Appendix II

FRENCH NAVAL AVIATION

Inevitably this book has concentrated on the experience of the US and Royal Navies as they were the front runners in the development of carrier-based aviation during the period in question. A number of other navies operated aircraft carriers, noticeably those of Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, but in each case these used ex-British or American carriers and obtained their aircraft from the same sources (although the Netherlands did produce the Sea Fury under licence). However, the French Navy was in a slightly different category. Although prior to World War II they had made little progress and had only commissioned one aircraft carrier (Bearn), plans existed to build two new 18,000-ton carriers. The Bearn proved unsuitable for operations during the War and was eventually used as an aircraft transport, although it did serve briefly in Indo-China in 1945/6 equipped with a motley collection of aircraft, which included captured Japanese seaplanes and Piper L-4 Cub observation aircraft. She was paid off in July 1946 at Toulon.

Towards the end of the War the ex-Royal Navy escort carrier HMS Biter was transferred to the French Navy as the Dixmude. A more substantial contribution was the transfer of the modern light fleet carrier HMS Colossus in March 1947 when she was renamed Arromanches. Finally, two ex-US Navy light fleet carriers (Langley and Belleau Wood) were transferred in 1951 and 1953 respectively, becoming the La Fayette and Bois Belleau. To equip these carriers Britain supplied forty-eight Seafire Mk.IIIs and later fifteen Griffon-engined Seafire Mk.XVs. In addition, significant numbers of ex-American aircraft were supplied, including Dauntless, Helldivers, Avengers, Hellcats and Corsairs - the latter including ninety-four new-build F4U-7s, which were the last to be built by Chance Vought. All of these aircraft saw substantial action in the post-war decade, flying support missions in Indo-China before France was forced to withdraw in 1954, and also later in support of French troops in the Algerian War. France also acquired its first jet aircraft in the form of licence-built versions of the British de Havilland Sea Venom. This was built in both single and two-seat versions and given the name Aquilon.

However, France is particularly interesting in the context of this book in that it was the only country apart from Britain and America to produce naval aircraft of indigenous design, although these only flew in prototype form and none entered service. A number of projects were initiated in the immediate post-war era and in many cases French engineers were able to draw on experience gained when they had been forced to work on German projects. In particular, some had experience of the Jumo 004 jet engine that had powered the Me.262 jet fighter. One of the first to fly was the Arsenal VG70, which was a single-seat research aircraft powered by a Jumo 004 turbojet. It also incorporated advanced features such as a swept wing and a tricycle undercarriage (at a time when Britain was producing the straight-winged Attacker with a tailwheel undercarriage). An unusual feature of the design was the ventral under fuselage air intake (rather like the modern F-16). The first flight was delayed until June 1948 and a maximum speed of 559 mph was subsequently attained. However, the programme was plagued by the unreliability of the Jumo turbojet but it did lead to the development of the VG90 intended to meet a French Navy requirement for a naval fighter. The general configuration was retained but the powerplant was a Rolls-Royce Nene with twin lateral intakes beneath the shoulder-mounted swept wing. Two prototypes were built and the first flight was on 27 September 1949, although this aircraft was destroyed in an accident in May 1950. Tests revealed a maximum speed of 596 mph and an initial rate of climb of 4,530 feet/min.

A second jet fighter designed to the same Aeronavale specification was the Nord 2200, which first flew on 19 December 1949. This was an attractive swept wing aircraft vaguely reminiscent of the American F-86 Sabre and was also powered by a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet. The maximum speed was 581 mph, the rate of climb around 4,500 feet/min and the Nord 2200 had a very respectable endurance of one hour thirty minutes on internal fuel. The armament was either three 20 mm or 30 mm cannon and two 1,100 lb (500 kg) bombs could be carried underwing. No production order was forthcoming but the aircraft was retained for extensive testing and evaluation, and valuable experience relating to the operation of swept wing aircraft was obtained.

A third fighter prototype was the Aerocentre NC.1080, which flew in July 1949 and bore a passing resemblance to the Supermarine 525. Again powered by the ubiquitous 5,000 lb thrust Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet, the NC.1080 was a graceful swept wing aircraft with a tricycle undercarriage and a straight tailplane set midway up the swept tail fin. The top speed was 584 mph but the rate of climb was just under 4,000 feet/min, although the service ceiling was in excess of 43,500 feet. This promising aircraft was destroyed in an accident that brought a halt to further development and the decision to build the Sea Venom under licence effectively ended the other programmes at the time.

However, one aircraft produced in this period did eventually see operational service, but not in its original form. This was the Breguet 960 Vultur, which was designed as an attack aircraft and was powered by a combination of a 1,000 shp Armstrong Siddeley Mamba turboprop in the nose and a licence-built Hispano-Suiza/Rolls-Royce Nene in the rear fuselage. Development began in late 1947 and the prototype Vultur flew on 3 August 1951. Carrying a crew of two, it featured a straight wing but with a sharply tapered leading edge and small tip tanks. In this form it could reach speeds of almost 550 mph on both engines but could cruise at 230 mph on the Mamba turboprop, giving it an endurance of over four hours. The offensive load consisted of a single 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) bomb on the under fuselage centreline, and eight rockets on underwing rails. Three prototypes were flown but already the Aeronavale requirement was changing and the strike role was eventually to be carried out by the all-jet Dassault Etendard IVM, which first flew in 1958 and entered service in 1961. However, it was decided to use the Vultur as a basis for a new anti-submarine aircraft and the third prototype Vultur was modified to test some of the aerodynamic features of the new project, which became the Breguet Type 965 Alize. Although this retained the basic layout of the Vultur, the mixed power concept was abandoned in favour of a single Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop and the rest of the airframe underwent a considerable redesign so that the prototype did not fly until March 1956. Subsequently, a total of ninety-two Alizes were built, of which twelve were ordered by India who later received a further twelve ex-Aeronavale aircraft. The Alize entered operational service in 1959 and was in many ways very similar to the British Gannet, although its career was much longer, the last examples only being retired in September 2000. When the Alize entered service the French Navy was building two 30,000-ton carriers (Clemenceau and Foch), which commissioned in the early 1960s. By the time it retired these two ships were in the process of being replaced by the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle equipped with supersonic Rafale jet fighters and Super Etendard strike aircraft - putting France into the front rank of today’s naval aviation.

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