The Douglas TBD Devastator is probably best known for being something of a sacrificial lamb during the Battle of Midway, but the tale of the TBD goes deeper than that. One of the most advanced aircraft in the world when it entered service in 1937, the Devastator was the Navy’s first all-metal monoplane, first aircraft with a totally enclosed cockpit, first aircraft with hydraulically-powered folding wings, and even its first aircraft with brakes on its main landing gear.
The Devastator began life in June 1934 when the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics issued a request for proposals for a new aircraft to replace its aging Martin BM-2 and Great Lakes TG-2 biplane torpedo bombers. The new bomber was to be able to carry a torpedo or up to 1,500 pounds of bombs, and it was to be powered by the new Pratt & Whitney XR-1830-60 radial engine. Proposals from Douglas and Great Lakes were soon submitted to the Navy. The Great Lakes aircraft was a traditional biplane design while the Douglas design was extremely modern - an all-metal monoplane with a low wing, fabric-covered control surfaces, and hydraulically-powered folding outer wings. After testing both types, the Douglas XTBD-1 prototype was chosen the winner of the competition. Production ultimately began in February 1936.
Entering service in 1937, the TBD first filled out VT-3 aboard the USS Saratoga. With its full complement of 18 aircraft (numbered 3-T-1 through 3-T-18), the squadron conducted the first in-service testing of the aircraft. Later VT-2 went aboard the USS Lexington, followed by VT-5 aboard the USS Yorktown, VT-8 aboard the USS Hornet, VT-6 aboard the USS Enterprise, and VT-4 with the USS Ranger in the Atlantic. When war broke out in Europe VT-7 was formed aboard the USS Wasp.
After Pearl Harbor the Navy went on the offensive and the TBD’s first taste of combat was in raids against Japanese bases on Kwajalein, Jaluit, Taroa, as well as bases in the Marshall and Gilbert Island chains. Problems were soon discovered with the Mk. XIII torpedoes – in short their performance was awful. To be successfully air-launched the torpedo had to be dropped within 100 feet of the surface at a speed of less than 120 mph. Even when these conditions were met the torpedo seldom ran true; often it broke up on the surface or dove straight towards the bottom. On top of that the overall performance of the TBD was beginning to show its limitations. Its short range and slow speed were proving to be serious detriments, and it had yet to face determined enemy fighters.
The Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942 was the most successful action of the TBDs of the war. Used properly in concert with SBD Dauntlesses and F4F Wildcats, TBDs from VT-2 and VT-5 scored several torpedo hits and helped sink the Japanese light carrier Shoho and damage the fleet carrier Shokaku. It was the Battle of Midway however that would be the closing chapter in the TBD’s story.
An overwhelming victory for the US Navy, the Battle of Midway was a catastrophe for the Devastator and its crews. Three US carriers participated in the battle, armed with Devastator wings VT-6 from the USS Enterprise, VT-8 from the USS Hornet, and VT-3 from the USS Yorktown. Without sufficient fighter cover and attacking the enemy carriers alone, the TBDs were so badly mauled that of the 41 TBDs launched from the three carriers, only six made it back. But by drawing the Japanese Zeros down to their level, the TBDs freed up their colleagues in the SBDs to wreak havoc, which is precisely what they did. Four Japanese fleet carriers were sunk by those aircrews, and in the process the tide in the Pacific was turned in favor of the Americans.
While Midway was a conclusive American victory, the fighting days of the TBD were over. The surviving aircraft were withdrawn from duty – somewhat of a foregone conclusion given that the new Grumman TBF Avenger was beginning to arrive in numbers. In training and testing capacities the Devastator remained in service until November 1944 when the last one was phased out of the Navy. Such was the pace of aeronautical development that in just six years the TBD had gone from being the most advanced naval aircraft in the world to being utterly obsolete.
One of the most well-known pilots of the ill-fated action during Midway was Lt. Commander John Waldron, the squadron commander of VT-8 aboard USS Hornet. On the eve of the battle he met with his squadron-mates and told them that if worst came to worst, he wanted every man to do his utmost to attack his target. “If there is only one plane left to make a final run-in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us all. Good luck, happy landings, and give’em hell.” The kit provides decals for the TBD he flew on the day of the battle, BuNo#1506, Black T-16, so I decided to model that aircraft.
