Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz

Text: Jan Bobek

The air battle over Pi-shan

The first combat-deployed version of

the legendary Zero was the A6M2 Type

11. It was a fighter aircraft designed for




it did not sport the folding wingtips, an

arresting hook, nor was it equipped with

a DF antenna and associated radio equipment. Mitsubishi produced a total of 65

examples of these between December

1939 and November 1940.

The Zero Type 11 was successfully deployed on the Chinese front beginning in

the summer of 1940 as a part of the 12th

Kōkūtai from airfields in China and from

autumn 1940 with the 14th Kōkūtai from

bases in French Indochina. By September 1941, fighters from both units had shot

down a total of 103 aircraft and destroyed

another 163 on the ground. Three Zeros

were lost in combat, but they were all shot

down by anti-aircraft fire. The Zero fundamentally changed the balance of power in

the air war on the Chinese battlefield. But

the Allies downplayed the news from China until December 7, 1941.

The first Zeros of the 12th Kōkūtai arrived

at Hankow Air Base in occupied China on

July 21, 1940. Six aircraft under the command of Lt. Tamotsu Yokoyama were soon

followed by nine Zeros under Lt. Saburō

Shindō. The airmen were busy with training and operational tests under field conditions. One of the main problems was to

improve engine cooling.

It seems that the Chinese had some information that the Japanese Navy engaged

a new type of fighter. The Chinese had so

far been effective in attacking Japanese

July 2022

bomber formations if they got out of range

of escorting fighters. This problem was

one of the reasons why the Japanese Navy

rushed to introduce the Zero into service.

On their first combat mission, on August

19, 1940, the Zeros escorted a formation of

54 G3M bombers to Chungking. The Chinese fighters avoided combat due to the

ground observer warnings and subsequent radio communications. During the

next two escort flights, the Chinese adversaries were equally cautious.

For the fourth mission scheduled on September 13, 1940, the Japanese decided to

change tactics. The raid was again directed at the Chungking area. The formation

of 13 Zeros was led by Lt. Shindō, who was

also leader of the 1st Chūtai. Lieutenant

(jg) Aya-o Shirane was the leader of the

2nd Chūtai. The Chinese sent 19 Polikarpov

I-15s from the 4th Pursuit Group, six

I-15bis from the 3rd PG, and nine I-16s from

the 24th Pursuit Squadron.

The Japanese bombers dropped their load

without being attacked by enemy fighters,

and the Zeros escorted them back to safety. A reconnaissance plane reported that

Chinese fighters were spotted between

Pi-shan and Chungking. The Zero pilots

had been waiting for this moment for several weeks and immediately turned to

meet the enemy. They made an attack from

the sun, the first to be hit were the I-16s

that provided top cover. The machine of

their commander, Capt. Yang caught fire.

The Zeros immediately attacked the biplanes flying below and in the first run the

commander of the entire Chinese fighter

formation, Col. Cheng was wounded.

The fight lasted 30 minutes and the Japanese claimed 27 victories. This was not far

from the truth, as the Chinese lost 13 aircraft and 11 others returned with damage.

Ten pilots were killed and eight suffered

injuries. After this battle the Chinese command temporarily suspended combat

operations of its fighter units.

The Japanese recorded damage to only

three Zeros. One of them was hit by Lieutenant Kao, You-hsin of the 21st PS, as

a Japanese pilot was about to open fire on

another I-15bis. Kao later flew I-16, P-43,

P-40 and P-51 fighters. He scored his

eighth and final victory in May 1945.

All the Japanese pilots who took part in

this legendary battle scored at least one

victory each. CPO Koshirō Yamashita destroyed five fighters and four were claimed by PO2c Yoshio Ôki.

The illustration by Piotr Forkasiewicz

shows one of the moments of the air battle

over Pi-shan. The Zero, designated 3-165,

was Yamashita's personal machine, but on

September 13, it was flown by his wingman,

PO2c Toshiyuki Yoneda, who scored one

victory in the battle. This airman, whose

last name is also transliterated as Sueda,

was a veteran of combat in China, where

he flew A5M fighters. He earned a total of

nine victories and was killed on October 6,

1943, at Kōkūtai 252 while fighting US Navy

aviators off Wake Atoll.

INFO Eduard