The new generation of Allied fighter aircraft was bigger, faster, more rugged, better armed and, more importantly, produced in awesome quantities. Skill and expertise were steadily and inevitably being ground down by sheer mass and that was a particularly American phenomenon. Even so, on occasions the A6M was able to remind the ascendant Allies that she was not yet to be despised.
Zero versus Spitfire
The British equivalent of the A6M was the Supermarine Spitfire, whose fame during the Battle of Britain gave her an equal aura of invincibility in the air, although of course she was more of a ‘point defence’ fighter with very limited range. That invincibility had been severely dented over Dieppe by the German Focke-Wulf Fw190, but the legend persisted for a long while. In terms of manoeuvrability, climb rate and roll, it should have been on a par with the A6M. It was not a thug and did not rely on pure power and bulk like the Chance Vought F4UF or the Grumman F6F Hellcat; it was as refined and pure as the A6M, equalled it in armament, plus it had pilot protection. Comparative loaded weights were 5,313lb (2,410kg) for the A6M2 against 6,622lb (3,003kg) for the Spitfire. There are frequent references to the A6M fighting the British Supermarine Spitfire, both in Burma and over Ceylon in 1942, but these are pure fiction. The real clash between these two thoroughbreds did not take place until 1943, when, frustrated at the lack of Allied success in stopping the A6M, No. 1 (Fighter) Wing of Spitfire Vs was sent out to Australia. The unit comprised three squadrons, No. 54 (RAF), No. 452 (RAAF) and No. 475 (RAAF) equipped with the ‘tropicalized’ Spitfire Vc, fitted with sand filters for desert operations. Led by famous Australian ace Wing Commander Clive ‘Killer’ Caldwell, RAAF, it contained fourteen fully combat experienced pilots who had good records against the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean among them four or five aces, and it was hoped it would to stop the rot. On arrival American veterans tried in vain to warn them what they were up against. James Morehead, who had mixed it with the A6M while flying P-40s and survived the experience, remembered advising the Spitfire boys, ‘Don’t think that because you could turn inside a German fighter that you could do the same with a Zero.’
As we have seen the 3 Kōkūtai, now the 202 Kentai, based at Kendari under Lieutenant-Commander Minoru Suzuki, after previously being fully engaged in the Solomons Campaign, began preparations in intensive training for long-range trans-ocean navigation and bomber escort missions in readiness for offensive operations to pre-empt Allied efforts over northern Australia. After some brief skirmishes during which few losses were incurred, the eagerly sought clash came on 2 May.
That morning twenty-seven A6Ms lifted off from Kupang, escorting twenty-five Type 1 land attack planes of 753 Kōkūtai (the former Takao group), which had staged in from Kendari to make the wearying 500-mile hop to Darwin. The weather over the area was fine, with light winds and the Japanese bomber force approached at an altitude of 27,000ft (8,229.6m). The Australians were late in getting airborne, due to the usual radar problems encountered in this area and due to the same atmospheric conditions that constantly plagued Merlin engines on the ground, and had to climb up hard to reach their foe. At such altitudes it was found that the Spitfire’s Merlin engine fell off sharply in performance. The A6Ms had the advantages of height and, agility. Nonetheless, in the fighting that followed the thirty-three Spitfires made a claim that they had destroyed four ‘Type O’ carrier fighters, No. 457 Squadron, which had three European veterans with twelve combat operations to their name, alone recording one definite and two probable kills, losing two Spitfire in return. But this was largely hot air for, according to one reliable source, the Japanese suffered no losses whatsoever, ‘All of our aircraft, including land attack planes and Zero fighters, returned safely.’ This one-sided result the Japanese attributed to various reasons, including the fact that the A6Ms had a high number of combat veterans, that they were fully rested and trained, and that the Australian pilots ‘… tended to prefer dogfights, at a time when the very same tactic was most favoured by the more experienced Zero fighter pilots’. The Americans tended to agree with this analysis. Claire Chennault concluded, ‘It was simply a matter of tactics. The RAF pilots were trained in methods that were excellent against German and Italian equipment but suicide against the acrobatic Japs.’ Even before the battle American Marine flyers with experience over Guadalcanal had lectured the Spitfire pilots that, although they had great expertise in Europe, to engage in close-in turning duels with the A6M was the height of folly. While this advice was taken on board superficially, it does not appear to have been heeded in practice in the heat of combat where the old habits automatically re-asserted themselves.
What is absolutely certain is that the Australians were forced to admit the loss of fourteen Spitfires. Eight years of research by one historian in which he interviewed Japanese survivors and accessed records not consulted before, concluded that this was indeed a defeat for the Spitfire and the figures appear to bear that out, despite immediate post-war Australian and British books that claimed the opposite.
