Jan Bobek

The Mitsubishi Zero became the symbol of the Japanese air power during WWII. The nimble and agile fighter

had the upper hand over US aircraft at early stages of the

war in Pacific theatre, but gradually lost its advantage

against newer opponents. During the war, other versions

of the Zero came along, but the Type 21, the main fighter

plane used by the Imperial Japanese Navy at the beginning of war in the Pacific, remained in combat service

until the end of hostilities.

During the 1920s and 1930s the Japanese aircraft industry was oriented towards the production of foreign aircraft built under licenses.

However, the armed forces, especially the Navy,

with regard to the specifics of the Chinese and

Pacific battlefields, came up with requirements

that foreign aircraft designs did not offer. Hence,

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developed the Type

96 naval fighter aircraft, better known as the

A5M „Claude“. The head of the design team was

a young Japanese engineer, Jirō Horikoshi. With

an engine that lacked some power, he managed

to design a light and fast fighter with a fixed landing gear, which had no comparison in the world

regarding maximum speed. In October 1937,

Mitsubishi and Nakajima were approached to

develop prototype 12-shi Carrier-based Fighter.

The requirements were so extreme, and in some

cases contradictory, that the two design teams

investigated whether they could be less stringent. Nakajima eventually withdrew from the

project, while the criteria for the prototype were

even raised based on experience on the Chinese

battlefield. In the end, Horikoshi‘s team managed

to meet the technical specifications, not only


INFO Eduard

thanks to the aerodynamic design and a new type

of light alloy used for the aircraft‘s skin, but also

thanks to the Nakajima Sakae 11 engine. During

the flight tests, the wing surface suffered cracking during overload, and aileron control during

high-speed maneuvers had also to be addressed.

The new fighter had a powerful armament of two

cannons and two machine guns, extremely long

range (over 1,800 km) and excellent maneuverability. The new fighter reached top speed of 533

km/h at an altitude of 4,550 m. However, it lacked

armor and other protective features and had

a structural speed limit of 600 km/h.

Surprising Zero

The new aircraft entered service in 1940 with the

940hp engine Sakae 12 and received the official

designation Rei shiki Kanjō sentōki (Type 0 carrier fighter), with the „zero“ being derived from

the imperial year 2600 (1940). Japanese pilots

usually abbreviated it as „Rei-Sen“. That was also

the origin of the name „Zero“ often used by Allied

pilots instead of the official code name, derived

from the male name „Zeke“. As part of the Navy‘s

system, the new machine was given the type de-

A Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter aircraft “EII-111” takes off from board

of HIJMS Zuikaku on April 5, 1942 during attack against Colombo.

The plane is probably piloted by Lt. Tadashi Kaneko, 8 victory ace.

(Photo: Kure Maritime Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

signation A6M, where A6 meant that it was the

sixth type of carrier fighter to enter service, and

M stood for the Mitsubishi company name. Zeros,

specifically the A6M2 Type 11, had been successfully deployed on the Chinese battlefield since

the summer of 1940, but their existence eluded

Western intelligence because no one wanted to

believe reports from China that suggested the

Japanese had a world-class fighter. Further modifications to its design were made during 1941,

creating the A6M2 Type 21. There were several

changes, the most visible of them being folding

wing tips for easier handling on the decks. With

the A6M2 Type 21 modified this way, Japan entered the war against the US and other Western

nations. Mitsubishi needed to produce other

aircraft in addition to the Zero, so the Nakajima

company also began licensed production in late

1941. Total of 740 A6M2 aircraft were produced by

Mitsubishi by June 1942 with additional 800 delivered by Nakajima by February 1944. The gun

armament was improved and variants with magazines for up to 150 rounds could be used on the

Type 21. Such a Zero may have been designated

as Type 21a.

The Nakajima company produced 254 A6M2-N

“Rufe” float plane fighters from December 1941 to

July 1943. Its prototype flew on December 8, 1941,

and the design featured a pylon with a central

float, a solution not used in any country up to that

time. The A6M2-N fighters were mainly used to

defend naval bases.

Several hundred aircraft were also modified

from the A6M2 Zero Type 21 and A6M5 Type 52 to

April 2022