Initial naval background
They constituted the perfect symbol of the sea mastering.
The first sea battles they had fought occurred during the Russo-Japanese war, ending with the Japanese naval total victory of Tsushima (May 27-28, 1905), which was the only decisive battle between two battleship fleets.
- The perfecting of reliable submarines, as demonstrated by Otto Weddigen with his U 9 submarine, the September, 22, 1914, when he sank three British powerful armored cruisers (Hogue, Crecy, Aboukir) in a matter of one hour. The U 9 was actually an obsolescent ship, completely outclassed by the new submarines about to be launched during the war.
- The total inefficiency of battleships fighting other battleships was demonstrated during the Jutland Battle from May, 31 to June, 1, 1916. That battle opposed 151 British warships (among them 28 were dreadnoughts) to 99 German ones (among them 16 were dreadnoughts). The result of the combats were the huge losses for the British fleet and sustainable losses for the German ones. No clear victory for anybody...
- The more recent bomber aircrafts of 1918 were able to attack any target with heavy bombs (from 500 to 1,000 kg, sufficient to perforate all armored decks). It was then obvious that any Navy would be soon able to launch torpedoes on the most significant target belonging to adverse fleets. The RAF was ahead of the times on this subject, but was apparently deterred to achieve the work on the Blackburn Cubaroo able to launch the powerful 53.3 cm torpedo (1924).
Bombers against battleships: Billy Mitchell, the Great
In July 1921, the American General forerunner Billy Mitchell (who commanded all the US Air units in France at the end of WWI) launched a lot of bombing experiments on several boats, and especially, a captured modern German Battleship, the Ostfriesland.
|Sinking of the Ostfriesland|
The success occurred with a 900 kg bomb exploding in the water near the hull of the dreadnought (near miss).
Obviously, the US navy was very angry against Mitchell:
- At first, feeling the US Navy will bury the true results of the Mitchell tests, he had organized himself the leak of a lot of pictures to the press around the World (you can see them in Flight magazine of September, 15, 1921).
- He had forgotten his promise to allow visits of the bombed ship by experts before the sinking (May be to speed up a somewhat lengthy process...).
- He had a strong and growing public and media support.
- Overall, he demonstrated thoroughly how insane was the persisting will to continue the building of such onerous battleships.
|The support of media to the Mitchell demonstration|
Her armament gathered 8 to 9 guns of 381 mm and she can sustain a top speed of ~30 kts.
- Conte di Cavour,
- West Virginia (even she was reconstructed...),
- California (..."...),
- Prince of Wales,
were sunk during WW II after decisive aerial actions.
Bombers against submarines
After the successful attacks of Otto Weddigen and his U 9, the Allies had begun a serious analysis of the tactics needed to fight against submarines.
Among the possible measures, an armed observation aircraft appeared as rather efficient:
- Any aircraft was obviously faster than any boat, then she was able to patrol very larger areas.
- She was also able to attack any enemy submarine by surprise with relatively light bombs, actually efficient for such tasks.
Nevertheless, the engines of the aircraft flying in 1916 operated hardly more than 20 hours.
So, land planes would be at risk if they were patrolling deep in the sea as it was expected.
Another problem occurred quickly: The German heavy artillery were bombing frequently all the possible land airfields.
The seaplanes appeared as the solution to all these problems.
Bomber without escort ?
French seamen were, at first, ship lovers (as were also all the other seamen in the World).
So, they preferred the flying boats and they considered their air planes only as offensive scouts.
That was true in some comparisons: A speed of 120 kph was really faster than the 20 kts (37 kph) of most of the boats.
But, against an fighter plane flying at 150 kph, the previous results were inverted.
It appeared, soon, that the French admirals did not imagined that enemy fighters might, someday, destroy their flying boats.
Still, at that very moment, the French media were eulogistic about the exploits of the French fighter aces flying their land planes.
