Early in the war, the Zero A6M fighters were an aerial nightmare for the Allies in the Asia Pacific
Full name is Mitsubishi A6M Zero or the Mitsubishi A6M Rei-sen, this was an aircraft made specifically by Mitsubishi for the Imperial Japanese Navy, with a short wingspan, compact size and short take-off capability for optimal use on aircraft carriers. The Zero is considered to have been the most capable carrier-based fighter in the world when it was introduced early in World War II, combining excellent maneuverability and very long range.
The Mitsubishi A6M Zero carried-based fighter, a design that defied expectations by outperforming land-based fighters when in it was introduced into service in 1940. Designer Jiro Horikoshi maximized the Zero’s performance by reducing airframe weight to an unprecedented degree by cutting armor protection and employing an “extra super” duralumin alloy. Combined with an 840-horsepower Sakae 12 radial engine, the A6M2 Type Zero could attain speeds of 346 miles per hour, while exhibiting extraordinary maneuverability and high rates of climb.
The elegant airframe weighed only 1.85-tons empty, giving the Zero a tremendous range of 1,600 miles—very useful for scouting for enemy ships and launching long-distance raids. By comparison, Germany’s excellent contemporary Bf 109 fighter could fly only 500 miles, fatefully reducing its effectiveness in the Battle of Britain. For armament, the Zero boasted two punchy Type 99 20-millimeter cannons in the wing—though only with sixty rounds of ammunition—and two rifle-caliber machine guns firing through the propeller.
The Zero was pressed into service in July 1940, first seeing combat against China, prior to America officially entering the Second World War. During their initial time in China, the Zeros had shot down some 99 Chinese aircraft although some sources claim that number to be much higher, around the 266 level. The Zero was then used in the attack on Pearl Harbor, with some 521 of the type being in service at the time of the attack. It soon built up its fearsome reputation, and even the RAF and their Spitfires found the Zero a tough opponent.
What made the Zero so deadly was the aircraft’s agility in combat. Earlier allied fighters such as the Wildcat, Kittyhawk, and Brewster Buffalo simply could not match the agility of the Japanese aircraft. It was considered pretty much a death sentence if you were to get into a dogfight with the Japanese aircraft, with some of the pilots of the aircraft being incredibly skilled following the Chinese conflict. However, the Allied aircraft did have more than one advantage over the Zero. That was their sturdiness and heavy armament. This would soon be Zero’s downfall.
The Allied pilots soon developed tactics to beat the Zero. RAF pilots would swoop down on the Zero, fire a burst and then swoop back up. A quick burst would incredibly be enough to shoot a Zero down, as the Allies soon discovered the type to be very badly armored and its fuel tanks susceptible to blowing up. The P-40 wasn’t as agile as the Zero but it was better armed and stronger, and soon more advanced machines such as the F-4U Corsair and F-6F Hellcat were in service. By then, a lot of the better Japanese pilots were lost in combat, and the inexperienced replacements couldn’t match the ability of the Allied pilots.
The Zero was less effective against newer Allied fighters due to design limitations. It lacked hydraulic boosting for its ailerons and rudder, rendering it extremely difficult to maneuver at high speeds. By 1944, with Allied fighters approaching the A6M levels of maneuverability and consistently exceeding its firepower, armor, and speed, the A6M had largely become outdated as a fighter aircraft. However, as design delays and production difficulties hampered the introduction of newer Japanese aircraft models, the Zero continued to serve in a front-line role until the end of the war in the Pacific. During the final phases, it was also adapted for use in kamikaze operations. Japan produced more Zeros than any other model of combat aircraft during the war. The Zero remains one of the most iconic fighter aircraft of the whole war.