The Grumman TBF Avenger (designated TBM for aircraft manufactured by General Motors) is an American torpedo bomber developed initially for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, and eventually used by several air and naval aviation services around the world.
The Avenger entered U.S. service in 1942, and first saw action during the Battle of Midway. Despite the loss of five of the six Avengers on its combat debut, it survived in service to become one of the outstanding torpedo bombers of World War II. Greatly modified after the war, it remained in use until the 1960s.
The Douglas’ TBD Devastator, the U.S. Navy’s main torpedo bomber introduced in 1935, was obsolete by 1939. Bids were accepted from several companies, but Grumman’s TBF design was selected as the replacement for the TBD and in April 1940 two prototypes were ordered by the Navy. Designed by Leroy Grumman, the first prototype was called the XTBF-1. It was first flown on 7th August 1941. Although one of the first two prototypes crashed near Brentwood, New York, rapid production continued.
Grumman’s first torpedo bomber was the heaviest single-engined aircraft of World War II, and only the USAAF’s P-47 Thunderbolt came close to equalling it in maximum loaded weight among all single-engined fighters, being only some 400 lb (181 kg) lighter than the TBF, by the end of World War II. The Avenger was the first design to feature a new “compound angle” wing-folding mechanism created by Grumman, intended to maximize storage space on an aircraft carrier; the F4F-4 and later models of Wildcat received a similar folding wing and the F6F Hellcat (both designed by Grumman) employed this mechanism as well. The engine used was the Wright R-2600-20 Cyclone 14 twin-row radial engine (which produced 1,900 hp/1,417 kW). The aircraft took 25 gallons of oil and used one gallon per minute at start-up.
There were three crew members: pilot, turret gunner and radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner. One .30 caliber machine gun was mounted in the nose, a .50 calibre (12.7 mm) gun was mounted right next to the turret gunner’s head in a rear-facing electrically powered turret, and a single .30 calibre hand-fired machine gun mounted ventrally (under the tail), which was used to defend against enemy fighters attacking from below and to the rear. This gun was fired by the radioman/bombardier while standing up and bending over in the belly of the tail section, though he usually sat on a folding bench facing forward to operate the radio and to sight in bombing runs. Later models of the TBF/TBM dispensed with the nose-mounted gun for one .50 calibre gun in each wing per pilots’ requests for better forward firepower and increased strafing ability. There was only one set of controls on the aircraft, and no access to the pilot’s position from the rest of the aircraft.
The radio equipment was massive, especially by today’s standards, and filled the length of the well-framed “greenhouse” canopy to the rear of the pilot. The radios were accessible for repair through a “tunnel” along the right-hand side. Any Avengers that are still flying today usually have an additional rear-mounted seat in place of the radios, allowing for a fourth passenger.
The Avenger had a large bomb bay, allowing for one Bliss-Leavitt Mark 13 torpedo, a single 2,000 pound (907 kg) bomb, or up to four 500 pound (227 kg) bombs. The aircraft had overall ruggedness and stability, and pilots say it flew like a truck, for better or worse. With its good radio facilities, docile handling, and long range, the Grumman Avenger also made an ideal command aircraft for Commanders, Air Group (CAGs). With a 30,000 ft (10,000 m) ceiling and a fully loaded range of 1,000 mi (1,610 km), it was better than any previous American torpedo bomber, and better than its Japanese counterpart, the obsolete Nakajima B5N “Kate”. Later Avenger models carried radar equipment for the ASW and AEW roles. Escort carrier sailors referred to the TBF as the “turkey” because of its size and maneuverability in comparison to the F4F Wildcat fighters in CVE air groups.
On the afternoon of 7th December 1941, Grumman held a ceremony to open a new manufacturing plant and display the new TBF to the public. Coincidentally, on that day, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, as Grumman soon found out. After the ceremony was over, the plant was quickly sealed off to guard against possible sabotage. By early June 1942, a shipment of more than 100 aircraft was sent to the Navy, arriving only a few hours after the three carriers quickly departed from Pearl Harbor, so most of them were too late to participate in the pivotal Battle of Midway.
