^ HMS Hermes Carried Many of the Modern Carrier’s Features
Image Courtesy of the United States Navy National Museum of National Aviation
Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Hermes_(95)_off_Yantai_China_c1931.jpeg
‘An airplane-carrying vessel is indispensable. These vessels will be constructed on a plan very different from what is currently used. First of all, the deck will be cleared of all obstacles. It will be flat, as wide as possible without jeopardizing the nautical lines of the hull, and it will look like a landing field.’
Clement Ader in L’Aviation Militaire, 1909
War, the Father of Invention
Wars can and usually do spark fantastic innovations because even tiny advancements can define the difference between life and death, triumph and disaster, glory and condemnation. The history of aircraft carriers is inextricably geared to wars and the urge to win through creativity.
Clever generals and valiant soldiers do win wars. But the real winners are the good old resources, material and human. If you can have the right resources at the right place and time, the field is yours for the taking. Aircraft carriers ensure just that.
You do not have to build bases for your air force or for your army in distant lands to maintain your military presence there. All you have to do is park your aircraft carrier in the waters around the region of your interest. The airplanes from your carrier will do the rest.
And because the carrier can supply food, provisions, and munitions to all those aboard, you can stay there for a very long time. This projection of military power miles away from your territorial limits is at the very root of an aircraft carrier’s charm.
Not many have them though. As on July 4, 2016, twelve navies around the world have a total of 37 active aircraft carriers. The U.S. is the undisputed leader here. And apart from the U.S., only France has a nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier.
By January 2017, Russian navy’s flagship vessel, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will reach the Syrian port of Tartus. This is in response to the U.S. deploying two carriers in the Mediterranean – USS Truman and USS Eisenhower. The fight for influence is on.
Launched in September 1914, the HMS Ark Royal was arguably the first modern aircraft carrier. Although the British started to design HMS Hermes (1924) before the Japanese, the latter became the first naval force to commission a purpose-built aircraft carrier – the Hosho in 1922.
HMS Hermes (1924) however remains the first to possess the two extremely common features of modern carriers viz. the full-length flight deck and the starboard-side located control tower island.
But the ancestry of aircraft carriers goes back to the balloons launched from ships. Austrian warship Vulcano launched manned balloons to drop bombs on Venice. Wind direction changed and allowed them to drop only one bomb.
During the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), the Union army used such balloons to observe Confederate positions from elevated locations. The George Washington Parke Custis was the first vessel to launch such balloons.
Before & During the First World War (WW I)
Balloon carriers of the early twentieth century were the refined versions of these balloon-launching ships. The navies of Britain, Russia, Germany, Sweden, France, and Italy put them to good use as observation posts in WW I.
Then came the first seaplane carrier in 1911 that could carry aircrafts with floats. This was the Foudre, a French carrier that lowered to and retrieved from the ocean surface the seaplanes that were invented in 1910.
Seaplanes are fixed wing aircrafts that can take off from and land on water. Fabre Hydravion was the first successful seaplane to take off from water using its own power. French aviator Hanry Fabre designed it.
USS Mississippi was the first seaplane carrier of the U.S. HMS Hermes (1898) was a converted merchant ship that became the Royal Navy’s first experimental seaplane carrier in 1913. German submarines sunk her in 1914.
Japanese seaplane carrier Wakamiya played host to the first ever naval-launched air raid in September 1914 during the Battle of Tsingtao in WW I. Tsingtao was a German port located on the Pacific coast of China.
Christmas day in December 1914 saw the HMS Engadine, Riviera, and Empress launch the first such raid on the Western front when they attacked the German naval base at Cuxhaven.
Russians were not far behind. They used seaplane carriers with great effect in the Black Sea during WWI. Most of the aircraft carriers of the Soviet Union and, later of the Russians were however aircraft carrying cruisers, not real aircraft carriers.
Ripening around the same time as seaplane carriers were their advanced versions, the flat deck carrier. These developed with the maturing
of heavier-than-air aircrafts in the first decade of the twentieth century. The HMS Argus became the first full-length flat deck carrier in 1918.
Eugene Ely was the first pilot to take off from a stationary ship in 1910. Shortly thereafter in 1911, he also became the first to land an airplane on an immobile ship.
Arguably, the September 1914 launched HMS Ark Royal was the first modern aircraft carrier. Planes could now land on and take off directly from these carriers. She served in WW I in the Dardanelles campaign near the Black Sea.
Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning became the first pilot in August 1917 to land a plane on a moving ship, onboard the HMS Furious that the Royal Navy engaged for trials with wheeled aircrafts.
HMS Furious also played base to the first-ever air-raid launched from an aircraft carrier in July 1918. This was the Tondern Raid on the German Zeppelin base at Tondern. Seems the carrier lived up to its fearsome name!
