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The slow but deadly Douglas SBD dive bomber used technology and tactics from the 1930s to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Name the most effective American bombers of World War II and you’ll probably think of the B-17, B-24 and B-29, even the twin-engine B-25, but how many of you would think to include the little Douglas SBD Dauntless in that list? The Dauntless dive bomber flew almost exclusively in the Pacific, where it contributed more to victory than any other type of bomber, even counting the two Superfort missions with the atomic bomb. But of the 35 American types that flew important combat missions during World War II, none was as old-fashioned and low-tech as the SBD.
Show someone who is not an aviation enthusiast pictures of the Dauntless and the North American AT-6 trainer that first flew in 1935 and they will not be able to tell the difference. The two aircraft are almost identical in size, shape and detail. With a half-inch shorter wingspan than the AT-6, the SBD-5 had exactly twice the power of the trainer and only moderately better performance – 40 miles per hour more cruising speed, 1,300 feet more altitude, 500 feet per minute more climbing speed, but the extra power gave it the ability to carry a normal bomb load of 1,200 pounds, including half a ton to destroy ships below the centerline of the fuselage.
The SBDs used these bombs to sink five of the Japanese fleet’s eight aircraft carriers and a sixth light aircraft carrier. The Dauntless helped reduce Japan’s cadre of world-class naval pilots to a bunch of inferior greenhorns who threw their planes and bodies like kamikazes at American ships.
Ed Heinemann’s 1936 Northrop XBT-1 (above) performed poorly, but his Douglas XBT-2 (above) corrected many problems and led directly to SBD. (US NAVY)
SBD began as Northrop, not Douglas. The designer, Ed Heinemann, worked for Jack Northrop, who designed the elegant Alpha, Beta and Gamma mail planes in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Northrop was already producing an A-17A dive bomber based on the Gamma for the Air Corps, which preceded the SBD. Building on this solid foundation, Heinemann developed the poorly flown Northrop XBT-1 dive bomber in 1936. By the time Donald Douglas took over Northrop, Heinemann had already corrected the deficiencies and developed the XBT-2, the direct predecessor of the Dauntless.
The XBT-2 got letterbox slots in the wing – not slots in the wing leading edge, but fixed drain holes behind the wing leading edge, in the middle of the chord, just in front of the ailerons. These slots allowed the air to circulate and eliminated the strange stall behavior of the XBT-1. They also contributed to the excellent lateral control properties that make the SBD so effective at accurately changing targets during a near-vertical dive, as well as its good-natured behavior during carrier landings. One of Heinemann’s main achievements in perfecting the design of the Dauntless was a perfectly balanced ride. When properly adjusted, the SBD provided a remarkably stable and accurate weapons platform with a solid, stable dive that responded to small changes in any direction.
Heinemann was one of the most successful designers of military aircraft from the 1940s to the 1960s. In addition to the SBD, he was responsible for the Douglas A-20 and A-26 attack bombers, the AD-1 Skyraider, the A3D Skywarrior (Keith, to date the heaviest aircraft ever built for regular carrier use) and the A-4 Skyhawk. He also oversaw the development of the F-16 Viper aircraft when he became vice president of engineering at General Dynamics in the early 1960s.
Heinemann was so engrossed in the SBD that he wanted nothing to do with the Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber, disdainfully called Torpedo. His main contribution to the war was to distract the Japanese during the Battle of Midway with his futile low-altitude attacks while the SBDs hovered over the carriers. On a mission to Midway, 41 Devastator attacked the Japanese fleet. Thirty-five were launched, and none of the torpedoes hit its target. (Granted, it was also the fault of their terrible Mark 13 torpedoes, which rarely worked properly or exploded on impact). Meanwhile, the SBD fatally damaged the four Japanese carriers involved in the battle of 4-5 June 1942.
One of the problems with the early dive bombers with fixed landing gear was that the bombs in the center of the aircraft tended to tumble in the airflow and bounce off the landing gear immediately after release. (One would think that dropping the bomb would have been more problematic for propeller drive, but that would have required a steeper dive than was achieved at the time.) The solution was a bomb shifter, commonly known as a bomb stand or yoke, a simple device that rotated the dropped bomb in a 90-degree arc, allowing it to move away from the fuselage before it was completely dropped. Heinemann equipped the Northrop XBT-1 with a fixed-spindle bombing yoke and retained it for the Dauntless, which could dive steeply enough for the bomb to hit the propeller.
