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Inter-War French Aviation Industry

The French aviation industry built more warplanes during the interwar period than any of its foreign competitors. The Breguet 19 bomber of 1922 (1500 built) and the Potez 25 army cooperation aircraft of 1925 (3500 built) were the most widely used military aircraft in the world. (No more than 700 examples of any other type of military aircraft were built in any country during the interwar period.) One Breguet 19 flew across the Atlantic in 1927; a group of thirty Potez 25s circumnavigated Africa in 1933.

French bombers were consistently and technically excellent. The Lioré et Olivier 20 of 1924 was the fastest medium bomber in the world for three years, and it gave birth to a half -dozen derivative designs. The Potez 542 of 1934 was the fastest bomber in Europe until 1936. In 1935, the Amiot 143, which equipped eighteen squadrons, carried a two-ton bomb load at 190 mph at 25,920 feet. Its German contemporary, the Dornier Do 23G, carried half the bomb load thirty miles per hour slower at 13,780 feet. During the following year, the Bloch 210, with a service ceiling of 32,480 feet, began to equip what would ultimately be twenty-four squadrons. No foreign bomber built before 1939 reached 30,000 feet.

The Farman 222 of 1936 was the first modern four-engine heavy bomber. Production models reached operational units at the same time that the service test examples (Y1B-17) of the Boeing Flying Fortress were delivered and two years ahead of the production version(B-17B). Typical performance envelopes--5510 pounds of bombs, 1240 miles, at 174 mph for the Farman, versus 2400 pounds of bombs, 1500 miles, at 238 mph for the YIB-17--showed the designs to be technically comparable, with the French emphasizing loadcarrying and the Americans emphasizing speed. Design evolution of the two types tended to increase the speed of the Farman derivatives (to 239 mph for the model 223.4 of 1939) and the load-carrying capacity of the Boeing (to 4000 pounds of bombs, 1850 miles at 211 mph for the B-17G of 1943). Neither design was capable of long-range daylight bombing operations in its 1940 form. The Farman was used exclusively for night raids.

The Lioré et Olivier 451, at 307 mph, and the Amiot 354, at 298 mph, were the fastest medium bombers during the opening phases of World War II, outpacing the 1940 operational versions of the German Schnellbomber types--the Dornier Do 17K (255 mph), Heinkel He 111E (261 mph), and Junkers Ju 88A (292 mph). The Bloch 174 reconnaissance bomber of 1940 was, in operational configuration, the fastest multiengine aircraft in the world (329 mph).

French fighter aircraft held eleven out of the twenty-two world airspeed records set between the wars, and seven were held by one aircraft--the Nieuport-Delage 29 fighter of 1921. The Gourdou-Leseurre 32 monoplane fighter of 1924 was the world's fastest operational fighter until 1928, when the Nieuport-Delage 62 overtook it. In 1934, the Dewoitine 371 held the honor; and in 1936, the Dewoitine 510 was the first operational fighter to reach 250 mph. The Dewoitine 501 of 1935 was the first fighter to mount a cannon that would fire through the propeller hub. The French fighters in action during 1939-40 were extremely maneuverable, powerfully armed, and able to outfight the Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Bf 110C, as well as the German bombers.

In the air, the French enjoyed a significant technological advantage. In the 1920s, the French air force was the largest in the world. The French air motor industry led the world, and in the mid-1920s, the French held many world records in aviation. The National Aeronautical Institute, founded in 1909, was nationalized and put under the direction of the Air Ministry in 1928. The Institute continued to produce highly qualified aeronautical engineers.

The French aviation industry built more warplanes during the interwar period than any of its foreign competitors. The Breguet 19 bomber of 1922 (1500 built) and the Potez 25 army cooperation aircraft of 1925 (3500 built) were the most widely used military aircraft in the world. (No more than 700 examples of any other type of military aircraft were built in any country during the interwar period.) One Breguet 19 flew across the Atlantic in 1927; a group of thirty Potez 25s circumnavigated Africa in 1933.

The French Air Force's development of equipment suffered from organizational problems within the French aviation industry and especially within the Aviation Ministry. The first problem of the air force was one of command authority. In wartime, the air force was subordinate to the army. In peacetime, however, the air force operated under the Ministry of Aviation. In 1928, when the Aviation Ministry was created, the air force was still a branch of the army and the French aviation industry was in a state of decline. In the 1920s the aviation industry lived primarily from small orders from the military.

In the late 1920s, a program to produce a "battle plane" in accordance with Douhet's doctrine was initiated. Known as the "BCR" (Battle, Combat, Reconnaissance) aircraft, this multi-seater, two-engine craft would carry out army support functions and also be able to reinforce the heavy bomber force in carrying out long-range, strategic operations. This attempt to apply Douhet's doctrine to technology resulted in a series of thoroughly inferior multi-purpose aircraft, which proved to be mediocre in each mission.

Although in the 1920s into the 1930s the French commercial air lines received the highest subsidies in Europe, the French aviation industry made little progress in developing modern and competitive transport planes or an infrastructure of modern airfields. Indeed, waste, mismanagement, and even criminal fraud seems to have soaked up funds provided to French civilian aviation. The Aeropostale scandal of 1933, in which airline officials were found guilty of graft and theft, was one of the scandals that triggered the nationalization of the aircraft industry in the mid-1930s. By 1933 the French economy had finally succumbed to the Great Depression; French aviation had weakened accordingly.

