lundi 15 juillet 2013

Observing the Battle Field, from 1930 to the 1940 Campaign of France (revised October 30, 2017)

Military intelligence at battle, before the ability to fly airplanes

The common sense have always said that nobody is able to win a fight without a good understanding of the enemy's actions. This being the only way to adjust properly the retort.

This may be generalized for every military level. 

It is implying the highest accuracy when you are observing the enemy, even it is also convenient to know, at the same time, what your troops are doing.

At the beginning of the History, 5,000 years ago, most of the battles were led under the direct observation of the armies chiefs.

In practice, in a flat landscape, with short grass, the best observation point could have been materialized by a tall rider mounting a tall horse (or, why not, a tall elephant).  Such "device" may have allowed to obtain some informations up to an half mile, at most.

The visual information obtained by such a method could have been graphically summarized by a ribbon. 

(Please, note that, during the First World War, the observatory had not a very better sight on the battle field than 2000 years earlier.)

A battle led by Alexander the Great - may be, the famous Arbela Battle - (Pompei - Mosaic) : A quite monodimensional information

During a hot summer, the infantry and the cavalry induced a lot of large dust plumes which reduced the line of information to a doted one.

This shortcoming was partly fixed when the general were able to stay at the top of a convenient hill.

Then, they were able to obtain visual informations from distant points by scouts and liaison officers.

A first breakthrough was given by the Galilean telescope, which allowed to the artillery a better "distant hit efficiency". 

But that was not a decisive advantage.

Fleurus, 1794: A decisive breakthrough 

During the Flanders Campaign, the French republican army used of the first military intelligence aircraft, a hydrogen inflated balloon dubbed "l'Entreprenant". 

This device allowed general Jourdan to be victorious at Fleurus, triggering the withdrawal of the Coalition's armies from all the Belgian and Low Countries territories

This spherical balloon, 9 m in diameter,  was able to rose a crew of 2 to 500 m AGL (1,700 ft).

From the air, the battle field was never more that kind of tiny ribbon of information I told you previously, but a full surface allowing to detect any moving column at significantly more than ten kilometers.

Nevertheless, the progress affecting the riffles was such than the balloons and their crews were at risk. 

When the WW I broke, the main participating countries had a lot of airplanes, essentially for scouting purpose. 

The new aircrafts, even they were unreliable, induced many advantages. They were safer than all the various kind of airships, because they are appreciably faster, completely immune to the wind direction and incomparably more nimble.

Their crews used them successfully, the most famous being the Bréguet of Louis Bréguet who was able to give to general Gallieni the crucial informations which allowed him to launch the first part of the "Bataille de la Marne", the September 2, 1914.

If all the belligerents continued to use stationary balloons to steer the fire of the artillery, that was only possible during the moment of the stationary front line, and only when the enemy aviation suffered a total lack of fighter. 

So the observation planes replaced most of the balloons.

A new era governed by the "Goddess Speed" 

Unfortunately, even if the Allied victory was the very result of a complete change in the use of all the weapons, the military deciders do not understood how important was the concept of a very short scouting flight near the front lines.

The very observation aircraft for the French observers during WW I was the Farman F 40, a large biplane with a wing area of 52 square meters, a take-off mass a bit more than 1,000 kg, easy to fly, with a well designed observation balcony, flying at 120 kph.

Personal document of the author - A Japanese mission examining the observer place of a MF 40 of the MF 22 observation squadron (where my GrandFather served as photo analyst) 

Some of the surviving observers became high rank officers, but they continue to serve as infantry or artillery officers. Being disconnected from the Air Forces, they were, apparently, nostalgic about the flying balconies... 

So, they eliminated without mercy the aircrafts differing to much from their remembrance.

They had the misfortune to have got a very good airplane at the second half of the 20's: The Potez 25.

This aircraft was relatively fast (220 kph), very robust, very maneuverable, and displayed a good ceiling (7,000 m). 

Potez 25, with the gunner place disabled for civilian purposes.
Five years later, several technological breakthrough had been achieved.

