As another instalment on the problems of comparing apples and oranges, I thought it would be a useful to make sense of some of the ludicrous claims made about naval aircraft during the Second World War.
All navies entered 1939 with a combination of biplane and monoplane machines, all of which were behind the performances of equivalent land-based fighters and bombers. By December 1941, when the Japanese and American Navy’s joined the war, things had moved on a bit for all combatants, but not nearly as far as most books would have you believe. Bad historians for instance - scathing about the British still using biplane torpedo bombers, and the Japanese still using fixed undercarriage dive bombers - often claim that the Americans had already moved too far more advanced aircraft. The magnificent Avenger torpedo bomber, is often mentioned, regardless of the fact that the first half dozen were not in action until the Battle of Midway, and that they did not appear in any numbers until 1943. By that time of course, both Britain and Japan had their own new torpedo bombers entering front-line service.
So it would be sensible to make some comparisons between what was available to whom at what time.
By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most 1939 aircraft were obsolete. Britain had already retired the Blackburn Skua dive bomber, despite it’s having equivalent performance to the Japanese Val dive bomber, and superior performance to the American Devastator torpedo bomber, that were both still in service. So Pearl Harbor was carried out by a combination of quite effective modern aircraft like the famous Zero fighter, reasonable torpedo bombers like Kate, and elderly but still competent dive bombers like the Val. They were faced by American carriers largely armed with reasonable dive bombers like the Dauntless, elderly and inadequate torpedo bombers like the Devastator, and relatively recent but very uncompetitive fighters like the Buffalo – which was in the process of being replaced by the workmanlike but uninspiring Wildcat. At the same time British were working with the reliable but uninspiring Sea Hurricane fighter (and were also starting to use Wildcat’s), the powerful but slow Fulmar fighter reconnaissance plane, and the latest version of the venerable Swordfish torpedo bomber, the Albacore biplane. All of these aircraft had a serious limitations which had already been recognised. All of them (except the Dauntless for some reason) had replacements already in the pipeline.
Aircraft being phased out since 1939
Despite the claims that the United States Navy developed the best and most advanced interwar aircraft, the tubby little Grumman F3F biplane fighter [264 mph, 1 x .5 and 1 x .303 mg, 980 miles range] that had served until 1941 had been by far the least adequate carrier-borne fighter of 1939. Its performance was comparable to the Gloster Gladiator [257mph, 4 x .303 mg, 440 miles range] which was almost completely fazed out by the British in 1940 (but which served valiantly against the Italian airforce when 4 crated examples were found in storage on Malta). It’s inadequacy for front line carrier operations can be assessed by the fact that naval airmen were expected to rejoice when the inadequate F2A Brewster Buffalo [321mph, 4 x .50 mg, 1000 miles range – sounds better than it actually was], turned up in mid 1940. (When the British received some Buffalo’s at the same time, they found that even removing the heavy naval equipment like landing gear and life rafts left them inadequate as land fighters for European service, and ironically sent them to the Far East instead.)
The Japanese fighter of 1939, the Mitsubishi A5M ‘Claude’ [280mph, 2x x7.7mm mg, 750 miles range] also had no great performance characteristics to recommend it for the Second World War, and was being phased out of front line operations by December1941.
The Japanese Torpedo bomber was the Yokosuka B4Y 'Jean' [171mph, 1 x 7.7mm mg, 1,600 lb torpedo or bombs, 978 miles range]. The most complimentary thing that can be said about it was that it was no worse than the American Devastator or British Swordfish, but at least it was due to be phased out by December 1941, whereas the Devastator would still be the main American torpedo bomber until after Midway. (In fact the Jean continued to serve on smaller carriers until 1943, and some served at the Battle of Midway.)
The British torpedo bomber was the Fairey Swordfish [138mph, 2 x .303mg, 1,600lbs torpedo or bombs - later rockets, 1,030 miles range]. A slow but reliable biplane, with more lift and range than the Devastator, and more combat survivability than the Jean. (It frequently astounded even the crews how much damage a Swordfish could absorb and keep flying. Ragged anti-aircraft holes in the wings and tail and fuselage, lines of tracer holes across various surfaces, broken struts, cut control cables, the Swordfish would absorb them all and make it home.) Nevertheless the Swordfish was quickly proved to be a deathtrap for daylight operations against an enemy with fighter cover, and was scheduled for replacement by a more modern torpedo bomber for combat ops. Yet, amazingly, the Swordfish was the only allied pre-war naval carrier aircraft still in production when the war ended.
