Sunday, June 28, 2009

War technologies: the Royal Air Force

1940: The Blitzkrieg allows Hitler to conquer France in 6 weeks. In May, France capitulates and in June the British Expeditionary Force withdraws hastily at Dunkirk, abandoning most of its military equipment. England is alone, but luckily for her, has an ace up her sleeve: the Royal Air Force (RAF).

In the 1930s, England worries about maintaining an air force capable of defending the kingdom against all attack from the European continent, a sort of air parity. It draws on expertise developed by aircraft manufacturers while participating to the Schneider Cup events: «Jacques Schneider, one of the legendary Le Creusot dynasty, was among those who, in the inter-war years, strongly believed in the future of seaplanes. Convinced that the seaplane was the aircraft best suited to long range air travel, he sought to stimulate development through a cup that will remain the symbol of an era in aviation history. The Schneider Cup will not only be responsible for the creation of legendary aircraft, with superb lines and dazzling performances, such as the Bernard HV-220, the Macchi MC 72 or the Supermarine S6. It will also greatly contribute to significant progress. Besides the development of V-engines, it will impose the low-wing monoplane design for fast aircraft. There is no doubt that the experience gained by Reginald Mitchell and Henry Royce in their quest for the Schneider Cup has been profitable in the creation of an aircraft that will later become well known: the Supermarine Spitfire. » (Aerostories Web site)

The Luftwaffe's (German Air Force) demise during the famous Battle of Britain, from July 10 to October 31 1940, forces Hitler to abandon his plan of an amphibious assault on the English coast; the excellence British fighter aircraft, the Hurricane and the most recent Spitfire, coupled to the courage of RAF pilots saves England from German invasion. In a speech to the House of Commons on 20 August 20 1940, these events led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to say: «Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. »

In my next column, I'll review technological development of air weaponry in the United States.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

War technologies: the Blitzkrieg

If at the end of the First World War, France has a powerful air force, such is not the case in September 1939; inconsistencies in government policies, misunderstanding of aviation's strategic and tactical importance by the high command and insufficient production capacity of national aircraft manufacturers prevents France from rebuilding an air force capable of facing the challenges of the day (T. Vivier, La politique aéronautique militaire de la France, Janvier 1933 – Septembre 1939, Paris , L’Harmattan, 1997). The fighter plane most used by the French Air Force is the Morane-Saulnier 406, inferior to the German Messerschmitt 109. Despite their heroic efforts, French aviators are unable to effectively oppose bombing from the Luftwaffe's (German Air Force) attack aircraft, the drearily notorious Stukas. It is one of the factors that explains the success of the «lightning war» (Blitzkrieg) developed by Hitler's High Command : «The combination of Stuka dive bombers and Panzer [German tank) forces quickly secured victory» (D. Mondey (dir. publ.), J. Liron, J.W. Dennison, K. Munson et P. Pletschacher pour l’édition originale 1977, A. Hérubel (dir. publ.) et J.A. Rabet pour l’adaptation française, Encyclopédie de l’aviation, Compagnie internationale du livre, 1980, p. 151). This is what allowed invasion of Poland in a month and later of France in six weeks.

«Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, it was forbidden for Germany to maintain an air force, but she was entitled to a Ministry of Defence which featured a small air staff. German aircraft manufacturers designed a range of airliners and of training and liaison aircraft which later served as prototypes for bombers, fighters and assault planes. The national airline, the Lufthansa, provided flight training and spirit was maintained through air sports: gliding and motor flight. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he launched a massive rearmament starting with the Luftwaffe» (Ibid., p. 150).

Saturday, June 6, 2009

War technologies: introduction

Today, we celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings (D-Day) which mark the beginning of the reconquest of Europe by the Allies. I believe it is only fitting, indeed essential, to have a thought for the thousands of women and men who have given their lives to repel the invader and to reconquer occupied territories. It is also the opportunity for me to begin a series of columns on the technologies of war. But first, let's begin with a bit of history.

The late thirties see the Great Depression, which lasted for the better part of the decade, subside little by little. Western democracies focus on how to kick start their respective economies; therefore they primarily aim to maintain peace in Europe and, in doing so, show tolerance for Hitler. The annexation of Austria resulting from the 1938 Anschluss, is Germany's first step to expand the boundaries imposed by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War. At a conference in Munich in September 1938, in an effort to appease of the German Führer, English and French leaders endorse the Munich Agreement which conceded to Germany annexation of the Sudetes Mountains in Czechoslovakia. On September 1st 1939, Germany invaded Poland; two days later, the United Kingdom, France and other countries declare war on Germany. It will last six long years and spread to several continents and oceans.

Like all conflicts, the Second World War accelerated technological development; periods of crisis are favourable to new inventions, in part because the sense urgency promotes creativity and also because funds allocated to technological development by Governments are, if not unlimited, at least greatly increased. I will not attempt to exhaustively list all technologies of war. For these chronicles, I have chosen to cover aviation and space.

I will begin next week with the Blitzkrieg period, the concept of lightning war which allowed Hitler to invade the Europe, then Africa.