Myth of the Zero fighter?

Dear Mr. History,

Hello, I’m a long-time subscriber.  You do a fantastic job, I love and look forward to every single issue, and I read every single thing cover-to-cover!

Your "Weapons Manual" in the March/April 2012 issue [of World War II magazine] aroused a pet peeve of mine.  I would like to dispel once and for all with the myth of the Zero fighter!  My contention is, the Zero was a fantastic AIR-plane, but a terrible WAR-plane.  Its many weaknesses precluded it from being a war-winning weapon, even by early 1942.  

First, its propensity to burn is well-known.  Every plane has a weak point, but almost the entire airframe on the Zero was a weak point!  The wings, the cockpit, the engine, the stabilizers … If just 2-3 bullets, a lucky shot, really, hitting any of those areas stand a good chance of killing your ride, it’s not an effective combat weapon.

Second, what doesn’t get a lot of attention is how small the control surfaces were for the wing loading and the sheer physical strength that was required to maneuver it at speed.  This was done to control weight, but the effect was to make it difficult to move the controls or make them work at 250 knots; very hard at 300 knots, impossible for many pilots as a matter of fact; and if you were in a dive at 350+mph you couldn’t pull out of it even if you were The Hulk—because the control surfaces were too small for the forces being exerted on them.  When every Allied fighter of the time could dive at 400+ knots and pull out, this was a terrible weakness of the Zero, and easily countered.

Third, its armament was very light.  The machine guns were basically worthless, and the low muzzle velocity, low cyclic rate and above all the shortage of ammunition (again, to keep the weight down) for the 20mm cannon meant they were not very effective for long.  Yes, capable of doing damage if they hit you, but no where near as good overall as the weapons used in most Allied planes.

Lastly, the Japanese Navy pilots in late 1941 were the best and most-experienced naval aviators in the world.  Most of their early successes were against poorly trained and poorly led Allied pilots.  But once the proper tactics to counter the Zero’s weaknesses were emplaced in March/April 1942, even novice pilots were at almost equal odds.  If a superior pilot can just as easily be shot down by a novice pilot, then the weakness must be the airframe, right?

Counter that with especially the contemporary American fighters of the day:  they were rugged, had armor protecting the pilot, self-sealing fuel tanks, heavy armament, adequate control surfaces to maneuver at speed, and most of all the ability to push the nose down and get away.  Now THOSE were weapons of war!

So let’s be honest:  as a WAR-plane, the Zero was obsolete by the Spring of 1942.  Still capable of doing some damage obviously, but nothing like it’s made out to be.  I’d take my chances v. a Zero in a Wildcat or P40, even in late-1941 or early 1942!

If you would like to publish my letter, I’m from Amherst, NY.  I would be interested in a reply at the least.  I know mine isn’t a popular position, but simple, fair analysis of kill ratios will prove I’m right.   (-: 

Thank you,

Matt Deck

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Deck, 

Thanks for your comments on the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero. Your points are all quite sound, though in equal truth there is little residual myth about the Zero left to bust. 

Indisputably the Zero had inherent flaws that were initially canceled out by the skill of its pilots and the ignorance of its opponents. No argument, either, that by midway through the Guadalcanal campaign the bogey had been laid, even before a new generation of American fighters arrived to take the sky from it—including the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, a plane specifically designed to do just that on behalf of U.S. Navy carrier air power. 

We are also certainly aware that there were greater kill-to-loss ratios among most of the American fighters (though some of them are exaggerated against actual enemy losses, just as were those attributed to the Zero pilots even in their heyday). If that was the sole criterion, though, then the war’s all-time fighter champ would be the Brewster F2A-1 Buffalo, a plane that Zeros used to eat for breakfast. Lightened by the removal of its naval equipment, however, the export Brewster B-239, as flown by the Finns, was credited with 496 Soviet aircraft for the loss of 19 (a kill-to-loss ratio 26-to-1), on top of which the recent Russian release of its actual wartime plane losses has revealed the Finnish Ilmavoimat to have been the only air force in World War II that slightly under-claimed. 

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Zero, however short its reign, was the first carrier-based fighter capable of besting land-based opponents. More critically, that moment of supremacy occurred at the right time for it to spearhead a remarkable carrier-borne rampage over about a third of the earth’s circumference in less than half a year.  And on occasion, even as late as 1945, outdated, outmatched A6M5 Zeros could—and did—shoot down Allied aircraft and kill Allied airmen. Our intention was not to promulgate any long-squelched myth, but merely to give credit where credit was due. 

