The greater Solomons Campaign extended from the final securing of Guadalcanal in February 1943 until the major Japanese base at Rabaul was isolated and reduced to impotence in early 1944. Arguably even longer, fighting continued on several of the islands to the end of the War, after it no longer mattered to the outcome.
Let’s take a look at a combatant from Summer of 1943.
The “Model 22” was the most produced variant of the A6M3, which was the first improvement of the Zero since the War started. How it came about is the sort of convoluted story that most often happens during wartime.
The starting point, for the A6M3 series, is upgrading the A6M2’s Nakajima Sakae 12 engine to a
Sakae 21. The most important change was a bigger 2 stage supercharger that led to an almost 20% increase in power. This also led to a redesigned cowling and larger propeller. The wing mounted 20 mm cannon switched from ammo drums to belts which increased capacity. The most noticeable change for this new Model 32 Zero (yes, the Model 32 came before the the Model 22) was clipped wingtips. This shortened the wingspan by over 3 feet and improved speed, maneuverability at speed, and rate of roll in all circumstances. 343 Model 32 Zeros were built.
But when the new type was deployed at Rabaul problems were quickly apparent. The biggest being that new more powerful engine was both thirstier and being bigger, had led to a reduction of fuel capacity by 15%. This was a crippling problem for the War in the Solomons. The distance from Rabaul to Guadalcanal is over 600 miles, this was pushing the limits of of the A6M2 Zero. The new A6M3 could do a little better than half that. So initially the new Zeros could only be used defensively or from very far forward remote strips.
Add to that, pilots disliked the clipped wing. It reduced overall maneuverability, especially the sort of low speed, high-g stunts the Zero was so well known for.
Mitsubishi got to work fixing the problems. The easy change was to the wing tips. They simply reverted to the original tips that folded up for use on aircraft carriers. This is why the designation seemed to go backwards to “Model 22”, the new plane was using the old wing. They took advantage of the slightly improved lift to add small fuel cells in each wing that restored much of the range. Then the underwing hardpoints were plumbed for fuel, allowing for drop tanks (apart from the one at center station that was always a part of the design). All told, this made the Model 22 the longest ranged of all Zero sub-types. During Model 22 production an improved 20 mm cannon came into use; this can be seen by the lengthened cannon barrels coming from the wing. This was indicated by the “A6M3a” or “Model 22a” designation.
560 of this model were built, a shorter production run than first envisioned but by then the new A6M5 was ready for service.
By the end of 1942 Japanese airpower in the South Pacific had been ground down to exhaustion. The IJN’s last fresh reserves were scattered around the Empire or deployed on their remaining fleet carriers. They were well into the death spiral they would not escape from. In 1943 the Japanese could look forward to their new, improved model Zero. Unfortunately for them, it would be facing wholly more advanced allied types like F4U Corsair, P-38 Lightning and F6F Hellcat.
This actually made the Solomons Campaign of 1943 pretty intense. The Japanese had gathered the last of their old guard to use against the first wave of the Allies’ wartime expansion. A couple of big pushes were particularly violent, the biggest being “Operation I” in April. This was Yamamoto’s final offensive before his death and saw the cream of carrier aviation moved ashore to join the fight. Taking pilot’s claims at face value the Admiral thought he’d scored a great victory. Reality was closer to 1:1 on fighter losses, but the Allies were far better at recovering downed aircrew, and if bomber losses are added in the Japanese suffered a pretty bad blow. I should mention at this point, the results are actually much closer in terms of carnage than much post -War writing would indicate. The Zero was still a very dangerous weapon, and even the Corsair did not have a particularly lop-sided impact all on its own. It was the grinding nature of the combat that was turning against the Japanese, they couldn’t come close to replacing their losses in men or hardware. Another push later that summer led to even worse results, and really the end of the IJN’s ability to affect any meaningful outcome.
This particular aircraft was assigned to the 582nd Naval Air Group and based on Bougainville that Summer of 1943. I have no particular information about its history or regular pilot, beyond noting survivors of the group were withdrawn to Rabaul that Fall.
This is the newer Tamiya kit (as opposed to the older Tamiya kit…). It was a fun and painless build. As always from Tamiya, the blend of detail and ease of assembly is a thing to behold. I apologize to Tamiya-san if I failed to honor his beautiful kit. Seriously, their kits from the last decade or so are consistently amazing.
That was really interesting. Indeed, it is difficult to see how more thorough you could have been!
I particularly enjoyed the last picture which shows extremely well how those particular fighters varied in size, especially the Lightning.
Thank you as always for the kind words! I do find the Zero an interesting subject.
And yes, the size difference is dramatic!
I always look forward to seeing your posts.
Thank you! I’m pleased to hear you liked it.
I like the extra hp, and firepower. The model 22 recovered the range and maneuverability too. Pilots dream!
Yeah I think the model 22 is considered overall the best version of the Zero, at least by pilots. The Model 52 added a number of features that improved it as a weapon, but diminished handling. Sort of like the Bf 109F vs the “G”.
I was thinking the same thing.
Oh funny, same Ron or a different Ron?! I wonder why the gravitar changed? Different device?