From the other hand, the Germans developed successfully the Hansa-Brandenburg W12 float plane.
That biplane was a true fighter-bomber.
One of her pilots, Friedrisch Christiansen, became a great German ace, destroying two rigid British airships, damaging a British submarine and downing about 21 Allied planes (among them 12 alone).
Facing Lt. Battet of the French Aéronavale, after having downed his flying boat, he said him how despicable was a Navy unable to give better planes to go to the battle.
Obviously, because Christiansen was not alone, the French anti-submarine capabilities fell drastically.
At last, the French Navy used successfully some Hanriot HD2 float planes fighters.
Just after WWI, the best French naval aviator, Paul Teste, who had a very clear view of the future of the French Navy, favored clearly the land planes.
After some unsuccessful (and rather dangerous) experiments of taking off from wood platforms stuck on the heavy guns of the more recent french battleships, he landed successfully on the narrow lower deck of the Béarn unfinished battleship.
So, the French Navy accepted to transform this boat into an aircraft carrier.
Unfortunately, Paul Teste was killed in an accident after having taking off for a great raid in 1925.
His Amiot 120 GR, full of fuel, could not avoid the canopy of a tree and take fire just after an apparently correct landing.
The French Navy of the 30's
Since a long time, France, as a lot of other European countries, as also many other countries in the World, was a colonialist country.
Her colonies being situated overseas, she needed an significant Navy.
During the lasts 30 years of the 19th century, the French Navy was divided in two mode of thinking.
The most traditional one wanted a Navy following the efficient model of the British Royal Navy.
The other one (La Jeune Ecole, you can translate as the Young School) had a completely opposite thinking, relying on technological advances associated to weaker investments.
The leader of the Jeune Ecole, Admiral Aube, with proved outstanding tactical talents, was a brilliant mariner, a very good commander at sea as also on the ground (with the French "Marines").
As usual in such case, all two school of thought were wrong, as, also, all two were right...
The France of 1875 was poor (because she had paid a 5,000,000,000 FF - "gold" Francs - to the German Empire after being amputated from her own Alsace and Lorraine provinces) and humiliated.
An arms race with the United Kingdom would be the worst and more irrelevant possible politics.
So, the traditional naval politics could not be relevant.
From the other hand, if a technological politics was absolutely relevant for France, it would be wise to damp this with a rigorous scope statement.
Instead of that, the Jeune Ecole supporters preferred to use of media and politicians.
As usual from irresponsible French politicians, these supporters claimed that UK behavior was typical of an enemy country.
My personal opinion - based on my numerous talks with my Grandfather, born in 1880 - is that, as usual, these politician did not believe themselves to such a claim - the Bismarck's Germany being ever very aggressive - but they used this way to obtain the support of more persons during the polls.
They were successful and their leader, Admiral Aube, became Minister of the French Navy the January 7, 1886, for 17 months.
Unfortunately, suffering of some tropical diseases, he could not achieve the balanced task he wanted to do.
Nevertheless, he launched an important program of torpedo boats - fast but too light to sail in all weathers and with no weapon to allow any fire against a destroyer.
He launched also the realization of the Gymnote, the first French electric submarine able to navigate steadily in dive.
His followers were much more radicals than him and claimed that the battleships were useless and they wanted instead cruisers to capture or destroy the merchant ships.
Such a policy might have been relevant if the dreamed ships have been truly exceptional by their handling qualities, their performances, and, especially by the development of innovative tactics.
Instead, some battleships stayed in the shipyards up to 10 years, being completely obsolete when, at last, they were commissioned!
So the Jeune Ecole became completely discredited.
At last, engineer Emile Bertin conceived successful battleship which fought gallantly during the GM I.
The French submarines followed the layout of the Narval, literally a submersible torpedo boat, designed by engineer Maxime Laubeuf (as became, also, the submarines of the other Navies).
