The Grumman Avenger was the most important attack aircraft in use with the Fleet Air Arm during the last eighteen months of the Second World War, making its main contribution to the war effort in the Far East, although it was also used in significant numbers over Home Waters and off Norway.
Although the Royal Navy had built a number of impressive modern fleet carriers, its aircraft were less impressive. The main torpedo bomber at the start of the war was the biplane Fairey Swordfish. Its replacement, the biplane Albacore, was a disappointment, and the Barracuda didn't enter service until January 1943. In the meantime the Fleet Air Arm needed a more modern torpedo bomber, and the Avenger was effectively the only option.
The first TBF-1 Avengers to reach Britain were given the designation Tarpon I. The Tarpon name was retained until January 1944 when the FAA adopted the American name, so the Tarpon I became the Avenger I, the Tarpon II the Avenger II and the Tarpon III the Avenger III. It is normally stated that this change was made to avoid confusion, but the summary of Naval Operations produced for the War Cabinet covering this period states that the change was made 'in deference to the wishes of the American manufacturers'.
British aircraft were modified by Blackburn Aircraft. The second cockpit seat was retained on all British Avengers, although it was moved forward to a position just behind the pilot. The plan was to operate the aircraft with a four-man crew. The pilot and observer were stationed in the cockpit, while the radar operator and bomb aimer/ turret gunner shared the rear compartment, with the bomb aimer moving into the turret when needed. This plan was soon abandoned and three man-crews became the norm.
The stinger machine gun was removed (the War Cabinet summary of naval operations for the first quarter of 1945 reports this change as it was just then being introduced, and also suggests that the turrets were being removed) and was replaced with an F.24 camera. The large oval front windows in the rear compartment were replaced with a bulged sighting window which greatly improved the view. A hinge was added to the radio mast to allow it to fit into the hangers of the armoured carriers, which had less head room than their US equivalents. British gun sights, radios and oxygen equipment were also added.
The Avenger entered service on 1 January 1943 with No.832 Squadron, replacing its Fairey Albacores. The Barracuda followed on 10 January, replacing the Swordfish of No.827 Squadron. The Avenger was clearly the superior aircraft with a higher top speed, better rate of climb and longer range. It would eventually equip seventeen frontline FAA squadrons, significantly more than the Barracuda, even though more of the latter aircraft were available.
The Pacific (1943)
No.832 Squadron had collected its aircraft at NAS Norfolk, Virginia, on 1 January 1943, while HMS Victorious was undergoing a refit in the US. These were US standard TBF-1s rather than modified British Avenger Is. The carrier then sailed through the Panama Canal to join the US Navy in operations in the Solomon Islands in June and July 1943. During this period the squadron operated from the Victorious and the USS Saratoga, but a feared attack from the Japanese fleet didn't materialise, and No.832 Squadron saw little action.
The Avenger served on a number of escort carriers of the Home Fleet during 1944-45. Nos.825, 846, 852, 853 and 856 Squadrons embarked on Nabob, Trumpeter, Premier, Queen and Tracker for various periods.
The Nabob's involvement was short-lived. She and Trumpeter were to take part in Operation Goodwood I to IV, a series of attacks on the Tirpitz in August 1944, with Nos.825 and 846 Squadrons respectively. Unfortunately on 22 August the Nabob was torpedoed and badly damaged. With an escort provided by Trumpeter she was able to reach home waters, but it was decided not to repair her, and the Nabob spent the rest of the war on a sand bank.
On 11 August 1944 Avengers operating from Nabob and Trumpeter dropped mines in the Harhms and Lepsorev channels.
On 12 September Avengers from Trumpeter dropped mines in Norwegian waters, and the Avengers were back to repeat the exercise on 14/15 October, 24 October and 6-7 November.
On 7 December it was Avengers from Premier that dropped mines, this time laying ten mines in Salhuss Trommen, while the Trumpeter provided a fighter escort.
On 12 February 1945 Avengers from Premier dropped five mines in Salhustrommen, while on 20 March aircraft from Premier, Queen and Searcher mined Granesund.
On 24 March 1945 four escort carriers - Searcher, Puncher, Queen and Nairana left Scapa to conduct an anti-shipping sweep off the Norwegian coast. Avengers from HMS Queen attacked a 4,000-5,000 ton tanker and a minesweeper between Trondheim and Kristiansund, damaging both ships.
The Home Fleet's final major operation of the war came on 4 May 1945 and was an attack on the U-boat base at Kilbotn in the Lofoten Islands. The escort carriers Searcher, Trumpeter and Queen took part in that tack, and Avengers from No.846 Squadron sank U-711 and the depot ship Black Watch.
A large number of Avengers were used by shore-based Fleet Air Arm squadrons in Britain. These squadrons flew anti-submarine patrols, dropped mines and attacked shipping. They also took part in the D-Day landings, with five squadrons involved, under the control of Coastal Command. Two Avengers even managed to shoot down V-1 flying bombs! The shore based Avengers operated over quite a large area, even attacking enemy shipping in St. Peter Port, Guernsey, in July 1944, while towards the end of the month a German landing craft full of troops was sunk off St. Malo.
Atlantic and Arctic
The Avenger was never as important an anti-submarine warfare aircraft for the British as for the Americans. In the US Navy it was the main attack aircraft on escort carriers operating in the Atlantic, but the Fleet Air Arm preferred to use the Swordfish from the small flight decks of the escort carriers. Despite this the Avenger was the Fleet Air Arm's second most successful U-boat killer, claiming all or part of four victories (well behind the Swordfish with 15 full and 10 shared victories).
