Russian Air Bases?

By Alexander Kiralfy

Japanese industrial targets are concentrated and vulnerable, but the task of supplying our air bases would be difficult.

If our bombers were provided with bases in Siberia, how effectively could they attack Japan and what would be the Japanese defense to such operations? These questions can best be answered in the light of our experiences gained in bombing Germany from British bases. It will be found that Japanese targets are more concentrated and easier to locate than those in Europe, and that Japan's communications, both land and water, are exceptionally vulnerable. On the other hand, distances and our supply problems would be greater, flying conditions and the defense of our airfields much more difficult. In Britain we were able to begin on a small scale, gradually working up to a crescendo. On a Siberian air front any such campaign would have to be undertaken in full force from the beginning and carried through inexorably to the end. While our bombings of Germany involved neither land nor amphibian operations, the same cannot be said for the Far East. The success of an American aerial assault upon Japan from Siberia might very well depend upon adequate United States land and sea support. It would in any event be a major operation.

The first factor to be considered is that of range. Flying Fortresses and Liberators have flown 1,200 miles from Libya to Ploesti and from North Africa to Munich and Wiener Neustadt. Our airmen have covered the 1,200 miles between Midway and Wake Islands, which is greater than the run from the Aleutians to the Kuriles. These attacks, however, were abnormal; they did not represent regular, routine missions; "block busters" were conspicuous by their absence and the bomb loads carried were presumably nearer to minimum than to maximum cargoes.

We are understandably in the dark as to the maximum performance of our bombers. The most important Nazi targets are in western Germany. Bombing them from Britain did not necessarily imply that we could not venture farther afield, but they furnish the only yardstick we can safely use until new disclosures are made on current bombers as well as new types such as the B-29. On this basis, the Ruhr-Hamburg bombings took place some 300 to 400 miles respectively from eastern England; those of Kiel, Brunswick, Magdeburg and Nuremberg were 500 miles away and Berlin is in the 600-mile zone — beyond which lies the 750-mile "circle" touching Danzig.

The decisive air base region in Siberia is naturally in the neighborhood of Vladivostok. Within some 750 miles of this area lie all desirable targets in the Japanese main islands and in Korea and Manchuria. By flying a little farther, and up to 900 miles directly south, our bombers could submit Japan's coasts to an aerial blockade, tying in with our submarine and aircraft carrier activities. Our airmen would, in fact, be within the very heart of the Japanese Empire and face enemy territory through 340 out of the 360 of a circle drawn around Vladivostok. A triangle of Soviet territory running from the point on the seacoast where Siberia meets Korea northwards to Lake Khanka and thence south-east to the Sea of Japan would give us a base area presumably larger than we are using in Britain, being about one-half the size of England (excluding Wales).

A glance at the map will show that this Vladivostok triangle is the muzzle of a geographic pistol whose handle lies north and west of Khabarovsk and whose barrel runs from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok and thence along the Sea of Japan to Nicolaevsk. The Vladivostok "muzzle" is believed to be powerfully defended — were that not the case one could assume that the Japanese would have marched in long ago. If enemy action made it necessary for us to shift our airfields out of the Vladivostok triangle, the matter of flying range would be seriously affected in that we would be moving away from the principal target areas in Japan and into colder regions.

While 750-mile flights from the vicinity of Vladivostok would bring our bombers to all Japanese targets from Tokyo to Nagasaki, a transfer of bases to a point near the coast midway between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk would cut down our westward range-limit to Kobe, and from the Khabarovsk sector itself we would only reach Sendai and points north, all minor targets. By transferring our hypothetical airfields northwards we might evade some hostile land blows but would still remain within the same range of Japanese aircraft in Manchuria. In other words, as we increased our safety from the standpoint of distance we would reduce the effectiveness of our striking power until the point would be reached where any blows we might strike would be light assaults upon purely secondary objectives. From such positions we could assist in the defense of Siberia and cooperate with Russian and US land and amphibian moves against Karafuto but we could not submit Japan itself to bombings of even a British-Danzig intensity, let alone anything of "Berlin" or "Hamburg" proportions.

In the following analysis, therefore, we shall use the Vladivostok "triangle" as a theoretical base area. Three hundred miles would have to be added to all ranges to obtain a picture of results from airfields between this triangle and Khabarovsk, and 600 miles to visualize the consequences of using bases in the neighborhood of the last-named city. The military-air geographic characteristics of Japan differ radically from those of the Nazi "heartland." The latter, including Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and western Poland is, roughly speaking, a square with 600-mile sides. Our bases in Britain are close to the north-western angle of this square. Nazi targets are therefore disposed in depth, which gives us a wide choice of objectives, near and far. By only slight increases in flying distances our airmen can head for one target and then shift to another. On the other hand, the farther we fly the more Nazi fighting plane base-areas do we run into.