They were insufficiently perfected and when the German captured one of them (the Curie), they obtain a far better time to go submerged with very few modifications.
Nevertheless, the best French submarine design at that time was the one of the Mariotte, designed by engineer Charles Radiguer, by far the fastest submarine of the WW I when submerged (11.7 kts), a true forerunner of more recent submarines.
(Unfortunately, this boat was irrelevantly sent in the Turkish nets and mine fields of the Dardanelles where she was finally scuttled...
A much more wise use was possible against the German Navy... )
So, after an intense period of researches and innovations, the French Navy became a rather moderate technological institution.
However, the German Navy used of its submarines exactly the way dreamed by Adm Aube...
An irrelevant Italian obsession...
During the 20's and the 30's, while imitating what it appeared to be the main reasoning of the British Navy deciders, the French Navy had her sights focused on the Italian Regia Marina.
OK, Mussolini had made a good job with her.
He had relevantly modernized the existing battleships, created a strong force of cruisers and developed an efficient submarine force.
But, until the end of 1936, Italia was not a threat for France
Moreover, having a lot of airfields in France, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria, France had all that was needed for deterring any eventual Italian coup against our own traffic.
She had also some important additional possibilities with the British Allies, from Malta to Egypt.
Sailing the North Atlantic without any air cover!
Unfortunately, the main threat for France was not Italia but, once again, Germany.
Two set of supply lines were of interest - at least, in my personal opinion - the German Iron Road between Narvik and Hamburg and the French roads between Africa and France.
The above picture shows how narrow were the area patrolled by the anti-submarine aircrafts.
[ The above sentence was written two months before the big problem which occurred with the aerial research about the MH 370 Flight, which disappeared the March 8, 2014.
So, I had not a real awareness of the actual naval discovery air patrol problems in 1940.
Today, we know really how far is a naval target situated at 1,000 km from the coasts.
The present airplanes are incredibly more reliable and fast than those of 1940. So, you may substantially reduce the patrolled areas. ]
Obviously, the worst were for the Allied convoys which were slowly sailing between the East coast of the American continent and the Allied European West coasts.
The task of discovering Allied merchant-ships convoys by the German FW 200 Kondor was very easier.
The German submarines had several days to attack with only the (big) hazard of the destroyers.
But they were very well trained against that kind of enemies.
It was impossible to be overconfident about the efficiency of the flying patrols, because they were unable to give a permanent cover:
- They were sometimes prevented by bad weather;
- They were inefficient at night until the Summer of 1942 (they lack of an efficient inboard radar);
- They were not sufficiently numerous to give a 24/24 cover to the convoy until mid 1942...
If the German Kriegsmarine of 1939 was considered as a rather negligible force against the addition of the British and French Navies, it strengths will appear soon.
Being duly trained against both aerial and submarine warfare, completely equipped with brand new and up to date vessels, it was a very dangerous foe.
Happily, it was completely devoid of aircraft carrier, pursuing nevertheless the impossible dream of Admiral von Tirpitz: A big and powerful fleet of battleships.
This was not the result of a limited conception of the German mariners, who had planed and launched a very interesting aircraft carrier, the Graf von Zeppelin, as also the aircrafts needed to fought from her.
But Mr. Herman Göring did not accept that any German aircraft might not be under his own command!
However, the Luftwaffe acknowledged the need of deep scouting flights to detect the Allied convoys crossing the Atlantic.
So, the Kampf Geschwader 40 (KG 40) was created at Bremen the November 1st, 1939 with Focke-Wulfe FW 200 C.
A good cooperation was quickly established between the KG 40 crews and the U-boats to destroy as much ships as possible among those gathered in the Allied convoys.
Regarding the French colonies, most of them were lightly defended by air patrols using old flying boats at rather short range.
No fighters were available if they were attacked.
The strategic thinking was absolutely different than the one demonstrated by the Japanese Imperial Navy, which had ordered the famous Mitsubishi A6M2 Reisen (Zero) with a combat radius of more than 1,000 km!
