In the 30’s, the French Navy wanted its own diver bombers
Les Bombardiers en Piqué Loire-Nieuport: du Ni 140 au LN 42, Arnaud Prudhomme, TMA, 2005;
Nevertheless, the French Navy was reluctant about such a technical advance which may endangered the program launched by Georges Leygues, the French minister of Marine.
The reference of sea warfare, actually, was the British Navy and, if the RAF was not interested by the dive bombing, this bombing method was currently used by the Navy.
This huge shortcoming of the French Battleships was fixed only after WW II, in 1948 (too late...), simply by adding a 0.06 second delay between the 1-3 gun couple firing and the 2-4 gun couple firing (a very similar problem was experienced by the Zara Italian heavy cruisers).
Such an accuracy was sufficient to disable most of the Battleships, leaving them as sitting duck for the torpedoes of destroyer or submarines.
The GL 430 was a parasol aircraft with some similarities to the GL 351 fighter.
She was powered by a 480 hp 9 cylinder radial air-cooled engine Gnome & Rhône Jupiter.
And the lay out of this aircraft was much more advanced than the one of the Junkers 47.}
The first flight occurred in March 1935.
|Nieuport 140 – some good ideas wasted…|
The top speed were 335 kph at altitude and 290 kph at sea level and the climbing time to 4,000 m was 8' 30", these performances being only average for the times.
The first diving trial being successful, a new step was open at July 8th, 1935: The launch of a bomb during the dive.
After diving vertically from 5 000 m to 1 000 m in 26 seconds – this giving an average speed of 154 m/s (554 kph), suggesting a very faster terminal speed, just before the pull-out – René Paulhan, the well known pilot, released normally the bomb and pull up the stick at full throttle.
In Germany, the first prototype of the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber fatally crashed on January 24, 1936, killing the entire crew.
On July 27, 1936, Ernst Udet crashed the Heinkel He 118 dive bomber but was able to bail out.
In the USA, the prototype of the Chance-Vought Vindicator crashed the August 20, 1936, owing a spin triggered by a slow speed stall at low altitude, killing her crew.}
Toward the war
The empty weight was 2135 kg and the take off weight was 2825 kg.
|LN 411 – The silhouette of a fighter, a canon firing trough the air-screw and a bubble cockpit canopy|
The LN 40 #2 pre-series demonstrated a top speed of 367 kph measured at 4 700 m and 307 kph at sea level.
In a letter published (page #124) by the review Flight International the August 28th, 1941, a French former fighter pilot of the Béarn carrier wrote these interesting comments :
I was in one of the fighter squadrons of the Bearn (during the war based at Calais) and flew the Loire 40 several times.
It was very easy to pilot and made very good aileron turns during the dive.
The triple tail had been added to the original design to prevent vibrations.
(...) FREE FRENCH PILOT."
All these aircrafts shared the same cooling device.
One could write: Carrier proven.
The two firsts were ordered by the French Navy, the third was lately ordered by the Armée de l’Air after the impressive operational demonstrations of the German Ju 87 Stukas during the Spanish Civil War.
- The Loire-Nieuport 40 was the first one and was an order of pre-series to test carefully the naval tactics as well as the reliability of the aircraft in operational conditions.
- The Loire-Nieuport 401, was dedicated to the use on board of an aircraft carrier. So, she was fitted with folding wings, water-tightness devices and also an arrester hook.
- The French Air force ordered 40 Loire-Nieuport 411, differing from the previous variants by eliminating the folding wing capacity and the arrester hook, obviously, but, also replacing the 2 excellent belt fed Darne Mle 33 of riffle caliber (each firing 600 cartridges) by 2 MAC 34 drum fed machine guns of same caliber (heavier, four times more expensive and firing only 300 cartridges each...).
Each of these 2 others aircrafts being very, very time consumers (16,000 hours (officially, but I suspect a building time of more than 22,000 hours, the time needed for the very better Italian MC 200) for the MS 406, 60,000 hours for the LéO 451).
General Vuillemin, chief of staff of the Armée de l’Air refused his 40 LN 411, given them to the French Navy.
