For 20 years the author has worked and lived in the Far East. He was one at the first men to recognize Japanese aims and spent nearly 10 years trying to warn his fellow Englishmen of the danger through dispatches to the London Daily Mail, for which he was Far Eastern correspondent from 1925 to 1941. As the Daily Mall war correspondent. he served through the Malayan and East Indies campaign, narrowly escaping from Singapore.
My first contact with Japanese aviation was made at the commencement of the Sino-Japanese conflict in Manchuria in 1932, and I have been watching their steady progress ever since that date.
At that time, when the Japanese seized Mukden in a coup d'etat, and later proceeded to occupy the whole of Manchuria, they were, in my opinion, very indifferent aviators.
They were flying some antiquated single- or two-seater single-engined planes manufactured in Japan under license from the Dutch firm who designed Fokker planes for the last war. They operated a single machine gun firing through the propeller. At the same time they had a few bombers somewhat resembling the early type of Bristol Blenheim bomber.
As far as fighters were concerned, they never had to use them for anything but scouting and observation, for there was no opposition in the course of the Manchurian conflict. The Chinese had some Breguet and Farman planes purchased from the French after the war in 1920, but they made not the slightest attempt to use them. Which was perhaps fortunate, for the Japanese captured them on the field at Mukden and used them in maneuvers shortly afterwards, when they promptly fell to pieces, causing heavy casualties.
I flew on three or four occasions with the Japanese during the Manchurian campaign and noticed two things about them in particular. One was that they seemed to be entirely indifferent as to their target, and would bomb a market town, a village street, or even farmers and women in the fields just as readily as they would a troop train or a column of soldiers. The other factor which differentiated them from aviators in other lands was that even in the bitter climate of Northern Manchuria they would dispense with the usual warming up of their planes first thing in the day.
They just cranked them up after a brief preliminary inspection, and if the prop turned over they said "good," climbed in and took off for their destination.
I don't know whether it is a kind of fatalism that works in them, or what. For example, I remember that in Mukden after a day's fighting there were planes belonging to two rival Japanese newspapers waiting for pictures of the battle. It was imperative to rush these to Japan as soon as possible. But one plane was a small type with insufficient fuel for the trip. It was a sheer impossibility for that plane to do the sea flight. But the other plane could make it. So they both took off at the same time, and the smaller plane crashed somewhere out at sea and was never seen again. It is difficult for us to understand such a mentality.
I have flown with Japanese military aviators in shoddy old single-engined Fokkers in the Jehol campaign, where we were flying from a pocket handkerchief field in the foothills, and soaring over 12,000-foot ranges where a landing was an impossibility and even a crash would throw the pilot, if he survived, into the hands of an implacable Chinese enemy. But tuning up their machines or using a twin-engined model never seemed to occur to these little Japs. They just took off and took a chance.
Then when they got down into China proper and attacked Shanghai and Nanking, they brought some better stuff into sight. Faster planes and better bombers began to make the Chinese sorry for themselves though even then they didn't have any great success, considering that the Chinese air force opposing was almost non-existent. The only part of it that functioned well was the small portion commanded by American flyers, who were really doing a good job as far as the circumstances permitted. The Chinese pilots were individually brave enough, but they had little experience and no actual training in formation flying and fighting.
It is interesting to note that the Japanese army had been mainly responsible for military aviation up to 1937, but after unsatisfactory work at Shanghai and Nanking, and a bad flop in an attack on Hankow when a number of Jap planes were shot down by Russian aviators loaned by Moscow, the command of the air force mainly passed into the hands of the navy.
There has always been considerable rivalry between the two branches of the service, and the navy are a far smarter and more intelligent body of men, particularly in their approach toward political problems abroad. For while the navy fully appreciates the fighting value of foreign navies and air forces, the army is in the main convinced that the Japanese army is the best in the world, the Chinese second best, the German army worth mild consideration and the rest rated nowhere at all. I have heard Japanese military men, after a few drinks, maintain this argument with the greatest vehemence, absurd though it may seem to us.
There is no question in my mind that the Japanese were building up an air force against a necessity for major war. For it is quite unbelievable that they could go on flying the comparatively inadequate planes that we saw over Chinese territory, and then suddenly out of the blue could produce their Navy Zero fighters and Mitsubishi navy bombers. These must have been built up over a period of time and after careful experiment, to the point at which we first saw them over Malaya.
I remember saying to the air marshal commanding the British air forces that my recent trip to Thailand (and what I had heard there) had finally convinced me that the Japanese had at least three or four squadrons of very fast planes of, possibly, the Messerschmitt type, either Me-109 or Me-110. And I added that my information indicated that the Thais had during the past two months enlarged the runways of their two airports nearest to the Malayan frontier.
This turned out to be true, for on the outbreak of war on December 7, Japanese planes hopped off from their bases in Indo-China, landed on Thai air bases, refueled there and then proceeded to blast hell out of our frontier and the adjacent landing grounds.
The trouble of course lay in the fact that we had not over 200 planes of all types to cover some 15 air bases scattered all over the Malay peninsula and island of Singapore. The medley of Vickers Vildebeest torpedo planes, early Bristol Blenheim bombers, and Brewster Buffalo fighters, was not calculated to inspire confidence in the minds of our air force.
It was simply a case of doing the best we could with what we had got. And the Japanese combination of Messerschmitts, Navy Zeros, and Mitsubishi bombers, plus some unidentified dive bombers, proved much too strong for our air force or ground defense. In the first place we had very few Bofors guns available at the beginning of the struggle, particularly on the bases near the frontier. And there were no 3.7 batteries posted north of Kuala Lumpur as far as I am aware. However there were a number of them in use later in the southern provinces and on the island of Singapore itself, and they did a very fine job of work indeed.
