The Dauntless (SBD) Described
According to the pilots who flew it, the Dauntless was a well-liked airplane. Its maneuverability permitted it to be flown like a fighter. It was this nimbleness that permitted the SBD to score a very respectable number of victories against attacking fighters.
Remember that, although the airplane was technically a bomber, the French used it for about five years as an aerobatic trainer. It did have aerobatic limitations, a relatively slow roll rate in particular, but it had the strength to permit fledgling pilots to make spectacular execution errors with an excellent chance of survival.
It was this great structural integrity, combined with a famously reliable engine, that permitted aggressive attacks on a heavily defended target with a good chance of getting back to the carrier/base.
One SBD staggered back to the flight deck after action in the Coral Sea Battle with 214 holes in its airframe. A pilot can easily fall in love with an airplane like that!
Possibly the Dauntless’s greatest deficiency during its life was in its gun-power. In 1941, it could be considered a well-armed airplane. By 1943-1944, the two forward-firing guns were simply not adequate. Two good guns are all that are required for good air-to-air gunnery, but ground support is best performed behind a hail of lead.
The Dauntless’s fuselage was an all metal, aluminum alloy, semi-monocoque, stressed skin structure built in for sub-assemblies.
The cockpit was enclosed with a continuous transparent canopy with one stationary and three sliding sections. The windshield had a laminated bullet-proof glass and steel armor plating was installed in strategic locations to protect the crew.
The radio operator-gunner was equipped with a duplicate set of controls and was armed with a pair of .30 caliber machine guns on a ring mount.
The yoke bomb displacement gear was located beneath the center of the fuselage and afforded 12 inches of propeller clearance for the bomb.
The wing was made of all metal, multi-cellular stressed skin construction. Lift was generated by an NACA 2415-2409 airfoil augmented by hydraulically operated trailing edge wing flaps.
Additional drag was available to control diving speed by the perforated split dive flap function of the trailing edge flap. In a dive, the lower flap was depressed 40 degrees and the upper flap raised 37.5 degrees.
The hydraulically operated landing gear retracted inwards flush with the bottom of the wing surface. The strut was faired but the wheel was exposed. The full-swivel tail wheel was fixed. The ailerons were of all metal ribbed construction and fabric covered. A metal trim tab was installed in the left aileron.
The tail assembly featured an all metal cantilever structure. The stabilizers were metal covered and the movable surfaces were fabric. Trim was accomplished with tabs in the trailing edge of all movable surfaces.
This was the airplane that prompted Rear Admiral John McCain to state, “The Douglas SBD has sunk more enemy combatant tonnage than all other arms of the service combined.”
This was the aircraft of which TIME Magazine wrote in 1944, “She had no bugs, no streaks of temperament. She was a thoroughly honest aircraft. She could take a frightful beating and stagger home on wings that sometimes looked like nutmeg graters.”
The airplane grew old during World War II and by the war’s end was mainly used up. So common was the airplane in the lives of aviation people at the time and so completely exhausted was she that no one thought to preserve its memory and legend by saving some for display.
Like many Americans whose way of life was momentarily in the hands of the Douglas Dauntless, I have never seen one.
More About the Dauntless SBD
Designed as a scout/ dive bomber, the Dauntless has its roots in a Northrop development prior to takeover by Douglas. Ed Heinemann's team produced the prototype XBT-2 which resulted in an order in August 1939. Production commenced the following June with the initial Douglas built SBD-1s going to the USMC in late 1940 and the SBD-2s to the USN in 1941. The SBD-2 had an extra 100 US gallons fuel capacity and one less 50 cal. fuselage mounted gun.
The SBD-3 appeared in March 1941 with increased fuel capacity in self sealing tanks, increased armor and armament, and an R-1820-52 replacing the R-1820-32. Some were altered to carry a twin 30 cal. gun mount for the gunner. The SBD-4 was basically the same as the -3 using a 24volt electrical system (instead of 12volt) and a hydromatic propeller. The SBD-5 featured the 1,200 hp R-1820-60 engine, increased ammunition capacity, twin 30 cal. gun mount as standard, and radar.
The final production version, the SBD-6, used a 1350hp R-1820-66 and carried more fuel. The US Army also utilized the Dauntless, where the SBD-3 was designated A-24 Banshee, the SBD-4 as A-24A, and SBD-5 as A-24B. The aircraft were similar to the SBDs, but lacked a tail hook. Most also had a pnuematic tail wheel, as opposed to the solid rubber tire favored by the USN (some USMC aircraft also had this change). Production amounted to 5,936 aircraft of all types (ending July 22, 1944).
The RNZAF operated 69 dauntless aircraft (NZ5001-NZ5068, Bu28452) in the 1943-44 periods. Initially 206 A-24 aircraft were to be allocated under lend-lease provisions during 1943-44. However, none were delivered. When deliveries were delayed, the RNZAF was loaned 27 USMC SBD-3 and SBD-4s from Marine Air Group 14 (MAG-14).
These aircraft were allocated to 25 Squadron at Seagrove for training purposes in July 1943. The SBD-3 aircraft were initially operated in US markings with temporary RNZAF serials (NZ205-222), although these were later reallocated serials NZ5001-NZ5018. The SBD-4 aircraft were allocated NZ5019 through NZ5027. The aircraft were formally transferred to New Zealand in November 1943.
The 25 Squadron pilots underwent a 60 hour conversion course onto the Dauntless. Many of the pilots had come from disbanded Army Cooperation squadrons. The training aircraft were notably war weary - some of them were reputedly veterans of the Coral Sea and Guadalcanal. It has been estimated the serviceability of these aircraft was only in the order of 40%. However a formation of 18 aircraft was put up over Auckland on January 6, 1944 to mark the end of training.
