Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage

Marcel Dassault survived two world wars and a German concentration camp to go on to produce some of the world's most iconic aircraft.

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Marcel Dassault Riadismet/Wikimedia Commons

Marcel Dassault, formerly Marcel Bloch, was a French electrical engineer and aircraft industrialist whose companies were responsible for some of the most iconic aircraft of the 20th Century. The youngest of four children to his doctor father Marcel would quickly show a deep interest in technological innovation. He would have a very keen interest in electricity in particular.

Marcel would later recall the moment he saw his first airplane. “One sunny day in the school playground, I looked up at the sky and saw the Count of Lambert’s Wilbur Wright passing the Eiffel tower for the first time. I had never seen a plane before. There and then, I knew that aviation had become a part of my heart and thoughts”.

Marcel Dassault would spend the First World War designed a revolutionary type of propeller and risked death at the hands of the German's during the Second World War. His defiance would see him interned at a Nazi concentration camp where he would almost die. Despite his poor health after the war, Marcel would go on to build one of the world's most successful aircraft manufacturers. Dassault Aviation, as they now know, built some of the world's most iconic jet fighters of the post-war era. The Dassault Mirage is one of the most unique and well-loved planes aircraft enthusiasts the world over. 

Marcel would later die in 1986 and received many tributes from around the world. He even had a roundabout in Paris named after him. Not many can claim that honor.

Marcel Dassault's Early Life

Marcel Dussault was born Marcel Bloch on the 22nd January 1892. Bloch was born in Paris to his Jewish parents, Adolphe and Neomi Allatini Bloch, and he was the youngest of his parents' four children. Marcel would later be educated at the Lycee Condorcet in Paris. Later he would study Electrical Engineering and later attend Breguet School of Engineering. He would, soon after, study at the Supérieure d’Aéronautique, a school of aviation, where he graduated in 1913. Interestingly whilst attending the later, Bloch was a classmate with one Mikhail Gurevich. Mikail would later be incredibly important in the later Russian development of the MiG series of aircraft.

With the outbreak of World War in 1914 Marcel would lend his talents to France's aviation industry. Bloch used his acquired engineering skills from his time at Chalais Meudon Aeronautical Laboratory to develop a propeller called the Eclair in 1916. He also designed a twin-seater fighter, the SEA 4 in 1918 whilst working alongside Henry Potex and Louis Coroller.

Advertisement
Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Spad VII sporting an Eclair propeller. Source: Dassault Aviation

Marcel Bloch married Madeleine Minckes in 1919. She was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family of furniture dealers. The couple would later have two sons, Claude and Serge. His post-war days were spent dabbling in real estate as well as cars throughout the 1920's. During the 1930's Marcel would begin to move back towards aviation and began assembling a new team for this purpose.

Interwar years

Dassault would later remember that occasion, in his own words: “One day – or indeed I should say one evening – I was at Le Bourget airport and saw Lindbergh land the Spirit of Saint Louis after flying over the Atlantic. I understood something had changed in aviation, and that civil aviation would be born. Wilbur Wright’s plane first drew me to aviation. The Spirit of Saint Louis brought me back.”

In 1928, Marcel would found the Société des Avions Marcel Bloch aircraft company which produced its first aircraft in 1930. In 1935 Bloch and Henry Potez signed an agreement to buy the Bordeaux based aircraft manufacturing company Société Aérienne Bordelaise (SAB). When the leftist Front Populaire was elected to power in France in 1936 his company's were all nationalized. All company's assets, plants, and design departments were integrated into the Société Nationale des constructions aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest (SNCASO) of where he was appointed managing director.

Advertisement

In December of the same year, Marcel created the Société Anonyme des Avions Marcel Bloch (SAAMB). This organization was founded to manage the license fees of the Bloch planes studied before the nationalization and build engines rather than propellers. It would later be renamed Dassault Aviation post Second World War.

Second World War

In 1939 Bloch's planes were used to defend the skies of France until the countries capitulation in 1940. During the Nazi occupations of France, the country's aviation industry was, more or less, abandoned. Compulsory manufacture was the only regular aviation fabrication activity taking place but was limited to assembling and servicing of German parts. 

Marcel Bloch would later refuse to collaborate with the Nazi's after the invasion. This defiance led to his arrest and incarceration in Montluc Fort, Lyons. He was joined by his wife and children at the behest of the Vichy Government in France. Being Jewish, he was later sent to Drancy concentration camp before spending another 8 months in Buchenwald in 1944 to the end of the war.

Advertisement

Here he was badly tortured and beaten and often held in solitary confinement. During his time at the concentration camps, his wife was interned near Paris. Bloch remained in Buchenwald until its liberation by Allied Forces in April of 1945. His mistreatment in the camps would leave him so badly crippled he could hardly walk. He was advised by doctors to settle his affairs. They did not expect him to survive, let alone recover.

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Marcel Bloch prior to deportation. Source: Dassault Aviation

The Bloch Eclair Propeller

Marcel Bloch, after coordinating the construction of the Caudron G3 was assigned to Farman aircraft flight test duties in Buc. “My job was to fly with the pilots and then write a report on the performance and flying qualities of each aircraft”, recalled Marcel. “This led me to perform many flights as captain to check the climb times and handling of each aircraft.”