The quality of the molding is superb. The recessed panel lines are very precise with rows of tiny rivet heads, and the amount of detail provided for the interior is excellent. The engine is a small kit in and of itself, made up of ten parts including a photo etch wiring harness. Options include modeling the cowling flaps open or closed, posing the bombardier’s viewing hatch open or closed, posing the various canopy sections open or closed, and mounting the wings in their open or folded position. Two torpedoes are provided, as is the option to mount it or bomb racks on the bottom of the aircraft (though no bombs are provided). The dual 0.30” caliber machine gun mount for Midway VT-8 aircraft is provided, though a single mount option is not. The decals provide markings for the VT-8 TBDs of Ensign George Gay, one of the few survivors of the battle, and Lt. Commander Waldron.
The model has been well reviewed by modelers on this website. In particular I read and took to heart the build reviews of Tom Cleaver and Ken Freundt, who both pointed out that there are some issues with the kit to watch out for. To summarize their findings, the clear plastic canopy parts are too thick to be “stacked” in their open position and thus a Squadron replacement canopy is good choice if you want to display the cockpit open. The kit’s masks are too thick to conform to the curves of the canopy sections and thus cannot be used. Mounting the bombardier doors closed is easier if some backing strips are glued in place – and if the torpedo is to be mounted underneath the doors can’t open anyway so closed it will be. The landing gear are molded in their “fully extended” position, thus causing the model to sit a bit too high. None of these issues are insurmountable, but it is handy to know about them before proceeding.
To help with the build I purchased the aforementioned Squadron Canopy set (#9615) and an Eduard Mask set (#EX354), and eagerly got to work.
With that done I turned my attention to the wings. I first glued the lower center section in place; it fit perfectly. Once it was set I glued the upper inner wing sections onto the lower section. The ribs that represent the TBD’s distinctive corrugated skin wrap around to the underside, setting up an annoying seam between the upper and lower wing halves. Luckily the ribs line up perfectly, so I only had to spend a little time scraping between the ribs on the leading edges to remove the seam. While working on the wings I came across one rather annoying shortfall of the kit – a complete lack of wheel well detail. There are no parts for sidewalls or other details at all, just the smooth surfaces of the undersides of the upper wings. I added some small ribs from plastic card to dress the area up a bit. My additions are probably not accurate in the least, but they look better than nothing.
At this point you need to decide if you’re going to build the TBD with its wings folded or extended. I opted for the former, so I glued the “end caps” of the wings in position next. The end caps feature what looked to me like lightning holes that I thought should be hollowed out, and a close-up in my Squadron reference shows the large open holes with cables passing through them – or so I thought! Thinking I was being clever, I started using my Dremel to open the holes up when it dawned on me I should look at my references more closely. Sure enough, the close-up photo must have been of a prototype because all of the other photos of various TBDs show no holes at all! I patched up my damage with plastic card and moved on, chastened but wiser as they say.
The outer wings were assembled next without any issue, and then I glued on the horizontal tail planes. The fit here required a little bit of Mr. Surfacer 500, which I applied using a new method. My old method was to dab it on to the seam with a small brush, let it dry, and then sand it down. My new method is to dab it on to the seam with a small brush and then wipe the excess away with a Q-Tip soaked in lacquer thinner. This method leaves the putty only in the seam and requires no further sanding. I wish I’d thought of this about 30 sets of wings roots ago.
Next up was the engine assembly, and Great Wall have provided a highly detailed replica of the Pratt & Whitney engine. I assembled the two banks of cylinders and gave them a base coat of Vallejo Black Gray. Once that was dry I dry-brushed them using Testors Steel to make the detail stand out. The photo etch wiring harness was added next and painted Flat Black, followed by the front hub of the engine, which I painted Vallejo Neutral Gray. A dark wash was added next, and then I picked out some of the details using Testors Aluminum. I assembled the completed engine and exhaust piping to the fuselage, and then added the engine cowling flaps (in the open position) and the cowling itself, both of which fit solidly.
At this point the major subassemblies were complete and it was time to work on the canopy. The TBD has six canopy sections that slide under and over themselves in various positions, and as pointed out by other modelers, the kit’s parts are too thick and thus cannot be used if you wish to pose some of them in the open position. I had purchased the Squadron replacement canopy, so my first step was to trim the new canopy and separate it into the various sections that I wanted to show open. Next I applied the Eduard masks to the various sections. They didn’t fit as well as I hoped, so I had to add some Tamiya masking tape here and there, making this a painstaking process. I then glued the front windscreen and middle canopy sections in place using some Testors Clear Cement. I masked off the engine and open canopy areas and with that, it was time to head to the paint booth.