There are three reasons for this feat. The first is that the British were early adaptors of night operations, and performed successful Swordfish strikes (such as the amazingly successful strike at the Port of Taranto which crippled or sunk several major warships – becoming the Japanese model for Pearl Harbor), and successful night attacks at sea once the second innovation came in. This was the development of airborne radar, which was first operational on Swordfish operating on British carriers six months before Pearl Harbor. The British were to hold this unique ability to use radar for carrier aircraft operations for a couple of years before the Americans deployed similar concepts in 1943. They were to hold their unique advantage of night-time strikes also. (Both the Japanese and Americans lost many pilots over the next few years in strikes that failed to get home before dark!) So the Swordfish could soldier on under the cover of night, and continued to be useful as a strike aircraft long after its use in daytime had been demonstrated to be suicidal by the easy slaughter of those attempting to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during the Channel Dash in 1941.
The third, and unexpected reason, why the Swordfish was still in production at the end of the war, was that it’s unrivalled flying characteristics made it the only aircraft capable of surviving operations from small escort carriers operating in the Arctic Circle in bad weather. Whereas more modern, higher speed aircraft, like the Hurricane and Wildcat and Avenger could work from escort carriers in calmer seas, none of those would even consider operations under the sort of conditions that a Swordfish could easily manage. So the venerable old bus continued to serve successfully purely as an Anti-Submarine role until the final days of the war. This was not because there weren’t many better aircraft available, but simply because no other aircraft available could do the job as well. An example of a World War Two aircraft still having a (slightly reduced) role, long after being technically obsolete - see the many inadequate fighters that lived on as very successful night fighters. (Though the fact that ‘modern’ B-52’s are scheduled to still be operational 80 or 90 years after their initial deployment shows that new roles are always possible for reliable old aircraft, even when their technology is fifty years out of date.)
Another British multi-role aircraft was not so fortunate. The Blackburn Skua [225mph, 4x .303, one 500ln bomb, 760 miles range] had been discarded as a dual purpose fighter/dive bomber because it was not a good enough fighter, and the Armoured Carriers the British favoured for European operations had smaller air-groups that made a dedicated dive bomber too much of an investment. (British carriers had already moved to 40/60 fighter/ torpedo bomber mix by 1941, whereas the inexperienced Japanese and Americans were still trying to use 20/40/40 fighters/ dive/ torpedo bombers. Though it should be noted that because the British had dropped a type, the total number of fighters and torpedo bombers were more comparable than one might expect despite the smaller air-groups.) In some ways this was a shame, because the Skua had been a very good dive bomber (16 of them easily accounting for the German cruiser Konigsberg in April 1940), and had a superior ability to that later noted by the Japanese Val dive bomber, to defend itself as a limited fighter after having dropped its bombs. (In fact it was an excellent bomber killer, and only failed to stack up against modern German fighters.) As a dedicated bomber, the Skua would have been right at home amongst the Devastators, Kate's and Val's in the Pacific battles of 1942.
Aircraft still soldiering on in December 1941
The most obsolete first line strike aircraft in any carrier force in 1942 was the American Douglas Devastator torpedo bomber [206mph, 2 x.303 mg. 1,000lb’s of torpedo or bombs, range 716 miles]. Despite – or because of - being the first monoplane on any carrier air-wing (1937!), it had never been a very good aircraft. Fully loaded with a torpedo (a much lighter torpedo than used by anyone else), it had a hard time getting off the deck, and a much reduced speed and range. In fact it’s attack speed was actually slower than a Swordfish, and it lacked the Swordfishes maneouvrability or capacity to take damage. Used in daylight (the only way it could be used), it was an absolute death-trap if there were any airborne opposition at all. In fact the role played by the Devastators at the Battle of Midway was as kamikaze decoy targets to draw the Japanese fighter forces out of place. A point made even clearer by the fact that the few Devastators which had managed to attack at Coral Sea had usually seen their torpedo’s fail to work anyway. (The American carrier fleet would not get a successful airborne torpedo until mid 1943!)
