Torpedo Bombers End Battleship Supremacy

Much has been written since the dawn of war regarding Hitler's "secret weapon." Now it appears that there is nothing new or secret about his devices, but that he has simply streamlined and adapted methods which are decades, even centuries old. In Norway, that tool of war was organized treason, in Holland the paratrooper, in France and Poland it was a combination of Stuka and tank, and in the Mediterranean it was glider-borne infantry. None of these weapons were secret except in terms of the time and manner in which they were employed. Of the remaining instruments or techniques to be utilized on a broad scale by the Germans, torpedo bombers head the list. The airplane which blazes in low to release a deadly underwater missile is not new, but it rates as the naval weapon of tomorrow, for despite its potentialities, no belligerent has used it on a broad scale. Any one of the nations at war can quickly change this condition, for each has at least one effective torpedo bomber. Because of their potential military importance, they are among the planes which combat pilots and naval gun batteries must recognize accurately, instantly.

Battleships have met torpedo bombers on relatively few occasions in the war so far, and in only a few isolated engagements were sizable torpedo plane forces encountered. But as late as mid-summer, torpedo bombers had sunk more capital ships than any other weapon. And they had succeeded without the help of tactical flukes such as the Bismarck's lucky hit near an ammunition conveyor on the Hood and the Japanese bomb which dropped down the Arizona's funnel. When the British aircraft carrier Illustrious met seven direct hits by 1,000-pound bombs last spring, she steamed into Malta without aid. But when Japanese torpedo planes attacked British naval units in the Indian Ocean a short time later, the aircraft carrier Hermes and two cruisers, the Cornwall and Dorsetshire, went to the bottom.

Although it took Taranto to focus attention on the torpedo plane as a military force, torpedo bombing was used with some success during the last war. An Italian, Captain Guidoni, is credited with the first torpedo-carrying flight — with a Farman biplane in 1911. His torpedo, weighing 352 lb, was slung casually beneath the fuselage, That same year, Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske, an American, launched the first torpedo from the air. In 1912, he patented the type of aerial torpedo most widely used today. Then an English naval officer, Lt Hyde-Thompson interested the Admiralty in the building of a torpedo bomber and, two years later, a Short seaplane, carrying a 14-inch torpedo, flew in the great parade of British sea might at Spithead as Europe plunged into war. Torpedo planes scored heavily against the Turks in the Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles and Germany essayed the new aerial weapon, sinking several British ships in the North Sea in 1917. But seaplanes of that day were too fragile to carry the heavy, self-propelled underwater torpedo and Britain virtually abandoned the idea after Gallipoli. They had to wait until seaplanes became more rugged or a method was found for the launching and landing of wheeled planes at sea. The latter solution, also pioneered by the English, came first. In 1918, the HMS Argus, first regular aircraft carrier in any navy, put to sea carrying a torpedo plane squadron.

The torpedo bomber is effective principally because it hits below the armor belt. But this striking below the waterline poses a number of problems for aeronautical designers because the torpedo's own motor, fuel, and controls make it the heaviest of all projectiles for a given amount of explosive. A torpedo with a 300-lb warhead weighs approximately 900 lbs while a torpedo carrying 500 lbs of TNT weighs nearly a ton. Few carrier-based planes in service today can take a full-ton bomb or torpedo load off the deck. The second problem of torpedo bombing is purely tactical. When set to move at 15 to 25 knots, a torpedo will travel thousands of yards. But a 20-knot ship in the hands of a talented skipper can easily dodge a tin-fish moving at 25 knots. Therefore, successful torpedo strategy demands a projectile speed of nearly 40 knots — a range-reducing speed — which calls for actual launching of the torpedo very near the projected target. That air torpedo operations rank as our navy's closest approach to suicide tactics may be explained by the fact that planes must fly only a few feet above the water — just high enough to clear the torpedo's splash — while traveling in a perfectly level line at only 150 mph. Obviously, torpedo plane designers in few countries have solved their problems in the same manner. No military operations boast a more motley assortment of types than torpedo bombing, which adds considerable difficulty to the spotter's job with torpedo planes.

In America, the four-year-old Douglas Devastator, TBD-1, is still the standard torpedo plane, despite omission of this type on official identification lists which presumably include all first-line planes. Only the optimist can believe that the Devastator has been replaced as a navy workhorse by the Grumman TBF Avenger.

British equipment is even more definitely dated than our own. The Fairey Swordfish, a 150-mph biplane relic of another era, has dropped from official lists of first-line planes, but its successor, the Albacore, still hangs on. The Bristol Beaufort, converted from bombing to torpedo operations, ranks as the most effective torpedo plane used by the Royal Navy.

This article was originally published in the December, 1942, "Complete Spotter's Guide" issue of Air News magazine, vol 3, no 6, pp 74-75, 98.
Air News was published on newsprint in 10½" × 13½" format.
The original article includes 4 photos: He-111, Botha, Beaufort, torpedo detonator.
Photos credited to European, British Combine.