Mirrors and lenses

Japanese flying bomb / Modern Mechanix, April 1933

Via Modern Mechanix comes this supposed Japanese suicide bomb. It's from the April 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix, an American magazine. It's not an aeroplane but a precision guided munition, with the guidance supplied by the pilot inside the bomb itself. The accompanying article claims that Japan was using such bombs in China.

Now, this is a bit outside my area but I'm fairly sure that Japan was doing no such thing. It had pretty complete air superiority in China and it was winning on the ground, so why would it need to resort to suicide tactics? Modern Mechanix has an explanation: it's because 'the Nipponese are conscious of their inferiority in developing new and fearful weapons of war, and are forced to rely on man-power'.

The simple truth of the matter is that -- a man is practically required to steer Japanese bombs to their mark because they haven’t been able to develop the bomb-sighting machinery which makes Uncle Sam’s flyers, for instance, so deadly in their accuracy.

Contrast this with the American way:

A country like the United States would approach the problem of directing bomb flight in an entirely different way. Some method of mechanical control of the bomb would be sought -- in fact, the idea of controlling a bomb or gun shell by radio is already being worked on, as described in Modern Mechanix and Inventions some months ago. It will be seen that, entirely aside from making the sacrifice of a man’s life unnecessary, radio control of a bomb is much more accurate and less liable to error through the failure of the human machine in a moment of critical nervous tension.

So deficiency in Japanese technology + Japanese tradition of suicide = Japanese suicide bomb. Which would be risibly racist -- except that it's not too far from what really happened, only 11 years too early. (The first kamikaze attack was against HMAS Australia at Leyte, in October 1944.) So perhaps I'm being a bit harsh?

I'll admit the author had a point, but he took it too far:

In the field of machinery the Japanese mind is at a peculiar disadvantage. They are able to turn out an exact copy of any mechanism that comes into their hands, but the type of mechanical imagination which went into its original creation—which, for want of a better term, is sometimes known as Yankee ingenuity—they are at a loss to duplicate.

Yes, Japan was technologically (and perhaps more importantly, industrially) backwards compared with the United States, but it wasn't due to any innate features of Japanese society or culture. Japan wasn't as far behind as some thought, and it wasn't equally far behind in all areas, and it wasn't always behind (and in the longer term, nor would it remain so). Assumptions like this led to some nasty surprises in 1941. (And let's not forget that Uncle Sam's bombsights were not all that.) It took three years of total war against the Allies to bring the Japanese military to the point that Modern Mechanix claimed it was at after only two years of relatively low-intensity war.

So this insight into Japanese military psychology was misleading -- it distorted the truth like looking through a poorly-made lens. This kind of essentialist thinking is still with us today. But the other extreme -- the mirror image -- can also be highly misleading. At about this same time, the Air Staff was worrying about the prospect of German aerial rearmament. This was banned under the Versailles Treaty, but with the Nazis in control this was clearly not going to last long. The problem was that the RAF assumed that the nascent German air force would have the same priorities and the same growing pains as it itself had as a young force, ten or fifteen year earlier. That is, it would grow only slowly, and instead concentrate on institution-building, pilot training and building up reserves. The stereotype of Germans as a seriously efficient people reinforced this. As the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, argued in May 1934:

A nation so admittedly thorough as Germany will not be content with a mere window-dressing collection of aircraft and pilots.1

So the Air Staff predicted that Germany would build up its air force slowly, and would not be a credible threat to Britain any time soon, giving it time to complete its own rearmament. But Hitler wasn't actually concerned about efficiency, and did in fact want a big air force to put in the shop window to impress other countries. So for the next two years the Air Staff were continually caught by surprise at intelligence suggesting that the Luftwaffe was growing faster than predicted. Its own expansion plans were on the modest side, and there was then a scramble to catch up after 1936, when the British finally worked out where they'd gone wrong. They still assumed that the Luftwaffe was as committed to strategic bombing as the RAF was -- another mirror image -- but that's another story.

So mirrors and lenses are both unhelpful if badly made. Well, that's not a particularly useful statement, even as a metaphor, so I instead I'll say that assumptions shouldn't be regarded as axioms: they can be wrong, and even if right, they can change. I suppose that's obvious too, especially in hindsight; but I'm an historian, hindsight is what I do!

