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Douglas TBD Devastator

Navy Torpedo Bomber Aircraft

United States | 1937

"Once on the cutting edge of naval aviation technology by late 1930s standards, the TBD Devastator was made obsolete by the time of Pearl Harbor."

Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 01/28/2022 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
The Douglas TBD Devastator was classified as a torpedo bomber and served in the early half of World War 2 with the United States Navy. At the time of its inception, the TBD Devastator fielded such technology that it was deemed the most advanced aircraft of its kind anywhere in the world. It was also the US Navy's first all-metal mount, featured hydraulically-assisted folding wings (for improved carrier storage) as well as wheel brakes and became the first USN monoplane to be fielded in quantity on its carriers. Additionally, the TBD Devastator had the rather novel creature comfort of an enclosed cockpit for its crew of three - quite the departure from the open-air types fielded previously. The TBD Devastator was produced in limited examples and overtaken in operational service by more modern, adaptable types, resulting in the Devastator's formal retirement in 1942. The aircraft was completely removed from operational service by 1944 after seeing notable combat actions in the Battle of Coral and Midway.

Torpedo Bombers

The torpedo bomber would play a critical role in operations across the Pacific Theater, where battles would be won or lost at sea by individual as well as collective exploits. Torpedo bombers were a distinct group of fighting aircraft that were specifically charged with engaging all manner of enemy surface ships and, unlike conventional bombers, they could be utilized with a high degree of accuracy in the delivery of potent torpedo payloads against the vulnerable sides of awaiting enemy vessels - this of course assuming the aircraft bypassed the network of anti-aircraft protection that dotted major warships and enemy fighter aircraft cover. Slow in flight, many-a-torpedo bomber design depended upon the protection brought about by their own carrier-based escort fighters. Their bombing runs were usually the most critical time for the crew of torpedo-laden planes where their slow, plodding nature and projected attack runs were open to enemy fire at ever closing ranges. In today's military aviation world, the torpedo bomber no longer exists, replaced by multi-role strike fighter types and anti-ship helicopters.

TBD Devastator Origins and Production

The Douglas TBD Devastator was born out of a United States Navy requirement issued in 1934 for a carrier-based torpedo bomber. Unlike today's single-winner competition based contract programs, the Douglas TBD Devastator design was accepted alongside other like-designs from competing companies, including those from both the Brewster and Vought concerns, which produced a muddled field of sorts and limited large-scale production to certain designs. The Devastator emerged in prototype form as the "XTBD-1" to which first flight was recorded on April 15th, 1935. Only a single prototype would ever be constructed and evaluated, this being powered by a single Pratt & Whitney XR-1830-60 radial piston engine. The XTBD-1 was accepted into service with the US Navy as the "TBD-1" and these entered production with a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-64 series Twin Wasp radial piston engine of 850 horsepower. Maximum speed was listed at 206 miles per hour with a range of 435 miles and a service ceiling of 19,700 feet. Rate-of-climb was a manageable 720 feet per minute. The aircraft was introduced on August 3rd, 1937 and production spanned from 1937 to 1939 delivering just 130 examples.

TBD Devastator Walk-Around

The Devastator was something of an ungainly form when considering other streamlined torpedo bombers that followed it. She was a large plane with a deep fuselage and a crew of three specialists. The radial piston engine was mounted in a forward compartment at the extreme front of the fuselage. The cockpit and crew cabin was immediately aft of this mounting and covered over in a "greenhouse" style framed canopy offering up adequate views. The pilot was seated forward in the design with a commanding view over the nose. The bombardier (Torpedo Officer) was situated at the middle of the arrangement and appropriated managed the bombing facilities utilizing the fabled Norden Bombsight. When readying for the bombing run, the bombardier would slip into a prone position against the cockpit floor and manage the bombsight as needed. He also doubled as the crew's in-flight navigator. The rear position was manned by a machine gunner serving to protect the aircraft's vulnerable "six" and doubled as the crew's radio operator. The main wing assemblies sported noticeable dihedral while the undercarriage was retractable and of the "tail dragger" arrangement with two main legs and a tail wheel. The main legs recessed only partly inwards under the wings to allow for emergency landings on the aircraft's bell, her designers hoping to reduce structural damages and protect the crew within. The empennage was conventional and sported a single rounded vertical tail fin and a pair of applicable horizontal tailplanes.