Between the Two World Wars
In order to limit a naval arms race that was partly responsible for the precipitation of WW I, the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 defined the upper limits of naval resources for major powers. Although the U.S. and the British largely observed these, the Japanese didn’t.
During the interwar period, limited space on aircraft carriers allowed the use of small, single-engine aircrafts only. Most had foldable wings and this was so till the 1930s. Also in the 1930s, the Royal Navy devised the armored flight deck i.e. encircling the hangar by an armored box.
HMS Hermes (1924) was also the first to have a hurricane bow. Herein, the hangar deck is completely enclosed. Hangar deck is where they park auxiliary aircrafts. It is connected to the flight deck via large elevators.
With hurricane bows, you can better protect the carrier’s secondary aircrafts. The U.S. adopted such bows in 1927 beginning with the Lexington Class carriers.
In 1922, the U.S. commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. The interwar period saw the U.S. creating light aircraft carriers to
provide sufficiently fast escort ships to fleet carriers.
While the Royal Navy made catapult aircraft merchantman (CAM) ships, merchant ships that could launch on-deck aircraft with a catapult. The aircrafts provided air cover.
CAM ships were a temporary measure for they had no facility to support the landing of aircrafts. The Royal Navy soon developed merchant aircraft carriers – merchant ships with a flight deck for six aircrafts.
Then came the dedicated escort carriers of the U.S. navy. These were the next version of merchant aircraft carriers, loaded as they were with 20-30 aircrafts that rendered anti-submarine protection to convoys. Escort carriers also transported aircraft.
This period also saw U.S. Capt. (later, Admiral) Joseph Reeves hiking the speed of carrier operations. Instead of stowing away a landed airplane before allowing the next to land – a slow process – he wheeled them forward and separated them from the landing aircraft by a wire barrier.
Second World War (WW II)
At the start of WW II, the Royal Navy and U.S. navy had seven aircraft carriers each. Japan had ten, the most at the time. Germans and Italians had none. Seems the odds were slightly stacked in favor of the Allies.
Things started differently. German battle-cruisers sunk the HMS Glorious in 1940 while German U-29 submarines drowned the HMS Courageous in 1939. The chinks in the aircraft carrier armor stood exposed, particularly when caught within striking distance of gunships and submarines.
But, it ain’t all over till the fat lady sings. In November 1940, aircrafts from the HMS Illustrious destroyed three of the six Italian battleships at the Taranto harbor.
Then in 1941, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Victorious slowed down the famed German battleship Bismarck. Shortly thereafter, a group of Allied battleships and carriers sunk the Bismarck. This was no mean achievement.
Earlier, the Bismarck had destroyed the gem of the royal Navy, the battleship HMS Hood while enforcing retreat on the HMS Prince of Wales. Such was the awe of this defeat, then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had specifically ordered to sink the Bismarck.
Escort carriers secured the naval supply lines in the Atlantic and the Arctic. Like an army, a navy too marches on its stomach. Men cannot fight on empty stomachs and unloaded weapons. No exceptions here.
Unlike Germany that could only manage to come within an inch of completing the construction of the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, Japan had ten to start the war with.
Like never before and never after, the Japanese used six carriers for one single attack, the one on Pearl Harbor. This raid was most likely inspired by the English assault on the Tatanto harbor. Something, that revealed the unparalleled power projecting ability of the aircraft carrier.
Riding high, fast carrier based Japanese aircraft then drowned the legendary HMS Hermes (1924) in the Indian Ocean in 1942. Looks like the Pacific was making the Allies cry.
But then, you don’t become a superpower if you are so easily baulked. And the U.S. was on the road to global supremacy. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo launched via aircrafts from the USS Hornet forced the Japanese into withdrawing its navy to home waters.
Although the Japanese won the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first battle fought exclusively between aircrafts launched from carriers on both sides, it was a strategic victory for the Allies. They followed it by sinking all four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway. Now, the tide turned.
Essex Class carriers of the U.S. were instrumental in putting down the Japanese naval might in the largest and the most crucial naval battle of WW II, the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
And when the U.S. employed carriers to sink battleships Musashi in 1944 and Yamato in 1945, the fate of battleships was sealed. These were the final two nails in the coffin of the battleship. The aircraft carrier was the new ruler. Long live the battleship.
Before WW II, the naval air force’s chief task was to destroy rival fleets. The war proved the carrier’s worth in destroying the enemy’s coastal establishments and supporting amphibious landings. This verified the flexibility of the carrier and it became a strategic asset.
Cold War / Post War Era
European domination in international politics started to ebb with the end of WW I. War losses crippled their economies even as they moved towards a second, more destructive war.
By the end of WW II, the center of global finance had shifted across the Atlantic from London to New York. The dollar replaced the pound as the reserve currency of the world. Days of the good old British Empire over which the sun never set were confined to the pages of history.
