Kamikaze (4)

According to author, Robert C Stern, in his superbly interesting book, “Fire from the Sky”, over the weeks and months, the tactics of the kamikaze gradually improved. This doesn’t mean, of course, that anybody ever came back to report on what went well on the day and what didn’t, but there had always been extra Japanese planes present, observing each kamikaze as he went into action. Ostensibly this was to give the family news of their son’s glorious death but in actual fact, it was to watch how events unfolded in an effort to refine tactics for the future.

What a photograph………

Training for the kamikaze lasted seven days. Four days were spent mastering take-off, assembly above the airfield before departure, and flying in formation. Then three days were dedicated to approaching and attacking the target vessel.

In the beginning, kamikazes attacked in small groups, but this soon changed to between 10-20 aircraft attacking simultaneously from different directions and at different heights. In this way, the Allied radar was swamped, and, as author Robert Stern points out, the Allied radar of the time couldn’t read heights particularly well anyway. For this reason, some groups of kamikazes got through entirely unopposed. And if any of these groups were flying particularly low, at wave top level, all the ships would be firing at them and there was a very real risk of serious damage from friendly fire. Indeed, US Navy sailors on neighbouring ships were frequently killed by friendly fire in these circumstances. Here’s wave top level and friendly fire:

Sometimes the kamikaze came in low but things didn’t work out quite as they should have. This was an Aichi “Val” which left a distinct impression on the sailors who witnessed the incident:

In general, it was thought best initially for the kamikaze to start his dive around 20,000-23,000 feet up, higher in the case of the lighter fighters such as “Zekes”, “Franks” and “Tony”s, in order to escape the Allied fighters with the speed they had built up as they dived. The Allied fighters in actual fact tended to patrol at around 16,000 feet. The hope was that by the time the kamikazes got down to 16,000 feet , they would be travelling far too quickly to be caught. As soon as they sighted the target, the kamikazes would begin to glide at an angle of 20°.

The biggest problem for the Japanese was that in a 20° glide, the nose of the aircraft would often mask the target. Experienced pilots would weave from side to side in order to keep the ship in vision, but many younger pilots could not do this. Between 3,500-6,500 feet, the experienced pilots would flip over onto their backs to keep the ship in view during the last section of the dive. We have already seen this in a diagram of how a Stuka pilot hits tanks or small groups of refugees:

Overall, kamikaze was a fairly simple way to carry out an attack. The biggest disadvantage was that it was difficult to control aircraft of that period at high speed. Many near misses were thought to be down to the pilot’s being unable to keep his eyes open until the very last second before impact. The pilots were exhorted to do this because:

“After all, a kamikaze gets no practice in his chosen profession and he must be perfect on his first and last attempt”.

The next stage in the kamikaze attacks was a skimming approach at 30-50 feet which was undetectable with Allied radar having such a short range at low altitude and the permanent presence of so much electronic clutter. Japanese aircraft also released “window” or “chaff”. As they approached the ship, the aircraft would pop up to 1300-1650 feet and then dive steeply to hit the target. With this method, the aircraft’s controls were not stiff:

The kamikaze were aiming to hit the target from astern. There were fewer guns there and the ship was a much more static target that was not moving from, say, left to right. A hit of this type, from the side, or “from abeam” required far more precision from a probably very inexperienced pilot.

Despite all of this, the kamikazes began to become less and less successful towards the end of 1944 as the number of potential pilots and their ability and their skills, inevitably diminished:

And good news for everybody…..


Filed under Aviation, History, Pacific Theatre, the Japanese

20 responses to “Kamikaze (4)

    • I suppose it is to some extent, but if you’re going to sacrifice men’s lives in that particular way, then you might as well train them so that their sacrifice is not in vain. In WW2 the Allies would never have dreamt of carrying out kamikaze attacks but a lot of operations came very close. In 1940, the occasions when whole squadrons of Blenheims failed to return, or even the Doolittle Raid, or a number of RAF operations such as the Dams or the daylight raid on Augsburg.

      • jackchatterley

        Well, some Soviets performed Taran attacks (areial ramming), which sometimes ended quite badly.

        And some Britons, llike Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve Sergeant Bruce Hancock.

        And then the mad mad Sonderkommando Elbe.

      • Yes, I must admit that I was quite amazed that the Germans, right at the end of the war, could recruit pilots willing to carry out suicide attacks. I suppose that it’s easier to understand in the context of the number of civilians who killed themselves rather than face a future without their beloved fuhrer. Nutcases in my world!

  1. Pierre Lagacé

    I am sure there is a number 5…

  2. The Kamikaze program wasn’t well know in Japan and most citizens did not agree with it when it came out. A desperate ploy used by a desperate failing government.

  3. More fascinating information. Thanks, I have enjoyed this mini-series.

  4. Fascinating to read what is involved.

  5. I’m glad that you are enjoying it, Lloyd. The next post reveals which were the best aircraft to use for a kamikaze attack. One with an ejector seat, I would think.

  6. The series is very interesting John, I’m certainly looking forward to reading more. It took a lot of nerve to plunge your aircraft into a ship knowing the consequences of your actions. It would appear to be quite a skill too to do it effectively.

    • Yes, that’s what I thought. I had always imagined that a kamikaze attack was not unlike trying to barge a door open if there was a fire. Essentially, brute strength and ignorance. But, that seems not to be the case. Like everything in life, you have to spend a week on a training course to make sure you get everything right.

  7. Curious minds want to know why the pilots had trouble keeping their eyes open. I don’t understand. As for the principal of killing oneself all for the glory of war, madness, utter despicable madness. I’m just not a fan of war, especially now that our country is in a unconventional war but the effects, psychological and physical, are the same. This post really held my attention. Thank you, John.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Amy.
      Having read Robert Stern’s book, I am happy to know why the Kamikazes did it, and I really understand their motivation, but ultimately you are 100% right. Life is far too wonderful to waste it on causes.

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