The heyday of the dive bomber was relatively short, spanning roughly the years from 1938 to 1945. Precision-guided munitions and improved anti-aircraft defenses rendered the concept obsolete.
But during those seven years, Allied and Axis dive bombers inflicted plenty of damage as they blasted their way into the pages of military aviation history. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the best dive bombers in history.
Junkers Ju-87 Stuka
This plane proved the efficacy of the dive bombing concept in real-world combat, fighting with the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion in December 1938.
As pointed out by my 19FortyFive colleague Peter Suciu, “It was the first combat aircraft employed in the Second World War” as part of the Nazi German blitzkrieg against Poland that started on Sept. 1, 1939. The Ju-87 would also obtain the Luftwaffe’s first air-to-air kill of WWII, and it proved to be an effective tank killer on the Eastern Front.
This Imperial Japanese plane introduced the deadly idea of dive bombing to American shores. The “Val,” along with the Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bomber, spearheaded the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “day that will live in infamy.”
Indeed, the D3A was the first Japanese warplane of any type to attack American targets during WWII, following up the Pearl Harbor raid with the strikes on Clark Field in the Philippines the day after, paving the way for Japan’s invasion and three-year-long occupation of the Philippines. The D3A sank more Allied warships than any other Axis airplane.
As Joe Coles of Hush-Kit notes in his June 2020 article “Hell’s Screaming Enforcers! Top 10 Dive Bombers of World War II”:
“With 11,427 units the Pe-2 was the most-produced dive bomber of any type. It was also the third most numerous of World War II’s twin-engine warplanes after the Ju 88 (15,000+) and the Wellington (11,462). It is perhaps telling that how little recognition this vital warplane receives outside of Russia…This is the biggest and most powerful aircraft on our list, as well as the fastest to actually fly…How well this worked out is reinforced by the combat record of the Pe-2 and the fact Poland kept it in service until the year Jerry Lee Lewis released Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On .”
Just how fast and powerful was the Pe-2? It had a max airspeed of 336 miles per hour and carried 2,200 pounds of bombs, four 7.62mm machine guns and two 12.7mm machine guns, according to Russell Miller and the Editors of Time-Life Books in “The Soviet Air Force at War” (part of the excellent Epic of Flight series). It had a length of 41 feet 6 inches, a wingspan of 56 feet 4 inches, and a max takeoff weight of 18, 728 pounds.
Tie: Blackburn B-24 Skua and Fairey Barracuda
Next to the Soviets, the Britons flew perhaps the most underappreciated dive bombers of WWII. The Skua was appropriately named for a seabird that essentially “divebombs” would-be predators that get too close to its nest. I would rate this plane and the Barracuda as roughly equal in terms of historical significance and accomplishments. The Skua was the Royal Navy’s first dive bomber in Fleet Air Arm service, going operational in November 1938. Meanwhile, the Barracuda, which entered operational service in January 1943, did double-duty as a torpedo bomber and dive bomber, thus becoming the first aircraft of this type employed by the Fleet Air Arm to be constructed entirely of metal.
The Skua made history as the first dive bomber to sink a capital ship, with the German Kriegsmarine cruiser Königsberg playing the role of victim off Bergen, Norway, in April 1940. Not so wisely, the Brits also used the Skua as a fighter plane, whereupon it suffered heavy losses against the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. Nonetheless, at least one Skua pilot attained ace status with five air-to-air kills.
Due to those heavy losses, the Barracuda came along to replace the Skua. According to the Key.Aero website, “More than 2,500 Barracuda aircraft were eventually delivered to the Fleet Air Arm – greater than any other type ordered by the Royal Navy to date…the formidable Barracuda remains as one of Britain’s most iconic naval aircraft.”
The greatest moment of glory for the “Barra,” as its crews affectionately dubbed her, was during Operation Tungsten on April 3, 1944, when 42 Barracudas attacked the Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz, scoring 16 hits, killing 122 sailors, and inflicting enough damage to disable the battlewagon for over two months.
Douglas SBD Dauntless
I saved the best for last. Yes, the Dauntless is my favorite WWII warbird, as well as my #2 favorite aircraft of all-time (a very close second behind the B-52 “BUFF”). But there’s more than personal sentiment at play. Of all the dive bombers on this list, the “slow but deadly” Dauntless was the only true game-changer, one that turned the tide of the war, at least in the Pacific Theater. That happened, of course, during the Battle of Midway in June 1942, when Dauntless crews sank the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers Kaga, Akagi, Sōryū, and Hiryū.
The Dauntless ended up sinking more Japanese ships in the Pacific than any other Allied aircraft, and did its fair amount of damage to the Axis in the European and Mediterranean Theaters as well, for instance sinking the Vichy French battleship Jean Bart during Operation Torch.
To top it all off, the Dauntless stands out as the only WWII bomber with a positive kill ratio against enemy aircraft, officially credited with 138 air-to-air victories vs. 43 losses.
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).
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