With greater resources at its disposal, the U.S. emerged as the center of most technological developments, including those in military technology. By the late 1950s, U.S. carriers could host aircrafts capable of dropping nuclear bombs.
Soviets had the world’s largest submarine force in 1941. After subjugating the naval might of Japan in WW II, the U.S. now looked to the Soviets as rivals. Now, their focus was to develop carriers capable of supporting aircraft that could drop heavy bombs on submarine bases.
For some time however, the British did continue to innovate in this regard. Fighter planes gave way to faster and heavier fighter jets soon after WW II. Lt. Commander Eric Brown landed the first jet on HMS Ocean in December 1945.
Introduction of fighter jets necessitated some innovations:
- Angled Deck minimized the possibility of landing jets colliding with other jets parked on the carrier by building the runway at a slight angle (in the horizontal plane) to the longitudinal axis of the carrier
Airplanes touched the carrier for landing at the stern end and stopped at the bow end. If the hook of the landing plane missed the arrestor cables it could collide into the planes parked at the bow end
The angled runway directed the landing plane seawards, away from the parked aircrafts. If it missed the arrestor cables, it only had to boost power to get airborne again
HMS Triumph hosted the first experiment with the angled deck devised by Royal Navy Captain D.R.F Campbell and Lewis Boddington of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the early 1950s
- Steam Catapults were a product of the brain of Commander C.C. Mitchell of the Royal Navy Reserve. They demonstrated greater reliability and power vis-à-vis hydraulic catapults in the trials in 1950-52
- Optical Landing System eliminated the dependence of landing pilots on visual flag signals. Lt. Commander H.C.N. Goodhart of the Royal Navy developed this system
Gyroscopically-controlled concave mirrors reflected and focused green datum lights and an orange source light in order to guide the landing pilot along the proper landing path
By offsetting the effect of deck movement created by a wavy sea surface, the gyroscope provided a fixed landing path
Ski-Jump Ramp was another related mechanism the British invented. The ramp was built at the end of the runway and helped the plane get additional lift. It served an alternative to existing catapult launchers.
Vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) airplanes and short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) prefer such ramps. VTOL airplanes do not require a runway for takeoff and landing while STOVL planes can do with shorter runways.
The 1962-completed USS Enterprise was the first nuclear powered carrier. Such carriers stay put on their designated location for years at a time. The USS Gerald Ford, for example, has an endurance of 20-25 years. Such continued presence and pressure is priceless in conflicts.
That, apart from the U.S. navy, only the French navy boasts of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (named Charles de Gaulle) speaks volumes of how technologically ahead the U.S. is on this frontier.
Recognizing the merits of helicopters over fixed wing aircrafts for anti-submarine warfare and transport missions, the U.S. and British navies converted ageing carriers with shorter runways into helicopter carriers. These carriers later hosted VTOL and STOVL aircraft.
U.S. aircraft carriers provided exemplary service during the Korean War as also in the Vietnam War, both a result of the Cold War. The British and French deployed some of their carriers during the Suez Crisis of 1956.
In the Korean War, the North Koreans destroyed South Korean air bases during their invasion. This was when the U.S. and the British carriers provided the much needed air support to South Korea in June 1950.
Apart from their utility and flexibility in war and politics, an important technical reason for the success of the carrier is that these were the first modular ships. They could provide base to multiple generations of aircraft without requiring fundamental changes in design.
For example, carriers easily accommodated the physical installation of computer controlled combat systems that began in the 1960s. Postwar era carriers could similarly support advanced aircrafts of the later era – F-14 Tomcat fighter and A-6 Intruder bomber.
Perhaps, the most striking example of the projection power of aircraft carriers came in the Falkands War of 1982. Britain was able to beat Argentina in the latter’s own backyard, a whopping 13,000 kilometers from home. Courtesy, light aircraft carriers loaded with STOVL aircrafts.
And although not very striking but no less effective is the role of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region and in the Middle East. They can maintain U.S. military presence and deterrence despite limited number of on-ground aircrafts.
For example during Operation Enduring Freedom i.e. the U.S.’ global war against terror, the nuclear-powered USS Theodore Roosevelt stayed put in its deployed area for 159 days without break.
When complete, the USS Gerald Ford will be the most techno savvy aircraft carrier in the world and will cost over $13 billion. The British too are building their largest carriers till date – HMS Queen Elizabeth II (R08) and HMS Prince of Wales (R09).
Even before globalization spread its tentacles this far and wide, aircraft carriers ruled the seas and the minds of military-political strategists. What then to say in the current age where events in one part of the world have quick and far reaching effects in other parts as well.
Navies around the world will continue to cast their covetous eyes on aircraft carriers, for these floating giants offer immense strategic advantage. Technological progress will only make them better.
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