A little mystery
However, the published data are as follows.
For the LN 401:
- An empty weight of 2,100 to 2,135 kg,
- A take off weight of 2,750 to 2,825 kg.
For the LN 411
- An empty weight of 2,100 to 2,240 kg,
- A take off weight of 2,850 to 2,930 kg.
But, whatever the mission, the terrestrial LN 411 had always a take-off weight 100 kg heavier than her naval sister!
Both aircrafts Loire-Nieuport 401 and Loire-Nieuport 411 shared the same bombs.
The G2 bomb which weighted 75 kg, derived from a 155 mm naval shell.
The I2 bomb, derived from a 203 mm naval shell, weighted 150 kg.
These data published by Arnaud Prudhomme in his book were identical in fighter or in bomber configuration.
1,000 m --------> 2' 13" 1' 08"
(The time to 5,000 m was reconstituted by adding the average time for a 500 m climb to the highest known previous measurement)
The average time for each 500 m step was 64".
But the 32" needed between 3,000 m and 3,500 m, is an amazingly fast time, as the 91" between 3,500 m and 4,000 m, is amazingly long, looking as a slow down used to fix an overheating of the engine.
If it was the case, one may wonder why the measurement was not re-started.
On the May 10, the German diversionary consisted in an offensive against the Netherlands.
The British, because they never accepted to see a country as powerful as was the Nazi Reich having two efficient and performing seaports just facing their own country: Hitler acted as a matador waving the red rag at a bull.
The French wanted, overall, to conserve their last allied, the British.
Obviously these French troopers went by waterways and were to return the same way.
So the relationships with the Dutch officers were not suited for a good coordination between allied!
Unfortunately, when he became the coordinator of the Allied forces, 2 days after the Dutch surrender, most of the initial military assets in the Walcheren stronghold had vanished.
Their offensive was efficient but the deciders thought that an aerial support could be sufficient to deter the Germans to continue!
So, the French admiral Abrial commanded to the AB2 (First Lieutnant Lorenzi) and AB1 (First Lieutenant Mesny) squadrons to bomb the targets designated in Walcheren.
- The May 15, May, a column of artillery was bombed by AB 2 (9 sorties).
- The May 16, the sluices of the Zuid Beveland canal near Hansweert were bombed by AB 2 (9 sorties) while the AB1 bombed a railway bridge (9 sorties).
- The May 17 Mai, both AB 1 (10 sorties) AB 2 (8 sorties) take off just before dawn to bomb the road between Walcheren to Zuid Beveland and the armored vehicles travelling on. The Flak appeared very aggressive...
- A night flight was managed by the two same units at the evening of the same day, starting at 10:30 PM (2 sorties for AB 2, 1 for AB 1).
In fact, only one was really missing, the other having landed in Cotentin for some unknown reasons.
- The German offensive was only a deceptive maneuver. May be, the Flak was not as numerous and aggressive as it demonstrated when protecting the Panzer Divizions.
- The main part of the German Jagdwaffe, initially protecting the operations in the Netherlands, shifted completely to the French Ardennes at the end of the May 13, for covering the true offensive of general Guderian.
- The French naval bombers were protected by two squadrons of naval fighters (AC 1 and AC 2) as, also, by a patrol of 3 Curtiss belonging to the Armée de l’Air. So, one Loire-Nieuport 401 downed a Heinkel 111.
- The AB 1 and the AB 2 were the most experienced.
- While Admiral Darlan was absolutely ready against an Italian naval attack... which never happened,
- While French and British Generals were fascinated by the Hitler’s game in Belgium and the Netherlands,
- General Guderian was attacking at Sedan, the real weakest part in the French defenses.
The Allied high ranking generals were too old to anticipate the speed with which the Panzer Divizionen might progress inside their own lines. German generals, since the total defeat they suffered during all the German offensives in 1918, have had the time to perfect the "speed" concept.
Actually, confronted the German overwhelming advance, the Allied generals remembered that a Military Aviation existed, for which they have been always very avaricious.
