The aircraft carrier reached her launch point off the enemy coast before dawn. On deck the fighter-bombers revved their engines, awaiting the go signal. As the ship's bow rose in a swell, the flight-deck officer waved the first pilot into the dark sky.
The date was 19 July 1918. The target: Zeppelin hangars at Tondern, Germany (present-day Denmark). The 22,000-ton HMS Furious, escorted by units of the British Home Fleet, approached within several miles of shore. There she launched seven navalized Sopwith Camels, one of which would abort the mission with engine trouble.
In two flights, the strike-fighters arrived over their target with timing and surprise on their side. Captain W. D. Jackson's trio dived to attack at 0435. Two pilots selected the 730-foot-long "Tosca" airship hangar. The Camels' bombs burst on target, destroying Zeppelins L.54 and L.60. The third pilot attacked the "Tobias" hangar, damaging a balloon inside. The second flight also struck targets, but the pilots were unable to assess any damage their bombs may have inflicted.
Despite antiaircraft fire, the raiders got away cleanly, having inflicted substantial damage. But Jackson and two other pilots were forced to land in neutral Denmark, where they were interned. Two aviators stretched their gasoline to reach the naval force. Because the Furious had no way to land aircraft, the returning Camels ditched in the sea. The final pilot, Lieutenant W. A. Yeulett, force-landed off Denmark and drowned.1
Thus ended the first power-projection mission launched from a ship embarking attack aircraft. Previously, seaplane carriers had deployed floatplanes, which were craned into the water and hoisted back aboard. And though the Furious' strike remained the only such operation of the war, it validated the concept of the attack aircraft carrier. The ship's senior aviator, Lieutenant Commander Richard Bell-Davies, said of the Tondern raid, "It finally removed the belief held by many senior officers that attacks by shipborne aircraft on shore and harbour targets were no good."2
Harnessing Carriers' Potential
Though rudimentary in execution, the Furious' realization of ship-launched airpower marked a revolutionary advancement. The potential for aircraft carriers was obvious, and all major navies took note. In barely two decades flattops would replace battleships in importance, with the latter taking the subordinate role of providing antiaircraft fire to protect carriers. The U.S. Navy's embrace of that role reversal—a concept almost unforeseen at the end of the Great War—would result in the service's stunning dominance in the Pacific during World War II.
America's path to carrier aviation, however, had been made through rough seas. A Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company factory pilot, Eugene Ely, made the first shipboard takeoff in 1910 using a wooden platform erected over the bow of the scout cruiser Birmingham. In 1911, with a platform constructed over the stern of the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, he made the first shipboard landing. But for most of the next decade sea-based aviation largely involved "hydroaeroplanes," floatplanes or flying boats that could take off from and land on the water.
The Royal Navy's progress in carrier aviation was also slow; in late 1918 Britain commissioned HMS Argus, the world's first flush-deck aircraft carrier. Lacking a superstructure, she was nicknamed "Flatiron." HMS Hermes and Eagle, commissioned in 1923 and 1924, respectively, were carriers in the true sense—"through-deck" designs with islands to starboard, which became the international standard. The Hermes was the first purpose-built aircraft carrier and, along with the Eagle, would serve until sunk in 1942.
The U.S. Navy's General Board had suggested an aircraft-carrier construction program in 1918, but postwar progress would remain tentative. "Flying-off platforms" were constructed on several battleships, affording a means of launching airplanes, which would land on shore, for spotting and fighter patrol. But the wooden platforms on the USS Texas (BB-35) and other battlewagons clearly could not substitute for a genuine aircraft-carrier flight deck.3
With the British example before it, the U.S. Navy decided on what a later generation would call a proof of concept. In 1920 the collier Jupiter (AC-3) began modification to receive a full-length flight deck, emerging from Norfolk two years later with a new name and designation: the USS Langley (CV-1), honoring the Wright brothers' bitter rival, Samuel P. Langley. On her narrow 523-foot deck, the first generation of tailhook aviators paid their dues, gaining hard-won knowledge and expertise.
