An air force of my own #2: France 1937

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 “A faster version of the superbly agile MS 406 would be just the ticket.”

Could France have been saved from the Nazi invasion by a better air force? We put Greg Baughen in charge of aircraft procurement for the year 1937; with 80 years of hindsight can he save France?

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Air Force Procurement

Head of procurement: Greg Baughen

Occupation: Teacher turned author

Nation to defend: France

Year: 1937

In the mid- thirties France looked set to build the air force it would need in 1940. The disastrous BCR bomber-reconnaissance-fighter plane had been abandoned, there was talk of fleets of ground attack planes halting armoured divisions in their tracks, and General Denain, the Air Minister, was planning to build an entirely new sort of air force, with  specialised fighter, medium bombers, ground attack planes, dive-bombers  – and the target date for the new plan just happened to be 1940.

Unfortunately, these plans went up in smoke when the 1936 Rhineland crisis reignited fears about German bombers devastating French cities. Large long-range bombers to deter became the priority again.

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But what if Hitler had got cold feet and the Rhineland crisis never happened?

It’s no good messing with the impossible. Squadrons of weird Arsenal-Delanne 10 tandem biplanes, clever tandem engined Arsenal VB 10s and brutish Sud-Est S.E.100s may look good, but the air battles in 1940 were fought with planes that had their origins in the years 1933-1935, or upgrades of these, and that’s what we have to go with.

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With a 352 mph top speed and superb agility, a ‘Super 406’ would have achieved parity with the best fighters in the world.

That means the fighter has to be the MS 406 –  but not the 300 mph original version. By 1939 it should have been in production with a ducted Hurricane type radiator instead of the retractable system (worth an extra 12 mph), Szydlowski-Planiol supercharger —the 920 hp HS 12Y45 engine – (worth another 20 mph), ejector exhaust stubs (an extra 20 mph at 7,000 metres ) and two belt-fed guns in each wing, instead of a drum-fed gun. All these improvements had been trialled, tested and were available. They were all wasted on the Dewoitine D.520, which never reached its intended 354 mph top speed and didn’t reach the squadrons in time anyway. A faster version of the superbly agile MS 406 would be just the ticket.

What were the top 10 fighters at the outbreak of War? Answer here

Tactical force 

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The Bloch 151/152 was useless as a fighter but here is our perfect fighter-bomber. Very manoeuvrable at low level, extremely rugged and with two HS 404 20 mm cannon, a useful ground attack plane even without any bombs. Bloch were actually advertising it as a ground attack plane in 1937.

 For tactical bombing, it has to be the cheap and very easy to build Potez 63. A lightweight design perhaps, but the Potez 639 version carried extensive armour protection for the crew, a 20 mm cannon for ground strafing and five internal and five external 110-lb bombs. Admittedly, there were problems fitting the bombs in the armoured fuselage, but reduce the bomb load and we’ve got a good low-level attack bomber. 

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How the Fairey Battle won the war here

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The beautiful Amiot 570.

The same plane minus armour and with a bomb sight would do as a light bomber (the Potez 633). It was faster and more manoeuvrable than the Do 17 and had the same bomb load as the Blenheim. Range was limited, but the targets are the German panzers, not Berlin. This version was in production – but for export only.

No dive-bombers, shallow dive-bombing with the above is fine.

A long-range bomber is needed to keep the politicians happy. The Farman (SNCAC) 220 series looks horrible (there go my points for aesthetics) but carried an impressive 10,000 lb bomb load and ideal for indiscriminate retaliation by night.

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Farman (SNCAC) 220

For long-range day bombing, definitely not the disastrous LeO 451. This was difficult to fly, expensive to  build and, in 1937, could only get into the air with 1,000 hp HS AA engines that never worked properly.  The much lighter, easier to build and cheaper Amiot 340 with the tried and tested Gnome Rhone Mistral Majors or even the Amiot 370 with the HS 12Y31 were much better bets (and wins me back some of my  points for aesthetics). They flew in 1937, but Amiot had been working on them since 1933 and if Felix Amiot had not been in permanent dispute with the French Air Ministry,  and the Ministry had not insisted on using the HS AA engine that didn’t work, a useful bomber could have been available even sooner.

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Amiot 340

If we need an interim medium bomber, the French flirtation with the BCR planes means the cupboard is pretty bare. The Breguet 462 adaptation of the Breguet 460 BRC was probably the best bet (and certainly better than the disastrous Bloch 131). It flew a year before the Amiot 340, was capable of 250 mph and provided something like the  capability of the Heinkel 111. 