Six TBF-1s were present on Midway Island — as part of VT-8 (Torpedo Squadron 8) — while the rest of the squadron flew Devastators from the Hornet. Both types of torpedo bombers suffered heavy casualties. Out of the six Avengers, five were shot down and the other returned heavily damaged with one of its gunners killed, and the other gunner and the pilot injured. Nonetheless, the US torpedo bombers were credited with drawing away the Japanese combat air patrols so the American dive bombers could successfully hit the Japanese carriers.
Author Gordon Prange posited in Miracle at Midway that the outdated Devastators (and lack of new aircraft) contributed somewhat to the lack of a complete victory at Midway (the four Japanese fleet carriers were sunk directly by dive bombers instead). Others pointed out that the inexperienced American pilots and lack of fighter cover were responsible for poor showing of US torpedo bombers, regardless of type. Later in the war, with growing American air superiority, better attack coordination and more veteran pilots, Avengers were able to play vital roles in the subsequent battles against Japanese surface forces.
On 24th August 1942, the next major naval aircraft carrier battle occurred at the Eastern Solomons. Based on the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise, the 24 TBFs present were able to sink the Japanese light carrier Ryūjō and claim one dive bomber, at the cost of seven aircraft.
The first major “prize” for the TBFs (which had been assigned the name “Avenger” in October 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) was at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942, when Marine Corps and Navy Avengers helped sink the Japanese battleship Hiei, which had already been crippled the night before.
After hundreds of the original TBF-1 models were built, the TBF-1C began production. The allotment of space for specialized internal and wing-mounted fuel tanks doubled the Avenger’s range. By 1943, Grumman began to slowly phase out production of the Avenger to produce F6F Hellcat fighters, and the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors took over production, with these aircraft being designated TBM. The Eastern Aircraft plant was located in North Tarrytown (renamed Sleepy Hollow in 1996), New York. Grumman delivered a TBF-1, held together with sheet metal screws, so that the automotive engineers could disassemble it, a part at a time, and redesign the aircraft for automotive style production. This aircraft was known as the “P-K Avenger” (P-K = Parker-Kalon, manufacturer of sheet metal screws). Starting in mid-1944, the TBM-3 began production (with a more powerful power plant and wing hardpoints for drop tanks and rockets). The dash-3 was the most numerous of the Avengers (with about 4,600 produced). However, most of the Avengers in service were dash-1s until near the end of the war in 1945.
Besides the traditional surface role (torpedoing surface ships), Avengers claimed about 30 submarine kills, including the cargo submarine I-52. They were one of the most effective sub-killers in the Pacific theatre, as well as in the Atlantic, when escort carriers were finally available to escort Allied convoys. There, the Avengers contributed to the warding off of German U-Boats while providing air cover for the convoys.
After the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”, in which more than 250 Japanese aircraft were downed, Admiral Marc Mitscher ordered a 220-aircraft mission to find the Japanese task force. At the extreme end of their range (300 nmi (560 km) out), the group of Hellcats, TBF/TBMs, and dive bombers took many casualties. However, Avengers from the Independence-class light aircraft carrier USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) torpedoed the light carrier Hiyō as their only major prize. Mitscher’s gamble did not pay off as well as he had hoped.
In June 1943, future-President George H. W. Bush was commissioned as the youngest naval aviator at the time. Later, while flying a TBM with VT-51 (from the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30)), his Avenger was shot down on 2nd September 1944 over the Pacific island of Chichi Jima. However, he released his payload and hit the radio tower target before being forced to bail out over water. Both of his crewmates died. He was rescued at sea by the American submarine USS Finback (SS-230). He later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Another famous Avenger aviator was Paul Newman, who flew as a rear gunner. He had hoped to be accepted for pilot training, but did not qualify because he was colour blind. Newman was on board the escort carrier Hollandia roughly 500 mi (800 km) from Japan when the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The Avenger was the type of torpedo bomber used during the sinking of the two Japanese “super battleships”: the Musashi and the Yamato.
