HMAS Whyalla’s last voiyage

HMAS Whyalla: her last long voyage

By John Ellis

Following the outbreak of World War II, the Government asked BHP if they could develop a shipyard for the war effort. In 1940, BHP Newcastle recruited seven shipbuilding personnel from the United Kingdom to establish a shipyard at Whyalla, SA. One was soon dismissed after expressing his dismay with the flies and heat of Whyalla; the others set to and developed a yard that built 63 ships, an oil rig and two barges over the next 38 years.


HMAS Whyalla (J-153, B252), a Bathhurst class Minesweeper Corvette, dressed overall anmd in her wartime paint scheme. Displacement: 1,025 tons (Full load). Length: 57 metres (186 feet), Beam: 9.4 metres (31 feet. Draught 2.6 metres (8.5 feet. Propulsion: Triple expansion, two shafts, 1769 shp, Speed: 15 knots, Complement 70-85. Armament one four-inch gun, two 20 mm Oerlikon cannon, one 40 mm Bofors, Depth charges.

First built: Whyalla

The first was HMAS Whyalla, launched in 1941, with a ten-year planned life. Her proud builders would have thought it inconceivable that more than 60 years later their first ship would still be serving, albeit in a very different role. It would have been just as incredible to suggest that her final resting place would be a mere two kilometres down the road. In Whyalla, the unbelievable happened.

HMAS Whyalla (1941-46), later became the Rip (1947-84) before reverting to Whyalla. The ship was hauled from the sea in February 1987 up the same slipway, now disused, that gave her birth and transported through the BHP plant, across a sea of saltbush and sand to rest on concrete foundations near the city’s northern highway entrance.

Since 1987 the Whyalla has been the focal point of the Whyalla Tourist Centre and Whyalla Maritime Museum. RADM David Holthouse, the Support Commander at that time, represented the RAN at the opening that followed an outlay of $1.3m. Although the ship was purchased for just $5,000, another $560,000 was required to remove her from the sea and set her up for display.

Ship tours

Visitors can tour the ship and explore the museum that displays aspects of wartime service of the corvettes and the achievements of the shipyard. The work of Matthew Flinders in local waters is also covered. Many town sceptics regarded the Mayor’s ideas harebrained in 1984, but the museum is firmly established as an important tourist attraction.

One Saturday in February 1987, Whyalla started her last voyage. Several hundred onlookers, television crews who had flown in from Adelaide, official photographers and other media representatives applauded as the ship edged up the slipway. Dawson Offshore, a WA contractor, planned to have the ship “on site” within two or three weeks but the “Reluctant Lady” took seven weeks of long hours, sleepless nights and many frustrations before the Dawson’s crew could win her over.


HMAS Whyalla Museum, just outside the city of Whyalla.

The ship was positioned on a purpose-built cradle and a new track to allow her to be hauled towards the old slipway. That phase took five days, but the cradle was damaged when it fouled the slipway. Divers worked for the next fortnight clearing damaged sections of the frame and easing the ship up the slipway. Meanwhile, 220 tonnes of trailers with 328 wheels and two prime movers valued at $4 million arrived from Perth to transport the ship overland. Because of the delay and another commitment at Mount Newman, the trailers were diverted and did not return to Whyalla until late March.

Hurdles cleared

By mid-March the ship was at the top of the slipway where she had to be raised another 1.5 metres to allow the trailers to slide under. The big hurdles had been cleared and the Whyalla awaited the Brambles Manford crew and their transport equipment. From then on it was pretty smooth “sailing”. Within five days the ship was secured on the trailers, hauled along the two-kilometre route and settled on her permanent foundations. The move was complete; the contractors and local firms who had worked their hearts out were not about to allow the “Reluctant Lady” to win.

Wartime construction

Four corvettes were built in Whyalla under the Commonwealth Government’s wartime shipbuilding program, all launched in 1941 – HMAS Whyalla (12 May), Kalgoorlie (7 August), Gawler (4 October) and Pirie (3 December). Originally allocated the name Glenelg, Whyalla was commissioned 8 January 1942 and her first captain was Temporary Lieutenant L.N. Morrison, RANR (S), who remained in command for most of the war. He was granted acting rank of LCDR from June 1943 and was relieved by LEUT G.L.B. Parry, RANVR in April 1945.

Japanese midget subs

Following commissioning and work up, Whyalla started escort and patrol duties off the east coast of Australia. She was in Sydney Harbour when the Japanese midget submarines attacked and a week later she was escorting coastal convoys off the Australian coast. Whyalla continued convoy escort duties until December 1942, when she reported to New Guinea for minesweeping duties and hydrographic surveys prior to the Japanese withdrawal.

In June 1943, she returned to Australia to refit and resumed convoy duties until February 1944. Whyalla then joined Admiral Fraser’s British Pacific Fleet to serve until the end of the war on escort and anti-submarine patrol duties. During this time she served briefly off China and returned safely to Australia in October 1945, having steamed 111,000 miles on war service.


HMAS Whyalla in her post WW II garb, before conversion to the Rip.

Re-christened Rip

Whyalla began a new life in February 1947 when sold to the Victorian Department of Public Works and renamed Rip. She was employed in blasting operations to keep clear the approaches to the Rip, the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. She also maintained buoys, moorings and pile lights in Port Phillip Bay and other Victorian ports.

