A Forgotten Revolution? RAF Army Co-operation Command and Artillery Co-operation

A Forgotten Revolution? RAF Army Co-operation Command and Artillery Co-operation

By Dr Matthew Powell[1]

Jonathan Bailey wrote that the First World War was the time of a true revolution in military affairs about the development of artillery firing.[2] One of the first significant developments that took place was the creation and refinement of the ‘clock code’ system.[3] Using this system, a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner to the Royal Air Force (RAF), was able to correct the fall of shot of the artillery by passing to the artillery battery commander details of how far from the target the guns were. The pilot would correct the shooting of the artillery by pointing out how far away and in what direction the shells of the guns had landed. The distance would be passed on using numbers and the direction using the picture of a clock face. The target was placed in the middle of the clock face and shells that fell beyond the target and on a straight line to the target would be corrected with a call of twelve, if it fell short on the same line the call would be six, at ninety degrees left of the target nine and ninety degrees right three. Any other direction would be corrected by using the hour on the clock with which it corresponded. This system would prove to function perfectly well throughout the whole of the First World War and was the system with which the RAF went to war in 1939.

The system of correcting artillery fire remained unchanged until 1938. The Air Council were against making alterations to the clock code system as they felt that it was adequate to meet the needs that the army would face in future conflicts. They felt that light aircraft could not be kept in action close to artillery units, as had been the case in the First World War.[4] The Air Council were also fearful of introducing a new, untried, and unfamiliar system with the growing tensions in Europe at this time. The War Office was unimpressed with the Air Councils attitude and pushed for more to be done. The Air Ministry agreed to trials between the Air Officer Commanding No. 22 (Army Co-operation) Group and the Commandant of the School of Artillery in December 1938.[5] The results of these trials and further trials conducted to test aircraft as well as procedure. The results were that light aircraft over the battlefield could observe fire with the ‘clock code’ system.[6] Spitfires conducted mock attacks on the aircraft and the Taylorcraft light aircraft observing the artillery fire had a good chance of dodging the fire of a modern fighter.[7] There was, however, no training for pilots in registering targets for the artillery. If an artillery officer required an appraisal of a prospective target, the request would have to be sent along the command chain via an air liaison officer. When the artillery battery received the information, it was usually out of date.[8] There was also pressure from within the War Office to establish a Flying Observation Post (Flying OP) and to begin plans to train Gunner Officers to fly. A Flying OP was to work in conjunction with Ground Observation Post (Ground OP) in establishing targets to be engaged and operating deep behind their lines to be afforded the protection of friendly anti-aircraft guns.

H 27983
A Taylorcraft Auster Mark III of No. 655 Squadron dropping a message bag to a Royal Artillery wireless truck on the airfield at Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire, during Exercise SPARTAN. (Source:  © IWM (H 27983))

The first of these Flying OPs was established in February 1940.[9] This force was established to:

[d]etermine in the light of practical experience obtained under war conditions the possibilities and limitations of the Flying OP, the most suitable type of aircraft and the most suitable organization [sic].[10]

The tests were to be conducted in three parts. The first was an initial training period. The second a practical training with the French, and a final test in the French Army area in conditions of actual warfare including shoots against German targets it was at this time that the term Air Observation Post (Air OP) was adopted.[11] The flight was sent to France on 19 April 1940.[12] The first of the three tests were conducted after the flight had moved to the continent. The final of the three tests was due to be carried out in early May, and the forces were established ready to conduct the tests on 9 May 1940.[13] The following day the Germans began to implement Fall Gelb (Case Yellow): the invasion of France and the Low Countries.[14] The artillery designated for the tests were forced to move back to their formations leaving the Air OP Flight (D Flight) waiting for the campaign to stabilise when it was clear that this would not happen D Flight was recalled to England.[15]

One of the first official moves at changing artillery co-operation policy was a letter regarding the subject sent from the Director of Military Co-operation Air Commodore Victor Goddard to Barratt at Army Co-operation Command. In this letter, Goddard states that the Air Staff were against the formation of:

[s]pecial air units for artillery observation or reconnaissance, unless it can be clearly shown that there is an urgent requirement for such units which cannot be met by Army Co-operations squadrons.[16]

The School of Artillery recommended that a certain number of aircraft should specialise in artillery work and should be trained by the School of Artillery so that they had the same tactical knowledge and the same the understanding of gunnery as an artillery officer.[17] This was just one aspect of an idea by the School of Artillery to allow aircraft to have tactical control over the fire of artillery batteries. To facilitate this, the school further recommended that a multi-seater aircraft should be employed in this work to allow an artillery officer to conduct the shoot according to artillery methods without the need for the artillery officer learning to fly. Artillery officers were also to be seconded to army co-operation squadrons specifically for artillery work.[18] The co-operation between the School of Artillery and Army Co-operation Command is evident and is surprising given the general relations that existed between the army and RAF in the wake of the Battle of France and the fall out that it had caused between the two services.[19]

Barratt, in a letter to the Under-Secretary of State for Air, wrote that:

I consider that in order to get a true and undistorted picture of this problem, it is first desirable to set out the problem as the Army [sic] sees it, and to show in this picture what they conceive to be their requirements.[20]

Again the desire to see the problem from a view that would almost certainly be contradictory to the RAF shows that Barratt and his command were willing to adopt a different approach and attitude in co-operating with at least one part of the army. Barratt also voiced his concerns regarding the ability of the Air OP to operate in the face of enemy action. It was felt that ‘the Air OP must be entirely vulnerable to any enemy fighters which cares to shoot it down’.[21] Barratt’s concern over the safety of his pilots who may be conducting shoots using the Air OP system was to be a recurring issue in the development of artillery reconnaissance.

TR 242
Air Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt in battledress and flying gear beside a Hawker Hurricane. He often flew this aircraft when visiting airfields of RAF Army Co-operation Command, which he commanded at the time of this picture. (Source: © IWM (TR 242))

Barratt’s response to the trials was one of scepticism, and he considered ‘that body of experience gained in the late war and since has all pointed to the advantages of the ‘Clock Code’ system’.[22] Barratt’s belief in the ‘clock code’ system stemmed more from the fear of false conclusions being drawn from brief experiments than from any sense of conservatism about changing the system used for artillery reconnaissance.[23] This became a realisation when Barratt was forced to explain to the Under Secretary of State for Air about the lack of efficiency regarding artillery co-operation in Army Co-operation Squadrons. Barratt wrote that:

I feel that much of the falling off in efficiency in this part of the Army Co-operation Squadron task has been due to the propagation of rumour as to other and better methods than those shown in AP 1176.[24]

Further trials were conducted using the artillery method during April 1941, and the conclusions reached were similar to those seen previously. These were that the artillery methods of ranging by corrections to line and range are simpler, quicker, and more efficient than any method based on the ‘clock code’.

