Depending on your perspective, aircraft carriers—large boats with crews of seamen and pilots—are essentially enormous floating aphrodisiacs, money-burning toys for militarism, or essential assets for maintaining global security. By transforming the half-built Italian liner Conte Rosso into HMS Argus, the first recognisable aircraft carrier with a full-length flight deck, which went into service on September 16, 1918, Britain can claim the distinction of being their inventor, as reported by Hush-kit.
Taking a warning
In an interesting move, both Britain and Japan can claim to have constructed the first carrier ordered and built as such from the keel up.
Britain laying down HMS Hermes on 15 January 1918 but the Japanese completing the Hōshō on 27 December 1922, 14 months before Hermes, despite starting almost three years later.
This is probably the sort of thing British industry should have taken as a warning at the time.
For those not of a nautical bent, ships size is generally talked about in terms of their displacement, not length or beam.
Leaving them with something that could have been Top Gun but ends up being Ships with Wings. Not a horrible carrier, but we simply had to include this incredible picture of a Vigilante and a Crusader taking off from Enterprise.
- Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) ‘Slattery will get you nowhere’
Worryingly short of ships to put aircraft on the Royal Navy fell on the idea of one Captain Slattery RN to convert a merchant ship by fitting the minimum amount of equipment necessary to operate aircraft.
This was instantly rebuffed by the Ministry of Supply who weren’t keen on losing valuable cargo capacity for the time it would take to make the conversion.
Conditions were basic with a simple flight deck of around 140m built over the cargo holds which themselves held grain, stand fast one that was converted into a rudimentary hangar.
Follow on conversions would include tankers which would not feature a hangar on something approaching health and safety grounds.
For oil tankers the fuel was pumped out via hoses while for grain ships it was sucked out via an industrial vacuum cleaner.
On the plus side no MACs were lost to enemy action, and only a handful of ships were lost in convoys escorted by them the presence of the Swordfish arguably having kept U-Boats at a safe distance.
2. USS Ranger ‘Ranger danger’
Admiral Ernest King, USN Chief of Operations through World War Two could, if one was being cynical, be described as a bit Anglophobic.
Given this he was faced with something of a predicament in late 1942 after the Battle of Santa Cruz had reduced his carrier fleet in the Pacific to the USS Saratoga.
2] At 17,000 tons she was around 7,000 tons bigger than Hermes or Hōshō but the USN had somehow shoehorned 70 aircraft on her, to their 20, by making a few compromises.
Which as that’s the point of an aircraft carrier did make her somewhat redundant.
The only pre-war US carrier not to see action against the Japanese, it arguably saw less action than any pre-war carrier aside from the French Bearn and forced Admiral King to face the ultimate indignity of asking the British to lend a hand.
3. HMS Furious 1917 – 1920 ‘The Spurious’
HMS Furious was being used as an aircraft carrier before the Argus entered service, but not in a way that was recognisable to any sane person.
Originally designed as a battle cruiser armed with two 18” guns, one at each end, the forward one was lost to a ten aircraft hangar and flying off ramp during build. [
3] The more observant will have noticed the lack of any landing on facility.
In a case of close but no cigar, the superstructure remained in situ with nice little paths either side to allow aircraft to taxi around it.
Despite this obvious shortcoming she was used to launch a successful raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, the first attack by aircraft launched from a ship at sea.
Imagine something that looks like a barge carrying the guns to the bigger ships.
4. USS Langley ‘Kiss Kiss Lang Lang’
While most countries first aircraft carriers were conversions of existing ships, these were usually liners or battlecruisers, large fast ships.
A time and motion study research project in itself this arrangement meant it took around a quarter of an hour to get an aircraft to or from the flight deck, never mind the time spent getting it up to the hangar deck.
Initially this let the Langley operate all of 12 aircraft.
By 1927 Langley’s air group was 36 aircraft and she was successfully carrying out mock attacks on the Panama Canal.
More importantly the knowledge gained would inform the development of all subsequent US carriers.
- FS Bearn ‘Feel the Bearn’
The Bearn was France’s first aircraft carrier and like most of the early attempts was tacked on to an already built hull.
Finally in 1920 a wooden deck was built on top of the half complete hull while various trials were carried out using Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters and Hanriot HD.3s, meanwhile the Marine Nationale spent the best part of a year trying to decide whether or not to finish the top half as a battleship or an aircraft carrier.
