Grumman Avenger in American Service

US Navy in the Pacific
Mediterranean
Escort Carriers - Anti-Submarine Warfare
Night Fighter
Night Bomber
US Marine Corps
Marine Corps Carriers
Conclusion

The Grumman TBF/ TBM Avenger was the only torpedo bomber used by the US Navy from the summer of 1942 until the end of the Second World War, although it served as a conventional level bomber more often than as a torpedo bomber. It was used from the main fleet carriers, from escort carriers in the Atlantic and Pacific and by the US Marine Corps.

US Navy in the Pacific

The first few production aircraft were allocated to VT-8, the torpedo squadron serving onboard USS Hornet (CV-8). The aircraft arrived too late to join the squadron before the Hornet departed to the Pacific, and so after working-up they made an epic flight across the Pacific in an attempt to catch up with their carrier, reaching Midway Island just before the battle. The Avenger's combat debut came during the battle of Midway, and was fairly disastrous. The six aircraft set off to attack the Japanese fleet, but five were shot down. The surviving aircraft limped back to Midway with one wheel and the torpedo-bay doors hanging open, very limited controls, the gunner dead and the third crewman wounded. None of their torpedoes hit a target. Fortunately this initial disaster was not caused by any flaw in the aircraft, but by its use in tiny numbers against the well defended Japanese fleet.

Grumman TBF TBM Avenger attacks Japanese Destroyer at Truk
Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger
attacks Japanese Destroyer
at Truk

The Avenger very quickly became the only torpedo bomber in US service. The speed of this change was not entirely intentional, but the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway had cost the US Navy most of its operational TBD-1 Devastators. One squadron was lost with USS Lexington at the Coral Sea. VT-3, VT-6 and VT-8 all took part in the battle of Midway, ending the fight with only four operational aircraft between them. This only left eleven TBD-1s in the Pacific and eight in the Atlantic.

The devastated units were reformed in the US and were equipped with new TBF-1 Avengers. By August, only two months after Midway, every torpedo squadron embarked on an American carrier in the Pacific was equipped with the new aircraft.

The new units played a part in the landings on Guadalcanal on 7 August. VT-3 on Enterprise, VT-7 on Wasp and VT-8 on Saratoga were used to support the landings, although here they acted as conventional level bombers rather than torpedo bombers, very much a sign of things to come.

The Avenger was finally used in its intended role, as a carrier-borne torpedo bomber, during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (24-25 August 1942). This saw VT-3 on Enterprise and the Hornet's Torpedo Flight, operating from Saratoga, clash with three Japanese carriers that were part of a force threatening the lines of communication with the Marines on Guadalcanal. Even here the Avenger's initial use was as a scout plane, carrying two 500lb bombs. On 24 August two aircraft from VT-3 found the Japanese light carrier Ryujo, and made a bombing attack on it. All four bombs missed.

Once the news of this sighting reached the American fleet a strike force of 28 SBD Dauntless dive bombers and eight TBF-1 Avengers was launched from Saratoga. Seven Avengers reached their targets, and five attacked the carrier. Of these one scored a confirmed hit, while two more were possible. The Japanese carrier was also hit by a number of bombs, and sank. During the battle three Avengers were lost to enemy action, two ran out of fuel and two were jettisoned after suffering heavy damage.

After the battle VT-3 reported that their new aircraft was a great success, and had 'numerous possibilities as a combatant plane, inner and intermediate air patrol plane, and as a glide bomber', although more guns were requested, and would appear with the TBF-1C/ TMB-1C.

Grumman TBF Avenger From Below
Grumman TBF Avenger From Below

Twenty nine Avengers were available during the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (26-27 October 1942), from VT-6 on Hornet and VT-10 on Enterprise. The Enterprise's Avengers became involved in an encounter battle with a Japanese carrier strike force and suffered heavy losses before making an unsuccessful attack on their targets. Hornet's Avengers attacked the Tone, but also failed to score any hits. Their return trip was difficult - six were forced to ditch when they ran out of fuel, and another was shot down by returning Japanese fighters. Worse was to come - the Hornet was hit by D3A 'Val' dive bombers and B5N 'Kate' torpedo bombers, and was sunk, while the Enterprise was also damaged.

