mardi 21 février 2012

The Nieuport 161 - The best French Fighter against the Luftwaffe (until the arrival of the D.520) (Upgraded 22 / 04 / 2018)

The choice of a fighter is of paramount strategical importance

Why the choice of the Morane 406 fighter instead of the Nieuport 161 one was a big mistake?

Because, in 1936, a lot of educated persons in France were anxious about a new war. 

Some other remained blind, as were some union's leaders or lobby's leader.

To be honest, ordering a moderate bomber was never a problem, as a bomber is no more than a flying lorry carrying bombs. 

Any bomber needs fighter protection but some few special ones, like the British Mosquito, the French Mirage IV and the US B2 for different reasons (if the B17, B29 and B52 were really superlative daylight bombers, they experienced difficulties when used without fighter escort against a strong aerial opposition).

For the German troops, the Campaign of France in 1940 was not as easy as it was told everywhere. 

The more recent estimates increased their KIA toll close to 50,000, about twice the amount published by General Guderian in his memories. 

For only 44 days, that was very heavy casualties. 

The Battle of Verdun lasted about 10 months with a monthly average death toll of ~15,000 German KIA (and 16,700 French soldiers). 

The crucial criteria

Today, knowing how narrow was the margin enabling the success of the Guderian's Blitzkrieg and the crucial part played by the German dive bombers on the battlefield, my personal opinion is: The choice of the Morane 406 against the Nieuport 161 was a serious mistake, even if other serious problems were remaining.

On the contrary to the bomber choice, ordering a fighter - the only kind of aircraft able to obtain the mastery of the Air - must be made, even today, always thoroughly. 

The actual criteria were, at least, five:
  • A sufficient speed to catch as quickly as possible the bombers actually in development everywhere;
  • A climbing speed enabling to shot down any spy plane flying higher than 8,000 m before she goes home with her precious informations;
  • At least one capacity allowing to break the combat to save the precious pilot's life when necessary (e.g. when the fighter has no more ammunition);
  • A cockpit enabling the pilot to have the better possible situation awareness;
  • A general layout allowing a fast mass construction.

The Nieuport was the only one French 1936 fighter fulfilling all these 5 exigences

The Nieuport 161 fighter, as she was in August 1936 (480 kph +), was able to catch all the 1940 enemy bombers, at least as easily as the Hawker Hurricane Mk I.

She was also able to intercept all the strategic enemy spy planes (8,000 m reached in 12'03") as easily, at least, as the Spitfire Mk I of June 1940 (8,000 m reached in 16' 30"). 

So, the N 161 satisfied the two first criteria the Morane 406 failed completely (speed < 450 kph, 7,000 m reached in 18'! (source: Handbook for the French pilots of the Curtiss P 36).

The all-round vision of the Nieuport fighter enabled by her cockpit canopy gave her pilots a far better situation awareness than any other actual fighters in Europe: So, she satisfied  the 4th criterion. That was not the case, at all, for the Morane 406. 

LN 161 - 03 -  A 360° sight.

The all-metallic structure of the Nieuport fighter and her modular assembly allowed a very shorter time to build her than the Morane 406, which needed 17,000 h at best. I re-evaluated her official building time as greatly underestimated since I know the 22,000 to 24,000 hours needed by the Macchi MC 200 Italian fighter, whose was structurally much more modern! 

So, taking into account the 30 N 161 fighters to-be-ordered just at the time of the September 22, 1936, crash - the sense of such an amount, to be compared with the 16 Morane 405 finally ordered, may signify a better initial confidence in the Nieuport fighter.

The amount of Nieuport fighters available in September 1939 would have been easily higher than the 572 Morane.

So, the N 161 could have fulfilled the 5 th criterion, and we know perfectly it was absolutely not the case for the Morane 406.

The third criterion is not easy to establish, owing to the weak number of Nieuport fighters that have flown and the total absence, to my knowledge, of handling and maneuverability test report from the CEMA.

I wrote that sentence in February 2012. In Spring of 2017, I received from my good friends Pierre-Yves and Jean-François Hénin, a report about a meeting gathering the Ministre de l'Air Guy La Chambre, in the first half of 1938, Mr. Michel Détroyat, who was the personal referee pilot of the minister and some high ranked officers of the Armée de l'Air.

The purpose of the meeting was to decide which fighter, among the Bloch 150 and the Nieuport 161, was to be built in mass production. 

Regarding the flying qualities of Nieuport 161, Détroyat said: "This fighter is as easy [to fly] as the Morane 406, except her commands which are a bit less efficient." 

Mr Guy La Chambre asking Détroyat to compare the Nieuport 161 to the Bloch 150, Détroyat answered: 
"There is no possible comparison between these fighters: Owing her ease of handling, the Nieuport 161 is the only fighter that most of the French military pilots can flew".

Moreover, two of the criteria, the 2nd and the 4th, gave her a good escape capacity.

One may add to these facts the curious adventure the prototype 03 (which flew since March 1938) was about to begin when the Germans were attacking in May 1940. 

She was intended to experiment a device of engineer De Raucourt to cut the metallic cables which were anchoring anti-aerial defense balloons to the ground!

Really, did you think such an amazing task might be experimented with an unmaneuverable, or nasty, or difficult-to-fly plane ? 

In my personal opinion, the criticism about the flying qualities of the Nieuport 161 had only one goal: To favor the order the Morane-Saulnier fighter (or, after the war, to justify this odd choice).

One may use of the traditional criterion of the wing loading. 

The Ni 161 had 152 kg/m² and the Morane 406 had 141 kg/m². 

The difference was of the same order of magnitude than the difference between the Spitfire Mk I and the Spitfire Mk II, the British test pilots seemed to feel quite identical in maneuverability. 

But, thank to her better aerodynamics, the Nieuport fighter did not lose so quickly her speed during maneuvers as did the MS 406.

The Nieuport 161 was very easily upgradable

Fitted with an ejector exhaust manifold similar to the one of the Hurricane, which would have allowed a 15 kph speed gain, the Nieuport 161 could reach ~510 kph.

With a Hispano-Suiza 12 Y 29 - delivering a 60 Hp excess power 400 m higher - and combined with a rearward exhaust manifold, she could reach a top speed of ~530 kph at 5,000 m.

Such a performance would be close to that of the Dewoitine D.520 fighter, with better climb performances (but a less comfortable range and a weaker armament). 

Moreover, the Nieuport fighter could have allowed a better mood to all Allied actors during the first year of the WWII.

From all these reasons, I think the choice of a bad fighter (the MS 406, which was not a bad aircraft, just a good, powerful and armed school-plane...) contributed clearly to the Allied and French defeat. 

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