The Beginning of Aircraft Carriers

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Chief Master Sergeant
Dec 20, 2003
Ipswich, Suffolk
To begin this thread I thought it would help if we gave a brief back ground to the Carrier and how it evolved this is from a UK prospective
so I hope you guys will add you own information as I only know a limit amount
In the days of the muzzle loader navel battles where fought at almost point blank range with the opponents blasting away at each other with the advent of the breech loader these ranges increased dramatically until battles between big gun vessels could be at ranges of up to 18 or more miles. The problem was line of sight was the only way of laying the guns on target, the aircraft was seen by many as the answer as it could be used for scouting and then reporting the fall of shot.
Before the out break of WW1 experiments had taken place in the UK and USA at flying from warships indeed in the US a plane had even dropped a torpedo this was some what derided by the big gun brigade as they looked upon the aircraft as only any good for observation purposes.
Ships where converted both in the UK USA and France to carry sea planes, some short sight commanders thought the use of aircraft as an unsporting thing an army officer reportedly moaned of his maneuvers being "spoiled by the presents of planes".
In 1914 seven sea planes from the newly formed Royal Navy Air Service operating from the sea plane tenders (the first being HMS Hermes 1913 a reluctantly converted light cruiser) HMS Engadine,Express and Riviera attacked the airship hangers at Nordholz this proved that aircraft had more the just and observation role with the navy.
USS Langley, a 11,500-ton aircraft carrier, was converted from the collier USS Jupiter (Collier # 3) beginning in 1920. Commissioned in March 1922, Langley was the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier. In October-November 1922, she launched, recovered and catapulted her first aircraft during initial operations in the Atlantic and Caribbean areas. Transferred to the Pacific in 1924, Langley was the platform from which Naval Aviators, guided by Captain Joseph M. Reeves, undertook the development of carrier operating techniques and tactics that were essential to victory in World War II. Though newer, larger and faster aircraft carriers arrived in the fleet in the later 1920s, the old "Covered Wagon" remained an operational carrier until October 1936, when she began conversion to a seaplane tender.

Reclassified AV-3 following completion of this work in early 1937, Langley was mainly employed in the Pacific for the rest of her days. She was sent to the Far East in 1939 and was still there when the Pacific War began in December 1941. Through the early months of the conflict, she supported seaplane patrols and provided aircraft transportation services. While carrying Army fighters to the Netherlands East Indies on 27 February 1942, Langley was attacked by Japanese aircraft. Hit by several bombs and disabled, she was scuttled by her escorting destroyers.

From Naval Historical Center home page


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The first aircraft carrier in the UK designed from the start as one was the Hermes. All previous carriers were modified from either light battlecruisers, merchant ships of one type or another and sometime cruisers.
The Hermes had a number of firsts to her name and features that you would recognise in todays carriers.
Hermes had the first flight deck that ran the whole length of the ship and the first Island superstructure. Her main problem was that she was to small and in later days could only carry about a dozen planes. That said she was an excellent seaboat and could operate her planes in conditions which foiled many other larger carriers. Protection was good and speed sufficient without going over the top.

The lessons were learnt and incorporated in thedesign of the Ark Royal resulting in what was the best pre war aircraft carrier.
USS Lexington, a 33,000-ton aircraft carrier, was converted while under construction from the battle cruiser of the same name. Built at Quincy, Massachusetts, and commissioned in December 1927, Lexington was one of the U.S. Navy's first two aircraft carriers that were large and fast enough to be capable of serious fleet operations. During the late 1920s, through the 1930s and into the early 1940s, she took an active part in the development of carrier techniques, fleet doctrine and in the operational training of a generation of Naval Aviators.

Lexington was in the Pacific when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and took part in the U.S. Navy's first wartime operation, the abortive attempt in December 1941 to relieve Wake Island. In February and March 1942, she raided Japanese positions in the southwestern Pacific, then returned to Pearl Harbor for a brief overhaul and removal of her eight-inch guns.

In early May, Lexington returned to the South Pacific in time to join USS Yorktown (CV-5) in successfully countering the Japanese offensive in the Coral Sea. On 7 and 8 May 1942 her planes helped sink the small Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho and participated in attacks on the large carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. In turn, however, she was the target of Japanese carrier planes and received two torpedo and three bomb hits. Though initial damage control efforts appeared to be successful, she was racked by gasoline explosions in the early afternoon of 8 May. When the fires raged out of control, Lexington was abandoned by her crew and scuttled, the first U.S. aircraft carrier to be lost in World War II.

From Naval Historical Center home page


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Glider said:
The first aircraft carrier in the UK designed from the start as one was the Hermes.
Quite right gilder she was layed down in 1918 10,850 tons. she was the smallest fleet carrier ever operated by the Royal Navy.As you say this was the start of vessels with an Island. The general consensus for the Island being on the starboard side is, its the side the original steer-boards used to be located on in the early days of sail, so as the ship was helmed from the Island it would be placed on that side and the other was that there was a tendency for pilots who got into trouble to turn to port.
When the Japanese built two carriers with Islands on the port side thinking this would ease congestion when two carriers where running a beam of each other the number of accidents was reported to have doubled.
She proved the basic design for carriers to follow but due to her small flight deck, was by the time WW2 started not large enough for the faster and larger aircraft that had been developed in the intervening years.


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On November 14, 1910, the USS Birmingham saw the first-ever takeoff of an airplane from a ship, a Curtiss Pusher piloted by Eugene Burton Ely. Two months later, Ely used a Curtiss Pusher to make the first landing of an airplane on a ship, in this case the USS Pennsylvania.

The first Japanese aircraft carrier ever built was the Wakamiya, which concocted the first successful ship-launched air raid in September 1914.