In mitigation the following breakdown was given on how this disastrous rate of exchange was brought about and it was determined that five Spitfires were lost to enemy action, four more were lost due to engine failures and malfunction of the propeller constant speed unit (CSU failure) and the destruction of a further five was said to be fuel starvation; there were both internal and external glycol leakage. However, what, in effect was really happening at this period was that the Japanese, many thousands of miles from their home islands, were able to maintain their A6Ms at a comparatively unsophisticated distant air base to such a high degree that they could fly 500 miles, defeat the enemy in aerial combat and fly 500 miles back again; whereas the Australians, even on their own home soil, could not maintain the short-range Spitfires sufficiently for them to operate a relatively simply home defence role effectively. The resilience of Rabaul for example, was substantiated by a modern historian, who recorded:
Rabaul was cut off in early 1944 but not captured by the Australians until after Japan’s surrender. The Australians were startled to find how well organized the base remained and how healthy the garrison seemed. Mechanics at Rabaul were even capable of resurrecting a few aircraft from the scrap heap and wage a small guerrilla air war against advanced Allied bases.
The Japanese raids continued until September when events to the northward saw them concentrate more on that area and aerial combat petered out. Only three A6Ms were lost over the Darwin region in that entire period while up to thirty-two Spitfires were written off in the same time-span.
Battle of the Philippine Sea
Despite the steady attrition of their carrier and surface fleet between the Midway battle and through the debilitating Solomon Islands campaign, the Japanese Navy, at first under Yamamoto, then sequentially under Admirals Mineichi Koga and Soemu Toyoda, still based their hopes and plans for the climatic final all-out naval battle, Kantai Kessen, that same old obsession. They were determined to bring such a battle forward in 1944, but their dithering in 1943 when they still had the edge, had long gone by the spring of 1944, for the colossal American aircraft production and shipbuilding programmers had been given vital time to build a fleet without comparison in size and power, far outmatching anything the Japanese had left to offer. Nonetheless the die was cast because any further delay would only increase the already formidable gap between the two sides. The Red Line became the Caroline and Palau Island groups, but the Americans achieved surprise by actually attacking further north, in the Mariana Islands (principally Guam, Saipan and Tinian) for which the Japanese were unprepared and on 14 June they invaded Saipan itself.
For Operation A-Go the Mobile Fleet under Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ōzawa 1 Dai ichi Kōkū Sentai (1 Kōkū-sentai) comprised the Taiho, with twenty-six A6M5s embarked led by Lieutenant Toshitada Kawazoe, along with twenty-three Yokosuka D4Y Suisei dive-bombers, seventeen Nakajima B6N Tenzan attack planes and two D3As; Shōkakū and Zuikaku, each with twenty-seven A6Ms under Lieutenant Yasuo Masuyama, which had completed training at Batu Pahat and Seletar in the Singapore area with the new Type 52 fighters and then at Lingua and Tawi Tawi south-west of Mindanao; twenty-four D4Ys, seventeen B6Ns and two D3As as 601 Kōkūtai under the command of Commander Toshiiye Irisa. They were accompanied by two heavy and one light cruiser and seven destroyers. Dai ni Kōkū Sentai (2 Kōkū-sentai) under Rear-Admiral Takatsugo Jōjima consisted of the Jūnyō, with twenty-seven A6M5s aboard commanded by Lieutenant Hiroshi Yoshimura, along with six B6Ns and eighteen D3As; Hiyō who fielded twenty-six A6M5s under Lieutenant Hōhei Kobayashi, six B6Ns and eighteen D3As; and Ryuho, with twenty-seven A6M5s under Lieutenant Saneyasu Hidaka, six B6Ns, all of 652 Kōkūtai led by Commander Shōichi Suzuki. Previous deployment at Rabaul from January 1944 had already seen half its strength lost in just three weeks before the survivors pulled back to Truk. Replacement pilots received just two months’ training back at Iwakuni, Oita and Saeki before joining the re-built unit and this force was thus the weakest of the three. Seven out of ten pilots had only graduated in 1943/44. The bankruptcy of Japanese policy was revealed by the fact that, in order to give these immature tyros some stiffening in combat, training schools were depleted of their invaluable instructors, who were sent to the carriers and committed to battle, thus further disrupting the build-up of any meaningful aviation reserve for the needs of the moment. It was a self-inflicted downward cycle with only one end possible.
Surface escorts were one battleship, one heavy cruiser and seven destroyers. The Mobile Force vanguard (‘C’ Force) with dai San Koku Sentai (3 Kōkū-sentai) under Rear-Admiral Sueo Ōbayashi, consisted of the Chitose, Chiyoda and Zuiho each of which shared the sixty-three A6M5bs, forty-five of which were equipped as bakusō (fighter-bombers), as well as twenty-seven B6N and B5Ns of 653 Kōkūtai under Commander Gunji Kimura, with the fighters under Lieutenant Kenji Nakagawa. They were in company with four battleships, eight heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and seven destroyers. There was also an Oiler Group of six tankers with six destroyers.