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The Potez 63.11

For short-range observation duties the Potez 63.11 is fine, as long as it only has to peep over the frontline and not fly deep in the enemy rear. For deeper penetration we need fighter -reconnaissance planes, the Bloch 151/2 or MS 406 would be ideal. (In 1940 the French were planning to use the MS 406 for this, but simply didn’t have enough).  For longer range reconnaissance we have the Amiot 340/350.

We also put modern RAF procurement in different hands, the result is here

The D.520, D.550 and Bloch 174 were fine planes, but couldn’t arrive in time. The previous generation, with less production capacity wasted on long-range bombers and artillery spotter planes and more on short-range tactical bombers and lots of fighters to escort them, (i.e. don’t turn over factories producing the MS 406 to the LeO 451!) and the French could have had an air force to match the Luftwaffe.

Our Verdict

Political considerations

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Given that the ‘Armée de l’air du Greg Baughen‘ consists entirely of domestic aircraft this Air Force is going to play very well with French industrialists and nationalist types at home. However this France looks extremely isolationist which might not impress its Allies so much but hey, war’s around the corner, big deal. This air force would not involve any awkward legislative export or import considerations of any kind (unlike the supply of Soviet equipment to Republic Spain for example) and as such is a sure fire hit not to annoy anyone.

95/100

Aesthetic appeal 

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Amiot 370

Nearly all French military aircraft of the 1930s were hideous, including the ones that never entered service, so judging the aesthetic appeal of any French Air Force, real or imagined is a tough call. Nonetheless the inclusion of the Amiot 370 (an Art Deco masterpiece) and Baughen’s aesthetically pleasing alterations to the cuddly MS.406 show a genuine desire to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or a Farman 220. Given the material available this is a sterling effort

90/100

Realism

The homework that has gone into this is nothing short of impressive, it would undoubtedly have been a more effective force to meet the German invasion of 1940, and on domestic aircraft production it is difficult to fault. However, the absolute omission of foreign aircraft (or engines) is perplexing. In reality, the most successful fighter over France in 1940 was the Curtiss Hawk 75, despite making up a mere 12% of the fighter force, Hawks were responsible for a third of all kills scored between September 1939 and the French capitulation in 1940. True, the French obtained these aircraft only after overcoming considerable objection at home (one Curtiss cost double an MS 406) and in America (the export licence was only granted after the personal intervention of President Roosevelt) so it could be argued that getting any more from the US would have been extremely difficult but there were other sources of decent aircraft available. Britain managed to find capacity to export Hurricanes for Belgium, Finland, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Romania, Latvia and Poland before the fall of France and it would not be hard to imagine a French order receiving priority over, say, Turkey, due to its strategic importance. Italian aircraft were also available – France actually did obtain five Caproni 313s and the UK had 300 Reggiane Re 2000s on order before Italy declared war in 1940. Even Germany had an inexplicable habit of exporting modern military aircraft to nations it would shortly invade. Anyway, brilliant, brilliant work on the French stuff but where’s everyone else? Je ne sais pas.

75/100

Imagination

As Baughen says ‘Squadrons of weird Arsenal-Delanne 10 tandem biplanes, clever tandem engined Arsenal VB 10s and brutish Sud-Est S.E.100s may look good‘ and indeed they do so where are they? Likewise where’s the plans for a presidential Latécoère 631? Or the fighter variant of the Bugatti racer? This Air Force is profoundly imaginative within the bounds of good sense but for entertaining, just-about-plausible craziness it’s a teensy bit lacking.

65/100

The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force: French Air Operations and Strategy 1900-1940 by Greg Baughen is out soon. 

Greg Baughen has spent a lifetime researching British and French aviation history. Retirement has provided the opportunity to turn this research into a series of books. The first three on the history of British air power have been published , Blueprint for Victory, The Rise of the Bomber and The RAF in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain.  He has also  published a reappraisal of  the operational career of The Fairey Battle. “The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force 1900-1940” will be published later this year. 

To support this site you may buy an aviation calendar here. It’s your support that keeps us going. Many thanks. 

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. This site is in peril as it is well below its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. 

Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Amiot 370

 

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5 comments

  1. Greg Baughen

    Now who is going to spot the (shall we pretend) deliberate mistake in the performance figures!! I’ll pop it on next week if no-one spots it!
    And buy in foreign planes? – equip your air force with the best the world has to offer? – far too easy!!

    Greg

    • Hush Kit

      Hi Greg, I’ve corrected the ejector exhaust stubs speed increase for the 406, I believe it was an extra 20 mph at 7,000 metres rather than the 32 mph previously mentioned. Ta, HK

    • Gregory Baughen

      The French claimed they got up to an extra 37 km/hr (23 mph) out of it, but given the shambles the Bloch 152 and D,520 trials descended into (with exaggerated speed claims), any results they come up with have to be taken with a pinch of salt!. 10-12 mph was probably closer to the mark.

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