⚜ | A6M2 ‘Zero’ vs F4F ‘Wildcat’ – An Unfair Fight in the Pacific?


The A6M2, an icon of The Rising Sun. The premier Japanese carrier-borne voyager has racked up a fantastical reputation. Agile and swift, the Zero surfed its nasty surprise to the Allies in WWII. Even after defeat, this plane stands as perhaps one of the most potent machines of the early years of war in the Pacific. Pitted against it, fighters that barely stood a chance with an often popular memory as obsolescent, clumsy or inadequate, but is this a fair assessment? Let us compare with the A6M2 with the American F4F Wildcat. As one of the most classic aerial duels of WWII, comparison between these two fighters can teach us valuable lessons, not only about the aircraft involved but also of the shifting nature of aerial warfare. Note, that for this comparison, all future mentions of the A6M2 and Zero referred to the A6M2 Mod 21, in all mentions of the F4F refer to the F4F-4 unless specifically mentioned. Also note, that the purpose of this video is not to convince you that one plane was better than the other, instead it is here to inform you so that you have the knowledge and the context required to make an informed judgement yourself. Let us start with the basics, the A6M2 was a single-engine plane capable of being operated on both land and sea by the use of carriers. Powered by Nakajima-Sakae 12, a 14 cylinder radial engine that produced just shy of 1000 horsepowers it did not have the strongest power plant of its time. However its lightweight structure and emphasis on weight shedding during the construction counted this deficiency. Empty, the A6M2 weighed 3700 lb, loaded 5300 lb. Overall the plane was fantastically agile and responsive to the pilot. There is caveat attached to this however, something will go into later on. Top speed of the zero is somewhat disputed, factoring together most sources in top speed is set somewhere between 330 to 345 mph. In his book, “Samurai”, Japanese ace Saburo Sakai states 345 mph basing it on his own experience with the airplane. US tests were done with captured airplanes that needed repairs before being airworthy once more. This, obviously, influenced aerodynamics where event a breakdown and thus a loss of valuable trophy, US tests were also conducted by using a safe engine setting and thus stop going full out with the engine. This results in top speeds at fall as low as 280 mph and that’s not realistic. As such for the purpose of this video I will assume a top speed of around 330 mph with boost and such a figure seems likely and is supported by various sources. Its service ceiling was around 37000 ft and its operational range of 1160 miles, unheard of at a time for a plane of its kind. Armed with two rifle calibre Type 97 machine guns holding 680 rounds each and two Type 99-1 20 mm cannons holding 60 rounds each, plane boasted a similar armament to a German Bf-109. When flying into combat the Japanese used to shotai three-airplane formation, similar to the standard Vic formation of the time, this flight consisted of one leader and two wingmen. Just like the pilots from other nations, the Japanese quickly noticed that the V was too rigid and inflexible in combat. As such, next to Germany, Japan became one of the first countries to turn their backs on the old way of flying into combat. Instead, a more loose formation was proposed, typically, the leader and one wingman would fly ahead, the distance between these could be up to 200 m. The wingman would also fly slightly higher than the leader. The second wingman was even further back and the highest in the formation. This way, the shotai had better fields of view and could concentrate on searching potential targets. This formation presented further advantages over the standard Vic, for example, allowing pilots to organically adopt align abreast, align astern, just before attacking an enemy. The leader could also opt to keep the third wingman as a higher lookout or cover when engaging in combat. The defensive options were on the table too, the loose and staggered formation allowed mutual support and covering arcs of fire. The shotai was definitely suited to air combat and the Vic it was based on. In contrast to the Zero, the F4F Wildcat gives the impression of being a brute, compacted buff, its design radiates strengths over finesse. Like the zero, it could operate on both land and sea as carrier-borne, single-engine fighter. With 1200 horsepower out of its Pratt & Whitney, plane could be assumed to outperform the zero in terms of speed. This has not the case, while the F4F-3 was closer to the Zero speed, the heavier F4F-4 was slower and managed to clock up only about 318 mph at 19000 ft. Compensating this, the spare horsepower did allow for a sturdy, heavy construction. On a scale the F4F hits 5700 lb empty and could weigh nearly 8000 lb loaded, although typical configuration stayed around 7500 lb. The event show modifications on armour and the introduction of self-sealing fuel tanks, alone, increased the weight by 900 lb. It has a service ceiling of around 34000 ft and it ranges only 770 miles, armed with 6 M2 Browning machine guns with 240 rounds per gun, the plane had a streamlined armament and was sufficient for the task in the Pacific. When war broke with Japan, the US Navy is often reported to having persisted in the use of the increasingly obsolete V-formation