How the Mitsubishi Zero won the Battle of Britain

In this subjunctive history, we look at how the Luftwaffe’s Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero’s were a decisive weapon in the Battle of Britain.

In the Messerschmitt Bf 109 the Luftwaffe possessed possibly the World’s finest fighter aircraft at the beginning of the Second World War. It was superlative in all regards save one: range. Given the Luftwaffe’s primary role as a tactical force, operating in support of the Army in a Blitzkrieg attack, this was not seen as a major problem. Despite this, some consideration was given by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) to the problem of bomber escort over longer ranges and the initial response to this requirement was Messerschmitt’s Bf 110 which seemed to offer a fine solution and was, in its way, a fine aircraft. It was, however, a large twin-engined machine and a small but vocal group of officers within the Luftwaffe remained unconvinced by its ability to combat the latest single-engined fighters that were being constructed in ever-greater numbers in France and the United Kingdom – aircraft that would however be hard pressed to deal with a machine in the class of the 109.

In early 1939 the RLM began to look around for a suitable single-engined fighter to operate in concert with the 109 over greater distances. One Italian aircraft appeared to fit the bill admirably, the Reggiane Re.2000. Unfortunately for the Germans the Reggiane fighter had already been ordered in quantity by the RAF and the Reggiane factory had no spare capacity nor were they particularly keen on the prospect of granting a production licence to a German manufacturer as Germany represented the likeliest opponent for any RAF fighter in the near future. Thus the Germans looked further afield and their attention became drawn to a small fighter newly produced by Japan and barely noticed by the International community, the Mitsubishi A6M, first flown in the Imperial Japanese year 2600 and thus known as Type 00 ‘Reisen’, the Zero.

After signing the 1936 Anti-Comintern pact, Japan was keen to foster good relations with Germany and following wildly enthusiastic reports from German test-pilots flying pre-series machines a production licence was sought and gained. Additionally a small number of Japanese-built aircraft were despatched to Germany. The first German-built aircraft was completed by Arado in record time and, amazingly, Zeros entered Luftwaffe service before they appeared in the ranks of the Imperial Japanese Navy. By the time the Zero was available in numbers the Polish and French campaigns were over and some began to regard the Japanese fighter as a needless extravagance in the light of the Luftwaffe’s dominance over any opposition so far encountered by it. The upcoming Battle of Britain would see that opinion reversed in the most dramatic fashion.

The initial forays by the Luftwaffe over Britain produced mixed-results. The airfields attacked in the early stages were within range of the 109s and bomber losses were not excessive. By contrast both the Stukas and the Bf 110s suffered appalling losses at the hands of Fighter Command’s Spitfires and Hurricanes and were quickly withdrawn from combat. Lacking the desire to commit a non-German aircraft to the fray, the Zeros were initially lightly used but with the shift of the attack towards London they would became the saviours of the German forces. The 109s could operate for barely ten minutes over London before their fuel level compelled them to return to base.

No such problem for the Zero, with triple the range (more with a drop tank), it could not only escort the bombers to and from France but could also protect the aircraft of Luftflotte 5 on their attacks from Norway. So outstanding was the Zero’s combat persistence that Spitfire pilots sent to intercept them found that they had to break off combat to refuel.  This endurance would have counted for naught had it been an inferior combat aircraft but the Zero was truly exceptional. The A6M2 as committed to combat over Britain was better armed than any contemporary fighter (with the exception of the flawed Messerschmitt 110) mounting two machine guns and two 20-mm cannon. Its manoeuvrability was legendary and it could easily out turn any European monoplane fighter.

It is true that both the 109 and Spitfire were faster but the Zero could sustain a much higher angle of attack forcing an attacking fighter to break off or stall. Its only real flaw was its light construction and lack of armour but with the rifle-calibre machine guns mounted by the British fighters this was not so much of a problem as it would later prove when the Zero was required to deal with a later generation of American fighters in the Pacific. Nonetheless many Zeros were lost to damage that any British (or indeed German) fighter would have survived.

It was not invincible but, out-manoeuvred and out-gunned, the RAF fighters needed a height advantage to have a reasonable chance of success. Scrambled to intercept incoming formations with limited notice, height was an advantage the British aircraft seldom possessed. The Spitfire with its superior speed could break off combat at will but the Hurricane was slower, less manoeuvrable and less well armed than the Zero. German pilots were generally veterans of Poland and France or Spain and this experience, coupled with the dominant technical superiority of their Japanese equipment resulted in the gradual erosion of Fighter Command until an effective defence could no longer be maintained and the Heinkel 111s and Junkers 88s could bomb virtually at will and the Battle of Britain was effectively won for Germany.