199 Avengers on five attack carriers, five light carriers and eight escort carriers took part in the invasions of Makin and Tarawa between 10 November and 10 December 1943.

An even larger force of 247 Avengers on six attack, six light and eight escort carriers helped support the attacks on Majuro, Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands between 29 January and 23 February 1944.

The scale of the American war effort became clear during the Battle of the Philippine Sea of 19-24 June 1944. Two years earlier, in the last major carrier battles, the Americans had been able to field three carriers. On 13 June 1944 Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher had fifteen carriers with 900 aircraft, including seven fleet carriers and seven light carriers carrying Avengers, for a total of 185 operational aircraft. Task Group 52, with eight escort carriers, carried another 83 Avengers. The battle was triggered by the American invasion of Saipan, and saw nine Japanese carriers attack the fleet. The Avengers didn't play any role in the famous 'Marianas Turkey Shoot' of 19 June. Two Japanese carriers were sunk by submarines, leaving seven intact to attempt to escape to the west, although with their precious air groups destroyed.

On 20 June the American fleet devoted all of its efforts to finding Admiral Ozawa's fleet. Eventually, late in the day, the Japanese fleet was found, and 54 Avengers along with 162 F6F Hellcats, SB2C Helldivers and SBD Dauntlesses, were dispatched to attack them. A fierce air battle developed over the Japanese carriers, but the defenders was overwhelmed.

Despite the size of the American attacking force the results of the attack were disappointing. Avengers from VT-24 managed to sink the carrier Hiyo with torpedoes, but most were armed with 500lb bombs, and although the carriers Chiyoda and Zuikaku were damaged they managed to escape.

This was only a temporary respite for the Japanese. After a few preparatory operations the Americans returned to the Philippines, landing on Leyte. Task Force 38 had nine attack and eight light carriers, with 236 Avengers, although USS Princeton was lost early in the operation. These Avengers were used to make a series of attacks on Okinawa and Formosa on 10-16 October 1944, before moving on to attack Japanese positions on the Philippines on 18-19 October.

The Japanese saw this attack as their last chance to force the decisive fleet battle they had been seeking since Midway. Their plan involved fleets sailing from Singapore and from Japan, with the once-might carrier force demoted to the role of a decoy. This was Admiral Ozawa's Main Force, sailing from Japan with the carriers Chitose, Chiyoda, Zuikaku and Zuiho, but only 100 aircraft. The real damage was to be done by Admiral Kurita's First Striking Force, which contained seven battleships, including the Musashi and Yamato, the two biggest battleships ever built.

The Japanese plan was a partial success. On 24 October the Americans discovered Kurita's fleet and pummelled it. Six carriers were involved in the attacks. The Musashi was hit by nineteen torpedoes from Avengers, and at 7.35pm she sank. Admiral Kurita decided to delay his attack until the night of 24-25 October, and withdrew temporarily. This move was discovered by the Americans, and helped convince Admiral Halsey that this threat had been dealt with.

At 3.40pm the Japanese carrier force was found by US scout planes. The Japanese had shown a very impressive ability to replace lost aircraft in the past and Halsey had no way to know that the carriers posed no real threat. Task Force 38, with the fleet carriers and light carriers, moved north to deal with this potentially very serious threat.

TF 38's Avengers played a major part in the four main attacks launched on 25 October, sinking or helping to sink all four Japanese carriers. The Chitose was sunk during the first attack. The Chiyoda was hit and damaged so badly during the second attack that she was abandoned. The Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier from the force that had attacked Pearl Harbor, was damaged during the first attack and sunk by three torpedoes from Avengers of VT-19 during the third attack. The Zuiho was also damaged during the first attack and sunk during the third.

In theory Task Group 77's eighteen carriers carried a powerful force of 187 Avengers and 292 fighters - the fact that the Avengers were operating from escort carriers rather than fleet carriers had no impact on their performance. However the escort carriers had a limited amount of storage space for ammunition, and they were carrying normal bombs and rockets, intended to support the troops on Leyte, rather than the torpedoes and armour piercing bombs they needed against the Japanese battleships and cruisers.

