How They Got Planes On Ship
The aircraft carriers that won the Second World War were the result of two decades of improvisation
It was August 1914, and World War I had just started. Germany had a new and worrisome weapon in its Zeppelins—huge rigid airships that could stay aloft for dozens of hours, traveling long distances or hovering nearly motionless. Britain had nothing similar in prospect. The Admiralty feared that those airships could serve as eyes for the German fleet, and Britain needed to improvise a counter-weapon.
The solution would have to involve sending airplanes to sea, since Zeppelins flew farther from shore than land-based planes could reach. That made it fortunate that for several years both Britain and the United States had been experimenting with the idea of naval aviation. As early as November 1910 an American stunt flier, Eugene Ely, had flown an ordinary airplane off a platform mounted on a warship and touched down on land, and a British pilot, Lt. Charles R. Samson, took off from a ship and landed on the water in 1912. Meanwhile, other tests in the United States showed that seaplanes—equipped with floats instead of wheels, for water landings and takeoffs—would be the aircraft of choice. Their use of the open ocean would give all the room they could need, and a pilot would be able to abort a takeof f without plunging off a ship’s bows.
On August 11, 1914, barely a week after Britain entered the war, naval officials began building a seagoing air force. This initial use of naval aviation was at first meant to be strictly defensive. The Admiralty commandeered three cross-Channel packets— Engadine, Riviera , and Empress —and ordered their conversion into seaplane carriers. Each was given a hangar for four such craft, along with a pair of derricks to hoist them in and out.
Months passed, and the German fleet stayed in harbor. The expected use of Zeppelins—to support surface craft in naval battles—did not materialize. But the Zeppelins still loomed as a threat to naval operations. Britain proceeded to devise a new, offensive role for its improvised aircraft carriers. That Christmas Eve a British naval task force set out to launch an air attack on a Zeppelin base near Cuxhaven, on the North Sea, far beyond the range of British land planes. It would be the first shipborne air strike in history, but it was quite impromptu.
Christmas morning was calm and sunny as British seamen hoisted out nine seaplanes. Two of them failed to take off. The rest managed to get airborne, crossed the coast, ran into dense fog, and promptly got lost. One of them nevertheless succeeded in finding the base and dropped bombs on the hydrogen plant. They missed. At the end of the day all the British had to show for their work was damage to one inexpensive and easily replaced enemy seaplane; meanwhile, three of their own had been lost at sea.
A similar sense of the absurd marked the Admiralty’s use of air power at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, the war’s only full-scale naval engagement. A new seaplane carrier, HMS Campania (a converted Cunard liner), lay at anchor in a remote reach of the main naval base and missed the order to sail. The faithful Engadine launched one of its planes for reconnaissance, but after radioing the position of a few German ships, it soon set down on the water with a broken fuel line. The Engadine ’s main contribution to the battle was to take a damaged cruiser in tow. The cruiser sank.
Yet while the seaplane was falling short, the Zeppelin threat was taking on frightening dimensions. Beginning in 1915, the airships operated as bombers, striking at Condon itself.
How could Britain respond? The answer lay in land-based fighter aircraft. Freed of the weight of a seaplane’s pontoons, they could fly higher and maneuver better. Land planes repeatedly showed their value by shooting the hydrogen-filled raiders down in flames. This raised the obvious possibility of combining the superior performance of land-based planes with the mobility of a carrier. Would it be possible for an ordinary airplane to routinely take off from a ship’s deck?
Another carrier in service, HMS Vindex , was already showing how to do it. In addition to its usual seaplane accommodations, The Vindex had a platform mounted near the bows from which wheeled aircraft could take off. They could not return and land on the ship, however, since its superstructure would get in the way. But their pilots could try to land ashore, or they could ditch alongside the ship. Air bags would then keep the plane afloat while seamen rescued the pilot.
Adm. Sir David Beatty, who had commanded his country’s battle cruisers at Jutland, quickly endorsed this scheme. Soon after Jutland he took over the Grand Fleet. He declared that “provision of anti-Zeppelin machines” was most urgent, along with “ships to carry them.” His eye fell on a battle cruiser under construction, HMS Furious , and he ordered its conversion into an aircraft carrier.