The principal Japanese target stretches from Nagasaki to a point a little north of Tokyo. It measures 800 miles in length by 75 to 150 in width and is in the form of an oblong whose central point faces Vladivostok. Its western extremities are 600 miles from the Soviet base area, which means that it is a distant target in length. Distances which, in Europe, bring us to vital objectives in the Ruhr and Hamburg only give us open sea in the Far East. A Berlin range only brings us to secondary targets along the Japanese west coast. Until we demonstrate the ability to "Hamburg" Danzig or its equivalent from Britain we cannot say that we can subject central Japan to such poundings. The alternative would be to send reduced bombloads and this would probably mean using double the number of planes employed in the attacks upon western Germany unless, of course, the new B-29 makes such a practice unnecessary.

The distance factor eliminates fighter escort except for a short while after the take-off and before the return. As the Zeros are being armored, our heavy bombers may have to be furnished with additional protective armaments and some of them might have to be converted into escort craft — unless this purpose can be served by our new "all-purpose" medium bombers. Because the Japanese target is disposed in length the enemy would be better able than the Germans to determine where we intended to strike and thus concentrate against us. This would be offset by the fact that the Japanese fighting plane organization could not be arranged in depth. While Japanese airmen have not hesitated to avoid or break off action on other fronts when the going was against them, this could not be expected over their homeland. Nonetheless, our unescorted raids upon Germany and the ascendancy our airmen have secured over those of Japan suggest that we can overcome the lack of fighting plane escorts.

The Japanese target area mentioned above is much more restricted than that in Europe, with obvious advantages to an attacker. It is but one-quarter the area of the German "heartland" or one-half that of the most bombed portion of that heartland, namely the territory between the Lowlands and Berlin, and from Kiel to Munich. In theory Japan is thus twice or four times as vulnerable, but this vulnerability is increased due to the fact that the most important Japanese industrial centers are concentrated along the east coast of Honshu.

If, because of the mountainous interior, we assume an average target-width of 25 miles, this would give us an area but 1/16 that of the Nazi heartland, or one-eighth that of western and central Germany. The individual objectives within this bomber's belt are extremely congested. The Osaka- Kobe district, Japan's Ruhr from an industrial standpoint, is more heavily populated than its German counterpart though it occupies but half the space. The Tokyo-Yokohama section has as many people as two Berlins. While it does not follow that each bomb we drop on Japan would do the work of two loosened over Germany, it would be more effective in that any disruption of normal routine would affect a greater number of people.

However inflammable Japanese houses may be, that is not the case with their factories. These are mostly of modern, fireproof construction, built with an eye to earthquake shock and, if recent plants have been constructed along the military lines adopted for public edifices, with some regard to air attack as well. But especially in the larger factories the Japanese have carried "efficiency" to an extreme degree. Workers for many years have been regimented and in many cases live in barracks close to or actually within the iron-fenced industrial structures. To obtain maximum output, two-story wooden barracks have been constructed within factory courtyards so that the same living quarters serve all shifts. As the Japanese long relied upon the efficacy of their air defenses, this condition may be more general now than it was in the past.

Whether recent evacuation orders affected this set-up cannot be known, especially as the Japanese hold lives very cheaply. The result would be that in the event of raids the Japanese would have to abandon their plants or run the risk of losing workers as well as factories, and the gutting of industrial centers would automatically leave many workers without a roof. Where the tinder-like residential sections are hit severe conflagrations might result. Except at Tokyo, where a 220-yard-wide river bisects the town, the cities are lacking in fire-breaks, although the Japanese have announced that they are clearing wide paths through their cities for that purpose.

Our principal targets would be the highly industrialized cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. They are clearly recognizable from the air since they are to be found at the heads of bays or, in the case of Kyoto, at the extremity of a large lake. Their little streams and traffic-clogged canals may not be satisfactory fire-breaks but they are good targets for light bomb loads inasmuch as they constitute an essential means of communication within the cities and between warehouses and docks. In this respect Osaka almost out-Venices the Italian city, Yokohama is a Gothenburg of the east, and Nagoya has an important belt-line canal.

The coastal cities do not have extensive docking facilities, ships generally lying alongside quays or awaiting their turn to load or unload at offshore anchorages. It is doubtful whether the combined docking facilities at the five leading Japanese ports surpass those of Hamburg alone.

