Mitsubishi A6M Reisen Zeke Vol. I

The Zero was exciting, like nothing I’d seen before. Even sitting on the ground she had the most gracious lines of any fighter I’d ever laid eyes on.

We were finally given a fully enclosed cockpit, a powerful engine and retractable landing gear. In place of Claude’s two light machine guns (Mitsubishi A5M Claude – author’s note) the Zero carried two guns and a pair of 20 mm cannons. She was also twice as fast as the Claude and had double the Claude’s range. For a fighter pilot it was simply a dream come true. Of all types I had a chance to fly, the A6M2 was the most responsive and easy to handle. The flight controls moved in response to even the slightest input. This is how the Japanese ace Saburo Sakai remembered his first encounter with the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, perhaps the best known Japanese World War II fighter type. The Zero saw action in practically all battles waged by the Imperial Japanese Navy, from the attack on Pearl Harbor all the way through the defense of the Home Islands against the B-29s. During the first months of the war in the Pacific the Zero emerged as a world-class fighter, unrivalled in the air by anything the enemy could muster. However, with no worthy successor in sight, by 1943 the Zero was all but obsolete. Despite that, Japanese factories continued to build and deliver the type until the end of the war. The Reisen (Zero) didn’t simply emerge out of thin air. The birth of this supreme fighter was preceded by years of experimentation by the Imperial Japanese Navy with a new type of combat machines – carrier-based fighters.

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Expansion of the Imperial Japanese Navy carrier aviation post World War I

The Great War wreaked havoc with the economies of even the most powerful nations. Japan was no exception: strapped for cash, the Empire had to put on hold the development of naval aviation assets. Which is not to say that the expansion of the Imperial Japanese Navy ground to a halt altogether. In May 1917, when the war was still going on, the ambitious Hatchi Kantai Kansei Keikaku fleet expansion program was launched (also known as the 8-4 program), designed to achieve parity in naval strength with such giants as Great Britain or the USA. The plan was to build and commission a fleet of 63 ships of various classes, with eight battleships and four battlecruisers at the core of the armada. 1920 saw the expansion of the 8-4 program to include four additional battlecruisers. The cost of this massive undertaking didn’t leave a lot of margin for the development of naval aviation, especially since the Navy brass viewed powerful and heavily armed warships far superior to naval aircraft, whose combat value at that time was rather insignificant.
Nonetheless, the Japanese closely followed the developments of naval aviation elsewhere in the world. When Lt. Cdr. Yozo Kaneko submitted his report concerning early trials of conventional aircraft launches from the decks of warships, a decision was quickly made to perform similar tests in Japan. On June 22, 1920 Lt. Torse Kubawara took-off in a Sopwith Pup from a launch platform mounted on the foredeck of the seaplane carrier Wakamiya Maru. Later on similar trials were run using the cruiser Kiso and battleship Yamashiro. Lessons learned from those tests led to a conclusion that newly constructed heavy warships must be equipped with launch platforms. A need for the construction of an experimental aircraft carrier was also raised.

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The latter idea received a significant boost after the Washington conference, convened following a U.S. proposal to address issues in the Far East and to seek limitations in naval shipbuilding programs. Based on the treaty signed on February 6, 1922 the maximum total tonnage for U.S. and British fleets of capital ships was set at 500,000 tons, 300,000 tons for Japan and 175,000 tons for French and Italian navies (those limits were subsequently raised). A maximum displacement of a capital ship was set at 35,000 tons and the caliber of main battery guns was limited to 16 inches (406.4 mm). Parties also agreed that allowable tonnage of capital ships must not exceed 50 percent of the entire fleet.
All the remaining types of warships were treated as a single category and each nation was allocated the following tonnage limits for surface vessels and submarines: USA and Great Britain – 450,000 and 90,000 tons, Japan 270,000 and 54,000 tons. Interestingly, the latter category didn’t include warships capable of launching aircraft. Both the U.S. and Great Britain were allowed to operate such vessels with the aggregate tonnage of 80,000 tons, while Japan’s limit was set at 48,000 tons.
Other provisions of the treaty included the minimum age after a vessel could be replaced with a new unit, as well as limitations on construction and development of naval bases. The agreement appeared to have paved the way for a gradual reduction of naval weapons, but it soon proved not to be the case. While the treaty resulted in a freeze on battleship construction, lighter vessels were in fact being built in ever greater numbers.