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Douglas TBD Devastator

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TBD Devastator

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First flight

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Primary user

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Number built

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The Douglas TBD Devastator was a torpedo bomber of the United States Navy, ordered in 1934, it first flew in 1935 and entered service in 1937. At that point, it was the most advanced aircraft flying for the USN and possibly for any navy in the world. However, the fast pace of aircraft development quickly caught up with it, and by the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the TBD was already outdated.

The Devastator performed well in some early battles, but earned notoriety for its catastrophically poor performance in the Battle of Midway, in which the 41 Devastators launched during the battle produced zero successful torpedo hits and only 6 survived to return to their carriers. Vastly outclassed in both speed and maneuverability by the Mitsubishi Zero fighters they faced, the vast majority of the force was wiped out with little consequence except to distract the Zeros from the much more capable (and survivable) SBD Dauntless dive bombers that eventually sank 4 Japanese carriers and a heavy cruiser. Although a small portion of the Devastator's dismal performance was later attributed to the many well-documented defects in the US Mark 13 torpedo, the aircraft was immediately withdrawn from frontline service after Midway, being replaced by the Grumman TBF Avenger.

Design and development

File:Douglas XTBD-1 in flight 1935.jpeg
The XTBD-1 with the original flat canopy in 1935
File:TBD-1 in flight Anacostia 1937.jpg
The first production TBD-1 in 1937
File:TBD-1A floatplane in flight 1941.jpg
A single TBD-1A was tried as a floatplane

Ordered on 30 June 1934, and entered into a US Navy competition for new bomber aircraft to operate from its aircraft carriers, the Douglas entry was one of the winners of the competition.[1] Other aircraft ordered for production as a result of the competition included the Northrop BT-1 which would evolve into the SBD Dauntless, the Brewster SBA and the Vought SB2U Vindicator.[2][N 1]

The XTBD Devastator, which flew for the first time on 15 April 1935, marked a large number of "firsts" for the US Navy.[3] It was the first widely used carrier-based monoplane as well as the first all-metal naval aircraft, the first with a totally enclosed cockpit, the first with power-actuated (hydraulically) folding wings and in these respects the TBD was revolutionary.[4] A semi-retractable landing gear was fitted, with the wheels designed to protrude Script error: No such module "convert". below the wings to permit a "wheels-up" landing which might limit damage to the aircraft. A crew of three was normally carried beneath a large "greenhouse" canopy almost half the length of the aircraft. The pilot sat in front; a rear gunner/radio operator took the rearmost position, while the bombardier occupied the middle seat. During a bombing run, the bombardier lay prone, sliding into position under the pilot to sight through a window in the bottom of the fuselage, using the Norden Bombsight.[5]

The normal TBD offensive armament consisted of either a Script error: No such module "convert". Bliss-Leavitt Mark 13 aerial torpedo or a Script error: No such module "convert". bomb, to be carried semi-recessed into a fuselage bomb bay. Alternatively, three Script error: No such module "convert". general-purpose bombs (one under each wing root and one inside the bomb bay), or twelve Script error: No such module "convert". fragmentation bombs (six under each wing root), could be carried. This weapons load was often used when attacking Japanese targets on the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in 1942.[5] Defensive armament consisted of a Script error: No such module "convert". Browning machine gun for the rear gunner. Fitted in the starboard side of the cowling was either a Script error: No such module "convert". or Script error: No such module "convert". M2 Browning machine gun.[5]

The powerplant was a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-64 Twin Wasp radial engine of Script error: No such module "convert"., an outgrowth of the prototype's Pratt & Whitney XR-1830-60/R-1830-1 of Script error: No such module "convert"..[6] Other changes from the 1935 prototype included a revised engine cowling[7] and raising the cockpit canopy to improve visibility.[4]