Reliable superchargers, retractable landing gears, variable pitch air-screws and metallic stressed skin air-frame structures changed the capacities of all kind of military aircrafts (as for civilian ones too).

These modifications, combined together and added with the actual substantial aerodynamic progress, allowed top speeds more than twice the speeds of the preceding generation.

Nevertheless, the first chosen observation aircraft to be ordered in the 30's, the Bréguet 27, did not take advantage of these assets. 

Bréguet 27 

She was a bit more powerfull (500 Cv), a bit faster (240 kph) than the Potez, with an empty weight 500 kg heavier, probably because most of the structure was done in steel. 

The use of this material may be related to the rear girder which connected the main fuselage to the tail. 

Some problems were encountered during test flight with the aerodynamically induced torsion of the tail, leading to strengthen the steel girder.

But, that narrow girder allowed a very good rear vision, at least for the generals who were remembering their beloved Farman MF 40, 15 years ago ! 

So, they fell in love with that aircraft...

Worst, the cockpit design was awkward, with a lot of large vertical glass surfaces playing a perfect role as aerodynamic brakes... 

Another aircraft, the less radical parasol monoplane Potez 39, was also chosen in the same time with similar performances. 

It must be noticed that the engines fitted on both the Bréguet and the Potez were not supercharged, but several prototypes used supercharged engines successfully, with an important increase of flight speed (50 kph).

The last "parasol"

A contest for a more modern observation aircraft was launched in 1932. The best prototypes were the ANF les Mureaux 110, the Latécoère 490 and the Nieuport 590.

Althought they have been conceived to use of supercharged engines, none of these were fitted this way. 

The Latécoère was the fastest with 280 kph, but the Mureaux (270 kph) was the best in climb speed as also in practical ceiling: she was chosen and 240 were build in 3 versions (113, 115, 117).

All were fitted with the supercharged Hispano-Suiza 12 Ydrs, allowing a speed of 320 kph at 4500 m (~15,000 ft).

The Mureaux being a superlative climber, able to fly easily at very high altitude (one version was able to fly at 14000 m). She seemed ideal to use for strategic recce missions...

But, at high altitude the over-complicated ever-open cockpit was unable to protect the crew from the less than - 40° C temperature during the classical 6 hours missions. 

A realistic description of such a mission was done by future admiral Pierre Barjot in his book "l'Aviation Militaire Française en 1939".

Mureaux 200, a better (but still very unperfect) derivative of the Mureaux 115 series

A faster derivative (340 kph), the Mureaux 200, using the same structure but with an enclosed cockpit, could have been better suited for such a task. 

Moreover, she could have been appreciably faster if her radiator had been better streamlined...

Nevertheless, as she was, the Mureaux 115 was technically able to spy the German territories until the end of 1937, owing her better climb ability over the Messerschmitt Bf 109 B, C or D. 

The lack of comfort led to replace them by Bloch 131 for this role. 

(It was an irrelevant decision. This Bloch was a good aircraft - 350 to 380 kph, according to the engines fitted on - but she was not sufficiently fast to achieve long runs into the German territories.  
She was better suited than the older Amiot 143 for day bombing, even she cannot use more than 800 kg of bomb load.)

The large wings of the Mureaux, totaling ~35 square meters, allowed her a superlative maneuverability. 

So, she was selected to be used for night fighting as, also, for ground attack training. 

In action (preliminary sight)

Two hundred and twenty Mureaux were the basis of the French observation aviation the May 10, 1940.

Reading the impressive series of the Icare journal (the testimonies on the GAO - Groupes Aériens d'Observation - are gathered in # 53  and # 59) on this period don't give a superlative mood on this aircraft or on her military efficiency. For example, the fighter squadrons testimonies needed 5 complete books whereas the observation squadrons hardly fill only one! 

My personal opinion is that such a mood was related to age of the Mureaux aircrafts, so, their engines were worn out. 

Worst, the methods used were inappropriate, inducing a lot of losses.

The first problem was the amazingly low number of missions given to the 12 GAO (~150 aircrafts) adequately situated to track the movements of the armored divisions led by general Heinz Guderian. 

