French Airships / Dirigeable - The Great War

In the development of military aeroplanes France early took and maintained the lead. In 1912 she appropriated nearly $5,000,000 to military flying, an amount increased by a popular subscription of $500,000. Germany, wedded to the dirigible, at first regarding flying as of limited value. Germany alone developed, in the rigid dirigible, a genuine air battleship. While she has been perfecting it, other nations have experimented with other forms of air craft. France put her faith in a flock of aeroplanes more numerous than any other country's, aided by semi-rigid and non-rigid types of dirigibles.

So rapid was the evolution of airship design that dirigibles built before 1910 by the time of the European War which began in 1914 were quite obsolete. In the development of actual type most nations were content to follow models of French or of German origin. The airships built by the English and French at the beginning of the Great War were chiefly of the nonrigid type. France was the pioneer in this type of airship, and had consequently a larger number of them in service than any other power. The body of these French non-rigid airships was generally cigar-shaped, and it is distinguished from the "SchutteLanz" wooden-framed German airship by the fact that it carried only one car or gondola.

At the beginning of the Great War the French had several non-rigid ships of various types which carried out bombing operations, but no important new ships were built. During the early days of the war French airships were employed for bombing behind the German line, but the damage to the ships, usually through gas leakage caused by shell and bullets, was so great that only a limited amount of work was done.

France was alert to the potential menace of the German airships. The supremacy of the Zeppelins has been acknowledged on the floor of the French Senate. General Cherfils, the renowned French military writer, has also admitted that the French style of dirigible balloons can not possibly compete with the Zeppelin, and has even pronounced all aeroplanes powerless against the German airship.

The French, on the theory that the more colossal craft were too unwieldy to be easily handled and too large to be fast, built smaller dirigibles of short endurance which can do only one thing well at a time. These dirigibles attain a very high altitude, an advantage if it is desired to launch bombs upon a near-by enemy; but this advantage is counterbalanced by the fact that their capacity for further flight is reduced practically to zero.

Then it was discovered that the Zeppelins had won by reversing the French idea. The Zeppelin carried engines sufficiently powerful to drive it almost twice as fast as any French dirigible has been able to travel, and, in fact, has reached a speed equal to that of the best of the French war aeroplanes, which of necessity are the larger and slower type of biplane. This high speed enables a Zeppelin not only to cover great distances in a short time, but also to attain a height of a mile in less than five minutes after it leaves the earth- which is about one-fourth the time that is required for a war aeroplane to reach the same height.

It was the Italian commander's official reports of the war in Tripoli that cured France of her delusion as to the relative values of aeroplanes and airships. Two baby Italian dirigibles cruised day after day a mile above the ground, surveying every Turkish post within twenty miles of the Italian camp. While these small airships were at work, swift aeroplanes were also in service, but they did well if they explored one camp in a flight and got safely back to headquarters. In fact, except for scouting in fair weather, their successes in bomb-throwing were not worth mentioning. On the other hand, the airships reported constantly by wireless to the troops and to the war-ships. They played the game true to aerial tactics. When the enemy opened fire upon them and they discovered that they were within possible reach of the bullets, they simply took a higher altitude, from which they deliberately continued their observations. Later, the same dirigibles returned to the Italian camps, where they took on a supply of bombs. Then they cruised leisurely about over the Turkish camps, from time to time dropping a bomb.

Matched against the powerful German air-fleet, at the beginning of the Great War the very much smaller and slower dirigibles of France, Russia, and England were unimportant. Only six of the French fleet were armed even with light weapons, and these can only be fired from cars under the over-hang of their gas-bag. They were powerless to protect themselves against an attack from overhead by German aeroplanes; so that it was extremely doubtful if they ever get very far on their sole mission of attempting to drop bombs on German soil. The remaining sixteen of the French fleet were insignificant. France would have been better prepared if her factories had not been largely engaged in turning out the same type of inadequate airships for her allies, Russia and England.

The French General Staff confessed that it made a big error in regarding airships as useful only in scouting, and French opinion now proclaims that only the most powerful airships can accomplish the real work of war. In later days vessels were built by the Astra Company of the peculiar design introduced by Senor Torres. These ships, some of which were of considerable size, were highly successful, and we became purchasers at a later date of several. A large Astra ship of some 800,000 cub. ft. capacity was built in France with two large cars. It is understood that lack of longitudinal rigidity of the envelope gave trouble. The Zodiac Company also constructed a number of small ships which were utilized during the war for anti-submarine patrol.

It cannot be said, however, that the French fulfilled their early promise as airship designers, the chief reason for this being that the airship was peculiarly suitable for work at sea and the French relied on the Americans to maintain the commerce routes on the high seas and concentrated their main efforts on defeating the Germans in the field, in which as all the world acknowledges they were singularly successful.