with no modifications being made to the status quo. While that’s true by the time the European war erupted, the favoured doctrine remained a good old link. In amid some of the experimentation that was conducted by VF-2 and VF-5, two Navy squadrons, and the eventual decision to stop flying Vic a few months before Pearl Harbour. Already, in peacetime, the Navy had flown trial missions of two man flights. Its basically two aircraft apart by around 150 ft, ample room was created for flexibility and mutual support. Each squadron had 18 aircraft, set up into 3 divisions of 6, these would then be further split up into two plane elements, staggering the formation and flying in echelons, the distance between each slide was about 300 ft. Before the war broke out, famous Thach weave was developed by Lt John Thach, apparently inspired by the rudimentary intelligence report on the Zero, he was one of the few not to ignore the potential danger. Taking two elements of two aircraft the planes would be flying in Beam Defense Position. The weave would be executed as an enemy fighter approaches. Should the right element be attacked, it would break left, the left element mirrors the move, forcing a head on with the enemy, this, so it was hoped, would either ensure destroyed enemy plane or at least a startled enemy pilot who breaks off the attack. If necessary, the move could be repeated. This move could also naturally also be conducted between two aircraft. Before we pit the A6M2 against the Wildcat however, let us compare the two fighters in more detail and change some more light in operational capabilities. As mentioned, the A6M2 had a mixed armament of rifle calibre machine guns and cannons, two Type 97 machine guns replaced on the engine, synchronised with the propeller with 680 rounds per gun. Allows them to produce Vickers Class E machine gun it fired 7.7×56 mm R round. It could fire a standard ball, AP (armour piercing), tracer and incendiary ammunition. A small 7.7 HE (high explosives) round was also available. The two Type 99-1 20 mm cannons were placed into wings and held 60 rounds each. This provided the Zero with a good punch, on paper. If the two 20 mm cannons were quickly expended, similar to the German MG FF, it was a Japanese version of the Oerlikon FF, but lighter in weight than the original and its German counterpart. It was officially termed as a machine gun firing a 20×72 mm RB round. It has four different rounds, the HE round had an explosive content of around 11 grams, in comparison, the German Minengeschoss (Mine-shell) in the MG FF-M had 20 grams. The incendiary round had a filling of six grams of explosive serving chemicals, the tracer held five grams, the AP round held four grams. The low muzzle velocity of 600 m/s made aiming difficult and the overall punch of the specific cannon was lower than other 20 mm cannons of the time. Some Japanese pilots even reported to prefer the machine guns over the cannons but this seems to stand mainly out of the early operations where enemy planes gave up easy targets who Zeros being able to follow every manoeuvre include to the tail of the adversary. The Wildcat had a streamlined armament of four, and later six 12.7 M2 Browning with the famous 50 calibre. Firing the 12.7×99 mm round, its API (armor piercing-incendiary) ammunition had a muzzle velocity of 890 m/s. The F4F-3 held 450 rounds per gun allowing for 34 seconds of fire. The 240 rounds per gun on the F4F-4 allowed for 20 seconds as such some pilots opted to omit the additional 250 cals in the -4. The Ma-Deuce was well suited to the Pacific Theatre in a way that the Japanese would never really feel the tough aircraft that could withstand a barrage of shots from this calibre. The good rate of fire tightly packed spread of shots enable pilots spray down an enemy aircraft and inflict serious damage with a good lead. With the good ammo load the F4F Wildcat held enough ammo for most engagement and this does not feature the same problem as a Zero that lost most of its fire power once it has expended its cannons. As Navy fighters the operational range of both aircraft was paramount. Here the Zero is a clear winner with a range of up to 300 miles further than the Wildcat. However, both aircraft featured the optional choice of a drop tank. On Zero, a centre-line 330 litre drop tank could be installed boosting its maximum range over an incredible 3000 km, that’s more than 1900 miles. The F4F-3 held 147 gallons of fuel and had a natural range of up to 830 miles, while the F4F-4 for the sum of it could only reach around 765 miles. Two wing mounted 85 gallon drop tanks could be installed propping up the total fuel load to 260 gallons. Throughout my research, I found conflicting information on the maximum range of the F4F-4 equipped with drop tanks. It seems likely that it could fly depending on the setup for a distance of 1200 to 1400 miles. Some figures quote as much as 1600 miles but at any rate it stays behind the Zero. The Zero could be equipped with a bomb load of 132 lb with one 66 lb bomb fixed under each wing. One 550 lb bomb could potentially be equipped as well. The Wildcat could mount up to 200 lb of ordnance, 100 lb bomb under each wing. Overall, this was extremely rare, from one statistic from 1946 mentions that only 154 tonnes of ordnance were dropped from Wildcats. Assuming that this is a US ton (?) this would mean