In 1984 the City of Whyalla learnt that Rip was to be sold as scrap and after extensive negotiations the Whyalla City Council purchased her for $5,000. Rip sailed to her birthplace from Williamstown with a crew of volunteers augmented by a few professional seamen.

Bathurst class

Sixty Bathurst class minesweepers were built during World War II in eight Australian shipyards. Four were built for the Royal Indian Navy, 36 for the Royal Australian Navy and 20 for the Royal Navy. The latter, however, were commissioned into the RAN and manned by RAN personnel. These minesweepers were the Navy’s “maids of all work”, serving in the roles of convoy escort, anti-submarine patrol, search and rescue, evacuation and shore bombardment. The ships had the endurance to patrol the long coastlines of Australia and New Guinea. The class was designated Australian Minesweeper (AMS) but were generally referred to as corvettes.

Three were lost during the war: Armidale was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft 1 December 1942 and Wallaroo and Geelong sank after collisions with American merchant ships. (Wallaroo was hit by Liberty ship Henry Gilbert Costin off Fremantle on the night of 11 June 1943, Geelong sank after a collision with a tanker, York, off New Guinea, 18 October 1944.) Warrnambool sank 13 September 1947 after touching off a mine during minesweeping operations off the north Queensland coast. The Bathursts carried some 280 rounds of four-inch ammunition, 2,500 rounds for the Bofors and up to 40 depth charges. The ships could transport 300 troops in an emergency, 400 troops ship to shore or 100 over a period of four days. The ships were basic. There was no refrigeration, no broadcast and no ventilation; spuds and onions were stowed in a wire mesh locker abaft the funnel.

Following World War II, four ships were sold to the RNZN, five to Turkey, six to the Royal Netherlands Navy and one to China. Of those sold to the RNN, two were passed to Indonesia. The RAN retained six in service until the late 1950s and the remainder were sold.

Five in 1983, now two

By 1983 five of the 60 corvettes survived. Bendigo was with the People’s Republic of China, initially Cheung Hing and later Loyang. Castlemaine was a museum ship alongside at Williamstown. Colac was a tank cleaning vessel at Garden Island Dockyard. Gladstone, aka Akuna, was a refugee ship and Whyalla, aka Rip, was at Geelong. Today, only Whyalla and Castlemaine remain.


Tiru and Vendetta

USS Tiru and HMAS Vendetta

by Pat Burnett and Sam Sakker. Footnote by Tom De Voil

On the night of  Thursday 3 November, 1966 the US Submarine Tiru, on passage north off the east coast of Australia, ran aground at a speed of about 12 knots on the southern edge of Frederick Reef, in the Outer Barrier Reef, about 300 nautical miles east of Mackay.

At the time I had recently assumed command of the Daring class destroyer HMAS Vendetta, which was then carrying out a maintenance period at Garden Island Dockyard in Sydney. On Friday 4 November we were ordered to prepare for sea and to embark several high-ranking USN officers, a clearance diving team and a Caribbean type motor cutter. Then we were to proceed at 24 knots early on the Saturday morning to stand by the scene of the grounding. This prompted the ship’s company wag to comment that we were now the USS Vendetta (usually sails Saturday).


USS Tiru, hard aground on Frederick Reef in a calm sea but appreciable swell.

Clearance diving team

We had an uneventful passage to Frederick Reef in good weather conditions and arrived there the next day to find Tiru firmly aground in a calm sea, but with an appreciable southerly swell breaking over the reef, which is barely covered at low water. We hove-to off the reef and lost no time in sending the clearance diving team over by boat to carry out an underwater survey of the submarine. The swell and the coral rendered boatwork and diving operations rather tricky, but the team did a fine job. They were able to report that, although Tiru had struck the reef at about 12 knots, she had ridden up over the edge of it and had suffered surprisingly little damage, her pressure hull still being intact.

We held a conference on board Vendetta with the diving officer, submarine officers and the specialist salvage experts we had embarked. After much discussion it was decided to attempt to pass a tow and try to refloat the submarine at the approaching high water. This was accordingly done. I found manoeuvring stern-to close to the edge of the reef quite difficult in the swell conditions, but eventually the ship was in the desired position and we succeeded in passing the towing hawser to Tiru by boat.

Once the tow was secured and all was ready, we gradually took up the strain at dead slow speed ahead and then increased the pressure on the tow by slow degrees as far as we considered it safe to do so. However, the submarine remained firmly aground and we were unable to budge her. After a prolonged effort we were obliged to abandon the attempt.

USS Taussig

Frederick Reef was steep-to and the adjacent area too deep for anchoring, so after the tow was recovered we steamed at economical speed in the vicinity overnight. We hove-to off the reef again on the Monday morning to check the situation with Tiru and render what services we could to her ship’s company. Later in the forenoon we were relieved on station by the destroyer escort USS Taussig, which was ordered to stand by until another rescue attempt could be made. After further discussion it was decided to send for a salvage tug from Brisbane to attempt to refloat the submarine at a higher high tide, which was shortly due. We transferred our USN personnel to Taussig and were then released to return to Sydney to resume our maintenance period after an unusual experience.

The operation attracted some publicity at the time and I had several radio telephone conversations with an American NBC correspondent who was covering it. We had also embarked an RAN public relations photographer who took some graphic pictures of Tiru aground on the reef. We subsequently learnt that after docking and minor repairs Tiru had been able to continue her passage. I understand that the USN later conducted an enquiry into the grounding and held a court martial, but we did not hear any details of their proceedings.