|COLORS & MARKINGS|
My first painting step was to spray the canopy sections Interior Green to replicate the inside of the canopy framing. That was followed up with a coat of Tamiya Surface Primer, which as usual revealed a few seam areas that needed a little more attention. I next preshaded all of the panel lines using Testors Enamel Panzer Schwarzgrau, a suitably dark gray that I had on hand. The first color to go on was the light gray on the undersides, and for that I made a roughly 1:1 mix of Tamiya XF-19 Sky Grey and XF-2 Flat White. I sprayed it on in thin coats to let some of the pre-shading show through. I next sprayed some Tamiya XF-69 NATO Black on the upper wing roots to replicate the walk ways. Once they were dry I masked them and then made a roughly 2:1 mix of Tamiya XF-18 Medium Blue and XF-2 Flat White for the upper surfaces. This was also sprayed on in light coats, leaving a bit of a splotchy and weathered look that I liked. I let that dry for a night and then airbrushed a coat of Future over the whole model to create a glossy surface for the decals and the panel line wash.
After letting the Future cure for 48 hours I applied the kit’s decals. I had doubts that the large star insignia on both sides of the wingtips would conform over all of the corrugations, even with liberal applications of Walthers Solvaset decal solution. As it turned out my doubts proved to be true. Large bubbles developed and had to lance them a couple of times and apply more Solvaset to get them to lie flat.
I airbrushed another coat of Future over the decals to seal them, and then after waiting 48 hours I applied MIG Productions Dark Wash to all of the recessed panel lines, wiping any excess off with a lint-free cloth. Up next I airbrushed a few light coats of Testors Flat Finish (Lacquer based) over the whole model to remove the gloss finish. I then made a very dilute mix of 50/50 Tamiya XF-1 Black/XF-64 Red Brown and lightly sprayed it over panel lines and exhausts – any place that needed some subtle weathering and streaking. It’s an effect I really like but it has to be kept subtle.
With the painting steps now complete it was time to focus on the remaining items. Up first I removed the masks from the canopy sections, and was happy to see that no paint seeped under the masks. I then glued them all in place. The Squadron sections work very well – they’re so thin that with a little bit of careful trimming they can be nicely slid under and over each other, just like the real things.
The next addition to the interior was the rear machine guns. I painted them Vallejo Black Gray and then dry-brushed them with Testors Steel before assembling them to their carriage and attaching them to the gunner’s seat.
The landing gear have brake lines already molded on to them – the first time I’ve seen that in a kit. Having read that they are molded in their “fully extended” position I performed some surgery on them. The oleos are about 7mm long – I cut about 2mm out and then reassembled them and then painted the struts Testors Light Gray and the oleos Testors Chrome. The wheel hubs were also painted Light Gray, with the tires and brake lines Vallejo Black Grey.
The prop was also painted Vallejo Black Gray and the hub was dry-brushed Testors Steel. The blade tips were sprayed navy blue, red, and yellow; I masked each color off as I went.
Great Wall provides two torpedoes that are the same size but have different prop arrangements. One has parts for a plywood box that was added sometime before Midway to make the torpedoes run better. I decided to build both, mount the one with the plywood box to the model, and save the other for use later. Both were sprayed with Tamiya Surface Primer and then preshaded with Tamiya XF-69 NATO Black. I sprayed the rear surfaces Testors Chrome Silver while the forward surfaces were sprayed Tamiya XF-54 Dark Sea Gray. I weathered them by washing their panel lines with MIG Productions Dark Wash. Color wartime photos show funny faces chalked onto the front of these torpedoes, so I tried to replicate that with white crayon.
With that the model was down to the final details. The wingtip lights were painted and the wings were mounted in their folded position. The mast was added, and I used EZ Line for the antenna. After a few touch ups of Vallejo Flat Finish to remove the gloss of the CA glue I used on the EZ Line, the model was done.
I really enjoyed building Great Wall’s TBD. The surface detail is beautifully done, the overall level of detail is excellent, and the fit of the parts is superb. I particularly enjoyed building the interior as I am a fan of bomber interiors in general and there was a lot more going on inside the TBD then I had originally thought.
I agree with the issues with the kit that have been identified by other builders, but those issues are minor and given how many options Great Wall gives you, this is an excellent model. I’ve never built the older Monogram kit so I don’t know how the two compare, but I recommend this kit to all modelers, and I look forward to what else Great Wall has in store for us.
- Squadron/Signal Publications, Aircraft in Action #97, “TBD Devastator in Action”
- Wikipedia, the Online Encyclopedia
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