only about 3000 bombs were dropped from F4Fs throughout the war. This is less than some bomber formations would drop in a day. As such, while both planes had the option to load bombs, practicality and lethality of these bombs was limited and they were just seldom used. Both planes featured an optional storage concession. The tips of the A6M2 wings could be folded over, decreasing the width of the aircraft by 40 inch to 36 feet for storing purposes. For the F4F-4 the wings could be folded rearward decreasing the necessary space for storage by house. (Not possible on the F4F-3) This allowed fighter squadrons to carry up to double their complement of Wildcats and rapidly transport multiple F4Fs to the flight deck of the carrier. It should be noted that the initial clashes between the Allies and the Zero were not with the F4Fs, instead the old Buffalos, Hurricanes, P-400s and P-49s bore the brunt of the fight. (and P-40s???) While some of these planes had some advantages over the Zero, initial combat performance was largely poor. Many reasons were given as to why the Japanese pilots and fighters were so hard performing better with many empty excuses making up the bulk of them. Some allied personnel even chose to ignore facts and pretended that nothing bad was happening. One of the main problems was that allied pilots have been trained in a manner that played into the hands of the Japanese pilots. Having been drilled in the art of dog-fighting but possessing a little combat experience, the allied pilots was at the mercy of the battle-hardened Japanese whose plane was simply better in a close quarter dogfight. To put things into perspective, the pilots of the Japanese carrier groups had an… In contrast, in 1939, Navy pilots had only racked up around… To make matters worse, it was also in 1941, the Navy abolished the requirement that their carrier pilots be trained in the use of all carried aircraft. So fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers, this means that just before the war in the Pacific commenced, Navy pilots had only half the flight time of the Japanese pilots. Very few hours in operational missions and none in combat missions. And the time they have racked up was distributed between three different types of aircraft. US military was unable to provide factual data on the Zero to its pilots until late 1942 based on a captured Zero at Akutan island in June 1942 valuable lessons were drawn from information intelligence summary (IIS) no.85. It was also surveys like these that served as proof supporting what the pilots at the front lines were saying for some time. The Zero is a better dogfighter and it cannot be beaten using our conventional methods. Quote from the matter of fact IIS no.85; In other words, if you follow a Zero in a steep climb at low speeds, you’ll rest in pieces. It should be remembered that these conclusions were drawn from a captured airplane that needed repairs and that due to the lower the max engine setting was flying somewhat slower than it would be on the frontlines. Infact, each American document under Zero quotes a different speed figure even when the same plane was tested. During the tests, comparison flights were conducted against the handful of American planes, these clearly detailed the strong points of the A6M2, but also gave definite data on the speediness. We are going to focus on the findings in the comparsions of the F4F. Against the F4F, the Zero is quoted as being; End of quote. The latter point is interesting as it seems to be contradictory to some of the conceptions we have of the Zero. We will return to this topic soon. Documents also states there is no comparison between the turn of both airplanes since the Zero does it that well and its not even an contest. The conclusions were as follows; The documents states that beyond the speed of 300 mph which is just below the maximum speed in level flight attainable by the aircraft, the Zero becomes increasingly sluggish and unresponsive and that it has troubles with negative G manoeuvres. Based on this, the recommendations were to; Airplanes expected to fight a Zero, they also recommended to ditch all non-essential equipment. The document does agrees in some point but pilots has responded unfavourably to the increased weight of the F4F-4 over -3. Yet as we noticed, it also states that in a fight with a Zero, internal protection was important. Of course, having gone through the findings, we ‘re hardly suprised. Much of this information seems common sense to us based on what we know now. In this, we are somewhat mirrored by the service pilots that were fighting the Zeros in the field. However IIS no.85 should not be disregarded since it gave concrete black and white information at the behind the frontline personnel could digest and this would to serve to assist aircraft designers and theorists at their work. Ironically IIS no.85 was just finished when the Japanese started to substitute the A6M2 of the newer A6M3 as we will see. However by this point, the frontline pilots had already come to blows with the Japanese for months racking up valuable experience against the Zero. Let’s make our way to the frontline. The F4F was not the plane to suffer the brunt of the Japanese offensive, instead Brewster Buffalos (F2A), Hawker Hurricanes, P-36s and P-40s were engaged in the fight. These initial engagements were largely dominated