The Fleet Aircraft Carrier, 1918-1945
Chronology of the development of the aircraft carrier
by Randy Wilson
Copyright © 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.
While the great fleets of British and German dreadnought battleships clashed at the Battle of Jutland, May 31, 1916, a much smaller ship was making history. One of three seaplanes launched from the seaplane carrier HMS Engadine located a part of the German fleet a first for a ship-launched aircraft in wartime. However, the Engadines slow speed and need to stop to launch and recover her seaplanes from the water kept the information from being passed to the Fleet commander.
As far back as 1911, the advantages of aircraft for naval reconnaissance were recognized, and various plans put forth to allow planes to take off and land from a moving ship. The British did much of the experimental work, modifying the battlecruiser Furious first with a flying off platform forward, then adding a landing deck behind the superstructure. In 1916, work began on conversion of a passenger liner into a flush-decked carrier, the Argus.
The United States and Japan both were experimenting with aircraft carriers at the end of the First World War, and each completed their first carrier, the USS Langley and IJN Hosho respectively, in 1922. All three early carriers served as training and trials ships to develop techniques and tactics for future aircraft carriers. However, development of much larger and more capable carriers came from a curious event an international call for an end to the naval arms race!
Since the development of the Britains HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the building of new, bigger battleships and battlecruisers had placed a great strain on the economies of the major naval powers, including Great Britain. In 1922, the Washington Naval Treaty was signed, limiting the amount of tonnage of battleships and other ships greater than 10,000 tons displacement that each country could build. Overnight, a number of hulls of capitol ships became pawns to be converted into aircraft carriers or scrapped and lost completely.
Thus the two biggest U.S. fleet carriers were originally laid down as the battlecruisers Lexington and Saratoga, while the large Japanese carriers Akagi and Kaga were designed as a battlecruiser and battleship originally. In both countries, the larger carriers left little if any tonnage for a third carrier, resulting in the smaller than optimum USS Ranger and even tinier IJN Ryojo.
Although Germany began construction of the Graf Zepplin before the war started, it was never completed, nor was a project to convert the heavy cruiser Seydlitz or an Italian liner into carriers. The only other country to operate a carrier prior to the outbreak of war was France, whose Béarn was too slow for operational use and became a training and transport carrier under Allied control in the West Indies after the fall of France.
The tables below list the chronology of the carriers that served or were built in World War II and provide basic information as to their size, speed and number of planes they could carry. Aside from the earliest small carriers, the tables are limited to fleet (CV) and light fleet carriers (CVL). Escort carriers (CVE) are not included, due to their large number, the U.S. building 122, and a lack of space in this article. A few Japanese converted carriers that did not see action are also omitted.
If we do count the escort carriers, American industry launched the amazing total of 168 aircraft carriers before the end of 1945. Never again will naval aviators have so many friendly islands in the sea.
Dates of Commissioning of World War II Fleet Carriers
1New ship given the name of one previously sunk.
2 Converted from seaplane carrier in this year.
Fleet Aircraft Carriers by Country
Notes: Tonnage is standard as originally designed. Number of planes carried varied widely from numbers shown. Unless otherwise noted, Date Built is month and year ship was commissioned.
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