The Nieuport 11 "Bebe" (or "Baby" - known officially as the "Nieuport 11 C1") was one of the first true Allied fighters of World War 1. Developed from a prewar design intended for competition, the militarized form brought with it the expected excellent performance inherent in a racing platform. Designed in a mere four months, the Nieuport 11 - retaining the "Bebe" nickname of its predecessor - proved instrumental in ending the dominance of German Fokker-based aircraft during 1916 in what came to be known as the "Fokker Scourge". The French Nieuport series, as a whole, would end up becoming one of the best fighter lines in all of World War 1, eventually becoming collectively recognized by the name of "Nieuport Fighting Scouts".
Societe Anonyme Des Etablissements, established in 1909 and founded by Eduoard de Nie Port, had delved successfully into racing sesquiplane airframes for some time prior to World War 1. The sesquiplane approach was something of a biplane configuration though the lower wing assembly was decidedly smaller than the upper. With the war reaching its stride by August of 1914, and a growing faith in biplane winged aircraft, the Nieuport firm was charged with production of Voisan biplane aircraft which sported a "pusher" propeller arrangement, necessitated by the lack of a competent machien gun synchronization system when firing through a spinning propeller. These platforms proved adequate attempts at countering German fighter designs of the time but German offerings were seemingly always one step ahead which helped to maintain the tactical advantage for the interim.
Nieuport Chief Designer Gustave Delage began designing a new type of biplane prior to World War 1 which would have competed in the 1914 Gordon Bennett Trophy Race. The aircraft was of a sesquiplane wing arrangement and given the company designation of "Nieuport 10". However, with France's commitment to open war in the middle of 1914, thought turned to developing the single-seat Nieuport 10 into a militarized form capable of competing with German offerings on equal terms. The aircraft's staggered wing configuration required support of distinctive V-aligned struts and applicable wire bracing - the latter common to aircraft of the period. The Nieuport 10 was itself adopted as a general purpose mount (sometimes armed with an upper wing Lewis machine gun) and two-seat trainer platform by the French Air Force during the war. It garnered the nickname of "Bebe" - or "Baby" - a name that stuck with the militarized version for the span of her operational career. The Nieuport 10 was further adopted by Britain, Belgium, Brazil, Finland, Italy, Japan, Russia, Serbia, Thailand, Ukraine, the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the new militarized form, Delage attempted to retain much of the excellent performance specifications inherent in the preceding competition-minded racer. This approach would lay the foundation for a whole line of excellent French fighting aircraft still to come and make the Nieuport name a household brand by war's end. Delage's pursuit eventually realized the "Nieuport 11", a lightweight, single-seat fighter-type with the same single-bay sesquiplane wing arrangement of the Nieuport 10. The Nieuport 11 was the quintessential fighter of its time featuring a fixed two-wheel undercarriage with tail skid, an open-air cockpit and biplane wings. The aircraft owed its fine lines, smooth contours and general pedigree to the Nieuport racer prior and were fielded with a front-mounted 80 horsepower Le Rhone 9C, 9-cylinder, air-cooled rotary piston engine powering a two-blade propeller. The pilot sat positioned just behind and below the upper wing element with a generally good view out of the cockpit.
Primary armament was a single Hotchkiss- or Lewis-type 7.7mm (.303 caliber) machine gun fitted in the center of the upper wing as the Allies still lacked a viable synchronized machine gun solution that the Germans were already operating with. However, early Nieuport 11s were not armed in any way, being true scouts in their reconnaissance role (primarily with British and French scout squadrons). Only when armed did they become "fighting scouts" and could be operated in a fighter-type role when countering enemy aircraft and balloons. The Nieuport 11 was later cleared to fire up to 8 x Le Prieur anti-balloon rockets - these weapons, crude by modern standards, looked like nothing more than oversized bottle rockets fitted in a staggered arrangement along the sides of the V-struts.
Production of Nieuport 11's was handled by Societe Anonyme des Etablissements Nieuport with first deliveries beginning in 1915. The type was fielded operationally for the first time on January 5th, 1916 and utilized in a frontline role until the summer of 1917 before given up for better, modern types.
Upon its introduction, the Nieuport 11's biplane wing design (generating more lift at the expense of increased drag) allowed Allied pilots to easily outmaneuver their German Fokker Eindekker monoplane contemporaries thanks, in part, to the utilization of ailerons in the design (as opposed to the rather utilitarian "wing-warping" action fielded by German Eindeckers). Additional benefits of the Nieuport 11 design lay in its excellent inherent speed, rate-of-climb and agility for the period. If the Nieuport 11 had but one limitation, it was in its lack of a synchronized machine gun system which limited armament. The placement of the machine gun along the upper wing forced a special reloading process to be worked, an operation that took the aircraft and pilot out of the fight for dangerously long periods of time. It should also be noted that the Nieuport 11 held a propensity for the wing assembly to buckle violently in high-speed flight, leading to fractures or outright break ups (mainly due to the single-bay, V-strut nature of the design). As such, it often took an experienced pilot to overcome these drawbacks and eventually make a name for himself while flying the Nieuport 11. Several names did, in fact, earn the status of "Ace" after having flown Nieuport 11s during portions of their career - names such as Ball, Baracca, Bishop, Navarre and Nungesser.
Italy produced the Nieuport 11 under license in 646 examples as the "Nieuport 1100". Sources suggest that local production occurred in Russia, Spain and the Netherlands as well. Such production and reproduction of Nieuport 11s proved - both directly and indirectly - the excellence of the Gustave Delage design.
The Bebe was officially retired from front-line service sometime in the summer of 1917 with the last Bebe squadrons being fielded in Italy. During its reign, the Bebe was largely responsible for a change in tactics on the part of the Germans - particularly during the pivotal Battle of Verdun (1916) where the "Baby" inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. As such, the value of the Nieuport 11 system to the Allied cause could not be overstated.
Back in 1916, Nieuport also unveiled the "Nieuport 16" in an attempt to modernize and improve the Nieuport 11 design for the changing requirements of war. The Nieuport 16 fielded a Le Rhone 9J rotary engine of 110 horsepower in a revised cowling. The attempt was more or less abandoned when the designed proved too "front-heavy". This initiative, however, led to the direct development of the "Nieuport 17" which went on to replace the Nieuport 11 beginning in March of 1916 and, itself, would become one of the most famous warplanes of World War 1.
Despite its relatively short career in the air, production of Nieuport 11s totaled approximately 7,200 Bebes which was an impressive number when accepted in the scope of World War 1 fighter production.