The torpedo bomber is the cousin of the dive bomber. Carrying a torpedo under the fuselage, the torpedo plane dives down to a few feet above the surface of the water. The pilot aims his plane at the target, releases the torpedo, and takes evasive action. His task is considered one of the most hazardous in aerial warfare. It calls for cool courage and considerable determination.
When attacking a battleship or enemy aircraft carrier, he has to penetrate the protective screen of shell fire thrown up by the ship's heavy guns, and then he approaches his target usually under fire from small rapid-firing cannon and machine guns. All this in addition to brushes with enemy fighter planes.
Torpedo planes have been extraordinarily successful in their contacts with battleships, considerably more so than dive bombers.
One British aircraft carrier survived seven direct hits from large bombs from Italian dive bombers, but few battleships have survived concentrated attacks by torpedo planes. The Japanese used torpedo planes against the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. They also sank a British aircraft carrier and two cruisers in the Indian Ocean by torpedo plane attacks.
The torpedo plane seems to have been a British invention. The British Navy started experimenting with this type of craft before the outbreak of World War I. At the end of the war they had used torpedo planes with great effect from both land and carrier bases.
In 1914 the Blackburn Aircraft Company, manufacturers of the Skua, the R.A.F.'s standard dive bomber, had produced a formidable twin-engined biplane called the Kangaroo, which was armed with a full-sized torpedo.
At the outbreak of World War II, the British Navy's Fleet Air Arm and the R.A.F.'s Coastal Command had two types of torpedo bomber in service, the Fairey Swordfish and the Albacore, both biplanes . The comparatively old Swordfish did a variety of jobs, from dropping parachute mines into the Baltic and along the coast of Norway to attacking German surface ships during the occupation of Norway. They played a major part in the Battle of Taranto when the Italian fleet came off so badly under the assaults of their bombs and torpedoes. When aircraft carriers of the British Atlantic fleet closed in on the German battleship Bismarck, Swordfish and Albacores slowed up the pride of the Germany Navy and enabled the big guns of the British ships to finish her off. They performed similar tasks in the Battle of Cape Matapan, and justified the British belief in this form of sea attack, although the Swordfish with their speed in the neighborhood of 150 miles per hour were hopelessly out of date and woefully lacking in general plane performance . The Swordfish carried two men; the Albacore three. In the light of history, and the jobs they tackled, the crewmen of these old crates with their scant armament or armor rank among the unsung heroes of aviation.
There seems, in fact, to be no age limit to torpedo planes, or at least that was the popular conception up to the outbreak of war.
One of the most pathetic stories to come over the news wires was that an R.A.F. squadron was operating from Singapore during the Japanese attack with ancient Vickers Vildebeests which made their appearance in the twenties. The correspondents, in reporting their presence sailing through the clouds of smoke and fire over the beleaguered fortress, remarked that they seemed incredibly slow.
Why they should have been sent to defend one of the Empire's most important bastions in the Orient is a mystery, although one reason may have been that the Japanese torpedo planes were almost as ancient.
The R.A.F. Coastal Command, which is distinct from the Fleet Air Arm, decided that with certain modifications the Bristol Beaufighter would make an ideal torpedo plane, and consequently the Beaufort was put into production.
The Beaufort can operate from a carrier or from a land base, and it is similarly adaptable for bombing and reconnaissance. It carries a single torpedo in the bottom of the fuselage. For bombing purposes, the torpedo carrier is easily adjusted to a bomb bay.
At first sight, the Beaufort closely resembles the Blenheim, its wings being the same shape, which enables them to be used as replacements for either type machine. The Beaufort carries a crew of four—a pilot, navigator-bombardier, radio operator, and gunner . It is heavily armed with two guns in a turret amidships, two firing forward, and one firing to the rear by remote control.
The Beaufort, according to the R.A.F., has probably flown more operational miles than any other similar type of machine. It has been constantly at work preying on enemy shipping in the Atlantic , the English Channel and the Mediterranean, and recently made its appearance in the Indian Ocean where the Japs named it the "Whispering Death" because of its habit of creeping up without warning on ships, going into its run, and coming almost to a standstill with flaps open and engine switched off, to launch its torpedoes.
The Beaufort's score of enemy shipping accounted for runs into thousands. It has been used extensively as a mine layer, and has executed hush-hush missions which can only be told after the war. One of the most daring exploits of the Beaufort was that of a single plane which flew through the defenses of Brest on the west coast of France, and torpedoed a German cruiser lying at anchor, escaping without even being hit. Another Beaufort of the Coastal Command attacked the German battleship Tirpitz in the Trondheim Fiord in Norway, flying down between the mountain tops to deliver its tin fish.
The machine is well able to defend itself, and like the Sunderland has earned the respect of the German fighters and reconnaissance planes. A Beaufort on coastal patrol off the coast of Norway gave battle to two German Arados and a Heinkel seaplane. One Arado and the Heinkel were shot down. The third plane fled, and the Beaufort continued with its job of laying mines in the entrance to a fiord. In the English Channel just before dawn two Beauforts came upon a German destroyer escorting a flak ship into position. The pilots decided to lead the Germans a dance, and came down low to attack the beam of the destroyer, which expected a torpedo, and began to maneuver at top speed, so fast that its antiaircraft guns were not able to get into action effectively. The Beauforts had only gun fire with which to attack the enemy, but they made good use of it, setting the destroyer's deck house on fire, and doing considerable damage to the new flak ship.
Beauforts are manufactured in Australia as well as in England, and they have already been in action in the East, where they play havoc with Japanese ships. Their extensive range and heavy armament make the Beauforts a formidable weapon against an invasion fleet or enemy carriers operating against hostile coasts. Considerably faster than carrier-based torpedo bombers, and capable of a much heavier load over greater distance, these aircraft may eventually figure largely in the amphibious warfare that must eventually crush Japanese power in the Pacific.