The next most obsolete was the Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive-bomber [266mph, 3 x 7.7 mg, 1 x 500lb and 2 x 60lb bombs, 970 miles range] which had also entered service in the mid 30’s. It was a fixed landing gear dive-bomber modeled on the famous Junkers Ju 87 [183mph, 1 x 7.7mm mg, 1,000lb bomb, 621 miles range], and was just as good a dive bomber… if there was no opposition. Unlike the J87 (and like the Skua) the Val also had the ability to defend itself as a second rate fighter once the bombs had been dropped. Still the Val relied for success on clear skies, and achieved excellent results under those conditions at Ceylon (cruisers Devonshire and Cornwall and unarmed old carrier Hermes) and Coral Sea (carrier Lexington). Under even moderate air pressure at Trincomalee and Midway the performance fell of markedly, and later in the war the phrase that comes to mind is ‘Great Mariana’s Turkey Shoot’. Nonetheless they had to soldier on because their replacement aircraft was too fast for the smaller carriers that were to become the majority of the Japanese carrier fleet after Midway.
The next in line for obsolescence was the British replacement for the Swordfish, the Fairey Albacore [161mph, 3 x .303 mg, 1,610lb torpedo or 2,000lb’s bombs, range 930 miles], which was merely an improved biplane, and looked quite odd against the monoplanes being introduced by everyone else. However the Albacore was one of those compromises forced on a nation fighting on too many fronts to modernize everything at once: an interim design while awaiting the monoplane replacement due in 1943.
In spite of being a slow death-trap by day, the Albacore proved a more than capable stopgap, for the reasons raised by the Swordfish. The Albacore was not actually expected to mount a strike against an enemy fleet by day, but to use it’s radar guided strikes to find and destroy by night. Here it was undoubtedly successful, as it would be another two years before even the Americans worked out how to mount night-time fighter defences from their carriers, and the Japanese never got that far. The Albacore was to continue to operate successfully by day under adequate fighter cover in the Mediterranean, making excellent use of it’s reliability, stability, good payload, and resistance to damage. But as a front line carrier strike aircraft against enemy fleets with aircover, it was only good for night ops, and would have been slaughtered almost as easily as the Devestator had it come up against serious daytime opposition. The reason why the British specialized on night actions like Taranto and Matapan for naval air attacks, was A) because day time was close to suicidal if there was any possibility of enemy fighter cover, and B) because night was the environment that gave them an advantage over everyone else. That was why at Ceylon the Japanese advanced their airpower by day and retreated at night, and the British advanced their radar equipped battleships and strike aircraft by night and retreated by day. (As a result neither could get a decisive victory without a strong and unlikely element of luck.)
Also in the ‘thank God a replacement is starting to happen’ class is the American Brewster Buffalo [321mph, 2 x .50 mg, 1,000 miles range] fighter. This poor excuse for a fighter was unsuitable for the European theatre even in a land based mode, with much of the heavy naval equipment like landing gear and life-rafts removed. The RAF and RAAF units in Malaya had been forced to strip out armour and equipment, fit lighter guns, and reduce ammunition and fuel loads, in an attempt to make it more competitive, but nothing really worked. Given that the land based Marine squadron at Midway was easily slaughtered, the even slower navalised versions still on the carriers were even more of a deathtrap than the Devastators. (At least the job of the Devastators was to avoid enemy fighters, not take them on!)
[Note that the Buffalo did have considerable success for Finnish units fighting against the Russians. There were three reasons for this. First, Finnish engineers fixed the engines to make them work better. Second, the cold weather made for much better performance than the tropics. Third excellent Finnish pilots were fighting very poor Russian conscripts, who stuck to useless standard formations despite the Finns picking them off one by one. This last suggests that the Buffalo might have actually done better later in the war against less experienced Japanese pilots.]
The right aircraft for the right time – and their weaknesses
Some aircraft at the time of Pearl Harbour were recent innovations, and quite good for their time. But even these had their weaknesses.
The famous Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter [331mph, 2 x 20mm, 2 x 7.7mm mg, 1,190 miles range] was light, reasonably fast, maneouvrable, and long ranged. It was a shock to the Allies because in level flight it could practically run rings around most American fighters. In a dogfight it could turn inside even the British Hurricane, which was considered exceptional an exceptional dogfighter. It built up an enviable and terrifying reputation. On the negative side, it was un-armoured, had no self-sealing fuel tanks, and a tendency to fall apart or burst into flames from just one or two little hits that any Western plane would most likely shrug off. Its very lightness also meant that it was unable to match Allied aircraft in dives, and this was the way to beat it. Allied pilots quickly learned to dive through formations for best effect. Allied pilots also became good at working together in pairs and fours in defensive weaves. It would be too much to claim that the Zero was the best naval fighter of the period, because no sensible Western pilot would be caught – pardon the expression - dead in such an unsafe fighter. Still it had a frightening impact on Allied morale until techniques to deal with its weaknesses were developed.
