In which we look at the development of air power theory and capabilities in several nations that will be very important to the future course of events.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 94 - Interwar Airpower Pt. 3 - National Overviews. This week a big thank you goes out to Dave, Keanu, Isaac, and Daniel for choosing to support this podcast by becoming members. If you would like to become a member or to find out more information head over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. While there were some common trends among all air forces during the interwar period, and we have discussed two of those during the last few episodes with close air support and strategic bombing, each nation’s air force was unique and experienced unique challenges and had different answers to how they wanted to contribute to their nation’s military efforts. Over the next three episodes we are going to look at the situation in many of these nations. We have touched on several of these nations before, with previous episodes discussing France, Japan, and Germany, but during these episodes we will try and look at three different questions that can tell us a lot about how each nation viewed air power and how each nation planed to use it in a war: Question 1 - What the primary role of air power? Question 2 - How were the air units of each military organized, and how much freedom did they have?Question 3 - How did the economic and industrial realities unique to each nation effect their planning and preparations. In this episode we are going to cover France, Japan, America, Russia, and Poland, next episode we will discuss Germany and Italy, and then in the final episode we will look at Britain. Air power would be an important part of each nation’s preparations for a future war in the 1930s, but they each viewed airpower differently, which caused different organizational, technical, and doctrinal decisions to be made in the years before the war.
We will start with France, a nation that had invested a lot of money and resources into their air force during the First World War, and when that war had ended it had one of the strongest air forces in the world. This advantage would continue in the immediate peace war years as France was able to mostly just coast off of their existing strength with other air forces around Europe either being destroyed by the war and resulting peace treaties, or left to decay due to funding issues. However, by the time that the war would begin in 1939 the French Air Force had fallen far down the list in terms of air power, which would receive no small part of the blame for the events of 1940. There is no one cause for this erosion of relative French air power during the interwar period, and instead it was a combination of a large number of factors: an inconsistent vision of what air power should be; a complete failure of the French aviation industry to update their capabilities; a lack of consistent funding; and just some miscalculations about what the best type of aircraft was; are just a few that could be listed. * Like many other nations, there would be disagreements between the leaders of the Air Force and those of the Army and Navy about the best purpose for air power during the next war. On the side of the air force, the air staff believed that they had to have a strong strategic bombing deterrent, to prevent other nations from launching attacks against France. They were basing this on the idea that it was impossible to defend against a bomber in flight, and so they had to prevent the enemy from launching them. But the reality of the French military situation made the ability of the air staff to enact its own policy very limited, regardless of how it viewed the correct course of development. The French Army dominated military high command and had firm political support. This was combined with the fact that France was always deeply under threat of a land invasion from Germany, which gave the Army a really strong bargaining position. For its part the Army believed that aviation units should be focused on providing tactical support for army objectives. All of these facts combined together meant that before 1933 the Air Force was heavily focused on how it could support the army and navy and provide tactical support. Then in 1933 the Air Force would be made into its own independent military arm, which theoretically would provide the Air Force with greater independence in which to implement their dreams for their future role in war. But this independence was largely illusory. In 1934 a French law was passed that clearly stated that the Air Force was responsible for working closely with the Army and Navy to develop and support combined operations. And this, along with general political and doctrinal inertia would continue to chain the air force to the other services for the rest of the interwar period. The path that the French Air Force took during these years is not really unique, other nations we will discuss today and next week would have similar journeys and similar restrictions placed on them. Instead, the main challenges for the newly independent French Air Force would come into play as France began to rearm.
