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Chapter III
Enemy Tactics

It is difficult to describe a "typical" suicide attack. No two are exactly alike, the only thing each has in common being either the plane's crash into a ship or its "splash" as a result of AA. or interception by friendly fighters.

To analyze enemy suicide tactics, attacks, as described in action reports, are given here in their various component parts:

The Approach

The approach of suicide planes is characterized by tactics designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of our search radar equipment. These tactics are in general as follows:

  1. Flying at altitudes exceeding 20,000 feet to make best use of radar null areas, or flying very low over water to avoid early detection.

  2. Making a series of dives and climbs, rarely flying a straight course when within 40 miles of the target ships.

  3. Approaching from over the nearest land. Nearly all approaches except those against fast carrier task groups have been of this nature.

  4. Trailing in the shadow of the IFF of friendly planes returning to their bases.

  5. Using a variety of IFF of their own.

  6. Approaching in small groups from different bearings and at different altitudes to increase the radar interception problem.

Besides avoiding radar, suicide planes make every effort to evade CAP. They use independent evasive tactics, employing cloud cover whenever possible and making every effort to fly over or under friendly fighter patrols.

It is believed that suicide planes are accompanied by radar-equipped control planes, which vector the suicide pilots to our ships from a long range.

When the high altitude approach is used, suicide pilots select their targets from a long range, and show no hesitancy in making the attack after reaching the push-over point.

Maximum speed is employed frequently by suicide pilots, using a power glide from long distances when approaching at high altitudes; however, instances are on record where dive flaps have been used to restrict speed and increase accuracy.


Oct. - Nov. 87% 0% 13%
Dec. 10% 30% 60%
Jan. 32% 8% 60%

The Attack

Tactics used during the actual suicide attack apparently are designed to make the fire control problem as difficult as possible. The tactics include:

  1. Groups of suicide planes split up for their attacks after reaching maximum 5-inch gun range.

  2. Attacks are made from out of clouds and from out of the sun to effect surprise and avoid gunfire until the last possible moment.

  3. The enemy makes his attack as quickly as possible after getting in position over the formation, giving little time for AA. tracking.

  4. Extensive use of decoys is made, with one plane appearing out of a cloud to draw AA. fire while another attacks from a low angle, and vice versa.

  5. When the low angle approach is used the plane weaves close to the water, crashing into the hulls of small ships and zooming upward, making a vertical turn and diving on the topside of larger ships from the opposite direction from the original approach.

  6. Sharp reversals of direction and constant acceleration in dives are used at close range.

  7. When harassed by AA. fire suicide planes usually maneuver radically, sometimes employing "flipper" turns, "wingovers" and other aerobatics during the final phase of the attack.

Most dives have been made in angles from 20 to 45 degrees, although extremes of attack angles have been 0 and 75 degrees.

Most attacks have been made out of clouds, from altitudes of 3,000 to 6,000 feet, and from ranges of 4,000 to 6,000 yards. The ratio of dive and glide attacks to torpedo-type attacks has been 1:1, despite the fact that the trend has been toward the low angle attack.


Suicide planes usually carry their bombs into the ship (or water), but on several occasions they have dropped their bombs on one ship and gone on to make a suicide attack on another. Also planes have made attacks without carrying bombs, evidently having dropped them at shipping in another area.

Oct. - Nov. 60% 40%
Dec. 84% 16%
Jan. 88% 12%

Planes occasionally coordinate their attacks. On one occasion nine Bettys attacked a DD in succession, and there is evidence of planes pairing up against carriers.

Strafing during attacks has been common, but comparatively small damage has been caused by strafing alone.

Often one of the group of suicide planes remains out of gun range, as if to observe, and perhaps photograph, the results of the attack.

Suicide Planes

Virtually every type of aircraft except the four-engined search plane, has been used by the enemy in suicide attacks.

Zekes, Oscars and other fast, maneuverable fighter-bombers are preferred, but dive bombers and even torpedo bombers, such as the Jill and even twin-engined Bettys and Frans have been employed.

The ratio of single-engined planes to twin-engined planes used in suicide attacks has been 6:1.

Oct. - Nov. 87% 13%
Dec. 82% 18%
Jan. 88% 12%

There is no method of distinguishing suicide planes from others until they are in the final phase of their attack.


Standard armament of suicide fighter-bombers appears to be one bomb of 250 kg. under each wing. Bombs are armed without being released, and detonate upon contact.

Many reports indicate that planes burst into flames just prior to crashing into ships. A prisoner of war has indicated that wings of suicide planes are so prepared that they could be ignited by the pilot. There is no concrete evidence, however, to indicate that the fire is caused by any source other than antiaircraft fire.

Early reports also indicated that suicide planes carried only sufficient gasoline to carry them to their destination. Considering the fact that some suicide planes have belly tanks, and the size of fires resulting after crashes into ships, it is believed that these planes carry a full load of gas.

