The immediate predecessor of Japan’s most famous wartime product, the A5M continued to serve in a secondary capacity all through the War years.
Let’s take a look at one that was involved in the massive Midway operation.
The Japanese Navy placed the order that led to their first monoplane in 1934. They wanted a new fighter with a maximum speed in excess of 220 mph, but made no specification about configuration. Mitsubishi designer, Jiro Horikoshi (who would later design the more famous Zero), crafted a monoplane with an elliptical wing. He chose a fixed undercarriage to minimize weight and a 600 hp Nakajima engine.
The new airplane easily exceeded the speed requirement at 280 mph.
The Japanese Army also expressed an interest, but rejected the type when it proved to be less maneuverable than their Ki-10 biplanes.
the A5M entered service in 1937 and soon saw combat in China. Later that year it fought Boeing P-26 Peashooters of the Chinese Air Force for history’s first monoplane vs monoplane combat.
Three variants saw service, A5M1, A5M2 and A5M4. Each added power and detail changes. The last Claude’s built had almost 800 hp. Some early A5M4 had an enclosed canopy, but IJN pilots disliked this feature so it was dropped.
All told about 1000 A5Ms were built as a fighter, plus another 100 as two-seat trainers.
Prior to World War II, most of the world believed this was state of the art for a Japanese combat type. It was fast for a mid-1930s design and very maneuverable. With 2 light machine guns in the nose it was not heavily armed. And of course, no pilot armor or self-sealing fuel tanks.
The A5M DID see combat in the Pacific War, but not very much. Apparently one was shot down over Burma by the Flying Tigers in January 1942; it was confirmed by the wreckage, but the IJN was not officially operational there so this is a minor mystery.
On February 1 the Enterprise launched a series of raids on Kawajalein and Roi Islands that were defended by A5Ms. They claimed 3 SBDs that day.
At the Battle of the Coral Sea A5Ms were part of the air group on the Japanese carrier Shoho. Of course that ship is best known as the first major combatant lost by the Japanese.
Which leads to a little look at the Japanese Navy’s minor league, the light carriers. Its hard to read much about the early part of the Pacific War without encountering the Kido Butai. Literally translated as “mobile force”, this is the fleet of six aircraft carriers that started the War at Pearl Harbor before hitting Darwin and causing mayhem in the Indian Ocean. This force was made up of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Carrier Divisions. As we might expect, the 5th Division was brand new, just entering service the summer of 1941.
But obviously something is missing! At the very start of the War, the Japanese had three light carriers that weren’t in those three divisions. The first of these, Hosho, was the very first Japanese carrier. If you want to get a good argument going on line ask if the first aircraft carrier built as such from the start was Hosho or the RN’s Hermes. (the British started first, the Japanese finished first; but there’s some reasons why Hosho might not count…) By the time the War started it was considered small and slow, could barely operate a dozen modern planes. So it was used for training.
Next was the Ryujo. Because the Washington Naval Limitations Treaty (in effect 1920s and early ’30s) limited aircraft carrier tonnage there was some motivation to put as many planes on as small a ship as possible. This was Japan’s attempt. With an initial capacity of 48 planes on an 8000 ton ship; well, it didn’t work out so well (fragile and unstable). After being damaged in a storm it was rebuilt and tonnage increased to over 10000. Aircraft capacity was also reduced.
When the War in the Pacific started the Ryujo was the only carrier in Carrier Division 4. It had A5Ms and B5N Kates on board. Ryujo launched air strikes on Davao in the southern Philippines, then Singapore and around the Dutch East Indies. They sank several merchant ships and two destroyers. Just before Midway a new carrier, Junyo, was added to Carrier Division 4 and all the fighters were upgraded to Zeros. So we’ll get back to their Midway/Aleutians story another day.
That leaves Zuiho. A new, fast ship that could carry up to 30 planes. The Zuiho was converted from a submarine tender while still under construction. It entered service at the end of 1940 and when the Pacific War started was the only carrier in Carrier Division 3. Her initial wartime assignment was to cover the return path for the Kido Butai after the Pearl Harbor strike. After some time spent ferrying aircraft, Carrier Division 3 was assigned to the Midway Operation. Hosho was added to the division at this time, but then the ships were given different assignments (!). Hosho had only search planes on board and was attached to Admiral Yamamoto’s battleship force bringing up the rear. Zuiho was attached to the Invasion Force. The air group was 6 A5M Claudes, 6 A6M Zeros and 12 B5N Kates. When Carrier Divisions 1 and 2 were destroyed on June 4, the Zuiho was ordered to take their place in the Kido Butai. The next day, Zuiho’s Combat Air Patrol chased off a snooping Catalina. I can’t find a firm answer, but if the A5Ms were involved I believe it was their last combat until Kamikaze operations late in the War. The Midway Operation was canceled later that day and Zuiho escaped to fight another day (actually several other days! Zuiho was sunk in the Battle off Cape Engano, October 1944).
As you may have guessed, this aircraft was assigned to Zuiho during the Battle of Midway. I have no information on any missions flown. It is the Fine Molds kit, and really a beauty. There were some fit problems (so much interior, so little room!), but nothing that couldn’t be fixed.