Edouard Daladier, the emerging standard-bearer of the Radical Party, formed a center-left cabinet on 31 January 1933, which brought Pierre Cot to the helm of the Air Ministry. Cot, in contrast to his predecessors at the Air Ministry, was willing to challenge the conventional boundaries of state intervention. In January 1936, Pierre Cot inaugurated a series of major rearmament programs for the Air Force. Due to the poor performance of the aviation industry in developing and manufacturing aircraft, Cot initiated a program to nationalize and rationalize French aviation production.

In accordance with its electoral program, the Popular Front government passed a law nationalizing the armament industry, in the Chamber of Deputies on July 17, 1936. The aviation industry was directly concerned. The nationalization of a major part of the airframe sector led to the setting up of six state-owned aircraft manufacturing companies. Once authorized to expropriate firms, each of the three defense ministries marched in a different direction. The Naval Ministry chose to nationalize only two minor firms and left the shipbuilding industry intact. The War Ministry expropriated nine munitions firms, added them to the ranks of the existing state arsenals, and operated them as state-run firms.

Cot's staff pursued yet a third strategy, reorganizing about 80 percent of the airframe sector into sixe "mixed companies," each with a regional identity-the Société Nationale des Constructions Aéronautiques du Nord, or SNCAN; de l'Ouest, SNCAO; du Sud-ouest, SNCASO; du Sud-est, SNCASE; and du Centre, SNCAC. Each of these "national companies" absorbed most of the plants in its region but maintained at least one plant in Paris or its western suburbs. These firms were to be "mixed" in the sense that the government was to own two-thirds of the stock, with the other third staying in the hands of private investors.

Only in the summer of 1938 did the air ministry begin awarding contracts of sufficient size to warrant the construction of facilities for mass production of aircraft and engines. Concurrently, the French government began a program of funding the expansion of production facilities in the United States to produce Curtiss fighters, Douglas light bombers, Martin light bombers, Pratt and Whitney engines, and Allison engines.

By infusing the aviation industry with large amounts of new capital, Cot hoped to create the large air force France needed. From 1936 to 1938, under Cot's Ministry, the primary focus of the French Air Force was in building a strategic bomber force. Cot's efforts at reforming the French aviation industry went for naught. Even in the face of a looming German threat, companies could not be induced to streamline and modernize.

In 1938, however, when the government changed and Cot was removed, the new Air Minister, Guy LeChambre, began a new armaments plan for the Air Force, known as "Plan 5". Plan 5 rejected the emphasis on bomber production, and instead placed the production and development emphasis upon fighter planes. Guy LeChambre's vision of airpower was essentially the same as General Gamelin's, in that the priority of the French Air Force was to form a defensive line to protect army operations. Bombing became a secondary mission.

While there were good arguments for nationalizing the aircraft industry, there are many examples of the negative effect that the nationalization had upon production and development of aircraft. Ministry politics seems to have played as large a role in the development and production of aircraft as the requirements of national defense. Marcel Bloch-Dassault, owner of Bloch Aircraft Company and one of the leading aircraft designers in France (Bloch-Dassault would later design the Mirage Jet) was removed as director of his company when nationalization came. A year later, Bloch was asked to return but he was dismissed again in 1939.

French aircraft production continued to lag behind that of the Germans. The German policy tended toward the standardization of a few kinds of aircraft for specific missions. For example, the Germans built only one, single-engine fighter in quantity before World War II: the Me 109. The French, however, distributed aircraft production among the various aircraft companies, and ordered small quantities of many different aircraft models. The French were unable to achieve anything resembling economies of scale in the 1930s, so that by the war's outbreak, the French were flying a half dozen different single-engine fighters to Germany's one. The same situation existed for bombers and reconnaissance aircraft.

Only in the summer of 1938 did the air ministry begin awarding contracts of sufficient size to warrant the construction of facilities for mass production of aircraft and engines. Concurrently, the French government began a program of funding the expansion of production facilities in the United States to produce Curtiss fighters, Douglas light bombers, Martin light bombers, Pratt and Whitney engines, and Allison engines.

By May 1940, French manufacturers were producing 619 combat aircraft per month, American firms were adding 170 per month against French orders, and the British were producing 392 fighters per month. German production of combat aircraft, averaging 622 per month during 1940, was little more than half that of the industries supporting the Allies. The traditional explanation of the French defeat in terms of inadequate supplies of aircraft and aircraft that were inferior in quality does not stand up. The psychological and political milieu in which the air force evolved during the interwar years offers more substantive bases for understanding what happened to the French Air Force.

By the outbreak of the war, the French had in one decade undergone three major changes in operational doctrine, all instituted by the Air Ministry. The nationalization program by the war's outbreak had produced results in increased aircraft production. Nevertheless, French aircraft production continued to lag behind that of the Germans.

While the disparity of technology between ground forces in 1940 was serious, in the air this disparity was, for the French, catastrophic. As to aircraft types, in 1940 the majority of the French aircraft in service were far inferior to their German counterparts. As an overall assessment, the French Air Force in 1940 was approximately 3 years behind the Germans in aircraft development and deployment. In almost every case, it took the French two to four years longer to develop and deploy an aircraft model in the 1930s. The only aspect of aviation where a rough equality existed was in aircraft engine development. The French had always had a strong engine industry.




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