Douglas TBD Devastator

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The Douglas TBD Devastator was a carrier-based torpedo bomber used by the US Navy in the first months of World War II. It was the Navy’s first monoplane bomber, but by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Devastator was obsolete, and its slow speed made it easy prey for Zero fighters.

A TBD launches a torpedo.

The Douglas Aircraft Company won the contract for a new torpedo plane in February 1936, and eventually delivered 129 of them. The US Navy was the only customer. The aircraft was powered by an 850 hp, Pratt & Whitney engine, which gave it a top speed of 206 mph. It usually carried a crew of three: the pilot, radio operator, and gunner. Defensive armament consisted of a forward firing machine gun in the nose and a machine gun manually operated by the rear gunner. Its main armament was a 21-inch torpedo, but in the first year of the war, American torpedoes were unreliable due to faulty fuses. All too often, a torpedo would hit the target ship perfectly, but fail to explode.

As the standard torpedo plane on US carriers at the beginning of the war, the Devastator was active in the counterstrikes by US carriers in the first months, and in the Battle of the Coral Sea, TBDs helped sink the Japanese carrier Shoho. In the Battle of Midway, however, Devastator squadrons from three carriers attacked without fighter cover, and failed to score a single hit while suffering horrible losses. 35 TBDs (out of about 40 launched) were shot down by Zeros and anti-aircraft fire. Their sacrifice was not in vain, as their attack not only forced the Japanese to delay launching their strike force, but also drew the defending fighters down to low altitudes, allowing the dive bombers, who arrived later, to attack without opposition and hit three carriers. After Midway, the Devastator was quickly replaced in all units by the Grumman TBF Avenger.


  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Combat Aircraft of World War II, by Bill Gunston, Salamander Military Press, 1990