Marcel would spend his spare time working on ways to improve the Caudron G3's propeller. He had noticed that the current one was not particularly efficient. Marcel has some ideas for a new design but needed a way to build one. To this end, he thought of his friend Marcel Minckes whose father was a furniture manufacturer in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine in Paris. Bloch propositioned Minckes father about potentially making his new propeller, thankfully he agreed.

Advertisement

Dassault would later recall of his friend's father: “[He] liked people who were bold and enterprising. So he placed at my disposal a cabinetmaker and a few lengths of walnut.” With a means of production secured, Marcel Bloch personally supervised the work. “I prepared a drawing of my propeller, and I outlined the different sections, which enabled the craftsman to make the templates. I stayed at his side as he planed his propeller, in order to guide his hand towards the harmonious lines.”

The Eclair goes into production

Once complete the propeller was tested at Buc by one of the Bleriot pilots. After testing was successfully completed it was presented for official testing at Villacoublay. “This propeller was recognized as the best and the furniture manufacturer who had built it under my direction [Hirch Minckès] received an initial order for 50 propellers. The price of each one was 150 francs at the time. We had to give a name to our propeller; we chose ‘Eclair’.

Advertisement

The Eclair propeller proved very popular for Allied aircraft and was selected for use on  British Sopwith reconnaissance aircraft built under license in France, the Dorand AR and, above all, the Spad, particularly the Spad VII.

Post World War Two

Marcel Bloch was to be struck down by diphtheria after the war. Between 1945 and 1953 diphtheria left him paralyzed. Despite this, he continued in his work resuming his aeronautical machinations after the war. Marcel, in an attempt to put the recent horrible past to one side, he decided to change the family name. He chose Bloch-Dassault as it was his brother's alias that he used in the French resistance. The family's name was officially changed to simply Dassault in 1949. Dassault is derived from the French char d'assault, meaning battle tank. 

As Dassault, Marcel converted to Roman Catholicism in 1950.

Also at around this time, Marcel decided to diversify his business ventures into newspapers. He was at the head of Semaine de France then Jours de France, for example. He also turned his hand to politics. Marcel would become a senator for the Alpes Maritimes department he Alpes Maritimes department and representative for the Oise department. Dassault would later become known around the world for outstanding jet-powered aircraft.

Advertisement

 One such example was the French Air Force's first jet aircraft, the MD-450 Ouragan. It first saw service in 1949 and pioneered the French postwar aeronautical industry. It also enabled the French to begin taking steps to export their tech, especially to India and Israel. Dassault's later, 1954, Mystere IV was one of the company's earlier success stories. It would also boost the company's status worldwide when the United State ordered 255 planes as part of an agreement with NATO. It is also, arguably, the embodiment of 1950's jet design.

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Mystere IV at the Air Museum, Bourget. Source: Jean-Christophe BENOIST/Wikimedia Commons

Marcel buys some Parisian real estate

Marcel Dassault would return to his property investment past when in 1952 he acquired the landmark Paris buildings still known today as the Hotel Marcel Dassault. This building dated back to 1844 and was/is a Parisian landmark. The building is located at numbers 7 and 9 rond-point des Champs-Elysées (at the angle of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and avenue Montaigne), from the Sabatier d'Espeyran family. Today number 7 building has been occupied by auction house Artcurial since 2002. Number 9 is still part of the Marcel Dassault Group.

Industry

Are 3D Printed Jumbo Jets the Future of Aviation?

Marcel Dassault's company would cement its reputation for quality over the next few decades. Initiatives like France's part in developing strategic nuclear power after the 1956 Suez expedition through to their highly successful Mirage IV programme in 1959 did their part. The Six Day War of 1967, between Israel and the surrounding Arab belligerents, would provide absolute conclusive proof of the quality of Dassault's engineering and design.

In 1971 Dassault would acquire Breguet and for the  Avions Marcel Dassault-Breguet Aviation (AMD-BA).

The Dassault Mirage

The Mirage is a name given to several types of jet aircraft designed and built by Dassault Aviation. This series of planes was to prove very successful and would see production in many different variants. Most of these were supersonic fighters that were characterized by their delta wings. Of all the aircrafts variants, the Mirage III was by far the most popular and successful. Mirage III's were widely produced and modified both by Dassault but by many other licensed companies. 

The Dassault Mirage III series was noted for their sleek, streamlined airframe with a single engine placement as well as the aircraft's characteristic delta wing design with a single vertical tail fin. The III series first appeared in 1956 and proved to be a superb air to air and air to ground weapons platform and superiority fighter. They particularly made a name for themselves during the Six Day War of 1967

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Dassault Mirage F1's at RIAT 2013. Source: Airwolfhound/Wikimedia Commons

The next evolution of the Mirage series came in the form of the Dassault Mirage F1. The F1's were initially conceived to replace the aging III series but came with a host of many cutting-edge features. The F1 turned out to be a substantial upgrade from its forerunner that would make it one of the most advanced fighters of its day. The F1 has since served with distinction especially. Over 720 were built and many are still in active service today.