Three RAN Daring class destroyers were the first prefabricated all-welded ships built in Australia. One of the three, HMAS Vendetta (above), was constructed in Williamstown Naval Dockyard. Commissioned in 1958 and displacing 3600 tons, the destroyer carried a crew of 320 and measured 118.4 x 113.1 x 3.73 metres (388.5 x 43 x 12.25 feet). Her main armament included six 4.5 inch (114 mm) guns, 6 x 40mm Bofors and one 3-barrelled ASW Limbo mortar. Two boilers and two English Electric steam turbines developed 54,000 hp that could drive the ship at 33 knots.

Sam Sakker’s tale:

HMAS Sydney, under the command of CAPT Anthony Synnot RAN, was on a training cruise around the Barrier Reef near the Fitzroy River, and received a signal that the submarine USS Tiru had run aground on Frederick Reef at (contrary to some reports) 2037, Thursday 3 November 1966. Sydney arrived the following day and stood by to render assistance.

The submarine was hard and fast on the reef with huge waves breaking over her. Her watertight integrity had not been breached, but one of her sailors had been tossed by a wave while rigging safety lines. He returned on board, where he developed increasing abdominal pain. He was the biggest man on board, well over 1.96 meters (6 feet 5 inches), so the captain gave up his cabin. Even this was so cramped that a square was cut out of the bulkhead at the foot of the bunk to accommodate the sailor’s feet.

HMAS Vendetta was dispatched from Sydney. She picked up a US salvage team flown out from Hawaii, but no doctor was on board. I transferred to Vendetta on 6 November and Sydney continued her cruise. The seas had only slightly abated.

Wetsuit and flippers

I donned a wetsuit and flippers and was taken by the ship’s cutter to just beyond the line of breakers. A gun line was fired to the Tiru, where a heavier line was fixed while the cutter took the strain at the other end. A sailor and I pulled ourselves hand over hand in an inflatable liferaft, thankfully without going in the drink.

The injured sailor was unwell with a silent abdomen. He had been well looked after by a USN sickbay man, Ralph Mummey, and we formed a great team. We “sucked and dripped” him, keeping careful fluid balance and records in alternating four-hour watches.

The seas remained high. It was not possible for a warship to tow us off the reef. The ocean-going tug Carlock departed Brisbane and arrived early on Monday 7 November. Tiru was towed off on a rising tide at 1240 and proceeded to Brisbane under her own power.

We arrived in Brisbane early on 8 November. The next hurdle was to move this huge man out of the tiny cabin through a maze of dogleg passages and watertight doors. I gave him a very large dose of morphine.

Five strong sailors

Five of the strongest sailors lifted him out of the bunk and out through the door into the passageway, where he was strapped into a flexible stretcher. He was then manhandled to the forward torpedo space, winched out through the torpedo hatch and transferred to an ambulance.


USS Tiru SS-416 was launched on 16 September 1947 as a Balao class submarine and was completed as a Guppy II. Upgraded to a Guppy III between May and December 1959, the post-1959 craft displaced 1975 tons/2450 tons surfaced/submerged and measured 97.4 metres (319.5 feet) long by 8.33 metres (27.33 feet) beam and 5.2 metres (17 feet) draft. The submarine’s three Fairbanks-Morse 10-cylinder opposed piston diesel engines and G. E. electric motors provided 6500/2750 hp, which translated into potential maximum speeds of 17/14 knots or 6 knots snorkelling. Armament included 10 x 533 mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft, and the submarine carried a crew of about 85. Tiru was decommissioned 1 July 1975 and was sunk as a target 19 July 1979.

At the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital, he was assessed, resuscitated and had 22 cm of necrotic small bowel excised. His recovery was swift and he was on his way home within a week.

“Aloha Dr Sam”

Towards the end of 1967, I transferred to HMAS Melbourne, to cross the Pacific and collect Skyhawks, Grumman Trackers and matériel for Vietnam. Our first port of call was Pearl Harbor. To my amazement and the crew’s delight, we were greeted at the submarine wharf by a large banner proclaiming “Aloha Dr Sam” held up by some members of the crew of the USS Tiru. Her XO took me sightseeing in Oahu, and ensured my short stay was both memorable and enjoyable.

To my great surprise, I was awarded the MBE(Mil) in the New Year Honours list 1968: The citation read:


1 January 1968. Appointed a Member of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Surgeon Lieutenant Samuel Sakker RAN.

Citation: For exceptionally meritorious service in boarding the stranded United States Submarine in rough seas, and for outstanding devotion to duty in treating a seriously injured man in difficult conditions. On 3 November, 1966, USS Tiru grounded on Frederick Reef in the Coral Sea and HMAS Sydney was sent to assist on 4 November. It was learned that a USN Petty Officer had been flung against equipment in the submarine resulting in serious internal injuries. Rough seas prevented boarding the submarine that night and although there was only a slight moderation by the next morning SURG LEUT Sakker prepared to swim from the destroyer HMAS Vendetta to the submarine. In the event a hazardous boarding was achieved by liferaft.