by the A6M2, while various allied units did find ways to at least deter the Japanese fighters in some way. Most of these machines simply did not allow for anything more than a token resistance. Or we could go into detail into the first months of fighting, one specific quote sums it up pretty well. At Wake island in December of 1941, a handful of F4F-3s had their first fights with the Japanese zeros. Most of them were destroyed on the ground without ever making it into the sky to defend the island. Regardless, they are credited with the destruction of at least two zeros, during the operation, a Wildcat armed with two 100 lb bomb is also credited with the kill on the Japanese destroyer, Kisaragi. This is probably the first and most famous and only effective use of bombs on a Wildcat throughout the whole war. Roughly half a year before IIS no.85 was released, these Zeros were starting to increasingly run into Wildcats. Duking it out of the Coral sea on May 7th 1942, task force 17 launched an attack on the IJN carrier, Shoho. As the Japanese concentrated their defensive attacks on the incoming torpedo bombers, the eight F4F-3s from VF-42 were left relatively alone. Of the three zeros in the air, one was shot down. The next day another division of VF-42, probably 6 machines, once again escorted torpedo bombers. In this day were supported by nine Wildcats from VF-2. On the action that day, three Wildcats were lost while claiming three Zeros. Interestingly, the claims of the Japanese pilots amount up to 18 Wildcats, more than were probably in the air that day. Later in the day, the Japanese attack was escorted by 18 Zeros and met by 20 Wildcats. The Wildcats, it had to focus their attacks on both the Zeros and the incoming attack aircraft had a pretty rough time. Three planes were lost. It seems probable that only one Zero was shot down in. In his after action report, Lt Cmdr James Flatley states; He goes on to state that; Flatley also outlined some tips for his pilots. The hints to Navy VF pilots, it includes the following statements; End of quotes. If you are confused about the last one, just remember that when the Zero went into boost its exhaust will show a flame out a thick smoke will trail the aircraft. This cause some allied pilots believe Zero was hit and was going down, when in reality all was fine. Flatley statements are of particular interest because of two reasons, first this is sobering assessment of the reality, affirming that a Japanese plane has the trump cards in a classic engagement. On the other hand, it also outlines the quintessential changes that were developing in aerial warfare but Flatley probably being one of the first Navy pilots to realise the full extent of it. Flatley’s comments were widely distributed among Navy pilots. Another aspect I want to mention is Flatley’s comments on dive performance on the F4F-3 against a Zero, here a few months before IIS no.85 that as you will remember states that the Zero and the F4F are similar in dive, Flatley’s comments to the F4F the superior in that aspect. I assume at this point that the approximate nature of IIS no.85 as the nature of its claim. Perhaps referring more to the initial dive phase was Zero could stay on a Wildcat for a short period of time. In June 1942, over Midway, the Wildcat and the Zero would clash again. Thach utilised this weave for the first time forcing his F4Fs into head ons multiple times. He and his wingman shot down four Zeros, his division claimed another two. Division only experienced one loss however each aircraft had suffered damage. The Wildcat’s ruggedness was making its mark. Later that day another five Zero kills were claimed to the loss of four Wildcats. Although the positive kill count had been established throughout the fighting that day, Thach, just like when he had received the first report on the Zero, had only an eye for reality. Commenting on the day in his after action report Thach states; On the F4F he states; End of quotes. Thach’s comments suggest that Navy’s focus on gunnery training was starting to pay off and that his particular precautions had achieved the desired effect. Yet his comments on the enemy pilots also highlighted another key element. The enemy was overconfident or maybe increasingly filled with pilots with limited experience. The following actions at Guadalcanal amplified this, although overclaiming became common on the side of the Navy. A spectacular example of this was on August 24th 1942. In VMF-223 intercepted attack aircraft and Zeros, the US pilots claimed 11 bombers and 5 Zeros. The Japanese however only lost 3 bombers and 1 Zero. In turn they also claim 15 Wildcats, actual losses were 3 F4Fs. US pilots claimed another 15 Zeros later that day and two days later VMF-223 claimed another 8 bombers and 5 Zeros. Only 3 A6M2s were actually lost, on August 30th 14 Zeros were claimed although only nine were lost. Even though the actual loss rates of the Japanese were lower than the US believed, every loss on Japanese sides stung deep. Japanese fighter pilots had an appended position after grueling training, truly making them into expert pilots even before going into combat. Yet the time needed and requirements placed on them were not realistic in sustaining a fighter force during a full scale war especially against an enemy that both holds numerical superiority in the sky. In the book, “Samurai”, Saburo