Type Capacity Engines Full speed Cruising speed Range at full speed Range at cruising speed Armament Crew Useful lift
V.Z. 1-15. 90,000 L'.f. 2 80 h.p. Renault 45 m.p.h. 35 m.p.h. 6 hours 12 hours 220 lbs. bombs 3 2,000 lbs.
V.Z. 16-23. 110,000 c.f. 2 150 h.p. Hispano 50 m.p.h. 40 m.p.h. 6 hours 12 hours 220 lbs. bombs 3 2,240 lbs.
CM. 1-4 190,000 c.f. 2 150 h . p. Salmson 50 m.p.h. 30-35 m.p.h. 7 hours 15 hours 550 lbs.bombs 5 4,000 lbs.
CM. 5-8 320,000 c.f. 2 230 h.p. Salmson 50 m.p.h. - 10 hours - 1,320 lbs.bombs 1 75 mm. gun 8 8,200 lbs.
A.T. 1-4 230,000 c.f. 2 150 h.p. Renault 50 m.p.h. 30-35 m.p.h. 10 hours 20 hours 260 lbs.bombs 5 4,880 lbs.
A.T. 5-9 260,000 c.f. 2 150 h.p. Renault 50 m.p.h. 30-35 m.p.h. 10 hours 20 hours 550 lbs.bombs 5 5,800 lbs.
A.T. 10-17 300,000 c.f. 2 200 h.p. Hispano 50 m.p.h. - 14 hours 30 hours 880 lbs. bombs 1 mm. gun 6 6,900 lbs.
Z.D. 1-5 217,000 c.f. 2 200 h.p. Hispano 50 m.p.h. 30-35 m.p.h. 10 hours 20 hours 550 lbs. bombs 5 5,400 lbs.
Z.D. 6-8 330,000 c.f. 2 250 h.p. Renault 50 m.p.h. - 12 hours - 1,760 lbs. bombs 1 75 mm. gun 10 9,500 lbs.
Tunisie 370,000 c.f. 2 220 h.p. Clement 44 m.p.h. - 12 hours - 1,760 lbs. bomb; 2 47 mm. guns 7
Champagne and d'Arlandes. 500,000 c.f. 2 220 h.p. Zodiac 44 m.p.h. - 15 hours - 2,200 lbs.bombs 1 47 mm. gun 7
Lorraine. 370,000 c.f. - - - - - - - - -
El Capitaine Caussin. 320,000 c.f. 2 240 h.p. Salmson 55 m.p.h. - 12 hours - 1,760 lbs. bombs 1 47 mm. gun 6
Fleurus and Montgolfier. __ - - - - - -

"Adjudant Réau" 1909 Cruiser: last flight on 08.08.1914! (Thus barely used WWI!)
"Conté" 1912 Scout : shot down twice and twice repaired.
"Pilâtre de Rosier" 1915 (Grand Cruiser ) was to long and less maniable was cut into two and made two new airships from : "Pilâtre de Rosier" and "Alsace" both shot down by the Germans!
AT-1 until AT-4 1916 first French navy airships
AT-5 until AT-9 1917
AT-10 until AT-17 1918 built to carry 75mm gun
AT-18-19 1919 carried heavy anti-submarine weapons
"Fleurus I" 1912 Scout : bombed in shed 1918.
"Fleurus II 1915-1916 (Named also "Lorrain" ?) & Fleurus III (Named also "Tunesie"?)" (Deleted post WWI)
Chalais-Meudon "T-1" 1916 had a submarine metalic shaped gondola & Lost with crew
Chalais-Meudon C.M. 14 "T-2" Capitaine Caussin Used by the Americans! Had a 47 mm anti submarine gun!
C.M. 1 until 4 1917-1918 used by French Navy.
C.M. 5- 8 only C.M. 5 was constructed against armistice! (Sold to USA)
"Dupuy-de-Lôme" 1912 Shot down by own French troops on 24th August 1914!
"Montgolfier" CB V 1913 no info ?
"General Meusnier" 1915-1916 got 1916 another gondola
"Tissandier" 1914-15 Refused by both French and British Army! (In fact not used in WWI)
"Capitaine Ferber" possibly deleted 1914 just pre WWI ?
"Commandant Coutelle" 1913 enlarged 1915 ) based at Epinal
"D'Arlandes" 1915-16 for navy
"Champagne" 1915-16 for Navy
VZ-1 to VZ-5 1916 Vedtette Zodiac..V-Z 5 was in fact the former Belgian airship "Belgique III" gasbag used with a gondola from from a Vedette Zodiac! For more 2 Blegian crews Lt Coucy and Ernest Demuyter served in French service (mixted-French-Belgian crews!) on this and other French airships!
VZ-7 to VZ-15 1918
VZ-16 to VZ-23 (Only VZ 16 until VZ 20 built!) 1919
ZD-1 to ZD -5 (Zodiac Destroyer) 1918
ZD-US 6 to 8 1919 Only ZD US-6 built and were ordered by US Navy! Carried a 75 mm gun!
The US Navy also operated a T-2 type Chalais-Meudon airship Capitaine Caussin. The Capitaine Caussin was operated for training. It was shipped to Hampton Roads, but not erected or flown after arriving there.

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