On board the submarine SURG LEUT Sakker worked to keep the Petty Officer alive throughout the 6th and 7th November and until the early hours of 8th November when, after transferring the patient and a full case history to the General Repatriation Hospital, Greenslopes, Brisbane, he was finally able to rest. SURG LEUT Sakker’s conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the medical profession and the RAN.



Tom De Voil adds:

I was Senior Engineer of Vendetta at the time of this accident.  The XO was LCDR Eric Johnson (The Big E) and the MEO was CMDR George Laing-Schofield (who had been a mechanician in the previous Vendetta during WW II).

On Friday 4 November 1966, we were in a self maintenance period (SMP) alongside at Garden Island and doing boiler cleans.  One boiler had the external casings removed.  That forenoon, the MEO called on Fleet Staff in the old FHQ building “on the Hill” in Garden Island where he was asked why we were raising steam.  He replied that we were not and was promptly asked to look out the window from where he could see his ship making smoke from one funnel.

We sailed later that day on one boiler with the other being rapidly reassembled.  As I recall we went through Sydney Heads at about 18 knots having been ordered to make “moderate dispatch” to assist USS Tiru. When we were clear of the Heads we had revolutions for 27 knots rung on.  We achieved this as soon as the second boiler was connected later that afternoon.

Southerly swell

We sailed north with an enormous southerly swell helping us along.  In the boiler and engine rooms this was very noticeable.  Without changing the firing rate of the boilers the speed of the ship would vary from about 24 knots, and appropriate revolutions, as we climbed the rear face of the swell.  It would increase to well over 30 knots as we raced down the front of the swell and propeller revolutions would increase accordingly.  The boiler pressure would change in harmony, providing it didn’t get too close to the red line.  It was a fascinating scenario, from a technical point of view, to see how closely linked were ship speed, propeller revolutions, turbine stage pressures and boiler pressures.

The following day I recall being on the bridge during the forenoon and watching the pitometer log indicator approach the stop at 40 knots.  We were very close to surfing on a couple of occasions.  This in a vessel 118.4 metres (388 feet) in length.

The swell abated as we progressed north but nevertheless was still significant when we approached Frederick Reef, as the photograph in the article by Pat Burnett shows.  From my perspective the rest of the time was interesting, but routine, in particular making sure that the evaporators produced enough potable water to keep the ship’s company happy in the tropical weather.

HMAS Fremantle


HMAS Fremantle: A young Lieutenant goes west

by John Jobson

It was late in 1952, as a fully qualified Lieutenant, that I received my appointment as third officer of HMAS Fremantle. She was one of 60 Bathurst class corvettes built in Australia during WW II. Constructed in Brisbane, she was to be recommissioned in Williamstown dockyard (WND) and then sail for Western Australia to show a naval presence in the west and, more particularly, to give sea training to national servicemen inducted into HMAS Leeuwin.


HMAS Fremantle.

Minesweeping and patrol

Fremantle was a ship of about 700 tons, powered by two triple expansion reciprocating engines that drove two shafts to give a maximum speed of about 12 knots. Designed for elementary minesweeping and patrol duties, she was far from a formidable fighting vehicle, armed only with one 40mm Bofors and small arms. When I joined the ship at WND most of the hull and mechanical refurbishment had been completed, but the ship was not ready to be occupied.The captain, LCDR George C. Rance RN, was married and living ashore, as was LEUT Fred M. Murray RAN, from my last ship HMAS Bataan. I lived with my parents at East Malvern, which was a considerable drive from Williamstown. The stand-by staff were allocated an office in the dockyard from which we worked, using plans to familiarise us with the layout, complemented with daily visits to the ship herself.

Varnished wood

The captain, first lieutenant and I had separate cabins that doubled as our offices. A fourth cabin had double bunks for officers under training. We watched as these cabins and wardroom were beautifully fitted out with varnished wood for which WND was justly proud.

It was not long before I discovered an attractive lass working in the drawing office. We went to the beach nearby, dined out and went to a couple of balls. I was in my home town and met up with some old school friends from Melbourne Grammar. One in particular was Keith Farfor. He was working for some secret service or other. He never told me and I did not press the subject. We regularly went out for lunch, from which I discovered many of Melbourne’s better-value establishments. It was a problem finding somewhere to reciprocate.

Multiple duties

Fremantle was a small ship and could sail with about 50 as crew. Even so there was a lot to be done by the third officer. I was a watchkeeping officer at sea and in harbour, the supply officer for such matters as pay, ship’s books, accounts and correspondence, gunnery officer and explosives accounting officer, education officer, medical officer and wardroom wine caterer. This latter duty was crucial since I had to have the duty free grog onboard in time for commissioning.


The captain, LCDR George C. Rance RN, and the coxswain on the bridge.

The captain was the navigator and the first lieutenant was man-manager and responsible for all stores including food. Most stores were supplied to a scale. Wires and anchors, mechanical and electrical spares, medical kit, educational books, ammunition and side arms and galley equipment had to be checked and stowed onboard.

Other stores had to be sought by individual application. There were ever-present forms, for stationery and of course drinks and grog. Personal signatures were required for stamps, travel warrants and cash, so I had quite a number of visits to Albert Park Barracks, which at that time was the central office for such matters. This was not a duty to be taken lightly. An officer in an adjacent ship was jailed while we were at WND for using ship’s funds for horses that had a habit of losing.