The tonnage of bombs required to knock out the German port might, therefore, cripple Japan's major installations. The Japanese, however, have been adding to their facilities to an unknown extent and building alternative docking areas, such as the giant wharf at Nagoya and they have shown skill in makeshifts. Major bombings would therefore have to be supplemented by routine visits to eliminate these makeshifts. As "blockbuster" tactics would hardly be necessary for such targets, Japan's seaports, her inland sea and her coastwise trade are vulnerable to attack from Vladivostok and the continued severance of her communications with the expanded empire cannot but have disastrous results in the homeland.

Japan is also vulnerable in her railroads, which have not been superseded to any extent by motorization and therefore constitute the backbone of her transport system. They are the natural objectives of medium bombs. Besides crossing the country at a few points they hug most of the coasts of Honshu and are therefore easy to detect from the air, though they would have to be attacked by bombers instead of the nimble Mustang. All large industrial cities are also railroad junctures, notably Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and the naval base of Maizuru stands on the west coast route.

The destruction of the Japanese hydroelectric system would automatically stop such lines as have been electrified besides seriously harming industry in general, for Japan has been making great strides in this direction. In 1936 Japan's developed water power was ahead of Germany's, and this lead may have been increased as her potential is twice as great. The great coal center is near the adjacent tips of Honshu and Kyushu Islands, and imports from Manchuria could be stopped in that country or upon arrival in Japan. Were we able to seize the east coast of Korea the most. vital industrial part of Japan would be brought within Britain-Hamburg range. The East China Sea north of and including Shanghai and all the Yellow Sea would. represent maximum runs of 750 miles.

Japan is thus seen to be extremely vulnerable to heavy attacks by large bombers carrying maximum loads supplemented by steady raids of lighter caliber. If she cannot be reached on a full-load basis today, that may be the case in the relatively near future. As previously indicated, reduced-load attacks would spell the need for more bombers in each mission. All types of planes can be flown from Alaska and the Aleutians to Siberia, but the rigors of winter, especially north of Vladivostok and in the inland regions, constitute a handicap about which we are learning much in Alaska and from the experience of our Arctic convoys. Based on long-term averages, the coldest month at Vladivostok (six degrees above zero) is five degrees warmer than at Winnipeg, whereas at Varoshilov and Nikolaevsk it is about 10 colder. There are, however, wide fluctuations which in one year sent the thermometer at Vladivostok down to 27 below normal and these are possibilities which we would have to reckon with at the taking-off end. The temperatures over Japan are milder — that of Tokyo remaining above the freezing point.

Depending upon weather conditions, personnel and vital items of equipment could be air-borne to Siberia, though large numbers of transport planes would be required. In the final analysis, a United States amphibian force might have to force a passage through the Kuriles to Nikolaevsk and then keep the route open, and here again consideration would have to be given to freezing conditions at that Soviet port. The entire problem of communications would be intimately related to the question of the defenses of this region, for we would not want a sky-Dunkirk. The Red Army in the Far East must be assumed to be a defensive rather than an offensive organization. It must watch land-and-sea boundaries equivalent to a front stretching from New York to Salt Lake City.

In the event of war in this part of the world we might have to co-operate in the defense of the Khabarovsk-Vladivostok-Nikolaevsk salient from a land and sea as well as from an aerial standpoint. We might also have to assist in the defense of the vital Soviet oil fields in Sakhalin. The logical Japanese defense would be to attempt to break into the Siberian salient at a number of points, in the meantime submitting all Siberian airfields to continuous bombing from Manchuria and Korea. They would undoubtedly act in great strength and regardless of losses. Sufficient Allied men, planes and other equipment would have to be on the spot to hold back Japanese in the west while we bombed Japan herself in the east. If our rewards would be great the undertaking itself would have to be on an enormous scale. Were south-eastern Siberia an island like Britain, as accessible and as impregnable, the problem would be a simple one, but that is not the case. This vital strip of Siberia is virtually surrounded by Japanese territory and our enemy in the Pacific is fully aware of its significance. Whether the Soviet Union would grant us base facilities, whether — and when — we would want them, and whether we are able and willing to help defend Siberia against Japanese attack are questions which, in the meantime, keep the Japanese guessing.

This article was originally published in the January, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 1, pp 48-49, 138, 144.
The PDF of this article includes a photo of a B-17E with the array of 55-gallon drums it would take to fuel it for a mission, and the map above,
Photo credits to Alexander Kiralfy, Acme Newspictures; map by Hal Morris.