HOW GOOD ARE THE NEW WAR MACHINES? (Jan, 1938)

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HOW GOOD ARE THE NEW WAR MACHINES?

By ARTHUR GRAHAME

SINCE shortly after the World War ended, we have read and heard much about marvelous new weapons that were going to win “the next war” between major powers. We have been told that swarms of airplanes would bomb the world’s greatest cities into piles of smoking ruins—or at least win the war before a soldier could march across a frontier, by pulverizing transportation arteries and destroying concentrations of troops and war materials. Monstrous land battleships would crush resistance beneath their ponderous tracks, while deadly little tanks would spin across-country so fast that there could be no effective defense against them. Gases would suffocate and poison soldiers and noncombatants alike. Germs, death rays, and new explosives of terrific power would reduce the infantryman, who for centuries has ruled the battlefields of the world with his rifle and his bayonet, to the ignoble role of a mere mopper-up after the devastating new machines of Mars.

For several years, the general staff of every first-class military power has been assailed with raucous advice from proponents of the various new weapons. “The next war will be won and lost in the air!” shouted the ardent disciples of the late General Gulio Douhet, Italy’s prophet of air power. “Stop spending good money for cannon and rifles that the enemy won’t give you a chance to use. The airplane is the only worth-while weapon, and the only defense against airplanes is more airplanes!” Other enthusiasts were as insistent that only tanks and armored cars could do anything useful against the machine gun and other modern defensive weapons. “Get rid of those useless horses—cavalry and horse-drawn guns are things of the past!” advised believers in motorization and mechanization. And scoffing chemists asked: “Why waste time and money on planes and guns and tanks, when gas can do your work cheaper, and more thoroughly?”

GENERAL-STAFF officers, whatever uniform they wear, usually are realists who are somewhat on the conservative side. Most of them put their trust in the often-proved combat team of infantry and artillery. But no general staff can afford to give any other general staff a chance to get ahead of it, so they all experimented with the new weapons. They spent many millions of the taxpayers’ dollars for them. They learned all they could about them from maneuvers and war games, but military operations are very much like football plays—almost anything will “go” on paper. It was only in the fiery crucible of real war that the value or lack of value of the new weapons could be determined. When Italy’s legions marched into Ethiopia, the military experts of the world found what they wanted—a test-tube war. When Spain exploded into murderous civil strife they found another and a better laboratory of battle. Italy, Germany, and Russia grasped the opportunity to try out their new war machines while they furthered their political aims. They sent planes, tanks, and other weapons of attack and defense, with trained men to use them, to the rebels or to the loyalists. And when Japanese armies stormed into China in undeclared but ruthless war, the intently watching experts got still another chance to judge how important a part the new weapons are likely to play in the next struggle—if there ever is one—between powerful and evenly matched nations.

What the military experts have learned from this experimental warfare has been surprising to many of them, distinctly disappointing to the more rabid advocates of some of the most modern weapons, and considerably encouraging to nonmilitary persons who had seemed to be earmarked, either as fighters or as noncombatants, to be future victims of the new war machines.

The airplane is the new weapon whose performance has been watched with the keenest interest. Of course, war planes were used in the World War. But the aircraft of to-day fly something like three times as fast, more than twice as high, and at least ten times as far as did the planes of twenty years ago. New bomb-sighting devices have improved the marksmanship of airmen tremendously. In theory, at least, accurate bombing now is possible from any altitude from which the target may be seen.

No air force of the future can hope for quite so complete a push-over as the recent African war set up for the Italian airmen. The Ethiopians had no air force, and practically no ground defense against air attack. The Italians had complete mastery of the air without having to fight for it—an advantage that no air force ever will have in a war between powerful nations.

And yet the air force played a distinctly minor role in winning the war for Italy. Planes, the Italians found, were very useful for long-range scouting, and in a few exceptional situations they were valuable as food carriers. They were moderately successful in bombing and machine-gun attacks on poorly disciplined and half-disorganized ground troops. Airplane bombing sometimes was used in preparing the way for an advance of the infantry, but it wasn’t nearly so efficient for that purpose as an artillery barrage. Bombing attacks on towns killed a few hundred or a few thousand noncombatant natives, but they did little or nothing toward achieving the military decision.

