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"Japanese Fighter Tactics" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. report on Japanese fighter tactics originally appeared in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 20, March 11, 1943.

[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.]


Japanese fighter tactics against both Allied fighters and bombers necessarily vary both with the number and type of aircraft encountered, and with the conditions under which attacks are executed. The normal tactical unit is a squadron of nine planes subdivided into three flights, in either Vee or echelon formation. Another frequently employed formation consists of a Vee of three fighter aircraft, flanked by echelons of two fighters. The latter formation is customarily used for ground attack, the echelon pairs meeting the fighter opposition while the Vee goes in to attack. The fighter formations usually fly at altitudes of 15,000 to 20,000 feet, but are said to operate efficiently at 27,000 feet or higher.

Japanese fighter pilots generally avoid head-on attacks against Allied fighters, probably because most of their planes are unarmored. "Head-to-tail" attacks are favored, except when engaging bombers with rear guns. Contrary to an earlier belief, the Japanese appear to prefer single to concerted attacks. They are now following our fighters into power dives, which heretofore they were reported reluctant to do. Apparently the structural strength of the new Hap, in particular, has made this method of escape for Allied aircraft less effective.

Attacks against our fighter aircraft have been most frequently made from above and the side, and, if possible, out of the sun. Recently, Japanese fighters are reported to be making a series of tight turns and then climbing steeply for a head-on attack. After attacking, they do a turn resembling an Immelmann, climbing up and flipping over to a half roll at the top of the loop. When pursued by our fighters, they frequently resort to evasive action, while pulling into Immelmanns and loops.

In the Aleutians, it has been observed that a Japanese Rufe, when given the advantage of altitude in a head-on attack, dives on his opponent and levels off just out of firing range. He usually rolls on his back as he passes over the Allied plane, and does a snap roll onto our fighter's tail. According to many observers, the moment of greatest vulnerability for the Japanese pilot is during the pull-out from a head-on attack, since our fighters are afforded a good shot when the enemy aircraft is in the process of making a slow roll or a climbing turn. When a head-on attack is not possible, Japanese fighters sometimes attempt an Immelmann or a steep chandelle before diving onto the enemy.

When a Japanese fighter approaches an Allied fighter aircraft broadside, from below, or at the same level, he fires a short burst and does a semi-half roll, usually to the left. He then comes back up in a steep climb and attacks again. When a climbing attack is made on a Japanese fighter, he remains just out of range until the pursuing plane begins to stall. Executing a quick turn, he brings his guns to bear on the Allied plane when it is a relatively easy target.

Japanese pilots are particularly adept in employing "decoy" tactics. The fighters sometimes fly in circles, one above the other, at different altitudes. When one of the lower aircraft is attacked, the aircraft above it dive successively onto the opposing fighters, usually approaching from behind or slightly below. A similar ruse has been employed by three-plane formations. When encountered by a pair of Allied fighters, the right- or left-wing pilot of the formation peels off and dives. If one of our fighters follows, he becomes easy prey for the remaining two Japanese aircraft.

In another deceptive maneuver, Japanese fighters attempt to draw our aircraft, particularly stragglers, into combat for the purpose of exhausting their fuel supply by the time succeeding Japanese fighters arrive to attack. These tactics are also used to enable Japanese bombers to carry out their missions after our fighters have been forced down. A faked dogfight is often staged to make it appear that one of our planes is engaged, so that the others will come to its rescue. According to a pilot in the Netherlands East Indies, a fighter, with Allied aircraft on its tail, decelerated suddenly by using his flaps and side slips. When the attacking aircraft overshot, the fighter came up underneath and fired on him. Smoke cartridges are also reported to be employed by Japanese pilots after beginning a spin downward to create the impression that they have been knocked out.

Escort fighters for bombardment aircraft have been observed above, below, and to the side of the bombers. In approaching their target, the bombers usually fly at approximately 25,000 feet, but have been encountered as high as 29,000 feet. The protecting aircraft may sometimes fly 6,000 feet below and about 2 miles behind the bombers, or they may fly about 10 miles to the side, below or above them or at the Same level. Fighters have also been known to trail the bombers at least 10 miles, although that distance gives Allied aircraft a decided advantage. Covering aircraft have, in one instance, been reported to fly above the bombers in varying positions at altitudes as high as 35,000 feet. Fighter escort planes, however, have been most frequently encountered under the bombers; in this case, our fighters, having the advantage of speed gained in a dive on the bombers, have attacked successively the bombardment planes and the fighters below them.

Currently, Japanese pilots are attacking both heavy and medium bombers from all directions, but the frontal attack is most frequently employed against our Fortresses in order to avoid the heavy fire of their rear guns. Tail attacks, sometimes made simultaneously with bow attacks, continue to be reported, as well as beam attacks and attacks from directly underneath.

During the Battle of Midway, two enemy fighters attempted interception of two three-plane elements of Fortresses, firing first at the wing ships, rolling and taking a shot at the lead ship, falling off, and then pulling back to make successive attacks. Subsequently, one Japanese aircraft flew in the path of the bombers, but far ahead, and after about 30 minutes made a right chandelle and attacked from the frontal quarter.

An instance of rear attack was recently reported from Guadalcanal. Two floatplane fighters, probable Rufes, approached a B-17E at 10,000 feet, one breaking away at 500 yards and concentrating on the bomber's underside. A third enemy fighter did not take part in the action, but remained about 3 miles away at the same altitude as the bomber. A second attack, also from below, followed quickly: One of the fighters went into a slow roll at 7,500 feet, pulled up into a steep climb, and aimed at the belly of the bomber. During the engagement, both fighters jockeyed back and forth, avoiding a straight approach.

A recent report indicates that Japanese fighters now attack medium bombers from a position parallel to the bombers' line of flight but at a lower altitude. The fighters chandelle up into the bomber formation, rolling out and diving down to the opposite side, from which a new attack is begun. This maneuver, which is similar to a lazy eight, is repeated again and again. Frequently employed tactics against the B-26 involve a two-element attack, one aircraft on the right and two on the left, just out of range of the bomber. The single plane turns into the bomber to block out its turret and nose-gun fire, and then passes under the B-26 to take the left flank, while the other two planes change over to the right.

In early operations, Japanese employed two principal methods of ground attack, which are still considered effective. In the first attack, fighters come in just over the trees, dive on an Allied airdrome, machine-gun grounded aircraft and antiaircraft emplacements and then fly away in horizontal formation at low altitude. In the case of one such attack, a fighter remained to circle the field at an altitude of 12,000 to 18,000 feet, apparently to observe the results of the attack. Shortly afterward, the Japanese launched a new attack, probably making use of information gained from the observation.

A second method of attack is illustrated by operations against Palembang. A Japanese fighter flew over an airfield and attacked with machine guns while one or more flights of aircraft remained at altitudes of 16,000 to 20,000 feet. When defending Allied fighters attempted to get into the air, the Japanese planes immediately dived upon them at high speed. In a similar attack, the Japanese fired tracer and, when this scored, followed with 20-mm explosive. They passed the targets at a height scarcely over 25 feet, flew about 50 yards beyond the edge of the field, and after making easy turns, repeated the attack again and again. More recently Japanese naval floatplanes, in loose echelon formation, flew over an Allied airdrome at 5,000 to 6,000 feet, and after circling it, peeled off, and executed organized machine-gun attacks, commencing fire at 1,500 feet. The planes then pulled out in a low turn and made independent low-altitude attacks.

Timing of all attacks on ground installations has been well coordinated.


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