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"Notes on Japanese Air Tactics" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following intelligence report on WWII Japanese air tactics was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 8, Sept. 24, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. 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.]


The Japanese fighter most commonly encountered is the Mitsubishi "Zero," which came into production in 1940. The following comments are largely applicable to this type of fighter plane.

Tactical practices employed by Japanese fighter aircraft vary according to the situation and the type of opposing aircraft encountered. A formation frequently used by the Japanese for ground attack is a Vee of three aircraft flanked by echelons of two. When fighter opposition is encountered the echelon "pairs" meet it, while the Vee executes the ground attack.

Zero fighters ordinarily attack a bomber singly from the rear, diving under it, pulling up into the belly, and firing until they fall off the wing in a stall turn. They attack B-17D's in the tail but make frontal attacks against B-17E's. Recently it was reported that Japanese pilots in the Aleutian area, becoming increasingly bold, attacked B-17's and B-24's from all directions, side and front and underneath, interception taking place at 20,000 feet.

In one instance, a flight of Zeros approaching at 22,000 feet rose to attack B-17's in Vee formation at 28,000 feet. One Zero consistently attacked by climbing up and under the belly of a B-17, stalling and falling off while the other Zeros in the flight acted independently, and flying parallel to the other B-17's for some distance ahead before turning to make direct frontal attacks.

In another instance, nine Zeros, flying in loose echelon formation at 6,000 feet, intercepted from ahead, and at the same level, two 3-ship elements of B-17E's, one below the other, at 4,000 feet. The leading Zero made an attack directly from the front; the other eight planes divided into two groups, one on each side of the B-17E's, and pulled into parallel flight without attacking. Individual fighters then darted ahead, turned sharply, and attacked the staircase formation of B-17E's from the forward quarter before coming within range of their rear gunners. A few planes passed underneath the B-17E's and out toward the rear. Less than 50% of attacks of this nature were pressed within effective range of the Japanese guns.

It is the usual practice in attacking a B-26 for a flight of three Zeros to detach itself from the remainder of the squadron, divide into two elements of one and two fighters respectively, and fly, out of gun range, on each side of the B-26. The single Japanese fighter on the right then turns slowly, and at a slightly lower altitude attacks the B-26 from the forward quarter. The two Zeros on the left side of the bomber make the same approach, but more quickly. The Zero on the right then zooms under the B-26 after attacking it and climbs ahead to take the left flank, while the two planes formerly occupying this position make a similar maneuver and become the right element. After a head-on attack against our fighters, Japanese pilots often go into a turn resembling a tight Immelman, involving a steep climb and a flip-over to a half-roll at the top of the loop.

It is reported from Alaska that two float-plane fighters (probably Mitsubishi-Zero fighters equipped with single floats) attacked United States bombers, out of gun range, and then took up positions, one to the left, and the other to the right front oblique. They preceded the attack by an Immelman turn, and then made rapid diagonal crossings of the bomber, one of the fighters attacking when the bomber attempted to bring its nose guns to bear on the other.

Japanese fighters follow up their attacks on airfields by strafing grounded planes. The Zero and T-97 aircraft are used in these low-flying attacks. In early stages of combat, tracer bullets are employed to get on the target, the attack being carried out with machine-gun and light-cannon fire.

General tactics used by the Japanese prior to July indicate that their Zero fighters disengage from combat by making turns, and that they avoid long power dives. Current reports, however, affirm that power dives have been employed in following P-40E's and P-39's, Zeros having attacked a P-40E at 24,000 feet, again after a dive to about 10,000 feet, and a third time at 300 feet. This maneuver may indicate the introduction of a structurally stronger Zero or a new type of fighter plane. A general practice also is the use of decoy aircraft with top cover.

Bombing tactics call for close formations and straight, long runs, frequently at altitudes of 22,000 to 24,000 feet. Flights are often composed of 27 aircraft with Zero fighters weaving above, below, or to port. When forced to bombardment ceiling by antiaircraft, as in the Philippine campaign, the Japanese used area bombing. The bombers fly in large formations and release bombs either in salvo or in train, depending upon dispersion to encompass the target. Spot or precision bombing, which is more accurate than area bombing, is undertaken when there is no defensive antiaircraft fire, and is delivered from altitudes below 10,000 feet.

A bomber formation over Darwin was reported as consisting of a starboard flight of nine bombers at 21,000 feet, a middle flight of the same number in line but stepped up about 240 feet, with the right flight similarly stepped up, and the escorting aircraft weaving continuously. This method gives the starboard flight a greater field of fire and eliminates the need for fighter protection on this side.

Glide-bombing is usually undertaken by light bombers, the attack being launched at approximately 19,000 feet. When this maneuver is employed, aircraft nose down toward the target at an angle of about 45 degrees and level off at from 3,000 to 2,500 feet before releasing their bombs. If the limits of antiaircraft fire are clearly defined, swing-bombing has been used. In this case planes fly toward the target until the perimeter of antiaircraft fire is reached, and, making a banked turn, release their bombs with a centrifugal "throw." The inaccuracy of this method is obvious.

In dive-bombing, the practice of the Japanese is to approach the objective at about 12,000 feet and gradually work down to about 7,000 feet. As the attack develops, the aircraft go into dives of about 60 to 80 degrees with diving flaps lowered. The dives culminate in pull-outs ranging down to 800 feet. As many as 60 to 70 Japanese aircraft have been used in these dive-bombing attacks.


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