One individual who would help shape the French Air Force during the 1930s was Pierre Cot, who would serve as Air Minister twice, once from 1933 to 1934 and against from 1936 to 1937. The first of these tenures saw the creation of the first draft of a full plan for the rearmament of the French Air Force, a plan that included squadrons that were not described as strategic bombing squadrons, but were seen by the air staff as bombers with strategic bombing capabilities. To get around the possibility of other services complaining about these squadrons they were referred to as heavy defensive aircraft. This increased focus on bombers had only really gotten started when Cot was replaced by Guy LeChambre, who would refocus efforts on the expansion of French fighter capabilities. Then when Cot came back into the position of air Minister he would begin his reforms again, reprioritizing what was being built and how it was planned to be used. There would be some new and interesting paths of innovation during Cot’s second tenure, for example the first airborne units of the French military would be created and prepared as an airborne infantry unit. This experimental unit would then be discarded in 1938 after Cot was once again replaced. Cot would also try and establish a more offensive posture, and wrote new instructions for air units that put some focus on attacking enemy units not just in the immediately vicinity of the fighting but also behind the line and also any industry that was thought to be a critical component of the enemy’s military effort. This structure would be called ‘Lutte aérienne’ which I believe translates into aerial wrestling, but the core of the concept was simply that offensive and defensive air operations were things that could occur at the same time, and could fluctuate back and forth. These fluctuations would be unpredictable and dynamic and so it was important to plan for both. Another change that Cot would try to make was to push French designs away from the multipurpose aircraft that had been the focus of French air designers and manufacturers for most of the interwar period. The concept, and what would prove to be the unattainable dream, that the designers were striving for was one aircraft that would fit into every required role. It could provide close air support, or it could be a bomber for targets behind the front, or it could be a fighter, or it could be a reconnaissance aircraft. There were really compelling reasons for why having only one type of aircraft would be far more efficient in the areas of production, maintenance, and training. The problem was that it required a design that was unspecialized, and trying to get so many different capabilities into one aircraft meant that it was impossible for it to really excel at anything. After the first failures, instead of rethinking the concept they simply tried to technically refine their way out of that conceptual mistake. The aircraft designs did get better, they became more capable, but as they optimized around the poor choice, even as they gave the aircraft greater speed and maneuverability to help it fill the fighter role, it became too light and small to really be an effective bomber, and it was still too slow and lethargic to be effective in aerial combat. Even with the obvious design shortcomings, the concept would continue to receive support among some French air leaders, but it was in reality an impossible dream. To be completely fair to the French, it feels like this concept, and the dream of a one size fits all aircraft never dies and newer generations of air force leaders and aerial designers seem to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame. This has continued all the way into the modern day with programs like the F-35. There was also one additional reason that the French Air Force liked the idea of a plane that could do everything, it meant that they did not have to design and produce aircraft that were only there to do things like reconnaissance and close support, because any aircraft that were striking for those roles would be heavily under the influence of Army and Naval commanders. So the push for multi-purpose aircraft once again tied back into the tensions between the French Air Force and the other services.
Regardless of the policy changes based on the current Air Minister, or the decisions made about the type of planes that the Air Force wanted, they would always run into a core problem. The French aviation industry simply did not have the ability to create enough aircraft. To put it incredibly gently, the French aviation industry was miles behind Germany and Britain, especially during the back half of the 1930s as the other nations began to rapidly ramp up their production capacities. During the last 6 months of 1937 German aviation manufacturers would deliver over 4,300 aircraft to the Luftwaffe, and in Britain over 2,300 aircraft would be delivered to the Royal Air Force. The French Air Force would receive, 71, as in 7-1, aircraft. Now in their defense the numbers would greatly improve over the 2 years before the war, but it would never approach the numbers that other nations were capable of. This was problematic on the quantitative side, there just were not enough aircraft, but it was also problematic on the qualitative side. The 1930s was a period of large aviation advances, and the inability of French industry to create enough aircraft meant that the French Air Force would enter the war with older aircraft. The challenge of being numerically inferior to the Luftwaffe was made worse by organizational decisions made by the French Air Fore. Instead of concentrating all available strength where it was most needed, or at least where it could get the best results, French squadrons of fighters and bombers would be parceled out along the front, with fighter squadrons assigned specific sectors to defend and bomber squadrons put under the command of regional army commanders. This made it difficult for the proper amount of strength to be concentrated anywhere, which might have allowed for some positive results. This structure was similar to what had been in place at the end of the First World War, and it was simply continued, which might have been acceptable if the Second World War had rapidly settled into a stalemate like in 1914, but when it did not it left the French Air Force ill prepared to react to the dynamic nature of the battlefield.