Crew members load a 500-pound bomb onto the SBD aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise on the 7th. August 1942, the first day of the attacks on Guadalcanal and Tulagi. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Despite its pre-modern appearance and low-tech approach, the SBD was slow to rise through the ranks of the squadron. The first two versions, SBD-1 and -2, were not even suitable for war because they had no armor or self-sealing fuel tanks. The SBD-3 (Speed Three) with combat capability came into service about the same time as the more advanced Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
Just in time, on the morning of the 7th. In December 1941, the SBD began its deployment to the Pacific, but the beginning was unsuccessful. Seven Dauntless were shot down or crashed, and others were destroyed on the ground, for a total of about two dozen aircraft lost. Three days later, however, the SBD of the aircraft carrier Enterprise sinks the submarine I-70 north of Hawaii, destroying the first Japanese submarine of the war.
Another early action in which the SBD played a role was Jimmy Doolittle’s attack on Tokyo in April 1942. In its reconnaissance role, the Dauntless spotted a Japanese guard ship, causing the Doolittle bombers to launch early. Although he knows the small ship has detected him, the SBD pilot is unable to break radio silence and is forced to return to the Doolittle Task Force and relay a weighted message to the Enterprise flight deck.
The Enterprise SBD-3 escorted the Hornet aircraft carrier and its B-25s during the Doolittle Raid in April 1942. (Library of Congress)
The SBD-4 received a 24-volt electrical system, a wider wing with rounded tips and a hydraulic Hamilton Standard propeller. But the SBD-5 became a larger Dauntless, with 1,200 horsepower instead of the previous 1,000. An equally important improvement was the installation of a bomber reflector in place of the old trifocal telescope. The eye tube was prone to fogging as the Dauntless flew from 15,000 feet into the increasingly hot and humid Pacific air, as was the windshield, which on the SBD-5 was equipped with a defogger. The SBD-6 got an extra 150 hp, but has already been replaced by the unloved Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. (The captain of one of the aircraft carriers, Captain Joseph Jocko Clark of the USS Yorktown, refused to allow the Hellcats aboard his ship. He requested the SBD).
The most striking feature of the SBD were the perforated valves, which were riddled with 318 slightly oval, tapered and precisely flanged three-inch holes. The change was proposed by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics when an early prototype of the XBT-1 exhibited severe tail drag during a dive flight. The outer tail is said to have flown in a two-foot arc, and Heinemann himself, who was an observer in the back seat, admitted as much: It scared the shit out of me. The shocks were caused by turbulent eddies blowing on the flaps, and the vents allowed a carefully calculated amount of air to be delivered directly to the tail, while the flaps retained the ability to keep the aircraft at a safe diving speed.
The Dauntless is landing aboard the escort ship Santee. (US Navy/Interim Archives/Getty Images)
The Dauntless had two sets of flaps: conventional two-piece flaps that extended under the wing edge and under the fuselage, and dive flaps that extended over the wing edge. They were all perforated. Lower flaps were installed for take-off and landing. They were also used for diving, but with the added resistance of the upper flaps. The flaps were so powerful that even at full power the aircraft could not remain horizontal when they were deployed. It was therefore very important that the pilots did not start to retract the slow-acting hydraulic valves until just before the nose-up position.
One of the features of the Dauntless was the absence of folding wings, which were considered essential for aircraft carrier parking. But Ed Heinemann wanted the strongest possible wings for the typical SBD 5G+ thrust. No bows for him. A new solution to the parking problem was parachutes wide enough to allow the tail wheels of the SBDs to protrude sideways from the flight deck, so that a row of Dauntless could be parked with the main landing gear directly on the edge of the deck.
The SBD was surprisingly effective in air combat. During the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the Dauntlesses shot down more Japanese aircraft – 35 more than the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters accompanying them. During the Pacific campaign, the SBD destroyed a total of 138 enemy aircraft and encountered Japanese fighters less than 80 times (the count is inaccurate).