  1. Quoted in Wesley K. Wark, The Ultimate Enemy: British Intelligence and Nazi Germany, 1933-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 39. 

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14 thoughts on “Mirrors and lenses

  1. Erik Lund

    To be completely accurate, shouldn't the bomb-pilot have glasses and buck teeth?
    The really asinine thing about all this is the way the author just assumes that masses of American technologists were working away in gleaming labs on the most perfectest mechano-computorial bomb sight ever. There's an excellent 8-part series on "Principles of Automatic Control" published in the spring of 1938 in _The Engineer_. If you have the patience and can remember second year physics, have a boo at the article on the Sperry Autopilot.
    To summarise: "we can't suppress hunting, so we put this gidget in that you can activate by pushing a button that just stops the motion. And it's accurate because ...and then a miracle occurred!"

  2. In about five years, it will be widely known that Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighter aircraft were the equal or superior of US versions: was it a miracle of modern human development? Japanese heavy industry and chemicaly industries were in pretty good shape by the '30s, but someone who wasn't paying attention might have missed the industrial boom of the '20s.

    I haven't looked all that closely at the image of the Japanese in the US at that point, but it seems like they're conflating the Japanese -- fifty-five million of them or so -- with the Chinese -- who are at about 600 million at that point, I think. It's true that Japan had a reputation as a place with a surplus population, and the US had closed the door on migration from Japan in 1924. But the reputation of the Japanese military up to that point was ruthless efficiency, not suicidal desparation.

    It's an odd one, to be sure.

  3. I find it perennially fascinating the way we (not 100% sure who "we" are, but anyway) characterise suicide/kamikaze as something crude and incompatible with human decency. We disdane it, as a form of mindlessness and contempt for human life, and therefore a lesser action. Modern Mechanics adopts this superior tone.

    And yet, when one of our guys runs a gauntlet and gets through but dies in the attempt, he is a hero of unquestioned dignity, strength and valour. Worthy of a VC, Medal of Honour, etc.

    Some years ago I visited the Museum at the Yasukuni Shrine (Tokyo) and was taken by an altogether different description of "special action". That history is of an inability to strike, particularly against attacking seaborne forces, because of the enemy's superior defensive firepower. Waves of strike aircraft/bombers and their crews were sacrificed to no effect - the strikes were not getting through. The special action approach saved significant numbers of Japanese lives and material and got through.

    Twist this a little to ask how an advanced bombsight would have helped. A. Not at all.

  4. Chris Williams

    I'm with Don here. How about the VC that went to Roope? Attacking a ship ten times the size of your own by ramming it, in the nothern North Sea in April, defines 'suicidal' in my book.

    Getting airminded, we've got Cheshire ordering his men to aim at his Mustang, and that Kiwi pilot who power-dived the U-boat, whose surviving crew were the ones who wrote his VC citation, given that nobody on the plane lived.

    It's an irregular verb:
    We: are brave beyond all measure
    You: are reckless in the extreme
    They: are crazies in love with death

  5. Nicholas Waller

    This manned suicide bomb reminds me of the Project Pigeon devised by BF Skinner, which sounds as though it ought to be an urban myth but can't be as I heard about it on the rigorously academic TV programme QI. The pigeon took the place of the Japanese chap.

    As far as suicide missions and so-dangerous-they're-practically-suicidal missions are concerned, there is a clear distinction between them. Tamil, Islamic, Japanese or other suicide bombers are training, planning and setting off with explosives strapped to them or their machines in the certain knowledge they will die if the mission is successful, and they will only live out the day if something has gone horribly wrong. The organisation that supports them is encouraging and training them to die.

    By contrast, pilots (or soldiers or sailors) going on some extremely risky operation nonetheless have at least some hope of surviving - death and martyrdom is not part of the plan or purpose or moral core of the mission. If someone in the heat of battle decides to ram a ship or fall on a grenade or stand between her child and a bear that's a personal decision taken on the spur of the moment, and in most of these (except ramming a ship, I would guess) people would still hope to survive. The organisation that supports these people would also prefer them to live through the operation - along the line of the words attributed to General Patton that their job is not to die for their country but to make the other guy die for his.