A few additions no one has mentioned, but are significant enough to be mentioned here. The first account of an aircraft taking off from a moving vessel is of Charles Rumney Samson flying a Short S.27 from a ramp on the bow of the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Hibernia on 9 May 1912. Samson was one of the earliest British naval aviators and in keeping with RNAS practise, where naval airmen commanded seaplane tenders, became commanding officer of the seaplane tender HMS Ben-my-Chree. At the time, Ben-my-Chree remained in the Aegean as she had operated during the Dardanelles campaign, during which much pioneering efforts in naval aviation took place.

On the 12th August 1915, Flt Cdr Charles Edwards became the first to sink a vessel using an air dropped torpedo, when he fired one from his Short 184 seaplane flying from Ben-my-Chree at a Turkish freighter that had been disabled by a submarine. Two more instances of successful aerial torpedo drops were carried out during the following months. During the conflict, ship based aircraft carried out aerial gunnery spotting, maritime patrol and submarine hunting, aerial photography, air strikes and tactical reconnaissance of the Galipoli battlefields.

it is worth noting that the viability of the Dardanelles campaign came about from the use of aircraft for spotting the fall of shot against land targets. In naval warfare, determining distance from the target was done by observing the splash from the shell entering the water. because this could not be done successfully when firing against land targets, an aerial observer was thought necessary, and thus, the concept of the assault on Turkish forts lining the Dardanelles straits enabled the concept to reach fruition.

It is intriguing to note that the very first warship designed from the drawing board to be equipped with aircraft operating facilities was not a seaplane tender, nor an aircraft carrier, nor even a cruiser or battleship. It was a big gun monitor - the Abercrombie Class monitors designed for action in the Dardanelles.

Whilst the campaign and the subsequent invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula is generally considered a failure, the operation enabled naval aviation to grow in leaps and bounds and set the Royal Navy far ahead of everyone else in operational expertise and concept - leading to the flat top aircraft carrier that we are familiar with. HMS Argus, a converted incomplete Italian liner was the very first flat top, commissioned in 1918 and was designated as a torpedo carrier. This was built from concepts proposed by William Beardmore, Scottish industrialist and constructor of the Argus, dating back to 1915. By this time the British had developed the first aircraft carrier based torpedoplane, the Sopwith T.1, named the Cuckoo after the Armistice, the prototype first flying in Fenruary 1917. It is worth recounting that the first ever successful aerial torpedo drop was made in Italy in 1914.

Wjhat can be rightly named the first 'aircraft carrier' as we know it was the converted 'Large Light cruiser' HMS Furious, designed to carry two 18-inch guns in single turrets, was converted on the slipway with a flying off deck and hangar facilities below decks and was launched as such, although still being fitted with a single 18-inch gun aft. This was removed in late 1917 and a landing deck was fitted. Her flying unit, often known as 'F' Sqn was the first aircraft carrier based flying squadron and was commanded by South African born Sqn Cdr Edwin Dunning, who in August 1918 lost his life whilst carrying out his third landing on Furious' forward deck. These were the first landings on an aircraft carrier.

Equally significant was the Tondern raid on July 1918, when seven Sopwith Camels armed with bombs took off from Furious' deck and bombed the German airship shed at Tondern in Schleswig Holstein (now Denmark). This was the first successful aircraft carrier launched air strike in history. The down side to the raid was that the British had yet to devise a successful means of restraining an aircraft landing on a ship's deck, so the aircraft were expended in the sea or on land. Late in the war and subsequently afterwards, a large number of redundant Sopwith Pups were expended in deck landing trials aboard Argus and Furious, until a successful formula was arrived at.

Following from research into torpedo actions during the Dardanelles, the genesis of the ship based Sopwith Cuckoo came about from a proposal to attack the German High Seas Fleet in its home anchorage on the Jade River at Wilhelmshaven. largely swinging about their anchors since the battle of Jutland in May 1916, the proposal was to equip freighters with flat top decks and arm them with Sopwith torpedoplanes to torpedo the German ships in a night raid. Training for this raid began in early 1918 from East Fortune in Scotland, where crews trained in torpedo dropping out over the Firth of Forth, and in October 1918, the very first aircraft carrier based torpedo squadron, 185 Sqn RAF was declared operational from East Fortune. Many sources say the unit was based on HMS Argus at this time - it was not and the crews had not set foot on the carrier, based across the Forth estuary from East Fortune at Rosyth and neither had a Cuckoo operated from her deck at that time. The first recorded instance of a Cuckoo landing on Argus took place in mid 1919, after the war's end.

Obviously this raid never took place, but the concept was to influence one demographic in ways not understood nor predicted at the time. After the war's end, the Japanese government requested a naval mission from Britain with aircraft and instructors to go to Japan. Six Cuckoos and instructors from East Fortune were among those that went in 1921 and torpedo training began in Tokyo Bay using these aircraft and three Blackburn Swift torpedoplanes. Following from this, independently of the naval mission, Herbert Smith, Sopwith draughtsman (he wasn't the firm's chief designer as is often and erroneously reported) took up employement with Mitsubishi and designed a torpedoplane and Japan's first aircraft carrier based fighter, to operate from the Hosho, Japan's first carrier.

No mention so far in this potted history has been made of Fredrick Rutland, who ranks as a man equipped with balls of steel. Look him up. Apart from flying the very first aerial reconnaissance of a battlefleet during Jutland, from whence he naturally became known as Rutland of Jutland, he was hugely instrumental in the development of aircraft being carried aboard ships and commanded Furious' flying unit after Dunning's death. He also went to Japan with the mission and was later accused of treason for supplying secrets to the Japanese government, but that's another story...

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