Photo: US Navy


Text: Jan Bobek

This photo shows one of the first completed Nakajima A6M2-N seaplanes. This is the 13th aircraft produced, with serial number 913, completed on April 23, 1942.

The picture was apparently given to Japanese troops to familiarize them with the new type of seaplane, as it was later captured by the Americans and published

in the enemy aircraft identification manual in 1944.

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.

Despite 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 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


INFO Eduard

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.

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, which included several changes,

the most visible of them being folding wingtips

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

began licensed production in late 1941. Total of

740 A6M2 aircraft were produced by Mitsubishi

by June 1942 with additional 800 delivered by

Photo: ©Izawa

The Zero fighter became the symbol of the Japanese air

power during WWII. The light and maneuverable fighter

had the upper hand over Allied 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, one of the most iconic being its floatplane

version, known by the Allied codename Rufe.

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 aircraft was given the

type designation A6M, where A6 meant that it

was the sixth type of carrier fighter to enter

service, and M stood for the Mitsubishi company

name. Zero fighters, specifically the A6M2

Type 11, had been successfully deployed on the

Lieutenant Ri-ichirō Satō, leader of the Yokohama

Kōkūtai’s fighter unit. He was killed in September 1942

in a ground combat with USMC troops.

April 2023