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!
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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