Carrier Evolution XII: W II European carriers

Evolution of aircraft carriers XII: The wartime European carriers

Twelfth article in a series  by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission Naval Aviation News May 1963 pp 60-64.

“Experience with regard to the suitability of the present type of aircraft carrier must still be evaluated. Examination of enemy naval strategy in ocean warfare leads, however, to the clear recognition of the fact that aircraft carriers or cruisers with flight decks for use in warfare in the Atlantic definitely cannot be dispensed with.” Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief Kriegsmarine, during a mid1940 conference with the Führer on matters dealing with the German Navy.

During World War II, four Euro­pean nations designed, constructed and/or operated aircraft car­riers, or attempted conversions of other type ships to carrier characteristics: Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. Great Britain met with extraordinary success, especially in the design of carriers. Among the advances made were the prototype of the WW IIproduced CVE. Structurally, USS Langley qualifies as the first (unintended) CVE and experiments that eventually led to the perfection of the steam catapult. Her experiments have a continuing effect on the design of modern carriers. France operated a converted battleship, the Béarn, and was building two carriers, Joffre and Painléeve, when war started. These two carriers were never completed and France fell to the Axis too early in the war for her navy to make any advancements in carrier aviation. At the same time, Germany’s efforts were fit­ful, frustrated and fated to failure. And Italy, tardily entering carrier­ conversion efforts, found the war ended with her ships unfinished.


HMS Ark Royal, a 22,000ton armoured carrier, had large hangars on two decks and three elevators. In war, her fighters downed or damaged more than 100 enemy aircraft, her bombers wrecked Sardinian airfields, blockaded the French base at MerselKabir, Algeria, and hit Italian Navy ships and shore facilities. The ship could carry 60 to 70 aircraft (e.g. Fairey Swordfish above) and had 16 x 4.5inch (114 mm) guns. Dimensions were 243.8 x 28.8 x 8.53 metres (800 x 94.8 x 28 feet), speed 31 knots and 1600 crew. Ark Royal sank on 14 November 1941, returning to Gibraltar from a Malta aircraft ferry run (below).Sinking 30 miles east of Gibraltar after a single torpedo hit from the German submarine U-81, Ark Royal lost all power shortly after the hit and the ship had  no auxilliary diesels to drive the fire and salvage pumps. There was also doubt about the ship’s watertight integrity due to her design and frame distortion after many near misses in 1940 and 1941. Additionally, a number of watertight doors and hatches might have been deliberately left open after an intial and possibly premature abandon ship order.


A starting point in the catalogue of incredible events that launched the na­tions of the world into global war was the assumption as Chancellor of Ger­many by Adolf Hitler on 30 January 1933. In the following October he withdrew his country from the dis­armament conference and from the League of Nations. Nearly five years later, Germany invaded and annexed Austria. Next on his list was Czecho­slovakia in September 1938 which, by skilled “brinkmanship” on the part of the Führer, ended in the Munich agreement. Overconfident now, Hitler zeroed in on Poland. This was too much for both England and France and, on 3 September 1939, they declared war on Germany, and World War II began.

Six RN carriers

When war began, Britain had six air­craft carriers in commission and six more under construction. Of those op­erating, the 22,000-ton Ark Royal (most recent addition to the Fleet, 1938) and the converted large light cruiser Courageous operated with the Home Fleet. The Furious, stationed at the Firth of Forth, was used for car­rier deck training (but immediately took up convoy duty in the North Atlantic). Glorious, sister ship to Cour­ageous, was assigned to the Mediter­ranean, while the Eagle, laid down as the dreadnought battleship Almirante Cochrane for Chile in 1913, converted and commissioned as an aircraft carrier in 1924, covered the China Station. Hermes, the first ship in the world designed from the keel up as an aircraft carrier, was also completed in 1924. (The Japanese Hosho started later but was commissioned 27 December 1922.) Hermes was conducting anti­submarine warfare in home waters.

Converted liner

In addition to the tactical carriers, Britain had one other carrier of lesser, but still significant, capabilities. The Argus, converted between 1916 and 1918 from the Italian liner Conte Rosso, was employed initially on convoy escort duty.

As the political climate changed in Europe and war clouds gathered, Britain made a substantial effort to re­inforce her modest and generally vener­able carrier fleet. She ordered six new carriers. When the storm broke, these six were in various stages of construction: Formidable, Illustrious, Implacable, Indefatigable, Indomitable, and Victorious. In addition, the 14,500-ton aircraft depot ship, Unicorn, under construction in 1939, was to be com­pleted as a CVE.