During the interwar period many nations would move to a structure that shifted aviation resources into some kind of unified Air Force. There were differences in the structure of these arrangements, the level of autonomy provided, and also the relationship between the Air Force and the Navy, but for many nations the answer would eventually become creating an Air Force entity that was its own independent branch. There are two very notable exceptions to this, especially as it relates to the Pacific Theatre during the war, Japan and America. For the Japanese the relationship between the Army and Navy was very tense, it was also deep rooted and it is impossible to discuss the performance of Japan during the war without considering this rivalry. When it comes to air power, this caused some serious problems for Japan, a nation that was preparing to take on nations with far large economies and industrial bases. There were two main possible enemies, the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union was the primary concern of the Army, and its Army Air Force, while the United States was the primary concern of the Navy and its Air Units. Due to the fierce rivalry between the two they would go down very different development paths with their aircraft designs. On the Army side they prioritized reconnaissance and fighter aircraft for the 1920s, and then as bombing became a larger concern they focused on aircraft designs that could provide the greatest possible tactical capabilities, this meant bombers with relatively short ranges. The navy went down a completely different path, with a focus on range for most of their aircraft which would be very apparent in designs of every carrier based aircraft design that came out of Japan. This type of divergence was common, and even animosity between services as they competed for limited resources, but for Japan, which was already at an industrial and economic disadvantage in the coming war, it simply resulted in an inefficient usage of resources it could ill afford. The events in China, and the attrition experienced in the theater, even with almost total domination of the skies, also sapped resources from further aircraft development. While this did provide Japanese pilots with more experience than any other nation by the time that the war started in September 1939, it also meant that resources were invested in immediate military campaigns in China instead of long term planning and preparations for war. This delayed their design and production of their next generation of aircraft, which would not be completed until late in the war. There were other organizational challenges that Japan would have when it came to fighting what was essentially a war of attrition in the air against enemy air forces after 1941. They were unable to train enough replacement pilots, a problem that was felt particularly acutely by the Navy. This greatly decreased their ability to replace pilot losses with skilled pilots, with the training requirements continually decreasing throughout the war . But with all that negativity, given the performance of the Japanese Air units in the early part of the war it is essential to end on a high note here. They made what would prove to be good decisions about how to design aircraft, particularly in the Naval theater where they would be most tested. To take the most famous example I think the design of the Zero, in the early part of the Pacific war, was a great choice. Really focusing on making it as light and maneuverable as possible and giving it long range was very beneficial in the early stages of the Pacific War. Was it outclassed later? Absolutely, just as every aircraft eventually is, but it certainly had its day.
Just like in the other nations we have discussed, in the United States there would be competing visions between the Army and the leading aviation officers on what the future of American air power should focus on. There was a strong push for autonomy from within the Army Air Corps, with the hope that such independence would allow it to better focus on its preferred mission of strategic bombing. The topic of this independence would be discussed many times over many different commissions and committees, but at the end of the day the men who were in power in those commissions and were chairing those committees were consistently very conservative in their views of what proper military organization was. This independence would not be given to the Air Corps until after the Second World War, and so much like in France and Japan the Army Air Corps had to bow to the wishes of the Army, at least officially. While formulating doctrine there was the additional constraint that the American military until quite close to the start of the Second World War was seen as a purely defensive tool. This made it more challenging to try and advocate for a policy that focused solely on long range bombing campaigns against civilian and industrial targets. They were still able develop the aircraft the capabilities for that strategic bombing, but how those aircraft were positioned and what the official plans for them were had to be properly described to fit within that defensive national posture. Part of that development came in the form of theory, and for the Army Air corps one of those theories was the concept of an industrial fabric or industrial web. This idea would be refined quite a bit during the 1930s, particularly at the Air Corps Tactical School, which for something called a Tactical School sure seemed to contain a lot of discussion of strategic bombing. But anyway, one early proponent of the theory was William C Sherman, in his book Air Warfare, published in 1926, he would describe the reasons that the industrial fabric or web was so important to an economy, and why it could be such a promising target for bombing campaigns “In general, the finished product does not come from one self-contained plant, which takes in only the raw materials, or from any number of similar plants. Industry consists rather of a complex system of interlocking factories, each of which makes only its allotted part of the whole. This is an era of specialization. Accordingly, in the majority of industries, it is necessary to destroy certain elements of the industry only, in order to cripple the whole. These elements may be called the key plants. These will be carefully determined, usually before the outbreak of war. They will be accurately located at the same time, preferably by air photographs. On the declaration of war, these key plants should be made the objective of a systematic bombardments, both by day and by night, until their destruction has been assured, or at least until they have been sufficiently crippled.". This idea would go on to be a major driver of American strategic bombing during the Second World War. What they would find, is that it was a lot more difficult than they expected. There were two main problems with this theory: finding out what to hit, and then managing to actually hit it. Properly evaluating targets required a huge amount of intelligence gathering abilities, both just gathering it and then making sure it was accurate. This was important not just for target selection, but also to try and determine if the raids were even being successful or were having the intended effect. But even if they could determine what to hit and where it was, hitting it from a bomber was a different story. During the 1930s bombers had challenges hitting targets at relatively low altitudes, with bombing practice rarely being done at altitudes greater than 12,000 feet. That altitude was great for hitting things, but would not be a height at which the bombers would want to be in combat with anti-aircraft guns and newer generations of fighters, with their ability to actually chase down bombers, came into play. These challenges would make the idea of striking specific targets, of precision bombing, which was at the core of the American strategic bombing concept, impossible to execute.
