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
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.