Grumman also flew the first of two XTBF-3 Avengers on June 20, 1943, distinguished by a 1,900-hp R-2600-20 engine with multiple cowl flaps. Eastern Aircraft began delivering TBM-3 models in April 1944 with 495 pounds of armor and eight 5-inch rocket launchers under the wings. Fittings were provided for 100-gallon drop tanks or 1,000-pound bombs under the wings and a 2,000-pound bomb or mine in the bomb bay.
Trenton-built Avengers parallel Grumman models, proceeding through 550 TBM-1s, 2,332 TBM-1Cs, and 4,661 TBM-3s by September 1945. Some of these became TBM-1Ds and TBM-3Ds when fitted with APS-3 radar on the starboard wing’s leading edge. The Navy’s first Night Air Group, for the Independence in August 1944, included four TBM-1Ds of VTN-41, and was joined in December by VTN-90’s 21 TBM-3Ds on the Enterprise.
The numerous TBM-3E modifications had an APS-4 radar pod below the right wing, deleted the tunnel gun, and reduced armor to 248 pounds. Three XTBM-4s were added with wing structures strengthened for dive bombing.
Every new fast carrier and escort carrier that joined the Pacific fleet from 1943 to the war’s end had an Avenger squadron, and they participated in every major battle and sank 12 Japanese submarines. Teamed with dive-bombers, they destroyed both of the world’s largest battleships, Musashi and Yamato. The Musashi was sunk during the recapture of the Philippines begun in October 1944, a campaign involving 236 Avengers on fast carriers and 199 on the escort carriers. Avengers were 98 of the 280 planes attacking the Yamato and her escorts on April 7, 1945. The loss that day of 3,365 Japanese seamen at a cost of 12 American airmen and 10 planes was convincing evidence that the strongest surface vessels, without air cover, could not survive heavy air attack.
The Marine Corps began land-based operations with TBF-1s at Guadalcanal in November 1942. The first Marine attack squadrons in combat in the Pacific had begun as SBD units, but by 1945, 23 Marine squadrons, land-based or on four escort carriers, used TBMs.
In the Atlantic, Avengers served on escort carriers (CVE), first in support of the North African invasion, and then with the anti-submarine squadrons (VC) being formed with 12 Avengers and 9 Wildcat fighters. They made their first kill, U-569, on May 22, 1943, and soon became the most important force to defeat U-boats in the mid-Atlantic areas beyond the reach of land-based bombers. The first American plane to be fitted with forward-firing rockets (the 5-inch HVAR), the TBM-1C first used them in combat against a U-boat on January 11, 1944. Avengers on 14 escort carriers shared in the 53 U-boat kills and one capture by the hunter carrier and destroyer groups, the last on May 6, 1945.
Britain’s Royal Navy had rejected the SBD dive-bomber, but received 401 TBF-l (Avenger I), 334 TBM-1C (Avenger II), and 222 TBM-3 (Avenger III) aircraft, beginning on January 1, 1943, and they served carriers in the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific. New Zealand also received six TBF-l and 42 TBF-lCs for bombing from March to July 1944.
An important post-delivery project was the TBM-3W, the Navy’s first airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft. Developed by Project Cadillac, it had a large APS-20 radar antenna underneath the fuselage that could detect enemy aircraft far beyond the line-of-sight of surface vessels. A circular area 200 miles in every direction could be scanned from 20,000 feet and relayed to ships. All armament had to be removed to accommodate the electronics and its operator, located with his console within the fuselage, and the XTBM-3W flew on August 5, 1944.
In March 1945, deliveries began on the first 27 being rebuilt at the Johnsville Navy facility, and trials were made on the Ranger in May 1945. Four-plane TBM-3W units were first deployed with AEW installations on the Enterprise, Hornet, and Bunker Hill, late in 1945.
Altogether, there were 9,839 Avengers built, 2,293 by Grumman and 7,546 by General Motor’s Eastern Aircraft Division. Together with the dive-bombers, they gave the Navy a striking power and reach far beyond that of the traditional warship fleets.
The number of Navy attack planes grew from 709 scout bombers and 100 torpedo bombers in December 1941 to a total of 5,101 scout bombers and 4,937 torpedo bombers on June 30, 1945. These attack planes sank six of the ten Japanese battleships sunk during the war, as well as 11 of the 15 carriers and ten of 14 heavy cruisers lost. Of the 12 remaining large Japanese ships, submarines sank eight and surface ships sank four. None were lost to horizontal bombing by Army planes.
After the war, the Navy’s carrier-based Avengers had no foreign surface fleets to oppose, and the attack forces shrunk. Submarines remained the only potential naval threat, so some TBMs were modified to the TBM-3S configuration, whose turret was removed. An acoustic torpedo, the 1,160-pound Mk 34, became the main weapon for the ASW squadrons, who were guided to targets by APS-4 radar, a searchlight, and sonobuoys. Eight rockets and the two wing guns could hit surface targets.
Airborne early warning became a top priority, and by June 1948, the first AEW squadron, VC-2, was formed with TBM-3Ws, as additional conversions were made until 156 were in the fleet by 1953. Radar countermeasures were tested by TBM-3Q version. The last TBM-3E left squadron (VS-27) service in October 1954, but many Avengers also filled utility and non-combat roles.
When the Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP) was established, second-hand TBM-3s of various modifications were sent to allied powers, including 117 to Canada in 1950, 19 to Uruguay in 1949/50, and 140 to France, beginning in May 1951. Shipments of 100 TBM-3Es began in March 1953 for the Royal Navy, where they served ASW squadrons as Avenger AS.4, AS.5, or ECM.6, depending on what electronics was fitted. After their replacement by the Fairey Gannet in 1955, 47 were passed to France, and another 19 to the Netherlands were added to 58 gotten earlier from the United States.
Twenty became the first combat planes of the new Japanese Navy (called the Maritime Self-Defense Force) in 1954/55. These became the last TBMs remaining in military service until retirement in 1962, but civilian TBMs worked as forest firefighters in North America for many years afterwards.