mardi 23 avril 2013

Fighting the Luftwaffe with the Morane-Saulnier 406: Strengths, weakness... and an inappropriate Command ! (Revised January 12, 2016)

Assessing a fighter ?

A true image of the value of a fighter cannot be found in a unique combat between two well known aces, because a lot of explanations may inverse the result.

The only exception to this rule occurs only if the winner, alone against several adversaries, has been able to down the best of his opponents. 

I have analysed the military operations of the Morane 406 equipped squadrons during the Campaign of France, in order to obtain a more precise assessment of this fighter.

For that purpose, I used the book Le Morane-Saulnier MS 406 of Lela Presse, which is the indisputable "Bible" on this subject.

Avoiding some possible bias

At the very morning of the May 10, 1940, the Armée de l'Air had 10 groups gathering at least 2 squadrons. 

Theoretically, that "administrative" amount would be translated in 250 to 300 fighters.

Some bias may occur in any assessment because the number of really available Morane fighters - which suffered a constant war attrition - was not sufficiently large to allow a perfectly randomized daily view.

Moreover, the bombing and strafing attacks on the French airfields were sufficiently efficient to disable a significant part of these fighters. 

So, between the May 10 and the May 16, more than three dozen of Morane 406 were destroyed on the ground: These losses totaling 20% of the available aircrafts, cannot be seen as combat losses.

Obviously, such losses should had been reduced if the airfields had been more efficiently prepared to protect the aircrafts with merlons.

Also, if the AA fire had been in the hands of proficient and courageous men, the fighter losses could be reduced again.

That was certainly not the case the May 16, when 18 Dornier 17 bombers bombed and strafed during 20 minutes (!) the airfield of the GC II/6, leaving only 4 airworthy Morane fighters!

Another part of losses was related to the quick, but too late, evacuations of airfields laying straight on the road of the German Armies. 

All aircrafts not immediately ready to fly were left, most of the time after being destroyed with explosives. 

For example, the May 17, the  GC III/2 of Cdt Geille should take off (just in time to avoid human losses) with 11 valid Morane 406, leaving 17 not airworthy, but absolutely reparable fighters...

However, I deeply regret the French officers were so blindly compliant with their instructions.
If they were less blind, they could has saved at least the half part of their aircrafts.

Following the same idea, all the French airfields were used for a too long time before being evacuated: If you left your squadron in an airfield too late, you left a part of your precious equipment and you cannot manage any trapping for the enemy.
Leaving in time, it was possible to induced significant losses to the German formations, with the valuable advantage of slowing the German onslaught...

So, the Germans had solved a lot of their problems, avoiding a large part of the possible air battles between Morane 406 and Junkers 87, at a particularly crucial moment for the Guderian offensive.

Worst, when the German troops arrived at the abandoned airfields, they can use them for their Messerschmitt 109 fighters, whose short range was nullified by this short sighting French tactics!

Obviously, such losses, usable to analyze the poor relevance of the decision process of the French deciders, cannot be used to determine the true capacities of the Morane 406 fighter in aerial combat.

The aerial victories during a "relevant" time duration

The May 10, at 0400 AM (French time), the French Air Force had, on the France's soil, a Morane 406 fighter strength of 10 squadrons with 25 to 30 aircrafts each, among them about 20 were available. 

So, at least 200 Morane fighters were absolutely airworthy.

For some odd reasons, the GC I/6 was protecting Marseille (against what mysterious threat ?). One other squadron was staying in Syria...

So, only 180 Morane 406 were in the right place at the right moment.

As I wrote in the previous section, I present here the victories obtained by the Morane 406 fighters before their amount was too much reduced. 

The relevant period is short, starting from the dawn of the May 10 and ending at the twilight of the May 14, 1940.

During these five days, 60 German aircrafts were downed.

Among these victories, 2 were shared with other squadrons, one with a Bloch 152 one (GC II/8) another with a RAF Hurricane one.

Quite a half part of these victories (27) were obtained against Heinkel 111 bombers, translating perfectly the numerical importance of that bomber during the German offensive.

