Dawn of the Carrier Age: Early Aircraft Carrier Use
Aircraft carriers have come a long way from the early converted steamers like the HMS Argus and USS Langley. United States supercarriers like the USS Nimitz carry over fifty modern strike jets and another couple dozen supporting aircraft, are over a thousand feet long, and displace more than a hundred thousand tons of seawater. The first carriers were far from being so capable: they displaced a bit more than a tenth of a US supercarrier of the 21st century and carried only two dozen or so propeller driven aircraft.
Aircraft carrier performance and tactics have likewise changed dramatically since the interwar period stretching between 1918 and 1939. The aircraft carrier battle group familiar today that comprises the majority of the combat power of the United States Navy had not even been conceptualized in the 1920’s when carriers first appeared in notable numbers.
Carrier tactics during this time tracked closely with their capabilities and role in the fleet. They were intended to be little more than auxiliaries to the main battle line, which was composed of battleships and battlecruisers. Their function was to enhance the spotting power of battleship fleets by conducting aerial reconnaissance, to help defend against bomber attacks launched from shore bases, and perhaps to drop a few bombs or torpedoes of their own during a battleship engagement at close quarters.
The design, and therefore performance, of aircraft carriers during this time was strongly affected by this role. Though naval powers like Britain and the United States soon moved away from converting steamers or warships into carriers, and began building vessels that were designed as carriers from the keel up, the legacy of their intended role in close support of surface engagements lingered. Notably, early carriers in many navies mounted cruiser sized guns that were primarily dangerous to surface ships of cruiser size and smaller. Their inclusion reduced the space dedicated to air operations but were viewed to be necessary to ward off attacks by scout cruisers or torpedo boats during a major engagement. The aircraft carried by early carriers tended to be very light and somewhat fragile - naval aviation took a back seat up until the Second World War taught that carriers were far more powerful when employed on their own, and not as a mere complement to a surface action group.
Carrier Tactics from 1939-1942: A Steep Learning Curve
Arguably, the design and use of carriers as adjuncts to battleship fleets made them far weaker in the early years of World War II than they could have been. It is also possible that the heavy losses in carriers during the early years of the war, especially by Great Britain, demonstrated that both designers and admirals had seriously misunderstood their potential.
In 1939 the only combatant nation to possess a significant carrier fleet was the United Kingdom. Its fleet was composed largely of one-off designs or converted ships: HMS Hermes and HMS Ark Royal were examples of the former, HMS Argus, HMS Eagle, HMS Furious, HMS Glorious, and HMS Courageous were of the latter group. At the start of the war, only HMS Ark Royal’s design had shifted away from that of a ship meant to support battleships to one meant to engage in aerial combat.
The development of the aircraft carrier tactics of World War II began soon after the September, 1939 declaration of war. British carriers were scattered across the seas, broken up into forces composed of a carrier and a battleship or battlecruiser. Several of these forces would often conjoin to conduct operations, but carriers were still effectively slaved to the needs of the rest of the fleet. Due to the relative weakness of the German Navy, this meant that the fleet engaged in North Sea patrols and worked to support the movement of merchant ships between the Allies and their overseas colonies.
This brought British carriers into the fight against the U-Boats and surface raiders of the Kriegsmarine, where they scouted for pocket battleships and U-boats attempting to attack British ships and facilities. In truth, they were rather unsuccessful. U-29 hit Courageous with two torpedoes as she conducted air operations two weeks after the war began and she sank like a stone. Glorious was destroyed when caught at sea during the Norwegian Campaign of 1940 by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Ark Royal was sunk by U-81 in 1941 after nearly being torpedoed in the past. Eagle was sunk by U-73 in the Mediterranean in 1942, and Hermes was blasted and sunk by Japanese aircraft in the Indian Ocean that same year.
Carrier Tactics Development and 1942: The Turning Point
But although Britain lost five of the seven carriers that it possessed at the start of the war, its experiences proved essential in the development of aircraft carrier tactics in World War II. Even as its carriers were sunk one by one the Royal Navy experimented with tactics and hit on one at which carriers excelled: surprise raids.
