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Rikugun: Guide to Japanese Ground Forces, 1937-1945, Volume 2 Review


Leland Ness's book Rikugun: Guide to Japanese Ground Forces; 1937-1945: Volume 2: Weapons of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Ground Forces continues the impressive degree of detail and work found in the first book of the two-part series, devoted to the organization and structure of the military, and continues on into the realm of equipment and production. This is a complete overview of the general collection of weapons used by the Japanese, and also provides a real repository of information on topics such as communications, radio, and bridging equipment, which otherwise are not found in a similar unified book, if found at all. This makes it a formiddably useful reference book for military equipment.

The introduction provides a general analysis of the picture of Japanese ground forces equipment during the war, discussing the limitations of Japan's industrial economy and some of the forces acting on it, through focusing on less advanced and cheaper weapons at the expense of more capable equipment - but sometimes this was actually useful, as in the war fought in Southeast Asia, older equipment could sometimes be surprisingly effective, certainly much more so than if the army had fought in the plains of Manchuria against the Soviets like it intended. Ground equipment could benefit from stockpiles, which kept it going until 1945 despite production priority for aircraft and anti-aircraft guns over other uses, and limitations in raw materials, production capacity, labor, and then the crushing impact of blockade and bombardment dramatically undercut production.

After this, things are relatively humdrum, with initial chapters on infantry weapons, such as the small numbers of submachine guns that the Japanese had, then their mainstay, rifles, as well as associated equipment like rifle grenade launchers and sniper rifles. Machine guns, grenade launchers (Japanese light mortar type weapons and tremendously used in their forces), and assault weapons like grenades, flamethrowers, Bangalore torpedoes, anti-tank munitions, and engineering vehicles come next. Real mortars, including 12 and 15cm anti-submarine mortars, and various improvised mortars, are also included.


Anti-tank guns, and anti-tank rocket launchers (the latter only starting to be deployed at the end of the war), make their appearance, which also describes some of the projects to improve them and various ammunition experiments, are followed up with infantry guns (very widely used by the Japanese, although mortars later started to supplant them), including both dedicated 70mm infantry guns and the old Japanese 75mm mountain guns which had been repurposed as regimental guns, and then were built themselves. Pack artillery for mountain use, light artillery such as the field guns and light howitzers, medium artillery with 105mm guns and 150mm howitzers, appear, followed by the real siege artillery, heavy, long to set up, almost immobile, but useful at Corregidor and other static battles. The Japanese also got artillery rockets, but used these essentially like mortars, rather than European-style MRLS.

Type 90 sounding equipment

Type 90 sounding equipment

Autocannons and heavy machine guns for anti-aircraft use start off the AA section, followed by the Japanese heavy AA guns - ranging from 75mm up to a massive 150mm piece used at the end of the wars, and all of these weapons also include significant amounts about fire control. Barrage balloons, aerial minefields (fired by mortars against planes going overhead, and not very effective even if an ingenious idea), and anti-aircraft rockets rounded this out. The various means to detect aircraft, starting out with sound-finding equipment, then searchlights, and followed up by radar, merit their own chapter. Coastal artillery is the final artillery chapter, showing a massively heterogenous range of weapons.

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There are armored vehicles, including engineering vehicles, armored car, a significant focus on tank guns, SPGs, APCs, and a general host of everything on tracks or armored with wheels. Chemical weapons, the various gases and equipment used, ammunition, and protection systems are included next, and then mines, including interestingly ceramic mines intended to economize on scarce metals, and mine detectors. Then comes bridging equipment, first with the small boats used to cross rivers, and then pontoon bridges and bridge construction, and afterwards radio communications, where interestingly despite generally lacking enough radios, some Japanese radios were actually better designs than their Allied counterparts and were used when captured, such as the Type 93 Switchboard.

The subject of a general reference book for equipment has become a less useful one since the development of the internet, or at least it requires more effort being put into it. After all, there are an endless number of weapons categorized on sites like Wikipedia, often with great detail. There is not much of a reason to have a general reference book when all of its articles can be found online. This is what makes other books like Artillery of World War 2 so mediocre. Thankfully, Ness' book avoids this trap of low quality, since it is an informative work on many subjects that are not otherwise covered, and in greater detail than sites like Wikipedia. The aforementioned sections of bridging and communications are matched by other specialties, such as fire control, ranging equipment (sound ranging particularly), and radar, which are simply not shown on sites like Wikipedia.

Production is also a great element, since it most often includes a table of production during, and also befor the war. This is a very useful feature, and is matched by a general description of equipment and their development and priorities. An excellent example of this is artillery, which explores the different schools of army thought on its employment and structure, with lighter advocates sparring with the partisans of heavier, more capable field guns, such as the Type 90 - which led to the advocates of lighter guns managing to get their preferences like The Type 38 Improved passed instead. Or there is radar, with a good narrative on the study of radar technology in Japan. Ammunition production joins the list too, and all of these help to understand the decline of the Japanese military, particularly when equipment is collated into broad groupings such as division sets of equipment, in addition to the individual weapons.

Some potential areas are missing, such as trucks, horse drawn vehicles, and locomotives - if there were any particular military models of these types. Given that there are communication, fire control, and detection elements, there could be a perfectly reasonable logic for the inclusion of logistics as well.

There are also good pictures, even if the book is not a photo guide per se. But almost every piece of equipment has a photo with it.

Overall, there simply isn't too much to add. Ness has written a book of admirable complexity, details, and breadth, which manages to discuss the context of the equipment that he covers, its usage, the arguments over it, and fits into the broader war effort. This direct but well structured book manages to meet exactly what one would need for a book about an army's equipment and weapons.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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