The XTBD had a flat canopy that was replaced on production models by a higher, domed canopy over a rollover bar. Other than requests by test pilots to improve pilot visibility, the prototype easily passed its acceptance trials that took place from 24 April-24 November 1935 at NAS (Naval Air Station) Anacostia and Norfolk bases. After successfully completing torpedo drop tests, the prototype was transferred to the USS Lexington for carrier certification.[8] The extended service trials continued until 1937 with the first two production aircraft retained by the company exclusively for testing.[9]

A total of 129 of the type were purchased by the US Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), and starting from 1937, began to equip the carriers USS Saratoga, Enterprise, Lexington, Wasp, Hornet, Yorktown and Ranger. In prewar use, TBD units were engaged in training and other operational activities and were gradually approaching the end of their useful service life with at least one aircraft being converted to target tug duty.[10] By 1940, the US Navy was aware that the TBD had become outclassed by the fighters and bombers of other nations and a replacement [N 2] was in the works, but it was not yet in service when the US entered World War II. By then, attrition had reduced their numbers to just over 100 aircraft.[11] The US Navy assigned popular names to its aircraft in late 1941, and the TBD became the Devastator, although its nickname "torpecker" was commonly used.[12]

The TBD is prominently featured in the 1941 film Dive Bomber.

Operational history

File:TBD VT-6 over Wake Island 1942.jpg
A VT-6 TBD after attacking Wake Island, 24 February 1942
File:Yorktown TBD Huon Gulf March 1942.jpg
TBDs from VT-5 over the Huon Gulf, 10 March 1942
File:TBD VT-3 Midway.jpg
A TBD-1 from VT-3 en route to the Japanese fleet at Midway
File:Vt8tbd-t16-4june1942 waldron.jpg
VT-8's "T-16" (BuNo 1506, LCDR John C. Waldron, Horace F. Dobbs CRMP) taking off from USS Hornet, 4 June 1942

In the early days of the Pacific war, the TBD acquitted itself well during February and March 1942, with TBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown attacking targets in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, Wake and Marcus Islands, while TBDs from Yorktown and Lexington struck Japanese shipping off New Guinea on 10 March.[13] In the Battle of the Coral Sea Devastators helped sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō on 7 May, but failed to hit another carrier, the Shōkaku, the next day.[14]

Faults were discovered with the Mark 13 torpedo at this point. Many were seen to hit the target yet fail to explode; there was also a tendency to run deeper than the set depth. It took over a year for the defects to be corrected. These problems were not fixed by the time of the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942.

At Midway, a total of 41 Devastators, the majority of the type still operational, were launched from Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown to attack the Japanese fleet.[15] The sorties were not well coordinated, in part because Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance ordered a strike on the enemy carriers immediately after they were discovered, rather than spending time assembling a well-coordinated attack involving the different types of aircraft - fighters, bombers, torpedo planes - reasoning that attacking the Japanese would prevent a counterstrike against the US carriers. The TBDs from Hornet and Enterprise lost contact with their escort and started their attacks without fighter protection.[16][17]

The Devastator proved to be a death trap for its crews: slow and hardly maneuverable, with light defensive weaponry and poor armor relative to the weapons of the time; its speed on a glide-bombing approach was a mere Script error: No such module "convert"., making it easy prey for fighters and defensive guns alike. The aerial torpedo could not even be released at speeds above Script error: No such module "convert"..[18] Torpedo delivery requires a long, straight-line attack run, making the aircraft vulnerable, and the slow speed of the aircraft made them easy targets for the Mitsubishi A6M Zeros. Only four TBDs made it back to Enterprise, none to Hornet and two to Yorktown, without scoring a torpedo hit.[19]

Nonetheless, their sacrifice was not completely in vain, as several TBDs managed to get within a few ship-lengths range of their targets before dropping their torpedoes, being close enough to be able to strafe the enemy ships and force the Japanese carriers to take sharp evasive maneuvers.[20] By obliging the Japanese to keep their flight decks clear and to continually cycle and reinforce their combat air patrols, they prevented any Japanese counter-attacks against the American carriers, just as Spruance had anticipated. These windows of opportunity was exploited by the late-arriving Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McClusky and Max Leslie, which dive-bombed and fatally damaged three of the four Japanese carriers about one hour after the first TBD torpedo attacks had developed.[21] While the Devastators faced the stiff defenses of the carriers and their fighters, their attacks served to distract the Japanese attention from the Dauntlesses, resulting in relatively lighter resistance and more effective attacks that crippled the Japanese carriers.