WHEN the Spanish civil war started in mid-July of 1936, the Spanish Army had a couple of hundred airplanes, but they were of obsolete types, and they took little part in the confused fighting of the first few weeks of the struggle. But by early September, General Franco’s rebel army had been supplied with skilled German military airmen flying Junkers bombers and Heinkel, fighters, and equally good Italian aviators flying Savoia-Marchetti bombers and Fiat fighters. The loyalist forces had been reenforced by Russian flyers in planes that are almost exact duplicates of our Boeing bombers and Curtiss fighters.

The Russian aircraft proved to be superior to both the German and the Italian, but the rebels had by far the larger number of planes, and won control of the air.

When that happened, air-minded observers expected that the world would be given a tragic but impressive demonstration of what aircraft could do to an enemy city and its inhabitants. The callous cruelty of both armies had shown that non-combatants had no hope of mercy from fighters on the other side of the deadly Spanish family argument.

Rebel planes attacked Madrid with the avowed object of breaking the civilian population’s “will to resist.” Little bothered by the loyalists’ feeble antiaircraft batteries, they flew low and bombed viciously and persistently. Using from twenty to fifty planes, they attacked thirty times in less than two months. They killed hundreds—perhaps thousands—of defenseless noncombatants. But at the end of those two months of flying terror, the people of Madrid still were going about whatever business the war had left them, and they weren’t begging for peace. Four of the city’s movie theaters, which never had closed, were showing to good crowds every evening! Bravery isn’t confined to men who wear military uniforms—a fact that some of the advocates of the ruthless use of air power forget when they talk of air attacks terrorizing civilians into meek submission.

Japanese air attacks on Chinese cities have had the same results as the rebel bombings of Madrid. They have killed many civilians, and have caused terrible suffering, but they haven’t punished the Chinese into asking for peace.

WHEN used against armed forces in the Spanish war, the airplane has proved itself to be a valuable, but not a decisive weapon. Loyalist planes attacked a motorized and partially mechanized rebel column advancing on the town of Guadalajara in weather so bad that the tanks and trucks bogged down the moment they left the road. The resulting battle was the closest thing that the world has seen to the oft-predicted war of machines, and it was a decisive victory for the airmen, who bombed and machine-gunned the unlucky column to almost complete destruction. But against the intrenchments of Madrid repeated air attacks have been fruitless. Under certain favorable conditions, air-planes may win battles, but most military experts now agree with Germany’s hard-headed General Ludendorff in his opinion that they never will win a war. The controversy as to whether air bombs can sink a modern battleship remains unsettled, but most of the evidence supports the negative view. Loyalist planes bombed the German “pocket battleship” Deutschland and killed twenty-three members of her crew, but didn’t seriously damage the ship. Rebel planes scored direct hits with a ton of bombs on the loyalist’s only battleship. Her superstructure was completely wrecked, but she didn’t sink.

EVEN more surprising than the airplane’s failure to live up to expectations has been the demonstrated efficiency of the antiaircraft gun. In the World War five out of every six airplanes brought down were the victims of other planes; in Spain five out of six of the planes brought down are accounted for by antiaircraft batteries. The 88-millimeter Bofors gun sent by the Germans to the Spanish test tube has been the outstanding surprise of the war. With an extreme vertical range of 30,000 feet, it is highly effective up to 20,000 feet, and it dominates the air to 12,000 feet. It is manufactured by a Swedish firm, and its performance has been so impressive that the British have outbid the Germans for the entire output—an indication that cold cash still is one of the most potent of war weapons!

Tanks have been improved tremendously since the British stunned the Germans by an attack with them before Cambrai in 1917. They are faster, more dependable, and somewhat less vulnerable to fire. But methods and weapons for fighting tanks have improved as fast as the tanks themselves, or faster, and there isn’t the slightest indication that these weird-looking mechanical monsters ever will fulfill the expectation that they would rule the battlefields of the future.

