Why French Aviation Failed

An Exclusive Interview with Michel Wibault
by Maria de Blasio

As director of the French government's Arsenal d'Aeronautique. M Wibault was in a position to observe at first hand the poisonous fangs of recriminations, lies, dishonesty and treachery leading to the dissolution of the French army's air force and the ultimate downfall of France. One of the world's outstanding plane designers, he now is in US.

Military inertia regarding mass production, lack of money and time, and long delay in the obtaining of tools and raw materials were to a large extent responsible for the military defeat of France.

"It was not the construction of planes, nor the Popular Front, nor Pierre Cot, nor the workers," M Wibault told this correspondent. "One of Germany's best propaganda jobs was the spreading of false reasons for the military collapse of France." Wibault recalled a remark made by General Gamelin at a meeting in March, 1940: "Gentlemen, your ideas of aerial warfare are dreams".

Wibault's condemnation of the French Senate from 1930 to 1940, is sweeping. Its financial commission, under the influence of the army leaders and political string-pullers, refused credits to the aviation industry to allow them to organize for mass production. This situation was sharply brought home when, in June, 1936, the air ministry revealed the financial condition of the Air Ministry. After payment of salaries to government employes, soldiers, petty officers and officers of the air corps and after paying for supplies, etc, the budget allowed for only 12,000 skilled workers at 30 hours a week. At that time construction of a French fighter plane required between 8,000 and 12,000 man hours, (not counting the manufacture of engines, propellers, accessories and armament), a medium bomber from 12,000 to 16,000 hours, and a heavy bomber from 24,000 to 30,000 hours.

It was not until a year later, but before the Anschluss of Austria to, Germany, that the French senate finally began to feel uncomfortable about the rapidly growing Luftwaffe. Only then did they vote sufficient money to start mass production. But this left less than two years for France to catch up with Hitler. Even with money voted, the situation was not much improved. Most of the factories were old. Much of the steel and machinery had to be imported. Banks for many years had refused loans to the aircraft industry; aviation stocks never were introduced to the public on the Paris stock exchange. Most machine tools and other types of equipment had to be bought in the US. Sometimes delivery took as long as nine months. French heavy industry was not prepared for the immediate, large-scale production required of an all-out war program. Never at any time had it produced the quantities that would be needed. In the main, these were the factors which prevented France from becoming a formidable air power.

Another tragedy, M Wibault pointed out, was the fact that this unused technical skill of French airplane designers was particularly high. The then new French prototypes were ranked among the finest in the world and all were ready for mass production. However, Wibault's talents, and those of other famed French aircraft manufacturers, was devoted mostly to commercial types or to experimentation, not to quantity production of military planes. For the latter, money was needed which could not be obtained. Contrary to the popular belief that has scored the nationalization program of the French aviation industry as a political maneuver, Wibault declares that the primary aim of the program was to provide capital for the manufacturers, the government being the banker.

Wibault admits that in the beginning he, as well as most of the other manufacturers, was opposed to the nationalization but that, like almost everyone else, he soon was converted when he realized that this alone would bring a semblance of organizational efficiency into France's air preparedness. Because of insufficient funds the French air industry was necessarily being conducted more like a medieval craft than a modern industry. M Wibault criticizes the US aircraft industry of 1937-39 just as severely. Based on his investigation of both the Russian and the American aircraft industries of that period, he declares that Russia could have produced in 15 days what the US was turning out in a year. In 1936 he saw one factory in Moscow produce two four-engined, 20-ton ships and six twin-engine planes in one day. This factory, like many others in the USSR, was even then operating 24 hours a day, using a staff of 24,000 employes.

After the nationalization of the industry in 1936, Wibault resigned at the request of the Air Ministry, in order to organize the government's Arsenal d'Aeronautique and to be its director. The arsenal was a highly secret organization devoted entirely to experimentation and the construction of military prototypes, although some commercial models also were developed. It was actually a "pilot plant" employing 200 aeronautical engineers and more than 2,000 workers.

