World War II: Douglas SBD Dauntless

SBD Dauntless in the Pacific
Douglas SBD Dauntless. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Douglas SBD Dauntless was the mainstay of the US Navy's dive bomber fleet for much of World War II (1939-1945). Produced between 1940 and 1944, the aircraft was adored by its flight crews which praised its ruggedness, dive performance, maneuverability, and heavy armament. Flown from both carriers and land bases, the "Slow but Deadly" Dauntless played key roles at the decisive Battle of Midway and during the campaign to capture Guadalcanal. Also an excellent scout aircraft, the Dauntless remained in frontline use until 1944 when most US Navy squadrons began transitioning to the more powerful, but less popular Curtiss SB2C Helldiver.   

Design & Development:

Following the US Navy's introduction of the Northrop BT-1 dive bomber in 1938, designers at Douglas began working on an improved version of the aircraft. Using the BT-1 as a template, the Douglas team, led by designer Ed Heinemann, produced a prototype which was dubbed the XBT-2. Centered on the 1,000 hp Wright Cyclone engine, the new aircraft featured a 2,250 lb. bomb load and a speed of 255 mph. Two forward firing .30 cal. machine guns and one rear-facing .30 cal. were provided for defense. 

Featuring all metal construction (except for fabric covered control surfaces), the XBT-2 utilized a low-wing cantilever configuration and included hydraulically actuated, perforated split dive-brakes. Another change from the BT-1 saw the landing gear shift from retracting backwards to closing laterally into recessed wheel wells in the wing. Re-designated the SBD (Scout Bomber Douglas) following Douglas' purchase of Northrop, the Dauntless was selected by the US Navy and Marine Corps to replace their existing dive bomber fleets.

Production and Variants:

In April 1939, the first orders were placed with the USMC opting for the SBD-1 and the Navy selecting the SBD-2. While similar, the SBD-2 possessed a greater fuel capacity and a slightly different armament. The first generation of Dauntlesses reached operational units in late 1940 and early 1941. As the sea services were transitioning to the SBD, the US Army placed an order for the aircraft in 1941, designating it the A-24 Banshee.

In March 1941, the Navy took possession of the improved SBD-3 which featured self-sealing fuel tanks, enhanced armor protection, and an expanded array of weapons including an upgrade to two forward-firing .50 cal. machine guns in the cowling and twin .30 cal. machine guns on a flexible mount for the rear gunner. The SBD-3 also saw a switch to the more powerful Wright R-1820-52 engine. Subsequent variants included the SBD-4, with an enhanced 24-volt electrical system, and the definitive SBD-5.

The most produced of all SBD types, the SBD-5 was powered by a 1,200 hp R-1820-60 engine and had a larger ammunition capacity than its predecessors. Over 2,900 SBD-5s were built, mostly at Douglas' Tulsa, OK plant. A SBD-6 was designed, but it was not produced in large numbers (450 total) as Dauntless production was ended in 1944, in favor of the new Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. A total of 5,936 SBDs were built during its production run.

Specifications (SBD-5)


  • Length: 33 ft. 1 in.
  • Wingspan: 41 ft. 6 in.
  • Height: 13 ft. 7 in.
  • Wing Area: 325 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 6,404 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 10,676 lbs.
  • Crew: 2


  • Power Plant: 1 × Wright R-1820-60 radial engine, 1,200 hp
  • Range: 773 miles
  • Max Speed: 255 mph
  • Ceiling: 25,530 ft.


  • Guns: 2 x .50 cal. machine guns (mounted in cowling), 1 x (later 2 x) flexible-mounted .30 cal. machine gun(s) in rear
  • Bombs/Rockets: 2,250 lbs. of bombs

Operational History

The backbone of the US Navy's dive bomber fleet at the outbreak of World War II, the SBD Dauntless saw immediate action around the Pacific. Flying from American carriers, SBDs aided in sinking the Japanese carrier Shoho at the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942). A month later, the Dauntless proved vital in turning the tide of the war at the Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942). Launching from the carriers USS Yorktown (CV-5), USS Enterprise (CV-6), and USS Hornet (CV-8), SBDs successfully attacked and sank four Japanese carriers. The aircraft next saw service during the battles for Guadalcanal.

Flying from carriers and Guadalcanal's Henderson Field, SBDs provided support for the Marines on the island as well as flew strike missions against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Though slow by the standards of the day, the SBD proved a rugged aircraft and was beloved by its pilots. Due to its relatively heavy armament for a dive bomber (2 forward .50 cal. machine guns, 1-2 flex-mounted, rear-facing .30 cal. machine guns) the SBD proved surprisingly effective in dealing with Japanese fighters such as the A6M Zero. Some authors have even argued that the SBD finished the conflict with a "plus" score against enemy aircraft.

The Dauntless' last major action came in June 1944, at the Battle of Philippine Sea (June 19-20, 1944). Following the battle, most SBD squadrons were transitioned to the new SB2C Helldiver, though several US Marine Corps units continued to fly the Dauntless for the remainder of the war. Many SBD flight crews made the transition to the new SB2C Helldiver with great reluctance. Though bigger and faster than the SBD, the Helldiver was plagued by production and electrical problems that made it unpopular with its crews. Many reflected that they wanted to continue flying the "Slow but Deadly" Dauntless rather than the new "Son of a Bitch 2nd Class" Helldiver. The SBD was fully retired at the end of the war.

A-24 Banshee in Army Service

While the aircraft proved highly effective for the US Navy, it was less so for the US Army Air Forces. Though it saw combat over Bali, Java, and New Guinea during the early days of the war, it was not well received and squadrons suffered heavy casualties. Relegated to non-combat missions, the aircraft did not see action again until an improved version, the A-24B, entered service later in the war. The USAAF's complaints about the aircraft tended to cite its short range (by their standards) and slow speed.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Douglas SBD Dauntless." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II: Douglas SBD Dauntless. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Douglas SBD Dauntless." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).