One SBD pilot, Lieutenant Stanley Swede Veitas, attacked seven Zeros during the Battle of the Coral Sea, shooting down three in a single flight; the day before, he had participated in the sinking of the Japanese light aircraft carrier Shōhō. Cook Cleland, who later became famous as a Thompson Trophy runner, also had several SBD victories.
On the left: SBD-6 cockpit in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. That’s right: On the back seat was a double 30-caliber machine gun. (Photos: National Air and Space Museum/Eric Long and Mark Avino)
The Dauntless pilot flew with a pair of hood-mounted .50-caliber guns firing through the propeller arch, and the SBD was agile enough to make it an occasional threat. The most effective weapons, however, were the two flexible 30-caliber guns mounted on the rear seat. (The first SBDs had only a tail gun, but that soon proved impotent). The Dauntless’ most famous shooter was Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. McCarthy was smart enough to know that combat experience, however feigned, would one day fall well with voters. As a result, he sometimes led locals to Dauntless and later made Tailgunner Joe an effective campaign slogan. There was no mention of the time he clumsily shot through the vertical stabilizer of his own plane.
The gunner was also an SBD radio operator, and his seat rotated so he could do double duty. It also had a basic set of controls – speedometer and altimeter, throttle, and a control lever that could be removed from the left side of the cockpit and plugged into a ground socket. He couldn’t unfold the landing gear or the landing hook, but at least he could get the injured pilot back to the ship and land next to him.
The Army got its own version of the SBD, the A-24 Banshee, but it was not well received. Obsessed with their heavy bombers and grandiose strategic bombing, the Air Force Command did not use dive bombs. They thought they were deliberately crashing a bomber directly into anti-aircraft installations in dangerous proximity to endanger the crews. They could not use the A-24 as a sleeper bomber or glider, so they used it as a trainer and tanker.
The AAF was well aware of the success of the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka against ground targets, especially armored targets, during the German Army’s blitzkrieg in 1939-40 and the ill-conceived Soviet campaign. If there is one aircraft that has seriously challenged the SBD for the title of best dive bomber in the world, it is the Stuka. But at the beginning of World War II, the U.S. Army had few tanks and little experience against tanks. In the two decades leading up to the war, the Navy practiced and perfected dive-bombing, while the Army studiously ignored this tactic.
In fact, AAF chief Henry Hap Arnold tried to cancel the original order for 16 A-24s, arguing that the Army had already tested the dive-bomber concept and found it inadequate, mainly because of the dive-bomber’s vulnerability to enemy fighters. Arnold was outvoted by General George C. Marshall.
SBD-3 of the US Navy patrols at Midway Atoll, where the Dauntless was docked on the 4th. In June 1942, four dramatic minutes changed the course of the naval war in the Pacific. (Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the AAF taught its A-24 pilots to bomb in a 30-degree dive, which was actually a fast glide. The maximum allowed by the military was 45 degrees, which was still a slide bombardment. One astonished Army pilot had the audacity to call the Banshee a lousy dive-bomber.
What could be the use of the army’s dive-bombers? Example: At the end of the Battle of Sicily in 1943, German and Italian troops fled across the narrow Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland in an arsenal of ships and boats. Army fighter-bombers flew a total of 1,883 sorties and only managed to sink 13 of them.
After the war, the remaining Banshees were integrated into the Air Force, which renamed them the F-24. They remained in service until 1950, already after the last SBD’s were taken out of service.
The British Air Force has considered the use of SBDs and has tested several. Their nicknames were Clunk and Barge, not Slow But Deadly. One of the test pilots, Captain Eric Winkle Brown, the most experienced aircraft carrier pilot of all time, was not happy with the little Douglas.
The Dauntless was underpowered, painfully slow, had a short range, was extremely vulnerable to hunters, uncomfortable and tiring on long flights, inherently noisy and drafty, Brown later wrote. It was clearly a pre-war aircraft that was outdated in design and in dire need of replacement. Insulted by the praise, he called the SBD-5’s performance silent.