Wibault's most important undertaking at the arsenal was in the heavy plane field. Heavy planes were France's biggest problem, according to Wibault. Light twin-engined bombers were being turned out in May, 1940, at a rate of 300-500 a month. But practically no 10- to 14-ton bombers were being delivered, although designs were available.

The main drawback, says Wibault, was the engine industry. The best that industry could produce was a 1,000-hp engine, but at that production was slow. In spite of this obstacle Wibault was granted 40,000,000 francs [about $1,000,000] by the government to build the Air-Wibault, a 30-ton transport. Pierre Cot, then air minister, had been convinced of the wisdom of this act when Wibault explained that the ship could carry 100 parachutists with full equipment. The Air-Wibault was being built as a commercial plane but it could have been converted for military use in less than two days. Wibault says all commercial planes designed at the arsenal at that time were planned with such conversion in mind.

The subject of parachute troops brought a grim smile to Wibault's face. When Guy La Chambre took over the air ministry in 1938, he dismissed parachute troops on the ground that they were a "Soviet inspiration", and ordered that the men be returned to the infantry.

The Air-Wibault, largest transport in Europe at that time and 82 per cent completed before the fall of France, had several unusual technical features. By cutting down on the number of rivets used, much time and money can be saved. For the Air-Wibault, M Wibault designed a hollow wing which permitted easy installation of rivets; Wibault also perfected an engine mount enabling an engine to be installed in 3½ minutes. Oil and gas lines and electric control cables all were cut off automatically; the four bolt attachment of the engine explains this speed.

Another important plane designed at the arsenal was the wooden fighter known as the Arsenal. This was a single-seater with a ceiling of almost 40,000 ft, a speed of 580 km (360 mph) and a range of 800 miles. It carried four machine guns and a 20-mm cannon. Wibault became particularly interested in wooden aircraft because of the increasing difficulty of obtaining metals. With all due respect to plastics, said Wibault, "when there's no time to cook them", plywood and wood treated with casein will do as well.

Toward the end of 1939 every piano and furniture factory in France was producing plane parts.

"The fighter plane is ammunition", Wibault says. It should not be built with the durability of a transport, which is expected to last some 10 years. Wibault estimates that the present life of a fighter is about 200-300 hours (in 1914-18 the Germans gave a military plane two hours and 32 minutes, Wibault said).

The arsenal also produced a fighter specifically designed to contend with the Messerschmitt Me-110. This plane had twin Hispano engines of 1,200 hp each and was expected to have a top speed of 400 mph. This fighter carried five 20-mm cannon: two in the nose, two in the engines and one in the rear turret. In addition it carried four machine guns.

According to Wibault, production of fighters was running about 700 a month early in 1940, but lack of good engines remained the greatest drawback. Water-cooled 860-hp Hispanos were the most commonly used, but this was by no means enough power for the modern designs. The French engine industry was in the hands of Gnome-Rhone and Hispano-Suiza.

In 1937 the Air Ministry sent Wibault to the United States to negotiate for a license to manufacture one type of American engine. But when Guy La Chambre took over, he immediately stopped all production of the American engine — largely out of personal spite towards Pierre Cot, said Wibault.

The entire question of France's unpreparedness in the air can be boiled down to one cause — refusal to face facts. The place of the airplane in the military future was forcefully pointed out by men like Wibault, but complacency, political jealousies and sheer lack of imagination blocked the way.

Michel Wibault, 45 years old, a slight, grey-eyed, grey-haired man of inexhaustible energy, now is developing new designs for the United Nations. Like all aviation men, Wibault believes the cargo plane is the ship of the present and he hopes to contribute to the speed and economy of their production.

This article was originally published in the October, 1942, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 4, pp 47-48, 94, 97.
The original article includes 3 photos.
Photos are not credited.