TBF Avenger: The Warplane That Killed The Largest Battleship Ever


The age of the battleship is over.

And yet, history is filled with countless examples of how they lived, fought, and died.

The TBF Avenger has a special place in this history.


In my recent articles on the U.S. Navy’s legendary Iowa-class battleships, I noted that these ships never did engage in any fights with enemy battleships. Armchair admirals thus have to settle for “what-if” debates about who would have won in a fight between the Iowas and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s biggest behemoths, the sister ships Yamato and Musashi, with their mammoth 18-inch guns and 72,000-ton displacements.

Having said that, it is now time to take a look at the war machine that did end up sinking the Yamato and Musashi: the TBF Avenger torpedo bomber.

TBF Avenger History and Specifications

The TBF Avenger made her maiden flight on Aug. 7, 1941, and officially entered into operational service with the U.S. Navy in January 1942. The plane was manufactured by the Grumman Corporation, nowadays known as Northrup Grumman and also known for legendary warbirds such as the F6F Hellcat and the F-14 Tomcat.

In a twist of historical fate, as noted in a September 2022 article by Scott Mall in Flying, “On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, Grumman held a ceremony to open a new manufacturing plant and display its new Avenger torpedo bomber to the public.

When Grumman officials learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the facility was quickly sealed off against possible sabotage.”

As Stephan Wilkinson on HistoryNet teaches us, the Avenger was the largest single-engine airplane produced during WWII, by any combatant. With a maximum takeoff weight of 17,893 pounds, it outweighed even the P-47 Thunderbolt, which carried nicknames such as “the flying bathtub” and “the jug.”

A major contributor to the aircraft’s weight was the 1-ton carrying capacity of the bomb bay, which could be filled by either a single 2,000-lb Mark 13 torpedo or four 500-lb bombs.

Additional specifications included a fuselage length of 40 feet 11 inches, a wingspan of 54 feet 2 inches, and a height of 16 feet 5 inches. Max airspeed was 276 miles per hour at 16,500 feet, and its altitude ceiling was 30,100 feet.

Self-defensive armament consisted of two wing-mounted .50 caliber Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” forward-firing machine guns, one .50 caliber dorsal gun, and one .30 caliber Browning M1919 ventral gun.

A total of 9,839 Avengers were built.

Avenger: Killing the Musashi

It was the biggest single engine warbird of WWII that killed the biggest battleships of WWII (or any other period of history, for that matter). The first of the IJN giants to die was the Musashi, who met her fate during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. (This engagement is also when history’s last battleship-vs-battleship fight took place).

The Avenger didn’t sink the Musashi by itself of course — the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver made a major contribution as well. Long story short, at 10:27 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 24, 1944, the attack on the Musashi began. It was carried out by 259 aircraft launched in six waves from four American aircraft carriers.

The attacking Avengers scored a total of 19 torpedo hits, 10 to the ship’s port side and 9 to its starboard side, while the Helldivers tacked on 17 bomb impacts for good measure. Just after 7:30 p.m., the Musashi slipped beneath the waves of the Sibuyan Sea, claiming the lives of 1,023 of her 2,399 crew, including her skipper.

Avenger: Killing the Yamato

The Yamato managed to hold out until April 7, 1945, when she and other members of a ragtag IJN fleet were set upon by Avengers and Helldivers while making a desperate run for Okinawa. The Yamato took less time and fewer hits to sink.

The attack began at 12:37 p.m. that day and ended with the ship erupting in a mushroom cloud at 2:23 p.m. after being struck by 11 torpedoes and 6 bombs. (For a dramatic eyewitness account of the sinking of Yamato, read the bestselling book Japanese Destroyer Captain by former IJN Capt. Tameichi Hara.)

The Yamato also suffered a far worse death toll than the Musashi, with 3,055 of her 3,332-man crew perishing, including fleet commander Vice-Admiral Seiichi Itō.

Avenger: The Plane of a Future POTUS

Besides sinking the world’s biggest battleships, the TBF Avenger’s other biggest claim to fame was being flown by a future president of the United States, that being George Herbert Walker Bush. After being commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on June 9, 1943, Bush served a combat cruise from May to November 1944.

He logged 1,228 flying hours, made 126 carrier landings, and flew 58 combat missions. It was during an airstrike on a Japanese installation in Chichijima that Bush’s TBF was shot down, resulting in the deaths of his fellow crew members.

The future POTUS successfully bailed out of the stricken plane, and after floating for hours on a life raft and bleeding profusely from his forehead, Bush was rescued by the submarine USS Finback.

Where Are They Now?

A goodly number of Avengers survive today, both as static displays and airworthy specimens. One such example of the latter is with the Commemorative Air Force CAF) Capital Wing in Brandy Station, Virginia.