The Avenger was also used by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, where it was initially known as the “Tarpon”. However, this name was later discontinued and the Avenger name used instead, as part of the process of the Fleet Air Arm universally adopting the U.S. Navy’s names for American naval aircraft. The first 402 aircraft were known as Avenger Mk 1, 334 TBM-1s from Grumman were the Avenger Mk II and 334 TBM-3 the Mark III. An interesting kill by a Royal Navy Avenger was the destruction of a V-1 flying bomb on 9th July 1944. The much faster V-1 was overtaking the Avenger when the Telegraphist Air Gunner in the dorsal turret, Leading Aircraftman Fred Shirmer, fired at it from 700 yards. For this achievement, Shirmer was Mentioned in Dispatches on 31st August 1944 and awarded the DSM on 21st July 1945.
One hundred USN TBM-3Es were supplied to the Fleet Air Arm in 1953 under the US Mutual Defense Assistance Program. The aircraft were shipped from Norfolk, Virginia, many aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Perseus. The Avengers were fitted with British equipment by Scottish Aviation and delivered as the Avenger AS.4 to several FAA squadrons including No. 767, 814, 815, 820 and 824. The aircraft were replaced from 1954 by Fairey Gannets and were passed to squadrons of the Royal Naval Reserve including No. 1841 and 1844 until the RNR was disbanded. The survivors were transferred to the French Navy in 1957–1958.
The only other operator in World War II was the Royal New Zealand Air Force which used the type primarily as a bomber, operating from South Pacific Island bases. Some of these were transferred to the British Pacific Fleet.
During World War II, the US aeronautical research arm NACA used a complete Avenger in a comprehensive drag-reduction study in their large Langley wind tunnel. The resulting NACA Technical Report shows the impressive results available if practical aircraft did not have to be “practical”.
In 1945, Avengers were involved in pioneering trials of aerial topdressing in New Zealand that led to the establishment of an industry which markedly increased food production and efficiency in farming worldwide. Pilots of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s 42 Squadron spread fertilizer from Avengers beside runways at Ohakea air base and provided a demonstration for farmers at Hood aerodrome, Masterton, New Zealand.
One of the primary post war users of the Avenger was the Royal Canadian Navy, which obtained 125 former US Navy TBM-3E Avengers from 1950 to 1952 to replace their venerable Fairey Fireflies. By the time the Avengers were delivered, the RCN was shifting its primary focus to anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and the aircraft was rapidly becoming obsolete as an attack platform. Consequently, 98 of the RCN Avengers were fitted with an extensive number of novel ASW modifications, including radar, electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment, and sonobuoys, and the upper ball turret was replaced with a sloping glass canopy that was better suited for observation duties. The modified Avengers were designated AS 3. A number of these aircraft were later fitted with a large magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom on the rear left side of the fuselage and were re-designated AS 3M. However, RCN leaders soon realized the Avenger’s shortcomings as an ASW aircraft, and in 1954 they elected to replace the AS 3 with the Grumman S-2 Tracker, which offered longer range, greater load-carrying capacity for electronics and armament, and a second engine, a great safety benefit when flying long-range ASW patrols over frigid North Atlantic waters. As delivery of the new license-built CS2F Trackers began in 1957, the Avengers were shifted to training duties, and were officially retired in July 1960.
The post war disappearance on December 5th, 1945 of a flight of five American Avengers, known as Flight 19, was later added to the Bermuda Triangle legend, first written about in a September 16th, 1950 Associated Press article published in The Miami Herald by Edward Van Winkle Jones.
On December 5th, 1945 a beautiful day for flying a flight of five Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers took off from Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station on a training flight. The flight plan had the flight 19 flying east and doing a bombing run at Hens and Chickens Shoals, Bahamas, flying North over Grand Bahama Island, and then back to Fort Lauderdale.
The flight took off at 2:10 pm with complement of 14 men –tail gunner Corporal Alan Kosnar asked not to fly that day– all of which had over 300 hours of experience in the Avenger. Flight leader Lt. Charles Taylor was a combat experienced pilot/instructor.
At 2:30 the flight successfully completed their bombing run of the Hens and Chickens Shoal. Then they were supposed go further east for another 67 miles towards the Bahamas. At 3:30 Lt. Taylor reported that his compass was malfunctioning. He reported that he was over the Florida Keys. WAY Southwest of where they should have been.