The Navy immediately withdrew the 39 remaining TBDs from frontline units after the debacle at Midway. The surviving Devastators in VT-4 and VT-7 remained in service briefly in the Atlantic and in training squadrons until 1944.[22] Many were relegated to training duties for pilots and mechanics or were destroyed following use as instructional airframes for firefighting training. By late 1944, no TBD Devastators were left in the US Navy inventory.[23] The original prototype finished its career at NAS Norman, Oklahoma; the last TBD in the US Navy was used by the Commander of Fleet Air Activities-West Coast. When his TBD was scrapped in November 1944,[24] there were no more.[25] None survived the war and there are none known to exist on dry land today.[26]

In fairness to the Devastator, the newer TBF Avengers were similarly ineffective in 1942, losing five out of six aircraft without scoring a hit during the Battle of Midway. The Avengers' only successes in 1942 would be against the light carrier Ryūjō and the battleship Hiei [N 3][27] In the initial part of the Pacific War, the poor performances of US torpedo bombers was due to the vulnerability of that type in general against fire from anti-aircraft artillery and defending fighters, plus the inexperience of American pilots and lack of coordinated fighter cover, as well as serious defects in US torpedoes which were not discovered and corrected until the fall of 1943.[6][15] It took growing American air superiority, improved attack coordination, and more experienced pilots, before the Avengers were able to successfully accomplish their roles in subsequent battles against Japanese surface forces.[28]


Prototype powered by a Script error: No such module "convert". XR-1830-60, one built.
Production variant powered by a Script error: No such module "convert". R-1830-64, 129 built.
One TBD-1 modified with twin floats.[N 4]


File:TBD CV-4 1942.jpg
VT-4 TBD-1 taking off from USS Ranger in 1942
VT-6 TBDs on USS Enterprise, during the Battle of Midway
23x15px United States
  • United States Navy[29]
    • VT-2 used 58 Devastators between December 1937 and May 1942.
    • VT-3 used 71 Devastators between October 1937 and June 1942. They starred in the 1941 movie Dive Bomber.[30]
    • VT-4 used nine Devastators between December 1941 and September 1942.
    • VT-5 used 57 Devastators between February 1938 and June 1942.
    • VT-6 used 62 Devastators between April 1938 and June 1942.
    • VT-7 used 5 Devastators between January 1942 and July 1942.
    • VT-8 used 23 Devastators between September 1941 and June 1942.
    • VB-4 used three Devastators between December 1941 and January 1942.
    • VS-42 used three Devastators between December 1940 and December 1941.
    • VS-71 used eight Devastators between December 1940 and June 1942.
    • VS-72 used two Devastators in June 1941.
    • VU-3 used a single Devastator from January until May 1940.
  • United States Marine Corps
    • VMS-2 used a single Devastator, BuNo. 1518, from 26 March 1941 till 5 June 1941, loaned from VT-3.


There are no surviving aircraft in museums or private collections, nor are there any currently under restoration.[23] However, below are four crashed aircraft that are known to exist and are the closest to a complete airframe in the world. [31] It is not known if anyone will recover and restore these aircraft, as there has been no news on the recovery off San Diego since 2011.[32]

TBD-1, Bureau Number 0298
Ex-VT-5 / USS Yorktown (CV-5) "5-T-7", Jaluit Lagoon, Marshall Islands.[33]
TBD-1 BuNo 0353
Ex-NAS Miami, Atlantic Ocean, Miami, Florida.[34]
TBD-1 BuNo 1515
Ex-VT-5 / USS Yorktown (CV-5) "5-T-6", Jaluit Lagoon, Marshall Islands.[31]
TBD-1 BuNo 0377
Ex-VT-2 / USS Lexington (CV-2) "6-T-7", Pacific Ocean, Mission Beach, California.[32][35]