The commissioning of the HMS Illustrious, first of four carriers of its class, gave Britain a new level of aircraft carrier performance. Equipped with an armored flight deck and able to keep over fifty aircraft in its hangar, Illustrious launched an attack in November of 1940 against the main Italian naval base of Taranto. Utilizing torpedoes and striking at night, the Italian navy was caught unawares and crippled in one fell swoop. The aircraft carrier had found its calling.
It was the Japanese Navy that further advanced the concept of using aircraft carriers to inflict extreme damage on port installations and ships caught unawares. Its fleet consisted of more than half a dozen carriers by late 1941, and Japan put them to good use raiding shore installations in China until economic sanctions brought the Japanese government to launch an attack on the Allies in hopes of securing domination of the Western Pacific. In December 1941 Japan imitated the British success at Taranto and savaged the United States Navy in a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor that crippled the battleships of the US Pacific Fleet. The Japanese innovation during this strike was important - they grouped six aircraft carriers together to provide more than three hundred aircraft in a massed attack. This technique of grouping carriers together into large strike fleets was a development that would play a significant role in the rest of the war.
Caught with only its carrier and cruiser fleets intact at the start of 1942, the United States was forced to throw its old battleship focused war plans out the window and improvise. It began conducting raids of its own against Japanese airbases and islands and even managed to pull off the Doolittle Raid, where medium bombers were sent on a one way trip to attack Japan on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, escorted by the USS Enterprise. But the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway, fought in 1942, changed carrier warfare forever and placed the United States at the forefront of carrier development.
1942 to 1945, the United States Develops Fast Carrier Doctrines
The Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway marked the first time that aircraft carriers dueled one another in large carrier groups operating independently. Between these two battles, Japan lost four fleet carriers: IJN Akagi, IJN Kaga, IJN Hiryu, and IJN Soryu while the United States lost two - the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown. Added to the loss of the Langley earlier in the conflict this left the US with roughly the same number of carriers as the Japanese, but also halted the Japanese advance across the Pacific. The initiative passed to the United States, both in the development of aircraft carrier performance as well as the development of new tactics and doctrines for the use of carriers.
The Japanese may have been the first carrier power to routinely group carriers together into independent strike forces, but the United States took this concept to a new level. By late 1942 the carriers USS Hornet and USS Wasp had been sunk, but the Essex class carriers like the USS Intrepid were coming online. By 1943 the US could put six or eight fast carriers with similar performance characteristics together and unleash them on Japanese territory in the Pacific.
Thus was refined the signal set of aircraft carrier tactics in World War II: using massed fleets of carriers as the primary strike force and sending them against vital naval installations. For the Japanese, it was like being struck by a Pearl Harbor type attack over and over again. The battles for the Solomon Islands were bloody for both sides, but when the smoke cleared the United States and its allies owned the battlefield, and only once more would Japan be able to challenge the US Navy at sea with anything like an equal carrier force.
The Fast Carrier Task Force under the command of Admiral Marc Mitscher rampaged with near impunity across the Pacific and all the way to the shores of Japan from 1943 to the surrender in late 1945. And since then, carrier tactics have remained fairly constant: send them out in battle groups, merge battle groups into large strike forces when the threat level increases, and let them go after opposing military installations until their stores of ammunition and jet fuel run out.
Images of World War II Aircraft Carriers
References and Image Credits
Janes Fighting Ships of World War II, 1946 Janes Publishing Company, 1994 reprint edition
Arthur Zich, The Rising Sun, 1977 Time Life Books
George Sullivan: The Day Pearl Harbor Was Bombed, 1991 Scholastic Inc
Barrie Pitt, The Battle of the Atlantic, 1977 Time Life Books
Churchill, The Second World War, 1959 Time Life
Images 1-4 and 6 Courtesy of the United States Government and United States Navy, image 5 courtesy of the Japanese Government. All images accessed via wiki commons.