The Italians used them in Ethiopia, and the wild tribesmen were smart enough to “kill” them by setting fire to the heavy bush. The loyalists have used them in Spain, and the rebels have gone the Ethiopians one better. Their method is for two men to conceal themselves until a tank has passed, and then climb up on it. One of the men spurts gasoline into the monster’s eye slits and ignites it. His partner waits until the tortured tank crew has to open the port at the top of the tank to keep from being burned to death—and then finishes it off with hand grenades. Not nice, but so effective that tank crews have been known to wreck their machines so that they wouldn’t have to take them into action.

BOTH Russian and German tanks have been used in the Spanish fighting. Neither kind has proved satisfactory. A direct hit by a 75-millimeter shell will stop any tank under thirty tons. The Germans have a very fine 37-millimeter antitank gun that easily penetrates the heavy Russian tanks. And the failure of the light German tanks to stand up under machine-gun fire has made the German General Staff wonder if its four tank divisions of 250 tanks each haven’t become obsolete before they have had a chance to do more than test the weapon.

Another dangerous enemy of the tank is the land mine, exploded by contact or electrically. A five-pound T.N.T. mine will put any tank out of action.

The British are the firmest believers in the usefulness of the tank. In addition to helping the advance of the infantry, they believe that it should be used—in conjunction with other armored vehicles—in place of cavalry. Such mechanized columns can move 100 miles a day—for one day; then they have to devote a day to making repairs. This rate of advance seems revolutionary, until you remember that in our Civil War old Jeb Stuart’s gray-coated cavalry rode eighty miles in twenty-four hours on its return from the Chambers-burg raid, and then had enough strength and spirit left to charge and rout the Federal cavalry that tried to keep it from crossing the Potomac into Virginia. One leading European military power, formerly a leader in mechanization, now is reported to be putting half its fast-moving forces back on horses as a result of observations made in the Ethiopian and Spanish campaigns.

JUDGING the tank by its performance in Spain, it is a valuable weapon under certain conditions—especially for counterattacking before the enemy can make defensive preparations—but not one that ever will do all that has been claimed for it.

It is fairly certain that no new weapon of major importance has been developed in the last twenty years. Gas has been used in Ethiopia and in Spain, but its effect never has been decisive. Electrical “death rays” and bacterial warfare remain—most fortunately— bad dreams of the horror writers. Chemists have worked overtime to produce an explosive more powerful than those used in the World War, but they haven’t been able to beat T.N.T.

The “next war”—if it ever comes— won’t be any better than the last one, but probably it won’t be any worse. And perhaps there won’t be any next war, between powerful nations. Test-tube wars have proved to the military experts that there is no one weapon that can be depended upon to gain a quick decision. And that’s a very good thing for the world, for the nations which would have to win quickly to win at all are the only nations that are likely to start a war.

5 comments
  1. Stannous says: April 8, 20079:34 am

    Pretty right on the money, too bad the only people who listened to it weren’t in charge.
    Leaders on both side believed, all the way through the war (and even in modern wars), that ‘shock and awe’ bombings of civilian populations will break their will.
    All the super weapons of WW2 helped but without the boots on the ground nothing would have been accomplished.

  2. Caya says: April 8, 20071:22 pm

    I don’t know which is more macabre- the war machines, or the pumpkin with such creepy looking facial features.

  3. Nicolas says: October 3, 20101:49 am

    I would like to see the face expression of the autor, when he was strucked bu the news of the German Blitzkrieg in 1940 and the attack of Pearl Harbour :) The article is a perfect example how underevaluated were the tank and the airplane – the weapons wich decided the war.

  4. Firebrand38 says: October 3, 20109:41 am

    Nicolas: He changed his tune about tanks by 1943

  5. Nicolas says: October 3, 201010:35 pm

    Firebrand38: :D haha, thank you. He sure did :)

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