The American Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter [331mph, 4 x 0.5 mg, 840 miles range] had been in operation with British carrier forces since mid 1941, and was becoming the main American carrier fighter at the time Pearl Harbour. By the time of Midway the majority of the American fighters present were Wildcat’s, and the British fleet at Ceylon several months earlier had used them as well. The next model [6 x .5 mg, but 320 mph and 770 miles range] of these rugged little fighters were not as fast or manoeuvrable as the Zero, but they were heavier and much tougher. They could dive through the Zero’s and absorb much greater damage in dogfights. These were the backbone of the force that broke the IJN’s naval airpower in the crucial middle years of the war, and they did this because of their durability and good tactics, rather than because of any superiority as aircraft.
As well as Wildcat’s (which they called ‘Martlet’s), the British fleet at Ceylon had the tried and tested Hawker Hurricane fighter (the mainstay and highest scoring fighter of the Battle of Britain), in it’s new Sea Hurricane IIC mode [342mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, range 460 miles – 970 with drop tanks]. This excellent fighter was getting a bit long in the tooth for land operations, but was still performing competitively in Egypt, Russia and Burma against Italian, German and Japanese opposition. The heavy 4 cannon armament was particularly useful for shattering opponents with just a few rounds, and would become the standard for most British and American fighters later in the war. It’s arrival on carriers gave the British a dog-fighter superior to either the American alternatives, and one for which the tactic of diving through formations (which American pilots were still adapting from the experiences of Chennault’s Flying Tiger’s in China), was well established and practiced. The great disadvantage of the Hurricane was that it was extremely short ranged for naval operations on just internal tanks, limiting it largely to a defensive interceptors role. On the other hand the British had enormous experience with vectoring radar controlled fighters against attackers from the most useful angles. Whereas the American and Japanese fighters tended to attack head on for most of the war, which led to a single pass at best; the British fighters would come out of the sun diving across the line of attack and hopefully hitting a couple of fighters before taking on two or three of the bombers several thousand feet below. Against durable German planes this had been moderately effective. Against vulnerable Japanese aircraft it proved brutally efficient. (Indeed, as late as 1945 the British Pacific Fleet carriers needed far smaller Combat-Air-Patrols than American carriers because of these tactics learned in the Mediterranean before America entered the war.)
In lieu of not using Dive-bombers, the British had an alternative type not used by the Japanese or Americans. A fighter/reconnaissance aircraft. The Fairey Fulmar [272mph, 8 x .303 mg and 1 x .303, 830 miles range] was a two seat fighter based on a much improved version of the Fairey Battle bomber (which had been the fastest bomber in the world pre-war). This concept was originally to allow an additional navigator to support the pilot during long flights over water, and led to a slower and less manoeuvrable fighter than most of its opposition. However it was also an incredibly rugged and stable carrier aircraft, with far fewer flying accidents than most other naval fighters. It’s size and durability also allowed it to carry much more fuel, and to take on a heavier bomb-load, than other fighters of its time, and the second seat was soon equipped with radar (something far to bulky for most fighters until very late in the war). The Fulmar therefore became an excellent long range recconnaissance/strike aircraft to back up its fighter role.
Suprisingly, the Fulmar was also quite successful as a fighter. Despite being slower and much less of a dogfighter than German or Italian opponents, it was remarkably successful at defending fleet operations against continuous large waves of Axis attackers in the Mediterranean. The secret was that successful naval attacks need relatively unobstructed approaches to get good accuracy and results. Even a limited number of fighters can break up the effectiveness of such attacks if well handled. Carriers like the Ark Royal or Furious could only keep 4 to 6 Fulmars at a time in the air against the constant waves of attackers from Sicily and Italy during convoys to Malta, but those few fighters could use the radar vectoring and dive through tactics described above to disrupt Axis attacks to the point of greatly reducing their effectiveness. Fulmars regularly shot down superior numbers of Axis bombers and fighters during their Mediteranean operations (scoring the highest number of kills of all Fleet Air Arm fighters!), and most Royal Navy aces achieved some or all of their scores flying Fulmars.
Moving on to bombers. Apart from the Fulmar, which usually had more important tasks, the British were stuck with the ‘soldiering on’ Albacore. But the Japanese and Americans had some more modern toys.
The Japanese Nakajima B5N Kate [235mph, 1 x 7.7mmm mg, 1760lb’s torpedo or bombs,1,075 miles range] torpedo bomber had been introduced in 1941, and was the mainstay of the early years of the wartime Japanese carrier operations. It had good range, was reliable, and had a good payload. But it still lacked armour or self sealing fuel tanks. As a result it was desperately vulnerable to daytime operations against reasonable fighter opposition.