Thirteen Dornier 17 (or Do 215, a simple - but fast - recce variant of the Do 17) were downed, as also 2 Junkers 88, the best German bomber, theoretically faster than the Morane 406.

All these bombers appeared as very difficult targets for the Morane Fighters. 

Among the German bombers, only a handful were downed by a single pilot. 

In most cases, the French pilots needed to be gathered to destroy a single German bomber.

The worst example occurred when 20 German bombers flew at 50,00 m over the Luxeuil air base at 0830 AM.

The French leader of the Grp. II/7 scrambled all his 21 fighters to avoid any bombing and to attack the Heinkel 111, a wise decision.

These German flight, in fact, were flying to Dijon.

Five Morane staying to give cover to the Luxeuil airfield, the 16 others were pursuing the German bombers until Dijon at 115 km, where they engaged and downed, all together, only one Heinkel 111, near to the Settons' Lake, 50 km farther... 

What a very inefficient pursuit, which, altogether, lasted about 30 minutes!

If the Dornier 17 is well know as a very maneuverable aircraft, the Heinkel 111 was not bad at all this way.

The May 10, the S/Lt Steunou attacked a lone He 111 at 0500 AM. The Heinkel made a true dogfight during 25 minutes against him and left the combat when two others Morane were coming to help Steunou!

Six observation aircrafts Henshel 126 were downed, but it's interesting to note that, most of the time, a full patrol of 3 Morane was needed to obtain that result. 

The excellent maneuverability of the German observation aircraft, the good skill of its pilots as also the lack of aiming skill of many French pilots may explain such under-than-average result.

In return, against the Messerschmitt fighters, the results were apparently better. 

Twelve were downed: 6 Bf 109 E and 6 Bf110 C. 

Even completely outclassed by the performances of both German fighters, the Morane-Saulnier 406 was dangerous for them both, especially when the French pilots were not surprised. 

But it was true for all French fighters, none being fitted with the all-round vision cockpit canopy of the Nieuport 161.

The Morane losses

During these 5 days, 43 Morane 406 fighters were lost (25% of the available initial strengths), as, also, 13 pilots dead. 

Many pilots were injured and some of them felt in German hands (POW).

These losses was significant of the extreme violence of the German offensive.

One may translate otherwise these losses: The total annihilation of more than 3 fully equipped Morane 406 squadrons was obtained in only 5 days.

Another fact was that 13 pilots needed to bail out off their fighter in flames (30 % of the losses): Most of them being downed by the rear gunners of the attacked bombers.

That may be related to the position of the oil cooler, occupying a large place just under the air-screw spinner. 

But, also, it can be related to the overheating of the engines of the Morane 406 fighters, owing to the lack of speed needed to pursue the bombers.

However, only one MS fighter exploded in flight (MS 406 # 67, pilot was Adj. Leclercq, from the GC II/6). 

It may be seen as a confirmation that the two fuel tanks were well protected.

Unfruitful attacks

A lot of engagements involving Morane 406 fighters have not obtained any results, even if the French pilots were seeing the engines of their preys in flames. 

It's quite disturbing, today.

For example, the May 10, 0300 PM, two patrols (5 MS 406) of the GC I/2 attacked 6 unprotected He 111 of the KG 55. 

Each French patrol engaged one bomber. 

The first bomber slowed down, but the other bombers slowed down too, while the second attacked bomber was fleeing at full speed. The French pilots came back empty handed...

The next day, similar misfortune occurred for both a patrol of the GC II/2 against a Do 215 and a patrol of the GC III/2 against a Do 17. 

During the 5 days analysed, 25 attacked German aircrafts were able to fly back home.

That was an abnormally large proportion, which may explain the wrong theory of armored German planes (frequently told in the Vichy publications)

That theory was completely wrong, as certainly you know: It stemmed in the wrong choice of the French commissions de l'Armement (weapons committees) which decided the fighters would carry an armament of one 20 mm cannon supplemented by two riffle caliber machine guns. 

The selected cannon was the Hispano-Suiza HS 404, weighting 50 kg, firing 125 gr bullets at 880 m/s and whose rate of fire was 700 rpm. A really deadly weapon, indeed, but fed with only 60 rounds.

