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French Night Flying Map


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Although the French Army is credited with designing the first specialist aviation map, in 1910, I’ve not managed to find any evidence that they continued to do so during the war, as Britain and Germany did. As far as I can tell their flyers had to rely on standard maps, such as their horrible and outdated 1:80,000 series. So I thought some forum members might be interested to see one such.

This example is a portion of an 80,000 showing the Laon-Reims area in September 1917, so covering the French front line along the Aisne valley. The title reads “1st Colonial Army Corps, Aeronautic Sector, Organisation of Night Reconnaissance (even on moonless nights). Organisation based on an alignment of lights”.

There are two light beacons shown, one at the principal aerodrome of Houges and another at the reserve field at Romain. Their axis projects due north, across the front line (in red) to what I take to be the extreme range marked by the yellow line north of Laon. Thus a distance of 25 miles from base of which half was behind enemy lines.

The value of night reconnaissance to detect nocturnal troop movements was recognised by the RFC before the war, but seems to have been slow to develop. All the air forces seemed to focus mainly upon night bombing, for which the French set up a system of lighthouses as a navigation aid, well behind the lines. The French didn’t set up specialist night recce squadrons until 1918, although it was long known that under moonlight objects such as vehicles and columns of troops on roads could be seen. The beacons on this map don’t correspond to any of the lighthouses, so I take this to be a purely local arrangement.

Airfield lighting existed as early as 1916, and was activated upon either colour coded flares or a morse transmission from the hopeful flyer. On this map is marked “Front visible by rockets”, which I guess means there was also some comms in place to guide flyers back over the lines by flares.

At bottom right is the stamp of Capitaine Marcel Jauneaud, Commandant le Secteur Aeronautique de 1er CAC. Jauneaud had formerly been C/O of escadrille MF71. He was awarded the Chevalier and Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur, survived the war and rose to Colonel in the peacetime air force. The map has rusty pinholes in each corner, I like to imagine it pinned up in Jaunead’s ops room.

For me, it beggars belief that men would take their frail machines miles behind enemy lines, over undulating terrain, in pitch dark “meme par nuit sans lunes” then hope to return and land by lights and flares. Very, very brave. The French found that insufficient pilots volunteered for night flying, preferring instead the glamour of pursuit squadrons. They made up for the deficit by selecting only the best observer-bombardiers for the duty. It was said that observers needed “unshakeable calmness and coolness”.

I would be very interested to hear if anyone has, or knows about, French aviation maps in general or their methods of night recce flying.








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I recently read this blog which is transcription of a RFC Officers wartime experiences.  He was seconded to a French night bombing unit and he describes some of the equipment used and the night time navigation techniques 


Hope you find it useful 


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The UK National Archives has information on French night operations relating to Verdun.  These come from Capt. R A Cooper RFC, a liaison officer with the French, extracts from his report relating to French air activities between the 12-19th March 1916:



And a 'debrief' conversation with him:


The French Officer Commandant Du Peuty also sent reports to the RFC which were translated, 'Employment of Aviation 19th March -4th April 1916':


Also the report, RFC covering letter date 15th May 1916, 'The Working of the Aviation in the Vaux-Douaumont Sector':


Also in the NA are instructions for friendly aircraft flying over Allied lines at night, which were in place by 1916 and were regularly up-dated, the British and French had their own but had to know each others procedures on the ground and in the air.

A book that covers French night flying (and night recce) within its text is 'French Strategic and Tactical Bombardment Forces of World War I' by Rene Martel, translated by Allen Suddaby and edited by Steven Suddaby.

I hope that is of use.


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  • 2 weeks later...

Very interesting thank you. My interests have mainly been RAF Bomber Command in WW2, but I am starting to diversify into WW1. Could you recommend any books that cover the use of light/heavy bombers in WW1 by the different nations at all please? thank you

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