Cross posted from APOD October 1940
The Japanese Mission
Lido de Venezia 1 October 1940
General Oshima was beaming as he looked at the G3M2's land, the red discs of the hinomaru gleaming on their flanks and wings. The type was quite familiar to Balbo, he had seen J-BEOC during its visit to Rome in August 1939. Balbo him gave a broad smile of his own - he had come to like the hard-drinking Japanese Ambassador to Germany very much. Both men were solid patriots and interested in getting things done.
And hadn't they got things done in the last two months!
Oshima was there representing his Ambassador (Mr Saburō Kurusu in British name order), and because this was an important military occasion for Japan.
This was, of course, the first Japanese Military Mission to Europe.
It was also exquisitely timed. Mussolini had exploited the relationship and the Missions for every shred of political value he could get. The announcement of the Missions and the Cooperation Agreement had been made on 29 September, when public interest in the signing of the Tripartite pact on 27 September was still at a peak but so that Hitler could not take offence at having his thunder stolen. Mussolini had wanted the Missions to commence duty on 1 October, so a similar event was occurring in Italy and Japan.
Neither Balbo nor the other senior staff had obtained much sleep since August, the workloads had been crushing, but much had been achieved. He turned to his close friend Marshall Stefano Cagna. "Stefano, not like 15 August, eh?"
"No, Italo, no. Not like the 15th at all" he said softly. Five SM-79 of 46th Squadriglia mounted the RAI's first torpedo-bomber attack - on Alexandria. The attack was the brainchild of Lieutenant Mario Spinetti, and it was all improvised. The torpedoes he 'acquired' from RMI stocks in Tobruk and the shackles he had manufactured locally. The crews had no training. The five Savoia's had attacked from the west at low altitude at 2200, flying into the teeth of heavy AA defences and nearly 50 searchlights. Gallant, yes: effective no. And Spinetti's SM.79 had not returned.
"Practise torpedoes?" said Cagna.
"They brought 28, enough for three drops in a day, with four spares. They have technicians. They do not know that we sold most of our stock to the Germans back in July." Replied Balbo.
The two Marshalls exchanged a rueful look. It had not been their decision.
The Japanese ambassador to Italy, Mr. Hirokiri, was also present, looking slightly uncomfortable in the salty breeze. He had the reputation of being somewhat formal and colourless, but he was certainly animated on this occasion. In the lagoon, no fewer than three H6K2-L were moored, having flown in personages and staff from Berlin and Rome yesterday. They were to be replaced by H6K4, to train Italian naval and air force personnel on air-fleet cooperation. They had to use these as the H9A was not in production yet, and the transports were too valuable to let stay here.
The 16 G3M2 were officially a training detachment of the Kisarazu Group. They wanted eight operational aircraft at any one time, which meant 8 crews with 12 aircraft, but because they were so far from home four additional machines had been flown in as attrition spares. Venice was a good place to base them. It was a long way from the fighting, it had a major fleet base at Trieste close by and a yard at Monfalcone, good flying conditions, and immediate access to Whitehead torpedo facilities. Being on a lagoon was handy for the flying boats too, and it was secure.
The Detachment's three H6K4 were due soon. The Italians had provided an SM.81 as a range safety machine and 'Detachment utility machine', its RAI crew were already on good terms with the Japanese aviators, having made some initial forays into Northern Italy on their behalf. There was also a Cant Z.506B for air sea rescue and torpedo spotting. This aircraft had intrigued the Japanese Naval Commander, Captain Taki, and he had asked to be shown its capabilities. It's pleasant handling characteristics, low-powered engines, wooden construction and superb rough water capabilities had seen rapidly accelerating interest, and tours of the CRDA Monfalcone factory where it was built. A full inspection by 1st Japanese Naval Air Arsenal staff had been arranged, and there was very serious talk of license production by Kyushu.
Balbo had been rather surprised. He knew that the Japanese had a vast variety of floatplanes and flying boats already. Taki had explained that the Z.506B filled a real niche in Japanese home waters and northern Asia with its three-engined reliability, good endurance, excellent rough-water capability and low cost. It could replace big four engined flying boats otherwise needed in those areas and best of all, the machine was well suited to being built by a small manufacturer like Kyushu. As Taki had said, they had a place as a medium sized designer and builder of small to medium production runs of trainers and specialised aircraft with modest performance and great reliability. He explained that the IJN and IJA were always looking for ways to improve the capabilities of their aircraft manufacturers.
That had turned into a very long night of discussion when Taki began describing how Hitachi was being raised from a minor manufacturer to a major one, through the He-100 program. The process was adaptable to improving existing manufacturers as well - something Balbo was deep in discussions about with Fiat.
And that was what this whole thing was all about.
Taki had joked that everything they had done was worth it just to have seen Captain Masoaki Tsuruno's reaction when he had been shown a photograph of Sergio Stefanutti's SS.4 prototype. Balbo had chuckled as well. The Japanese Navy had struck him as very formal and extremely disciplined service. When they had shown the senior staff of the Dai-Ichi Kaigun Koko Gijitsusho their general portfolio, there had been intense professional interest.
Then they got to the SS.4. Tsuruno had instantly become extremely excited, delighted and agitated. So much so that he had insisted on accompanying the advance party, had promptly vanished in the direction of SAI and had not been seen since.
Taki had a dry wit. He had blandly noted that 'there might be something brewing there.' Balbo had exploded in laughter, which Taki had joined.
The RMI had requested training in carrier operations too, so a small force of older aircraft was on the way by sea, aboard a freighter. The IJN was considering sending a small carrier in several months, as part of a training cruise. The freighter, taken up from trade then armed and commissioned as an AMC, carried 6 A5M4 fitted with Hikari 3 engines, 6 B5N1 (also fitted with Hikari 3 engines) and 6 D3A1, as well as 8,000 tons of other equipment, rubber, tin and other strategic materials requested by the Italian government. While only two of each aircraft type were required for training, again that generated a need for 4 (assuming lower than usual serviceability rates) and two attrition spares.
The Japanese personnel were being accommodated locally while a base was built for them. It had features not normally found on an Italian base - they wanted the Mission to feel at home. Balbo could see some of the construction works to his right. He smiled slightly at them. The HQ of the Japanese Military Mission was not here, of course. It was in the old British Embassy in Rome.
Also present on the base were aircraft detached from 36th Stormo. They would be the first to receive training, and would become the RAI's trainers. They had been as frantically trying to learn a little Japanese as the Japanese had been as frantically trying to learn a little Italian. Both groups were immensely (if very quietly) relieved by the arrival of Italians and Japanese civilians from Japan and China, who were fluent in both languages.