Dismantling of the ‘Zero’ Points to What Might Have Been for Japan

The last Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane still equipped with its original engine has been dismantled at the Tokorozawa Aviation Museum in Saitama Prefecture. Introduced as a long-range fighter plane by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1940, the Zero was a mainstay of WWII.

The last indigenous Mitsubishi Zero (Source: Asahi Shimbun)
The last indigenous Mitsubishi Zero (Source: Asahi Shimbun)

At the start of the war, the Zero was a technological marvel, capable of combining long-distance flying with excellent manoeuvrability and firepower which made it the preeminent dogfighter in the early Pacific exchanges against Allied and Colonial aircraft.

Japanese aviation technology had been fostered by British freelancers (some would say traitors) during the 1920s and the Imperial Army had assembled a formidable flying force by the beginning of WWII. This was not dissimilar to Japan’s Axis allies Germany, whose Messerschmitt Bf 109 entered the war as one of the world’s most technologically-advanced fighters, having been used to devastating affect in the Spanish Civil War.

However, the overreaching ambitions of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany put an unbearable strain on resources which led to the Allies assuming technological superiority by the middle war years.

The RAF, for instance, continued to update existing models so that both the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfires that had begun the war were almost unrecognisable within a year. Not only did this ensure that the RAF gained a performance advantage over the technologically-stagnant Luftwaffe, but the British aircraft industry was far more proficient at producing machines in great numbers.

Spitfires at a shadow factory in Castle Bromwich
Spitfires at a shadow factory in Castle Bromwich

Unburdened by supporting massive armies overseas, the British could dedicate resources to building ‘shadow factories’ across the country to escape Luftwaffe bombing, effectively mobilising peacetime industries to the war effort.

Simultaneously, whilst the Luftwaffe was unable to significantly bomb British industry, the Allies’ bombing raids had an almost terminal affect on German production. Again, this was partly down to aeronautical technology. German bombers were poorly designed and their payloads were deristory (indeed the Luftwaffe never had a recognised heavy bomber throughout WWII).

Whereas the British Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings could carry over 10,000lbs-worth of bombs internally, the Luftwaffe bombers were restricted to small payloads with bombs often having to be carried externally, sacrificing speed in the process and leaving them vulnerable to Allied fighters.

The large bomb bay of an Avro Lancaster shortly before loading
The large bomb bay of an Avro Lancaster shortly before loading

This divergent development in aircraft capabilities from the start of WWII helped swing the war towards Britain in Europe as it did the Americans in the Pacific. The Zero, whilst a quality fighter at the beginning of WWII, was not developed further nor was it produced in significant numbers. Japanese fleets were given less and less air cover as the war dragged on, whilst the Americans developed the Grumman F6F Hellcat, deployed from aircraft carriers,¬†as a counter to Mitsubishi’s previously formidable design.

Not only did this give the Americans air superiority over the Pacific but it enabled their monstrous bomber aircraft (the Liberators and Flying Fortresses in particular) a safe escort to Japanese strategic targets, which were mercilessly pounded.

The Allies were by no means ahead of the enemy in terms of aircraft development at the start of WWII. Indeed, Germany and Japan had been preparing for war for years. Yet the greed for expansion, the need to support huge land armies overseas and keep them supplied, the diversion of resources to campaigns of extermination and genocide; these determinants prohibited the Axis powers mirroring the Allies’ technological development during the war years.

As the aircraft enthusiasts watched the Zero being dismantled at Tokorozawa, there were looks of admiration and nods of pride. Such expressions are apt for the machine was one of the finest designs of its time. Nevertheless, as with much of Japan’s war policy, blind leadership eventually rendered the Zero irrelevant as its technological capacity was not updated to keep pace with the new American fighters and its production numbers fell into inexorable decline.

What would have happened if the Axis scientists and designers, and not the generals and politicians, had had their way?