I’m going to write a little bit about a period of history that saw astounding technological leaps accompanied by the worst atrocities ever committed by Humanity: World War II (through the lens of my visits to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museums in Washington, D.C.)
And as always, click to embiggen a picture.
In December of 1903, this thing managed to take off and fly 120 feet…
In September of 1944, Hitler’s Germany was lobbing these missiles across the English Channel at London…
Over a space of about 41 years, we had gone from barely controllable collections of wood and canvas to metallic missiles that could handle engine temperatures of 4,900 degrees. Most of the big leaps were made during World War I or in the buildup/during World War II. It’s a sad fact that most of the incredible breakthroughs of the 20th century are due to people looking for more efficient ways to kill each other.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, had a whole bunch of these on hand…
The ME-109 was the best fighter available at the start of the war, and it was flown by pilots who already had combat experience thanks to the Spanish Civil War. For the first few months of fighting, nothing could touch it.
Then, Great Britain, led by Winston Churchill, who had decided they weren’t going to surrender just now, thank you very much old chap, managed to start building and flying the Spitfire…
This fighter was powered by a V-12, supercharged, 1,300 horsepower engine known as the Merlin. It was a game-changer that arrived at just the right moment. Britain was fighting for its very existence.
You see, Hitler didn’t really want to invade Britain. But he realized that the island wouldn’t surrender or sue for peace while Churchill was in charge. So, he ordered his generals to prepare for invasion. But an invasion requires air superiority, especially when the Royal Navy still has all its ships and is considered the best in the world. So step one for Germany would be to destroy the Royal Air Force so completely that when the invasion happened, the Luftwaffe could sink the Royal Navy before it could intervene.
So day and night, Germany sent wave after wave of fighters and bombers over the English Channel to attack RAF air bases and aircraft factories. Their planes vastly outnumbered the RAF. Victory seemed assured. But the RAF had a couple of very important advantages. For one, they were flying over their own country, so if a pilot was shot down and lived, he could return to service. And most importantly, radar. As the Luftwaffe planes flew over the English Channel, the RAF knew exactly where they were, how many there were, and what their likely target would be. They could then scramble fighters – including those supercharged Spitfires – to meet them.
It was still a very close-run thing. The RAF came very close to collapse as their airfields and factories were bombed relentlessly. Then, on the night of August 23, a group of German bombers got lost and accidentally bombed London (horrible, yes, but not an airfield or factory.) In retaliation, the RAF sent long-range bombers to bomb Berlin. Enraged, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to start bombing London and other cities on a daily basis. This, of course, killed thousands of people. But, it meant the Germans weren’t bombing the airfields and airplane factories. Given that little bit of breathing room, the RAF recovered quickly and soon German planes were dropping like flies. The Luftwaffe had not won air superiority. There would be no invasion. Hitler would move on to his real obsession: attacking the Soviet Union.
Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Meanwhile, over in the U.S., nobody was that concerned with the war. It was a “European affair.” Then, on December 7, 1941, a couple hundred of these showed up over Pearl Harbor in Hawaii…
Japan sank most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in a matter of hours that morning using airplanes flown from their aircraft carriers a hundred miles off the coast (and out of sight.) While dozens of ships were sunk, the U.S. aircraft carriers were safely out at sea. This was a very lucky break for the U.S., as would become apparent in a few months’ time.
Japan also invaded Singapore and the Philippines. The swiftness and successfulness of their attacks stunned the U.S. and Britain. Things would get much worse before the U.S. could muster its power.
The Japanese Zero, with its powerful engine and lightweight construction, piloted by veterans of Japan’s war with China, dominated the skies over the Pacific. They could be launched from any of Japan’s six large carriers. And where would those carriers show up next? Nobody knew.
Then, some U.S. cryptanalysts in Hawaii figured out Japan’s secret naval code. The Japanese were talking about invading “AF.” But what was “AF?” The code-breakers thought it might be Midway Island, a small dot of land very close to Hawaii. If the Japanese took Midway, they could easily invade Hawaii! To find out if the Japanese were really using “AF” as a callsign for Midway, the Navy sent an uncoded message saying that the island was having a fresh water shortage. Sure enough, the Japanese sent a coded message to their fleet that “AF is having a water shortage.”
