Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Arsenal VG 33 - Armée de l'Air dans la tourmente


The Arsenal VG 33 was the most visible model of a ‘family’ of light, fast and manoeuvrable French fighter types being developed during 1939 - 1940 to replace the Ms 406. In fact many sources quote the VG 33 – of which only a handful of examples approached service due to production difficulties – as being somewhat superior to the Dewoitine D.520, despite the fact that it was powered by a smaller engine. In addition the VG 33 was designed to be a machine that could be constructed quickly by small sub-contractors (a D.520 required 8,000 man-hours per aircraft, a similar figure to the Me 109) and had it been available in numbers the accepted view is that it “might have given the Germans a harder time over France”. As it was one or two examples of the type did see some form of service (the prototype n˚1 and VG33 n˚7) in the short-lived GC I/55 flying some sorties between 17 June and 24 June 1940 as detailed in the Avions Hors-Série n˚ 7: " La chasse française inconnue de Mai-juin 1940 ".




However the results obtained by test pilots at the French CEMA (Centre d’Essais – test centre) during mid-1939 probably posed more questions about this type than they answered. At least one French commentator (Ehrengardt in Aérojournal magazine no. 46) has stated that the constructor – while not openly falsifying the prototype’s performance figures - did everything possible to ensure that they were superior to those of the D.520 – 200 kilos lighter and powered by a smaller 860 hp Hispano Suiza engine developing some 60 hp less, the Arsenal VG 33 was supposedly able to climb to 5,500 m some three minutes quicker than the D.520 and could reach 560 km/h at 5,200 m. Tested by CEMA pilots during March 1940 the VG33 n˚5 apparently flew at 620 km/h at 4,000 m and approached 1,000 km/h in a dive. (Ehrengardt, article in Aerojournal 46) Few commentators stop to point out that the aircraft tested were prototypes – with no ‘military’ value whatsoever. And while the test pilots apparently lauded the aircraft’s flying capabilities the manufacturer’s own handbook placed certain limitations on the type’s flight characteristics which under different circumstances would have straight away precluded any attempt to put this aircraft into production let alone military service. In addition the proximity of the type’s large ventral radiator so close to the ground proved particularly problematic when operated from grass fields. The idea that here was a machine that could easily be constructed by small sub-contractors working with non-strategic materials (spruce) and that French industry was advanced enough to produce the glues required was simply pie in the sky. Construction of the series machines were dogged by a series of logistical and organisational problems that had been completely over-looked by the French Air Ministry. With sub-assembly construction dispersed throughout France and the various components brought together in final assembly plants it was hoped that production could reach 350 machines per month by March 1940. This totally over-looked the fact that for a wooden aircraft each machine required some 880 kg of steel, 436 kg of aluminium and 125 kg of magnesium, requirements that simply caught out those civil servants charged with obtaining stocks of strategic materials. Following on from the first production order of 220 machines passed during September 1939, it was not until March 1940 that the need was seen for a second production/assembly facility which was opened at Michelin in Clermont Ferrand in the south for deliveries to start during July 1940. Even large constructors such as Potez had singularly failed to relocate their factories from northern France despite the experiences of 1914-18. By the time of the evacuation of the Arsenal assembly facility at Satrouville (under the auspices of the Chantiers Adro-Maritimes de la Seine) 17 miles north-west of Paris only 19 aircraft had actually been completed – ten prototypes designated V.30 to V.39 and nine V.33 series production machines. A further 160 fuselage assemblies and some 40 machines approaching completion had to be destroyed.



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