By: Ben Clark
In 1909 the French inventor and aviation pioneer Clément Ader (1841–1925) published in his book L'Aviation Militaire an astonishingly farsighted, high-level design of a large, ocean-going ship to operate multiple airplanes at sea. The Ader design included a flat flight deck, an island superstructure, deck elevators and a hangar bay. That same year the US Naval Attaché in Paris sent a copy of Mr. Ader’s book to the U.S. War Department. There was very little interest in Ader’s ideas, as the Navy concentrated on laying down keels for larger and larger Battleships. It is important to understand that at the time the aircraft carrier was envisioned, the Battleships or Super Dreadnaughts reigned supreme on the high seas. It was the dream of every junior naval officer to command a Battleship, yet before their careers were finished the most coveted assignment shifted away from the huge Battleships to the aircraft carriers. How did this happen in a brief timespan? In the first place, it is impossible to analyze the development of the aircraft carrier (CV) without a parallel discussion on the evolution of the airplane. What follows below is a unified sea/air chronicle of the key events and people that made the transition from Battleship-first to Aircraft Carrier-first modern Navy that sails the oceans today.
The Dawn of Aviation
1903 December – Wright brothers achieve first powered & piloted flight at Kitty Hawk in the experimental Wright Flyer 1. Begin design of Wright Flyer 2.
1905 October – The Wright Flyer 2 is the world’s first practical aircraft flying 24 miles in 39 minutes over Huffman Prairie, Ohio.
1908 December – Wilbur Wright pilots the improved Wright Flyer 2 at Le Mans, France and wins the Michelin Cup by flying 2 hours & 20 minutes and covering a distance of 77 miles.
1910 November – first pilot launched from stationary ship. (US navy)
1911 January – first pilot lands and takes off from a stationary ship (US navy)
1912 May – first pilot takes off from a moving ship (Royal navy)
World War I – Early aircraft carrier highlights
1914 August – War begins in Europe.
Entering the war, the British Royal Navy was, by wide margin, the dominate blue water fleet, with a caste of Battleship Admirals firmly in charge. In fact, all major powers in the conflict were focused on battleships. Despite the fixation on battleships, the constant pressures of war accelerated some important advances in the evolution of the aircraft carrier during the war.
1917 June – Royal Navy launches HMS Furious, the first aircraft carrier. She was actually a heavy battlecruiser converted to CV with the addition of a truncated flight deck.
1917 August – first pilot takes off and lands from a moving ship (HMS Furious). The second landing resulted in the death of the test pilot. The ship’s short flight deck was deemed unsafe for landing.
1918 July – The first carrier-launched combat airstrike (HMS Furious). Seven aircraft, each carrying 2x50lb bombs launched from HMS Furious, attacked the German Zeppelin base at Tondern, Germany. Two German airships and a support hanger were destroyed. Unable to make deck landings, all British aircraft were lost; two pilots ditched their aircraft into the sea alongside the carrier and were rescued. The five other planes flew to neutral Denmark and were impounded.
The Roaring 1920’s: Treaties, War Games, and Lindberg
1918 – British Royal Navy designed and begins construction on the first build-for-purpose aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, with these key design features: full length flight deck, starboard-side control tower, hanger deck and a hurricane bow.
1921 February– Five Power Treaty signed by WW1 victors. The treaty limited new naval construction and prevented another battleship driven arms race. German navy size severely limited by Versailles Treaty.
1921 May-July – The US Navy and Army Air Service conduct successful air-sea bombing tests and sink a variety of target ships, including four decommissioned battleships. The bombing success was disputed by the battleship admirals because the ships were at anchor and the bombers were not subject to anti-aircraft fire.
1922 December - The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) commission the Hosho, first operational warship designed from the keel up to be an aircraft carrier.
