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Aircraft Carriers - Early Developments

In 1910 the U.S. Navy, recognizing the potential value that flight would have in naval operations, appointed non-flyer Captain Washington Irving Chambers to keep informed of developments in aviation. Chambers worked closely with Glenn Curtiss, an aircraft manufacturer, Eugene Ely, an associate of Curtiss, and Lieutenant T.G. Ellyson, the first naval aviator (trained in aviation by Curtiss at no cost to the government) to demonstrate the advantages of aviation to the Navy. Together they showed that planes could be launched at sea when the cruiser Birmingham and the armored cruiser Pennsylvania were fitted with platforms from which aircraft could take off. They also developed a plane that could land at sea and be hoisted by crane onto the deck of Pennsylvania. These early endeavors helped secure funds for the purchase of two Curtiss aircraft by the Navy. In 1911 through the efforts of Chambers and the superintendent of the Naval Academy, the first naval air station was established at Greenbury Point, near Annapolis. In 1913 the station was relocated to the navy yard at Pensacola and the first aviation exercises were conducted with the fleet. Between 1914 and 1917 the Navy concentrated on modifying existing warships to facilitate aircraft.

Although the value of aviation in naval operations was recognized prior to World War I, it was during that conflict when British, Japanese and American navies began implementing the use of aircraft. Planes assigned to battleships and cruisers were used for scouting and reconnaissance, providing information about an enemy’s fleet size and location. They could also assist in fire control during a surface ship engagement by observing where shots fell and conveying corrections, via radio, back to the firing vessel. As well, anti-submarine warfare benefited from patrolling aircraft that could locate surfaced submarines before they submerged to attack and prevent submerged submarines from resurfacing. In 1919 the General Board of the Navy recommended establishing a naval air service and developing fleet aviation. In 1921 the Bureau of Aeronautics was established which helped to integrate aviation into the Navy. The 1920s proved to be a decade of extensive growth for naval aviation in the United States as aircraft were regularly based aboard battleships and cruisers and the first aircraft carriers were developed.

As well, the use of air support for expeditionary forces was explored and aircraft capable of carrying sufficient munitions, were built allowing navies to begin considering the possibilities of using aircraft as strike weapons against land targets or other warships.8 Concurrent to the introduction of aviation into naval operations was a prevailing strategy that emphasized the use of naval power to gain control of the sea while denying its use to the enemy. Formulated in the late nineteenth century by naval historian and strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy, “command of the sea” was achieved by drawing the enemy surface fleet into a decisive sea battle that would result in its total defeat.

With elimination of the enemy fleet, that nation’s coasts and ports were open to invasion or blockade and its shipping left unprotected. As well, the victor nation succeeded in securing its own shoreline and commerce from a potential belligerent force. Under this strategy a navy was used primarily to engage and defeat an enemy at sea, away from domestic shores. Coastal defense or direct attacks to the enemy’s shipping were secondary operations. Central to the success of such warfare was the possession of a battleship navy in which armored surface ships with large caliber guns were the main weapons used against an enemy navy or to carry out shore bombardment in support of invasion. Early naval aviation was thus viewed as a secondary weapon, a useful technology to provide support for the fleets of battleships, cruisers, and other major surface combatants.

The concept of the battleship navy as the key to a nation’s security dominated naval strategy from the late nineteenth century up through the opening phases of World War II. Such thinking was adopted by many of the world’s major maritime powers including Great Britain, Japan, the United States, Germany, and Russia. Its effectiveness had been demonstrated in at least two notable naval confrontations at the turn of the century. In both these incidents, the victorious navies had engaged the enemy fleet and through superior tactics and firepower neutralized the opposing force, secured their own shores, and made territorial gains. During the Spanish-American War, it had been through a decisive sea battle in 1898 that the United States defeated the Spanish Navy in the Philippines and expanded her sphere of influence not only to these islands but also to Guam and American Samoa as well as Puerto Rico and Cuba. During the Russo-Japanese War, Japan also gained her place among the world’s naval powers.

As a small island nation, Japan had experienced invasion and warfare with her continental neighbors since the thirteenth century. Fearful of this history of aggression, Japan began to modernize her navy and establish a defensive barrier of annexed Russian and Chinese island-territories during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. During the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895, she gained Port Arthur in Manchuria, China as well as the islands of Formosa and the Pescadores. Having temporarily lost Port Arthur to Russia, it was through her profound defeat of the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima, 1905, that she regained control over the important seaport and also acquired southern Sakhalin from Russia.

With the benefits of a superior navy clearly apparent, naval ship building policies became increasingly competitive among the major maritime powers. At the end of the nineteenth century there existed an open international arms race in which the United States, Japan, and Germany competed with the leading naval power, Great Britain, to establish a formidable presence at sea. World War I, however, eliminated Germany from this race and established the desire among the victor nations to maintain peace through naval arms limitation.

Although Great Britain, Japan and the United States had all explored naval aviation during World War I, it was the British who took the lead in aircraft carrier development and formulated a body of knowledge which the others would adopt and modify for their own use. The Royal Navy was the first to assign aircraft to ships on a regular basis and by the end of World War I had completed two experimental carriers. By the 1930s under the threat of another war with Europe, five more carriers were constructed. Ultimately, Britain’s carrier operations during the forthcoming conflict would emphasize escort protection of cargo and troopships moving along the sea-lanes between bases in the British Isles and her colonies throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and the Pacific. Because Royal Navy carrier operations were often conducted within more confined waters these vessels were highly vulnerable to enemy bombings from land-based aircraft. As such, British carriers had armored decks (a design detail not duplicated in American carriers until the end of the war) to withstand such attacks in addition to dual-purpose guns, anti-aircraft batteries and any protection their planes could provide. Such geographic considerations that drove British carrier design and strategy differed somewhat for Japan and the United States.

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Page last modified: 28-07-2013 19:58:20 ZULU