When it was commissioned, in June 1917, the Furious offered a major step forward. It mounted a flying-off platform 228 feet long, and it could reach thirty-two knots. Fighter planes could become airborne at speeds not much higher than that, so taking off would not be a problem, particularly when the ship was moving into the wind. In addition, the Furious was substantially larger than the Engadine and her sisters; she carried ten aircraft in a hangar.
Soon the question arose: Could a plane land on her deck as well as take off? The aircraft of the day were so slow that a pilot might readily keep abreast of the Furious merely by having the ship head into a stiff breeze. In August 1917 Squadron Commander Ernest H. Dunning volunteered to try to land in this fashion, approaching from the stern and sideslipping past the funnel and bridge. He did it, and then repeated the feat. But when he tried a third time, his plane went over the side, and he drowned. Clearly, for aircraft to land on carriers, the vessels would have to be purpose-built.
Fortunately the opportunity to construct such a ship lay close at hand. In the wake of Jutland the Admiralty had bought the partially completed hull of an Italian ocean liner, intending to convert it to a carrier. Its designers were quick to learn the lessons of the Furious , for when HMS Argus joined the fleet, it had a completely unobstructed flight deck. Neither funnels nor superstructure broke its 560-foot-long flatness. The funnels were tucked away near the stern; when the Argus was under way, it looked as if it was laying down a smoke screen.
Then, in July 1918, four years into the war, the Furious vindicated its builders’ hopes by finally conducting a successful naval air strike, the world’s first. Six Sopwith Camel fighters flew from its deck and set course for a Zeppelin base near Denmark. They found two large dirigibles in a hangar and set them both on fire with bombs. “It was one of the finest examples of nerve I ever saw,” a German pilot later declared.
Admiral Beatty was delighted. He hoped for even better results from the Argus , which could launch newly designed torpedo aircraft. Using such planes, he planned to attack the German fleet itself as it lay at anchor, in what would have amounted to a 1918 Pearl-Harbor. But on Armistice Day the Argus was still undergoing sea trials. Beatty’s proposed carrier strike would have to wait for the next war.
Even so, the British achievements had been spectacular. In just five years they had developed an entirely new type of warship that could embark and recover a substantial force of aircraft with shipkilling power. Still, those achievements had a strongly ad hoc character, for they had come about principally in response to the Zeppelin threat. America and Japan, by contrast, had faced no such threat and hence had done little to develop sea-based air power. With the Zeppelins gone, aircraft carriers lacked a clear mission. Battleships still commanded the sea, while submarines had emerged as commerce raiders par excellence. No comparable body of naval doctrine existed to define the carrier’s role in a future war.
This lack of doctrine did not discourage carrier advocates; on the contrary, it encouraged far-reaching speculations, somewhat as the performance of long-range missiles late in the 1950s would promote visions of the conquest of space. As early as 1919 Lord John Fisher, who had introduced the modern battleship, said, “All you want is the present naval side of the Air Force—that’s the future navy.”
Two years later it was the turn of Adm. William S. Sims, who had commanded the American naval forces in Europe during the war. Writing to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, he predicted that carriers “will sweep the enemy fleet clean of its airplanes, and proceed to bomb the battleships, and torpedo them with torpedo planes. It is all a question as to whether the airplane carrier, equipped with eighty planes, is not the capital ship of the future.”
These men were free to speculate, for they lacked responsibility for shaping their postwar navies. Fisher was in retirement, and Sims, who had made his name as a reformer, found few fellow admirals who shared his views. His outspoken advocacy contrasted sharply with an unpleasant fact: During the war nothing remotely resembling a carrier had gone to sea under the American flag.
Still, the Yankees were apt pupils of the British. Sims was one of several senior officers who had noted the Admiralty’s strong interest in aircraft carriers during the war. Their reports made it plausible that America, too, would build a carrier, if only to keep pace. Then, in March 1919, the battleship Texas took part in a gunnery exercise that demonstrated vividly the potential of naval aviation in a new role.
Battleships always looked impressive when they fired their big guns. But that was not the same as hitting the target. Observers relied on specialized optical instruments for range-finding and watched through binoculars to correct the fall of shot. In the 1919 exercises an aircraft carried out this function. Its observer was totally untrained, yet this novice coached the guns on target with an average error of only sixty-four yards, which the skipper of the Texas described as “many times better than was done by ship’s spotters.”