1923 February - After multiple design changes and shipyard visits, the British Navy finally commissions the HMS Hermes.
War gaming at the U. S. Naval War College
By the mid 1920’s Captains Laning and Reeves, heading the tactics department at the War College began to update and factor into the War Game Models the rapid advances of new technology including: aviation, radio, submarines, and long range torpedoes. They soon determined that the widely accepted war gaming model based on the WW1 sea battle of Jutland was obsolete. The old school slugging match by giant battleships was outmoded by new military technology that taken together with effective use of smokescreens resulted in almost impossible conditions for battleships to deliver long range, accurate fire without areal spotters. The idea emerged that achieving air superiority over the sea battle was critically important, if for nothing else to better direct long range fire from the battleship heavy cannon. Later with improvements in aircraft performance, naval aircraft were capable of increased payloads and long distance range. Gradually the idea of the offensive use of aircraft at sea began to emerge.
1927 May – Charles Lindberg pilots the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight (New York to Paris, 3610 miles in 33 hours). Lindberg’s monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, was driven by the Wright J-5 Whirlwind – a radial, air-cooled 200+HP engine. The era of delicate biplanes with cranky aircraft engines was over; high performance aircraft ruled the skies.
1930’s Prelude to War
1933 – In a genius decision, FDR issues a Presidential Directive for the US Navy to ramp up CV fleet by using three battle cruiser hulls that were already approved by Congress for construction.
1935 April – Hitler repudiates the Versailles Treaty and Germany begins a massive arms build-up. Both Italy and Japan, co-signers of the Five-Power Naval Treaty, renounce the treaty, and increase orders for capital warships.
It is worth noting here that the German and Italian navies concentrated on building battleships and neglected to commission a single CV before hostilities broke out in 1939. Eric Raeder, the German Grand Admiral, dismissed aircraft carriers, which he characterized as “only gasoline tankers”. Raeder was a typical battleship admiral and was comfortable with Hitler’s WWI – type naval strategy, employing huge battleships. Hitler’s military thinking was firmly of the WWI era, and he could not conceive of any decisive naval engagements beyond a slugging match between larger and larger battleships. The greatest historian of World War 2, Gerhard Weinberg, coined the term German Gigantomania to describe the tendency of the Nazis to pursue endless experiments with enormous battleships, monster tanks, and huge caliber artillery. Encouraged by Hitler himself, these Gigantomania projects combined to absorb vast amounts of limited resources, yielded no practical purpose, and overall greatly handicapped the German war effort.
WW2 – England stands alone
1939 September 1 – Germany invades Poland. England and France declare war and World War 2 begins.
At the outbreak of another major war in Europe, the British Royal Navy was, as before in WW1, the most dominate naval power on the planet. The Nazi navy – the Kriegsmarine - was no real match for the Royal Navy, but similar to WW1 the German U-boats were a constant menace to shipping. The British deployed most of their home fleet aircraft carriers on ASW (anti-submarine warfare) duty in the Atlantic and later expanded ASW to the Mediterranean Sea. By mid-1940, aircraft carrier deployments favored the Mediterranean, with two each in Alexandria and Gibraltar, one in home waters, and three in the Far East. The carrier based British Fleet Air Arm was to distinguish itself despite flying the Swordfish, a dated, open-cockpit, biplane. While not having the most modern attack aircraft they were well trained in night flying and use of the secret ASVII radar, the first successful air-to-surface radar. Two of the more significant successes of the British Fleet Air Arm are described below:
1940 November - The Royal Navy used carrier based aircraft for a night attack on Italian naval base at Taranto where the Italian fleet, including six battleships, lay at anchor . Twenty-one Swordfish launched from HMS Illustrious, sunk one Italian battleship and damaged two more battleships. The British lost only two aircraft during the raid.
1941 May 26 – A British airstrike from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal score a torpedo hit on the Bismarck, jamming the rudder and steering gear . The unmaneuverable German battleship was sunk the next day by a large British task force.
 The Italian navy proved to be a paper tiger during WW2. After the raid at Taranto, the undamaged Italian warships withdrew to Naples, and rarely left port to challenge the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea.
 In one of those developments that no one would believe if included in a work of fiction, the first wave of Swordfish torpedo planes mistakenly attacked the HMS Sheffield, a British light cruiser shadowing the Bismarck. Two torpedoes, armed with magnetic detonators, hit the friendly ship but did not explode. The confusion was sorted out; the aircraft returned to the Illustrious and were re-armed with contact-detonator torpedoes for the successful attack on the Bismarck.
