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rehearsals for war: Ethiopia, Spain, and China

Spanish Civil War poster

Before the outbreak of World War II, several of the major combatants had opportunities to test their equipment, especially their combat aircraft and air tactics. The first such test came when the Italians invaded Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) in May 1936. The use of bombers against tribal soldiers with pre—World War I equipment outraged the world and gave a clear indication what Italian Fascist dictator Mussolini was made of. It left little doubt that if Germany declared war Italy was likely to side with the Germans and use the opportunity to grab anything within the flight range of its aircraft. The Italian Caproni bombers used dive-bombing techniques taught them by German flight instructors, and the battle for Ethiopia was over in just a few months.

Italian troops in Abyssinia

A more serious test that pitted plane against plane was the Spanish Civil War of 1937—1938. To many observers, he war was promoted by Germany, Italy, and Russia for the express purpose of providing an opportunity for these nations to test their weaponry in combat situations— at least that was how the wavering support on both sides was interpreted. Germany and Italy backed the Nationalists led by Francisco Franco, while the left-wing Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union. Both sides provided their latest aircraft and insisted that their own pilots fly them, ostensibly to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Expensive and secret Junkers JU52s were used to transport troops when simple trucks would have served.

The bombing of Guernica in April 1937 by the German-commanded Kondor Legion brought home the new threat of “saturation bombing.” It made clear that the next war was going to be fought largely in and from the air, and made technical development a top priority for all parties

A Messerschmitt Me 109 is tested in a German wind tunnel, the most advanced in the world at that time.

And several operations were entirely gratuitous, such as the saturation bombing of the inconsequential town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, by the elite Kondor Legion of the Luftwaffe.

The bombing was decried around the world and became the subject of a celebrated antiwar mural by Picasso. The most telling indication of the German motive for entering the conflict, however, was the introduction of its most advanced fighter plane, the Messerschmitt Bf 109B. This aircraft was to become a mainstay of the Luftwaffe, and it had its first test runs in Spain in 1937. The plane had been designed by a young airplane builder, Willy Messerschmitt, whose name was to become virtually synonymous with the German fighter aircraft of World War II.  Messerschmitt, born in 1898, was too young to have been involved in World War I, but he spent much of the post-war years learning to glide and building, first gliders, and then light aircraft. He was a particularly ambitious young man and joined the Nazi Party as soon as it came to power. Messerschmitt became a close friend of Hermann Goring and was unofficial technical advisor to the Luftwaffe throughout the war (which was another reason a weak man like Udet filled the post officially).

The basic design principle behind the Bf 109 was a simple, if coldly calculating, one. Until World War II, designers had little hard information on the strength of material or manufacturing techniques, and since it would not do to have a plane come apart in flight, engineers took no chances. The planes were thus better armoured and better constructed than they needed to be. (A similar reason accounts for the incredible longevity of the early DC and Boeing transports of the 1930s: they were much better built than their expected lifespan required, and that kept them in service for decades longer than their designers intended.)

Messerschmitt, accustomed to the transitory construction of gliders, believed that there was no reason for fighter aircraft to have this safety factor built in—so he eliminated it. The fighter pilot should survive by virtue of his flying, Messerschmitt thought, and not at the expense of the aircraft. As a result, the Messerschmitt planes were lighter and faster than comparably designed and powered fighters. Messerschmitt (and his chief designer, Walter Rethel) could get away with this as a manufacturing policy only if he knew he had the unwavering support of the Air Ministry and that Goring would allow that some planes and pilots would be lost when planes came apart in a dive or too sharp a turn. This policy was equivalent to a “trading of like pieces” in the chess game of the battlefield, a strategy Germany could afford early in the war, but for which they paid dearly in the Battle of Britain and in the latter stages of the war.

The 1937 air war between China and Japan saw the final from World War I open-cockpit planes (used by the Japanese in 1933), in which armament was hand-controlled, to the closed cockpit, featuring automatic armaments, of World War II aircraft.

The final rehearsal for World War II was the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. During the 1930s the attitude of the United States toward Japan was ambiguous. On  the one hand, the State Department liked having an irritant to Russia on its eastern border, and the Japanese were  certainly that, seizing Manchuria in 1931. On the other hand, the United States supported the government of Chiang Kai-shek in China and supplied him with (meaning, sold him) Curtiss Hawk fighter aircraft to defend his country against Japan.

There was little doubt that when Japan invaded China in 1937, it was using aircraft that were designed by Jiro Horikoshi, who had been taught his craft at the Curtiss-Wright plant and who was the principal designer for Mitsubishi. In its invasion of China, the Japanese used the Mitsubishi 96, an aircraft designed to be launched from an aircraft carrier. This was deemed unnecessary for invading China and indicated larger goals for the Japanese. When fighting broke out with Russia, the Russians brought in their best fighter, the Polikarpov 146, teaching the Japanese that they were going to have to continue fighter development if they were ever to fight an air war with the Soviet Union.

Mitsubishi 96

The hostilities were  ended in June 1940 with the signing of the Russo-Japanese Pact. The Japanese saw from early in the 1930s that its main rival in the Pacific was not China or Russia, but the United States. For fourteen years prior to the out- break of war in the Pacific, the single question on the final examination in the Japanese aeronautical military academy was how one would plan an aerial attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbour.