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"Air Forces (Japan)" from Intelligence Bulletin, September 1942

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]  
The following U.S. military report on the Japanese Air Force was originally published in the Intelligence Bulletin, September 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department Intelligence Bulletin publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]



As a rule, Japanese pilots are well trained and compare favorably in all respects to those of other nations now engaged in the war. They have generally been very accurate in bombing and strafing attacks except when strongly opposed by antiaircraft fire and fighter planes. While most of their planes have stood up well in combat, only the "0" fighter has been outstanding.

In their campaigns to date, the Japanese have used bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance planes to "soften" the opposition ahead of the ground forces, and also to lend close support to troops on the front lines. To soften the opposition, their planes usually bomb troops and military objects on or near roads and railroads leading toward the front. They attack exposed combat units such as road-bound, congested transport columns and command posts.

The Japanese regard the airplane as a necessary weapon to assist in military operations. Usually, before committing his forces to battle, the Japanese army commander has large air formations assigned to him and placed under his direct command. He, in turn, often delegates command of air forces to commanders of units as small as a regiment.

The Japanese air forces perform independent missions when they are not busy giving close support to the ground forces.


a. Fighter Planes

Generally, these do not attack opposition airdromes until reconnaissance planes have obtained target information, weather data, and perhaps pictures.

Several different formations have been used. In Malaya four planes flying in a diamond-shaped group were the basic army unit, while naval fighters used a narrow vee formation of three or five planes. The vee was very rough in shape--probably as a defense against antiaircraft guns.

One of the most common fighter-plane formations used against ground forces is a vee of three planes with two other planes on the left flank and two more on the right flank--a total of seven planes. If the planes meet no fighter opposition when the target area is reached, three of the four flanking planes drop back to form a second vee behind the first. The fourth flanking plane follows at a high level to protect the formation. If the group meets fighter opposition, the first vee of three planes goes ahead with the planned attack against ground forces, while one or both of the flanking pairs of planes engage the opposing aircraft.

Upon entering combat, Japanese fighter squadrons frequently divide into two sections. One of these flies low to tempt the opposing planes to dive while the other remains high to dive on the opposition aircraft. The Japanese make use of clouds as cover in approaching, and on clear days frequently get in a line directly between the sun and the target. After first strafing the target, sometimes the fighters break formation and attack individually.

The strafing of airdromes rarely occurs before careful reconnaissance and planning. Not only are the airdromes strafed, but the terrain around the field for a distance of 50 yards is also thoroughly covered, usually with incendiary bullets.

In attacks on opposing plane formations, Japanese fighter tactics usually have not been well coordinated. The Japanese break formation and attack individually from above and below the opposition aircraft. If possible, they generally attack our planes from the rear. However, frontal attacks have been made on some of our planes which have poor armament. These few frontal attacks have been better coordinated than the others. Instances have been reported where two Japanese fighters attacked a plane from its left- front and right-front.

Fighters usually accompany bombers if the bomb targets are within range. The fighters fly about 3,000 feet above the bombers.

b. Bomber Planes

The common tactical unit for bombers consists of nine planes. On large raids, three units, or 27 planes, generally are used. Often the 27 planes are split into two groups of 13 and 14 planes as far as 250 miles from the target area. Then the two formations converge on the target from different directions at the same time.

In practically all instances to date, the Japanese have dropped their bombs while flying in formation. They always fly close together, even in the midst of antiaircraft fire. Only a relatively small number of bombs are dropped, usually two from each plane.

When attacked, the bombers generally turn and face the opposition and the forward planes drop down so that all guns will have a field of fire.

(1) Torpedo bombing.--The tactical unit for this type of bombing also consists of nine planes. In the attack the formation usually glides in toward the target from a distance out of gun range. It deploys into a wedge or ragged diamond formation for the actual attack. The planes usually are never higher than 300 feet when they release their torpedoes.

(2) Dive bombing.--The Japanese usually dive at angles of 45 to 50 degrees. In the attack on Hawaii, they began gliding toward the target from heights of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. One after the other, they released their bombs just before reaching the target and then climbed steeply upwards. After the bombers released their bombs, they strafed ground installations with machine-gun fire.

(3) "Swing" bombing.--This name was given by observers to a type of Japanese bombing sometimes used when the enemy knew the areas in which OUT antiaircraft fire was located. The Japanese fly directly toward the target until they reach the outside boundary of antiaircraft fire. Then they make a banked turn, releasing their bombs at the same time. This type of bombing is very inaccurate. In some instances, the distance between exploding bombs dropped from the same plane at the same time has been as great as 300 yards.


The Japanese have often dropped supplies from planes by use of parachutes. Usually the supplies were intended for troops which had infiltrated into or behind opposition lines, but most of them fell into the hands of United Nations forces. The supplies included food, cigarettes, and medical equipment. They were contained in brown cases about 10 x 3 x 1 1/2 inches in size.


The "0" fighter is considered Japan's best all-around plane. The plane's speed and maneuverability are its outstanding features. It will fly 310 miles per hour at sea level, and will climb at a rate of 4,000 feet a minute; at 15,000 to 20,000 feet, the rate of climb is only about 3,000 feet a minute. An improved "0" fighter, first seen on June 8, is said to be somewhat faster than the one described above.

[Figure 10. Japanese Zero Fighter.]
Figure 10. "0" Fighter.

In comparison with American fighter planes, the "0" is better in some respects, but not so good in others. All American fighters have better construction and armor. The "0" sacrifices armor in order to attain greater maneuverability and rate of climb. Both the P-39 and the P-40 fighters have greater fire power and are faster than the "0" at low altitudes, but the "0" is faster and can outclimb and outmaneuver them at high altitudes. The "0" is armed with two 20-mm. cannons and two fixed machine guns.


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