Kurita had not been expecting to find any aircraft carriers off Leyte, but early on the morning of 25 October his fleet ran into the six escort carriers of Admiral Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3. Sprague's only option was to head south towards the other two escort groups, while launching every aircraft he had in an attempt to distract the Japanese. Many of his Avengers were launched without bombs or torpedoes loaded, but they managed to convince Kurita that he was facing a much more powerful force than he really was. The aircraft from 'Taffy Three', combined with more from 'Taffy Two' as that second task unit came into range and with the determined attacks of Sprague's destroyer screen, eventually convinced Kurita to abandon the attack. Even so two carriers had been lost - the Gambier Bay to gunfire and the St Lo by a kamikaze, and three destroyers had been sunk. Three of the Japanese light cruisers had been so badly damaged by bombs from the Avengers that they had to be abandoned, although forty-two Avengers were lost.

The next American target was Iwo Jima. Immediately before the invasion of that island Task Force 38, with fourteen fast carriers and 201 Avengers (including new TBM-3s in five squadrons), sailed for Japan, launching a series of raids around Tokyo on 16-17 February 1945. The same carriers then took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima, attacking Japanese positions on the island.

Task Force 58 was also involved in the invasion of Okinawa, and one final battle with a major element of the Japanese surface fleet. This was the giant battleship Yamato, which was dispatched towards Okinawa on 7 April on a suicide mission. She never reached her destination. Instead 300 aircraft from Task Force 58 attacked her while she was still over 200 miles away, scoring 18 torpedo hits on the battleship. Although the Yamato was still afloat when the attacks ended, she was mortally wounded and capsized and exploded. 

Towards the end of the war the Avengers of Task Force 38 (under Halsey) took part in a series of air strikes on the Japanese Home Islands that lasted from 10 July until the end of the war.

Towards the end of the war the Avenger became increasingly superfluous. The single-seat fighter bombers, in particular the Hellcat and Corsair, were able to carry the same payload of standard bombs or rockets at higher speeds, although over shorter distances, than the Avenger, while the decreasing number of Japanese ships found at sea reduced the need for a torpedo bomber. Indeed the Avenger spent far more time operating as a level bomber than as a torpedo bomber, at least in part because of severe problems with the main American air-launched torpedo. The Helldiver began to replace it in some VT and VA squadrons, and after the end of the war it was quickly phased out as an attack aircraft, in favour of a new generation of single-seat naval attack aircraft.

This didn't end the Avenger's active career. Its large bomb bay proved to be ideal for conversion to a wide range of alternative roles and versions of the Avenger served as both the hunter and killer in anti-submarine warfare (-3W and -3S), and as a transport aircraft designed to carry supplies and personnel onto aircraft carriers at sea (-3R) amongst other things.

Mediterranean

Twenty seven TBF-1s took part in Operation Torch, operating with VGS-26 (USS Sangaman), VGS-27 (USS Sawannee) and VGS-29 (USS Santee). Many of the crews were very inexperienced, and the squadrons suffered heavy losses, but they did help to silence several heavy gun batteries and three aircraft from VGS-27 became the first Avengers to sink a submarine when they destroyed a Vichy French submarine.

Escort Carriers - Anti-Submarine Warfare

The Avenger was used extensively from American escort carriers during the Battle of the Atlantic (and briefly by the British, although the Swordfish remained the aircraft of choice on the smaller carriers).

The first US escort carrier to enter the fray was USS Bogue, which formed the centre-piece of an escort group made up of ex-First World War destroyers. The Bogue received Composite Air Wing Nine (VC-9) with twelve Wildcats and eight TBF-1 Avengers, armed with bombs and depth bombs. She entered service in March 1943, and escorted three convoys in March and April, without any success. However this early experience did give the new group some valuable experience. It was realised that more Avengers were needed, and the compliment of aircraft was changed to nine Wildcats and twelve Avengers. A more active search pattern was developed, covering the area to the front and sides of the convoy in an attempt to find U-boats as they were approaching a convoy.