The answer was absolutely clear: None!
Admiral Francis Lainé, then fighter pilot and squadron leader in the 1940 Aéronavale, told us his own perception of the Battle of France in the review Icare # 60, L'Aéronavale, 1st part.
In November 1939, as first lieutenant and experienced fighter pilot, he chose to lead a Loire-Nieuport squadron, the AB 4.
But, at Lanvéoc-Poulmic, the airbase theoretically dedicated to the AB 4, only 2 pilots were appointed to his squadron without any aircraft.
Some "experts", at the Ministère de la Marine, expected seriously the impossibility, for this unit, to be operational before mid-June 1940.
The training was done at Cherbourg-Querqueville. It consisted in vertical dives from 4,000 m to 800 m, also in dives at 60° or 45° from 1,200 m to 300 m with concrete bombs then with operational bombs.
Another training was to fighter missions, with firing operational ammunition.
They took off at 18:30.
For some unknown reason (even today), the British fighters were not at the rendez-vous.
Admiral Lainé reminded: "I was very proud to lead these 20 well armed fighter-bombers to the battle. Indeed, that was the most interesting command I have got during the forty three years I was in the French Navy."
So, the top speed of the LN 401 and 411 was reduced to 320 kph and their cruise speed to 250 kph.
May be, it could have been more wise to curve the path chose more northerly, allowing to fly essentially over Allied territories, obviously unoccupied by the German troops, so the German armored division could had quite no time to prepare their AA guns…
He was "warmly welcomed" by an intense AA fire, so much that he believed that 2 of his teammates have been instantly downed.
The Lainé’s Loire-Nieuport was also hit by a Flak shell which destroyed his radio-transmitter.
(So, the French staff created a recognition book to avoid such situation more than one month later, after the ceasefire between France and Germany. Too late…)
The black cloud quickly covered all the town.
Thirty two years latter, remembering his actual mood as he flew Northward at very low altitude, he thought that: "The ideal depicted By Marshall Rommel of a War without Hatred is not available to every performer! ".
His righteous anger was still present: "To see my teammates downed had made me mad!".
This comment is very important when one analyze carefully the losses of the Allied assault bombers.
Nevertheless, very few are the authors who take this fact into account.
For example, the 50 kg bomb used by the Bréguet 693 - less powerful than the naval bombs - sent lethal fragments on a 150 m radius area around the explosion center.
Evading most of the shots, the French pilot succeeded to land in a crude field South of Cambrai and to exited his aircraft unharmed, a brilliant demonstration of his skill and of the handling qualities of his LN 401.
Among the 11 Loire-Nieuport 401 of the AB 2, six were back at home.
The Vindicator of AB 1 took off from a distant airfield (Alprecht), so they had to rendezvous above Berck where stationned the Loire-Nieuport.
- The overwhelmed French staff forgot to request these fighters,
- The British fighters were effectively requested but might be involved in a combat before to be at the scheduled rendez-vous over the French airfields.
Having reached the Berck airfield, the AB 1 squadron flew directly to the Origny Bridge, without waiting the three Loir-Nieuport which were climbing.
The American aircraft had only 2 similar forward firing machine guns and the one other being firing aft for the gunner.
All the gunners were surprised and, their weak armament was not sufficient to protect the bombers and 5 of them were instantly downed, including the 3 section leaders.
Two Vindicator, being crossing a cloud during the Messerschmitt attack, flew to the target and bombed unsuccessfully the bridge.
The AB 1 squadron leader Mesny returned safely at home but his teammate was downed inside the French lines, his gunner being KIA.
One may deeply regret these missions were managed between 1200 m and 300 m AGL. With doubled missions ceiling could have given quite as good results with much less losses.
Good or bad aircrafts?
The main criticisms, you can read about the Loire-Nieuport 401 and 411, are only copy and pasts of the opinion William Green wrote in the 50’s about the so-called "infamous" Junkers 87 Stuka.
- The losses suffered by the Ju 87 during the Battle of Britain.
- Amazingly, the number of downed is 71, to which it is possible, if you want, to add 30 damaged, for about 250 to 300 aircrafts involved in this operation.
