"The best fighter in
the world." In 1937, these words were used at the Brussels Air Show to
define the prototype of Morane-Saulnier's latest combat plane, which
had recently completed a series of flight tests and official
evaluations. Aside from this advertising statement, it became the
founder of a long series of over 1,000 aircraft (1,081 to be precise)
that were produced up till June 1940 and that earned a prominent place
in aviation history for many reasons. The Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 was
the first modern aircraft of its category to go into service in the
units of the Armee de I'Air and it was built in remarkable quantities
compared to French production standards of the time, second only to the
two-engine Potez 630 series, and, above all, it was the fighter
available in the greatest numbers when the war broke out.
The project was
launched on the basis of specifications issued in 1934, and the
prototype (built in great secrecy) made its first flight on August 8,
1935. Designated the M.S.405, it was a low-wing monoplane with
retractable landing gear, powered by an 860 hp Hispano-Suiza 12 Ygrs
engine. It had an all-metal airframe with a covering of aluminium,
plywood, and canvas, and an enclosed cockpit. The armament consisted of
a 20 mm cannon installed in the propeller shaft and two machine guns in
Right from its first
flight, the features of the aircraft proved to be excellent, especially
its speed, which reached 303 mph (489 km/h) at 13,200 ft (4000 m) and
just over 250 mph (400 km/h) at sea level. The latter meant that the
Morane-Saulnier became the first French fighter to break the 250 mph
(400 km/h) barrier. After the initial flight tests, the first prototype
was joined by a second (with modifications to the propeller and the
wings), and both these aircraft faced a series of official evaluations.
At the beginning of 1937, the company received an order for 15
pre-series aircraft, and the second of these (which took to the air on
May 20, 1938) became the progenitor of the M.S.406, the differences
consisted mainly in the use of a different engine, a different type of
propeller, and in structural modifications, especially to the wing. The
aircraft was chosen for production in this definitive version on the
basis of an order that, in March 1938, amounted to 1,000 planes. In
order to guarantee this large quantity, assembly lines were set up in
several factories and, within a short space of time, the delivery rate
was quite high. By September 1939, 572 M.S.406s had already left the
1st Escadrille Groupe de Chasse I/2 Armee de l'Air, France 1940
The first unit to
receive the new fighter was the 6th Escadre de Chasse, in December
1938. Other units followed, and immediately before mobilization in
August 1939, 12 groups had been equipped with the aircraft. However,
from the beginning of its operational service, it became apparent that
the 406 was distinctly inferior to its direct adversary, the
Messerschmitt Bf.109E. During the Battle of France, 150 Moranes were
lost, as compared to 1 91 enemy aircraft definitely hit and another 89
probably hit. A further hundred or so Moranes were destroyed on the
ground, and about 150 were damaged beyond repair by the French crews to
prevent their failing into enemy hands.
After the armistice,
some Morane 406s remained in service in the Vichy air force (where they
were mainly used for training), and others were handed over by the
Germans to Finland, which had received 30 aircraft in 1940. The 'Morko
Moraani' was created in Finland by converting French Morane-Saulnier
MS.406 and MS.410 fighters to accept captured Soviet Klimov M-105P
engines. The M-105P was a development of the original Hispano-Suiza HS
12Y engine, and developed 200 hp (149 kw) more. A total of 41 were
converted; the engines were supplied by Germany. Germany also supplied
the new Mauser 20 mm cannon and oil cooler. The Morko remained in
service until 1948.
Another foreign buyer
was Switzerland, which, after having acquired two M.S.406s, built 82
aircraft on license (designated EFW-3800) as well as 207 of a
subsequent home-developed version known as EFW-3801.
Morane Saulnier, SNCASO, Dornier-Werke Switzerland
860 hp (642 kw) Hispano-Suiza 12Y 31 12-cylinder inverted Vee, liquid
cooled, piston engine.
Maximum speed 302 mph (486 km/h) at 16,400 ft (5000 m); service ceiling
30,840 ft (9400 m).
Range: 497 miles
(800 km) with internal fuel stores.
4,178 lbs (1895 kg) with a maximum take-off weight of 5,600 lbs (2540
34 ft 10 in (10.65 m); length 2 ft 9 in (8.15 m); height 9 ft 3 in
(2.82 m); wing area 172.16 sq ft (16.0 sq m).
Armament: One 20
mm Hispano Suiza HS-404 (or HS-59) gun (60 rounds) and two 7.5 mm
(0.295 in) MAC-1934 guns (300 rounds each).
(prototype and production).
France, Croatia, Turkey, Finland, Switzerland, Vichy France, Germany.