It was early May when we boarded the TGV in Provence for the trip to Paris and the CDG airport.
This was in the early 1980’s and we were traveling on the first TGV in France. It had been in service only a few years. People still dressed formally for a trip by train, particularly in First Class. Not long after the train left the station a conductor escorted a middle-aged couple into our car. The man was dressed in a 3-piece suit and his wife was similarly attired. The conductor settled them in a pair of empty seats, helped stow their overhead luggage, and said:
“I hope these seats are more comfortable. I apologize for it being necessary to move you, but you must understand that Monsieur Dassault is elderly and not in the best of health; it was requested that we keep the car warm for him.”
The man fingered the vest of his suit. ”Yes, I can appreciate that," he agreed, "but the car we were in is really impossibly overheated.”
The conductor gently said, “Perhaps. But please remember that we in France are indebted to Monsieur Dassault. He took this trip because he wanted to experience travel on the TGV. The railroad is run by the government, and we want him to be comfortable.”
At lunchtime Jean-Alfred and I went forward in the train to the dining car. As we opened the door of the car ahead to ours, a blast of heat swept out. Jean-Alfred glanced down the aisle and whispered to me,
”There he is, on the left, halfway down. The little man on the aisle, the one wearing a fedora. The big woman next to him must be his wife, or maybe a nurse.”
I took a good look at Marcel Dassault’s party as we went past. In addition to the woman in the window seat next to him, there were two very large men occupying the seats behind them. Really large men, with a menacing look. Bodyguards, perhaps, or maybe simply muscle. Because, obviously, the little man with the fedora would need help getting on and off the train.
He was very old, very frail, with the soft yet almost translucent quality to his skin that only the aged acquire. He had to be at least 90. In addition to the fedora, he wore a heavy suit and a winter overcoat. A woolen scarf was wrapped around his neck, a blanket tucked around his knees. This, then, was the legendary Marcel Dassault, often called “the father of modern aviation”.
Later, in the dining car, Jean-Alfred told me an anecdote about our famous fellow passenger. In 1981 his firm, La Société des Avions Marcel Dassault, was taken over by the French government. The name was changed to Dassault Aviation and he remained a figurehead president-director. His only comment at the takeover : “Well, I’ve been nationalized before.”
Marcel Dassault was many things – inventor, manufacturer, entrepreneur, publisher, politician, movie producer, the richest man in France, and a recipient of the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the highest distinction awarded by the French government. He was also one of the 70,000 Jews exported to a German concentration camp by the French government during World War II.
Son of a Paris doctor, he was born in 1892. The family name was Bloch. Obviously bright, he was enamored with technologic advances and was particularly fascinated with electricity. While still a schoolboy he had an experience which shaped his life:
”One beautiful sunny day, during recess, I looked up and saw the airplane of the Count of Lambert circling the Eiffel Tower. I had never seen an airplane before but I knew then that aviation had entered my spirit and my heart.”
Marcel Bloch, as he was then named, went on to earn diplomas in electricity and aeronautics. During World War I he perfected the spiral propeller for military planes, a forerunner of the turbo-prop, and collaborated with two other design engineers on the design of a two-seat fighter plane, the SEA IV.
He married in 1919, just after the war. Perhaps being a family man put a strain on his finances, as he left the field of experimental aviation and concentrated on real estate for the next ten years.
”One day – or, rather, one evening – I found myself at Le Bourget and saw the arrival of Lindbergh in the Spirit of Saint Louis after his crossing of the Atlantic. I understood that there had been a change in aviation and that civil aviation was about to be born.”
In 1930 he returned to aeronautics and, in 1935, formed the manufacturing company, Bloch. In 1936, when Europe was in the throes of an economic crisis, a new government, Le Front Populaire, was formed in France under Léon Blum. It combined the various leftist parties and promised to combat the growing threat of German fascists, cure the economy, and make labor reforms. Although it lasted only two years, it had serious effects for the young airplane firm. It was nationalized and taken over by the French government to produce military planes.
Undaunted, Marcel immediately formed another company, Marcel Bloch Airplanes Limited (SAAMB). It is this legal entity which eventually became today’s Dassault Aviation. With this new company he continued to design military aircraft and, eventually, private jets.
Beginning with the SEA IV in 1918, he was responsible for the design and production of over sixty different models of airplane, a list which includes such illustrious names as the Mystére series, the Mirage military bombers, and the Falcon business jets. Once he returned to aviation in 1930, his name was associated with a new model nearly every year except for the period of World War II.
In 1940, before the Allies entered World War II, the French government had surrendered to Germany with an agreement that gave control of the Atlantic and Channel coastlines and the city of Paris to the German Army. French affairs were administered by the newly-formed Vichy government, under the leadership of Marshall Henri-Philippe Pétain. Many, many Frenchmen joined the Resistance. Marcel’s brother, Paul Bloch, was a general in the Resistance under the code name “Dassault”.
Marcel, as the head of an aviation firm, was asked to cooperate with the occupying forces. When he refused, he and his family were arrested by Vichy officials and sent first to a detention area in Lyon, then to a concentration camp in Drancy, one of the Paris suburbs. This was in 1940. In 1944 Marcel was sent to Buchenwald in Germany where he was kept for eight months before being released through the efforts of Marcel Paul, a member of the French Communist party.
In 1945, at the age of 53, a free man but partially paralyzed as a result of the diphtheria he had been exposed to during his years of internment, Marcel resumed the leadership of his aviation company. In 1949 his firm produced the MD 50 Ouragan, the first French Air Force jet plane. It was sold to the military forces of Israel and India as the “Hurricane”. The rest is aviation history.
Also in 1949, Marcel Bloch and his family changed their name to “Dassault”, partly to forget the black years of World War II, partly to honor the role his brother, Paul, played in the Resistance. Dassault became a name known throughout the world of aviation, with customers in both the civil and the military fields. He also worked closely with the French government in the development of its strategic nuclear force through the program Mirage IV.
Ever blessed with an inquiring mind, Dassault broadened his interests once the aeronautic activities were well-established. He produced several weekly magazines, dabbled in movie production, had a seat on the Bourse, served as a Senator from the Alpes-Maritimes, a Deputy for the department of Oise, and for many years was the elder statesman of the National Assembly.
The government of France honored him both before and after his death. He was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor while alive, the highest distinction which has been received by a number of illustrious people, both French and non-French, from all walks of life.
An even more unique honor was paid to Marcel Dassault, born Marcel Bloch. When he died in 1986, the French government received permission from his family to entomb his body under the dome of Les Invalides in Paris, a spot reserved for only the most famous of French military heroes. The remains of this French industrialist, a civilian who never served in any army, have been consigned to spend eternity in the company of such great military leaders as Napoleon Bonaparte and Fieldmarshal Foch.