Almost exactly the same could be said for the American Douglas Dauntless dive bomber [255mp, 2 x .5 and 2 x .3 mg, 1,200lb’s bombs, 1,115 miles range]. Arrived at the same time, same strengths, similar weaknesses. Like all American aircraft it could absorb considerably more damage than any Japanese plane, but like all daylight attack aircraft, its top speed made it a sitting duck against organized fighter defenses. The greatest success of the Dauntless was at Midway, where the sacrificial run of the Devastator torpedo bombers fortuitously arrived just far enough in advance to pull the entire Japanese fighter cover away and allow the Dauntless’ exactly the sort of unopposed attacks that the theoretically inferior Japanese Val dive bombers had enjoyed at Ceylon and Coral Sea. The increased success of the Dauntless later in the war was in direct parallel to the increased ability of American fighters to clear a path. By the time of the sinking of the Yamato in 1945, Dauntless’ always had almost completely unopposed runs. (Perhaps that is why it continued in operation when every other contemporary aircraft had been replaced?)
Planes in the pipeline
The replacement for the Val was en-route, but not to be in service much before 1943. It was far faster and therefore more effective Yokosuku D4Y Judy [360mph, 3 x 7.7mm mg, 1,100lb’s bombs, 790 miles range], but suffered the durability weaknesses of all Japanese aircraft. Nonetheless, had it been available for the crucial battles of 1942, there is little doubt that American losses would have been far greater. It was much faster than The Dauntless, and carried a heavier bomb, though for a shorter range. Unfortunately it was so fast that it could not be used on the smaller carriers that dominated Japanese operations after the Midway losses. Restricted to the few big fleet carriers left, this just meant that mixed carrier groups had aircraft of mixed performances, leading to more dispersion of attacks. The vast majority of these aircraft produced finished up operating from land bases.
Similarly the replacement for the Albacore was en route, but the Fairey Barracuda [245mph, 2 x .303 mg, 1,600lb torpedo or bombs, 1,150 miles range] was put back once alternatives became available. The Barracuda was slower than most other naval strike aircraft from later in the war, but was a reasonably flexible and durable aircraft. Not only could it operate efficiently as either a torpedo or dive bomber (it did so to devastating effect against the Tirpitz in 1944), or with rockets, it could use rocket assisted take-offs to operate from the smaller escort carriers unsuitable to most more modern aircraft. It’s main fault was experienced during the raids on the Netherlands East Indies, where its cold weather optomised engine had greatly reduced performance in the heat, particularly attempting to climb over mountain ranges. For Pacific operations it was usually replaced with Avengers, and it served out its operational life in the Atlantic.
Which brings us to the Grumman TBF Avenger [271mph, 2 x .5 and 1 x .3 mg, 2,000lb’s torpedo or bombs, 1,450 miles range], fairly regarded as the best torpedo bomber of the war. An excellent and very durable aircraft, with enough space to be the first American naval aircraft mount radar (some two years after the British Swordfish did so). An excellent aircraft quite capable of delivering torpedos or reasonable bomb-loads, and later adapted for depth charge/radar attacks on submarines. Unlike most other aircraft of this period, the ASW versions at least remained in service well after the wars ends.
On the other hand the Avenger’s have also been oversold. Yes they were fast and efficient for their types, but that did not save them against reasonable opposition. At Midway, the half dozen available suffered five losses, a higher percentage of losses than the obsolete Devestator’s they were replacing! In fact anywhere they met fighters in daylight, they were almost as vulnerable as any other bomber of the war lacking suitable fighter cover. There is certainly no suggestion that their greater speed and ruggedness gave them any sort of immunity if an enemy fighter got on their tail. They too were equipped for radar directed night attacks by 1944, though by that time American air superiority usually allowed them to operate with relative impunity, with their main danger being from the anti-aircraft firepower of the ships they were attacking.
Later in the war
The upgrade of the Wildcat was the Grumman F6F Hellcat [375mph, 6 x .5 mg, 1,590 miles range]. Faster, tougher, much longer ranged, and more maneouvrable, when it arrived in late 1943 it gave the Americans a distinct edge over the Japanese. (Though the British using it found the Germans a tougher opponent.) Hellcat’s were nonetheless being outclassed by other Allied aircraft by the end of the war.
