Hell’s Screaming Enforcers! Top 10 Dive Bombers of World War II

Italy never developed a decent dive bomber but in 1939 Tullio Crali painted the best dive bombing picture: ‘Nose Dive on the City’.

 Take a deep breath and shove the control column forward as you plummet into the hellscape of the top ten dive bombers. You knew we were going to do this some day and here we are. One is even a jet.

Dive bombers are rarely pretty, but what they lack in beauty they make up for with structural strength; some of these airframes are among the strongest ever built. They needed to be strong, as diving at a steep (sometimes near vertical) angle and then abruptly pulling-up after weapons release puts great strain on the airframe –and the pilot. A diving attack had greater precision than a conventional approach, but it was also exceptionally dangerous. Ground-fire, fast enemy fighters and the rapidly approach ground itself savaged the unlucky. Dive bomber pilots and their back-seaters had to be young and fit, and capable of ice-cold aggression. These are some of their machines.

10. Henschel 132

Only one ‘photograph’ exists of the complete Hs 132 and this is it. As you can see it has been heavily retouched to make the aircraft look more finished than it actually is. “Not a photograph at all, rather a remarkably lifelike drawing by artist Gerd Heumann” – Dan Sharp

Henschel rinsed the Third Reich for seven bazillion Reichsmarks-worth of weapons systems. These were sometimes impressive (like the Tiger tank) but often crap.

What is up with the fascination for Nazi prototypes anyway? They were hastily assembled, with cheap plywood construction and short-lifespan turbojets clamped to all the wrong places? It’s like Scrapheap Challenge for racists with a uniform kink.

Prior to the War, Henschel were a locomotive manufacturer who noted that Germany was going a teensy bit belligerent, and decided to cash in on this trend by building tanks and combat aircraft. The Hs 132 was intended to be the world’s first jet-propelled dive bomber but it was never finished. The world is still waiting patiently for a jet dive-bomber to make an appearance.

The only reason it made it onto our list is that it attempted to address the primary failing of the dive bomber: its inability to get away from fighters. That is prototype, with its unlikely prone pilot position, is here at all.

Nemesis: the violent, unstoppable, global military-industrial effort of the entire Allied nations.


 “The actual Hs 132 V1 prototype apparently looked like this when it was captured by Soviet forces.” Dan Sharp 

9. Loire-Nieuport LN.401


Hitting something as big as a city with aerial bombs wound up being tougher than martial theoreticians advocating such things really appreciated in the 1920s and 1930s. When the target is compact, like a warship, and also moves and might be firing back, it’s even harder. The dive bomber offered a terrifying accuracy.  Nonetheless, there were no guarantees, as we can see with the suspiciously Stuka-like LN.401.  Reaching the end of its development cycle and entering service as the sitzkrieg concluded was a guarantee of punishing obscurity for this aircraft.


In 1940 the LN.401 took very high losses and achieved little. Some attempt was made to restart development of this aircraft after the war but the market was by then non-existent as the dive bomber was known worldwide mainly as a dangerous deathtrap flown by baddies.


Nemesis: its owners & the Third Reich

8. Vultee A-31/35 Vengeance

The Vengeance performed well, if obscurely, on the Arakan front against the Japanese. (IWM photo).

When it came to supporting the soldiers on the ground, the Allies had an embarrassment of riches. There were many fighter-bombers types capable of getting down low and attacking with rockets.

Hence the uncinematic life of the Vengeance.

This aeroplane was another middle child in a family of reasonable-to-mediocre aircraft available at the opening of World War II. The Darwinian pressures of combat would very soon determine which had enough capacity to evolve, to become winners, and which machines didn’t. The robust-enough Vultee never left the lower rank. The Vengeance got sidelined to training tasks, and was palmed off to desperate Allies and operated in theatres with less severe Axis fighter opposition.

Nemesis: industrial considerations and the tactical eclipse of dive bombing.

7. Blackburn B-24 Skua

In real life Skuas were not see-through. L2925 was flown by Lt William Paulet Lucy who led the strike that sank the Königsberg. Art by Ed Ward.