To advanced thinkers such as Sims, this exercise carried large implications. At first thought, it might have seemed that a few modest-sized carriers would suffice. A small number of aircraft, accompanying a battleship fleet in a general engagement, could vastly increase the number of hits and thus multiply the warships’ effectiveness out of all proportion. Yet to do this, the Navy would have to achieve air superiority over the battle zone, not just to protect its own spotters but to keep enemy spotters away. That made matters more complicated. A battle for air superiority was likely to precede the main engagement. It thus followed that aircraft carriers should be very large, to carry a substantial force of planes. They should also be fast enough to keep up with the battle fleet.
Here lay a new concept of the carrier, with a clear mission: battleship support. In 1920 no one was ready to build the eighty-plane carrier of Sims’s hopes. Under the lean appropriations of the postwar years, the best the U.S. Navy could do was to convert an existing vessel into a carrier, USS Langley , commissioned in 1922. The ship was a collier, whose coal-carrying holds provided ample space for a hangar deck. Still, it was no more than a half-step into the future. Its speed of fourteen knots meant that it would not be able to keep up with the battleships and cruisers in a fleet action. But it would be invaluable for training—honing a force of pilots, flight crews, and officers who would gain experience in aviation at sea. If the carrier ever came into its own, these men would provide a nucleus of skilled leadership.
Battleships still stood at the center of naval policy, and with naval appropriations trending steeply downward, few new warships of any type were likely to enter service. Yet, ironically, this postwar climate of cutbacks soon opened an opportunity to build the first large carriers.
In 1921 President Warren Harding convened the Washington Naval Conference, hoping to head off a naval arms race like that of the pre-war years. The resulting treaty restricted the numbers of battleships and battle cruisers each country could have, with limits on carriers thrown in for good measure. That was not because negotiators lived in fear of carrier-based air strikes—not in the early 1920s. It was because everyone knew that Britain had converted HMS Furious , a battle cruiser, to produce a carrier. It seemed only too likely that nations might reverse the procedure by building carriers and converting them in the opposite direction; hence these ships, too, fell under the limitations. Significantly, there was no restriction on the number of aircraft they could carry, which was what really counted.
Just then a half-dozen battle-cruiser hulls lay in American shipyards in varying stages of completion, all of them candidates for scrapping. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., saw an opportunity. He persuaded the conferees to permit conversion of two of those hulls into carriers of particularly large size. The two vessels farthest along were chosen: the USS Lexington , at Bethlehem Steel’s Quincy Yard in Massachusetts, and the Saratoga , at the New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden, New Jersey.
America was now building carriers, but hardly in a systematic or well-considered manner. All three of our carriers—the Langley in commission, the Sara and Lex abuilding—were vessels that had originally been planned for entirely different purposes. The carrier now had a role, but few admirals saw it as a war winner. Instead it would provide air support for the kingly battleship.
What was more, at the outset there were serious questions about the basic design of large carriers. The Langley had an unobstructed flat deck, making it virtually a twin of Britain’s HMS Argus , but such a layout would not do for the Sara and the Lex . Their size and high speed demanded enormous power, and their steam plants would produce vast amounts of hot boiler gas. These gases would not flow upward through a conventional funnel but through ducts on their way to the stern. The resulting heat would produce unbearable temperatures through much of the vessel. This had been the experience aboard the Furious , which had received internal ducting in the course of a refit.
A conventional funnel seemed necessary, but there still was strong concern that it would interfere with carrier landings. The British studied this problem by erecting a dummy “island,” which included a bridge, on the Argus . This island amounted to a standard ship’s superstructure, set to one side of the flight deck. When it was placed appropriately, safe landings indeed proved possible. The British installed an island on another new carrier, HMS Eagle . This arrangement did more than solve the heating problem. It permitted a larger hangar and offered a much more satisfactory bridge, with a view of the flight deck and a sweeping panorama of the surrounding sea. When the Eagle joined the Royal Navy in 1922, she established the definitive shape of future carriers.
These included the Sara and Lex , rated as sisters. When they ran up their commissioning pennants late in 1927, they stood among the world’s largest warships. Each one displaced thirty-six thousand tons (as much as a heavy battleship), mounted a flight deck more than eight hundred feet long, and could carry more than seventy aircraft. In sea trials they set world speed records for large ships by approaching thirty-five knots. And these carriers had a commander whose driving force would match that of their engines.