The first years of World War II were expensive ones for Britain’s small carrier fleet. Courageous was the first carrier casualty of the war. Tracking down a reported U-boat on 17 September 1939, she turned to receive her returning planes when the U-29 sub­marine plowed torpedoes into her. The carrier sank with more than half her crew still aboard.


The RN might have led the world in many aspects of aircraft carrer design but they had inferior aircraft at the start of WW II. When other navies were flying aircraft such as the 950 hp Mitsibishi Zero, with a range of 1930 miles (3105 km) and eight hours endurance, and the 1200 hp Grumman F4F Wildcat, the RN fielded forgettable front line aircraft such as the 890 hp Blackburn fighter/dive-bomber Skua (above) and a look-alike Roc “fighter” with a dorsal turret.

Glorious sunk by gunfire

Loss of the Glorious was particularly heartbreaking. In June 1940, she par­ticipated in the British withdrawal from Norway. Landbased RAF Gladi­ators and Hurricanes were embarked at Narvik. This was a particularly hairy operation, for none of the planes was configured for carrier landing and the Air Force pilots were not carqualled, but all landed safely. Presumed low on fuel, she was ordered to proceed home independently. En route, the carrier was spotted by the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst on 8 June, and attacked. Full of RAF aircraft, it was claimed that she was in no condition to launch defending planes. Pounded mercilessly by enemy guns, the ship developed a list and within an hour went down.

(Ed. note. Glorious could have and should have operated Swordfish reconnaissance aircraft, but friction between her ex-submariner captain and his senior air officers evidently precluded this.)

These losses were balanced in 1940 by the introduction of the Illustrious (first of her class) and Formidable. They displaced 23,000 tons each, had a length of 753 feet and a beam of 95 feet. They were soon joined by Vic­torious, of the same class, and Indomitable, a carrier in a class by herself. The latter had two hangar decks.

An early contribution to carrier op­erations by Illustrious came when she had installed a search radar system for the tracking of enemy aircraft. She was also the first carrier to have a fighter-direction officer aboard. With this effective teaming of men and elec­tronics, Illustrious-based planes claimed 75 enemy aircraft in a little over six months of operation.

Operation Judgement

HMS Eagle was the first aircraft carrier to launch planes against enemy surface warships in WW II. On 9 July 1940, carrier-based Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked the Italian fleet in the Med. Defective torpedoes permitted only limited success: only one of the Italian destroyers was sunk.



The three-man Fairey Swordfish could fit into practically any aircraft carrier and earned the nickname “Stringbag” for its ability to carry nearly any weapon up to and including a 760 kg (1670 pounds) torpedo. Slow but sturdy, it had a 690 or 750 hp Bristol Pegasus engine and fully laden at 3500 kg (7716 pounds) it had a very useful range of 546 miles.

The most successful wartime carrier strike to date occurred on the night of 11 November 1940 when two striking forces from the carrier Illustrious attacked the important Italian naval base at Taranto.

Winston Churchill said of this successful raid:

By this single stroke the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean was decisively altered. The air photographs showed that three battleships, one of them a new Littorio, had been torpedoed, and in addition one cruiser was reported hit and much damage in­flicted on the dockyard. Half the Ital­ian Fleet was disabled for at least six months, and the Fleet Air Arm could rejoice at having seized by their gallant exploit one of the rare opportunities presented to them.

The defeats at Taranto and Cape Matapan (30 March 1941) finally gave the Italian admirals, who had been pleading for an aircraft carrier since 1925, an effective argument in their dealings with the Italian Air Force, which controlled military aircraft. Several plans were actually drawn up but the progress of war did not permit the laying down of keels. Material and manpower shortages forced the Italians to abandon the idea of building carriers from the keel up; instead, they at­tempted to convert merchant liners.


The Italian battleship Littorio had an unfortunate history of attracting aircraft and submarine torpedoes, but it was three Swordfish torpedoes that put her on the bottom of Taranto Harbour in November 1941. Littorio was salvaged but not back in action until the following September.


