The war for the Pacific was primarily fought in the air and proved to be a struggle for the Allies, mainly due to the superiority of the Japanese craft and the combined skill and courage of the pilots. The Mitsubishi A6M Zero perhaps represented the pinnacle of World War II aircraft design, and in this article we take a closer look at this iconic plane.
Designing for the Ocean
Being an island based nation, much of the Japanese military development work had gone into ensuring the country’s superiority at sea. At the beginning of World War II, Japan had a big and powerful Navy that was rightly feared across the world. As such, right from the start, the Japanese designed their aircraft to be compatible with the sea element by giving them an excellent combat range and most of the Japanese fighters during World War II were carrier based. In 1914, Japan launched the world’s first seaplane carrier, the Wakamiya. The strategy was simple – head out into the ocean close to the target and launch dozens of light fighters capable of striking and returning before the enemy had even realised what was happening. Of course, it helped that those fighters were in every way superior to their enemy’s equivalents as well, and in the early years of World War II, this was very much the case.
Mitsubishi had designed and evolved a number of aircraft for the Japanese fleet. During the World War II era, the main opponent of the Allied forces was the A6M Zero. The A in the name signifies that it was a carrier-based fighter, and the M that it was made by Mitsubishi. Several variants of the Zero were produced and were numbered sequentially starting with the A6M1 all the way up to the A6M8. Within these main types there were also more minor variations called Models. The Allies had their own code name for the plane – it was called ‘Zeke’.
Less is More
The Imperial Navy requested specifications for the new fighter in 1937 and was designated 12-Shi (after the 12th year of Emperor Hirohito’s reign, which started in 1926). Requests for tenders were sent to Mitsubishi and Nakajima. The specifications were very ambitious and Nakajima pulled out, stating that it was impossible due to the limitations of the available engines.
Mitsubishi’s chief designer Jiro Horikoshi decided that it was possible to meet the requirements, by making the aircraft as light as possible. To achieve this, he started to strip out everything considered non-essential – even the armoured casing for the pilot! He also got rid of self-sealing fuel tanks and incorporated the ultra-lightweight wings into the fuselage. In addition, the plane was made out of a top secret aluminium alloy that had been recently developed in Japan. All this made for the lightest aircraft of its kind ever seen as well as the most modern.
A Superior Power
In total, over 10,000 Zeros were produced during World War II, far more than any other Japanese aircraft. They were used extensively to gain air dominance over China in 1940 and were instrumental in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The Japanese relied heavily on the A6M Zero throughout the War and for good reason – the plane simply outclassed everything that the Allied Forces could throw at it.
The plane’s greatest strength was its manoeuvrability. Its light weight and high agility meant that it could perform turns that left its American counterparts in a stall. In addition, it was faster and could fly three times longer than its best competitor. The Brewster F2A Buffalo and Bell P-39 Airacobra were easily left behind by the Zero. The Curtis P-40 Warhawk was probably the best of the early American fighters and was still hopelessly outclassed. America’s carrier based fighters didn’t fare much better. The Grumman F4F Wildcat found taking on Zeros to be immensely difficult. Even the legendary British Spitfires and Hurricanes, fresh from victory in the Battle of Britain, found the Zero to be a very challenging opponent.
The Allies were forced to develop innovative tactics in order to handle the Zero threat, such as the “Thatch Weave” in which two aircraft worked in tandem, and the “Boom and Zoom” which involved shooting whilst diving towards the enemy. The only advantage the Allies had was the thin armour of the Zero, meaning that hitting with one burst of fire was generally enough to take them out.
Towards the end of World War II, the Zero began to lose its advantage. Newer planes developed by the Allies proved to be a lot more formidable when it came to handling the Zero. Planes such as the P-38J Lightning, the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair proved to be faster and tougher than the Zero. The only real advantage left to the Zero was in the form of its skilled and experienced pilots who knew how to get the most out of the aircraft.
By the end of 1944, defeat was looming on the horizon for Japan and their tactics became ever more desperate and fanatical. In October 1944, during the war for the Philippines, the first kamikaze attacks were launched, and the tactic continued to the end of the war, usually using Zeros. Needless to say, the vast majority of these suicide attacks proved fatal for the prepared pilot and for the aircraft as well. The unpredictable and highly effective nature of these kamikaze attacks proved to be a major threat for the Allied forces up until the end of the war. The Zero may have been more or less obsolete by this point, but it still proved to be a huge threat.
However, once the war had ended, the Zero’s time had come. Its legacy remained though, with numerous future aircraft from both Japan and the rest of the world drawing upon the design principles that had made it so formidable.
A number of Zeros survived to the present day. Most can be found in Japan or in the US. In Europe, there is a restored cockpit from a Zero in the Imperial War Museum in London. Whilst at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford branch near Cambridge, UK, they have a full Zero wreck which can be visited.
The A6M Zero in World of Warplanes
Of course, the Japanese Tech Tree hasn’t been implemented in the Closed Beta yet, so we can only speculate as to what the Zero will be like to fly in-game. However, like all of the aircraft in World of Warplanes, the in-game plane will be heavily modelled on the real life version. Thus it can be safely assumed that the Zero will be extremely fast and agile whilst having low armour and hit points.
Like the Zero pilots in real life, key to your survival will be the ability to keep moving around your enemy, preventing any shots from hitting you and bursting straight through your paper-thin armour. Use your exceptional agility to strike the enemy from unexpected angles, firing just one blast and then flying off to return again from another direction. As in real life, two or more Zeros working in unison should be capable of taking down anything!