Dassault is a company that has a history that goes back over 100 years ago. As most visionary companies do, this particular venture also started out quite humbly. There is another interesting twist in this story as well. Sometimes innovation grows at the foothills of terrible situations. It is when life presents you with a set of circumstances that simply paralyze you and the only way you can get out of it is to produce something truly out of the ordinary. This fits quite well with the story of Marcel Bloch, the founder of Dassault. He was only 22 years of age when the whole world decided to pick a fight with each other. I am referring of course to the outbreak of the first world war. He was trained as an aeronautical engineer by profession and thus made his way into a research laboratory. The completing effect was achieved in tandem with Henry Potez. Henry Potez was also a graduate of the same place from where Marcel Bloch had gotten his training.
The world had only just realized the terrific potential of airplanes. The idea was still very much in flux when World War I broke out. The whole world was at war and now they had to move to industrial production of airplanes. Henry Potez was the man behind the design drawings of the Caudron G3 aircraft. Today, aircraft like the Dassault Falcon 900 rule the sky in private aviation while the Dassault Rafale is one of the most expensive fighter jets of all time. Let’s go back in time and trace the history of Dassault through the years.
The Éclair Propeller
A man who was always obsessed with making sure that he maximized the potential of everything. He decided that the propellors that were already in use were not good enough and only were able to deliver a sliver of the maximum potential of the aircraft. The next step for this perfectionist was to design his own. It was creatively named the ‘Éclair’. Marcel Bloch, together with Henry Potez set up the Société des Hélices Eclair company. This was the company that outfitted the Éclair propeller to quite a few many planes. It was quite a significant effort in the entire war effort. The genius of Marcel Bloch had been solidified in the annals of history in just a few years. In fact, this propeller was declared as one of the three best out of hundreds that were used during the war.
Moving On From Propellers
Now that they had perfected the world of propellers, they decided to move on to bigger and better things. The SEA 1 observation aircraft was their next creation and was powered by 120 hp engine. However, the aircraft was not nearly good enough for the purpose that it had been built. It was a loss, but they decided to nevertheless take it into their strides and move on. The next aircraft was named the SEA 2. It was a single-engined and 2-seater aircraft as the name suggested. The SEA 3 came along as the three-engine variant with three seats. Again, these aircraft were both off the mark and had substantial faults which made them completely unfit for use. The main issue was the fact that there was not simply an engine powerful enough to carry the lofty dreams of Marcel Bloch.
The Lorraine 370 hp engine was a godsend for the baby company. The SEA 4 came along. Its maiden flight happened before the end of the war.
The End Of The War
They say that war breeds great profit for a lot of people. The truth might be a bit morbid and the word ‘war profiteer’ is often thrown around as an insult. However, the matter of fact is that there are goods and services that are needed for the war effort. If you are able to provide these goods and services, then you are bound to get a great price for them. The French government placed an order for 1000 aircraft for Marcel Bloch to build. The company Anjou Aéronautique was set up in order to fulfill these requirements. Whenever the first aircraft started to be rolled out, the war had already ended. It was a completely crushing defeat and broke Marcel Bloch’s resolve. He was reported to have gone on into the real estate business.
A Decade Later
Aviation had gone on and developed quite a bit in the decade that Marcel Bloch had quit it. The Air Ministry was set up in 1928. It was a significant shift that showed that there was much more interest in aviation being pursued commercially. This was enough to draw Marcel Bloch back into the business as well. Société des Avions Marcel Bloch was set up by Marcel Bloch. He was ready to pursue his first love again.
It took 3 years before the first orders started to come in. The state decided to order the MB 80. It was quite a humble aircraft but nonetheless built on much stronger fundamentals than the earlier iterations of everything that Marcel Bloch had built before. He set up everything that was required for him to build this particular aircraft. The MB 220 was a civil aircraft that was built from a prototype.
In 1934, Marcel Bloch’s hindsight proved to be quite useful. He had realized that there was going to be a contraction and everyone else who was not up to snuff was going to be taken away by this wave of contraction. He decided to sign an agreement with Henry Potez, who was one of the biggest names in French aviation at that time. The company decided to buy Société Aérienne Bordelaise (SAB) company which then became the Société Aéronautique du Sud-Ouest (SASO) company. This new company produced the MB 200 and the MB 210 bombers. Perhaps the best example of Marcel Bloch’s compassion was that he gave his staff a 3-week paid leave when the Popular Front Government had decided to grant only two weeks.