Bearn could recover 15 aircraft in just over an hour thanks to the lack of crash barrier which meant each aircraft had to be placed in the hangar after it landed.
The highlight of her Vichy French war time carrier was discovering a propeller blade had fallen off while being serviced in Guadalupe.
Switching to the Free French side with the rest of the French Antilles.
Despite what’s claimed for Winkle Brown and the Sea Mosquito.
6. Avenger Class (All of them) – Avengers disassemble!
Before WW2 had even started the idea of using converted merchant ships as aircraft carriers had been advanced on both sides of the Atlantic.
As the ships were already half built when the decision was made to convert them into pocket carriers their basic design left a little to be desired when it came to being a warship.
Although unlike Audacity they at least had a small hangar.
The subsequent explosion destroyed the ship with the loss of 516 members of the ship’s company.
The following year while departing for her second Arctic convoy Dasher suffered one of the engine breakdowns that cursed the class and returned to the Firth of Clyde where on the night of 27 March 1943, with no help from the enemy, she blew up.
The US meanwhile blamed poor limey petrol-handling skills, although oddly they did also introduce some of the RN’s suggested fuel system modifications to all subsequent escort carrier.
- Graf Zeppelin ‘Max Plank‘
To counter the Royal Navy, second-rate painter and best-selling author Adolf Hitler proposed a decade long expansion of the German navy (the Kreigsmarine), known as Plan Z. Plan Z called for 10 battleships, 3 battlecruisers, 33 cruisers, and 4 aircraft carriers.
Think the result of an illicit liaison between a Swordfish and a Storch.
When construction of the carrier was briefly restarted in 1942 a navalised Stuka, was intended to take on the torpedo bomber role.
Given the success of the Aichi D3A Val during the early years of the war in the Pacific this would almost undoubtedly have been outclassed if it had entered front line service at any point after 1943.
Which was probably a good thing as it’s hard to imagine an aircraft less suited to carrier operations.
Still at least they’d have enough endurance to wait while the deck was cleared… The Graf Zeppelin itself was occasionally upgraded during the war with a fighter direction compartment and extra anti-aircraft weaponry installed, but never quite got to an operational state.
- Akitsu Maru
If you think the US Navy’s Army having an Air Force is odd, by the end of WW2 the Imperial Japanese Army had a Navy with an Air Arm.
A flight deck was built over the main deck, which itself was used for storing aircraft in the absence of a hangar.
Consequently, she spent most of her limited-service life employed as an aircraft ferry.
4] As the war progressed not necessarily to Japan’s favour these aircraft were pressed into service to search for submarines and armed with 60kg depth charges to attack them, allowing the Akitsu Maru to act as an escort carrier.
However, on one such mission on 15 November 1944 she was hit by torpedoes from the submarine USS Queenfish and sank in three minutes.
- Kuznetsov ‘Smoke on the water’ or ‘The Flanker Tanker’
The Soviet Union and its successor have had something of a love-hate relationship with carrier aviation.
On the one hand claiming to have created a carrier killer, the ill-fated Slava class one of which is now resting on the bottom of the Black Sea due to mild weather, and on the other still seeing enough benefit in them to have one as the pride of its navy.
In 2018 the floating dry dock she was in sunk while also dropping a 70-tonne crane through the flight deck.
Over a year later a fire broke out causing around $8 million of damage.
Currently the Kuznetsov is expected to return to the Russian Navy in 2024, about 8 years after the refit started.
 Pedants may like to point out that the Russian language refer to ships as masculine, which is correct.
- Shinano ‘Shinano 21-speed gears of war’
Yamato and Musashi are well known as the largest and most powerful battleships ever constructed and if Space Battleship Yamato is to be believed the only to achieve faster-than-light travel.
To put that into context the Essex class attack carriers that formed the backbone of the US Fleet by the end of the war displaced only two-thirds as much and carried a striking force of 90 aircraft.
Laid down in May 1940 under great secrecy construction was paused in December 1941, presumably because the IJN had a lot going on that month.
In this role she was planned to carry 120 reserve aircraft while operating her own small air group of 18 Mitsubishi A7M fighters, 18 Aichi B7A torpedo bombers, and 6 Nakajima C6N reconnaissance aircraft.
Thanks to the secrecy with which Shinano had been built the USN initially refused to believe the Archerfish’s Captain’s claim as it didn’t match with the location of any known carrier.
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