The failures of the ‘clock code’ system in France combined with further problems faced in the fighting in Libya led to a loss of confidence in the system in the army.[25] Barratt responded that the ‘clock code’ system was not at fault in these operations but that the aircraft employed in it were operating in the face of intense enemy opposition. He was concerned that the trials had been too few and were skewed in favour of a positive result by the School of Artillery.[26] While these concerns may be interpreted as merely blocking a new development that had been shown to work to preserve the autonomy of the RAF while conducting army co-operation work. The evidence of co-operation between Army Co-operation Command and the School of Artillery, shown above, leads more to the conclusion that Barratt felt that the procedure could not be successfully carried out, and wished to see more trials conducted before it would receive his approval.

The procedure for artillery reconnaissance first developed during the First World War was only suitable for the conditions of that war. The lack of fluidity and almost stable front lines allowed a system to develop, quickly, this system, however, was only suited to those conditions. This was very quickly discovered during the first major test of this procedure against the quicker and more mobile warfare of the German Wehrmacht in 1940. The attitudes of both the British Army and the RAF to co-operation during the inter-war period, in Britain at least, did little to improve the situation before the British Expeditionary Force was stationed in France. This left those charged with the responsibility of modifying the existing procedure with only the experience of the First World War to guide them and on which to base their expectations. Much co-operation between the School of Artillery and Nos. 70 and 71 Groups of Army Co-operation Command occurred, despite the general feeling of animosity still felt by both services in Britain.[27] This co-operation was the most that had been seen between the army and RAF since the formation of the RAF as an independent force in 1918. Barratt’s move to block the adoption of the new procedure that was being trialled during 1941 can be interpreted in several ways. His reasoning for doing so, however, appears to be that of confirming the results already achieved through more rigorous and testing trials to confirm the results. Through further testing at a higher level the procedure, as well as those responsible for carrying it out, would be exposed to more stress and so a greater degree of authenticity could be achieved. Trials of this nature would also confirm if the procedure could be implemented with ease by the majority of pilots whose responsibility would be increased from observing the fall of shot to conducting shoots, potentially in the face of enemy opposition. Barratt’s major concern with the new system appears to be its increased complexity, and he was rightly concerned after his experiences in France that pilots would be unable to conduct the shoot if they had to keep a lookout for enemy fighter activity continually.

Header Image: An Auster Mark IV of an Air Observation Post squadron undergoes servicing at its base after being damaged by anti-aircraft fire while flying over the 8th Army Front in northern Italy. (Source: © IWM (CNA 3341))

[1] A longer version of this article can be found in Canadian Military History, 23:1 (2014), pp. 71-88.

[2] Jonathan Bailey, ‘Deep Battle 1914-1941: The Birth of the Modern Style of War,’ Field Artillery Journal, (1998), pp. 21-7.

[3] Ralph Barker, A Brief History of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I (London: Constable & Co., 2002), p. 63.

[4] H.J. Parham and E.M.G. Belfield, Unarmed into Battle: The Story of the Air Observation Post, Second Edition (Chippenham: Picton Publishing, 1986), p.14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid

[8] Darrell Knight, Artillery Flyers at War: A History of the 664, 665, and 666 ‘Air Observation Post’ Squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2010), p. 27.

[9] Parham and Belfield, Unarmed into Battle, p.15.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p.16.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Karl-Heinz Freiser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), p. 79.

[15] Parham and Belfield, Unarmed into Battle, 16.

[16] The National Archives (TNA), AIR 39/47, Letter from Air Commodore Goddard, Director of Military Co-operation to Barratt regarding Artillery Co-operation Policy, 8 December 1940.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] For more information on the army’s reaction to the Battle of France, see: TNA, CAB 106/220, Bartholomew Committee Final Report.

[20] TNA, AIR 39/47, Letter from Barratt to Under-Secretary of State for Air regarding co-operation with the Royal Artillery, 29 January 1941.

[21] Ibid., Appendix A, 29 January 1941.

[22] Ibid., Letter from Headquarters Army Co-operation Command to Headquarters No. 70 Group, Artillery Reconnaissance Trials, 12 April 1941.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., Letter from Barratt to Under Secretary of State for Air, 14 April 1941.

[25] Ibid., Letter from CGS on Artillery Reconnaissance, 5 May 1941.

[26] Ibid., Letter from Barratt to Major-General Otto Lund, GHQ Home Forces, in response from letter from CGS on Artillery Reconnaissance, 10 May 1941.

[27] For example, see: David Ian Hall, Strategy for Victory: The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1919-1943 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), pp. 89-103.


Research Note – RAF Centre for Air Power Studies Interviews

Research Note – RAF Centre for Air Power Studies Interviews

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Oral history is challenging. It is challenging to conduct and to use as a source. It takes a skilled oral historian, such as Peter Hart, to conduct an interview that brings the best out of an interviewee. Much of this has to do with the ability of the interviewer to put the interviewee at ease to allow them to discuss their experiences as openly as possible as well as having an understanding and empathy for the subject matter. As a source, arguably, the principal criticism of oral history remains the charge of viewing the past through ‘rose-tinted glasses.’ In short, the passage of time can distort the remembrance of the past; however, as someone with an interest in military culture, this is also a strength. Culture has as much to do with perception as it does with the archival record of the time so how people remember and reflect on their service is just as important as what happened at the time.

As such, it is great to see that the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies is currently making available a number of interviews that were conducted from the 1970s onwards. The first two were conducted at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell in the early 1990s. It was not unusual to have after-dinner speakers at Bracknell, and it formed part of the pedagogical process at the Staff College. In these cases, the interviewees were Group Captain Sir Hugh Dundas and Wing Commander Roland Beamont. The final interview was conducted in 1978 by the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies Group Captain Tony Mason. The interviewee was Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, and this talk formed part of a series conducted by Mason, which included an interview with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. The unifying theme of the videos is leadership through the participants experience of their service in the RAF.

Here are the videos with their respective descriptions:

In this interview, Wing Commander Roland Prosper “Bee” Beamont, CBE, DSO*, DFC* talks about his experiences during the Second World War with Group Captain (Retd) J P (Phil) Dacre MBE DL RAF at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell (April 1991). Wing Commander Beamont served as a fighter pilot with Fighter Command from the start of the War until he was shot down and captured in October 1944 on his 492nd operational mission. After the War, Wing Commander Beamont went on to become a leading test pilot on aircraft such as the Meteor, Vampire, Canberra and Lightning as well as writing several books.

In the second of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, Battle of Britain legend Group Captain Sir Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas CBE DSO* DFC presents his thoughts on ‘Leadership in War’ followed by an informal question and answer session at an after-dinner speech given circa 1991 at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell. Group Captain Sir Hugh Dundas joined the Auxiliary Air Force as an acting pilot officer in 1938 before being called up to active service early in the war. Initially, he served on 616 Squadron flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain fighting ‘hard and fiercely’ throughout. He went on to serve as a squadron commander and then subsequently as wing leader and had, by 1944, become one of the youngest Group Captains the RAF at the age of just 24. He left the RAF in 1947 to pursue a successful career in the media. His autobiography, Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years, describes his wartime experiences in more detail.