The French generals who were under attack seemed completely indifferent to know how their opponents were proceeding! 

So, the VII Pz. Div. of general Rommel had no difficulty to appear as a "ghost division"!

A second, but connected, problem appeared already after the breakthrough of Sedan: The airfields of these GAO were literally stuck on the front line by the orders of infantry or artillery generals.

Obviously, they were promptly attacked by the Luftwaffe and, few day later, they were captured with their ground crews... Only some pilots were able to escape with their aircrafts.    

No experiment? no success!

The use of the observation aircrafts in May 1940 seems now to be only a simple "copy and paste" of what it was done during "the trench war" in 1916-1917, as if the French deciders have completely forgotten the last months of 1918.

General Lesquen,  in Icare #59, wrote that one wanted the observation aircraft to be able to make "peak of slowness" (!), allowing the observer - always an officer - to found the relevant informations.

(Such expectations - even today - are absolutely groundless. 
The better observers are mainly the pilot or the gunner, because they are used to decode instantly very complex visual contexts, they need only to learn what they have to detect)

Big mistakes were tagging the beginning of the Phoney War in term of observation aircraft using.

Colonel Bernard Dupérier, in September 1939, wrote what he has seen when he was the pilot of an old Bloch 200 bomber. 

His bomber and 8 others were sent to observe the vicinity of the city of Trier, in Germany. 

The official aim was to obtain "hand made drawings"!

Remember, the Bloch 200 was a robust bomber but she was slow (top speed of 280 kph) and not especially nimble. 

Seven of these night bombers were downed above the German territory, at the cost of many high ranking officers: The very price of a so stupid command.

[Later, Bernard Dupérier became a fighter pilot in the 340 Free French Squadron île de France, shot down 7 German aircrafts, becoming an ace and was awarded as Compagnon de la Libération, DFC...]. 

Feat of arms

These huge losses induced the decision of the Air Staff to allow a fighter escort to the observation aircrafts.

A very good testimony on the fighting ability of the Mureaux, was given by colonel Edmond Petit (Icare #53, la drôle de Guerre).

The September 24, 1939, he flew his Mureaux (GAO I/520) over Saarland, in order to take 2 sets of pictures. The escort consisted in 5 Morane 406 of the GC I/3, under command of Capt. Pape.

The mission was endless, in German territory at 3,500 m AGL, flying without any variation of heading or any angle of roll: So, the German Flak had a very easy task for downing him.

After the termination of the first set of pictures, Edmond Petit was thinking the Morane fighters were to far from the Mureaux.

At this precise moment, nine Messerschmitt Bf 109 E attacked all the aircraft of the French formation.  They were belonging to the JG I/53 (the Werner Mölders's unit).

Seven Bf 109 were attacking the French Fighters while the 2 last fighters attacked the Mureaux.

Tactically, the method was pretty good. 

Edmond Petit was surprised. 

His aircraft suffered instantly from 2 shell impacts in her fuselage, the second having injured his observer / gunner, lieutenant Bernard. 

The French pilot achieved a very, very tight turn simultaneously with a climb. 

The German fighters, unable to follow such a tight maneuver, became now the prey of the Mureaux pilot, who was able to open fire on one of them who escaped.

Some other turns later, another Bf 109 was attacking the Mureaux, but, again, Edmond Petit achieved to open fire at the German fighter: 

The German pilot escaped and disappeared. 

Now, capt. Pape himself was available to escort the observation aircraft to home, as fast as possible.

Edmond Petit achieved a perfect kiss landing, the best of all his pilot live. Lieutenant Bernard was rushed to hospital were he was saved.

Note that captain Pape was downed while fighting German fighters during his escort flight of the famous flight to Arras of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in May 1940.

An inappropriate use...

The previous testimonies display that the military deciders were addict to very long missions inside the enemy lines (2 hours !).

The commandant (major) Mariage, who was in command of a GAO, wrote (in his autobiographic book entitled either la passion des équipages or l'adieu aux armes, following the publication date) than only very short incursions above the enemy territories were possible.