Meanwhile…in Russia, unlike other nations the Soviet Union did not really have a legacy from the First World War. Almost all of the military and industrial progress that had been made before 1917 was wiped out by the revolutions and then the civil war. But there were some advantages to coming out of this chaos, as it allowed space for more forward looking leaders to come to power in the years after the Civil War, and for the Russian Air Force that meant leaders who believed in the future of aviation and air power. Even with forward facing leaders it would still take time to build up the industrial capacity to begin to produce aircraft capable of matching up against other modern air forces. But they would get there, and by the middle of the 1930s, and after two Five Year Plans that sought to completely rework its economy the Soviet Union would be be capable of producing modern aircraft like the I-15 and I-16 fighters. These were just one example, but one that we discussed back in the Spanish Civil War episodes, because it would be sent to Spain to fight against the Spanish nationalists. While in Spain it would do quite well, being clearly superior to the German aircraft that were sent in the early part of the conflict, although it would later be outclassed as the next generation of German aircraft like the BF-109 and others began to arrive in numbers. Unfortunately for the future performance of the Soviet Military as a whole, the purges of the late 1930s would result in the removal of several leaders in the Air Force. The Soviet Air Force would gain real experience first in Spain and then in the battles with Japan in Mongolia, clashes we will cover here in a few weeks. However, there would be challenges in translating those experiences and the lessons learned from them into actionable improvement. And that improvement would be badly needed before the summer of 1941 when the German invasion began.
To the west of the Soviet Union would be Poland, and the two nations would be at war in 1920, a conflict that would reduce the number of planes and pilots available during the 1920s. During that conflict the Polish Air Force was completely dependent on other nations to import aircraft, primarily Britain and France, and there was surplus after the end of the First World War although the quality was generally pretty suspect with the other nations trying to sell off models that were obsolete or obsolescence. That would end up setting the stage for most of the interwar period for the Polish Air Force. It would be challenging to maintain the level of funding necessary to grow not just the air force itself but also the industrial capacity to allow Poland to manufacture its own aircraft and engines. When trying to build out this industrial base the challenges were mostly monetary, Poland was surrounded by possible enemies that put a lot of rearmament demands on its limited budget. Progress was made in these areas, although it would not be until just a few years before the war that it was possible to start making serious strides towards equipping all Polish squadrons with Polish built planes. During these years there were discussions about what the air force should be focused on, with there being advocates in Poland for the same theories that would be discussed in other nations. This would result in a period of focus on building out a bombing capability, and this included both bombers designed for closer cooperation with the Army as well as strategic strike capabilities. There would be a pivot in the focus of the Polish Air Force immediately before the war, led by General Zajac, who became the Inspector of the Polish Air Force in 1937. Zajac’s concern in early 1939 when took over as head of the Air Force was that, even if a focus on bombers was the objectively correct path forward for the Polish Air Force, it was likely that Poland would face war before it was ready. During this time 1941 was being thrown around as the earliest that the new generation of Polish bombers would be available in large enough numbers to have a real impact. Zajac would push for a much greater focus on beefing up Poland’s fighter squadrons, but there was a problem, Polish production capacity was limited. Poland would develop agreements with Britain and France during 1939 that might provide a way to purchase and import fighters, but those nations were deep in their own rearmament efforts and so excess capacity that would allow them to send aircraft to Poland. There were other options like the United States, but in those nations funding became a problem, with Poland unable to obtain loans from its allies to try to purchase aircraft. All of this left Poland’s Air Force in a rough spot when the war began, with Polish aircraft heavily outnumbered by the Luftwaffe, and to make things worse most of the aircraft that were operational were from early 1930s designs that did not perform well under the demands of 1939.