The Mitsubishi A5M Type 96 fighter (Allied codename: “Claude”) was a single-engine fighter used by the Japanese Navy in World War II. It was the JNAF’s first monoplane fighter, and their chief fighter plane before its replacement by the Zero.
Thanks in part to an elliptical wing (similar in shape to that of the Spitfire), the fighter had superb maneuverability. A 610-hp radial engine gave it a top speed of 265 mph. Range was 460 miles, and later models improved on this through the use of external fuel tanks. Like most aircraft of its generation (including its Army counterpart, the Nakajima Ki-27 “Nate”, and the American P-26 Peashooter), it had fixed landing gear. The Claude was also surprisingly durable, as proven by an incident on December 9, 1938. During combat with Curtis Hawks over Nanchang, a Type 96 collided with an unidentified aircraft, tearing off a third of its left wing, yet the pilot, Kanichi Kashimura, managed to fly the plane back to base safely. Armament consisted of 2 machine guns in the nose, and the fighter could also carry two 60 lb bombs if needed. Over a thousand A5Ms were built, in a number of different versions.
The Claude flew its first combat mission over China on September 18, 1937, and at the time outclassed anything in the Chinese inventory. The fighter had one of its best days on December 2 of that year, when a flight of A5Ms destroyed ten Russian-made I-16s for no loss. Most of Japan’s great aces got their start in Claudes, including Japan’s top gun Tetsuzo Iwamoto, who shot down 14 Chinese planes in the Type 96 (80 Allied planes over his career). As of December 7, 1941, most A5Ms had been replaced in front-line service by A6M Zeroes, although Type 96 fighters from the light aircraft carrier Ryujo supported Japanese landings in the Philippines, and Claudes opposed American strikes in the Marshall Islands in February, one A5M being downed there for the first air-to-air victory for the U.S. Navy in World War II. Others saw action in Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and the Bay of Bengal, but by May 1942, all had been withdrawn from front-line service. In the last months of the war, however, Japan’s desperate situation forced her to reactivate Claudes for use as kamikaze planes.
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- Encyclopedia of Aircraft of WWII, ed. by Paul Eden, Aerospace Publishing, 2004