Pre-War American Carrier Aviation
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In April 1941, the U.S. Navy opened its
new base at Bermuda, obtained (among other
concessions) in exchange for the transfer
of 50 overage destroyers to Britain’s
Royal Navy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt
made it the prime operating base for the new
Central Atlantic Neutrality Patrol, initially
consisting of the carrier Ranger, the
cruisers Tuscaloosa and Wichita, and the destroyers Kearny and Livermore. In May the carrier Wasp joined them, along with the cruisers Quincy and Vincennes and
seven destroyers. In June the carrier Yorktown arrived from the Pacific Fleet, escorted
by five destroyers.
All of these forces appear in Second World War at Sea: Bismarck,
along with additional battleships, cruisers
and destroyers. While Yorktown and Wasp are familiar to players of our
other games set in the Pacific theater,
the aircraft on their decks are radically
By 1942, American fighter squadrons were operating
the Grumman F4F Wildcat, a small but tough low-wing
monoplane. While not the equal of the Mitsubishi
A6M Zero flying from Japanese carriers, it could
at least put up a good fight in the hands of
a skilled pilot. But the plane only started
to come into service in the middle of 1941,
and none of them were in use when Bismarck made her famous raid.
A flight of Yorktown’s barrels.
When American carriers went out into the
Atlantic in search of German surface raiders,
their fighter squadrons still operated the
F3F “Flying Barrel.” Fifty-four
of the short, stubby fighter had first been
ordered in 1935 for carrier service, with
81 more improved F3F-2 planes purchased in
1937 when the Brewster F2A Buffalo monoplane
fighters the Navy hoped to buy instead failed
to materialize in time. A final order for
27 F3F-3 aircraft was delivered in 1939.
very similar in design to the previous F2F,
the F3F had many modern features: retractable
landing gear and a variable-pitch propellor,
both firsts for the U.S. Navy. Pilots loved
the highly manueverable machine, and considered
it the epitome of fighter design (a feeling
common to those who flew last-generation biplanes;
tragically, the Italian Air Force actually
listened to their pilots and kept their nimble
Cr.42 biplanes). Lightly armed like other
fighters of its type, the F3F had only two
machine guns but did have racks for small
As its replacement, the initial F4F design
was an improved biplane. When Grumman appeared
likely to lose the contract to Brewster, its
engineers recast their plane as a low-wing
monoplane that became the Wildcat. But it
still carried many features of the F3F biplane:
The undercarriage was identical, and it also
had the broad barrel-shaped body. By the time
of the Pearl Harbor attack, all of the F3F
squadrons had re-equipped with F4F Wildcats.
The biplanes continued as training aircraft
for several years, but never saw combat.
scouting and attack, most of the Navy’s
carriers stationed in the North Atlantic operated
the Northrop BT-1 dive bomber. Pilots disliked
it for its poor handling characteristics,
especially in a dive; deck crews liked it
even less as it lacked folding wings. The
older Vought SB2U Vindicator therefore was
not fully phased out of service, while the
Navy ordered an improved version of the BT-1.
Douglas Aircraft Corp. took over Northrop
while the plane was in development, and Jack
Northrop completed the BT-2 as the SBD Douglas
Dauntless. Like the F3F, the BT-1 had been
removed from service by the time of Pearl
Harbor, but unlike the biplane its wicked
handling sent it straight to the boneyard.
Douglas TBD Devastator had been the Navy’s
standard torpedo bomber since 1937, and it
had been outdated when introduced. It remained
on carrier decks into 1942, when Hornet’s Devastator-equipped Torpedo Squadron
Eight made its heroic sacrifice at the Battle
of Midway. It was a painfully slow aircraft,
barely topping 200 miles per hour, with range
about standard for the carrier air group of
its day but not up to the standards of the
The Devastator first flew in 1935, and by
late 1939 129 of them had been delivered.
Navy pilots considered it a high-performance
aircraft and a technological leap forward.
It was a comparatively large plane for the
day, as were all torpedo bombers, and could
carry a large bomb load instead. At Midway,
41 Devastators from three carriers attacked
the Japanese fleet. Four of them returned.
It could have been far worse. The Navy chose
the Devastator over the Great Lakes TBG-1, a
bizarre (and very large) biplane torpedo bomber
with three separate cockpits (the bombardier
has one below the engine, not visible in the
The TBG-1, loser in the torpedo bomber
American forces did not openly engage German
surface raiders, but they would have had they
met. The American carriers and their aircraft
appear in our Bismarck game, both historical and hypothetical engagements.
While their aircraft are shockingly primitive
compared to those of games set later in the
war, the German carrier Graf
Zeppelin would likely have been operating
biplane fighters and torpedo bombers at this
point in the war had she been completed on
schedule, while British carriers had a biplane
torpedo bomber and a few had biplane fighters.
The F3F biplanes, BT-1 dive bombers and TBD torpedo bombers also see action in our Midway: Rising Sun 1940 Campaign Study, taking wing to defend Hawaii against the Japanese in the summer of 1940. Since the Japanese are already operating the A6M2 Zero fighter, it’s a pretty stiff challenge.
Click here to order Bismarck Second Edition.
Click here to order Midway: Rising Sun 1940.
Please allow an extra two weeks for delivery.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published scads of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold fears biplanes.