeat of a Ripping Yarns episode recently, I was tempted to add 'by frog' to my title. But no - it's the Sahara, not the Andes.
Mention of Eugène Estienne in my last post (here) leads me on to his two sons, Georges (who served in Aviation with N12 and N49) and René. All three men were involved with attempts to cross the Sahara in the 1920s and open it up to commercial routes.

Since acquiring Algeria and territory in west Africa from Senegal to Lake Chad during the nineteenth century, the French sought ways to join the two together. The first attempt was the Flatters expedition of 1880-81, which intended to survey a route for a trans-Saharan railway. Flatters and most of his men were killed. A second mission, in 1898-1900, the Foureau Lamy expedition (on Gallica here) managed to reach Lake Chad, but it was not followed up.

A motorised expedition to cross the Sahara under Georges Haardt and Louis Audouin-Dubreuil left Colomb-Béchar in December 1922, and using Citroen half-tracks, crossed the desert and returned in twenty days. Georges took part in the expedition, and interested his father and brother in the project. Their project was to use ancien caravan tracks as their route, but they had to solve the problem of crossing 1,400 waterless kilometres. They were aided by the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne (CGT), part owned by the Nieuport Astra aircraft company and by Citroen's rivals, Renault. In four Citroen half-tracks and with a Nieuport aircraft, the expedition crossed the flat Tanezrouft in just three days.

The viability of the route had been proved, and from 1927, using specially-built six-wheeled Renaults with built-in sleeping accommodation, a regular bus service was set up on the route Colomb Béchar in Algeria to Gao in Mali. Georges and René continued to pioneer new routes (René was killed by locals in 1927).

Georges ended his association with CGT in 1933, and set up his own company Société Algérienne des Transports Tropicaux (later Société Africains des Transports Tropicaux), with 6,000km of routes, and which, from 1943, included an air transport subsidiary, Compagnie Aéro-Africaine. The vehicles of SATT followed a more easterly route, though the mountainous Hoggar.

Restarting after the end of the war with nine Lockheed Lodestars, CAA linked Algiers, Nice, Ajaccio, Bastia, Tunis and Marrakech in the north with Abidjan, Bamako, Bangui, Bobo-Diolasso, Cotonou, Douala, Fort-Lamy, Gao, Libreville, Lomé, Niamey, Ouagadougou, Port-Gentil, Zinder and even Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo. In 1951, CGT withdrew its transport services across the Sahara, giving SATT a virtual monopoly. Two years later Estienne sold CAA to Air Algérie. 

Within a few years, the Algerian war saw the final end of the tourist industry, and Estienne's companies were nationalised by the new Algerian government, whereupon he retired to France.

Pictures: the flat desert of the Tanezrouft at Reggan (Panoramio); the Foureau-Lamy expedition (from Gallica); posters advertising the Haardt expedition, CGT and SATT (all internet finds); the Hoggar (from Wikipedia); the interior of the Renault six-wheelers; en route during the 1930s (from Jean Oudart)

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Kings of the Air: The Father of Tanks (and Godfather of Aviation)

In a recent post, I mentioned Charles de Rose, who was a member of the pre-war aviation research team at Vincennes. The team was under the command of Eugène Estienne (1860-1936), a man who deserves a post of his own (his first name was actually Jean-Baptiste, but he preferred his middle name Eugène).

In that post, I also used the term 'the snake pit of French military aviation'. In Estienne's case, I might expand this to 'the snake pit of French defence procurement'.

Estienne entered the Artillery, and was commissioned into the 35e Artillery in 1884. By 1909, with plenty of regimental and staff experience under his belt, he was a major and commander of the Artillery school in Grenoble. From here, he went to the main Artillery depot at Vincennes just outside Paris. In March 1910, he was made a lieutenant colonel and give charge of the Artillery's aviation establishment in the same location.

With the introduction of the first flying machines to the French Army, there was immediate conflict about who was to take charge of the new toys. The Engineers were already in charge of balloons, so felt this experience and their general technical background, made them ideal for the job. But the Artillery saw the value of aircraft to spot the fall of shot, so felt, as the 'end user', they should get the responsibility. The Chamber of Deputies contained a strong pro-Artillery lobby, who ensured the funding went to the gunners.

