Monday, July 30, 2012

Leaning Towards France: A Technical Appendix

Last time, I buried a snide criticism of the Fascist-fighting work of the design bureau of Lavochkin and Gorbunov in a footnote. That's a bad place for it, and an argument that can be taken too far.

The mood?

That's the boot of the Red Army of Workers and Peasants in the face of race science and national socialism forever.

That's a good thing with a terrible human cost, not all of it forced on Soviet Russia by the Fascists. In order to defeat Nazi Germany, the peoples of the Soviet Union paid a toll in blood for the follies of their own government as well. So did the men and women of the Red Army, and so did the pilots of the Red Air Force.

As anyone caught in the machinery of a human institution (which is pretty much all of us, I think) can tell you, it's easy to become a victim of a terrible self-reinforcing cycle of failure, with policy makers just looking at you and shrugging their shoulders to say, "Yes, it's terrible, and I feel for you, but whatcha gonna do?" The Royal Flying Corps ran into that in 1917, when its training cycle was delivering undertrained pilots to the front and matching them up with dangerous planes that killed them before they gained the experience needed to be good air fighters, much less instructors who could train the next generation of pilots. It's a bad, broken process that flows from bad human resources management far more than from mistakes of technological policy. But, well, it's the latter that we talk about here, so there you go: The Lavochkin-Gordunov LaGG-1, -3, LaG-5, La-5, La-7, and La-9.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats, IV, 2: Leaning Towards France

I've got a great deal rattling around in my mind this week, and an unusually long writing period before the beginning of my graveyard shift tonight. So why not a bonus post, to finish off my discussion of the fighters of August?

This is not a fighter of August.

What was that again? A static view, thanks to Wikipedia:

9,240lbs dry weight, 2480hp from a Bristol Centaurus XVIIC 18cyl , 53.6L engine; almost twice  and rather more than twice the hp of the Spitfire I.

The Sea Fury is a pretty visible plane. It's on the air show and race circuit, in which people with money and a death wish fly 70 year old planes at excessive speeds far too close to the ground. If there's one thing that the Fury has to spare, it is excessive speed: the Wikipedia data box gives 460mph at 18,000ft.

I suppose that we have to thank the crazy people, even if we choose not to stand under them. Otherwise, we might not reflect at all on just what was done in the name of victory, 70 years ago, more-or-less today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats, IV: The Fighters of August, I

It's time to start talking about the aeroplanes of August.

In the tradition of this post:

The comparison I'm making here is a bit strained. Unlike the Citro├źn four wheel drive, the Nash Rambler was not an import. It wasn't even designed in Britain or with British input, unlike the Nash-Healey or Metropolitan. It was just inspired by European approaches to carmaking. Which, given the difference between the driving experience on the two continents, helps explain why AMC isn't with us anymore. Sorry, George, but if you can't fit a Baby Boom's worth of kids into the car and drive them to Disneyland in something approaching comfort, you're just not going to win the market in the long run. High-speed, low displacement engines mounted in weight controlled chassis are for performance and fuel economy on roads with frequent speed changes, not comfort and reliability on long 55mph runs.

Which, naturally, brings me to Fighter Command's "Rhubarbs" and "Circusses," the lean towards France that began in 1941. This doesn't really belong in the province of "no more defeats," given their mediocre results. (See whining, here, 282ff.)  The problem was that the Luftwaffe was doing decisive stuff in Russia and the Middle East, and there was this huge air force in Britain that the Luftwaffe was declining to fight. So that air force started flying to France and looking for Germans to fight. 

It did not go well. The secret of air forces is that they are projections of industrial bases. They have to be, because they use themselves up. A few sedate training engines of the World War era delivered multi-thousand-hour runs, but the fighting engines lasted a much shorter time, and no-one could guarantee that they wouldn't stop working over mid-Channel, as opposed to being condemned on the bench.  The more an air force flies, even without an enemy gracing it with its presence, the more planes will be lost, and the more pilots will die. 

That being said, the GAF did come up and fight, occasionally, when it thought that it had reason. In February of 1942, the Air Defence of Great Britain got egg on its face when it failed to respond in time to a major German air mobilisation. Next month, seventy years ago this 19 August, Combined Operations Command will provide a pretext for an air battle, and Fighter Command will go into action again. The point will not be to make the Dieppe Raid more successful. The Dieppe Raid is just a raid. The fact that it happens is most of its rationale. It's meant to  hold German air assets in France. It's part of a global battle for air superiority. 

So let's talk about fighters and the battle for air superiority.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Fall of France, XI: A Machine For Controlling Space, IV: At The Wall Around The World

I should be talking about the energy content of nitrocellulose dissolved in toluene and the ballistic properties of supersonic projectiles in atmosphere. There's nothing like the  tumultuous years between the Relief of Chitral and the Tirah Expedition (shorter, longer, longest) for a lesson in the way that technology changes our relations with the landscape.