Early in the war, September 1939, Dr. Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda jubilantly reported the sinking of Ark Royal by a German bomber. This widely publicised error caused the Third Reich considerable embarrassment, for the carrier escaped undamaged and operated effectively until 11 November 1941, when she finally fell victim to U-boat torpedoes. A month later, HMS Audacity met a similar fate. This ship, converted from the German prize Hannover, became Britain’s first escort carrier upon her completion in June 1941. She was sunk during a battle between U-boats and a Gibraltar-UK convoy. Her aircraft and surface escort had destroyed five enemy submarines and the decision was made to press for the building of more escort carriers.

Hermes sunk by Japanese

Of the losses sustained by the British, Hermes was the only aircraft carrier sunk by the Japanese. Fleeing from Trincomalee just ahead of the expected Japanese carrier strike, on 8 April 1942, she was spotted by enemy car­rier-based planes. Hermes, hit by some 40 bombs, sank in 20 minutes.

(Ed. note:  HMS Hermes and her escorts, the destroyer HMAS Vampire and corvette HMS Hollyhock, were lost in the same action. The April 1941 Indian Ocean sweep by Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu netted one carrier, two cruisers, three destroyers, one  armed merchant cruiser, one  corvette, one sloop, 23 merchant ships, and 40+ aircraft destroyed, all for the loss of about 40 aircraft.)

Other losses

Other losses sustained by the Royal Navy included Avenger (Novem­ber 1942) and Dasher (March 1943), both Archer (USN Long Island) class escort carriers. Nabob was irreparably damaged by torpedo in August 1944 and Thane suffered the same fate in January 1945; both were of the Smiter (USN Bogue) class escorts.

Carrier construction of all types was not pushed in the United Kingdom during WW II in any way comparable to US efforts. Antisubmarine war­fare craft had the highest priority and the UK depended upon US-built LendLease CVEs (in all, 37) for most of its buildup.

Completion of two of the 23,000 ton Implacable class was delayed until 1944. Her sister ship was the Indefatigable.

Majestic and Colossus

Five carriers of the Majestic class and seven of the Colossus were laid down, but only the first five of the Colossus were completed before VJ day; each displaced 14,000 tons. Four of eight of the new 18,300-ton Hermes were produced. They were appreciably longer and faster than the Colossus class, comparable to the US Navy’s first carrier named Enterprise. The remaining Hermes class was cancelled.

Two of the four ships of the new 33,000-ton Ark Royal class were laid down, but none was completed until well after the end of hostilities.

In addition, the British planned three 45,000-ton Gibraltar class carriers (others: New Zealand and Malta), but the project was cancelled at the end of the war. These were to be the British equivalent of the USN Midway class. During the war, the UK operated five light fleet aircraft carriers (the Colossus class, in 1945), six fleet carriers of various tonnages, and three escort carriers—all built in British yards—in addition to the ten carriers sunk and the CVEs lend-leased from the USA. Her carrier-based planes played a vital role in defeating the U-boat offensive.


In the Pacific, ADML Sir Bruce Fraser, RN, commanded the newly established British Pacific Fleet. The First Carrier Squadron, comprising Indomitable, Victorious, Illustrious and Indefatigable, was a unit of this fleet. Both Indomitable and Victorious had seen prior action in the Pacific. Formidable joined the squadron later. The British group acted as a flying buffer between USN amphibious forces and enemy air fields at Sakishima Gunto during the invasion of Okinawa.

Other European powers with car­rier aspirations were less successful. France started the war with one converted carrier. The efforts of both Germany and Italy to become carrier powers were foredoomed to failure.

The French carrier Béarn was laid down in January 1914 as a battleship of the Normandie class. She was finally launched as a battleship in 1920, but three years later entered the yards for conversion to a Bâtiment PorteAvions and was completed in May 1927.


The French carrier Béarn, converted from a battleship design, was laid down in 1914 but not commissioned until 1927. Béarn displaced 22,146 tons from a 182.6 x 35.2 x 9.3 metres (599 x  115.5 x 30.5 feet) hull. The two-shaft reciprocating engines drove the ship at only 21.5 knots. Carrying 36 aircraft, her crew numbered about 865. Armament included eight 155 mm (6-inch) and six 75 mm (3-inch) plus eight 37 mm guns.

Béarn was held in semi-intern­ment at Martinique from the fall of France in 1940 until 1943. In early 1944 she was taken to the USA for re­work and emerged as a transport d’aviation, operated by the Free French.

In 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that his country would construct aircraft carriers to strengthen the Kriegsmarine, the German Navy.  The keels of two were laid down in 1936. Two years later, FADM Erich Raeder presented an ambitious shipbuilding program called the “Z Plan”, in which four carriers were to be built by 1945. In 1939, he revised the plan, reduc­ing the number to be built to two.