The selected machine gun was the 7.5 mm MAC 1934, which was selected as anti-personal weapon for the Maginot line. 

This weapon was reliable, but only drum-fed, a great shortcoming for a fighter. 

The drum allowed only 300 rounds, about 16 sec. of firing! 

The belt-fed Darne Mle 1933, able to fire 1500 rounds, would have been a very better choice... 

In other words, the pilot of a Morane 406 must be an excellent marksman to down a twin-engined aircraft.

All the other French fighters were better armed, the Dewoitine 520 being fitted with 2 supplementary machine guns in addition (to the cannon) and each of these belt-fed (at last) MAC 1934 allowed to fire effectively 675 rounds. 

The Bloch 152 had one cannon more and each of her 2 machine guns was allowed to fire 500 rounds.

Obviously, the Morane 406 could have been a more effective fighter with two 0.5 cal. machine guns in place of the riffle caliber ones.

Nevertheless, I have read, some twenty years ago, that the German rear gunners suffered an heavy death toll during the Battle of France. 

Maybe, that was good for the British fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain...

An inefficient Command

Sending French fighters in Belgium was a very odd behavior.

OK, it was absolutely normal to send some Curtiss H 75 fighters to protect the recce Potez 637 or 63-11 above that country: They had the good range to do that after taking off from French airfields.

It was absolutely irrelevant to send the other French fighters in Belgium or, even, in South Netherlands. 

The Morane 406, with her uncomfortable range and her slow cruising speed, was too much at risk in that country, directly under the threat of the German aircrafts.

The location of the Morane equipped squadrons is given in blue in the following picture.

Personnal document of the author -
Location of the French fighters at the May 10, 1940 - the Morane squadrons are displayed with blue spots.

You may see the grid pattern parallel to the French boundary. 

Each "square" of that grid defined a tactical command, with a specific staff under the supervision of a general for all the linked fighter squadrons. 

It followed the terrestrial armies subdivisionsSuch an organisation, in itself, was sufficient to explain how inefficient was the French Air Force! 

It was rigidly stuck to ground sectors instead to be fluently used where the needs were crucial...

It was published at the end of the 60's, that, during the night between the May 12 and the May 13, 1940, the French recce crews had perfectly identified the precise location of the armored Guderian's divisions.

A normal Air Staff (for any today point of view) could have launched immediately all the available bombers against these armored divisions, under the cover of all the available French single engined fighters. 

Yes, the French losses would have been huge. But neither Guderian nor Rommel would have crossed the Meuse river. 

In the same time, it would be beneficial to transfer the GC I/6 (which was near Marseille) and GC I/7 (which stayed in Syria (!)) to the front.

But general Vuillemin was not prepared to elaborate such a coup.

A disastrous lack of speed

I'm always convinced that the Morane 406 fighter was too slow to obtain the best possible results. 

That is absolutely confirmed by the previously cited (110 + 50) kilometers pursuit of a flight of He 111 flying at 5,000 m, consuming about half an hour of 16 fighters with only 1 bomber downed.

If the same action have been launched the same squadron equipped with Nieuport 161 fighters instead of Morane 406, the mission would have been completed in about 10 minutes, allowing a lot of supplementary time to attack other enemy groups.

Moreover, owing to the spectacular advantage in climbing speed of the Nieuport fighter, very often the rear gunners of the German bombers could have been tremendously surprised, reducing considerably the losses of the French fighters.

A good illustration of the need of surprise during a fighter attack may be found in this engagement occurring the May 15.

The patrol leader was A/C Leblanc, leading S/Lt Bévillard and Sgt Gouzi. They were flying at 5,000 m AGL.

The leader having seen an enemy bomber induced the climbing of his patrol 1,000 m higher, right in the Sun of the enemies. 

Then, he dove at him but with bad firing results. 

His team mate Gouzi, the youngest of the three pilots, flying full speed, downed the bomber at blank point, without any enemy hit in his Morane.  

This is a proof that the Morane may be efficient when wisely used.

Indeed, a quicker transformation of this fighter in her MS 410 definition could have given better results.

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