  6. Erik Lund

    For those that care, there's actually a monograph on automatic control in America, and bombsights and like that, by MIT historian of technology David Mindell.
    We await a scholarly monograph on the Zero. Who here has heard that it was the first WWII aircraft with extra-strong High Duty aluminum alloy components (Al-Zinc, I think, but I could be recalling the alloy family wrong). And whereas its few Allied near-contemporaries used these alloys in the easily-inspected landing gears, the Zero's designer went for the gusto and used it in the main wing spar.
    All that without solving the stress-corrosion problem, which exposes a recursive truth. The Japanese were not relying on superior manpower so much as a ...reckless.. flight to the future. In this (and other things), they were a nation of technological kamikazes.

  7. Post author


    Thanks, yes we are fine!


    Technological kamikazes -- I like that.


    It could be that Japan was being identified as part of a generic 'Asiatic horde'. But the sense that I got from the article was that it invoked a culture of suicide (which it then negated somewhat by saying you could get volunteers for suicide missions in any military) and technological inferiority. But why the war against China would necessitate such tactics is unclear to me ...

    Don, Chris and Nicholas:

    Expanding on my comment to Jonathan, maybe the 'Asiatic horde' thing fed into a 'life is cheap' perception, and so Japanese military suicides were seen (in the West) as less courageous than Western ones? I take Nicholas' point that there's a different between suicidal missions and actual suicide missions where there is no chance of survival if everything goes to plan. (I'd also note that Skinner's pigeons were not volunteers :)

  8. 1. I have read extensively on the WWII Kamikaze phenomenon, and have not seen anything about it being preceded by manned suicide bombs, on China or anywhere else. Of course that does not exclude that it may have been true. I'm always willing to learn new facts.

    2. On my first visit to the Australian War Memorial (which also functions as a museum) in 1977, I remember seeing a meant-to-be-life-sized dummy dressed in IJA uniform. The dummy was also dressed with thick-lensed spectacles and had buck-teeth. Even my mother who lost a beloved brother to the Japanese in New Guinea and my father, whose ship miraculously dodged Kamikaze attacks in WWII, thought this racist depiction was over-the-top.

    3. Not all Americans thought Japanese military technology and tactics to be wholly inferior. Consider the battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905.
    (ref. http://ahoy.tk-jk.net/macslog/RussiaversusJapan.TheBatt.html )

    and particularly the subsequent 1913 feting of Admiral Togo in the USA:

    and even Admiral Togo's laudatory 1934 obituary in Time Magazine:


    So, one of my points is that racist views of, or erroneously underestimating the military capability of a potential (or past) enemy is not homogenous across either the U.S.A or Australian population.

  9. Jakob

    Erik: I knew that the Zero used new high-strength alloys, but not that it was the first to use it. Didn't Bob Mikesh at NASM write a book on the Zero? That may not have been a scholarly work though.

    Not knowing much about Japanese strategy, was this pursuit of technological kamikaze-ism a conscious policy. knowing that Japanese industry could never compete with the US in the medium-to-long-term?

  10. Post author


    Sure, no views are ever held by 100% of any population. But the Japanese were underestimated just where it counted -- by the US military (among other militaries). E.g., before 7 December 1941 they did not think Japan had the ability to attack Pearl Harbor and they paid a heavy price. So, as a generalisation I think it holds water.

  11. Ian Evans

    There's Jiro Horikoshi's "Eagles of Mitsubishi" (University of Washngton Press 1981, ISBN 0-295-95826-X). He was Chief Design Engineer on the Zero so it's not a disinterested account; but suggestions of technological kamikaze are clearly a long way from reality. He had a nearly impossible task, starting a fighter design in 1937 to outfight all existing opposition, while limited to a 1000hp radial engine. He succeeded brilliantly, and weaknesses in the design can be ascribed to the customers and the specification based on their strategic vision. No armour, no self-sealing tanks? The AASF Hurricanes didn't have those in 1939 either.
    Horikoshi makes it clear that he used ESD to reduce weight, and, as a brand new material, it seems unlikely that he, or anyone else for that matter, knew about the stress corrosion problem. (Wasn't that what finished off the Valiant, three decades later?) Given the short operating lives of wartime fighters, it probably wouldn't have been any more important than the nasty fatigue characteristics of the Al-Zn alloys.
    Until late 1942 the Zero completely justified its conception and design; after that it was in the wrong war.
    Engineering appreciation si, stereotyping non!

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