Tokko "Kamikaze" Special Attack Doctrine
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
In Sep 1944, the Japanese Army 4th Air Army and the Japanese Navy 1st Air Fleet conducted tests and concluded that tokko, short for tokubetsu kogeki or "special attack", during which the pilot carried the bomb all the way through the dive and releasing only a split second before the aircraft struck the enemy ship, was much more effective than the standard anti-ship bombing technique during which only one in four skills crews could score hits with bombs. The first authorized tokko attack took place on 13 Sep 1944 by Army planes based at Los Negros, Philippine Islands. On 17 Oct 1944, Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi took command of the 1st Air Fleet, and soon organized a special unit within the 201st Air Group based in the Philippine Islands named Shimpu Tokubetsu Kogeki Tai, or "Divine Wind Special Attack Unit". The kanji characters used for shimpu could also be read as kamikaze especially in modern usage; despite Onishi's usage of shimpu as the pronunciation, kamikaze became the common pronunciation in western literature.
A tokko usually began with dispatch from a communications center, whose information came from forward reconnaissance aircraft. The special attack air group commander would then determine the attack force's size base on weather, enemy strength, and the overall tactical objective. While the air group commander briefed the pilots, the ground crew fueled, armed, and warmed up the aircraft. The standard special attack aircraft were usually fighters or other similar light aircraft, while the standard armament were either four 60 kilogram or one 250 kilogram bombs.
Depending on distance to the enemy and weather conditions, commanders determined the best launch time in order to reach the enemy at 1820 at the latest. The time was chosen in order to avoid reaching the enemy after sunset, after which time finding enemy vessels and selecting targets would become difficult. Some air group commanders preferred dawn attacks if the option was available to them. Dawn time attacks tend to encounter the least number of enemy interceptors en route.
A standard special attack group consisted of three tokko aircraft and two escort aircraft. The reason for such a formation was because the formation must be kept small enough to be launched in a short amount of time and could maneuver with maximum mobility. Three kamikaze aircraft was determined to be optimal as sometimes against a larger target such as a fleet carrier, multiple hits might be necessary to sink or disable the target.
The two escorts were very important for that they were charged with warding off enemy interceptors. However, the escort fighters were not to initiate air duels before the target area was reached. If they were drawn into air combat before the target area was reached, they were not to depart from their general paths to seek vantage points. The reason for such an order was because the tokko aircraft must be guarded until the moment of attack. Any deviation in the flight paths on the part of the escort aircraft might create such a great distance between the escort aircraft and the kamikaze aircraft that catch up became impossible, leaving the special attack aircraft undefended when they reach the target area.
During take off, pilots were instructed to not allow the cheering comrades to distract the take off procedures. After taking off, they kept the nose of their aircraft from rising too soon, maintaining an altitude of 50 meters while gaining air speed before climbing to cruising altitude. Finally, aircraft of a special attack force tend to take off successively with minimal time lapse between each launch; this prevented aircraft that took off earlier to have to circle the airfield waiting for the other aircraft. Aircraft typically took off in 100 meter intervals to prevent circling.
Tokko pilots were instructed to choose fleet carriers and escort carriers as their primary targets. As for the points of aim, special attack pilots were instructed to hit specific areas of each ship type. Against carriers, the most desirable point of aim was the central elevator where even a less than perfect attack might render the carrier's function useless. Secondary points of aim against carriers were other elevators and the base of the bridge. Against other ship types, the base of the bridge or the area between the bridge and the center of the ship were both desirable. Like carriers, taking out the bridge of a ship meant disabling the ship's combat-worthiness at least temporarily. Against ships of equal or smaller size of destroyers, a single successful hit between the bridge and the center of the target ship might cause it to break in half and sink. The points of aim, therefore, were determined based upon the desire to cause the greatest amount of damage with the least expenditure in aircraft and lives. Although pilots were made aware of the points of aim for smaller ships, many air group commanders discourage attacks on targets unworthy of a tokko attack; instead, some of the pilots were instructed to return to base if they could not locate an enemy carrier, battleship, or cruiser.
Escorting fighters sometimes returned to base reporting that some special attack aircraft crashed into the target vessel without causing an explosion. It was determined that some pilots, in the heat of the moment, would forget to release the bomb safety before hitting their targets. Standard operation procedure disallowed pilots from disengaging the bomb fuse safety before battle, because if the bombs were not expended before landing, they must be wastefully jettisoned into the ocean for a safe landing. Therefore, it became the responsibility of the escort pilots to fly close to the tokko aircraft before the dives to make a visual inspection. If they believe the bomb fuse safety were still engaged, they would remind the tokko pilots via hand signals or radio.
During the diving attack, the tokko aircraft might approach the enemy vessel two different ways. The first method was the high attitude approach, where the aircraft approached the target at about 6,000 to 7,000 meters. The high altitude was vulnerable enemy radar or visual detection, but it took time for enemy fighters to reach the high altitude to intercept. If the enemy interceptor did reach the attack formation, it was hoped that the enemy pilots' ability to fight effectively might be reduced due to the thinner oxygen content of high altitude air. As the special attack aircraft approached, it began a shallow 20 degree dive until it reached about 1,000 to 2,000 meters in altitude, and then it dove sharply at 45 to 55 degrees, crashing toward the enemy vessel. Pilots were told to ensure the final dive angle would not be so steep that the aircraft might become out of control and miss the target.
An extremely low altitude approach was also believed to be effective. With this method, the tokko aircraft hugged the ocean at a height of mere 10 to 15 meters while approaching the target area, avoiding radar and visual detection. However, as the aircraft neared the target, it must quickly climb to 400 to 500 meters in altitude, then begin a dive for the target vessel.
British Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot Lieutenant Commander Mike Crosley of 880 Naval Air Squadron aboard HMS Implacable commented after witnessing several tokko special attacks:
Ultimately, aerial special attack did not improve the Japanese ability to defend the home islands significantly; the 296 tokko aircraft that had successfully hit an Allied shipping only managed to sink 45 ships, and most of them were targets of relatively less value such as destroyers and landing ships. The Japanese leadership continued to be blinded by optimism, however. A conference at the 6th Air Army headquarters in Jul 1945, for example, concluded that aerial special attacks could destroy as much as a third of the Allied invasion force sailing for Japan when the invasion came. The Japanese Navy was slightly more conservative in its faith in special attacks, but it was still plagued by over-confidence; the admirals believed that they would be able to organize a fleet of 2,400 tokko aircraft, and about 400 of them would be able to hit American ships of tactical value.
Rikihei Inoguchi and Tadashi Nakajima, The Divine Wind
Donald Nijboer, Seafire vs A6M Zero
Steven Zaloga, Kamikaze
Last Major Update: Nov 2006
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Winston Churchill, 1935