Robert Jackson, A6M Zero Mitsubishi (Pen & Sword, 2020)
When I was a wee boy growing up in the 70s, the auld men who’d been in The War mentioned only one Japanese warplane to join the usual discussion of Spitfires and Me109s: the Zero. The men who’d fought in the Far East said they feared it like no other weapon of war. That memory flooded back to me when I opened Robert Jackson’s new book on the A6M Zero. It turns out that there was much more, or maybe less, to the Zero than the auld men spoke of.
The Japanese were slow starters in developing warplanes after World War I, but by the 1930s they were catching up fast spurred on by their growing involvement in China. Jackson points out that evolution paralleled the growth of Japan’s carrier fleet. In 1935, the Japanese Navy introduced a home designed monoplane, the A5M, and the following year the army’s Ki.27 flew for the first time. That would become the standard Japanese Army Airforce (JAAF) fighter until 1942. Jackson surveys the Japanese learning on the job against the Chinese and Soviets in Manchuria where they came off worse against the Soviet planes. The Navy, meanwhile, needed a fighter to escort its bombers in China, and the A6M Zero fit the bill nicely.
Jackson gets into the specifications for the new fighter, which contained some innovative ideas to keep the weight down while producing an elegant, uncomplicated machine. The Navy Zero first saw action in China in August 1940 with stunning results against now obsolete Chinese Soviet-built fighters. The air superiority of the Zero went ominously unnoticed in the West where they were too busy with their own affairs to notice the looming threat. But they noticed them well enough, and to America’s horror, at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, though the Zeros did not get it all their own way against US fighters, perhaps a harbinger of things to come. When the Zeros attacked in the Philippines at around the same time, the Americans in their P-40s quickly developed tactics to at least put them in the fight. Other Allied warplanes fared less well against the nimble Zeros. Jackson follows the victorious Japanese squadrons around the Pacific as the war intensified, and into the Indian Ocean against the British in early 1942. But in May and June 1942, the tides of war were about to change.
Japanese naval ascendancy crumbled at Coral Sea and collapsed at Midway. That became evident over the following months. This was the time when US Wildcats took on the Zeros with innovative tactics while correctly assessing that the Japanese pool of pilots was wearing thin – Jackson also notes how the Americans used captured Zeros to work out their weaknesses for new tactics. The US was also about to bring in new planes that finally tipped the scales for good, most notably the Corsair and Hellcat. In June 1944, the Marianas Turkey Shoot proved American dominance. In desperation, the Japanese launched kamikaze attacks, of which many were in Zeros, but all that did was waste men and machines. Jackson briefly mentions captured Zeros used by other nations after the war and lists the top Japanese aces.
So much for the history of the Zero. Jackson dwells a bit too much on context and the Allies fighting the Zeros rather than the Zero pilots in success and failure, but that is not a significant flaw in a book of this kind. The joy of this book, however, is in the artwork and modelling sections. The colour illustrations of Zeros are out the top drawer as are the many photographs of them. Jackson’s modelling section is thorough with a history of model kits and photographs of some of them built to extraordinarily high standards. Modellers interested in building a Zero will love this book, while those of us who just enjoy the aesthetics of the plane and want some background on it will enjoy this book too.