The United States Navy's interest in torpedo planes began during the last war and continued steadily, differing from that of the British in that American planes were far in advance of the Swordfish and Albacores in all-round performance. United States torpedo planes, such as the Grumman Avenger and the Douglas Devastator, have played a large part in smashing Japanese air power in the Pacific. During the Battle of Midway, Martin Marauders fitted with torpedoes tore into the Jap fleet and did considerable damage.
There is also talk of using a modified version of the Douglas A-20 as a land-based torpedo plane. The Douglas TBD Devastator, first monoplane torpedo plane in the world, is said to be more than 160 miles an hour faster than the Swordfish. It went into service in 1938 with squadrons attached to the Saratoga, Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet. Powered by an 825-hp. Twin Wasp Jr., the Devastator carries a crew of two, and has a maximum speed of just over 200 miles per hour.
The main criticism that can be leveled against the Devastator is that it seems to have been underarmed and insufficiently armored, as is evidenced by the heroic epic of Torpedo Squadron Eight, which lost all but one plane during the Battle of Midway. The reason for these losses may also have been partly due to lack of fighter protection, and the extraordinary daring of the pilots. Certainly the heavy losses of these planes caused the designers to give considerable attention to the armoring and armament of subsequent models, and today the gallant Devastator is obsolete, being replaced by the Navy's Grumman TBF Avenger, which made its sensational debut at Midway.
The Avenger looks rather like a bigger brother of the Grumman Wildcat, with its square-cut wings and thick fuselage that tapers at the rear under the fin. It is powered by a 1600-hp. Wright Cyclone , which gives it a speed of some 300 miles per hour. It is probably as heavily armed as the Beaufort, and can carry either bombs or torpedoes.
On a recent visit to a naval base, I saw Navy pilots engaged in operational practice on the Avengers. The big-bellied machines swooped down at fighter speed, skimmed the water at low altitude, and then soared into the sky with astonishing speed. It was easy to imagine what a shock the Japs had when these "flying tanks" burst on the scene in the Pacific and dropped their 21-inch torpedoes with deadly precision.
United States Navy torpedo tactics are probably the most advanced of all the belligerents, being the result of many years' experiments , and of continued action in the Pacific. The aim of the torpedo plane pilot is to deliver his missile on the target about fifteen to thirty feet below the surface of the water. A hit on the hull of a ship at this depth strikes the most vulnerable spot, where the water pressure helps to hold the explosion in, so that it will exert the fullest pressure against the hull.
Modern ships have developed highly effective evasive action against torpedoes, so the pilot must get in close to drop his torpedo from about three hundred feet. His plane must be absolutely level.
If it were diving, the torpedo would go into the water at an angle and dive too deeply, or perhaps nose over entirely and come out in the wrong direction. If the plane is climbing, the torpedo will porpoise.
Torpedo planes approach their target usually under cover of fighters, and then peel off, diving from out the sun, or from the darkest part of the sky if the attack is at dusk or dawn.
Once lined on his target, the pilot must keep his plane level and when in range, he opens his flaps and reduces his speed until the machine is almost stalling. This is to reduce the shock of the torpedo, with its delicate mechanism, in hitting the water.
The principle behind torpedo attack is not so much to sink a ship with one knock-out blow, but rather to deliver a series of hits from all angles, each of which will slow up the vessel and make her a better target for dive bombers or big guns. Torpedo planes usually come in to attack in echelon, with ample space between planes to enable them to break away in either direction, and to avoid the danger of enemy fire being concentrated on more than, one machine.
The attack is usually delivered from the beam and forward, so that the ship presents the greatest possible target. Sometimes the torpedo planes attack from the front of a ship, coming in low, and then each plane of the line turns alternately to port or starboard, to what is known as double attack, striking simultaneously on either side of the ship. The planes move in from both port and starboard bows spaced ninety degrees apart, their speed synchronized to bring each plane on the target at an interval of one minute. This method minimizes the chance of the captain of the ship maneuvering his vessel to avoid attack by bringing his ship parallel to the torpedo plane, as might be possible in a single attack. Should he manage this in the case of the attack from port, the ship is still a target for the torpedo released by the starboard plane.
Various other methods of attack are used. Sometimes a torpedo attack is preluded by the laying of a smoke screen, to facilitate approach . The planes dart in and out of the screen, which hides them from hostile antiaircraft fire and fighter plane attack. They pounce on their target and withdraw into the smoke screen again.
The ideal attack on a battleship or aircraft carrier is delivered by an air group consisting of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes. The fighters attempt to draw off the carrier's fighters; the dive bombers attack, drawing the fire of the antiaircraft guns; the torpedo planes sneak up from unexpected angles and deliver their deadly weapons. The advantage of such an attack is that its threefold nature causes the ship to dissipate its fire.
The United States Navy is said to have a new, improved type of super-torpedo plane in the process of development. This is the Chance Vought Sea Wolf, a brother of the famed Corsair fighter.
The Sea Wolf will probably have a longer range and greater armament than any existing torpedo plane, and might conceivably follow the general layout of the Beaufort, perhaps being designed for use on the super 45,000-ton carriers the Navy is constructing.
It is significant to note that many of Germany's bigger planes, including the Heinkel 177 and the Dornier 217E, are fitted with equipment that enables them to be rapidly converted to use as torpedo planes. The Germans may have anticipated the time when every available aircraft would be needed to fight off seaborne invasion , all of which supports the theory that the torpedo plane, land based or carrier borne, is the battleship's most formidable enemy.