Portable fittings

Another group of stores, known as portable fittings (e.g. ship’s boats) and naval stores, were fortunately the responsibility of the first lieutenant, while the captain sought his sextant and pencils and charts and other impedimenta required for navigation. Storing complete, we, i.e. the crew, moved on board and set out to Port Phillip Bay for what were comparatively simple demonstration trials. The ship was sound and worked mechanically.

Smooth talking made sure that the grog was on board by 10 December, when the ship commissioned. I have no idea who was there except for my guests who were among the visitors on the forecastle.


HMAS Fremantle, in a WW II garb, with a “J” prefix in her pennant number and a four-inch gun on her foredeck. The Australian-built Bathurst class was very similar to the RN’s lighter and faster Bangor and Algerine classes. Fremantle commissioned 24 March 1943 and was employed initially on minesweeping and escort duties.  The 56.7 x 9.4 x 2.6 metres (186 x 31 x 8.5 feet) hull displaced 800 tons (war load) and two triple expansion engines might drive the ship at 12 knots. Armament varied. In WWII the class might carry one four-inch (101 mm) gun, one 40 mm Bofors, two 20mm Oerlikons and 40 to 70 depth charges. Post-WW II, a number of the corvettes had their four-inch gun replaced by a Bofors. Crew size varied, usually 62, but 70 might be accommodated for training cruises.

Christmas arrived for five crew and me. It was as hot as hell, but to his long lasting credit the cook produced a traditional Christmas fare for us all, including my mother and father. We three were trying to get cool on the quarterdeck after lunch when cookie appeared; all he wanted was a couple of beers, forget the food. Christmas 1952.

Regular exercises

Once commissioned, HMAS Fremantle regularly exercised in the Bay. As was standard practice, after work, the WND senior staff frequently visited our wardroom. This was a naval custom to thank the good offices of them and their workers for giving us a good ship. Now at work, January just seemed to flip past.

In February Fremantle plied between Sydney, Cerberus on Westernport Bay and Melbourne, taking a mélange of persons for a day at sea or a group for sea experience. The crew and wardroom developed into a very happy team. Our Fred, as we called him, was seen bare-chested with brush in hand helping with the painting. Big George was always smiling. The coxswain was in total charge and the little bucket, despite a number of mechanical problems, was ready to go west.


HMAS Fremantle departing.  Some 38 of the 60-strong Bathurst class were tricky to manoeuvre at such slow speed. Instead of conventional “outwards turning” twin propellors, theirs were “inwards turning”.  With a rudder practically useless at slow speed, their screw’s “paddlewheel” effect might well oppose and not add to the offset thrust turning effort.

Adelaide rarely has visits from the RAN. Fremantle made its way up the Torrens to a berth at Port Adelaide, a fascinating run up the river and an even better reception. The hospitality at Adelaide was great.

We picked up a contingent of sailors and officers for sea training and, as I recall, had a couple of days at sea with them. Sadly, I have forgotten the name of one man with whom I corresponded for many years. Such is naval life that one makes many acquaintances who could have developed into long lasting friends but, by place and time, have to fade.

New First Lieutenant

At this time our Fred developed a problem, so severe that he had to be relieved. LEUT Ian Nicholson RAN was the replacement. He was a lovely man, two years ahead of me at Naval College, who always called me Jobworthy, for why I do not know, but more of Ian later. Fred retired from the Navy and was last known as a newsagent in the Blue Mountains.

Into the heavy westerly swell, Fremantle was lucky to make eight to ten knots. It was a long westerly voyage and smoking became a no no. We ran out of cigarettes. The boat sent ashore at Albany had only one message: “Get a lot of cigs.”

The ship had been painted to perfection. Here was HMAS Fremantle coming to Fremantle at a time when naval presence at WA was rare and the crew were excited. But in truth we were a tiny, tiny vessel. It was Sunday 8 March 1953 as we came alongside the outer breakwater of Fremantle Harbour. No bands, no crowds; only the harbour master to greet us, CAPT Bolton from the Port Authority. I have the feeling that the crew had a beer and we in the wardroom had many. It was becoming clear that we were here for work.

Fremantle, stored with fresh provisions, soon commenced a routine of a two-week run out of Fremantle going north with a complement of trainees. Arriving back on the Friday, we collected pay and stores and sailed away on the Monday with a fresh group of trainees. I felt like a wild west cowboy as I nestled a .38 fully loaded in the old ute as the ERA drove me to Leeuwin to get the pay. I was itching to get a chance to use it; but all was peaceful. After all, my SBLT group won the pistol shooting contest.

Submarine surrender

The journeys north were generally to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. It became routine until a submarine appeared: HMS Thorough. As an exercise it was decided by someone that Thorough had decided to surrender and Fremantle was charged with taking her into custody. Guess who had the job? I knew nothing about submarines except that their mob was a devious collection of persons. I did get advice that a sub would have demolition charges in the periscope base should they wish to do that thing. I also had the love of explosive devices. My team dressed in the standard and stupid rig of heavy boots for the boarding of the submarine. How stupid, trying to board a smooth-sided vessel in boots that would only assure you a quick sink if you slipped. We really were still in the years of tradition rather than war sense. Myself, a petty officer and three were the party. Each had their instructions. I make no apology for giving this account some time later, since many lessons can be learnt.