Ashore under the command of Vice-Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, Base Air Commander Marianas, with his HQ on Tinian Island, just south of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands were approximately three hundred additional aircraft. The Japanese, with nine carriers and 750 aircraft on hand, felt supremely confident of victory. However, the American fleet (Task Force 58) under the very experienced Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, with Admiral Marc A. Mitscher controlling the carrier operations, heavily outnumbered the Japanese in every category. The Americans had seven fleet and eight light fleet carriers on hand and these fifteen carriers outnumbered the Japanese by almost two-to-one. Moreover each American carrier embarked many more aircraft, and the US ships between them could field no fewer than 956 aircraft. The Americans also had seven battleships against the five Japanese battleships, twenty-one cruisers against a Japanese total of nineteen of that type, and fifty-eight destroyers against twenty-seven Japanese ships. The surface ships never came to blows but the Americans cleverly positioned their main battleship force, with its enormous anti-aircraft fire power ahead of the carrier groups thus presenting a killing ground through which the Japanese had to fly to reach their main targets. Again, the Japanese plan had high hopes that Kakuta’s shore-based aircraft would combine with their carriers in combined strikes, which would inflict telling losses on the American fleet, with the knowledge that Japanese warplane inevitably out-ranged their American counterparts to give a further edge.
However, Spruance pre-empted all such hopes with early and continuous air strikes on the island air bases, which decimated Kakuta’s aircraft before the Japanese could fully engage with their fleet, leaving the actual battle ratio of forces even more askew. Finally, the standard of training for the air crews that made up the bulk of the Japanese carrier units was of a very low order. Although the bulk of the remaining veteran pilots and aircrew featured in this last classic carrier-to-carrier battle, their numbers were leavened out by hundreds of fresh-faced novices. Two years was the accepted time it took to train new pilots up for carrier operations, but the relentless need to replace the heavy losses of veteran flyers from mid-1942 onward, plus increasing fuel problems, meant that this level of expertise had long since been abandoned by the IJN.
Between 11 and 13 June 1944 Mitscher’s airmen conducted a series of powerful strikes against Japanese airfields on Guam and Rota, and practically eliminated the carefully husbanded air strength that was intended to work closely with the fleet. Rather than sit and be totally wiped out on the ground the surviving aircraft were committed while they could still be used, but inflicted little or no damage on the Americans and expended their final strength.
First sighting of the American fleet was made by an A6M5, one of fifty Guam-based aircraft, at 0550 on the 20th and, after sending his sighting report, he made an attack run against a destroyer but was shot down. Follow-up attacks were being readied at Orote airfield, Guam when a force of thirty F6Fs arrived overhead and in the resulting one-sided battle thirty-plus Japanese aircraft were destroyed but only a single F6F fell. These fighters were recalled to protect the fleet when the first Japanese carrier strikes began to be detected by radar at 0957. The 653 Kōkūtai flew off forty-five A6M5bs, fourteen A6M5s and eight B6N Tenzans led by Lieutenant Nakagawa. Later Ozawa sent in the more experienced 601 Kōkūkai flyers, with forty-eight A6Ms, fifty-three D3A2 dive-bombers and twenty-seven B6Ns.
Unfortunately this powerful force had to pass over the Japanese 2 Fleet, which was positioned one hundred miles in advance, on its way to the target and it was mistakenly caught in an intense friendly-fire AA barrage that broke up its pattern. While attempting to regain its cohesion in readiness to attack it became split into groups. These aircraft were caught by fully alerted American fighter defences some seventy miles (110km) out while the still disorientated airmen were re-assembling. The American fighters got in among these disorganized groups and quickly dispatched forty of them, again for the loss of just one F6F. The surviving Japanese aircraft attacked the destroyers Stockham and Yarnall of Admiral Lee’s battleship force without success and a few penetrated to score one hit on the South Dakota, but none got past the battleships, and Mitscher’s carriers remained unmolested.