Three quarters of the Avenger's victories were scored by No.846 Squadron. Her first successes came during April 1944, while embarked on HMS Tracker and escorting the Arctic convoy RA-58. On 1 April her Avengers helped HMS Beagle sink U-355, while on 3 April the Avengers shared the credit for the sinking of U-288 with Swordfish from No.819 Squadron. Finally, on 4 May 1945 the squadron's Avengers sank U-711 and her depot ship during an attack on the U-boat base at Kilbotn in Norway.
The fourth and final Avenger victory came in the India Ocean, when No.832 Squadron on HMS Begam and No.851 on HMS Shah played a part in the destruction of U-198, alongside elements of the British and Indian fleets.
Far East 1944-45
The Avenger was the most important attack aircraft with the East Indies Fleet and British Pacific Fleet during the Royal Navy's return to the Far East in 1944 and 1945.
The Fairey Barracuda took part in one of the earliest attacks, the raid on Sabang on 19 April 1944. Its already limited performance was considered unacceptable in the conditions in the Far East, and by the end of 1944 it had been decided to use the Avenger as the main strike aircraft. HMS Illustrious had already embarked two squadrons of Avengers - Nos.832 and 851 - picking them up after her return to Ceylon from Sabang, and on 17 May Avengers from Nos.832 and 845 took part in the attack on the fuel store and dockyard at Soerabaya, but this was a false dawn, and the Avengers spent the next six months shore-based or on escort carriers. During this period Avengers from No.832 Squadron on HMS Begum and 851 Squadron on HMS Shah took part in the destruction of U-198, attacking the submarine on 12 August, during a very long chase.
By the end of 1944 the British fleets in the Far East had been greatly strengthened. HMS Indefatigable arrived off Colombo on 10 December 1944 with the Avengers of No.820 Squadron, and by 20 December Indomitable was also in the area. On that day 28 Avengers, 16 Hellcats and 16 Corsairs from Indomitable and Illustrious attempted to attack the oil refinery at Pangkalan Brandan, but bad weather meant that they had to divert to a secondary target at Belawan Deli instead.
On 1 January 1945 the four fleet carriers in the Far East - Indomitable, Illustrious, Indefatigable and Victorious were officially allocated to the 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron of the British Pacific Fleet. While Admiral Fraser, the commander of that fleet, was at Pearl Harbor meeting his new American superiors (Nimitz and Spruance at this stage), Admiral Vian used the carriers for a second attack on Pangkalan Brandan.
This time 32 Avengers from four squadrons (820 on Indefatigable, 849 on Victorious, 854 on Illustrious and 857 on Indomitable) were involved, along with 12 Fireflies and 32 fighters. This raid was a great success, wrecking the crucial refineries on 4 January 1945 and helping to reduce the already limited oil supplies available to the Japanese. On 16 January the fleet carriers left to join the British Pacific Fleet.
This left the East Indies Fleet with Avengers on the escort carriers Emperor, Empress and Shah. These carriers took part in a series of attacks on the Andaman Islands, Burma and Sumatra during 1945, before supporting the eventual re-occupation of Malaya and Singapore.
The new element of the British Pacific Fleet carried out two major attacks on its way to Sydney and the Pacific Theatre. On 24 January 47 Avengers, 10 Fireflies and 48 fighters attacked the Pladjoe refinery, while another 24 fighters attacked nearby airfields. On 29 January 48 Avengers, 12 Fireflies and 40 fighters attacked the Soengi Gerong refinery, while again 24 fighters attacked nearby airfields. These two refineries produced 75% of Japan's aviation fuel, and the damage caused during these two raids caused a permanent reduction in the ability of Japanese aircraft to contribute to the war.
The main US fleet in the Pacific changed number depending on which admiral was in charge. Admirals Spruance and Halsey alternated in command, with one at sea and the other planning the next set of operations. Under Spruance it was the Fifth Fleet, with task force numbers in the 50s, under Halsey it was the Third Fleet, with task force numbers in the 30s. The British Pacific Fleet was thus Task Force 57 from March 1945 and Task Force 37 from July 1945. In March 1945 the British Pacific Fleet became Task Force 57 of the Fifth Fleet, operating alongside the American carriers of Task Force 58, this time under Admiral Spruance.
The British Pacific Fleet was involved in two main series of operations while operating with the US Navy. In the first Nos.820, 828, 848, 849, 854 and 857 Squadrons used their Avengers to attack Japanese airfields on Sakashima Gunto and Formosa while the main American fleets took part in the invasion of Okinawa.
In the second phase the British fleet, now Task Force 37, worked directly alongside the American Fleet during the final attacks on the Japanese Home Islands. On 16 June, on their way from replenishing up to Japan the Avengers of No.828 Squadron on Implacable and No.885 Squadron on Ruler attacked the isolated Japanese base at Truk.
On 24 July an Avenger from No.848 Squadron became the first British aircraft to bomb Japan. The fleet took part in the attacks on shipping, naval bases and airfields, with three carriers at first. The first period of operations began on 17 July and lasted for 25 days, although bad weather limited operations to only eight of them. Operations were interrupted by the atomic bombs of 6 August and 9 August, although TF 37 raided Honshu on 9 August. By this point the British fleet was running desperately short of supplies, and so a shrunken Task Force 38.5 was formed around Indefatigable and the battleship King George V. The fleet's final operations came on 15 August 1945, and involved a force of Avengers and Seafires.
After the end of the war the Avenger rapidly left British service. Under the terms of the Lend Lease agreement the British had either to return items to the US or pay for them. The Avengers weren't wanted by either side, and so many of them were simply dumped at sea. No.848 Squadron was the last to go, disbanding on 3 June 1946.