Another awkward technique was the transmissions of the informations to land forces QG (infantry or artillery) only by hand written ballasted messages instead of inboard radios!

You may think the French land forces were very poor, they cannot buy radio-phonic devices!
A recent and very good paper in GBM #104 (les réseaux de commandement de chars D et l'ER 51, by Aimé Salles) demonstrates that radio-phonic links were absolutely possible. 

But, knowing the huge degree of paranoia inside the French headquarters, I have some doubts about the real level of training in this domain...

Ok, I'd used of radio phonic devices when I was private pilot, in the late 80's. 
But the VHF 720 ch I used was so simple that a child younger than 8 years old could use it easily.

I'm sure than the French radio devices of 1940 were much more complicated, in view to satisfy the dreams of all the different committee of engineers... 

To summarize the work of the Mureaux observation airplane: She was at least as efficient than her German counterpart, the Henschell 126. 

If used with a reasonable fighter escort, on short rush behind the enemy lines, she had a serious chance to return home with a correct amount of informations. 

But the complete bottleneck affecting the transmission of informations resulting from the non-use of radio communications was catastrophic for the French land armies (and the Allied others) during the Guderian offensive trough the Ardennes. 

The Potez 63-11: Heavy losses, but a pretty good job... for stupid HQs.

The Mureaux was not the last observation aircraft of the French Army. 

She was supplanted by the Potez 63-11.  

I wrote another post to show how it could had been possible to reduce very significantly the heavy losses of this aircraft.

This new aircrcraft was able to fly 100 kph faster than the preceding one, was much more robust and was twin-engined, allowing a better chance to return home.

The Potez were good enough to open the very possibility of a victory on the German armies, the May 12, 1940, when twice, first at night, second at day light, their crews reported the arrival of tank columns trough three distinct pathway inside the Ardennes.

It depends only of the reactions of the headquarters. 

If they believed their observers and launched a strong strike, today, we could discuss about the huge defeat of Hitler's Wehrmacht in the Ardennes...

Unfortunately, they don't believe their observers...

An opinion of Colonel Kirkland

The opinion of Colonel Faris R. Kirkland (USAF) on the Potez 63-11 is very interesting but it's a pure anachronism. 

Yes, he is right to say the observation tasks could had been easily fulfilled by some tiny aircrafts as was the Piper Cub, able to land on very short, unprepared fields. But this concept was used for the first time with the Fieseler Storch only in 1941, one full year after the end of the Campaign of France.

Yes, he is also right when he tell us that the use of fighters was better suited to escape both AA fire and fighter interceptions. 

But the first recce Spitfire (PR) were used only in 1940, after a great fight against Air-Field Marshall Dowding. In France, the same concept arose and 3 Dewoitine 520 were build to proceed to experiments. But I never found any comment about them.

The recce Spitfire was used especially after the Campaign of France.

In the US, the P38 Lightning was a correct recce airplane on the Pacific front line, with her good ceiling and speed, but, on the North African and the European one, she was at risk, as it was sadly demonstrated by the downing of Antoine de Saint Exupéry in 1944.

In Europe, only the P 51 B Mustang was a very efficient recce aircraft.


It's interesting to note that the victorious German eliminated their own observation mono-engined aircraft Henschell 126 and replace her by the twin-engined Focke-Wulf 189, flying at most at 360 / 380 kph (following sources) and having a wing-load even lower than the Japanese fighter A6M2 Zero. 

This sturdy and nimble aircraft seem to have been at least partly favored by our actual enemies after the very good job achieved the May 21 by the Potez 63-11 of the GAO 501, despite a complete mastering of the French sky by the Luftwaffe

The reports of the Potez's crews allowed to command a very efficient series of strikes by Bréguet 693 units against the armored  divisions of Gen. Guderian, who wrote in his memory: "Where was our Luftwaffe, today !".

The FW 189 had allowed very great success to the German armies against URSS, from 1941 to the end of 1943.

The Hitler's defeat of 1945, as the French one in 1940, cannot be related to any used material.

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