The second group comprised 107 aircraft and was picked up at 1107. Again interception was made by masses of F6Fs about 60 miles (97km) out and the bulk was destroyed in fierce air fighting. 653 Kōkūtai lost thirty-two A6M5bs, eight A6M5 fighters and two of the B6Ns. About six broke through to attack the carriers, scoring hits on two of them, but only ten Japanese aircraft survived. In total the Japanese suffered the loss of thirty-two A6Ms, forty-one D3As and twenty-three D6Ns, 96 planes in total. Among the casualties were several fighter leaders, Lieutenant Toshitada Kawazoe of 1 Daitai, Lieutenant Ikurō Sakami of 2 Daitai and Lieutenant Fumio Yamagata of 3 Daitai. 652 Kōkūtai had launched fifteen A6Ms, twenty-five A6M5bs and seven B6Ns but they had become split up due to the weather and inexperience during the 350-mile flight, and lost two of the fighters, four bakusō and one B6N to no avail. A second strike was sent out two-and-a-half hours later, with six A6Ms and nine Suisei dive-bombers, to attack US carriers, losing one fighter and five dive-bombers but failing to score any hits.
Another group came in at 1300, consisting of just forty-seven aircraft, which was met by an almost equal number of American fighters 50 miles (80km) out from the ships. With the loss of seven of their number they attacked but also failed to score any hits whatsoever. A fourth wave from 601 Kōkūtai consisting of four A6Ms, ten D3As and four B6Ns was scraped together by 601, but was misdirected by the shadowing aircraft and after hunting diligently without success ran low on fuel and steered for Guam and Rota where they hoped to replenish. While en route thither they tangled with US fighters who destroyed nine of eighteen and the surviving D3As made dive-bombing attacks on the carriers Bunker Hill and Wasp (II) without success losing all but one of their number in the process. Another group of Vals were caught circling and preparing to land at Orote by twenty-seven F6Fs and were wiped out, every D3A being either shot down or write-offs. The 653 Kōkūtai carriers had prepared a second striking force of five A6Ms, nine A6M5bs and five B6Ns, but their take-off was delayed by returning aircraft and although some got away this strike was finally cancelled. It had truly been a massacre with the Japanese losing over 350 aircraft for the loss of just a tenth of that number. The battle duly received the famous epithet of ‘The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’ and effectively marked the end of the Imperial Navy’s carrier force as a viable unit.
The seal of this overwhelming day of defeat was set by American submarines, one of which put one torpedo into the Taihō, which burst two of her aviation fuel tanks. She continued operating but her inexperienced crew brought about her demise by attempting to flush the dangerously explosive fumes from the ship but only succeeding in spreading them until they were finally ignited by an electric generator. She was torn apart by a series of massive explosions and sank with the bulk of her crew. Meanwhile, another submarine had hit the Shōkakū with three torpedoes and she quickly suffered the same fate as the Taihō with the same heavy casualties, including 376 officers and men from 601 Kōkūtai.
Despite his appalling losses Ozawa determined to resume the battle the next day with the 150 or so aircraft remaining to him in the fatally mistaken belief that Kakuta’s air strength in the islands was still largely intact. The 653 Kōkūtai launched four A6Ms, ten A6M5bs and two B6Ns late in the day but incoming air attacks aborted their mission to counter-attack and claimed twenty enemies destroyed. By the end of the day this unit was reduced to just two A6M5s, three A6M5bs and six Tenzans.
On the 21st the Japanese had not been sighted by the American search planes until late in the day, and at extreme range and a heavy strike of more than 230 American aircraft did not arrive overhead until dusk. Some thirty-five A6Ms, including eight from 601 Kōkūtai under Ensign Yoshio Fukui, were aloft to defend the remaining carriers and claimed fifteen enemy aircraft destroyed, but they proved insufficient to stop the US aviators scoring more successes. Even so the small force of A6Ms had performed well against the F6Fs despite the odds being all against them. One American SB2C dive-bomber group expended its fury on the oiler force instead of the Japanese carriers, damaging two of them, which had to be scuttled later, but the rest held on for the main target. 652 Kōkūtai sent aloft nineteen A6Ms and seven A6M5bs as part of the CAP, claiming two F6Fs and nine TBFs destroyed, but eleven of this force were lost and three more had to ditch. This left 652 with just eleven A6Ms, five A5M5bs and one Tenzan. The Hiyō took several heavy bomb hits and four torpedoes, and again blew up after aviation fuel fires and sank. The Chiyoda, Junyō and Zuikaku and battleship Haruna also received damaging hits but all survived and reached port while the American lost twenty aircraft in the battle.
Due to the long range at which the attack had been launched the returning US aircraft, guided in by searchlights, lost a further eighty aircraft, which were forced to ditch due to lack of fuel. Ozawa withdrew his battered fleet the same night and Spruance, who decided his priority all along was the defence of the invasion forces at Saipan, was by then too far away to bring him to further battle. Ozawa had lost 430+ carrier planes and 200 land-based aircraft as well as three carriers. The latter losses were irrelevant for the Japanese only had enough aircraft remaining to fill one small carrier anyway. The 601 Kōkūtai, for example, only had four A6Ms, two D3A2s and one B6N on strength at this time. The Americans lost around 125 aircraft, mostly to lack of fuel.