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A6M2/3 Zero-Sen: New Guinea and the Solomons 1942 & F6F Hellcat: Philippines 1944

05 Apr 24

Dr James Bosbotinis

The subject matter of these two books, the US F6F Hellcat and Japanese A6M2/3 Zero will be familiar to many members of the NR, especially those with an interest in Second World War naval aviation. Whilst A6M2/3 Zero-Sen and F6F Hellcat will certainly appeal to those with an interest in all things aviation, the books, either together or individually, will provide valuable insights into the wider Pacific campaign. Throughout both books there are common themes, and as each book considers the perspectives of the US and Japan respectively, the interaction or implications of particular factors become evident. This is especially the case with the respective industrial capacities and resources available to each belligerent, dramatically highlighted by the scale of US naval power in the Philippines campaign: “This gave TF38 a total force in excess of 1,000 aircraft, with more than half comprising of F6F Hellcats. It was the most powerful naval force ever assembled”.

Whilst the focus for A6M2/3 Zero-Sen is on the first year of the war in the Pacific, when Japan was on the offensive, the constraints that would become so apparent later in the war, were already visible. The author, Michael John Claringbould, formerly an Australian Foreign Service Officer, and fluent in Japanese, has written a concise and valuable account of Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force Zero operations over the Solomons and New Guinea, including drawing on Japanese archival sources. Both books follow the same approach: an opening chapter ‘In Battle’, followed by ‘Setting the Scene’, which provides a contextual overview, chapters on training and the aircraft itself, ‘Art of War’ which covers tactics and doctrine, and concluding with ‘Combat’. The text is accompanied by various illustrations, diagrams and photographs.

Claringbould’s account of Zero operations highlights factors that would have an enduring impact on Japanese performance during the war, namely, pilot training, industrial capacity and design choices. Whilst in 1942, the “Zero-sen pilots…were an elite cadre who maintained high morale against the odds…”, the Guadalcanal campaign “finished off the remaining balance of the original cadre”, with the lack of leave compounding the strain on the surviving pilots. The impact, as the author describes was that by the end of 1942, “Japanese factories could replace Zero-sens to some extent, but as a nation, Japan lacked the human resources to make good the loss of skilled and experienced Zero-sen pilots over New Guinea and the Solomons”. As Edward M. Young, author of F6F Hellcat explains, although by 1944, new fighters and bombers were in production, their numbers were too limited, and “shortages of fuel led to sharp cutbacks in pilot training. By the beginning of the Philippines campaign, the average IJNAF pilot had less than 400 hours of flying experience, while his counterpart in the IJAAF [Imperial Japanese Army Air Force] had less than 200 hours’.

In this context, the situation confronting Japan by late 1944 was distinct qualitative inferiority vis-à-vis the US, compounded by a massive quantitative disadvantage. Young, a former financial analyst, now holding a PhD in history from King’s College London, provides an account of the contribution of the Grumman F6F Hellcat to the US campaign to liberate the Philippines in late 1944. The author quotes Captain Eric Brown, describing the Hellcat as “the greatest single-seat carrier fighter of World War II”. As Young discusses, the Hellcat was an excellent fighter; moreover, the US Navy’s pilot training system ensured that by the time new Hellcat pilots were embarked on a carrier for operations, they “would be capable of flying…with precision in combat, would be familiar with standard combat tactics and gunnery approaches and would have amassed many more flying hours than his average Japanese opponent”. Pilot training is the subject of chapter three and provides a good overview, although perhaps brief comment by means of comparison with the Japanese system would have been useful. Adding to the US Navy’s qualitative edge was its tactical doctrine, discussed in chapter five, ‘The Art of War’.

A6M2/3 Zero-sen and F6F Hellcat both provide excellent, highly readable, concise accounts of their respective subjects. Each book is well-produced, with very few typos, and featuring excellent illustrations, diagrams and photographs. Both books also provide a useful list of ‘Selected Sources’. Both books will appeal to all those with an interest in the history of the Pacific War, and especially those keen on aviation. Either individually or together, both books are recommended: as this reviewer found, reading the two together provides a useful comparison of US and Japanese perspectives and experience. Both books also serve to highlight the importance of robust training and industrial capabilities to counter the effects of the grinding attrition inherent in total war.