In the third of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, inspirational wartime leader and world-renowned humanitarian, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC OM DSO** DFC is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, February 1978. During the interview Group Captain Cheshire discusses his now legendary record of achievements throughout his service during WWII.

Group Captain Cheshire received a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 16 November 1937. Although he demonstrated considerable prowess in training as a single seat pilot, by a vagary of the system he was destined to be posted to Bomber Command. During the War, his command appointments included 76 Squadron, 617 Squadron, and RAF Marston Moor and he was, at one time, the youngest group captain in the RAF. By July 1944 he had completed a total of 102 missions, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation simply states: ‘Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader’. After the war, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and devoted the remainder of his life to pursuing humanitarian ideals. His obituary in the Independent (1992) declares that ‘LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable’.

Header Image: Flying Officer Leonard Cheshire, while serving his second tour of operations with No. 35 Squadron RAF, stands with his air and ground crews in front of a Handley Page Halifax at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. (Source: © IWM (CH 6373))

Book Review – Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience

Book Review – Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience

By Dr Brian Laslie

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 432 pp.

airpower applied

In the most recent work to focus exclusively on air power combat operations, Colonel John Andreas Olsen of the Royal Norwegian Air Force and a visiting professor at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, presents a thoroughly researched, persuasive, and insightful work on the study of air power that ranges from large-scale state-on-state actions to the more abundant (some might say most likely) asymmetric fights of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century. Olsen’s name should be more than familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the history of air power. He is the author/editor of numerous works including John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power, A History of Air Warfare, Airpower Reborn, Air Commanders, European Air Power, and Global Air Power. Aside from his prolific output, Olsen also has the ability to bring together the most respected names in air power studies to provide chapters in his edited works. The same is true for his latest book, Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience. The purpose of the book, as the title suggests, is to provide a valuation of the American, NATO, and Israeli combat experience from World War II to present campaigns. It is broken into five chapters that cover a total of twenty-nine separate air campaigns or operations. Olsen’s thesis is that ‘knowledge of operational history helps political leaders and military professionals to make better informed decisions about the use of force.’ Thus, this work is not about ‘lessons learned’ as much as it is a learning tool used to provoke thought and create questions amongst professionals.

Richard Hallion provides the first chapter on ‘America as a Military Aerospace Nation: From Pearl Harbor to Desert Storm.’ Hallion admits that much of America’s advancement during the Cold War was owed to ‘emulation and innovation [rather] than to invention.’ That being said, American air power has moved to the forefront of technology, invention, innovation, and execution in the post-Vietnam era leading up to the dramatic successes of air power during the First Gulf War. Before this Hallion covers many previous aerial campaigns, whose success and failures led to the triumph of Operation DESERT STORM: The Second World War, the Berlin Airlift, Korea, Vietnam, ELDORADO CANYON and JUST CAUSE. Hallion’s contribution here is the best single chapter on the history of American air power from the Second World War to DESERT STORM. However, he, unfortunately, omits any discussion of the failings of Operation EAGLE CLAW, missing an opportunity to discuss the genesis of true air power jointness; this might be forgiven considering that most consider EAGLE CLAW a Special Forces operation with little to do with actual air power. Hallion also misses the mark on his discussion about the use of the F-117 in its combat debut during the operation in Panama. Hallion states ‘The F-117 strike at Rio Hato […] succeeded in stunning the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces] defenders.’  This, however, is disputed by the Joint History Office’s report on operation JUST CAUSE which stated that ‘[D]espite radio broadcasts and the use of F-117As and other weapons to stun and intimidate them, most PDF units fought harder than expected before surrendering or fleeing.’[1]

Hallion’s belief in the efficacy of air power is apparent when he states that ‘In the gulf it took one bomb or one missile’ to destroy a target (p. 93). This is an oversimplification and poses a danger to those who would believe it. This view of air power as scalpel needs to be tempered. Bombs and missiles miss and many targets in Iraq had to be repeatedly attacked. There is an oft-repeated axiom that they are called missiles and not hittles for a reason. That being said, Hallion’s chapter represents a concise and persuasive argument detailing just why America has become the eminent air power nation in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries and transitions nicely into the next chapter on air power since DESERT STORM.

Allied Force
A US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker on April 6, 1999, during an air strike mission in support of NATO Operation ALLIED FORCE. (Source: Wikimedia)

Benjamin Lambeth provides the second chapter on ‘American and NATO Airpower Applied: From Deny Flight to Inherent Resolve.’ Lambeth demonstrates that air power in ALLIED FORCE was a ‘textbook illustration of airpower in action not to “win a war” but rather to achieve a discrete and important campaign goal short of full-fledged war’ (p. 133). However, when looked at through Hallion’s view of ROLLING THUNDER as a ‘naïve intent,’ there arises an internal inconsistency in the application of air power to achieve limited ends, something that all scholars of air power still struggle to contend with (p. 53). It seems that when air power is used for a limited goal and ‘works,’ air power scholars tend to use it as a good example and when it is used towards a limited end and fails, i.e. ROLLING THUNDER, we use that as an example of why air power should not be used towards limited ends.

Lambeth goes one bridge too far in his admittedly unfinished assessment, of the role of air power in attacking ISIS in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Readers in 2017 have something Lambeth did not have when he penned his chapter in 2014/2015, namely three more years of data, which seem to finally indicate that the tide against ISIS has turned and that coalition air power with the support of Iraqi and other forces on the ground have driven ISIS out of the sanctuary cities of Raqqa, Sirte, and Mosul. These campaigns, as part of the most precise air campaign in history, and while limiting civilian casualties, took time. Ironically, nearly precisely the amount time called for by government officials in 2014 that Lambeth decried in his chapter.

The book shifts its focus here away from the NATO and American experience to two chapters on Israeli Air Force (IAF) combat operations. First, Alan Stephens writes ‘Modeling Airpower: The Arab-Israeli Wars of the Twentieth Century’ detailing the First Arab-Israeli War to the First Lebanon War in 1982. Stephens provides balance by indicating up front that these conflicts were not only about survival for the country of Israel but the displaced Palestinians as well. Focusing more on the air power side of the conflict, Stephens asks up front, ‘Why were the Israelis so good and the Arabs so bad?’ The answer soon becomes clear, ‘airpower is very expensive’ (p. 274). Israel exploited an ‘educated workforce, rigorous standards, advanced technology and […] exemplary training’ (p. 276). Arab air forces did not, as history, economics, and culture hindered them.

Raphael Rudnik’s and Ephraim Segoli’s next chapter, ‘The Israeli Air Force and Asymmetric Conflicts, 1982-2014,’ looks at the myriad of smaller conflicts Israel has fought since 1982. The chapter also provides linkages to conflicts Lambeth discussed, thus linking the American, NATO, and Israeli conflicts into an overarching air power learning environment. In other words, those who execute air power struggle with the same problems. Namely, as Rudnik and Segoli stated when discussing Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah, ‘[T]he large gap between its [the IAF] improved assault capabilities and its ability to identify viable targets’ in conflicts where an expressed desire of governments is minimising civilian casualties against increasingly urban enemies (p. 294). This highlights the difficulties faced by the IAF and the USAF, namely the need to prepare for ‘traditional’ air force missions versus the asymmetric conflicts of the 21st Century.