IFF indications from enemy planes that resemble Mark III Code 1, 2 or 3 have been reported.

There are some indications of special rigging, such as half-inch armor plate, to decrease the vulnerability of the plane to AA. fire.

A prisoner of war reported: "Wooden suicide planes are being manufactured with a speed of 410 knots and a ceiling of 18,200 feet. They will carry dynamite, equipped with an electric fuze, and also will be capable of carrying one bomb. The purpose of the plane is to sink one ship at the expense of one such plane."

Types of Ships Attacked

Suicide planes have attacked virtually every type of ship, from PT boat, merchant vessel and LSM to battleships and carriers.

Whenever a carrier is in the formation it is singled out for attack. The Japs often follow air strikes back to base, and attack when the carrier is headed into the wind to receive or launch planes.

When a carrier is not present suicide pilots direct their attacks against the largest ships in the immediate area.

In attacking convoys suicide planes concentrate on the destroyer screen, but do not hesitate to crash into amphibious ships on occasion.

If badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire, or if under attack by friendly fighters, the enemy selects targets of opportunity, attacking the nearest surface ship in the vicinity.

Pickets or patrol vessels which lack fighter cover or assisting AA. fire from other ships, are likely to be attacked with determination.

A ship, once hit, is likely to be singled out for attack by other planes, seeking to finish off a target whose defense has been impaired.


Point of Aim

In attacking aircraft carriers suicide pilots aim for planes spotted on the flight deck, seeking thereby to increase the size and intensity of the fire resulting from the fuel carried by their own and the carriers' planes.

When there are no planes on the flight deck the enemy attempts to crash into the island superstructure, or possibly the elevators.

The bridge, and superstructure aft, are favorite points of aim on battleships, cruisers, destroyers and other ships.

The hull is used as a point of aim in attacks against small and lightly-armored ships.

Because of damage by AA. and because of ship's speed and maneuvers, however, suicide planes have not always been able to hit the more vulnerable parts of their targets. Ships have been hit on their catwalks, gun tubs, hulls on the side and stern, and at various points topside.

Suicide Attack Doctrine

Two Japanese documents captured on Negros Island present a doctrine for pilots of the "Special Attack Unit". One contains training and the other tactical instructions.

Appreciating that a lull exists between carrier deck load strikes, the enemy has planned to take advantage of this situation: "Special attack units are often sent out between air raids by enemy carrier borne planes. Therefore, it is essential that flying suits and other equipment be always held in readiness with the intention of taking off immediately after the air raid terminates ... The interval between enemy raids is, at the longest, two hours. Friendly airplanes are brought out from their concealment and sent out during this time."

(NOTE: To combat this tactic a TCAP or snooper flight timed to fill the lull between strikes should be able to destroy previously camouflaged planes and also protect the task force from possible attack.)

Weather conditions have a bearing on the altitude of approach used by suicide planes, according to the documents. In clear weather, an approach at 20,000 - 26,000 feet is recommended. Attack from that altitude is begun about 10 miles from the target in a glide to 5,000 - 6,500 feet, with the engine throttle to about 17 inches of mercury. If the pilot discovers he will overshoot he is instructed to dive steeply to a point short of the target, recover horizontal flight and then resume his glide.

Minimum and low altitude approaches apparently are dictated by cloud formations. If there are scattered clouds, a medium altitude approach may be expected immediately under or between them, with no glide preceding the dive. If there


is low cloud cover the plane will approach just above the water, rising to the base of the clouds just before diving.

"In cases where there are scattered clouds or where thick clouds cover the skies, it would be well to skirt under the clouds. However, if the approach is made in the breaks between scattered clouds, sharp lookout of the sky above

must be maintained ... If the assault is made from a medium altitude, every possible advantage presented by the existing weather condition will be exploited and the attack will be made without preliminary movement."

(NOTE: These instructions may give CAP a clue to the altitude at which an approach may be expected under different cloud conditions.)

The document recommends that "a flight consist of two fighter-bombers and two direct escort planes. In such a formation each airplane and each flight are strictly cautioned not to be too far separated from each other."

Next to carriers, transports were assigned priority as targets.

Diagrams contained in the document illustrate tactics to be employed by suicide pilots. Two of them are reproduced on the following page.

T.F. 38's Experience

An analysis of actions by fast carrier task forces against suicide attacks (29 October to 21 January) makes possible the following general statement regarding tactics employed by the enemy:

The attack usually has come in about noon from the direction of the nearest land mass, and has consisted of two groups of planes, the first of three or four planes, the second of up to 15 planes. The first group has come in at any altitude and has been followed from 5 to 30 minutes later (average 20 minutes) by the second group at a greatly different altitude and either on the same bearing or at a bearing to the right.



High Altitude attack

Low Altitude attack


Zeke making suicide crash on the Suwanee (CVE-27) on 26 October. F6F in landing circle passes over ship.


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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation