Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Kings of the Air: Bibendum and Bombing

The company of Michelin is well-known for tyres, and has been since the nineteenth century. But André and Edouard Michelin, who ran the company were aviation enthusiasts as well; in particular, they were bombing enthusiasts. 'You should decide whether aeroplanes were just a reconnaissance tool, or if they could become a terrible weapon of war,' they wrote to the president of the Aéro-Club de France in August 1911. 'Perhaps they could cut a country's mobilisation in two ... and more - destroying arsenals, supply centres, enemy powder works. ... We are making available to you the sum of
150,000 francs, to be used in four prizes to be called the Michelin Air Aiming Prize [prix de l'aéro-cible Michelin].'

They followed this up by issuing a series of postcards showing how the Michelin competition would improve the nation's defences. 'It could,' André thundered in the pages of Le Matin, 'be as indispensable to a country's defences as rifles and artillery. [But] since the Government has forgotten its duty, and our deputies have not said a word to remind them, [it is down to] public
opinion alone, aware of the gravity of the situation, to get them to act. ... That is why I'm uttering a cry of alarm, not as an interested supplier, since my company has no interest in aviation, but as a simple Frenchman who believes he should do his duty.'

Two Michelin competitions would take place, in August 1912 and in August 1913. For the first test, each competitor had to drop fifteen 7kg bombs from 200m in one passage over a 20m-diameter target. The best performance
earned 50,000 francs. The second test, for 25,000 francs involved dropping a projectile from 800m onto a rectangular target the size of a zeppelin hangar. Each competitor had forty-five minutes to complete the course, and had to land with ten minutes of completing the tests.

Not content with this, the brothers created the Comité National d'Aviation Militaire, a pressure group to raise the money to buy aircraft for the military, and the create a network of airfields in strategic locations. Four million francs was
collected, which were solemnly presented to the minister of war on 22 January 1914 - enough to buy 120 machines (but of fourteen different types) and build 70 airfields (including the one at Faubourg Pavé, at Verdun, where Jean Navarre made his name in 1916).

But the Michelins did not stop there. On 20 August 1914, they offered to donate 100 bombers of a type to be decided, to be manufactured at the Michelin works at Clermont-Ferrand, provided the government supplied the engines, and to supply further examples at cost. The choice fell upon a pusher design by Breguet, powered by a 200hp Canton-Unné engine, which at the time was the only bomber capable of carrying the 400kg payload the Michelins were seeking. The type would enter service as a Breguet-Michelin BM.1

Michelins constructed a new building at their works and introduced American production-line techniques. By November 1915, only 47 examples had reached the Front, and 75 by January. Their production was dogged by delays in producing the engines, and in maintaining the aircraft. Many pilots had accidents, getting used to handling the new type. It was proposed to create three squadrons equipped with the Breguet-Michelin, formed into a single wing, the Escadre Breguet-Michelin, manned largely by naval personnel. But by the time the squadrons were reaching full strength, the aircraft themselves were obsolete, their slow speed, difficult handling and blind spot to the rear making them too vulnerable for day bombing. Indeed, with pushers the only types available, GQG was going off day bombing completely, and the wing was broken up before it was fully formed, and the aircraft relegated to night work.

In 1916, the Aviation commander at GQG, Edouard Barès, had had enough of what he referred to as 'the worst aircraft ever to enter service'. What the service needed was more fighters and cooperation machines, not bombers. He asked that Michelins cease producing bombers, and go over to producing SPAD fighters as a sub-contractor. In a report, he denounced the 'purely commercial' idea that Michelin bombers should form a Michelin wing, and that the company ought to produce what the Aviation Service actually needed, rather than devoting all their efforts to self-publicity, unacceptable during wartime.

André Michelin thought the comments were 'tendencious and lying', and immediately wrote the minister of war and to the president in protest. The result was that Michelins were allowed to build another hundred examples of a plane no-one wanted. Michelin's mouthpieces in the Chamber of Deputies, Alain d'Aubigny and Pierre-Etienne Flandin, stood up and lied through their teeth  extolled the virtues of Michelin and his bomber. Ludicrously, d'Aubigny suggested that everyone at GQG hated Michelin because they had gone to the Ecole Polytechnique (a science-based university-level institution), whereas Michelin had gone to the Ecole Normale Supérieur (an institution of a similar level, but with a wider curriculum). 'If there are bad rumours about the Breguet-Michelin,' countered General Castelnau, 'they do not eminate from GQG, but from the crews who actually fly them.'

Michelins finally agreed in 1917 to produce the excellent Breguet 14 bomber, but for many years after, André Michelin would denounce the 'noxious placemen' who, he claimed, were irrationally biased against his products. After the war, Michelins ceased to produce aircraft, and concentrated on their core business of tyre manufacture.

The Michelins were not the only manufacturer to try and use whatever means they could to influence decision makers within the aviation heirarchy, but they were one of the most persistent. 'This kind of division permeated the aviation service, whoever was in command.' mused Jean de Pierrefeu, who spent the war writing GQG's daily communiques, and so knew many of the personalities involved. 'Those with real influence seemed to be civilians working for heaven knew what interest.'

Pictures: André and Edouard Michelin; a contemporary postcard of the bombing competition - 'Once it was the sword of Damocles, now it's the droppings of Bibendum' says the Michelin Man (known in France as Bibendum) to a dutiful reporter; Lieutenant Georges Mailfert in a rather precarious position as the pilot of a Farman at the Michelin competition, the bomb-aimer is seated behind him; two more competitiors, Renoux and Senouque; Jules Védrines leaflet bombs the Place de la Concorde on behalf of the Comité Nationale, February 1912 (from Le Petit Journal); the Breguet-Michelin; Edouard Barès as a captain; Flandin; Pierrefeu, when older

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