Nakajima Ki-49 'Helen' Units, George Eleftheriou

Nakajima Ki-49 ‘Helen’ Units, George Eleftheriou

Combat Aircraft 148

We start with a look at the design of the Nakajima Ki-49 Donryu (‘Helen’), which was meant to be able to rely on its speed and heavy armament to operate without fighter escort (very reminisant of the American expectiatons for the B-17 Flying Fortress). However the specifications called for an aircraft with a top speed of 311mph and armament of one 20mm cannon and five 7.7mm machine guns, good for 1938 when they were issued, but somewhat underwhelming when faced by modern American aircraft. To make things worse the first production version was underpowered, so lacked the expected speed.

The biggest problem for the Ki-49 is that although the first units received in in 1942 it didn’t enter combat against the Western Allies until 1943, when the first units to receive it were moved south to carry out attacks on Darwin in northern Australia. Only one raid was carried out, which saw the Ki-49 escorted by Ki-43s and engaged by a large number of RAAF Spitfires. Only two of the 17 Ki-49s that had reached Darwin were shot down, suggesting that it was fairly survivable at that point. Soon afterwards the type entered combat over New Guinea, where it would be engaged for much longer. Operations here were very costly, and the units involved operated with a handful of aircraft for much of the time. The same was true for the one unit that used it in Burma, which lost several aircraft during the move into the country, and on one occasion all nine of the aircraft involved in an attack on Ledo. Reports from that unit were very critical of the aircraft. The final large scale use of the aircraft was in the Philippines, where once again losses were heavy. We get one account of an attempted kamikaze attack in which almost the entire unit was shot down without finding their targets. We finish with a look at the aircraft’s use as a transport, mainly using the few survivors left in 1945.

This is an interesting account of the service record of a rather unsuccessful aircraft, let down by under-performing aircraft, and that entered combat two years after entering service, by which time Japan’s military position was deteriorating, and American aircraft and aircrew greatly improved. It’s fascinating to see this story almost entirely from the Japanese point of view, with plenty of eyewitness accounts from the few survivors from the Ki-49 units.

1 - Ki‑49 Development
2 - Darwin And New Guinea
3 - Burma
4 - Over Water, Western New Guinea and Morotai
5 - The Philippines
6 - Transport Donryu

Author: George Eleftheriou
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 96
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2023

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