- Unfortunately, if you compare these losses with the 261 Messerschmitt Bf 110 downed (plus 70 damaged), for an initial amount of the same order of magnitude, you became aware the Junkers 87 was a considerably more difficult target for the British aerial defense than the fighter Bf 110!
- The complete withdrawing of this aircraft from the Battle after the end of September 1940, is, very often, seen as a proof of failure of the Ju 87, without refutation by the Germans survivors.
- However, the withdrawal of the Ju 87 from the Battle of Britain, currently attributed to her inferiority against Hurricane Mk I and Spitfire Mk I fighters, was, undoubtedly, a very good image for propaganda.
- But, the Truth is that Mr. Hitler decided the Babarossa operation at that very moment! So, for such a purpose, the Ju 87 was particularly relevant…
- What parts of our tactical choices were wrong?
- What parts of the military training must be modified?
- He thought, wrongly, the LN 401 /411 to be 100 kph slower than the Vindicator.
- Moreover, he wrote the high rate of losses experienced demonstrated that the Loire-Nieuport dive-bomber was not fitted for attacking terrestrial targets…
- Nevertheless, carelessly, he mentioned that, if Admiral Abrial could easily release a squadron of Vindicator, he wanted obstinately retain his Loire-Nieuport.
- Such an information had a clear signification: Abrial relied much more on the Loire-Nieuport 401 and 411 than on the Vindicators, and that was certainly not a lack of confidence about the crews of the Amercan dive bomber.
- In his report on the Battle of France, given to Vichy authorities at the end of 1940, he express "the need to replace the obsolete Loire-Nieuport by American aircrafts".
- He said also the Loire-Nieuport was too frail and worn out.
- Such an argument, if very frequently used, was not as fair as it may appear. E.g., the North-American P 51 Mustang was, undoubtedly, the best American fighter to see real air war during the WW II.
- Compared to the P 47 Thunderbolt, she was frail, but she was, by far, the better protector for the Allied bombers flying over Germany.
- Moreover, after the LN being hit by AA fire, a lot of repairing works were only temporary (piece of wood or even of fabric, instead of standard aluminum sheets). If the aircraft had been correctly reconditioned, this criticism would have disappeared.
- The capture of the entire technical team in Boulogne, due to the complete ignorance of the naval staff about the actual military situation in the vicinity of Dunkirk, was a complete disaster: The good solution could have been to send all the complete aerial units to Le Havre, Rouen or Deauville, or, better, in England.
- But, also, the Vichy administration, which was building a collaboration with Hitler's Reich, wanted to explain that the France’s defeat was caused by the numerous deficiencies of the French armament (or of the French soldiers…), instead of the ones of the French Command.
The Loire-Nieuport, a good dive-bomber
- Admiral Louis Cassé, was, actually, a fighter pilot of the AC 1 squadron in 1939. Allotted to define the doctrine of use of the Loire-Nieuport 40 family, he expressed how he was excited while he was flying this fighter-bomber.
- He highlighted also that, if the vertical dive bombing was a fantastic military advanced concept, it required an important training for the pilots to obtain safely a good accuracy.
- However, he regretted the too slow production of the best fitted bomb sight, suggesting that it explained the very low altitude for the releasing of the bomb, in order to hit perfectly the designed target.
- Moreover, the night flying was very easy with this aircraft.
- Admiral Lainé, who conducted the successful attack on Berlaimont was also absolutely pleased about his LN 411 (as you may read above).
- He underlined the exceptional visibility offered to the pilots, allowing an exceptional accuracy to the bombing.
- After the war, facing a parliamentary commission, he was a bit less laudatory, complaining that after 30 hours of operational missions, the aircrafts were dirty and too easily flammable.
- He recopied also the criticisms of Captain Corfmat about the too light construction of the Loire-Nieuport. But, if these aircrafts were so flammable, why most of the remaining LN 401 / 411 did not show any evidence of burning?