Japan was sending four carriers to attack Midway. The U.S. only had three available. But the U.S. knew where the Japanese carriers would be. On June 4, 1942, the tide of the war in the Pacific was changed by a handful of these planes…
The Dauntless dive bombers had taken off from the American carriers along with a number of fighters and torpedo bombers. By the time the dive bombers found the Japanese carriers, almost every attacking torpedo bomber had been shot down without scoring any hits. But the Dauntless dive bombers arrived while the Japanese carriers were re-arming their own planes. Bombs and torpedoes were all over their decks. In a period of just 10 minutes, the Dauntlesses scored hits on three of the giant Japanese carriers. With all the ammunition lying around, the Dauntless bombs caused dozens of other bombs to explode. The three carriers would soon sink. A few hours later, more Dauntlesses sank a fourth carrier.
In a matter of hours, the Japanese had lost four of their six biggest ships while the U.S. had only lost one. Along with the carriers, the Japanese had also lost their best pilots. Over the next two years, the Japanese would build four new carriers to replace their losses. In the same period, the U.S. built 24 new carriers, all with well-trained pilots and hot new planes like the Corsair…
The lightweight paper-and-wood construction of the Japanese Zero – which had made it so nimble and effective – now rendered it a death trap as much better-performing U.S. planes with better-trained pilots used their cannons to turn the Zeroes into swiss cheese.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was also building thousands of these hot-rods…
The P-51 is probably the ultimate propeller-driven fighter. As the Allies advanced across France, P-51’s rampaged almost unopposed across German skies. Trains, river barges, trucks – even cars – could not travel in daylight for fear of a P-51 suddenly riddling them with her six cannons.
And so the Soviets, Americans, British and French were finally victorious over Germany. In a final fit of rage, Hitler had ordered 3,000 V-2’s (the rocket at the top of this article) launched against London, Antwerp, and Paris. As the Soviets and Americans rolled into Germany, they captured hundreds of unfired rockets and the scientists and engineers who had designed them. As a result, most every rocket built by the U.S. and Soviets can trace its lineage back to the V-2. Sputnik, Soyuz, Apollo, even the Space Shuttle all have elements of the V-2’s design.
But what about Japan? Even though Germany had surrendered, and the U.S. was slowly closing in on the Japanese home islands, there was no sign that the war would soon end in the Pacific. As egomaniacal as Hitler was, he still didn’t consider himself a living god. But that’s what the Japanese Emperor was. Every child was taught that the Emperor was an actual god, and to die in his service was the greatest honor one could ever hope to achieve. To surrender was a horrible, horrible crime that would bring shame on you and your family. It was in this context that the Kamikaze was born.
Starting in late 1944, Japan formed dedicated Kamikaze units. There were thousands of volunteers, more than could be trained, more than there were aircraft available. Sometimes a volunteer would wedge himself in behind the pilot on a Kamikaze mission, just to share in the glory of the sacrifice.
To give more volunteers the opportunity for glory, this was developed…
This is a purpose-built Kamikaze missile. It would be carried out to sea by a two-engine bomber (like the one to the left in the picture.) When an enemy ship was sighted, the suicide pilot would release the missile from the plane, fire its rocket, and fly it at high speed into its target.
Meanwhile, schoolgirls in Japan were being trained in the use of sharpened sticks. They would charge the invading Americans and, though they would die, they would take an invader with them. Glory to the Emperor!
Rather than invade, the U.S. decided to use the atomic bomb.
Books have been written about this decision, and whether it was right, and what “right” even means in this context. Tens of thousands of people died because of it.
My dad was the captain of a small supply ship in the Pacific during World War II. He regularly carried gasoline tanker trucks (full) and ammunition from island to island as the U.S. advanced towards Japan. He told me that in the summer of 1945, he was scared. Everyone was scared. They knew they were going to have to invade Japan, and the scuttlebutt was that the brass expected a 50% casualty rate. Stand next to your friend. Flip a coin. Winner dies.
Would my dad’s boat have been sunk? Would my dad have died in an explosion of gasoline or ammunition? I don’t know. I only know that the bomb ensured that my dad would get home and start a family. And I also know that, if you enlarge the picture above, you’ll see three Japanese people (just to the right of the man taking a picture) who may be wondering if their dad would still be alive if the bomb hadn’t killed him.
Would millions of Japanese civilians have died, along with a million U.S. soldiers if the invasion had happened? Most historians think so. Does that justify killing tens of thousands to save millions? I have no way to analyze that.