At that time it was largest formation seen over Auckland. One aircraft was lost by 25 Squadron during training in a fatal accident- NZ211 (not yet serialed NZ5007) stalled while low flying near Wailuku on September 13 1943 and crashed and burned with the loss of P/O William McJannet and Sgt Douglas Cairns. A further aircraft was written off in training by 26 Squadron (see below)
25 Squadron were posted to Espiritu Santo at the end of January 1944 for forward operational training without aircraft. The A and B flights of the Servicing Unit (25 SU) which had formed in October 1943 left New Zealand on December 7 (aboard USS Octans) and arrived at Santo on December 12 1943. (C flight traveled up by air in January after 26 Squadron was disbanded). There they prepared 18 more loaned USMC SBD-4s (NZ5028-NZ5045).
Records show the first 9 aircraft to have been brought on charge on December 17. The next four were brought on charge on Dec 26, with a further aircraft on Dec 30. Two more pairs were accepted on January 8 and January 26, 1944. Again these aircraft were reportedly in poor condition. The aircraft were used to carry out operational training. Based from Pallikulo, the six week program involved area familiarization, radio work, and practice missions - including working with US (predominantly USMC) dive bomber units. During this period one aircraft, NZ5037, was lost. The aircraft had been on an early afternoon flight for radio familiarization when it disappeared with F/O Alexander Moore and his WOPAG, Flt.Sgt John Munro. The wreckage was not located until 1987, when it was found about 23 miles North West of Santo (more on this aircraft below).
The SBD-4 aircraft were replaced by new SBD-5 aircraft (NZ5046-NZ5063) prior to the squadron commencing combat operations from Bougainville in March 1944. The aircraft were officially brought on charge on various dates from February 19 to early March, 1944. New Zealand serials were applied from February 25th. 25 SU were sent by sea to the new base arriving on March 15th to take up the camp previously occupied by MAG-24 at Piva near Torokina. The arrival of the aircraft was postponed as the area was still subject to enemy shelling. The first wave of aircraft departed on March 22, and arrived on March 23, with the remainder arriving the following day. One aircraft was lost in route, when NZ5055 crashed and was written off at Henderson Field on the 22nd. On the 24th a number of sorties were carried out from Piva against enemy positions near the perimeter - 4 for artillery spotting, and 19 for bombing. It was a curious situation as the ground crew who bombed up the aircraft could then watch them take off and deliver the ordnance on the target. A further 15 local sorties were carried out on March 25th, and these activities continued for a fortnight.
The primary role for the squadron was to assist in actions against the Japanese bases at Rabaul. The first operation was scheduled for March 26 against Kavieng airfield, but the squadron did not make the rendezvous. The squadron only failed to complete a mission on two other occasions, successfully completing 29 operations between March 27 and May 17. The squadron was under the control of General H.R. Harman COMAIRSOLS (Commander Air Solomons) and was effectively part of the Strike Command. However, the dive bomber squadron was frequently tasked to attack airfields in company with RNZAF 30 Squadron who operated TBF-1C Avengers. The 25 Squadron aircraft would suppress gun positions, while the Avengers attacked the runways. 25 SU were tasked with providing 12 serviceable aircraft each day from the average squadron strength of15. They managed this on all except one occasion. The first operational losses occurred on April 2, 1944. On this day NZ5054 and NZ5059 crashed and burned at Piva. On April 4 while three replacement aircraft were being ferried to Piva one (BuAer 28452 coded '176') became separated and was last reported as ditching.
The pilot, FO Leslie McLellan-Symonds died on May 25, 1944 of toxemia in a POW camp near Rabaul . On April 17 NZ5050 went missing on an operation against Lakunai Airstrip. Last seen over the target, it was believed to have been shot down with the loss of P/O Geoffrey Cray and W/O Frank Bell. NZ5058 was written off after the same mission due to damage from anti-aircraft fire. The final loss was NZ5051 which crashed in Greet Harbor during another attack on Lakunai, probably due to anti-aircraft fire. The crew were F/L Jack Edwards and W/O Louis Hoppe.
On the same mission, a 30 Squadron TBF-1c, NZ2541, was lost under similar circumstances. The last two replacement aircraft appear to have joined the squadron around April 25, 1944. The last operation was carried out on May 17, 1944. The surviving aircraft were then returned to the USMC at Renarde Field in the Russell Islands on May 20th.
The 22 crews are reported to have averaged 95 hours each on operations. On return the aircraft on average had accumulated 120 hours flying and were reportedly in 'as new' condition, which reflected highly on the activities of 25 SU. The squadron was unique in New Zealand service, in that crews were assigned to particular aircraft. This gave rise to some distinctive aircraft decoration. Having completed an eight week tour, 25 Squadron were returned to New Zealand and the Squadron disbanded on June 19th. (The Squadron was reformed at Ardmore on October 30, 1944 as a fighter unit).
The New Zealand based SBD-3 and SBD-4 aircraft were passed to 26 Squadron for training at Seagrove. However, a decision to cancel the A-24 allocation in favor of further fighters saw the unit disbanded after only two weeks. The final training loss occurred on January 19, 1944 when NZ5004 failed to get airborne from Ardmore and the aircraft operated by a 26 Squadron pilot swung off the runway into a ditch. Subsequent investigation found the controls were in a locked position.
The SBD aircraft were used during January and February 1944 to train replacement aircrew for 25 Squadron before being placed in storage at Hobsonville. Seagrove then closed as a training base, becoming a satellite field for Ardmore. Three Dauntless aircraft were utilized as instructional airframes (NZ5009 to INST91 and NZ5018 to INST92 at TTS Nelson, and NZ5016 to INST110). As well as the two SBDs lost in training accidents, three more aircraft were handed back to the USN in June 1944. The remainder were sold for scrap in 1948.