Sakai’s discourse on the training regime, the wind is telling (?). Even though the English translation had quite some hyperbole added to it the facts remained even under the revised and quickening training regimes new pilots were coming in too few and far between. To make matters worse the comparative low survivability of the Japanese planes against American planes prevented many novice pilots from getting away from a fight with nothing but a blue eye and bruised pride. Instead their planes went down in damage that an F4F was able to sustain. Two more comments by US commanders are interesting, considering that the F4F was now holding its own against the Zero. The first comes from Lt Cmdr Leroy Simpler who commanded VF-5. When he was told that some US tests have placed the F4F-4 to be equal in speed to the Zero he said that the report was ‘flat wrong’. Major John Smith, commander of the VMF-223 at Guadalcanal, mentions that; As such while the US pilots were able to slowly turn the tide in the F4F, no one was any under illusions. The success was attained by a mix of proper tactics, good gunnery and disciplined flying in a plane that was able to take a beating. Until a better plane was not available, the Wildcat pilots could only go so far. It should be mentioned once more that the Navy squadrons had two contextual advantages over other units in the Pacific and South-east Asia. First, they were some of the last to engage the Zeros and could not draw on some rudimentary reports coming in from the front lines. This allows them to get ready ahead of time. Second, the initiative of a few individuals such as Flatley and Thach as well as the comparative success early on against the Zero gave the Navy pilots confidence. This was in many ways, half the battle won. By 1943 tactics used against Japanese Zeros were established with new pilots benefiting from the experience of being in the early generation. The combat tactics stressed that altitude and a positional advantage had to be attained before any offensive action could be contemplated and that pilots should be disengaged and spotting high-flying enemy fighters on an intercept course. The sections were instructed in combining firepower on individual targets, slashing at the enemy one plane at a time. This allowed US Navy to effectively engage the Zero. As a concluding example, let us pit a section of two Wildcats against a standard Japanese shotai. Unless pressed, the section will attempt to gain altitude advantage or hold off until the tactical advantage can be gained. Usually 2000 ft of altitude advantage was deemed optional. From there this section would concentrate on the highest Zero, the tail end. After gun pass it would extend and resets its positional advantage by zoom climbing back to altitude but for the enemy fighter was destroyed or not matters as little. As long as the game speed in a dive can be successfully reset into the altitude. should one Zero try to break and climb up, the focus would switch through it. This way the enemy was continuously forced to act defensively and thus unable to see the favourable position to gain the initiative. Even though the whole shotai might not be destroyed, one or two kills could be obtained to friendly losses but only as long as no one got cocky. To conclude, when comparing aircraft in respective kill counts it should be remembered that the fighter fire craft is nothing but a vessel. Beyond its performance the single determining factor of success is the pilot. This is as true in the Pacific as in Europe or on the Eastern front. Regardless of the period we are in while various aircraft in the allied arsenal were less able to counter the A6M2, the specific trades of the F4F ensured a competent and disciplined pilots using the right tactics could effectively engage a Zero. Units such as the American volunteer group in China or the Navy squadron adapted their tactics and utlise their strong points of their planes where they existed over the Japanese aircraft. Thus they were successful where others were not. Regardless it was not until the next generation of Navy planes such as the F6F Hellcat or the F4U Corsair that the Americans had planes it was significantly more suited in a fight against the Zero. In the Solomons between February 1943 and February 1944, 601 A6Ms were shot down and the Japanese lost 481 Zero pilots. This is based on verified Japanese records. The Allies lost 486 aircraft in total but 526 air crews lost. Although these losses are not verified and might be slightly higher in reality, an estimated 144 were F4U Corsairs, 55 were Wildcats, 41 were Hellcats, 90 were P-48 Lightnings, 62 were P-40s and then we have another 4 P-47s. The rest were attack aircraft, slowed planes or bombers while the Zero obviously still had fight in it, the tide had turned. I hope that you enjoyed this video and learned something from it. As usual my sources are in description, make sure to share this video with your friends and pass by those flight buttons on your way out. If you would like to learn more about a very special German night fighter squadron, the Wild Boars, click here. And if you want to learn about Japanese Navy attack aircraft tactics, checkout out this video by a Military History Visualised. As always, have a great day, good hunting and see you in the sky.

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