Flawed plot

As our boat approached the submarine the captain was smiling like a Cheshire cat. Four persons were with him on the conning tower and only about ten on the casing. My lads had submachine guns trained on them. But the plot was flawed for many reasons.

I approached the captain and asked him if he intended to surrender. The reply was a toothy grin and a no speaky the language. Game on. Like an impetuous young officer I was going to be the first down the hatchway. (What a fool I was. You always send the petty officer.) It was dark, therefore suspicious. Half-way down I knew it was a trap and yelled to my petty officer. He and I and my team donned gas masks as he threw several tear gas capsules down the conning tower. Game, set, match. The submarine captain suddenly spoke English as he ordered blow this and that.

The grinning crew members at the bottom of the hatch, waiting to encapsulate me in a sack and shoot me out of the conning tower, were not up to the job. My team took over.

Unfortunately one of my boys sat under a mechanism that hit him on the head. Oh well, you cannot win them all.


HMS Thorough was a British T class submarine displacing 1,290 tons surfaced and 1,560 tons submerged .
Dimensions: Length: 84.28 x 7.77 x 4.44 metres ( 276.5 x 25.5 x 14.6 feet), twin diesel engines 2,500 hp (1.86 MW) each and twin electric motors 1,450 hp (1.08 MW) each. Speed: 15.5 knots surfaced, 9 knots submerged. Complement: 61. Armament: Eight torpedo tubes forward and three aft. One 100 mm (4 inch)  deck gun

Arming grenades

At least the captain of the submarine sent a “well done” to Fremantle. As I have said before, I play to win. After that episode it was anti-submarine training. The trouble was that to communicate with the submarine one threw grenades over the side. As gunnery officer I had to break out the manual. Arming grenades is something that I hated, but the job had to be done. Following the book I roped off an area on the forecastle and placed a red flag on the rope and sat down with my box of lovelies. I was very relieved when that job was done.

Happy ship

Yes, Fremantle was a happy ship. We spent Easter at Bunbury. Nothing going really. I was at an age that sex was quite a dominant factor, but no pills and so a problem. Have sex at your risk. Don’t take the risk. But in truth there was no opportunity. We just drank.

The ship was proceeding to Cape Naturaliste when a stoker was burnt with wild steam. Doctor Jobson consulted the book and found that one should do nothing. The stoker was placed in the spare wardroom bunk, covered with a clean sheet, fed and watered until we reached Bunbury, where he was discharged to hospital.


On one trip north as far as Carnarvon, our captain arranged that Ian and I should go to sea for the day with a whale catcher, called in fact Carnarvon. Whale hunting was still in progress at this time, with a flensing station ashore. The captain was the gunner who fired the harpoon from a mounting in the bows. One crewman was aloft and one steered the boat, while the important cook did what he did best.

Nothing sighted by lunch so we all tucked into an excellent roast meal. Soon after lunch the lookout reported a herd a mile or so off. We closed the herd and with final directions from the gunner got to a firing range of about 100 yards. A tremendous bang and out went harpoon and line. There were some misses but soon two whales were shot and strapped alongside. The light was fading so the boat headed for shore, but not before a couple of sharks appeared. Driving directly at the whales with mouths agape they savagely bit great hunks off the sides of the whales.


Harpooning a whale. Whaling ceased in Babbage Island, Carnarvon, in 1963, due chiefly to over-harvesting the profitable humpback whales. The Nor-West Whaling Factory became Nor-West Seafoods, scaled down considerably to process prawns.

Shark attack

After that I have never subscribed to asave the sharks campaign. Once at the anchorage, air was pumped into the whales and they were towed ashore to a ramp where they were pulled into the flensing shed. The works give off a distinct and unpleasant odour, which no doubt was why the township was some miles distant. An experience that few would have had is now no longer possible.

While in Fremantle port, taking onboard a new load of recruits, we were surprised as HMAS Sydney and HMNZS Black Prince arrived on their way to the Coronation. Half their luck we thought. But for us it was north again to the Houtman Abrolhos Island area. Someone had heard a fisherman talk of old cannons on one of the reefs.

17th century cannon

Unfortunately the reports of proceedings from Fremantle for this period could not be found in the archives at the War Memorial and the actual reef that I describe is not identified. On board we thought that they may have belonged to the Batavia or the Zeewick.

A raft was made of 44-gallon drums and paint stages. Towed by the motorboat we made the reefs and slowly drifted across the inside. It was not at all rough, but still the breaking water made observation difficult. You could only see the reef between successive breakers. By good luck we came across some iron cannons.  Floating our raft over them (they were still submerged) we managed to grapple two underneath the raft and gingerly made our way back to the ship. Just at this time some fins appeared, coming directly at us. You can imagine for those of us on the raft we got our legs well and truly out of the water. Then the porpoises leapt out of the water.

Bowlines underwater

Even so the task of securing the lines around the cannons for their loading onboard was left to me. The only reason I volunteered was that I could tie bowlines in the dark, or in this case underwater while holding my breath. It was extremely disappointing that on arrival at Fremantle not one authority seemed to be interested in our haul. They were landed in Leeuwin and I understand finally deposited in some park or other in Perth. We never did establish the name of the ship that at one time was the proud owner of these two cannons.

Our next trip was to Shark Bay; where, incidentally, if one told the steward that you wanted fish for breakfast, he hung out a line and within five minutes he had a well-sized schnapper.