A pair of U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers fly over Iraq at sunset during a mission in support of Operation IRAQ FREEDOM, c. 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

Colonel John Warden provides a final chapter that looks at ‘The Airpower Profession.’ From a certain point of view, Warden still seems to be litigating his arguments from the First Gulf War by focusing not on fielded forces, but rather on parallel warfare against the five rings, which can also be found in his work, The Air Campaign. Warden also decries the ‘cult of jointness’ (p. 343) and believes that ‘surface officers have far less motivation to concern themselves with direct strategic effects than do air professionals’ (p. 346). Warden’s real value is added when he describes the many areas needed to be understood truly by air power professionals, but more importantly, the attendant ability to articulate the importance of air power. So, what does the education of an air power professional look like? Warden casts a wide net of topics worthy of study including classical and modern military history and strategy but also includes more nuanced fields including economics, secular and religious philosophy, fiction, marketing, and advertising.

Any disagreements this author might have over omissions or discrepancies with this work are relatively minor to the overall importance and continued relevance of this well-written, eloquently argued, and nuanced study of air power operations. If one aspect of air power becomes clear, it is that the U.S., NATO, and Israel have proven their ability in large-scale state-on-state conflict, but the ability to use air power in the asymmetric fight is still being argued, some might say conceived. What is needed is more discussion and a better understanding by those in the military and national security communities on the merits and limits of air power operations in what will only become a more contested environment in the future. From the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles to peer-on-peer conflict, aerial operations will only increase, and a deep understanding of what air power can and cannot provide can only be accomplished through continued works like Airpower Applied.

Header Image: A two-ship of Israeli Air Force F-16s from Ramon Air Base, Israel, head out to the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 17 during Red Flag Exercise 09-4, c. 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Ronald H. Cole, Operation Just Cause: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Panama, February 1988-January 1990 (Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Washington, D.C., 1995), p. 41

Research Note – Wither Air Power Studies?

Research Note – Wither Air Power Studies?

By Dr Ross Mahoney

I started writing this post several months ago, but for various reasons, it lay dormant until a recent Twitter exchange began with Brian Laslie. Brian suggested that Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power was the ‘foundation of modern air power studies.’ This immediately got my attention, and I queried this, which led to a fruitful exchange of views on the subject between several participants.

The original source for this post came from comments I provided to the Second Sir James Rowland Seminar at the Australian Defence Force Academy, which is an initiative between UNSW Canberra and the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. Another source was a post by Nicholas Sarantakes with an update on the ongoing debate on the ‘decline’ of military history in academia. These sources originally got me thinking about the state of air power studies in the English-speaking worlds and the recent Twitter exchange brought that process to the fore again.

In my reply to Brian, I made the argument that in the UK, the mantle of ‘father’ of air power studies, in my opinion, belongs to Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason who was the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS). To my mind, Tony generated the space for the subject both within the RAF and with external partners. There are, of course, other names we could put into this mix including Dr Noble Frankland, J.M. Spaight, Professor Phil Sabin and Professor Richard Overy, but I am unsure whether these writers ever created enough mass for the field to evolve. For example, while Overy wrote on air power issues early in his career, he then moved onto other subjects, though has more recently returned to the field. Conversely, through the creation of the DDefS post, the RAF has provided a platform for the development of air power studies in the UK. The position still exists, and there have been several notable holders of the post including Dr Peter Gray, who is now Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stu Peach. Indeed, since moving to the University of Birmingham, Grey has helped generate a mass of air power scholars in the UK and beyond.

Despite my views on the origins of air power studies in the UK, some important issues came out of the discussion on Twitter. One is that while we might identify Clodfelter or Mason as defining the field in the US and UK respectively, this does not answer the question of whether there is someone who crosses national boundaries. One name that did spring to mind was John Andreas Olsen. However, as Travis Hallen, one of the editors over at The Central Blue, reflected, Olsen has been more productive in bringing together people to produce worthwhile edited volumes. Furthermore, as David Benson, a Professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies, noted these writers may have defined the field but should they define it today? David provided an interesting reflection on this issue in a number of Tweets, and while I do not agree with all of his points, his views on how we define the field are critical.

Knowledge is not static and as such how we define the field of air power studies should not be fixed either. Indeed, David suggested that this might be the case with it being argued that the study of air power might not be keeping up with changes in the field of social science. Here lies one problem as this essentially suggests a social science view of the study of air power and raises the question of where the subject fits as a discipline? Is the study of air power a social science or is it interdisciplinary? Moreover, are we looking at air power from the perspective of how it is defined in doctrine or do we need to take a broader view that encompasses a wider remit and brings in other fields including history? I would suggest the latter.

Take, for example, myself, I am an air power specialist, but first and foremost I am a historian, though I admittedly make use of interdisciplinary methodologies. My views on air power, even when looking forward, is essentially historical in outlook. I believe that we cannot understand the future without first considering past challenges, but does this lead to a ‘classical’ analysis of air power? I do not think so. I would argue that my broader perspective allows me, hopefully, to push the field forward. In this, I agree with David’s view that is up to those of us currently working in the field to ‘push it from its origins into modernity as a scholarly field’. Another advantage of broadening the scope of air power studies is that by encompassing a more comprehensive approach that includes aspects such as the history of air warfare and the social and cultural analysis of the armed forces, then we can further understand how we develop the knowledge that defines the field. We should also add other disciplines into this comprehensive mix including ethics and law.

Despite much of this rambling and reflection the crux of the issue remains how we develop air power studies as a scholarly field? What are the mechanisms that can be used to develop and disseminate knowledge? For me, one of the key issues here is the insular character of the field. As John Ferris reflected in 1998, those studying air power are either:

[t]he children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.[1]

My reading of the situation is that not much has changed and broadly speaking those of us writing on air power are a homogenous group who come from similar backgrounds. Again, using myself as an example, I am the child of a soldier, my PhD supervisor was a retired one-star officer, and I work for an institution devoted to preserving the history of an air force. Therefore, I accept there will always be a degree of subjectivity in my work. As such, how do we break free from that mould to further develop our field?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in establishing networks beyond our traditional insular boundaries. How do we, for example, encourage the study of air power beyond military academies? How do we work with colleagues who might ask difficult questions that do not fit our subjective paradigms? We need to be willing to accept these challenges and be prepared to discuss these issues freely and openly rather than dismissing them.

Further to a conceptual and personal willingness to engage, which I suspect most of us are happy to do, there is the question of the mechanism for discussion. While online platforms, such as From Balloons to Drones, The Central Blue, The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks are useful for generating discussion, are there other ways of pushing and developing knowledge? Has the time come, for example, to establish an academic journal devoted to air power that moves us beyond the service sponsored journals?

I have no silver bullet to these questions and what I have written here is part of an ongoing reflection on the subject, and I welcome any further thoughts people have. Nevertheless, I do think the time has come for us to reflect on the field and start ‘push it from its origins’.