Estienne's assembled a group of officers from all arms of service - for he was no narrow partisan -
to train as pilots and work together to develop doctrine, test aircraft and assess their military potential. Among them was a fellow gunner, Lieutenant Georges Bellenger. 'All with the minimum of bumf,' recalled Bellenger. '"Don't be afraid to show initiative and imagination," the colonel told me. "All I want from you are results."' Six aircraft were purchased – two Wrights, two Farmans and two Antoinettes – and Estienne and his team set to work. Their next-door neighbour was the new Pathé film studio, providing some rather exotic lunch companions in the local restaurants: 'One day our motley uniforms might be sitting alongside the court of Louis XIV; the next, cowboys and Indians, even a tame panther brought back from Abyssinia by one of the directors.'

The Engineers then returned to the offensive, and the Minister of War changed his mind, and put aircraft under the sappers instead. However, Estienne's establishment was left in place, and they continued with their work, testing the use of cameras, the carrying of bombs, fitting guns to aircraft and the best tactics for armed aircraft to employ. In the background, the struggle for control of the Aviation Service went on in the corridors of power and in the smoke-filled rooms of the Chamber. And in 1912, a reorganisation put the Engineers firmly in charge, and the work of Estienne's group was severely curtailed. Estienne himself was posted away to command the 3e Aviation Groupe, responsible for establishments from Lyon to Biskra (Algeria). On the outbreak of war, although promoted to colonel, he found himself back in regimental service with 22e Artillery, his aviation experience ignored. Yet for all that, nearly all the techniques and tactics employed during the opening months of the war had been devised at Vincennes by Estienne and his team.

While serving with his regiment (his divisional commander was one Philippe Pétain) he is supposed to have uttered the statement, 'Victory in this war will go to whichever of the belligerents finds a way of moving artillery across all types of terrain.' This sounds a bit after-the-fact to me, but you never know. He was certainly so impressed with the value of the work being done with Holt Tractors by the Royal Engineers, that he started bombarding Joffre with ideas. Out of this campaign came the Schneider CA1 tank, built around a Holt tracked chassis.

Schneiders were ordered to produce 400 of the new machine, using a second company, Saint-Chamond, as subcontractors. But Schneiders and Saint-Chamond were long-time rivals, and Schneiders refused to reveal patented information. The owner of Saint-Chamond then roped in the artillery expert Colonel Emile Rimailho, and they designed a tank of their own, which was going to be better than that of Schneiders. Using his friendship with the minister of war, Saint-Chamond persuaded the politician to order some of his tanks as well. The Saint-Chamond was faster than its rival, but was heavier, putting undue pressure on its tracks. Crucially, the track base was too short for the body, and often got stuck trying to cross trenches.

Estienne was made commander of 'special artillery', as the French referred to their tanks, in September 1916, and was promoted to général de brigade in the following month. The French had hoped to use tanks in a joint attack with the British, but the latter had gone too soon (according to the French) in 1916. The French tanks made their operational debut at Berry-au-Bac during the Chemin des Dames offensive. Estienne thought the action premature - it was certainly unsuccessful, with heavy casualties amongst the French. Nivelle's fall during the summer almost took Estienne with him, but fortunately Pétain recognised the value of the tank as something that would potentially reduce casualties amongst the infantry, and was an enthusiastic supporter, and the tank arm grew tremendously during the last year of the war, with large number of the new Renault light tank that Estienne had persuaded Renault to build.

Estienne finished his career as inspector of armoured troops, developing tactical and strategic ideas for the arm that would resurface in the writings of Charles de Gaulle (who met Estienne after the war) and George Patton (whom Estienne met during the war). But France chose to attach tanks to the infantry after the war, setting in train a development and doctrinal route that would come home to roost in 1940.

Estienne was a remarkable man, an enthusiast formodern weapons of war, and a clear thinker about their effective use.

Pictures: Estienne during the 1920s (Wikipedia); Estienne, Lieutenant Clavenad and Captain George Bellenger attempt a balloon ascent, Saint-Cloud, 1911 (Gallica); Estienne and civilian aviation pioneer Marquis Edgard de Kergariou (nice hat!) at the Michelin-sponsored bombing competition, 1912 (Gallica); the Schneider, Saint-Chamond and Renault tanks; Estienne's memorial in front of the Armoured Troops monument at Berry-au-Bac (Aisne); the plaque at the site of the Artillerie Spéciale's headquarters 1916-18 at Orrouy (Oise) (all Wikipedia).