Mirage 2000

The success of the F1 led to the further development of the series with today's Mirage 2000. The Mirage 2000 had its origin's in a joint British and French program called the "Anglo-French Variable Geometry" (AFVG) with the goal of producing a "swing-wing" multi-role aircraft platform. This program was initialized in around 1965 but the French withdrew only a few years later leading to its cancellation. The British would later team up with West Greman and Italian's engineers to continue their work. This collaboration would ultimately lead to the highly successful Panavia Tornado. 

Dassault engineers would, nonetheless, continue their work on several products in an attempt to fulfill the French government's desire for "Avion de Combat Futur" (ACF - Future Combat Aircraft). Early models featured twin SNECMA M53-3 turbofan engines but there were later deemed too heavy and expensive. This project was hence canceled in 1975. New requirements in 1976 by the French would see the need for a cost-effective and lightweight solution built around just one SNECMA engine, not two. This plane was also to be smaller all around. And so the Mirage 2000 was born.

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Mirage 2000. Source: stefg74/Wikimedia Commons

Dassault's aircraft names are interesting in themselves

Marcel Dassault would later explain his choices for some of his most famous aircraft names.

"It was in memory of a much-loved book of my childhood, Le Docteur Mystère, that I called my first supersonic airplane the Mystère. My Mirage airplanes, because of their attack and evasion capacities, are as invulnerable to enemy fire as a mirage is unreachable for a desert traveler, hence the name Mirage.”

Dassault wouldn't pigeon-hole his company to just military planes, however. Their name would also become synonymous with supreme quality in the civil aviation industry. Once again orders from the United States would help cement their reputation for great engineering. Pan Am was the first airline to place large orders for Dassault's aircraft and also firmly open the doors to the American market for them.

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Two-seated trainer Dassault Mirage IV. Source: Groumfy69/Wikimedia Commons

Dassault Aviation and The French Air Force

Dassault's companies have delivered around 4,200 aircraft to the French Airforce since its creation in 1934. In 1952, Dassault enabled the French Air Force to enter the jet age when they introduced the Ouragan and the Mystere IV. Both of these iconic planes were used by the Patrouille de France as well as the Alpha jet some years later. Dassault would soon deliver supersonic aircraft that could exceed Mach 1 in level flight to the airforce in the form of the Super-Mystere B2. 

Soon after they would produce Europe's first Mach 2 fighter the Mirage III followed by the F1.  In 1964, Dassault Aviation made a major contribution to the nuclear deterrent force, with the Mirage IV strategic bomber.

The early 1980's saw the development and introduction of the Mirage 2000. The delivery of this fighter would usher in the era of modern digital weapon systems for the French. The Rafale would be the last aircraft to come of Marcel Dassault's drawing boards under his personal supervision. Since 2006 this plane has demonstrated its ability to carry out a multitude of operational tasks for which it was specifically designed.  

Dassault Aviation has globally produced and delivered over 8,000 military and civilian aircraft. These planes have fulfilled orders from more than 90 countries over the past 60 years. The company has, according to their website, logged nearly 28 million flight hours. The company reported revenues of 4.2 Billion Euros in 2016 and have almost 12,000 employees. In 2016, Dassault Aviation celebrated the first centennial of its history, which started in 1916 with Marcel Dassault and the Éclair propeller.

Marcel Dassault's later years

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage
Marcel Dassault's grave at Passy Cemetery. Source: Thomon/Wikimedia Commons

Marcel Dassault wasn't just content with his exploits in aviation, newspapers, and politics. He also took a keen interest in architecture, cinema, banking and the stock market. His services to France would later earn him France's highest civilian honor, the Legion of the Honor's Grand Cross.

Marcel would die on the 18th April 1986 in Neuilly-sur-Seine. He would receive an extraordinary tribute from the French Government, top-ranking officials and both local and international media. For example, he was the first funeral celebrated at Invalides for any French businessperson. He was buried in the Passy Cemetery in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

Marcel was succeeded by his son, Serge, as CEO of Avions Marcel Dassault, which was restructured as Groupe Industriel Marcel Dassault, reflecting its broader interests. In 1990, the aviation division was renamed Dassault Aviation. In 1991 the rond-point des Champs-Elysées was actually renamed the rond-point des Champs-Elysées-Marcel Dassault in his honor.

Marcel Dassault: Founder of Dassault Aviation and Father of the Mirage

Rond-point Champs Élysées Dassault, Paris. Source: Chabe01/Wikimedia Commons

Marcel Dassault will always be remembered as a man with a formidable desire to create. He will also always be remembered for this exceptional forward-looking determination. In his very own words, “With no false modesty, I will say I have always tried hard not to run out of imagination. [I] have worked hard with the team I gathered. [I] have never let hurdles discourage me. I love what I do, and I know how to use my willpower to get anything that might divert me out of my way. I lead a simple and happy life. Everything around me converges, and indeed must converge, to promote the task I have set myself.”

Advertisement