1941 May - Battle of Crete
The British were not the only WW2 combatant to score air-sea victories in 1941. When the Nazi military machine zeroed-in on the island of Crete in May 1941, the war exploded over the Mediterranean Sea. Wave after wave of German airborne forces (the elite Fliegerkorps 10) landed by glider and parachutes on Crete, and after bitter fighting forced the British troops to evacuate the Greek island. While the land battle raged the Germans enjoyed complete air superiority  whereas, the Royal Navy controlled the sea lanes. This confrontation set up one of the largest air-sea battles ever fought in Europe or the Mediterranean Sea. The 11 day Battle of Crete marked the zenith of the Luftwaffe’s Ju87 Stuka dive bombers effectiveness against the British Royal Navy during WW2. Nazi airpower had devastating effect on the Royal Navy forces; sinking nine warships, and seriously damaging two more capital ships including an upgraded WW1 era battleship .
: Shortly before the Crete invasion, the over-strained Royal Air Force, citing logistic problems, had abandoned their base at Crete and relocated to Alexandria. Also the British navy opted to use their four Mediterranean based ACs to protect convoys against the Nazi U-boat threat, leaving Crete without Allied air support.
: Four (4) British cruisers and five (5) destroyers sunk offshore Crete: Gloucester, Calcutta, York, Fiji, Juno, Greyhound, Kelly, Kashmir, and Hereward. Two seriously damaged capital ships: Warspite (battleship) and Orion (battlecruiser). May 1941 was indeed a difficult month for the Royal Navy – on May 24 the HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck during a battle in the North Sea.
The British were stunned by the Royal Navy losses at Crete, but continued to operate under the Naval doctrine that modern battleships under steam were unsinkable by aircraft alone. The fact that the battleships HMS Warspite & Valiant survived German dive bombing at Crete, added to the confidence of the Battleship-first admirals . By mid-1941, Hitler’s armies were storming across the Russian steppes, so for the first time in over a year the British Isles were no longer threatened with a Nazi invasion. The British high command, wary of the threat of war with a militaristic, expansionist Japan, decided the timing was right to reinforce their Pacific fleet. Force Z was assembled and dispatched to the port of Singapore. Force Z included a modern battleship, a fast heavy cruiser, a modern aircraft carrier, and several destroyers and support vessels. Unfortunately the aircraft carrier ran aground in the Med and required hull repairs. An alternate British aircraft carrier was deemed too slow. It was decided, in true battleship-first tradition, to sail Force Z without delay. The result of the fateful decision shifts the focus to the Pacific Theater of WW2 which was on the brink of live ammunition as the Force Z flotilla sailed to the East.
 The Warspite suffered a direct hit with a delay-action-fuse 500lb bomb. She survived the raid, but was seriously damaged requiring a year in shipyard for repair. The Valiant’s hull was damaged by a near miss, causing minor flooding that was quickly repaired. She did not lose fighting efficiency.
WW2 – Pacific Theater
While the Axis powers in Europe focused on new construction of super-class battleships, Japan went in a different direction. Japan started the war with ten aircraft carriers, the largest and most modern carrier fleet in the world at that time. There were seven American aircraft carriers at the beginning of the hostilities, although only three of them were operating in the Pacific. The Royal Navy and the US Navy shared intel in the Pacific, and both seriously underestimated the effectiveness of Japanese aircraft and aviators in the run-up to the Pacific War. Despite a rather slow start, the Japanese aviation industry outdid itself designing and building world-class aircraft in the late 1930’s that were well suited for aircraft carrier operations. The IJN combined these aircraft with rigorously trained pilots, resulting in the world’s most effective anti-shipping force at the end of 1941. While the British expected the Japanese to perform below German standards, Japanese aircraft and pilots actually surpassed their German counterparts. The Japanese also had developed an outstanding long-range, hard hitting torpedo - the Long Lance (Type 93). The Long Lance was remarkably advanced in comparison with the torpedoes in service with other major naval powers (US, German and British).