The French Navy needed a strong air cover, but its deciders did not know that...
To protect a fleet against enemy aviation, you may combine an up-to-date warning system, a strong AAA fire and a powerful force of fighters.
This obsession, absolutely logical during the 19th Century, was obsolete since the last pre-dreadnoughts.
Indeed, the Béarn was not very successful only because she had been conceived for artillery combats and not for air battle!
In the hands of a true airman, she could have been better refitted and became, at last, successful.
When US Adm. Harry Yarnell had displayed, in a war game, how easily he can destroy the US battleships at Oahu base of Pearl Harbor the February 7, 1932, nobody seemed to have understood his clear lesson.
The referee of the game had not seen any things... but British Adm. Cunningham used this lesson when he attacked very successfully the Italian fleet in its Taranto base.
The French Navy of the inter-World War period was often said to be the best Navy France has had in all her history.
This is not my personal feeling because our Navy had never realized its potential.
OK, that was for political reasons.
At first, a Navy is a strategical tool; That may be said, in other words: A political tool.
For such a purpose, it must have the power to strike heavily the enemy in his most susceptible parts (e.g. in the Hamburg region, during the period).
But, as it was demonstrated during the Allied operations in Norway (1940), the absence of aerial cover denied to the French Navy any success in this way.
The fighters of the Béarn carrier: Ever behind the times
The Wibault 74
This fighter, of metallic construction and first flown in 1923-24, was not graceful, but was very tough and her 480 Hp Jupiter Gnome & Rhône engine was robust.
About two dozen were ordered by the Marine Nationale at the end of the 1920's.
She was the first fighter to be on board of the Béarn for a (too) long time.
|A Wibault 74 landing on the Béarn - On this site.|
She seemed relatively easy to land on a carrier deck and was operational until 1938
However, her performances were clearly out of date.
The sea level top speed of the terrestrial variant Wibault 72 fighter (the engine was not supercharged at all) was ~245 kph and the speed at 5,000 m was 225 kph.
Nevertheless, the top speed of the carrier based Wibault 74 was ~230 kph at sea level.
The service ceiling was 7,500 m and 15' were needed for climbing to 5,000 m (a bomber climbing time).
The total ferry range was 600 km (at 200 kph).
This reliable fighter was never able to establish any superiority against other carrier-based fighters, but she was sufficiently fast to deter most of the foreign flying boats.
After this second rate "experiment", Michel Wibault presented relentless new and very up to date fighters.
None was ordered.
That may explain why his last and superlative creation, the Harrier VTOL fighter, was not a French aircraft but a British one...
However, an other fighter, the Morane-Saulnier MS 226, was ordered a bit later by the French Navy but she was never really carrier operational.
The MS 226 was a MS 225 with an arrest hook but devoid of her supercharger, because the French sailors believed that, their ships being restricted to the zero altitude, therefore their aircrafts did not need to fly at 10,000 m!
So, her performances (260 kph) were not clearly better than those of the Wibault 74.
But, her trend to stall at the last stage of the landing was seen as too dangerous for a carrier fighter.
The Dewoitine 373 / 376 fighters
Engineer Emile Dewoitine had conceived his D27 fighter during 1927.
This little fighter made his first flight the June, 3, 1928, with a Hispano-Suiza 12 Mc engine of 500 Hp.
The trials were very successful, the aircraft being very maneuverable and fast for an aircraft
devoid of supercharger.
She achieved 300 kph, had good climbing abilities and was robust.
Some flutter occurred and the French Navy ordered only a handful of D 27.
Emile Dewoitine decided to left the parasol formula and developed the excellent D 500.
But his associate were the company Lioré & Olivier, well known owing its good bombers LéO 20x series.
The staff of that company had the idea to extend to others markets.