Header Image: An RAF Atlas (A400-M) at night during Operation Mobility Guardian. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] John R. Ferris, ‘Review Article – The Air Force Brats’ View of History: Recent Writing and the Royal Air Force, 1918–1960,’ The International History Review, 20:1 (1998), p. 119.

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41

By Justin Pyke

Editorial Note: In the final part of a three-part article, Justin Pyke examines American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the inter-war years. This final part examines issues between 1937 and the outbreak of war between America and Japan in 1941. Part one and two of this article can be found here and here.

Japan’s air services had successfully weaned themselves off of their foreign dependence by 1937. American intelligence assessments continued to identify the strategic and industrial weaknesses of Japanese air power accurately but became poor concerning technology and tactics. Japanese information security was tighter than it had ever been. Hence, American observers formed their conclusions through open sources and preconceived notions. When evidence emerged contradicting the prevailing view of Japan’s lack of technological innovation, they were ignored or explained away. Assessments of Japanese personnel began to swing toward a consistently negative view. These failures in assessing Japanese technology, tactics, and personnel from 1937-41 contributed to the defeats at the outset of the Pacific War.

 A captured Mitsubishi ARM ‘Zero’ in flight, c. 1944 (Source: National Naval Aviation Museum)

The Americans had relied on access to Japanese air stations and factories to gain their information until the early 1930s. This avenue was closed with the start of the war in China. In place of the old sources, American observers came to rely extensively on open sources, like official Japanese press releases, supplemented with the precious little information that could be drawn from chance sightings of Japanese aircraft by Westerners.[1] A meaningful assessment of Japanese air power’s performance in China, or detailed technical information of a specific aircraft, would surface on occasion. The information gained from open sources at best-reiterated views that had been in place for almost two decades and at worst became more critical and inaccurate about Japanese capabilities.

American assessments of the Japanese aviation industry remained accurate, despite Japan’s turn towards tight information security. However, the preconception that Japan could not innovate technologically remained pervasive. A July 1937 report was typical. It acknowledged the advances made by the Japanese aviation industry, accurately identified the numerous weaknesses present, and stated that a ‘dearth of local inventive ability’ was a critical failure.[2] Another report referred to the numerous industrial weaknesses as a ‘cancer,’ and went on to claim that Japan continued to rely on copies of foreign aircraft, acquired either through production licenses or ‘outright mimicry.’[3] American assessments combined recognition of the real weaknesses of Japan’s aviation industry with the fiction that it still relied on the copying of foreign aircraft designs.

The American emphasis on Japanese industrial weakness was warranted. The continued shortage of machine tools, skilled labour, heavy equipment, and modern industrial techniques contributed to Japan’s lack of an aircraft reserve, slower rates of production, poor quality and quantity of spare parts, and the numerous other issues that undermined Japanese air power.[4] Greg Kennedy has emphasised this point when he stated that to view:

[tactical] success as demonstrative of the overall ability of Japan to manifest effective, modern air power is to misunderstand fundamentally the core attributes of air power.[5]

Ultimately, the weaknesses of Japanese industry identified by the Americans before the war worked to cripple the offensive capabilities of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service (IJAAS) and Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service (IJNAS) during it.

 A Kawasaki Ki-61 ‘Tony’ of the 149th Shimbu Unit at Ashiya airfield in Fukuoka, Japan, c. 1945 (Source: Wikimedia)

The most egregious error in American reporting from mid-1937 onward concerned the preconception that Japan was incapable of designing its own aircraft. Exceptions to this trend did exist, but they were easily drowned out by the overwhelming number of reports that reiterated the same trope of Japanese unoriginality.[6] Fictional aircraft were given corresponding European designs that the Japanese supposedly had copied.[7] When the Americans received hard evidence of Japanese technological innovation, these indicators were ignored or misunderstood. Excellent American intelligence on the B5N Carrier Attack Bomber (‘Kate’) was not used as evidence that Japan had moved away from copying foreign designs.[8] The G3M was immediately assumed to be a copy of the German Junkers Ju-86, while another report stressed the bomber was a Heinkel design with Junkers’ ailerons. In fact, the superlative bomber was indigenous in origin.[9] Even when American observers disagreed on what the aircraft was a copy of, there was no doubt that it had to be a copy of something.

These preconceptions were all the more dangerous as Japan introduced new aircraft that it would use against the West in 1941. The most famous of these was the A6M Carrier Fighter (‘Zero’/‘Zeke’). Despite some accurate reporting on the aircraft, it remained largely unknown in Western aviation circles.[10] In one instance, the testimony of a captured Japanese bomber pilot caused confusion when he explained that the A6M was designed to dive on the enemy, then zoom upwards and prepare for another dive, but not to engage in extensive combat aerobatics. This reflected IJNAS fighter doctrine, which was similar to that of the Americans, rather than the true capabilities of the A6M. The Americans interpreted the testimony to mean the new fighter lacked manoeuvrability.[11] The underestimation of the A6M seems like a minor error when viewed in isolation. Indeed, American pilots quickly gained an understanding of the fighter from their first combat encounters.[12] However, it was only a symptom of a much broader issue. Evidence that the Japanese had achieved rough technological parity with the United States was belittled or ignored. Individual Japanese aircraft may have been better or worse than foreign counterparts for their intended roles, but American assessments assumed a clear and decisive technological advantage where none existed. Nor did Japanese technological innovation stop with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both air services introduced aircraft, such as the Nakajima Ki-84 Fighter (Hayate/‘Frank’), that matched some of the best American designs throughout the war.[13] The problem was not that leading-edge Japanese aircraft designs were worse than their American counterparts, but that they never were able to replace their ageing predecessors in sufficient numbers to matter.

The Americans dismissed not just Japanese innovation, but its personnel and tactics. American views of Japanese personnel became increasingly negative after the start of the war in China. Assessments of Japanese factory workers and mechanics significantly reduced in frequency and classified reporting on aircrews indicated that they were of poor to mediocre quality.[14] American observers also continued to emphasize Japan’s lack of pilot reserves and training facilities.[15] Popular literature took a firm stand on Japanese personnel and often relied heavily on racism and national characteristics. One such work listed a number of Japanese racial defects, and summarised them as ‘daring but incompetent aviators.’[16] Classified sources never degraded into this kind of drivel, despite American intelligence shortcomings concerning Japanese tactics and technology.