I decided to test our landing party with Turtle Island as our enemy shore. I mention this exercise because of my lifelong memory of the poor overweight electrical able seaman who had to carry the aldis lamp and a car-sized battery up the cliffs. He really was bushed.

Coronation time

It was Coronation time. There was to be a march through the streets of Perth, Navy of course leading. I happened to be chosen to train the lads and lead the march. Well, the Whale Island training had to be used to the limit on the combined ships’ companies of Fremantle and Mildura and probably some from Leeuwin, all of whom, shall I say, were very rusty on the parade ground. For a week we practised at, I think, Garden Island. I shouted and drilled as best I could without a band.

The day arrived

The day arrived and I nearly had a fit as the lads took up ranks. One of the sailors took out a cigarette and lit it.  I nearly blew a fuse. Off we stepped and it looked as if we would put on a good show, but I was wrong. The naval contingent was in three ranks. (As an after-thought it should have been in six or in two groups.)


The Perth Coronation march past.

As we entered the main drag a band near the saluting base struck up. The front part of my contingent took the step of that band; the rear being so far away, took the step of the band behind that had led us in. Result, I had a millipede. Have you ever seen one? Its legs move in a ripple. In an effort to get my troops in one step, I retreated from the head of column and took station on the side, calling the step.

Wrong move John. I passed the saluting base without giving the eyes right until too late. When I think of it, there is no way the rear of my contingent could have heard my order. That was the last time I would be on parade.

The reader will observe that with only two days in harbour, Ian Nicholson and I had one day each to go ashore. The Freshwater Bay Yacht Club became my oasis. I do not remember how, but John Green, a pharmacist and brother of an electrical officer in the RAN, became my host and good friend. Mostly we would take his motorboat and a box of beer and race a most stupid race with others who were equally bored and thought that it was a good excuse for a beer fiesta.

Coronation Ball

It was Coronation Ball time and John and I decided to attend the Club’s Ball. I forget who I took but I ran into a sister of an old friend of mine from Melbourne Grammar. She was a great lass whom I could have been interested in if it had not been her habit of liking garlic. Not my perfume. After the west I never saw her again. One day off per fortnight is hardly the situation for a social exchange.

It was in May that Defence or someone, decided that the old merchantman Commillies, which was to be sunk, would make a good target for Mildura and Fremantle and the local RAAF.  The RAAF had first go. I have not recorded if their bombs actually hit the ship or not. By lunchtime the old Commillies was still afloat and perhaps the RAAF had expended their high explosive bomb allowance.

Mildura with her four-inch mounting blasted away. Even at somewhat point blank range she either missed or her shells made no impression. Commillies still was not going to sink.  It was now Fremantle’s turn.

Well, my aimers blasted the hell out of the deck-mounted toilet. I implored them to try for the waterline and at last we had about 20 rounds hitting the hull at waterline. Still the old girl did not sink.

Demolition charges

Guess who got the short straw to take demolition charges on board to sink her as dusk was approaching? Just as well I paid attention in HMS Excellent, but in all truth I was only just competent in handling this sort of thing. I imagined myself three decks down in the dark setting the fuses as the ship settled. In truth it was a stupid decision. As I climbed into the motorboat to head for Commilles, she gave a heave and started to slide into the water. Fate, one might call it. I was not destined to die just yet. After all it was peacetime.

In July, the captain’s wife was expecting, so a team of us went ashore and painted their very ordinary rented accommodation. LCDRs were not very well paid in those days.  

An able seaman and I were very happy and confident that we would do well in the interservice tennis tournament. He was a nice lad and we combined well. What happened? A washout. What a shame. Exercise was not easy to come by.

HMAS Fremantle had been worked well. It was time for the dockyard to give her a face lift. She was placed in a dry, dry dock. By this I mean she was on a ramp and 20 feet from deck to land. An enormous ladder got us onboard. You might have known it. It was time for a cocktail party. We bribed the crane driver to lift our guests by a pallet. It worked well, but what about getting down? We thought that our luck might have changed, but somehow our “guests” all chanced their luck and descended by the ladder.


LEUT Jobson with the Buffer, LSEA Schubert

Eyesight complications

My eyesight was not good. I had to use binoculars for navigation. One night I was heading for an anchorage on a flashing red light when I used the binoculars. I found it to be Joe’s Fish and Chip shop on the end of a pier.

Mildura was alongside us entertaining the local medical officer, Ned-something-or-other, when I was summonsed onboard for my medical. Ned had had a few. “Can you see ?” said Ned. “Of course he can see,” said the captain of Mildura.“He can see you consuming my grog”. “OK, passed,” said Ned. But in my heart I knew this was only a temporary respite from a long term decision that I would have to make. That was not the end. After a long and rewarding nine months in the west, I was appointed to the Naval College as a term officer.

I arrived home in Melbourne to find my WND girl friend had been a charm to my mother, but somehow nine months away changes perceptions. There was nothing there. She knew it and had a quiet weep outside. It was not that I had met someone else, but the magic was not there. So we parted and I never again saw or heard of her, I hope she found a nice man.

Good record, but…

From a shaky start at RANC, I had gained confidence in my ability, in my profession, in exams and in practice. I had served in a war zone. My record was good but my time had come to an end. My eyes were going to stop my quest for command. “What next?” was the question that I, and I alone, had to answer.


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.