Again, we appreciate the loyalty to the magazine that motivates your feedback, and hope to keep things equally interesting in issues to come 



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History

7 Responses

  1. Ron Oberman

    Dear Mr. Deck and Mr. Guttman, Thank you for a very lively and fascinating discusssion on the merits of the Japanese zero. I applaud both your efforts

  2. Guillermo Horruitiner

    Today we can make a clear analisis for a plane like the zero. We have enough informatión to read. But in its time it was a very good plane.
    The history is precisely to learn about a matter, long time gone. By the time it is happening its not history, its actuality.

  3. john singleton

    what happened when tommie mcquire and 3 others flyin p-38 attacked a japanese ace flying a zero en late stages of the war-i was told some years ago that the pilot of the zero shot down the 3 with mcquire and forced him to fly into the ground is this true
    john singleton

  4. Jack Lane

    The version of that fight as far as the Tommy portion I’ve heard, was that Tommy and the others had only recently become airborne, and upon spotting the Zero, Tommy apparently didn’t want to drop his external fuel tanks, engaged at low altitude and during a sharp snap turn hit the trees. Possibly, if he’d dropped his tanks, there would still be a Mcquire, with one more score to his record, – but a victory by ‘tree’ is still a victory. If the Japanese pilot was keeping it low trying for that outcome against tank-laden P-38’s then, short and sweet, he earned his kill.
    Jack Lane (P-38 fan.)

  5. Matt

    The Zero fighter was indeed a superior aircraft during the first year of the war. It had more than twice the range of all other single engine fighters until the P-38, which arrived the end of 1942 as recon aircraft. This capability was indispensable in the Pacific.

    It was far superior to the Brewster Buffalo and P-36 Mohawk in almost all respects. and

    It was superior to the F4F Wildcat in all areas except ruggedness and dive speed.

    The Zero outclassed the P-39 in all areas except ruggedness and dive speed.

    The P-40 was a match for the Zero if properly flown. The P-40 was faster by 20 to 30 MPH, was more rugged, and dived better.

    The Hawker Hurricane was inferior to the Zero in almost all respects.

    The Spitfire models the Zero faced were better in many respects, but had to be used correctly.

    None of these allied fighters could have done what the Zero fighter did for Japan in the first six months of the war – establish air superiority up to 500 or more miles from their bases.

    It wasn’t until the P-38 and Corsair fighters arrived in early 1943 that the allies had aircraft that were clearly superior to the Zero, due to the simple fact that they had two or more times the horsepower of the Zero.

    It is true, the Zero had no armor, self sealing fuel tanks, and didn’t carry radios, in order to save weight. But then, many allied aircraft didn’t have armor or self sealing fuel tanks at the start of the war, either.

    The Japanese had great difficulty producing engines of sufficient horsepower needed to provide increased performance. And engines they had were needed in other aircraft such as their bombers.

    The Japanese were also woefully lacking in the development of their tactics and doctrinal thinking, and were disastrously slow in adapting to circumstances.

    The armament of the Zero was adequate against fighters in the first year. Their 20mm. cannon did have a somewhat slow muzzle velocity of 600 meters per second, and only provided about seven seconds of firing time. But recall, some Spitfire models also only had 60 rounds per gun, and Also used 30 caliber machine guns. With the A6M3. model in April of 1942 the Zero had 100 rounds per cannon, and about 11.5 seconds of firing time.

    They did stay with the 30 caliber far too long, but then the Spitfire even had them in their Mark 14, and the Germans had them on the FE-190 in the first models. It was the 30 caliber that shot down all those German bomber planes in 1940, albeit there were eight of them on the British fighters.

    American bomber aircraft, medium and heavy, were a decisive weapon in the first year. American fighters would have had a difficult time against them, and it was these bombers that made it possible for the allies to start to wear down the Japanese from Port Moresby, as their massive material superiority began to take effect as early as the summer for 1942.

    Of all the Japanese aircraft, only one or two stand out as designs that lasted as top of the line aircraft for the entire war. One of these is the Dinah. It was an army recon plane with a top speed of 375 MPH. In 1942, and 390 per hour starting in 1943. Until later P-38, P-47, and P-51 models, this was fast enough to do a recon and have a good chance of escaping.

  6. Guillermo Horruitiner

    Wow ! this is the reason i like to read this page. You know this matter.


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