 A captured Imperial Japanese Navy Aichi B7A2 ‘Grace’, c. 1945. This was one of many capable indigenous aircraft introduced by the Japanese air services during the Pacific War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Surprisingly little reporting discussed Japanese aerial performance in China, and reports that did provide a more balanced, and accurate, assessment of Japanese capabilities.[17] Occasionally, Chinese pilots were interviewed on their combat experience against the Japanese. One report from September 1940 concluded that dive bombing by the IJAAS and IJNAS was ‘very poor,’ while horizontal bombing had ‘improved tremendously.’ Discipline among IJNAS twin-engine bombers was rated ‘excellent,’ and the carrier air groups were given particularly high praise. The most important piece of information provided by Chinese pilots was that the Japanese sent fighter escorts with their bombers whenever possible.[18] However, given the mixed quality of the Republic of China Air Force, their views concerning Japanese capabilities were easily dismissed.[19]

The American underestimation of the Japanese air services’ personnel, tactics, and technology from 1937-41 contributed to, though by no means caused, the early defeats in the Pacific War. However, Japan’s inability to rectify the fundamental problems within its air services and aviation industry crippled its air power as the war progressed, just as American observers had predicted. The accurate assessment that Japan could not win a prolonged war of attrition in the air against the United States was what mattered most. However, the errors in assessing Japanese tactics and technology caused serious problems over the short term. In their haste to predict the setting of the Sun, the Americans failed to appreciate the danger of its rise.

Header Image: A Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’/‘Zeke’ at the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Langley Research Center, Virginia on 8 March 1943. On 4 June 1942, a Japanese task force launched a strike against Dutch Harbor, Alaska from the aircraft carriers Ryujo and Junyo. Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga was flying an A6M2 from the Ryujo. On the way back to his carrier, he discovered of bullets had pierced his fuel tanks and he headed for an emergency landing on Akutan Island. However, the plane flipped over on its back during the landing, and Koga was killed. The A6M itself was only slightly damaged. A Japanese submarine failed to locate Koga or his plane, but five weeks later an American naval scouting party found the Japanese fighter. The A6M2 was salvaged and shipped back to the USA where it was repaired, and went through an exhaustive series of tests in order to gain information about its strengths and weaknesses. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] A-1-m 15776, Dive Bombing in the Japanese Aviation, July 27, 1938, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA; Japanese Naval Activities in China, July 29, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA; Comments on Naval Aviation by Japanese Naval Aviators, August 23, 1941, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1941 File 62, RG 38, NA.

[2] Expansion of Aircraft Manufacturing Industry, July 21, 1937, Selected Naval Attaché Reports Relating to the World Crisis, 1937-1943, Roll 2, RG 38, NA, p. 1.

[3] The Aircraft Industry in Japan, August 5, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA, pp. 1-2.

[4] Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), p. 100; Erich Pauer, ‘Japan’s technical mobilization in the Second World War,’ in Erich Pauer (ed.), Japan’s War Economy (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), pp. 54-5; Hagiwara Mitsuru, ‘The Japanese Air Campaigns in China, 1937-1945,’ in Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van de Ven (eds.), The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 243; Jonathan B. Parshall and Anthony P. Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), p. 89; Eric M. Bergerud, Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific (New York: Basic Books, 2009), p. 21, 46; Sakai Saburo, Martin Caidin, and Fred Saito, Samurai! (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991), p. 242.

[5] Greg Kennedy, ‘Anglo-American Strategic Relations and Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1934-1941,’ The Journal of Military History, 74:3 (2010), p. 772.

[6] William M. Leary, ‘Assessing the Japanese Threat: Air Intelligence Prior to Pearl Harbor,’ Aerospace Historian, 34:4 (1987), p. 274; 2085-947, The Capabilities of Japan in Military Aviation, June 23, 1939, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 31, University Press of America, p. 1.

[7] Airplane Characteristics – Mitsubishi Type Zero Fighter, November 9, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 125-202, RG 38, NA; New Dive Bomber in Production, August 2, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA.

[8] New Types of Aircraft, July 17, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 89-164, RG 38, NA; Type 97 Torpedo-Bomber, November 16, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 234-281, RG 38, NA; Specifications of Japanese Naval Bomber, Model 97, June 4, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA.

[9] Richard M. Bueschel, Mitsubishi/Nakajima G3M1/2/3 96 Rikko L3Y1/2 In Japanese Naval Air Service (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), p. 20; Description of Navy Heavy Bomber, Type 96, July 26, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; René J. Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, Second Edition (London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1979), p. 350.

[10] Thomas G. Mahnken, Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 79-80; Horikoshi Jiro, Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter, trans. Shojiro Shindo and Harold N. Wantiez (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), p. 107.

[11] Leary, ‘Assessing the Japanese Threat,’ pp. 275-76; Horikoshi, Eagles of Mitsubishi, p. 85; John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), p. 486; Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau, Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012), p. 13; Sakai et.al., Samurai, p. 83.

[12] John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), pp. 535-36.

[13] See: Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War; Richard M. Bueschel, Nakajima Ki.84a/b Hayate in Japanese Army Air Force Service (Canterbury: Osprey Publishing, 1971).

[14] Notes on Japanese Naval Aviation, August 4, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; Dropping of Aircraft Torpedoes by Japanese Naval Aircraft, September 26, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; A-1-m 15776, Aerial Operations, August 2, 1940, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA; 2085-956, Handbook on the Air Services of Japan, September 27, 1940, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 31, University Press of America, p. 36, 79.

[15] 2085-908, Military Aviation – General, July 29, 1937, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 30, University Press of America, p. 3; W.D. Puleston, The Armed Forces of the Pacific: A Comparison of the Military and Naval Power of the United States and Japan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941), p. 231.

[16] Fletcher Pratt, Sea Power and Today’s War (New York: Harrison-Hilton Books, 1939), pp. 177-78.

[17] 2085-947, The Capabilities of Japan in Military Aviation, pp. 1-3.

[18] Comment on Japanese Air Force by Chinese Aviators, September 17, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 125-202, RG 38, NA; Peattie, Sunburst, p. 110, 123.

[19] Peter Harmsen, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (Havertown: Casemate Publishers, 2013), p. 30.

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 2 – 1930-1937

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 2 – 1930-1937

By Justin Pyke

Editorial Note: In the second part of a three-part article, Justin Pyke examines American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the inter-war years. This second part examines issues between 1930 and 1937. Part one of this article can be found here.

The early and mid-1930s brought with them a fundamental change in the trajectory of the Japanese air services. Their dependence on foreign technology and assistance began to decrease at the same time American intelligence assessments began to drop noticeably in overall quality. This decline stemmed partly from the dramatic improvement of Japanese information security and the increasing influence of preconceived notions of Japanese unoriginality. Observations concerning the Japanese aviation industry and the broad strategic value of air power remained consistent and accurate, while opinions of Japanese personnel became increasingly contradictory.

 A Nakajima Ki-27 ‘Nate’ fighter aircraft. (Source: Wikimedia)

Western observers were forced to rely increasingly on open sources in place of the informative avenues that they had used previously. The Japanese press reported generally on the air services, and the frequency of reports that paraphrased such news stories gradually increased and replaced the detailed assessments derived from other sources.[1] The amount of information gathered through tours of air stations declined dramatically from 1930-37.[2] Additionally, Western aviation experts and military officers were treated increasingly like spies.[3] The Americans still were able to gather much intelligence regarding strategic and industrial issues, but nothing provided the kind of detailed tactical and technical information that they had grown accustomed to having during the 1920s.