- The petty officer Moulinier conducted, alone, the May 21 at noon, a true fighter mission:
- He damaged heavily a Dornier 17 bomber (one engine in fire), but was hit by the German rear gunner.
- Then, Moulinier made a successful emergency landing.
- Nevertheless, during the afternoon of the same day, he was able to fly his repaired Loire-Nieuport and to land in safety at Cherbourg-Querqueville at 19:15...
- This action, as also the CAP managed by the AB2 to protect the Calais-Marck airbase, demonstrated the self-confidence of the pilots flying this fighter-bomber.
- Captain Vuilliez, in his book, after having gathered the testimonies of numerous pilots LN 40, 401 and 411, were laudatory about them.
The operational results of the LN 40x were clearly better than those of the Vindicator:
- In the Netherlands, the Loire-Nieuport and the Vindicator flew respectively 27 and 21 sorties. In totally similar conditions, for a apparently similar bombing efficiency, none of the LN was missing, one of them even destroying a He 111 bomber... But one Vindicator was lost and another lost her way…
- In the fighting against the advance of the German armored division toward the sea, the bombing of the Berlaimont crossroad (20 sorties) was successful, for the price of 2 KIA and several POW and 9 LN downed by the Flak and 1 by the French DCA.
- At Origny, the AB 1 (11 sorties) suffered 6 Vindicator lost to the German Messerschmitt 109 (3 pilots KIA) and the remaining 5 did not succeed to hit the bridge at Origny. The 3 Loire-Nieuport, among them 2 unused the previous day and one repaired, flew the very same mission, several minutes later, destroyed the bridge at the price of 1 aircraft downed by the Flak (one POW).
- The last delivery of Vindicator was transferred by General Charles De Gaulle to the British government a few hours before he flew to London to create the Free France. It was to avoid to reinforce the military power of the German army. Nevertheless, after training and somes trials, the British airmen refused to use of these aircrafts, preferring to assign the crews to Fairey Swordfish, at least a really reliable aircraft!
- The only one operational mission where USA used the Vindicator during the Pacific War was the Battle of Midway. Again, these aircrafts suffered huge losses without any hit on the Japanese ships. Maybe, the nicknames found by the USMC crews, "Vibrator" and "Wind indicator", suggest how these aircrafts was unfitted to the dive-bombing.
France had also ordered also the completely obsolete biplane Curtiss Helldiver XSBC-3 and, by pure chance, the Douglas Dauntless which was an absolutely excellent aircraft but, unfortunately, she was not delivered in time for the battle...
- When first lieutenant Lainé flew a CAP the May 21, he attacked a group of 3 German armoured cars but his LN 411 was hit by the return fire of one of them, one bullet piercing her fuel tank. A while later, Lainé saw the fuel flowing and decided to go back at Berck.
- My last argument is issued from the German pictures of 8 of the 11 Loire-Nieuport downed at Berlaimont or Origny-Sainte-Benoîte or of the 3 left at Berck owing the lack of spars for repairing. Only one show an aircraft burnt to a cinder.
Toward a better fighter-bomber...
The HS 12 Y 31 having an operational optimal altitude of 4,500 m, the best speed could have been 25 kph faster.
Why they did not use of the more efficient exhaust pipes of the Dewoitine 520?
An arrester hook was fitted.
But the aircraft was transferred to the SNCAC at Toussus-le-Noble.
- These trials were successful (Source: Prototypes de l’aviation Française, 1945-1960, by JC Fayer, E-T-A-I, 2002):
- The LN 42 demonstrated an excellent maneuverability.
- Her top speed exceeded 462 kph at 4,700 m, 435 kph at 3,500 m and 400 kph at seat level.
- The cruise speed was 375 kph.
- Her stall speed varied from 90 to 110 kph (determined by the configuration) and remaining always under control.
- The landing speed was 122 kph.
- The total range exceeded 1,000 km.
- However, it was said that, at slow speed, the rudder acted rather weakly and a heavy buffeting appeared. That was seen as unacceptable for aircraft carrier service. Interestingly, the same criticisms have been made 7 years earlier about the LN 401, which had made excellent carrier trials…
With a 50 kg bomb, after taking off at 2900 kg (940 l of fuel), the LN 42 climbed to 3,500 m in 5 minutes and, at that altitude, had a cruise speed of 310 kph and a top speed of 350 kph.
