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Slow But Deadly: the SBD Dauntless turned the tables at Midway.

The SBD: The Douglas Dauntless dive bomber made slow but deadly WORK.

On May 1st 1940 the Douglas SBD Dauntless flew for the first time. The SBD would go on to fight in virtually every naval engagement in the Pacific, sink more Japanese tonnage than any other American carrier-based aircraft, and often bring its crews back to their carriers after suffering fearful damage. According to legend the S-B-D stood for Scout Bomber Douglas but the crews referred to them as “Slow But Deadly.” Slow perhaps. But deadly indeed.

The SBD really owes its origins to the Northrop BT-1 dive bomber design begun in 1935. Douglas aircraft took control of Northrop in 1937. The BT-1 went into service in 1938. Douglas designer Ed Heinemann let the team that redesigned the landing gear and strengthened the airframe of the BT-1 to accept a larger and more powerful Wright R-1820 Cyclone engine. This new design was the Douglas entry for a new Naval Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) dive bomber proposal. Today you know this aircraft as the SBD Dauntless.

The first squadrons to receive the SBD-1 Dauntless were Marine Corps outfits Marine Bombing Squadron (VMB)-2 Red Devils during late 1940 and VMB-1 Crying Red Asses (you can’t make this stuff up) during early 1941. By the end of 1941 SBD-2s were flying with Navy Bombing Squadrons (VB)-6 aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and VB-2 aboard the USS Lexington (CV-2).

At the beginning of the war squadron numbers matched up with the carrier numbers. VB-3 and Scout Bombing Squadron (VS)-3 were assigned to USS Saratoga (CV-3). VB-5 and VS-5 were assigned to USS Yorktown (CV-5). Each carrier eventually embarked both a VB and a VS squadron, both flying Dauntlesses and with interchangeable missions. This meant that during the first year of the war more than half of the aircraft aboard American carriers were SBDs.

By the time 1941 was heading toward its conclusion and a world war, Navy Scout Bombing (VS) and Dive Bombing (VB) squadrons were flying SBD-3s equipped with better armor protection, self-sealing fuel tanks, and additional firepower. Marine Scout Bombing squadron and (VMSB) and VMB squadrons were flying Dauntlesses at the time as well. The Army Air Corps also ordered 948 of the Douglas dive bombers, but designated them A-24s and called them Banshees. Many of these Banshees fought alongside the ragtag group of American forces trying to slow the Japanese advance toward Australia during the opening months of the war.

The most produced model of the SBD was the SBD-5, equipped with a more powerful engine and additional ammunition carrying capacity. Many of the -5s were built in Tulsa in Oklahoma. The final production version of the Dauntless was the SBD-6. The fact is Douglas incrementally made minor modification to SBDs many times without changing the variant designation. SBD fuel capacities, ranges, and payloads increased with every new variant introduced. Of the 5,936 SBDs produced by Douglas, more than 2,400 of them were SBD-5s. The very last SBD was rolled out of the factory in El Segundo in California on July 21st 1944.

The Japanese destroyed a large number of SBDs on the ground when they attacked the various air fields around Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Jittery American gunners shot or damaged several more when the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) returned from its cruise and sent them ashore. An SDB from the Enterprise was the first American aircraft to sink a Japanese combatant, the Japanese submarine I-70 on December 10th 1941. During the first several months of the war Dauntlesses participated in Admiral Halsey’s raids on several Japanese outposts in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, New Guinea, Wake, and Marcus Islands. These raids did little real damage to the Japanese but they did provide crews with experience that would pay off during the pivotal battles fought at the Coral Sea and Midway.

Two American carriers, the USS Lexington (CV-2) and the USS Yorktown (CV-5) and their task groups went up against the Japanese carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Shoho in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Fought between May 4th and May 8th 1943, it was the first battle fought between combatant ships that attacked each other entirely beyond the horizon with aircraft only. SBDs sank the Shoho and badly damaged the Shokaku, preventing her from participating in the next fracas: The Battle of Midway.

We’ll be doing in-depth pieces about both of these battles in the coming weeks, but suffice it to say that during the Battle of Midway SBDs turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. Army B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, flying from Midway Island, flew bombing missions against the Japanese task force over several days and never hit a warship. They even threw torpedo-toting Army Martin B-26 Marauders at the Japanese, again with no success.

Navy carrier-based TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were savaged by the Japanese fighters defending the task force. But this drew the Japanese fighters down to low altitude, opening the door for the SBDs to set up and carry out their dive bombing attacks from high altitude with minimal resistance. Essentially they sank three Japanese carriers during a single seven minute attack and another a day later. The vaunted Japanese carrier aviation never recovered.

Dauntlesses continued to serve throughout the Pacific War. They helped defend Guadalcanal and attacked and sank additional Japanese shipping during that long campaign. By the time 1943 rolled around the Curtis SB2C Helldiver was beginning to replace the SBDs aboard Pacific Fleet carriers. The SB2C had real technical issues and never did completely replace the SBD. When crews nickname their aircraft “the Beast” it can’t be a good thing. It wasn’t. Meanwhile the Marines were perfectly happy flying their Dauntlesses.

SBDs, armed with twin forward-firing 50 caliber machine guns as well as protective 30 caliber machine guns covering the tail, were formidable enough “fighters” in their own right. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, one SBD pilot shot down four Japanese aircraft and his gunner added another three shot down. The final kill ratio for the SBDs stood at 3.2 to 1- remarkable when considering how capable the Japanese pilots and their aircraft were, especially early in the war.

The SBD was also sometimes used as an anti-submarine aircraft in the Atlantic against German U-boats. They also saw combat during the November 1942, flying from the carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) and two of the new escort carriers in support of the Allied landings in North Africa (Operation Torch), the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. Then during October of 1943 SBDs again operating from the Ranger flew bombing sorties against German shipping in near Bodo, Norway as part of Operation Leader.

A distinctive feature found on all variants of the SBD and A-24 was the perforated/split flaps (originally engineered for the BT-1) which were used to slow the aircraft during a dive bombing attack, reducing its terminal velocity to roughly 240 miles per hour. The devices also increases controllability and decreased tail buffet while the aircraft was delivering its deadly payload. Operators of the Douglas SBD/A-24 include Chile (A-24), France, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Army Air Forces (A-24).

Here are 5 things we bet you didn’t know about the SBD Dauntless

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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