They used the last development prototype of the D 27, strengthened and aerodynamically refined, with a much more powerful engine (800 hp), the Gnome & Rhône 14 K.
The new Dewoitine 371 land based fighter was fast, 380 kph, climbed easily and was very maneuverable.
She interested the French Navy which ordered 25 D 373, a variant differing from the previous D 371 by the devices adapted to a carrier fighter:
- An arrest hook,
- A buoyancy device gathering inflatable bags.
To compensate the heavier weight (2,050 kg), a more powerful engine (920 hp) was fitted.
It was said the D 373 achieved 405 kph at altitude. It is not proved at all.
Nevertheless, the 4,000 m were achieved in ~5', a very good performance.
The service ceiling was better than 10,000 m and the range was ~750 km.
Unfortunately for the seamen, the Lioré & Olivier team was not proficient for the developing of a fighter.
So, numerous shortcomings were difficult to fix and the aircraft embarked on the Béarn in December 1938, 4 years too late.
Being completely unsafe, she was put out of service some ten months later.
The Béarn carrier, an obsolete ship?
That is the usual opinion you can read on most of the French very, very serious authors.
OK, as she was, the Béarn carrier was not perfectly suited to became a perfect capital ship!
Nevertheless, with some additional but not too expensive works, she could be clearly more operationally efficient.
The first reproach was her lack of speed (21.5 kts).
That was too slow only if her main purpose was to escort the battleships, i.e. precisely the wrong way to use an aircraft carrier.
An aircraft carrier is strategically interesting for her ability to attack enemy targets at ten to fifteen times the maximum practical range (i.e. 25 km) of the biggest guns of the battleships.
Moreover, at the beginning of WWII, the on board radars had a rather short range at sea level. As being among the firsts electronic devices, they were poorly reliable.
So, to prevent any action from an aircraft carrier, it was necessary to detect her and to explore a very large territory.
If used as the core of a maritime action against an enemy fleet or coast, the Béarn remained absolutely relevant:
- Her old torpedo launcher biplanes (Levasseur PL 15) were absolutely comparable to the famous British Fairey Swordfish.
- Her Loire-Nieuport 40 and 401 fighter-bombers were as efficient as the British Skua, with similar kind of bombs, but they were clearly more nimble, they had stronger armament and were able to fly higher, a very good asset to destroy the enemy scout planes.
I'm always stunned when reading the common assertions suggesting that some aircraft of an aircraft carrier was too slow to fight the actual land based fighters (e.g. the Messerschmitt Bf 109): The main purpose of the carrier based airplanes was to attack the enemy ships.
We know perfectly today how dangerous was the English Channel, during the Battle of Britain, for the German fighter, whose range was 660 km.
This tiny part of the Atlantic Ocean has an average inter coastal distance of 150 km, too much for the Bf 109, taking into account the high probability of a combat during the flight.
So, a carrier at 350 to 450 km of her target was well protected against such fighters.
What were the improvements needed for the Béarn?
- A totally flat flying deck to stock some supplementary aircrafts.
- A more spacious operation center.
- The suppression of her heavy artillery (eight 155 mm / 55 cal. guns), allowing more space under the flying deck to stock some aircrafts and spares. This would have deterred the high staff of the ship to engage any artillery fighting with gun ships: The Glorious tragedy - 1,200 casualties - showed to any sea man how vain was such an armament (2 x 38.1 cm guns, on a carrier).
- The suppression of the 6 armored doors for the 3 elevators (!), a device which slowed considerably the take off of the aircrafts.
- In the same time, the replacement of the weak motors of the elevators to obtain an efficient take off rhythm.
- The installation of a catapult to speed up the launching of aircrafts.
The French deciders preferred using the Béarn carrier as a lorry to carry US planes to Morocco.
So, they helped seriously the German invasion in Norway.
Even the poor D 373 could have been an important threat for the German Ju 87 Stuka which sunk some of the Allied ships.
But, to win any game, you need to play that game.