America's Early Fighting Flattops
In 1922, the same year the Langley was commissioned, the world's naval powers began allotting permitted combatant tonnage under the Washington Naval Treaty. The signatories agreed to a 5-5-3 ratio of tonnage among America, Britain, and Japan, with smaller quotas for France and Italy. In compliance with the treaty, the top three nations scrapped or halted construction on 66 major warships, limiting themselves to 135,000 tons of aircraft carriers for the United States and British Empire and 81,000 for Japan.
Because conversion of existing ships was permitted, the U.S. Navy would gain its first two fighting flattops (the Langley was a noncombatant). Two 35,000-ton, 16-inch battlecruisers that were about one-third complete were redesigned and became the USS Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). Launched in late 1927, the "Lady Lex" and "Sara" were powerful ships capable of making 33 knots and embarking up to 90 aircraft.
Over the next 14 years, five more carriers joined the U.S. Fleet, including the 14,500-ton Ranger (CV-4) in 1934, America's first flattop built as such, but limited in size by the Washington Naval Treaty. Most notable were the 19,900-ton sisters Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise (CV-6) in 1937 and '38, which would prove crucial to America's war effort in the months after Pearl Harbor. The Wasp (CV-7), which raised her commissioning pennant in 1940, had about the same displacement as the Ranger with similar performance: around 30 knots and a maxium of about 85 aircraft.
The carriers' wartime careers would be limited: The Wasp sank after being torpedoed in 1942, and the Ranger served mainly as a training platform. The Hornet (CV-8), last of the Yorktown class, arrived in October 1941, providing the Navy with six operational carriers. Too small and slow to operate modern aircraft, the Langley had been converted to a seaplane tender in 1936.
British and Japanese Developments
By 1930 the Royal Navy had six carriers, an impressive number for the time, but many were only marginally capable. They included the World War I veterans Furious and Argus, which were mostly employed in training and operational evaluation rather than fleet deployments. The Eagle and Hermes were limited to 20 to 24 aircraft and capable of 24 knots. The sisters Courageous and Glorious—30.5-knot carriers embarking 48 aircraft—were truly useful, although both would be sunk in the early stages of World War II.4
After the experimental carrier Hosho was commissioned in 1922, Japan forged ahead with two fleet carriers. The near-sisters Akagi and Kaga were built on an incomplete battlecruiser and battleship hull, respectively. The Akagi was commissioned in 1927 at 26,900 tons, and the Kaga two years later also at 26,900 tons. Modernization in the 1930s eliminated their complex arrangement of three flight decks and three hangar decks and increased their tonnage, while the Akagi received a portside island so the two could operate side by side without overlapping traffic patterns. Subsequent Japanese carriers adopted a more conventional arrangement: one flight deck and two hangars. The Soryu entered service in 1937, and the Hiryu in 1939, while the Shokaku and Zuikaku arrived in 1941. Those six flattops would make up the Pearl Harbor carrier force.
Originally, Japan envisioned carrier aircraft mainly for scouting, gunfire spotting, and antisubmarine patrol. With more flight decks added to its fleet in the 1930s, Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) aviators increasingly regarded their primary mission as sinking enemy flattops—an opinion not shared by Tokyo's battleship admirals. The Naval General Staff, while recognizing carrier aviation's growing potential, remained heavily surface oriented, as Japan possessed some of the world's most powerful battleships and most effective cruisers. Fully integrating carriers into fleet organization as well as combat tactics required hard work and, as in the United States, a philosophical battle with the "big gun" hierarchy.