A wild admixture of potency and vulnerability marked the dive bomber’s life and saw early expression in the Royal Navy’s first all-metal monoplane, the Skua. In April 1940 Skuas sent the cruiser Königsberg to the bottom near Bergen, Norway. This was the very first sinking of a capital ship in war by dive bombers. Indeed, much of the best of the hateful work this aircraft type did would be visited on big warships. In turn, though, the Skua would be close to hopeless against Luftwaffe land fighters with more powerful engines. In dive bomber terms this was par for the course but the poor Skua was rather unfairly expected to act as a fighter as well and the results were predictable. Target towing however was a perfectly sensible second career for the Skua and after February 1941 this is exactly what the Skua did. Atomic bombs would make the main selling point of this aircraft type, accuracy, seem kinda, well, boring. Towing targets is a good, honest job.

Nemesis: Messerschmitt Bf 109

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6. Fairey Barracuda

The Barracuda was also used as a torpedo bomber. The Royal Navy liked to get its money’s worth from its aircraft. IWM photo)

Dive bombers represent a sub-group of aircraft far from generic in appearance. A Fairey Barracuda is rarely confused with another type thanks to its braced T-tail, thick shoulder-mounted wings, a continuous canopy for its crew of three and big Fairey-Youngman flaps. Fairey-Youngman flaps were a feature of the Swordfish, Albacore and Firefly. They were attached to struts below the wing’s trailing edge a position that improved airflow over them, they could be deflected 30 degrees upwards to act as dive-brakes. These all-important dive brakes bringing some control in the attack and easing carrier landings. Most of the aircraft mentioned here made themselves felt in the war at sea. For the Barracuda, this meant a series of attacks against the Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz, hidden for most of its service life in Norwegian fjords. These were difficult operations against a massively well-defended prestige target. Later in the war it was used against Japan. By 1945 it was one of the most common Fleet Air Arm machines. Unfortunately, the Barracuda faced a number of developmental difficulties. Designed for the mighty Roll-Royce Griffon, production shortages meant all the wartime versions were (under) powered by the Merlin. Another rather serious flaw came in the form of leakage into the cockpit of ether-laced hydraulic fluid. This is very bad, as ether can cause drowsiness, dizziness and vomiting.

To date, no other dive bomber has received a musical tribute approaching the power of John Cale’s song for the Barracuda. (Editor: I prefer The Standell’s tribute)

Note: neither of these are actually about the aircraft

Nemesis: 2-cm & 8.8-cm Flak, smoke generators, Messerschmitt Bf 109.

5. Curtiss SB2C Helldiver / A-25 Shrike

In 1939, a student took a model of the new Curtiss XSB2C-1 to the MIT wind tunnel. Professor of Aeronautical Engineering Otto C. Koppen was quoted as saying, “if they build more than one of these, they are crazy”.

What great aircraft is not beset by problems? These seem to have been as prevalent in 1940 as they are in 2020 but the Helldiver seemed to have more than its fair share of them. Despite being possessed of possibly the best name of any combat aircraft the Helldiver was saddled with stability issues that were never eradicated  — and the aircraft ordered by the Royal Navy were rejected on account of the Helldiver’s “appalling handling“. After being wrestled more-or-less into shape, the Helldiver, in concert with the Grumman TBF Avenger, fought effectively throughout the US Navy’s Pacific island-hopping campaign against the Japanese. Somewhat harder-hitting than the Dauntless, the Helldiver also featured perforated flaps. These reduce tail buffeting during that crazed, noisome trip down to the target.

Ultimately the SB2C sunk more shipping than any other Allied dive bomber. Curiously, despite never being operated by the RCAF or Canadian Navy, over a thousand Helldivers were built in Canada. Italy was the last country to retire the Helldiver and they did so in the year that Bobby Darrin’s Mack the Knife hit number one on the pop charts, 1959.

This being the final service use of any purpose-built dive-bomber. Prior to the war, a naval biplane had carried the name Helldiver, the Curtiss SBC. Before that and the Stuka prototypes, dive bombing had remained a topic for command-level debate based upon undeniable but casually-gained successes between 1914 and the 1930s. Not until all-metal monoplanes were available, that could handle near vertical dive angles and the recovery therefrom, did dive bombing enjoy its professional heyday.

Nemesis: Mitsubishi A6M Zero

4. Petlyakov Pe-2

With 11,427 units the Pe-2 was most-produced dive bomber of any type. It was also the third most numerous of World War II’s twin-engine warplanes after the Ju 88 (15,000+) and the Wellington (11,462). It is perhaps telling that how little recognition this vital warplane receives outside of Russia.