Desperate measures would be needed to avoid invasion and defeat.

Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown evaluated a Zero at the A&AEE and said later of the aircraft “the Zero had ruled the roost totally and was the finest fighter in the world until mid-1943”. It is a compelling irony that this invader from the land of the Rising Sun led to the twilight of the British Empire.

The illustration depicts the Mitsubishi A6M Model 22 ‘White 13’ of Feldwebel Heinz Bar 1./JG 51, September 1940. By this time Bar had scored 12 victories. His final total was 220 confirmed kills in over 1000 combat sorties.

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By Ed Ward, from an original idea by Joe Coles
Ed Ward is an illustrator, writer, historian and regular Hush-Kit contributor
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11 comments

  1. Actuarius

    An interesting idea but surely dependent on how long it would have taken the RAF to come to the same conclusion as the American in the Pacific – “dive through them whilst shooting but don’t stop and don’t look back.” Added to this the Zero got its manouverability from its lack of armour which would have perhaps reduced the disadvantage of only using rifle calibre machine guns?

  2. Dorapilot

    Very nice and convincing. Especially the operational issue that consider that seldom the Spits would have the luxury of higher altitude advantage. And moreover, with no Hurricane able to fight, the Britain air defence would have collapsed in any case. Good story

  3. John Ryan

    I started writing a book based on the Zero in the Battle of Britain more than 30 years ago, we’re lucky the Axis didn’t have the closer cooperation and information sharing of the allies.

  4. nathan

    The Battle of Britain was still unwinnable. Grass Airfields can’t be kept out of commission for long, the RAF always knew what was coming, and the time in the air advantage can be removed by moving airfields further away. That might have left the UK open to strategic bombing, but without a decent strategic bomber the Luftwaffe couldn’t achieve much with that. Ultimately it would need Zeros and Lancasters, and bomb important fighter production cities. That would be possible – but even *that* wouldn’t pave the way for an invasion.
    There isn’t a way for Germany to invade the UK by 1939.

  5. Gary

    The problem with the above is simple if Germany had used the zero it would have lost quicker than what it did. Hurricane pilots said their plane was the equal of both zeroes and Oscars and it was numbers and no early warning that caught them out. Most RAF fighters were caught on take off and or landing. The Japanese planes which tried to follow hurricanes in a dive ended up with their wings folding and crashing. Paper planes with no protection would not last in the European theatre of war.

  6. Joosh

    Interesting idea, and perhaps Germans would have made some changes such as Bramo 323 engine which offered 1000 hp and weighed 550 kg vs. Sakae used in Zero 590 kg offering 930 hp. Also later models of Zero had armor seat and windshield. In turn the hook system needed on carriers could have been removed to save weight likewise the navigational radio and antenna needed on the seas. And perhaps reducing a bit the fuel more weight for the self sealing protection could have been achieved. Yet the range might still have been superior to Me 109.

    • Marcus

      The difference being the Sakae could run on low (73 octane) grade fuel, where all non-turbine German engines required the regular 100-110 octane fuel. The Sakae also was far more fuel efficient, even though it was burning lower grade fuel. Tactically the Sakae is worse, but operationally a loss of 70 hp is more than offset by the ability to use low quality fuel without a problem, especially for the Luftwaffe who were always short on gas. The real nightmare scenario for the allies wasn’t the Germans using the A6M, but the Luftwaffe mounting Japanese engines in their aircraft, especially the FW-190. Coupled with earlier deployment of the diesel burning 262, these changes would mean the OKL couldn’t be strangled out by interdicting their fuel supply. That would change the war.

      • Joosh

        Good points. On the other hand, at the time of Battle of Britain, Germany was not in that critical situation with materials as it started to be later. Yet they were able to increase the production of Me 109 even though the materials were of lesser quality. On the other hand, in America, they tested Nakajima Hayate fighter with higher octane fuels and were able to achieve more performance. So it might be possible to speculate that Germans would have made a slightly higher octane version on Sakae achieving more power combined with economy and better power to weight ratio competing with Bramo engine.

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