Also in 1943, the British deployed the Fairey Firefly [316mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000lb bombs or rockets, 1,300 miles range], a much improved Fulmar fighter/reconnaissance plane. Long ranged, fairly fast, extremely rugged, and with an impressive range of abilities. It was radar equipped, and allowed strike leaders (which other nations still had to put in torpedo bombers) to be in faster and more survivable aircraft. Despite being a two seat fighter, its unique air brakes made it a superb dog fighter easily capable of facing Japanese fighters. It could act as a dive bomber, or use its rockets and cannon to pound targets while covering other attacking aircraft. (8 rockets – sometimes 16 on later versions – gave it a broadside like a heavy cruiser.) It proved devastating in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific campaigns, and served in a variety of roles for many years after the war.
In early 1944 the British tried out a new aircraft the Americans had deployed with the Marines, but considered too dangerous to use on carriers. The Vought F4U Corsair [417mph, 6 x .5 mg, 1,015 miles range] proved a magnificent success, and in late 1944 the Americans started deploying them to carriers too. The Japanese had no answer, not least because they were running out of large carriers and of pilots. It would often carry bombs or rockets later in the war, and could match most Japanese fighters even without ditching them. The British homemade upgrade, the Hawker Sea Fury [460mh, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000 lb rockets or bombs, 700 miles range], like the equivalent American upgrade the Grumman F8F Bearcat [421mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000lb rockets or bombs, 1,105 miles range], started appearing too late to see service (but both performed exceptionally well in the Korean war).
Towards the end of the war the British were also bringing into service a new torpedo/fighter hybrid, the Blackburn B-37 Firebrand II [340mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 1,850lb torpedo or 2,000lb’s bombs, 740 miles range]. Fighter aircraft had become so big and powerful, that even a torpedo was simply a slightly bigger bomb. The Firebrand was faster than any other torpedo aircraft (or indeed most of the older fighters still in operation), and a reasonably capable fighter in it’s own right once it had dropped it’s torpedo: making it pretty much the first Allied torpedo plane of the war potentially capable of operating in daylight without massive fighter escort… though it would still have needed fighter cover until after the torpedo strike. Results looked promising, but the war ended before they were used in combat. Both Britain and America were starting to look at a new generation of jet aircraft instead, and the British Sea Vampire was actually tested in carrier landings in late 1945, with the American FH1 Phantom being operational by 1947.
You will note from the above that no nation had a dominant lead in naval aircraft at any time. The British possibly had the most advanced dive bombers in 1939 (Skua) and again 1945 (Firefly), and the Japanese and Americans the best torpedo bombers in 1941 (Kate) and 1942 (Avenger) respectively (though the Firebrand might have taken the title in 1945 if the war had lasted a bit longer). The British had the only night strike aircraft for the middle of the war (Swordfish and Albemarle), and the Americans the best by 1944 - the Avenger. The Japanese had the best fighter of 1941-2, the Zero; and the Americans had the best fighters in 1943 (Hellcat) and 1944 (Corsair- but note the British had used it in this role since 1943); but the British Sea Fury was the best by the end of the war. The British had uniquely effective fighter/reconnaissance planes in 1941 (Fulmar – but it suffered from being their only fighter too) and again in 1945 (Firefly – used in partnership with Sea Spitfires and Corsairs), while the Americans had such air superiority that they could use some fighters mainly as strike aircraft (Corsair again).
By contrast each nation had plenty of ‘worst’ category too. The Swordfish was a terrible day torpedo bomber by 1941, and the Devestator even worse by 1942. The Val was an obsolete dive bomber by 1942, and arguably the Dauntless only escaped the same fate through massive fighter cover later in the war. The Fulmar was an inadequate fighter pulling above its weight in 1941, as was the Wildcat in 1942 and the Zero by 1943. (The Buffalo was just inexcusable even when introduced in 1940.) The Albacore was only saved from being useless through being refitted for night operations from 1941, and the Kate and even Avenger were hopelessly vulnerable to daytime fighter opposition even when they were the best torpedo bombers available.
In other words don’t fall for the line that a particular aircraft was ‘the best naval such-and-such of the war’. All have their time and their place. Arguably the Albacore biplane was a more dangerous torpedo bomber in 1942 because of its ability to find and destroy targets by using radar at night: in comparison to the much better Kate, or infinitely better Avengers, of the same period, which had to survive opposition fighters in daylight to stand a chance. It is not the really the fastest or sexiest aircraft that is the best, but is the model that can carry out its job most effectively. It should also be the model that gives the crew the best chance of survival. That is what really makes an aircraft ‘the best’ for its time.