TBD Devastator Armament

In terms of defensive armament, the TBD Devastator was limited. The pilot controlled a single forward-firing 7.62mm general purpose machine gun or 12.7mm heavy machine gun to engage targets ahead of his position, suitable for strafing actions during the bombing run. The rear gunner held access to a single 7.62mm machine gun though this was only later upgraded to include a pair of 7.62mm machine guns for slightly improved defense. However, it was in its offensive prowess that a torpedo bomber would ultimately succeed or fail. As such, primary armament for the TBD Devastator family was a single 1,200lb Mark XIII torpedo for attacking ships along their long running broadsides. This offensive load could be replaced by the carrying of 1 x 1000lb bomb, 3 x 500lb conventional drop bombs or up to 12 x 100lb drop bombs - these useful in conducting dive or level bombing against the decks of surface ships.

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The United States Enters the War

The United States had long maintained a position of neutrality due to public opinion forged after the American participation in World War 1 while war was ravaging both Europe and the Pacific. In the Pacific Theater, the Empire of Japan stood as the principle enemy, gouging regional governments and laying claim to swathes of both sovereign nations and colonial territories. It was not until the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that American public interest changed and the nation became fully vested in their second World War. The American wartime infrastructure grew to mammoth proportions and outputted an impressive array of weaponry in response. In December of 1941, the United States Navy fielded approximately 100 TBD Devastators in their stable, making her the principle USN torpedo bomber entering the war.

The TBD Devastator in Action

With America now fully committed to war, it put forth whatever means it had at its disposal. This meant that the limited-production TBD Devastators were to receive their baptism of fire in due time. From the outset, the Devastators found some early limited successes in scheduled quick strikes against Japanese bases across the Central Pacific, despite her mid-1930s pedigree. The attacks netted several troop-laden transports and other lesser ships. They took part in the May 1942 Battle of Coral Sea to which they could lay claim to the sinking of the Japanese Navy carrier Shoho on May 6th, 1942 as well as bringing damage to another IJN carrier. Leading up to the battle, the Japanese were looking to ultimately invade the Australian mainland by acquiring key areas for the building of seaplane tenders, naval bases and airfields. While the battle proved a Japanese tactical victory, the combined force of Americans and Australians could claim a strategic one in which the Japanese Empire would no longer be in a position to invade Australia. The victory also proved a morale boost for the Allies who were increasingly faced with tough losses since the outset of war.

After Coral Sea, the TBD was in action a month later at the Battle of Midway in June of 1942. The Japanese aim was to capture tiny Midway Island that served as a critical base of operations for the US Navy in the Pacific. Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese secret communications code had been broken by this time and the invasion of the island was identified and a planned response was drawn up to counter an ambush with an ambush. Dozens of TBD Devastators were involved in the action with these being launched from the USS Enterprise, the USS Hornet and the USS Yorktown aircraft carriers (Japan had failed to destroy the American carrier fleet at Pearl, out on training at the time, and the resulting "luck of the draw" would end up becoming Japan's undoing in the latter stages of the war).

However, these participating TBD Devastators would encounter heavy losses due to their slow speed, poor maneuverability, lack of planned air cover and misplaced assaults - not a single direct hit was recorded from all of the torpedoes launched in the attacks. Forty-one Devastators were sent into action in the battle with only six returning home. Involvement of the TBD Devastators were, however, beneficial to further unfolding events in the battle, leading the Japanese to undertake unplanned actions of their own and expose weaknesses in their invasion flotilla. At least one Japanese heavy cruiser was eventually lost at the hands of the Devastators and heavy damage was reported on another heavy-class cruiser due to Devastator actions. The resulting battle resulted in a clear American victory and marked the end of eastern expansion for the Empire of Japan in the Pacific.

The End of the Road

With Australia and Midway Island now in check, the days of the TBD Devastator were quickly drawing to a close. Despite it being considered a highly advanced design in 1935, the TBD Devastators were wholly outclassed and generally outdated as the war evolved, particularly by advancements made leading up to 1942. Her performance was always a detriment during the low-level attack runs and defensive maneuverability was severely lacking. Additionally, her light defensive guns were equally limiting in their reach. As such, its actions at Midway represented the last of combat for Devastator crews and the type would be relegated to stateside training duties for future torpedo bomber crews from there on until entirely removed from USN service before the end of the war - her total combat tenure lasting just six months. The aircraft was pulled from frontline service in mid-1942.

