Eighty years ago: the British government flounders to defend its performance on air rearmament whilst Mussolini provides a grim example of what air power could do



The government’s opponents, most notably Winston Churchill, made a successful start of their criticism of the pace of air rearmament in a House of commons debate. The government was hamstrung by the promise by the previous Prime Minister to establish “parity” with Germany. It was a concept that was impossible to define in any meaningful way given the host of technical, operational and industrial considerations. At one extreme lay a crude hankering to have the same number of warplanes as Germany but the government and the Air Staff understood full well the playing a simplistic numbers game was militarily senseless. The complexity of the underlying problem meant that progress would inevitably fall short of targets. Accusations by a Welsh and presumably temperance influenced MP that the RAF suffered from excessively heavy drinking in officers’ messes provided modest comic relief.

As Franco’s Nationalist army continued its drive into Catalonia, his ally Mussolini decided apparently without reference to him to launch a series of devastating bombing attacks on the Catalan capital, Barcelona, which was practically defenceless. Mussolini’s goal was to damage Republican (or “Red” in his eyes) morale. The new Leon Blum government in France had just recommenced supplying arms to the Republic and Mussolini may also have seen the raids as a riposte. There was no pretence of any military goal. The bombers were based in Mallorca and flown in Spanish markings. Over three days they inflicted about 3,000 casualties, about one third were fatal. The attacks drew widespread criticism from abroad but this was not backed by any practical measures.

The latest phase of operations in the Sino-Japanese saw the Japanese army trying to bottle up a large number of Chinese troops in the city of Xuzhou. The Chinese armies were no longer in headlong retreat and they were putting up stout resistance but they were still rather outclassed. They were conducting a defence along the banks of the Grand Canal in a series of ferocious close-range engagements.

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