The assessments that came out of Japan from 1930 to mid-1937 continued to accurately track the rapid expansion of the air services, along with the problems that constantly plagued the aviation industry. A June 1930 report contained comprehensive details concerning aircraft production across the dozens of factories that had sprung up in the country. For example, the Kawasaki Dockyard Company in Kobe possessed approximately 200 machine tools in its aircraft and engine factory, almost all of American manufacture.[4] The Japanese had relied heavily on the importation of foreign machine tools during the 1920s and did so even more as the industry expanded. Despite the continuing weakness of the Japanese aviation industry, the author of another report was surprised at the ‘remarkable strides’ that the Japanese Army (IJA) and Navy (IJN) had taken during the previous year, both in quality and quantity of production.[5] Strategy drove these strides. The IJN wished to use air power to overcome the disadvantage in the surface fleet institutionalised by the Washington and London naval arms limitation treaties, and the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service would undergo a similar expansion following the annexation of Manchuria and the 1932 Shanghai Incident.[6]

Foreign observers closely followed Japan’s increased efforts to expand the air services. In 1934, the Soviet State Military Publishing Bureau published a book on the Japanese air services written by D. Streshnevsky.[7] His views on the quality of Japanese industry roughly coincided with those of the Americans. The book listed all the aviation-related factories in Japan and noted that almost every single one had been enlarged, reconstructed, or both. Despite these strides, the aviation industry still depended on imports. Fuel was the most critical shortage, due to Japan’s complete lack of indigenous sources.[8] Such discussions of strategic resources and industrial capability were a staple of intelligence assessments of Japanese aviation, justifiably.[9] In 1936, the American military attaché provided an excellent summary of the strategic and industrial elements of Japanese air power. He noted aircraft manufacturing, which already struggled with a lack of skilled workers, would be hindered even more after the outbreak of hostilities due to the need for expanded production while making use of the same limited pool of the workforce. Additionally, factories could easily be deprived of the raw materials needed to manufacture aircraft of quality and quantity.[10] Another report noted the slow rate of aircraft production meant that Japan was unable to maintain a sufficient aircraft reserve:

planes designated as ‘reserve planes’ are used as much as those in service, and the number may vary from none at all to a disproportionate percentage, especially where units are being equipped with new models.[11]

Overall, reports stressed that Japanese industrial practices were rapidly improving, but still struggled with many inherent weaknesses, such as a reliance on foreign techniques and a shortage of skilled labour, raw resources, and machine tools.

An Imperial Japanese Navy’s G3M from Kisarazu Air Group over Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, Nanking, 1938. This bomber entered service in 1936. (Source: Wikimedia)

Appraisals of Japanese technological progress began to slip in quality during the early and mid-1930s. The preconception that the Japanese were incapable of extensive technical innovation in aviation, which had been true during the 1920s, began to mask the Japanese progress in the area from the early 1930s. It is telling that the translation of Streshnevsky’s work was the only report from the American naval attaché’s office that emphasised Japan’s growing inventive capabilities.[12] Mr Parker of the Bristol Company expressed the typical Western view when he described the Japanese as ‘notorious copyists.’[13] Instead, by 1930 the Japanese were modifying foreign designs to fit their own needs rather than simply copying them wholesale, and an increasing number of designs were entirely of Japanese origin. Several capable indigenous aircraft were designed or entered service from 1933-37, such as the G3M Land-Based Attack Aircraft (‘Nell’), and combined to bring the Japanese air services up to rough technological parity with the West by the late 1930s.[14] By the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in July 1937, the Japanese had achieved independence in the field of aviation design and manufacturing, something that went unnoticed by American observers.

American assessments of the quality of Japanese pilots, mechanics, and workers were increasingly varied and contradictory. Philip G. Lucas of the Hawker Company stated that the Japanese were ‘competent’ pilots who should not be underrated, implying that the common views held in the United States and Great Britain were inaccurate.[15] Parker and Mr Burgoine of the Bristol Company both agreed that the Japanese were ‘excellent’ fliers, but exhibited a lack of initiative and originality in their flights.[16] Two foreign air force pilots, one British and one German, were given increasingly rare opportunities to witness Japanese pilots in flight while they toured IJA and IJN air stations in early 1935. They both concluded the Japanese were ‘good’ pilots, but the Englishman noted that the Japanese were more ‘conservative’ in their manoeuvring.[17] Streshnevsky’s analysis of Japanese air performance over Shanghai in 1932 left a poor impression. Japanese bombing was ineffectual because of poorly trained pilots and insufficient bomb loads.[18] While reports on aircrew quality were contradictory, American observers continued to accurately note that Japan lacked the depth of aircrew reserves to keep up with the rate of attrition in a high-intensity air war.[19]

Americans assessed Japanese mechanics and workers much as they did their flying compatriots. Mr R. Moffett of the Wright Aeronautical Corporation condemned all the Japanese engineers, mechanics, and workers with whom he worked. Engine mechanics, ‘lamentably poor’ when tasked with correcting minor difficulties with auxiliary equipment, had to be shown the exact detailed procedure to follow. Enlisted men appeared ‘stupid.’ Moffett concluded that the Japanese ‘are striving far beyond their capabilities in the engine field.’[20] Other Western aviation representatives had kinder words for Japanese personnel. Lucas described the Japanese mechanics whom he met as ‘extremely intelligent’ and rated the overall quality of Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service maintenance personnel as ‘very high.’[21] Burgoine and Parker believed that the Japanese could learn rapidly through experience, and thought the mechanics in the aviation industry well-trained and ‘excellent,’ but lacking experience with machine tools.[22]

The American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power from 1930 to mid-1937 remained excellent regarding industrial and strategic issues but were noticeably less accurate regarding technology and tactics. Japanese military aviation had been an open door for intelligence gathering in the 1920s, but the opening gradually narrowed through the early 1930s and slammed shut with the start of the war in China in 1937. The preconception of Japanese unoriginality, particularly regarding aircraft design, became increasingly influential during the 1930s at a time when Japan was moving away from its foreign dependence. Meanwhile, the opinions concerning the quality of Japanese air and ground crews were diverse, varying wildly from praise to derision and everything in between. The lack of a clear and consistent snapshot of Japanese personnel became a major problem in the late 1930s, as did the assumption that the Japanese could not innovate in the aviation sphere.

Header Image: Nakajima Ki-27 at Nomonhan during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, c. 1939. This indigenous IJAAS fighter entered service in 1937. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] E-8-a 21984, Japanese Army desires for Unification of Army-Navy Air Service Opposed by Navy, March 20, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 732, RG 38, NA.

[2] A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 4 1930, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, January 30 1932, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 4 1933, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 31 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 24 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA.

[3] 2085-810, Military Aviation – General: Attachment of British Officer to the 4th Air Regt., February 10 1937, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America, p. 2, 15; A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued, May 1 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA, 1; A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, February 11 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA, p. 2; A-1-a 21684,Visit to Japan of Mr Victor E. Bertrandias of the Douglas Aircraft Company, February 16 1937, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA, pp. 1-2.

[4] 2085-680, Aircraft Factories, June 8, 1930, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America, p. 4.

