Thursday, February 19, 2015

Airwar Japan versus Allies

All English-language names for Japanese fighters derived from Western Allied identification codes, in which male names were given to enemy fighters and female names to Japanese bombers. The Japanese Naval Air Force (JNAF) Zero, or Mitsubishi A6M “Reisen” (Zero-Sen), was the best fighter available in the Pacific in 1941. It was lighter, faster, and more maneuverable than American land-based aircraft. It also had a much greater range and more nimble handling than any U.S. carrier-based fighters. That gave the Imperial Japanese Navy a critical advantage in early carrier vs. carrier fights such as Coral Sea . The Japanese Army Air Force ( JAAF) flew three models of the Nakajima Ki-43 “Hayabusa” (“Falcon”). Designated alternately as “Jim” or “Oscar” by the Western Allies, these land-based JAAF fighters saw most service in China and Southeast Asia, flying cover over ground forces. They faced handfuls of older Soviet and other fighters in China until the arrival of American pilots and modern aircraft of the American Volunteer Group, or “Flying Tigers” (“Fei Hu”). Japanese pilots in Hayabusa also faced RAF Spitfire and Hurricanes in Malaya and over Burma. Western pilots were initially shocked at the excellent performance of the Hayabusa, whose characteristics were not known to British or American military intelligence. The JAAF also flew the very fast “Hein,” which reached speeds above 400 mph. The “Frank” (Nakajima Ki84-Ia “Hayate”), introduced in 1944, and the excellent “George” (Kawanishi N1K1-J “Shiden”), introduced in 1944–1945, were also well-known to Allied sailors, troops, and flyers. But as improved as those aircraft were, neither model could match Western Allied fighters by that point in the war: the Japanese planes were relatively underarmored and undergunned, and by 1944 were usually flown by inexperienced, young pilots. However, over Japan the Hayate’s ceiling of nearly 38,000 feet and rocket weapons did pose a threat even to American B-29 bombers.

The USN F4F Wildcat was overmatched by Zeros in nearly all ways, an often fatal disadvantage not overcome by introduction of new American fighters for the first two years of the Pacific War. But the USN controlled the skies of the Pacific after powerful Pratt & Whitney engines were put into its heavily armored F6F “Hellcats” and F4U “Corsairs.” The combination of power, climb rate, ceiling, and arms and armament allowed those aircraft to master the fast but lightly armored Zero and to splash hundreds of slow IJN and Japanese Army bombers. The USAAF also had inadequate and mostly short-range fighters at the start of the war. But by war’s end, the USAAF boasted several of the fi nest and most effective fighters in the world. Many U.S. fighters were shipped to the Soviet Union under Lend- Lease, including 4,700 Bell P-39 “Airacobras” personally requested by Stalin. The P47 “Thunderbolt” and P51 “Mustang” dominated the skies of Italy, France, and Germany almost as soon as they were introduced in 1943. The P51 may have been the fi nest fighter of the war. It was equipped with long-range drop tanks that permitted it to escort strategic bomber formations deep into Germany and to the home islands of Japan. Both the P47 and P51 were also fitted with rockets and used in a “tank buster” role. In combination with late-war deterioration in Japanese aviator skills, better trained American pilots with new and better tactics in much improved machines achieved a 10:1 or higher kill ratio in Pacific War dogfights.

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