The new tactics paid off in May 1943, when the Bogue was escorted convoy ON-184 heading from the UK to the US. On 21 May U-231 was attacked, and was forced to return to base for repairs. On the following day four submarines were attacked. The third, U-305, was also forced home for repairs, and the fourth, U-569, was scuttled after two damaging attacks. Two more sinkings followed in June, and by the end of the war VC-9 had eight confirmed kills out of the thirty achieved by the composite air wings, making it the most successful of them.

In July VC-9 claimed more kills, while VC-13 on USS Core and VC-29 on USS Santee claimed their first victories. Six U-boats were sunk, and the air gap began to be closed. The month also saw the first use of the Mk 24 Fido torpedo, when on 14 July one sank U-160 after homing in on its engines.

The majority of Avenger U-boat kills came during 1943. Only nine was achieved during 1944, ending with the destruction of U-1229 by USS Bogue. The year also saw the only US carrier sunk during the Battle of the Atlantic, when on 29 May the Block Island was sunk by U-549.

The fall in victories during 1944 actually marked the Allied victory in the Atlantic. The wolf packs had been withdrawn by Donitz, and the targets simply weren't there any more. In 1944, with the help of the Avengers, the U-boat threat became more of a nuisance.

Escort carriers carrying Avengers also played a part in the anti-submarine war in the Pacific, with most action coming during 1945. The Japanese used their submarines in a different way to the Germans, focusing on attacks on American warships, so most of the six fleet submarines sunk by escort carriers in the Pacific were sunk during the major battles - in the Philippine Sea, at Iwo Jima and at Okinawa.

Night Fighter

Although the Avenger was not used as a night-fighter in its own right, it was used to control more suitable fighters in the dark. The theory was that a radar-equipped Avenger would operate with two F6F Hellcats. The radar operator in the Avenger would guide the Hellcats onto their targets, and they would complete the interception.

The first test of this idea was fairly disastrous. It involved Edward 'Butch' O'Hare, already a famous fighter ace. In November 1943 he was on the Enterpriseduring operations in the Gilbert Islands. The carrier was being attacked at night by G4M 'Bettys', and so on 26 November O'Hare, his Wingman and an Avenger took to the air. The first two interceptions demonstrated one problem with the concept - it turned out to be easier for the radar equipped Avenger to shoot down the G4Ms than to put the fighters in the right place. The third fight demonstrated a second, rather more dangerous problem - it was not always possible to be sure who you were shooting at. As the Hellcats returned to the Avenger ready to intercept a new wave of attacks a fire fight broke out between the Avenger and a Betty. O'Hare was caught in the crossfire, probably hit by Japanese bullets and killed.

Night Bomber

The Avenger was more successful as a night bomber. The concept was developed by William I Martin, the commander of VT-10 on the Enterpriseafter her 1943 refit. The existing airborne radar in the Avenger could detect ships at up to 50 nautical miles, far enough away to be useful. By the start of 1944 Martin was ready to test out his ideas in practise, although a broken elbow prevented him from taking part in the first raid himself. This was a night attack on Truk carried out by twelve Avengers on the night of 16-17 February 1944, each armed with four 500lb bombs. Thirteen Japanese ships were either sunk or so badly damaged that they had to be beached

Three carriers - Independence (CVL-22), Saratoga (CV-3)and Enterprise (CV-6)- operated either as dedicated night carriers or with a full night squadron onboard. The Independence was first, gaining VT(N)-41 in October 1944 with the TBF/M-1D. These were replaced by TBM-3Ds in February 1945, but soon after this the carrier reverted to day operations. VT(N)-41 did much of its flying during the day, but did gain valuable experience in night operations.

The Saratoga was next to operate at night, with dedicated day and night squadrons allowing her to provide 24-hour support for the troops on Iwo Jima. VT(N)-53 provided the night-time cover, until on 21 February the Saratoga was very badly damaged by four kamikaze aircraft and had to be withdraw.