He was Rear Adm. Joseph M. Reeves, who had headed the tactics department at the Naval War College. He wanted carriers to attack, not merely to reconnoiter, and he found his chance when he took command aboard the Langley in 1925. Under his coaching, flight-deck crews learned to handle launches and recoveries swiftly and with ballet-like precision. Reeves also put firm emphasis on developing the ability to launch planes at night for a dawn attack. In addition, he strongly supported development of a new tactic: dive-bombing.
Reeves saw carriers as a way for the Navy to build its strength without a major program of battleship construction. But he remained a battleship man: talking with officials at Boeing, he warned that their planes’ bombs “won’t penetrate deck armor.” A force of three dozen planes “can deliver eight tons of bombs, if they can get past enemy fighters. A battleship delivers eight tons of projectiles every time it fires a round from all its turrets, and it can keep on firing. A hundred rounds each from four two-gun turrets is eight hundred tons of steel. One battleship.”
He nevertheless was ready to show what his carriers could do, and he found his opportunity early in 1929, amid preparations for a mock attack on the Panama Canal. The plan for this fleet exercise called for carriers to escort battleships, but Reeves approached his superior, Adm. William Pratt, and won permission to operate the Saratoga as an independent striking force.
Cutting loose from his battlewagons, Reeves ran south toward the Galápagos Islands with only a single cruiser for an escort. Turning northeast, he then proceeded toward Panama, running through the night at flank speed. Two hours before sunrise he launched a strike of fifty planes. They achieved complete surprise, as dive bombers hurtled downward onto Miraflores Locks. A dozen Army fighters quickly took to the air, but the Navy men outclimbed and outmaneuvered their adversaries. All of them then returned to the carrier.
The Saratoga did not “survive” this war game. In rapid succession she encountered defending battleships, a submarine, and her sister carrier, the Lexington , any of which could have sunk her. Still, that merely indicated that an attacking carrier would have to launch its strike from greater range. The important point lay in a decision by referees that this raid had indeed shut down the canal.
Here was a milestone. A carrier could strike unexpectedly at dawn, destroying a target of the highest importance. Admiral Pratt was astonished. “Gentlemen,” he stated, “you have witnessed the most brilliantly conceived and most effectively executed naval operation in our history.” The following year he became chief of naval operations, which put him in position to nudge the Navy farther toward embracing this new form of warfare.
But now Herbert Hoover had taken over the White House. He would earn a curious kind of naval distinction: during the whole of his four years, not one new warship of any type received authorization. Carrier advocates held only the slender reed of a fourth carrier, USS Ranger , authorized during Calvin Coolidge’s final weeks in 1929. Amid the Depression’s penury, she was built to perform battleship escort only, rather than assault. Her complement of seventy-five aircraft was substantial, but at 14,500 tons she had only two-fifths the displacement of the Sara and Lex . At twenty-nine knots, she was also a good deal slower. Yet she might well have represented the future, for the Navy was planning to build four more of this class.
Still, the idea of the attack carrier would not die, for war games were continuing to confirm its significance. In a pre-dawn strike at Pearl Harbor in 1932, the Sara and the Lex together launched 152 planes, catching the base by surprise and overwhelming its defenses. When the Ranger joined the fleet in 1934, operational exercises soon showed that she was quite unsuited to such a role. This changed the . Navy’s mind about building a Ranger class.
The New Deal by then was at the forefront, and in the im-promptu fashion that had so often shaped , carrier aviation, it unexpectedly opened a new opportunity. The instrument was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which was not a naval measure at all. Instead it offered federal funds to relieve unemployment by stimulating industry. However, the recipients of its largess included the shipbuilding industry. Hence, without recourse to regular naval appropriations, the Navy was able to start work on the USS Yorktown and Enterprise .
These vessels eliminated the design deficiencies of the Ranger , setting the pace for the modest program of carrier construction that would mark the preWorld War II years. They were rated at 19,800 tons and offered thirty-twoknot speed along with some protection against battle damage. Yet their advent in no way meant that the Navy was turning away from its emphasis on battleships.
As late as 1939 the Navy’s leading admirals were planning to build no more than four new flattops during the entire decade of the 1940s The first would reach completioi in 1943; two others, a few year; later, would merely replace the aging Sara and Lex . By contrast the admirals planned to build fii teen new battleships.