He was immediately given instructions to turn North towards Miami. It seems that Lt. Taylor was completely lost and turned around. At 3:45 Lt. Taylor radioed that he was not over land, and sounded frightened. One of the trainees was heard saying “If we just head West, We would get home.”
At 4:45 Lt. Taylor was ordered to turn over flight lead to one of the trainee pilots. This did not happen.
When fuel began to run low, Taylor was heard prepping his men for a potential crash landing in the ocean. “All planes close up tight,” he said. “We’ll have to ditch unless landfall…when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.” A few minutes later, the Avengers’ last radio communications were replaced by an eerie buzz of static.
The last radio transmission from Flight 19 was at 7:04 they thought that they were 75 miles northeast of Cocoa, Florida.
Two PBM Mariner flying boats were dispatched to search for the missing planes. At 7:27 the PBM Mariner –Call sign Trainer 49– reported that it was nearing flight 19’s last assumed position. The plane and all 13 on board were never seen or heard from again.
The crew of the S.S. Gaines Mills reported seeing a “fireball” fall from the sky near New Smyrna beach at 7:50.
The search effort was MASSIVE! The US Navy alone launched 248 airplanes, the US Army searched Florida’s coast and inland, the US Army Air Force had planes in the air, the Royal Air Force from Nassau, and an aircraft carrier all coordinated by the US Coast Guard.
They searched over 200,000 square miles of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
The Navy originally blamed Lt. Taylor for the crash. Eight months later they change the crash to “Unknown Reasons.”
TBM Avengers were used in wartime research into counter-illumination camouflage. The torpedo bombers were fitted with Yehudi lights, a set of forward-pointing lights automatically adjusted to match the brightness of the sky. The planes therefore appeared as bright as the sky, rather than as dark shapes. The technology, a development of the Canadian navy’s diffused lighting camouflage research, allowed an Avenger to advance to within 3,000 yards (2,700 m) before being seen.
Many Avengers have survived into the 21st century working as spray-applicators and water-bombers throughout North America, particularly in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Forest Protection Limited (FPL) of Fredericton, NB once owned and operated the largest civilian fleet of Avengers in the world. FPL began operating Avengers in 1958 after purchasing 12 surplus TBM-3E aircraft from the Royal Canadian Navy. Use of the Avenger fleet at FPL peaked in 1971 when 43 aircraft were in use as both water bombers and spray aircraft. The company sold three Avengers in 2004 (C-GFPS, C-GFPM, and C-GLEJ) to museums or private collectors. The Central New Brunswick Woodsmen’s Museum has a former FPL Avenger on static display. An FPL Avenger that crashed in 1975 in southwestern New Brunswick was recovered and restored by a group of interested aviation enthusiasts and is currently on display at the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum. FPL was still operating three Avengers in 2010 configured as water-bombers, and stationed at Miramichi Airport. One of these crashed just after take-off on April 23rd, 2010, killing the pilot. The last FPL Avenger was retired on 26th July 2012 and sold to the Shearwater Aviation Museum in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
There are several other Avengers in private collections around the world today. They are a popular airshow fixture in both flying and static displays.
Hobbymaster Grumman TBM-3 Avengers available at Flying Tigers to Pre-Order.
Please click on the images or links below to go straight to the model of your choice. These will only be available in very small numbers in the U.K. Please order ealy to avoid disappointment.
Latest Model Arrivals at Flying Tigers this week.
In the last few days, Flying Tigers has taken in very large deliveries of Hobbymaster, Oxford Diecast, Skymax, Century Wings and Air Force 1 models.
Those of you who have ordered these models as pre-orders will be receiving them over the course of next week. Please be patient as we have a lot of models to get out all at once. To speed up the dispatch process additional members have staff have just been recruited. I have included some of the new model arrivals below for you to view. There will only be small quantities of these remaining once the pre-ordered models have been allocated. Please order quickly to avoid disappointment by clicking on the images or links below to go straight to the model of your choice to order now.
That’s all for this week. Thank you for taking time to read this week’s Newsletter. Don’t forget the clocks go back this weekend, an extra hour in bed but darker mornings !