This is the biggest and most powerful aircraft on our list, as well as the fastest to actually fly. Alas, the political reality of the USSR affects our consideration of this aeroplane right away, how on earth the people designing the Pe-2 got such a good result while in the imprisoned in the abject misery of a gulag is a testament to their fortitude. It also reflects the existential danger facing the USSR after the German invasion (the design team had been arrested for typically tenuous reasons during an earlier high altitude fighter project). Their next ‘assignment’ was to a medium bomber project, the Pe-2. Perhaps Soviet officialdom had been impressed by word of the Stuka and the D3A enough that they ordered the Pe-2 converted to a dive bomber. Forty-five days were allotted to get that done. How well this worked out is reinforced by the combat record of the Pe-2 and the fact Poland kept it in service until the year Jerry Lee Lewis released Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

Nemesis: Focke Wulf Fw-190

3. Aichi D3A Val


Notable on the D3A is the long telescope bomb-sight in front of the pilot’s windscreen.

Aichi consulted Heinkel Fleugzeugwerke in designing the D3A and the outcome is a lot easier to look at than the Stuka. As Japan lashed out in the Pacific it called upon the D3A to ratchet up the infamy again and again. The Val slapped three Allied navies with a bill that was probably still being paid when the Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Instrumental to the Pearl Harbour attack, the D3A was crazy good at its job. Vals teamed up with torpedo bombers to destroy even heavily defended fleet carriers like the USS Lexington. As with all these aircraft, the Val’s nemesis was never far off, though the D3A was noted as a capable dogfighter for the first year or so of the Pacific war (at least once it had divested itself of those pesky bombs). From headline-grabbing success, the Val turned into the victim in a flash, and many were transferred to suicide units.

Nemesis: M2 BMG calibre .50 & the AP Mk.1 1600-lb bomb

2. Douglas SBD Dauntless


Approaching obsolete status just as the Pacific war got going the Slow But Deadly still managed a starring role in the (short) age of the dive bomber.

Some twenty or so Dauntlesses remain in the world – dive bombers are built to last (at least if not being shot at). The Dauntless is remembered as the US carrier aircraft that turned the tide in the Pacific, the Helldiver may have sunk more ships but the Dauntless did the job when it really mattered: at the Battle of Midway it sank or fatally damaged all four Japanese fleet carriers present, disabling three of them in the span of just six minutes. Yet amazingly it came through the war with the lowest crew loss rate of any US carrier aircraft despite being present at harrowing moments like Midway. Look at those perforated dive brakes. Twinned aft-firing machine guns show us where danger truly lay for all dive bombers. Also, the Dauntless has a classic piece of dive bomber safety hardware in the form of a trapeze to swing the bomb below the arc of the propeller before releasing it.

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Nemesis: Mitsubishi A6M Zero

1. Junkers Ju-87 Stuka

The screaming gull-winged spectacle of the Stuka from Spain, to Poland, the low countries, France and the USSR is written into the darkest chapters of the twentieth century with good reason. It should be giving you a shiver right now, too.


Stukas (a contraction of the German Sturzkampfflugzeug ‘dive-bomber’) has huge success as flying artillery in aid of armoured breakthroughs. Then came fighter opposition. Pursuit by a fighter with six or eight more guns and a 150-mph speed advantage undermined the Stuka’s resume in drastic fashion. Yet, more than any other plane here the Stuka would be re-employed from pure dive bombing to combat roles where speed wasn’t an issue. Tank-busting Stukas in particular would prove a nasty feature of the grim fallback to Germany’s 1939 borders. Rolling nicely into furious descents for the cameras had had its day by 1943 but the Stuka persevered.

Top Stuka trivia: despite its fame as a bomber a Ju 87 managed to score the first air-to-air kill of the Second World War, shooting down a Polish PZL P.11c on the morning of the 1st of September 1939.

Nemesis: Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, Fairey Fulmar, Yakovlev Yak-9.

–––––  Stephen Caulfield

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  1. kimmargosein

    Oddly enough, the “helldiver” is a ducklike bird, called so because it can stay underwater for a long time, compared to other diving birds.

  2. Gray Stanback

    Definitely somewhat surprised that the LN 401 made it onto the list, given how little it managed to accomplish. I would have added the A-1 Skyraider, the only dive-bomber to see service in Korea and Vietnam.

  3. Gray Stanback

    Surprised that the A-1 Skyraider didn’t make it onto the list (it was designed as a dive-bomber, though it saw use in many other roles), and that the LN 401 did.

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