On the day of Pearl Harbor the United States had a grand total of six attack carriers suitable for Pacific duty. (The Ranger was not among them; it fought its war in the Atlantic against the less demanding threat of the Nazis.) The number could easily have been smaller; the Lexington and Enterprise were based at Pearl but were at sea; they would have been sitting in harbor had the Japanese attacked ten days earlier. In addition, the Saratoga was in San Diego for repairs and maintenance.
We managed to win a decisive—and all but miraculous—victory at Midway in June 1942. That safeguarded Hawaii and marked an end to Japan’s expansion. But although the Japanese lost four carriers and a heavy cruiser during the engagement (against one American carrier and one destroyer), their admirals replaced them with new construction. Japan had started the war with eight carriers; at the end of 1942 it still had eight in service.
The Americans were far less prepared; during the whole of 1942 we commissioned no new flattops. As the year progressed, we repeatedly ran short of luck—and of carriers. We lost the Lexington at Coral Sea, the Yorktown at Midway, then the Wasp and Hornet during the action around Guadalcanal. At that point we had only two carriers in the entire Pacific, the Enterprise and the Saratoga , and for a time both were laid up for repair. With the Japanese holding their own in carrier strength, they enjoyed outright supremacy.
This supremacy sharply limited our options. After Midway, Guadalcanal quickly emerged as the prize of battle. The stakes were high; if we had lost, Japan could have seized Port Moresby in New Guinea and then gone on to threaten all of Australia. In the fighting at Guadalcanal, which started in August 1942, we relied heavily on Henderson Field, a Japanese-built airstrip on the island that American forces captured and used as an “unsinkable carrier” to counter the enemy’s strength in naval aviation. Yet even then the battle took six months to win.
The decisions of the interwar years had left us unprepared for the naval threat we would face. They managed to avert outright disaster (we did not, after all, build a fleet of Ranger -class carriers); but they allowed us to achieve little more than bare adequacy. Our pre-war carrier forces avoided Pearl, held on to win at Coral Sea, triumphed at Midway, then survived long enough to contribute to the hard-won victory at Guadalcanal. But they offered no basis for the eventual defeat of Japan.
Here lay a formula for stalemate. We could secure Guadalcanal. We could protect our Pacific supply lines with surface ships, in the fashion of the Atlantic convoys. But we could not advance up the Solomon Islands beyond the reach of aircraft based at Henderson. We could not threaten Japan’s great bases at Truk and Rabaul. Nor could we advance into the central Pacific, sweeping across Japan’s overextended ocean empire. We secured Guadalcanal in February 1943, and then the stalemate set in, persisting through most of the year. We could not resume our offensive until we had new and superior carriers.
And we built them. The turning point had come after the fall of France, for in mid-1940 Congress authorized eleven large flattops as part of a major naval expansion. These took shape as the Essex class, and they were so well built that some would remain in service thirty years later. But they took time to build; not until mid-1943 did the first one enter service, under Adm. William Halsey. After that, though, the new carriers came forward in a surging wave.
They first saw action that November, as we initiated a two-prongedoffensive. One prong lay at Bougainville, in the northwestern Solomons and well along the route to Rabaul. The second was at Tarawa, as the Marines opened a new theater of action in the midPacific. In both these battles carriers provided air support. Then, in 1944, they truly came into their own.
That year saw formation of the great task forces in which these carriers made their name. They operated as spearheads, leading a campaign of island-hopping that culminated, later that year, in the seizure of the Marianas. The duration of this offensive is significant. The Pacific war had lain in stalemate for nine months; but once we had our new carriers it took only another nine months, to August 1944, before the whole of the Marianas was in our hands. And from those islands our B-29 bombers would fly repeatedly during the following year, to burn the enemy into submission.
From this perspective, our experience with carriers echoes our experience with aircraft, tanks, and trained fighting men. When we entered the war, we didn’t have enough in any of those areas. Still, we held our own, launching limited offensives while relying on the protection of the oceans. Meanwhile, we mobilized our titanic industrial strength. We won the carrier war as we won in those other areas, through production. That, rather than superiority at the outset, proved the key to victory.
But it is worth remembering that this final triumph of the carrier came about in the same way as its inception: a potent blend of blind luck and brilliant improvisation, always lubricated by a tiny cadre of farsighted thinkers.