As was the case with dive bombers, the heyday of torpedo bombers did not outlast the Second World War. More effective anti-aircraft defenses rendered the dive bomber obsolete, while anti-ship missiles did the same to the torpedo bomber concept.
However, just like dive bombers, torpedo bombers were highly effective during their glory days. And in the case of the torpedo bomber, the platform’s success spanned both World Wars.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the five best torpedo bombers in history.
The only biplane on this list, it is no small wonder that such a seemingly obsolescent aerial platform proved so successful during the monoplane-centric aerial combat of WWII. Nigel Davies, a self-described “professional historian and educator [who] challenges some assumptions” writes on his Rethinking History blog that “the Swordfish was simply the most successful torpedo bomber of the war.”
“It damaged and sank more warships (German, Italian, Japanese and French!), more submarines, more merchant ships, more torpedo boats, more midget subs, more just about anything, than any other single type of plane in the inventory of either Axis or Allies.”
The greatest successes of the “Stringbag” included damaging Nazi Germany’s infamous Bismarck battleship, slowing the behemoth enough that the HMS Rodney and King George V were finally able to “Sink the Bismarck.” Just as notable was the Fleet Air Arm’s daring raid on Taranto Harbor in November 1940, wherein 20 Swordfish attacked the Italian fleet ensconced within that seemingly impregnable port, sinking the Italian battleships Conte di Cavour and Caio Duilio and knocking out the battleship Littorio for the duration of the war. Only two Swordfish were shot down in the process.
The success of the British Swordfish at Taranto inadvertently served as a catalyst for the success of an Axis torpedo plane, which just happens to be the next on this list.
Nakajima B5N (Allied codename “Kate”)
This is the plane that, along with the Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber, spearheaded the Imperial Japanese Navy’s raid on Pearl Harbor. The IJN used the Taranto raid to model its own attack. Indeed, the commander of the strike, Capt. Mitsuo Fuchida, flew in a Kate. Another B5N was credited with sinking the battleship USS Arizona, as the plane’s “torp” caused a catastrophic explosion of the ship’s forward magazines.
The following year, IJN Kates played a key role in sinking the aircraft carrier USS Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea that May. One month later, during the Battle of Midway, B5N torpedo hits left the carrier USS Yorktown dead in the water, making the “Fighting Lady” easy pickings for the Japanese submarine I-168.Granted, the Japanese lost both of these battles, but the B5N still left her mark.
Mitsubishi G4M (Allied codename “Betty”)
Yes, Imperial Japan has two entries on this list. Though not exclusively designed as a torpedo bomber, it was in the torpedo-bombing role that the “Betty” — nicknamed “Hamaki (cigar)” by her crews, had its single greatest success. The aircraft sank the HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse with four torpedo hits apiece, in exchange for the loss of only two Hamakis and one Mitsubishi G3M Type 96. Sir Winston Churchill said of this event, “In all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”
Savoia Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero (“Sparrowhawk”)
This plane probably gets the shortest shrift because Italy was the first Axis nation to capitulate during WWII. However, this three-engined medium bomber — affectionately nicknamed the “gobbo maledetto (damned hunchback)” by her crews – inflicted more than her fair share of damage to Allied shipping prior to Italy’s defeat. As Paolo Morisi of HistoryNet notes:
“Between 1940 and 1943, the SM.79 stormi (wings) based in Sicily, Sardinia and Libya were constantly in action against British warships and merchant vessels. In fact, they participated in all major air campaigns in the Mediterranean, providing pinpoint bombing during the Axis invasions of Crete and Greece, the siege of Malta and the North African campaign, including the Battle of El Alamein. Torpedo-armed SM.79s either sank or damaged 20 warships, and 19 enemy merchant ships were put out of action and their cargo destroyed. It is estimated that SM.79s were responsible for destroying as much as 320,000 tons of enemy shipping, a remarkable achievement even in comparison to the tally of larger torpedo bomber fleets.”
Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger
As already mentioned, Nigel Davies makes a compelling case for the Swordfish as the most successful torpedo bomber. But one could argue the same case for the American-made Avenger, and Davies in fact acknowledges that “there is no doubt that the Avenger was a much better aircraft.”
In terms of prestige, it’s hard to argue against the Avenger. It scored the two biggest ship kills of WWII, taking down the 72,000-ton IJN super-battleships Yamato and Musashi. In both cases, of course, Avenger crews had some help from Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers. The Yamato received 11 torpedo and 6 bomb hits, while the Musashi absorbed 19 torpedo and 17 bomb strikes before finally succumbing.
One other factor helps the Avenger stand out as the most prestigious of all torpedo bombers: She’s the one plane on this list to be flown by an eventual head of state, Lt. (j.g.) George Herbert Walker Bush.
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).