Military Aviation

How Japanese Zero-sen naval aviators turned the obsolete V formation into a formidable tactics in dealing with allied fighters during the early stages of the Pacific War

An Allied fighter pilot who managed to get an A6M in his gunsight would typically find himself quickly targeted by the remaining two members of the shotai.

During World War II in the Pacific Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force (IJNAF) A6M Zero-sens used the three-aircraft (although sometimes two or four aircraft) shotai (tactical formation), arranged in an echeloned V formation, as shown in the following picture.

As explained by Peter Ingman in his book P-40E Warhawk Vs A6M2 Zero-sen East Indies and Darwin 1942, although the three-aircraft shotai was an obsolete formation by European standards, the Japanese naval aviators made it highly functional by virtue of their exceptional teamwork and keen situational awareness.

Usually flying without radios, pilots were keenly aware of the location and combat situation of the other two members of their shotai.

When combined with the exceptional maneuverability of the Zero-sen, these tactics proved formidable for any adversary during the early stages of the Pacific War. An Allied fighter pilot who managed to get an A6M in his gunsight would typically find himself quickly targeted by the remaining two members of the shotai as proved by the brief engagement that IJNAF A6M2 Zero-sens had against USAAF P-40E Warhawks had on Feb. 20, 1942.

On that day in fact, Japanese troops had landed on both Bali and Timor, severing the air route between Darwin and Java and leaving the latter isolated. IJN vessels off Bali supporting the invasion offered a prime target for US aircraft on Java, and seven A-24 Banshee dive-bombers from the 91st BS were launched with a strong escort of 16 P-40Es from the 17th PS (Prov). On approaching the target at 14,000ft, and just as the final three A-24 pilots began pushing over in their dives, the formation was bounced from above by Zero-sens of the 3rd Kokutai. In the action that ensued, although none the A-24s fell to the Zero-sens, four P-40Es were lost (and a fifth so badly shot up it crash-landed back at Ngoro) and the CO of the 17th PS (Prov), Capt Charles Sprague, killed.

By contrast four-aircraft flights of two pairs (depicted in the picture below) were used by US fighter pilots during the early stages of the Pacific War.

The tactic initially employed by the group was to climb as fast as possible in the direction of the bombers. However, “dive and zoom” tactics were found to give the heavier US fighters a distinct speed advantage over the lightweight Zero-sens when diving. If used effectively, these revised tactics largely negated the Zero-sen’s superior maneuverability.

P-40E Warhawk Vs A6M2 Zero-sen East Indies and Darwin 1942 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Osprey Publishing and Kogo via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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