Specifications (TBD-1)

Data from Devastator...The Not-so-Devastating TBD-1[36]

General characteristics


  • Maximum speed: 206 mph (179 knots, 331 km/h) at 8,000 ft (2,400 m)
  • Cruise speed: 128 mph (111 knots, 206 km/h)
  • Range: 435 mi (700 km) (378 nmi, 700 km) with Mk XIII Torpedo, 716 mi (623 nmi, 1,152 km) with 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs
  • Service ceiling: 19,500 ft (5,945 m)
  • Rate of climb: 720 ft/min (3.7 m/s)</ul>Armament

Notable appearance in media

Dive Bomber (1941) was an American film directed by Michael Curtiz.[37] It is notable for both its Technicolor photography of pre-World War II United States Navy aircraft featuring the TBD Devastator,[38] and scenes on the aircraft carrier Enterprise as well as the NAS North Island in San Diego.[39]

See also

File:Douglas TBD Devastator beim Torpedoabwurf.jpg
A VT-6 TBD dropping a torpedo in October 1941

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

Related lists



  1. ^ The Great Lakes XB2G, Great Lakes XTBG, Grumman XSBF, Hall XPTBH and Vought XSB3U were also tendered to the specification but were not developed beyond prototype status.[2]
  2. ^ the TBF Avenger
  3. ^ The Hiei had already been crippled the night before.
  4. ^ In 1939, the first production TBD was test flown with floats at Newport, Rhode Island.[4]


  1. ^ Doll 1967, p. 28.
  2. ^ a b Doll 1992, p. 4.
  3. ^ Gunston 1976, p. 66.
  4. ^ a b c Winchester 2004, p. 78.
  5. ^ a b c Winchester 2004, p. 79.
  6. ^ a b Mondey 2006, p. 128.
  7. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 485.
  8. ^ Doll 1967, p. 29.
  9. ^ Tillman 1973, p. 25.
  10. ^ Doll 1967, p. 32.
  11. ^ Tillman and Lawson 2001, p. 56.
  12. ^ Tillman and Lawson 2001, p. 57.
  13. ^ Air International March 1990, p. 155.
  14. ^ Doll 1967, pp. 7–8.
  15. ^ a b "USS Enterprise CV-6: The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War, p. 2." Retrieved: 11 April 2010.
  16. ^ Cressman et al. 1990, pp. 84–89.
  17. ^ Parshall and Tulley 2005, pp. 206–215.
  18. ^ Jackson and Doll 1973, p. 5.
  19. ^ Buell 1987, p. 494.
  20. ^ "USS Enterprise CV-6: The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War, p. 3." Retrieved: 7 June 2010.
  21. ^ Parshall and Tully 2005, pp. 215–216, 226–227.
  22. ^ Doll 1967, p. 34.
  23. ^ a b Tillman and Lawson 2001, p. 61.
  24. ^ Ginter 2006, p. 91.
  25. ^ Jackson and Doll 1973, p. 43.
  26. ^ Champlin, Doug. "Douglas TBD-1." Retrieved: 11 April 2010.
  27. ^ Mondey 2006, p. 152.
  28. ^ "'Sinking the Supership'." PBS-Nova. Retrieved: 11 April 2010.
  29. ^ Tillman 2000, p. 82.
  30. ^ Ginter 2006, p. 45.
  31. ^ a b "To save a Devastator: TBD Devastator Jaluit Lagoon Survey 2004, p. 2.", 1997. Retrieved: 7 June 2010.
  32. ^ a b "Holy Grail of Warbirds Found off San Diego." Retrieved 21 November 2011.
  33. ^ "TBD Devastator Jaluit Lagoon Survey 2004." Retrieved: 7 June 2010.
  34. ^ 1998 Return to the TBD page at the "Douglas TBD-1 #0353 wreck.", 1998. Retrieved: 7 June 2010.
  35. ^ "Accident Report, TBD-1 BuNo.0377." Retrieved: 21 November 2011.
  36. ^ Air International March 1990, p. 152.
  37. ^ Dolan 1985, p. 63.
  38. ^ Hardwick and Schnepf 1989, pp. 57–58.
  39. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 28.