Instead, I will start with the mountains of the imagination. It was ....1978, I think.  My grandparents had already begun to drop me off with my birthday money at what seemed like the world's biggest bookstore, just across from the old train station in Vernon. B. C. tucked between the fault-filling Lake Okanagan and the abutting massif of Silver Star --a satellite of the Monashee.* I bought science fiction paperbacks. I'd already consumed my share, but not nearly enough to be up to date with the whole field, so this was new to me. It entranced me, and perhaps still would if I didn't know far more about Marion Zimmer Bradley's personal life than I ever would have wished.

But let's forget about that and get back to the childish sense of wonder, to the mysterious world of adventure and psi powers under the red sun of Darkover, where the mysteries of ancient days linger in the mountains of the Wall Around the World. The what?

Mystery solved!

The original's at Wikipedia, of course.  This is what happens when they come for your childhood. The question I always had was, "what's beyond the Wall Around the World?" It turns out that the answer is nothing, which was inevitable as worldbuilding, but disappointing for this (alleged) grown-up.

Other romantic places have probably changed, too. There's a highway through Chitral, where the Pamirs meet the Himalayas. Google Image refused to deliver a shot of downtown Chitral "[spoiled] by modern dentistry, so here's the decidedly romantic Fort of Chitral:

I've hotlinked the photo from Pakistanpaedia, because I think the intent is to drive tourist traffic, and I heartily approve.

Here is the site author's explanation:

Ask anyone where Chitral is, and one may get a blank look since this land of Tirich Mir and the Kafirs, people of the lost world, is obscured behind the Lowari Top, which due to its inaccessibility generally keeps the tourist and holiday makers at bay. But those who dare to venture and reach out to Chitral Valley, find themselves in a different world - overlooked by the mighty Tirich Mir, standing at a height of 7,692 metres as part of the Hindu Kush mountain range, and located in the far reaches of Pakistan. Chitral is also famous for the Shandur Festival, which is held each year and where polo is played at the highest polo ground of the world at a height of 3,719 metres. The beauty of Chitral lies as much in its rustic, mountainous terrain, as in its warm hearted and friendly inhabitants. Since it is a land high up in the mountains, at such places legends fascinate the on lookers. One such legend describes Chitral as an abode of genies and fairies in times when no one lived here and locals still look up to the Tirich Mir, which they believe still has the castle of fairies.

I know I see a faerie seat. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats, III: Do You Hear the Drums?

Call me sentimental, but I play this song for my youngest niece a lot. Or I would have posted this, and made you all suffer like a retail employee. Unless you like Abba, and I'm sure not in a position to judge.

While I'm at apologies, I'm a little more than 24 hours ahead of the actual anniversary. As productive as this Sunday has been for me, I'm actually hoping this will post ahead of the date. We'll see.

At 3:30AM, 10 July 1942, B and C Company, 2/48th Infantry Battalion of the  9th Australian Division launched a night assault on a position held by Italian defenders of the Sabratha Division. They were leading a two battalion attack that would rout the Italians and initiate a battle better known for the larger scale fighting of the next day, when the mobile forces of Armoured Army Africa counterattacked.

What matters here is that it was launched under a barrage by 3 Australian and 2 South African field artillery regiments, backed up by 7th Medium Regiment's 4.5" and newly-arrived 5.5" guns and gun-howitzers. "It's the Trommelfeuer," German veterans of WWI whispered to each other. And they were right. After two years in Africa, the Royal Regiment of Artillery was finally going to be allowed to fight the way that it preferred to fight. (Details courtesy of Niall Barr, Pendulum of War, 107--08.

Why now, on 10 July? Why not two months ago? We could talk, a lot, about what went wrong at Gazala, but it's time to do something  more productive, and take a look back stage. Because, funny thing about this battle. It was fought in Egypt.

No, seriously. What's up with that? The vicissitudes of strategy had made the Commonwealth’s commitment to defend the Middle East defined Egypt the second centre of gravity for its entire war effort. It was a centre of gravity destitute of industrial base [you can tell from the language that I'm following Playfair here, even if I decided not to credit him in the extract for some reason], and even short of some of the raw materials of modern war, such as lumber and coal. Moreover, inasmuch as the base area lacked port facilities, it experienced additional administrative difficulties in simply growing, augmented by both direct Axis effort, such as bombing and mining of the Suez canal, and indirect, such as the fact of the presence of elements of the Italian navy in Eritrea.
Thus, the core story of the development of offensive military capacity in the Middle East was the development of the administrative basis of war in Egypt and Palestine in spite of enemy action. Operations in the field, short of some spectacular total victory that would have obviated the need for this buildup altogether, were of strictly secondary importance.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats, II: The Crisis in 1942, I: The River

Seventy years ago today, the Germans are on the move. Sixth Army and 4th Armoured Army are attacking east out of the great bend of the Don. What's going on?

It's not hard to figure out. All you need is a copy of the German census and the officially published casualty statistics. The brutal paper war over German casualties in the last war will tell you that the Germans might be understating their losses, but they're certainly not overstating them. Perhaps 800,000 in the last twelve months swallows up the new cohort entirely, so German manpower is going down. That means  a smaller offensive than last year. Fewer rifles and fewer tanks at the front and boys behind them. 

(The general wears riding boots, of course.)

If it's not the last throw of the dice, it's getting close to it. So where are they going that's worth the terrible cost? What opportunities have Axis strategists detected?