[5] 2085-844, Aircraft Building of the Army & Navy during 1931, March 6, 1932, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America, p. 1.

[6] Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), p. 27; Yoichi Hirama, ‘Japanese Naval Preparations for World War II,’ Naval War College Review, 44:2 (1991), p. 69; René J. Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, Second Edition (London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1979), p. 31. For further details on the interwar naval arms limitation treaties, see: Erik Goldstein and John H. Maurer (eds.), The Washington Naval Conference, 1921-22: Naval Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor (London: Frank Cass, 1994); John H. Maurer and Christopher M. Bell (eds.), At the Crossroads between Peace and War: The London Naval Conference of 1930 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014).

[7] A-1-a 21973, Development of the Japanese Air Fleet, March 5, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA; A-1-a 21973, Japanese Naval Aviation, June 1, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA.

[8] A-1-a 21973, Development of the Japanese Air Fleet, 6-12.

[9] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation; A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued; 2085-812, Aircraft Production – Non-Governmental. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Company, Ltd. Nagoya Aircraft Works, June 7, 1937, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America; 2085-885, Air Information, April 28, 1934, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America; 2085-687, Reply to Evaluation of Reports, October 23, 1936, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America.

[10] 2085-687, Reply to Evaluation of Reports, October 23, 1936, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America, p. 1.

[11] 2085-810, Military Aviation – General, p. 1.

[12] A-1-a 21973, Japanese Naval Aviation, p. 5.

[13] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, p. 4.

[14] Mikesh and Abe, Japanese Aircraft, p. 45; Peattie, Sunburst, p. 86, 89. Also see: Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War.

[15] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued, p. 2.

[16] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, p. 4.

[17] A-1-a 21684, Foreign Opinions Regarding Japanese Naval and Military Aviation, February 21, 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA.

[18] A-1-m 15776, Fighting Experience of the Japanese Military Air Forces, March 17, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA, 6.

[19] 2085-687, Reply to Evaluation of Reports, p. 2.

[20] A-1-a 21684, Visit to Japan of American Aircraft Representative, p. 1.

[21] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued, pp. 1-2.

[22] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, p. 4.

Review Article – Air Power in Technicolour

Review Article – Air Power in Technicolour

By Dr Ross Mahoney

John Dibbs and Tony Holmes, Spitfire: The Legend Lives On. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2016. Foreword. Images. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 224 pp.

John Dibbs, Tony Holmes and Gordon Riley, Hurricane: Hawker’s Fighter Legend. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2017. Foreword. Images. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 256 pp.

John Dibbs, Kent Ramsey and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Renner, Storm of Eagles: The Greatest Aviation Photographs of World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2017. Foreword. Images. Index. Hbk. 248 pp.


We have all been there have we not? You are standing in the bookshop looking at ‘serious’ history books, and then it happens, your eyes are drawn to a big shiny book, usually on the bottom shelf. You cannot help yourself; you are drawn to it and pick it up and fawn at the pictures, usually glossy. Whether you buy it is irrelevant; there is something that always draws you to such books. Whether it is the subject matter or the high-quality photography, it happens. This is what coffee table books are designed to do. They are designed to bring you ‘in’ with description and dazzling images.


These three books from Osprey Publishing are very well-produced examples of the coffee table book genre that will tempt you with their wares. Two of the books, Spitfire and Hurricane complement each other as their subject matter is the two fighters that exemplify the Royal Air Force’s contribution to the Second World War. The third book, Storm of Eagles, is a collection of period photographs from the Second World War that has been produced with the support of the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs. Both Spitfire and Hurricane follow a similar layout and provide descriptions of different versions of their respective aircraft or a campaign in which they were involved. For example, in Spitfire, there is a chapter on the Rolls-Royce Griffon engined Spitfire (pp. 113-44) while Hurricane includes a section on the Malta campaign (pp. 142-55). Each chapter also includes a discussion of relevant restored examples of the aircraft, which provide a framework for the narrative. This narrative is ably supported by a mix of John Dibbs’ high-quality modern images of restored aircraft alongside some great archive pictures. A valuable addition to these books are their respective forewords written by veterans who flew the aircraft, and in Hurricane, this is provided by Wing Commander Tom Neil while Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum provided the introduction for Spitfire. This helps round the books off by offering some useful personal views of the aircraft and associated issues such as motivation. As Neil reflected:

Flight is wonderful, flight in a machine you love is simply magical, and these photographs offer a sense of that (p. 14).

Sorm of Eagles

Unlike the first two books, Storm of Eagles is broader in scope and not focused on a single aircraft type. Rather, split geographically into theatres of operations with images used to illustrate air power in these geographic areas, this book presents an excellent mix of pictures not just of aircraft but also of the experience of air warfare and service with air forces. While images of the American experience predominate, there are photographs included from all the major combatants of the Second World War, thus, highlighting the transnational experience of air warfare during this conflict. Indeed, from my perspective, this book and the selection of photographs used, highlights how under utilised images can be as a source when it comes to understanding the experience of war. For example, the image of Major Robert S. Johnson (p. 81), a United States Army Air Force (USAAF) ace with 27 victories on the P-47 Thunderbolt, at the Republic factory at Farmingdale, Long Island illustrates several salient themes concerning the Second World War. First, this image highlights the role of propaganda in war as Johnson had been ordered home for a War Bond tour. Such tours put the USAAF in as positive a light as possible and helped explain the necessity for war production. Second, in being an act of propaganda, it highlights the relationship between the home front and front-line and the need to ensure workers understood the impact their work had on the war effort by creating a bond between ‘workers’ and ‘fighters’. In short, such propaganda activities were an important aspect of civil-military relations and images such as this further our understanding of these deeds. Third, the photo also shows the celebrity of the pilot as a fundamental aspect of air force ethos. Ultimately, understanding factors such as those noted above are critical to our understanding of the Second World War and photographs are a source that historians should not ignore.

To conclude, and to come back to my rather flippant introduction, these are lovely looking books; however, do they add anything to how we think about war generally and air power in particular? For me, the simple answer is yes. First, at one level, there is information that can be garnered from such books in particular through sections such as the forewords, which typically tend to be written by veterans. These give a useful insight into how those who operated and flew these aircraft think and feel about them. Also, as already noted with Storm of Eagles, some of the images presented are relevant sources in themselves and need to be utilised more fully where possible concerning what they add to our corpus of knowledge on the experience of war. Second, and simply put, books such as those under review here, are a popular genre as any visit to a major bookshop chain will attest. If, as historians, we are to understand the phenomenon of war, then we have to not only comprehend either the cultural resonance of conflict, or the physical act itself, but also the linkages between these two ends of the same lens. It is clear that such books, which tend to focus on the conduct of war, provide a means through which to appreciate the cultural resonance of conflict and as such provide a broader understanding of the phenomenon of war. This, ultimately, will further enrich our knowledge of the past.

Header Image: An airman of the 654th Bombardment Squadron, 25th Bombardment Group, USAAF, poses with de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI “H” MM388. (Source: © IWM (UPL 6940))