  • Adcock, Al. TBD Devastator in Action, Aircraft Number 97. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-89747-231-4.
  • Buell, Thomas B. The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0-87021-562-9.
  • Cressman, Robert B. et al. A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4–6 June 1942. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1990. ISBN 978-0-929521-40-4.
  • "Devastator...The Not-so-Devastating TDB-1". Air International, March 1990, Vol 38 No 2. pp. 148–156. ISSN 0306-5634.
  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Doll, Thomas E. The Douglas TBD Devastator, Aircraft in Profile Number 171. Leatherhead, Surrey, UK: Profile Publications Ltd., 1967. No ISBN.
  • Doll, Thomas E. SB2U Vindicator in action, Aircraft Number 122. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications Inc., 1992. ISBN 0-89747-274-8.
  • Drendel, Lou. U.S. Navy Carrier Bombers of World War II. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications Inc., 1987. ISBN 0-89747-195-4.
  • Ginter, Steve. Douglas TBD-1 Devastator, Naval Fighters Number Seventy-one. Simi Valley, California: Ginter Publishing Company, 2006. ISBN 0-942612-71-X.
  • Gunston, Bill. The Encyclopedia of the World's Combat Aircraft: A Technical Directory of Major Warplanes from World War 1 to the Present Day. New York: Chartwell Books, Inc., 1976. ISBN 0-89009-054-8.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Jackson, B.R. and Thomas E. Doll. Douglas TBD-1 "Devastator", Aero Series 23. Fallbrook, CA: Aero Publishers, 1973. ISBN 0-8168-0586-5.
  • Kinzey, Bert. U.S. Navy and Marine Aircraft of World War II, Part 1: Dive and Torpedo Bombers. Northbrook, Illinois: Revell-Monogram, LLC, 2003. ISBN 0-9709900-5-7.
  • Lawson, Robert and Barrett Tillman. U.S. Navy Dive and Torpedo Bombers of WWII. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Company, 2001. ISBN 0-7603-0959-0.
  • Mondey, David. "Douglas TBD Devastator." The Hamlyn Concise Guide to American Aircraft of World War II. London: Bounty Books, 2006. ISBN 0-7537-1460-4.
  • Nowicki, Jacek. Douglas TBD Devastator - SBD Dauntless (Wydawnictwo Militaria 119) (in Polish). Warszawa, Poland: Wydawnictwo Militaria, 2000. ISBN 83-7219-074-7.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.
  • Parshall, Jonathan B. and Anthony P. Tully. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005. ISBN 1-57488-923-0.
  • Taylor, John W.R. "Douglas TBD Devastator". Combat Aircraft of the World from 1909 to the Present. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969. ISBN 0-425-03633-2.
  • Tillman, Barrett. "Go in and get a hit!: The Navy's last combat torpedo bombers." Airpower, Volume 3, No. 4, July 1973.
  • Tillman, Barrett. TBD Devastator Units of the U.S. Navy, Combat Aircraft Vol. 20. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2000. ISBN 1-84176-025-0.
  • Tillman, Barrett and Robert L. Lawson. U.S. Navy Dive and Torpedo Bombers of WWII. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI Publishing Company, 2001. ISBN 0-7603-0959-0.
  • Winchester, Jim. "Douglas TBD Devastator." Aircraft of World War II (The Aviation Factfile). Kent, UK: Grange Books plc, 2004. ISBN 1-84013-639-1.

External links