The Dauntless left Brown confused. The shortcomings of the performance were so obvious that he thought it was a very poor aircraft. Nevertheless, he knew from his combat experience in the Pacific that the SBD was one of the few aircraft that achieved extraordinary success against the odds. (Another example of such an anomaly is the Royal Navy’s biplane-torpedo freighter Fairey Swordfish, the infamous Stringbag).
If the Dauntless had a secret ingredient, it was that it was first and foremost a precision dive bomber. Brown discovered that with comfortably light fins, it was easy to make accurate corrections for downward pressure while diving. He also admitted that Dauntless was a damn good stout. Extremely rugged, but also quite heavy, so the accident rate in the Pacific was lower than any other US Navy aircraft. In fact, the Dauntless had the lowest loss rate of any American fighter in the war.
In November 1943, the SBD began to be replaced by the clumsy short-handled Helldiver, which would enter service so early that the Dauntless would never have been needed. I remember every flight in the SB2C Helldiver, recalls former Patuxent River test pilot Vice Admiral Paul Holmberg. We had three that we used for testing. Two of the three had their wings ripped off.
The Helldiver was so poorly steerable – largely due to its unusually short fuselage – that pilots quickly dubbed it the Beast. It was expected to surpass the SBD in speed, range and payload, but it received only minimal improvements over its predecessor when it entered service.
The SB2C experienced its moment of glory in April 1945, when the Helldivers and the Grumman Avengers sank the superstar Yamato, one of the two largest and heaviest battleships ever built. It was the last major feat of dive-bombing in a war.
Meanwhile, SBDs withdrawn from the fleet continued to fly in 1944 in the hands of the Marines in support of the campaign to capture the islands. They have become what the Stukas once were: flying artillery providing direct air support to Marine Corps and Army forces, especially in the Philippines. Nearly vertical dive bombs were often the only way to use heavy ammunition against troops in dense jungle. Douglas designed the 50-caliber machine guns to be mounted under the wing of the SBD for dive firing.
Pilot George Glacken and Gunner Leo Boulanger fly an SBD-5 near New Guinea in April 1944. (J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
The last SBDs used in combat were French Navy aircraft flying in support of the war in Indochina in 1947. The SBD-3 was originally intended for export to France in 1940, but the French order for 174 aircraft was awarded to the US Navy after the fall of the country. The French finally got the aircraft when more than 40 A-24 Banshees were delivered to Algeria and Morocco in 1943, and another 112 SBD-5s and A-24s in 1944. Some of them operated over France after D-Day.
The French withdrew their Dauntlesse from combat in late 1949, but they continued to fly as training aircraft until 1953. In the United States, several civilian SBDs were used as cameras, bug sprayers and parachutes – one was painted red, white and Pepsi-Cola blue. SBD even went to MGM Studios in Hollywood to be used as a wind generator during filming.
One of the most concentrated SBD cemeteries in the world is at the bottom of Lake Michigan, where 38 Dauntless were lost in training accidents. Few of them have been restored, mainly because the Navy insists that it still owns them. Many of those still in the field are extremely rare, as they have significant combat histories. After their participation in the war they were replaced by Helldiver helicopters and sent to the United States for training.
What was intended as a temporary measure until the arrival of a real dive bomber, eventually served until the end of World War II and became the most successful dive bomber on an aircraft carrier of all time. The SBD’s contribution to victory in the Pacific War was not matched by any other American or Allied aircraft, writes Barrett Tillman, aviation history author, world expert and historian of the Dauntless.
As Tillman notes, the Navy got more than it was worth. The last SBD-6 cost $29,000 in 1944 (about $425,000 today), not including government-supplied equipment such as engines, instruments, radios, and ammunition. Call it a slow but deadly deal.
For further reading, the editor recommends Stephen Wilkinson: World War II Dauntless dive bomber, Barrett Tillman; SBD Dauntless: Douglas’s US Navy and Marine Corps Dive-Bombers in World War II, by David Doyle; and Douglas SBD Dauntless, by Peter C. Smith.
This article was published in the May 2021 issue of Aviation History magazine. Sign up today!
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