Graf Zeppelin

The German Navy has always main­tained a policy of not assigning a name to a ship until she is launched. The first German carrier, laid down as Carrier “A”, was named Graf Zeppelin when launched in 1939. The second carrier bore only the title Carrier “B”, since she was never launched. Various names, including Peter Strasser and Deutschland, were rumored, but no official decision was ever made.


Designed for 50 aircraft, Graf Zeppelin was launched 16 November 1935, but was never completed. A model of the proposed finished carrier is below.



A review of the Führer’s conferences on matters dealing with the German Navy, the minutes of which were captured after the fall of the Third Reich, reveals Hitler’s vacillating interest in the carriers. Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, was resentful of any incursion on his authority as head of the country’s air power and he frustrated Raeder at every opportunity. Within his own service, Raeder found opposition in ADML Karl Doenitz, a submarine man.

Materials shortage

By May 1941, the strain on man­power and raw materials was being felt in Germany. Raeder was still optimistic, however, and informed Hitler that the Graf Zeppelin, then about 85 per cent complete, would be completed in about a year and that another year would be required for sea trials and flight training.

Though Hitler continued to assure Raeder that the carriers would be built, the Admiral’s war with Göring had no truce and became increasingly bit­ter. Göring showed his contempt for the naval air arm by informing Hitler and Raeder that the aircraft ordered for the Graf Zeppelin could not be available until the end of 1944. Göring’s tactic was a delaying one—and it worked. Construction on the carriers had been fitful from the start. Carrier “B” was abandoned in 1940 and broken up. Manpower and material shortages plagued the Graf Zeppelin.

Prodded by Raeder, Hitler ordered Göring to produce aircraft for the carrier and under this pressure, the reichsmarshall offered redesigned versions of the JU 87B and the ME 109E3 which were at that time being phased out of the Luftwaffe first line squadrons. Raeder was unhappy, but he had to accept them or none at all. This forced another delay in the construction of the carrier: the flight deck installations had to be changed.

Hitler disenchanted

By 1943, Hitler had become disen­chanted with his navy. Raeder was re­lieved at his own request and Doenitz, the submarine admiral, took the top naval post. This effectively ended the Graf Zeppelin and work on her stopped. Had the carrier been completed, she would have displaced 33,550 tonnes from a 262.5 x 31.5 x 7.6 metres (861 x 103 x 25 feet) hull. Powered by geared turbines, she was to have a speed of 35 knots. Her aircraft complement would have been about 50, consisting of ME Bf 109 fighters, JU 87 divebombers and Fiesler Fi 167 torpedo aircraft. She was to have four screws—unusual for the triple-screwminded Germany.

The fate of the Graf Zeppelin was as stormy as her conception and birth pangs. Scuttled by the Germans, she was raised from a backwater chan­nel near Stettin by the Soviets in 1946-47. Loaded down with loot, she was towed into the Baltic in 1947, headed for Leningrad. East of Rügen, the ship sank. With Germany’s abandonment of aircraft carriers came Italy’s growing interest in them. The liner Roma was earmarked for conversion and many parts of the Graf Zeppelin were trans­ported to Italy for use in the conver­sion.

Italian Aquila

Of particular interest, according to eminent naval historian S. A. Smiley, were the new engines in the ship. Four independent sets of geared turbines from the light cruisers Cornelio Silla and Paolo Emilio were installed, giving her a designed speed of 30-31 knots. This, says Smiley, was “a unique ma­rine-engineering pearl.”  The ship’s name was changed to Aquila and she was nearly ready for trials when Italy sur­rendered. Aquila was sabotaged to prevent the Germans from operating her. She was repaired later, but was dam­aged in two air raids, one in 1944 and the other in 1945. Finally, in 1949, she was towed to La Spezia and scrapped.

Another Italian effort to produce an aircraft carrier by conversion was made when the liner Augustus, a running-mate to the Roma, was put in hand for conversion in March 1944. She was first named Falco and then Sparviero, but was never completed. Her half-finished hull was bombed and sunk at Trieste at the close of the war.

Peace treaty

A condition of the peace treaty signed in 1947 after a five-week meeting of the Big Four Foreign Ministers in New York specified that no battleship, aircraft carrier, submarine or specialised assault craft could be constructed, acquired, employed or experimented with by Italy, blocking her efforts to be an aircraft carrier nation.

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