1941 December 7 – Pearl Harbor, the Day of Infamy
The Japanese surprise attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor was a clear demonstration of power projection afforded by a large force of modern carriers. Concentrating six carriers in a single striking unit marked a turning point in naval history, as no other nation had fielded anything comparable. The IJN attacked Pearl with 353 aircraft consisting of a mix of fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes  in two waves, launched from their six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were torpedoed, with four sunken . The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, and two support vessels. A total of 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, and over 3,500 American service men were killed or wounded. Japanese losses were light, but the proposal for a third attack wave was rejected. The IJN steamed east. Although the American Navy suffered a major defeat, it could have been worse. All three American aircraft carriers were at sea, and several key base installations were not attacked, most importantly the massive fuel storage tanks and the shipyard dry docks.
1941 December 10 – Coinciding with the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese began their advance through Southeast Asia, and once again turned conventional WW1 based naval theories upside down. Japanese land-based aircraft found and attacked the British Force Z which had departed their Singapore Base and sailed for open sea as soon as the news of Pearl Harbor flashed around the world. Japanese light bombers and torpedo planes sank the super-battleship HMS Prince of Wales and heavy battlecruiser HMS Repulse. For the first time in history, aircraft had sunk a modern battleship and heavy cruiser while maneuvering at sea and fighting back.
 The IJN was quick to obtain lessons learned on the 1940 British aerial attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, and made shallow-water modifications for the aerial Long Lance torpedoes.
 All except the USS Arizona were soon raised for repair. Six battleships returned to service and went on to fight in the war.
WW2 – Pacific Theater (continued)
After a string of successes in Southeast Asia, The Japanese admirals approved plans to make a strong push toward Australia in the Coral Sea then pivot back to Hawaii and finish the destruction of the American Pacific fleet. Unknown to the Japanese, the game had changed. Going forward, American admirals had one priceless advantage: U.S. cryptanalysts had partially broken the Japanese Navy's secret naval code. It was time for some payback and the Americans plotted a few nasty surprises of their own.
1942 May - Battle of the Coral Sea - Ambush #1
In early May an IJN invasion fleet steamed into the Coral Sea to target Port Moresby, New Guinea. To their surprise, the American fleet was positioned in force in the Coral Sea and ready for battle. The Battle of the Coral Sea was the world's first carrier battle in which fleets solely exchanged blows with aircraft. The air-sea battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese, but a strategic victory for the allies. The sea battle marked the first time since the start of the war that a major Japanese advance had been checked by the Allies. More importantly, two of the best Japanese fleet carriers were crippled and their aircraft complement depleted to the point that the ships were unable to participate in another attack on Hawaii, which took place the following month. This ensured a rough parity in aircraft between the two adversaries for the next major sea battle near the little known island of Midway.
1942 June – Battle of Midway - Ambush 2
By some clever intelligence work and code breaking, the US Navy command learned that the Japanese planned to concentrate a carrier task force near Midway Island, and equally important, learned the sailing dates. The IJN steamed under radio silence and expected to launch another surprise attack. The US navy got to Midway first and launched scout planes to find the Japanese fleet. This time, the surprise attack would be on the IJN. The Battle of Midway, a four day naval battle beginning June 3, 1942 was the largest aircraft carrier battle in military history. The Japanese fleet, with four of their largest carriers and the bulk of their front-line pilots and aircraft, were engaged by three American aircraft carriers. After three days of desperate fighting, American dive bombers bulls-eyed the big Japanese aircraft carriers, sinking all four. One American aircraft carrier was sunk in the battle. The sea battle was a staggering defeat for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and is considered by most WW2 historians as a major turning point of the war in the Pacific .
 For a forensic analysis of the famous sea battle from both American and Japanese perspectives, read Miracle at Midway by Gordon Prange. It is available from most major libraries.
Twilight of the Battleship
The early events in the Pacific War sent shock waves throughout the world. As government and military leaders struggled to make sense of the new military reality of 1942, the key lesson learned in Washington and London was that large capital ships could no longer operate in war zones without air support. Also the shipbuilding priorities were drastically shifted in favor of aircraft carriers. The day of the Battleship-first navy was ended. The Imperial Japanese Navy proved beyond any doubt that aircraft, and aircraft carrying warships, would dominate the seas. These bitter lessons of war were the final catalyst to push the Allied navies into the modern era.
Written and edited by Ben Clark. Copyright 2016-2022. All rights reserved