The standard procedure started at 4,100 m at a speed of 155 kph. The dive ended at 900 by a pull up hemi-circle with a radius of 200 m with 2.7 g.
Undoubtedly, the last Loire-Nieuport dive-bomber could have been an excellent fighter-bomber from the last months of 1940 to the end of the WW II.
In 1946, the French Navy had no more aircraft carrier and the French deciders favored the ordering of jet planes, a rather wise decision.
On the other hand, irrationally, the LN 42 was also perceived as a remnant of the 1940 defeat.
However, the French Air Force was unaware of the multiple problems it had to solve in the French colonial empire, especially in Indochina, so, the LN 42 was abandoned to several experiments and decommissioned at the end of 1947.
Instead, France used of the advanced fighter trainers Morane-Saulnier 472 and 475 which had many problems about their handling qualities.
They were a slower (420 to 440 kph) and lacked accuracy in ground attack.
A hint of the Charge of the Light Brigade...
There were 4 similar "ingredients" in these two costly attacks:
- The use of a very powerful unit, expected wrongly as able to disrupt a significant part of the enemy forces.
- The very bad information about the enemy defensive system, unfortunately, the Armée de l'Air seem not to have shared its knowledge to the Aéronavale immediately after the attack of German mechanized column by its Bréguet 693 at Tonger, the May 12, 1940.
- Ok, the Lieutenant Delattre (the real leader who had created this procedure to attack the Panzers with the Bréguet) have been downed (after a second flyover on the target...) and killed.
- But the leader of the other squadron, who attacked with a complete surprise, was unharmed. So, he could gave precious informations about the German structure of anti-aircraft defense to his colleagues of the Navy.
- One could also have expected similar information from the British pilots of the Fairey Battle involved in the attack of German column in Belgium, but the British deciders seemed not aware of that problem until the Battle of Britain.
- All the Allied pilots had largely paid these absences of information with their blood...
- The isolation of the attacking units from any supporting units,
- The very long time needed to the transmission of the orders, which prohibit any surprise attack before the deployment of the Flak.
In the Berlaimont case, one may add the complete absence of training of the naval pilots about ground targets, a somewhat odd situation, knowing the important role of the French marine troopers, even in the WW I (at Dixmude, for example).
So, these pilots wanted an extreme accuracy (in order to sink a boat) which was not as important usually when they had to attack armored divisions which are scattered on a (comparatively) huge area.
Another problem of training
To my knowledge, only the French colonel Eugène Barthélémy, who was in command of a machine guns unit at Chartres, asked such a training at the end of 1939, during the Phoney War.
First Lieutenant Pierre Habert, test pilot for the SNCAO, was chosen for this mission which was done in January 1940, apparently in the tail end of a depression.
He dove vertically from a little cloud, using of a perfect surprise.
- One part of the soldiers, totally unprepared, have not seen the aircraft at all.
- Most of the men, only used to fire at horizontally flying aircraft (or, even, on aircraft preparing their landing, a stupid training explaining perfectly the numerous friendly fire suffered by the Armée de l'Air).
- Some soldiers, nevertheless, behaved perfectly, shooting (virtually) on the target.
If such an experiment have been generalized in the French Army, the French troops were much more dangerous for the Stukas as for the German tanks. Accordingly, the German losses could have increased significantly...
But the French deciders preferred to develop theaters shows...
- The attacks were never made at the arrival of the enemy troops in a given place, so, a dozen hours later, the enemy AA fire was perfectly ready to defend their position.
- None of the attacks were done at the right place in a right time. The bombing in Zeeland were misplaced, they could be much more efficient in the morning of the May 13 between Bouillon and Sedan.
P.S. : I choose to not write above the brief clash with the Italian, because the Loire-Nieuport units had lost a lot of aeronautical technicians (POW), the half of their aircrafts and they were not used against significant targets.