The Enterprise stepped in to fill the gap, bringing William Martin back into night operations. He was now commander of VT(N)-90, which had formed in August 1944 with 27 'D' type Avengers, modified for night operations. The Enterprise also had VF(N)-90, with nineteen F6F-5N night fighters and eleven standard F6F-5s. Together the two squadrons formed Air Group 90(N) on the Enterprise in January 1945.

In the week after Saratoga was damaged the Enterprise provided night cover, flying just over half of her sorties after dark. The Enterprise continued to operate at night until she too was badly damaged by a kamikaze attack in mid-April and forced to return to the United States for repairs.

One more night squadron entered combat before the end of the war, VT(N)-91 on USS Bon Homme Richard, beginning in June 1945 and remaining in service until the end of the war.

US Marine Corps

The Avenger was used by a number of Marine Corps squadrons, both on land and from a number of dedicated aircraft carriers. At first these squadrons were designation as VMSB squadrons (Strike Bombers), but they were soon renamed as VMTB squadrons (Torpedo Bombers). The first to enter combat was VMSB-131 which reached Henderson Field with its TBF-1s just in time to take part in the last major Japanese offensive.

The Marine Avengers achieved their first major success during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in mid-November 1942. At this point VMSB-131 was operating alongside VT-10 (normally based on the Enterprise) and VT-8. On 13 November all three squadrons took part in a series of attacks on the Japanese battleship Hiei, claiming ten torpedo hits from twenty-six launched, and sinking the battleship. Another success came on the next day when aircraft from VT-10 and VMSB-131 sank the cruiser Kinugasa. There were rare examples of Marine Corps Avengers making torpedo attacks - most of the time they used bombs and rockets to support the Marines or depth charges and rockets while on anti-submarine patrols, and they may not have used torpedoes at all after leaving the Solomon Islands.

One year after VMSB-131 made its debut on Guadalcanal, VMTB-143, 232 and 233 took part in the fighting on Bougainville, operating from Torokina air strip. The same three units then took part in the prolonged series of attacks on the Japanese airfields and harbour at Rabaul, allowing that strong Japanese base to be neutralised and leapfrogged.

In July 1944 VMTB-131 and VMTB-242 took part in the fighting in the Mariana Islands, providing air support of Guam and Tinian respectively.

In August 1944 VMTB-134 took part in the invasion of Peleliu, operating from airfields that were virtually on the front line.

In March 1945 VMTB-242 was still based on Tinian, but the war had moved on to Iwo Jima. The squadron took off to make the 800 mile trip to Iwo Jima, planning to land on the island if an airstrip had been secured or on a nearby carrier if not. They were eventually able to land on the island, providing air support for the ground troops. At the end of the campaign they flew anti-submarine patrols from the island, then returned to Tinian, before eventually returning to the US.

The Marine Avengers also played a part in the invasion of Okinawa, where from April 1945 VMTB-131 and VMTB-232 provided air support for the group troops and patrolled the surrounding seas.

Marine Corps Carriers

Four aircraft carriers operated with Marine Corps squadrons embarked. USS Block Island carried VMTB-233 during the battle of Okinawa and for attacks on the Ryukyu Islands. USS Gilbert Island had VMTB-143 during the Okinawa campaign and then took part in the attack on Balikpapan. USS Vella Gulf had VMTB-234, operating in the Central Pacific and attacking Pagan and Rota. Finally USS Cape Gloucester operated VMTB-132 in the East China Sea.

Another four Marine-manned carriers were planned for Operation Olympic - the invasion of Japan - but the end of the war meant that they were not needed.

Conclusion

The Avenger had a very impressive track record during the Second World War. Japan lost 19 aircraft carriers after it entered service, and the Avenger contributed to twelve of them. The Avenger was also involved in the sinking of six of eleven battleships and nineteen of forty-one cruisers lost by the Japanese, as well as twenty five destroyers. The Avenger also carried out numerous attacks on Japanese bases, ground attack missions to support Allied troops and anti-submarine patrols, both in the Pacific and in the Atlantic.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 August 2010), Grumman Avenger in American Service , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_grumman_avenger_US.html

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