A process that has seldom produced good results, every country seemed to have gone through a phase of nationalization and the French were no different. Marcel Bloch’s company was completely nationalized. What is perhaps even more ironic is that there was no one in the government who was qualified to run such a highly technical enterprise and Marcel Bloch ended up as the sole administrator of the company that he once owned.
The War Knocks
As the tensions in Europe grew little by little and the terror of the Nazis started to become a little bit more real, the French government decided that 1937 was a good time for the process of rearmament to begin again. What was perhaps even worse was the fact that the Luftwaffe was already established by Adolf Hitler. Many believed it to be the most advanced aviation force in the entire world. The French were at the very border of Germany and knew that they would be on of the first targets for Adolf Hitler’s policy of expansion. SNCASO decided to take this opportunity and started production of the MB 150 aircraft and its brother, the 170.
By 1938, they had already built a new factory in Saint-Cloud. This particular enterprise was dedicated to building propellers for aircraft. The time of the ‘Phoney War’ was one of great confusion and anticipation. Marcel Bloch decided to ramp up production during the wrong time and entered into a dispute with the French government. He left the SNCASO, a baby that he had helped build with so much love.
The Nazis Enter France
By mid-1940, the Nazi terror had become a reality and the Third Reich had taken over France. The Germans were completely ruthless when it came to taking everything of value from France. The promising French aviation industry was completely broken down and everything of value was taken to Germany. The Nazis had realized that Marcel Bloch was no joke and could be someone of immense value if he decided to cooperate with them. They realized that his aircraft had potential and, in many ways, exceeded what the Luftwaffe was capable of. They asked him to work with them in producing even more powerful airplanes. The immense resources of Nazi Germany might have been a good challenge in terms of being able to do what he wanted creatively. However, he was no traitor and said that his health was simply too fragile for him to continue. During this time, he made sure that the interests of Société anonyme des Avions Marcel Bloch were protected even during this time when he was incarcerated.
Marcel Bloch’s Experience in Buchenwald
There are some experiences and events that truly characterize what some great men are made of. Sir Winston Churchill’s example as the unflinching resistance to Nazi expansion is always cited by people when they refer to such qualities. However, there were many faces that have gone on unappreciated throughout the years. In 1944, Marcel Bloch, due to his staunch opposition and refusal to cooperate with Nazis was sent to the feared concentration camp, Buchenwald. The Germans again decided to dangle temptation in front of him and asked him to manage a factory for them. He refused again and stood on his principles. He was almost hanged for the crime of saying no to the Nazis.
It is interesting to note that Marcel Bloch always believed in the potential of commercial aviation more than anything. He thought that after the war, commercial aviation will go on an expanding spree that will be like nothing that had ever came before. His life in the camp was quite miserable. But he had always believed that there was light at the end of the tunnel. The light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of the liberation of the Buchenwald camp when the Western frontier of the war had closed down.
After the Western theater of the war had closed down, liberation was the order of the day. In many ways, Marcel Bloch had survived one of the greatest disasters that were possible. The only way to go was up. His prediction turned out to be completely true and airplanes that were only known as the heralds of disaster became one of the safest forms of transport possible. In fact, today, jets are overwhelmingly used for civilian transportation and their use for military purposes has never reached the peak that was achieved during World War II.
Today, we stand in a world that is rife with technological innovation everywhere. We have so many more creature comforts today from the people that came before that it puts into perspective the gigantic efforts it took to make it so. The world of today is only possible because there were visionary men and women who decided to put everything into their work and produce things that the world this day benefits from. Marcel Bloch was one of those men. Cut from the same cloth as people like Steve Jobs, Marcel Bloch was someone who was always steadfast in his principles. His creations still live on in museums and in active flight as live evidence of what can happen when you combine true grit with a thirst for innovation that always needs to feed. There is always a symbolic salute to Marcel Bloch whenever a Dassault Falcon takes off a runway or a Dassault Rafale neutralizes its target.