French aviation | Marching on Kut | 4 Jan 1916

Following on from yesterday, let’s now look at the state of French military aviation.

French aviation

On the other side of the hill, there are a few reasons for optimism, but they’re mostly going to need time to mature. A perfect example of this is the new French kid on the block: the Nieuport 11, often known as the Bebe (because it’s a smaller version of the earlier two-seat Nieuport 10). It’s the first French aeroplane designed as what they’re calling a pursuit craft, a direct response to the Fokker Eindecker. And it has several major differences.

The Eindecker is a monoplane; the Bebe is a biplane. (It’ll take another couple of decades for monoplanes to regularly outperform biplanes.) The French have been unable to perfect a synchronising gear after losing their prototype to the Germans, so the machine gun is mounted above the propeller, in a position where doing just about anything with it is highly awkward. That’s not the only problem; the prototype Bebes have been suffering from a recurring problem with weak motor mounts.

Nevertheless, the first Bebe deliveries are nearly due, and we’ll be watching to see how they get on. In the meantime, the French are just going to have to bugger on with what they’ve got, outclassed though they are. The problem they’ve got is that in the first half of 1915, a lot of resources were committed to the development of dedicated bomber aircraft. This has resulted in the Caudron G4, a twin-engined bomber biplane. It’s a good design, but unfortunately had been conceived and designed to operate in pre-Eindecker skies. In any case, it has a hard enough time defending itself from German two-seaters with its machine gun.

French standard models

The majority of their development efforts for other classes of plane then became limited, and focused more on standardisation of preferred aircraft types so that they could fly in single-make identical performance squadrons. This has now been done, and they’re finding that they’re struggling even against other German two-seaters. Two of their designs, the Caudron and Farman two-seat pushers, are fast becoming flying death traps. That is, if you can reasonably describe anything they can do as “fast”; in the fast-developing world of aerial combat they’re having trouble getting out of their own way.

The other two are the Nieuport 10 and an array of variations on a theme from Morane-Saulnier. They at least are pullers, and what the French haven’t been doing with new models of plane, they have been doing some of with better engines. They can just about get by for the time being, but they urgently need the Nieuport 11 to be a good Bebe and grow up fast.

GQG and the politicians

Meanwhile, there’s an almighty political bunfight going on between GQG and the politicians. As with so many things, it starts with something good and important. This is the Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, designed (unsurprisingly) in neutral Spain with an eye on selling it to the combatants. It’s a superb, powerful, simple design and if I were only a little more into reciting technical specs, you’d be hearing a lot about it in the year to come. The squabble is over what the hell to do with it.

Faced with deadlock on the Western Front and GQG expanding bomber operations in clear skies, the politicians had last year been presented with a seductive concept. Fleets of French bombers would sweep unconcernedly over the trenches, on their way to obliterate Germany’s logistics and manufacturing capability. GQG staff officers, panicked by German air superiority in the second half of the year, then issued a proposal based around the manufacture of 800 all-purpose twin-engine monsterplanes, powered by the Hispano-Suiza V8, which could go anywhere and do anything.

The politicians complained about the loss of bombers. The aviation specialists complained about how everything they’d seen in the last year of war pointed to specialised types of aircraft to fill distinct roles, not a “one size fits nothing” monster. The manufacturers complained that it would mean junking everything they’d been working on for the last two years. New committees and inspectorates are being haggled over.

One thing in this huge hot mess is clear. The French are being totally outclassed where it matters, at the front. They need to be able to compete in the air before the next major offensive is launched.

Everyone else

Yeah, I’m lumping British flyers in with “Everyone else”. The situation at the moment is that only Germany and France have the industrial capability to do multiple major research, development and production projects. By and large, everyone else is dependent on their ally to push air warfare forward. (The exception here is Italy, oddly enough; they’re producing a series of excellent Caproni bombers (of which more later) to give the beans to Austria-Hungary’s rear. If everything about their war effort was done as well as the Caproni, they’d have been in Trieste by June 1915 and would have finished the war with an ironclad grip on the Adriatic from Trieste to Sarande.

Back to Britain; let’s put them into context. The French air force currently has about 1,200 planes. The RFC has 150-odd. (The Russians, about 250 serviceable planes; German flyers are enjoying working holidays on the Eastern Front.) They’re a bizarre melange of home-grown oddities and scrounged French planes. The most notable is the Royal Aircraft Factory’s BE2c (don’t call them the RAF), a plane that first flew in 1914 and which is generally now seen running away from Germans or resting safely on the ground. In its favour, it flies easily and with great stability. It’s an excellent observation platform if the enemy leaves it alone to do its thing. Fat chance on the Western Front, but of course there are other theatres, and BE2cs are currently doing good work at Salonika and in Mesopotamia. (Hopefully someone can solve the problem that’s been bedevilling any British plane in hotter-than-French weather; they quite literally came unglued in the heat.)

And the RFC has also managed to attract a core of useful nutters to fly its planes, and without too much stultifying bureaucracy watching over them they can get things done. It was the RFC who pioneered aerial photography and the clock-code system now being widely adopted to correct artillery fire. There’s hope yet for those magnificent men in their flying-machines. They may well be able to come up with more genuinely good ideas (as opposed to Good Ideas like GQG’s crap-at-all-trades monsterplane); the question is whether they’ll have the resources to take advantage of them.

Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer is being forced to consider matters military. He’s only had the briefest time at Ali Gharbi; his force is now off on the long journey to the Siege of Kut.

This is a most desolate place. Apart from the village with its few palms and gardens there seems not to be a blade of vegetation within sight. To the N.E. the Persian hills are only fifteen miles away. They have still a little snow (did I mention that the storm which gave us rain at Amarah had capped these hills with a fine snow mantle?)

Here we found “D” Company, which got stranded here when “A” Company got stuck at Kut. We are about forty-five or fifty miles from Kut as the crow flies, and the guns can be heard quite plainly: but things have been very quiet the last few days. There is an enemy force of 2,000 about ten miles from here, but how long they and the ones at Kut will wait remains to be seen.

We know nothing of our own movements yet and I couldn’t mention them if we did.

That enemy force is well worth taking notice of. For one thing, the estimate of 2,000 is wildly inaccurate. You can blame the awful weather grounding those BE2Cs (yes, it’s a stupid name; they’ll get better) for that. 10,000 would be much better, and then only as an opening bid. British planning still hasn’t taken into account just how many men Field Marshal von der Goltz has been given. He’s sent a sizeable detachment down the river. Its job will be generally to trip up, harass, annoy, inflict casaulties on, and generally interfere with the relieving force while preserving its own numbers as far as possible.

Meanwhile, although he has little conception of it, and gives little suggestion of being part of anything other than his own company, Robert Palmer has now joined a division-strength force. He’s among some 17,000 other men from every corner of the Empire.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

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One thought on “French aviation | Marching on Kut | 4 Jan 1916

  1. Part of the problem the British have at the moment is that they’re still currently allowing the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough to have a monopoly on the supply of aircraft. The organisation that’s going to become the RAE once the RAF exists isn’t anywhere near as bad as the Northcliffe press would have it, (though some of their designs are somewhat hilarious – consider attempting to act as the gunner in a BE9), but in terms of volume production, they’re definitely amateurs, being essentially a design bureau.

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