At the commencement of the campaign the Japanese concentrated on the task of knocking out our forward air bases, and did it very successfully, for by the third day they had captured or eliminated the four landing grounds nearest to the frontier. With only Lewis guns and perhaps a dozen Brewster Buffaloes in action it was impossible to hold these positions. On two or three occasions when I was there the Japanese would bomb us from 5,000 feet or so, and then dive down and fly round the field machine-gunning anything that moved.
There was from 70 to 100 mph difference in the speed of the American-built Buffalo and the Japanese Zero, and the result was inevitable. For a time the very best RAF pilots, by their superior skill and courage managed to hold their own and shoot down a few Japs, but their end was inevitable and it was a tragic thing that so many fine fighters should have had to sacrifice their lives to such small purpose.
The same thing applied in the Dutch Indies and Borneo, where the Dutch flyers, who were highly skilled, having been trained for years on the civilian KNILM and other runs, had also to fight in Brewsters in a losing battle. The whole thing was one of those minor tragedies of warfare, for these planes were built on a contract signed with the French government, and when Vichy laid down on the job and the Allies were shouting for planes in every direction, these Brewsters were thrown on the market and taken over by the British and Dutch in the Far East for want of anything more modern being available.
It is an interesting point as to how far the Germans were responsible for the rapid advance of the Japanese air force, for there is no question that there were Nazi pilots amongst them. In fact, two or three were actually shot down over Malaya, according to our reports, though I personally did not see one. But I did see a white officer in field grey (and presumably German) who climbed out of a Japanese tank and escaped down the road during the campaign in the south of Malaya.
To return to a consideration of Japanese aerial strategy. After they had flattened our forward air bases their bombers and fighters turned their attention to railway stations and sidings, where their bombing was fairly accurate but not very destructive. Mostly small stuff was used, 50- and 100-pounders in the main, with 250-pounders in some of the towns. They used to dive-bomb and machine-gun the roads pretty consistently, making a trip to the front quite a little adventure. As it was impossible to hear their plane engines when driving, we used to put a dollar each in the "kitty" and each take a window of the car. The one who spotted a "diver" first got the pool when we returned to the car later from the shelter of the nearest ditch.
Our antiaircraft defenses in Singapore kept the Japanese bombers pretty high, but they used to come over several times a day at about 15,000 to 18,000 feet and have a little quiet fun. You could time your movements pretty well by them, as a matter of fact. Finishing breakfast by 8:30 o'clock you could reach headquarters nicely by nine in time for the first raid at 9:30, then you could emerge from any shelter that you had fancied, usually a shop or ditch by the side of the road, and continue with any errands you had on hand. Remembering, of course, to be near some sort of shelter by about eleven o'clock for the next raid, and then to arrange your lunch so as to miss the raid due some time between 12:30 and one o'clock.
Curiously enough, they were using only 50- and 100-pounders on the city (without much success), but they put down 500-pounders on the airports, with the result that the surfaces were destroyed several times a day. This led to an unforeseen problem, for the native labor had mostly bolted into the jungle after the first raids, with the result that there was no one to do any resurfacing work. There were no mechanical graders or shovels or other machines, so our island airports became mostly unusable, either for taking off or landing, as there was no possibility of obtaining white people to carry out the necessary repairs.
There was one interesting point which cropped up during the fighting in both Malaya and Burma, and that was the question of aerial communications. The Japanese were using a very light field wireless set with which they could contact their air force, and whenever they ran up against opposition in the shape of machine-gun nests, etc, they would send out a call for help in Japanese, which practically obviated the necessity for the use of any code and, within 15 or 20 minutes, Japanese dive bombers would show up and blast any opposition out of the way. This occurred on so many occasions where road blocks, tank obstacles, artillery positions and nests of machine guns were concerned that it became most discouraging. It was really a brilliant example of the value of cooperation between infantry and air force.
It was not until we were pushed back to Batavia that Flying Fortresses came into the picture, and as the more modern type with rear turrets came into action they were impervious to attack by Japanese Zeros. I was surprised, as a matter of fact, that the latter could follow us up to the 20,000-foot level at which the Flying Fortresses were mostly operating.
One factor which afforded me some satisfaction was the construction of the Zeros, which were of fabric and wood, without armor for protection of the pilot. They were equipped with only four guns (as far as I know), and any sort of a hit seemed to be enough to wreck them. But of course the lightness in construction was an essential which led to increased speed and lower fuel consumption. Added to which they carried a supplementary gas tank in plastic material, which gave them an extra 250-mile range, as compared to the Allied planes which lacked these extra tanks.
Another point worth noting is the fatalistic outlook of the Japanese pilots, who deem it their greatest honor to die for the emperor and push their torpedo and dive-bombing attacks home to the verge of suicide. I was told by gunnery officers of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse that when these ships put up a barrage which in the Atlantic and Mediterranean fighting had been more than enough to turn away any Nazi attack, the Japanese completely ignored it and kept on coming.
But taken all in all, and given equal material, there is no doubt in my mind that the American and British flyers are superior to the Japanese, and if we can only hold them until our production begins to tell, there is no doubt as to the final result.
This article was originally published in the October, 1942, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 4, pp 41-42, 91-92.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author, 2 photos, and an artist's conception drawing.
Photos are not credited; drawing credited to Herman R Bollin, Flying art director.