A more specific doctrine appeared mid-decade, though at the time it satisfied neither camp. In 1936, five years before the Pacific war broke out, the IJN tacticians adopted the concept of aircraft-carrier dispersal—operating the ships at extended distances from each other. It was a knowing violation of the Clausewitzian doctrine of mass but accepted against the prospect of an enemy (which could only be the United States) cracking all of Tokyo's eggs in one basket—exactly what would happen at the Battle of Midway.5
Organizational Issues and Aircraft Development
Aside from the development of carriers, aircraft, and operating procedures was the matter of administration—how aviation fit into a navy's organization. Britain posed an unusual situation since the Royal Naval Air Service had merged with the Royal Flying Corps in 1918 to form the Royal Air Force. Its Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was established as a quasi-independent branch six years later, with the "light blue" service providing aircrews and support personnel to "dark blue" Royal Navy ships, whether carriers or more traditional types capable of launching floatplanes. The awkward arrangement remained until May 1939, four months before Britain declared war against Germany, when the FAA became part of the navy itself. The RAF maintained a hand in maritime aviation through its Coastal Command, which was responsible for helping protect naval supply lines and convoys.
The British arrangement was not duplicated elsewhere. The U.S. and Japanese navies had long operated their own aviation branches as integral parts of their respective fleets. At the command level the U.S. Navy was profoundly air oriented; by law, only aviators—so-called "brown shoes"—could command carriers or other aviation vessels such as seaplane tenders. (Britain and Japan permitted non-pilot officers to command carriers while relying on qualified staff for aviation expertise.) But because of a lack of seniority among aviators, some American "black-shoe," or surface-warfare, admirals would lead carrier task forces in 1942.
Brown shoes and black shoes alike struggled for the optimum integration of carriers into U.S. Fleet doctrine. Fleet Problem V, in 1925, was the Navy's first large-scale interwar exercise to involve an aircraft carrier, the Langley, and featured a simulated air attack on Hawaii. The standards and efficiency of deck operations still had a long way to go; one day during the mock operation, the Langley received a "well done" for launching ten planes in 13 minutes. On the plus side, flattops would increasingly participate in fleet exercises, both on offense and defense.6
Aviation technology, meanwhile, continued to progress. Greater payloads and ranges became possible, vastly expanding the original concept of aircraft for reconnaissance and observation. Though torpedo planes and dive bombers predated the 1920s, not until the Lexingtons arrived did carrier air groups combine them in an organic package. When new aircraft permitted greater capabilities in the late 1920s, aviators began exploring the performance of Great Lakes and Martin torpedo planes teamed with Boeing and Curtiss fighters, the latter often doubling as dive bombers.
An international aircraft-carrier census conducted in 1939 would have revealed considerable growth in the decade preceding World War II. In December 1930, 13 carriers were in commission worldwide; in August 1939 there were 20, although a few, such as the diminutive Hosho, were marginally combat capable. Aviation developments kept pace. The United States introduced carrier-based monoplanes in 1937: the Douglas TBD torpedo bomber, later nicknamed the Devastator, and the Vought SB2U scout bomber, the Vindicator. Britain's Blackburn Skua fighter-dive bomber joined the fleet in 1938 and the Fairey Fulmar fighter in 1940, while Japan also fielded the Nakajima B5N ("Kate") and Aichi D3A ("Val") bombers in 1940. They represented the leading edge of carrier aircraft technology; to varying extents each would play a role in the approaching war at sea.
But only the Imperial Japanese Navy combined ships, aircraft, and doctrine in a unified package that would burst on the global scene in a stunning display of naval airpower. America and the U.S. Navy would have to shake off the shock of that blow, adjust to a new reality, and take the war to the enemy. Only tailhook aviators possessed the means to do so.
1. See The Raid on Tondern, http://www.casey.tgis.co.uk/web/dfc/tonder.htm. The site is maintained by LT W. A. Yeulett's great nephew, Bill Casey.
2. Lee Kennett, The First Air War (New York: Free Press, 1999), p. 200.
3. Norman Polmar. Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, vol. 1 (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 40.
4. Ibid., p. 60.
5. Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pp. 72-73.
6. Scot McDonald, "Flattops in the War Games," Naval Aviation News, August 1962. http://www.history.navy.mil/download/car-5.pdf.