The TBD Devastator was fielded solely by the United States Navy and, to a limited extent, by the Marine Corps and was formally replaced in operational service by the much more capable Grumman TBF Avenger series. Sadly for the Devastator legacy, none of the wartime mounts survived for post-war consumption by museum-goers, leaving her a footnote in the pages of history books and websites while also residing in the minds of those that depended on her.

TBD Devastators of USN VT-3 were used in the motion picture propaganda film "Dive Bomber" of 1941. One aircraft of VT-3 was also delivered on loan to USMC group VMS-2 which operated their single example up until June of 1941. A single, modified TBD Devastator was trialled as a floatplane aircraft under the designation of "TBD-1A" though the design never entered serial production.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one aircraft design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for the Douglas TBD-1 Devastator Navy Torpedo Bomber Aircraft.
1 x Pratt & Whitney R-1830-64 Twin Wasp radial piston engine developing 900 horsepower and driving a three-bladed propeller unit at the nose.
206 mph
331 kph | 179 kts
Max Speed
19,685 ft
6,000 m | 4 miles
Service Ceiling
435 miles
700 km | 378 nm
Operational Range
720 ft/min
219 m/min
City-to-City Ranges
Operational range when compared to distances between major cities (in KM).
The nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip physical qualities of the Douglas TBD-1 Devastator Navy Torpedo Bomber Aircraft.
35.0 ft
10.67 m
O/A Length
50.0 ft
(15.24 m)
O/A Width
15.1 ft
(4.60 m)
O/A Height
6,182 lb
(2,804 kg)
Empty Weight
10,192 lb
(4,623 kg)
Design Balance
The three qualities reflected below are altitude, speed, and range. The more full the box, the more balanced the design.
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of the Douglas TBD Devastator Navy Torpedo Bomber Aircraft .
1 x 7.62mm OR 1 x 12.7mm forward-fixed machine gun.
1 OR 2 x 7.62mm machine gun in rear gunners position.

1 x 1,200lb Mark XIII torpedo
1 x 1,000lb bomb
3 x 500lb bombs
12 x 100lb bombs
Notable series variants as part of the Douglas TBD Devastator family line.
XTBD-1 - Single Prototype Example; fitted with Pratt & Whitney XR-1830-60 radial piston engine of 800 horsepower.
TBD-1 - Definitive Production Model; fitted with Pratt & Whitney R-1830-64 radial piston engine of 900 horsepower; 129 examples produced.
TBD-1A - One-Off Modification of TBD-1 production model featuring water floats.
Global customers who have evaluated and/or operated the Douglas TBD Devastator. Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national aircraft listing.

Total Production: 130 Units

Contractor(s): Douglas Aircraft Company - USA
National flag of the United States

[ United States ]
Relative Max Speed
Hi: 300mph
Lo: 150mph
Aircraft Max Listed Speed (206mph).

Graph Average of 225 MPH.
Era Crossover
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Showcasing Aircraft Era Crossover (if any)
Max Alt Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Production Comparison
Entry compared against Ilyushin IL-2 (military) and Cessna 172 (civilian) total production.
MACH Regime (Sonic)
RANGES (MPH) Subsonic: <614mph | Transonic: 614-921 | Supersonic: 921-3836 | Hypersonic: 3836-7673 | Hi-Hypersonic: 7673-19180 | Reentry: >19030
Aviation Timeline
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
Left side view of a Douglas TBD Devastator in flight
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
Front left side view of a passing Douglas TBD Devastator
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
This Douglas TBD Devastator has undergone an experimental camoflauge scheme for testing
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
Rear left side view of Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers in flight
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
The fuselage of this Douglas TBD Devastator shows off a crumpled look from its emergency landing venture
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
Underside view of a passing Douglas TBD Devastator
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
A Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber delivers its torpedo payload during a practice run
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
A Douglas TBD Devastator on approach with a US carrier; note lowered flaps
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
A collection of Douglas TBF Devastators and Grumman F4F Wildcats on deck
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Image of the Douglas TBD Devastator
Douglas TBD Devastators aboard a US carrier; note folded wings

Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to airborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
The Douglas TBD Devastator Navy Torpedo Bomber Aircraft appears in the following collections:
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