Carrier Evolution XIII: Turbulent Post-WW II years

Evolution of aircraft carriers XIII: The turbulent post-WW II years

Thirteenth article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission Naval Aviation News, October 1963 pp. 64-68.

There has been a spectacular advance in aircraft design technology.  The transition from propellor-driven aircraft to jet power has been fast.  We are now undergoing another evolution from subsonic to supersonic speeds at higher altitudes…By modernisation we have utilised our assets of World War II Essex class carriers to the maximum.  This has been a military necessity in order to maintain an acceptable degree of combat readiness economically in about half the time required for new construction.  Carrier modernisation has been pushed vigorously.—ADML  Arleigh Burke USN, CNO, 1957.

The post-WW II era was one of dynamic change.  The aircraft carriers reflected that change with many modifications designed to equip them to operate the most modern aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons and launching guided missiles.

Technological developments were making the Essex class obsolescent.  On 4 June 1947, the Chief of Naval Operations approved new aircraft carrier characteristics to be incorporated in an improvement program titled Project 27A.  This was the first of a series of modernisation efforts to modify the Essex carriers to meet changing operating requirements.

USS Oriskany (CV-34) was the first of the Essex class carriers modernised under Project 27A.  She entered New York Naval Shipyard in October 1947. At spaced intervals, she was followed by Essex (CV-9), Wasp (CV-18), Kearsarge (CV-33), Lake Champlain (CV-39), Bennington (CV-20), Yorktown (CV-10), Randolph (CV15), and Hornet (CV-12).  These programs were conducted at Puget Sound and Newport News, in addition to the New York Navy Yard.  The Hornet, last to be modernised under 27A, left the New York yard in October 1953.

The principal changes involved in the 27A project were directed toward a capability of operating aircraft of up to 40,000 pounds gross weight.  The H4-1 catapults were removed and H-8s installed, permitting the launching of considerably heavier aircraft than the carrier had been capable of during the war years.  The flight decks were strengthened and the five-inch guns on the flight deck were removed to decrease topside weight, to provide more deck space for parking planes, and to increase safety aspects of the landing area.  A special weapon capability was given the last six of the nine carriers modernised under this project.  Elevator capacities and dimensions were increased to accommodate heavier planes.


USS Essex in her original WW II-era layout.

Jet provisions

And special provisions for jet aircraft were installed—such as jet blast deflectors, increased fuel capacity, as well as some modern jet fuel mixers.

Three of the ready rooms for pilots in these carriers were moved down below the hangar deck, relocating them from spaces directly under the flight deck.  This increased pilot comfort and provided better protection.  To get the equipment-laden pilots up to the flight deck, an escalator was installed abreast the island.  This provided a single route for pilots manning their planes; it prevented confusion from ship’s company rushing up the normal access routes to man battle stations.

In April 1947, Franklin D.  Roosevelt (FDR) entered the yards on Ship Improvement Program No.  1, which provided her with a special weapon capability.  Her sister ships, the battle carriers Midway and Coral Sea, followed.  This program was also extended to the Oriskany, Essex and Wasp, which had not received the capability under 27A.

First USN jet deck landing

Almost a year before the FDR entered the yards, the first U.S.  testing of the adaptability of jets to shipboard operations were conducted aboard, on July 21, 1946.  Successful landings and takeoffs in an FD-1 Phantom were made by LCDR  James J.  Davidson.


The Deck Landing Mirror, another British invention (left, as fitted in Melbourne), was gyro-stabilised for pitch and adjustable in height and glide path angle for different aircraft. The USN-developed Fresnel Lens (right) was similarly stabilised and gave pilots a similar-looking display, but it was entirely self-contained, requiring no external source lights. The RN (and RAN) dispensed with the Landing Signals Officer with the advent of the Mirror, but the USN retained that person and the RAN later followed the USN.

The Navy continued to experiment with heavier aircraft launchings from carrier decks.  In March 1948, carrier suitability of the FJ-1 Fury jet fighters was tested on board the Boxer (CV-21) off San Diego.  A number of takeoffs and landings were made by CMDR Evan Aurand and LCDR  R.  M.  Elder of Fighter Squadron 5A.  The following month, CMDR  T.  D.  Davis and LCDR  J. P.  Wheatley made JATO takeoffs in P2V Neptunes from the deck of the Coral Sea off Norfolk.  This was the first carrier launching of planes of this size and weight.

Jet squadron CARQUALs

It was inevitable, then, that the Navy would introduce all-jet squadrons to carrier operations.  On 5 May 1948, Fighter Squadron 17-A, equipped with 16 FH-1 Phantoms, became the first carrier-qualified jet squadron in the U.S.  Navy.  It took three days of operations to do it, but all squadron pilots, in addition to Commander Air Group 17, qualified on the USS Saipan (CVL-48), with a minimum of eight landings and takeoffs each.

Project 27A was originally intended for more than nine carriers, but development of the steam catapult and the prospective employment of more advanced types of aircraft made it apparent that this project had to be modified to meet future needs.  Accordingly, Project 27C was initiated. Hancock, Intrepid and Ticonderoga were slated for this program—later identified as “Project 27C (axial deck)”.


USS Essex, seen here in Korea in 1951 with McDonnell F2-H Banshees, was the first carrier to operate jet fighters in war. Note the axial deck remains, but the flight-deck level twin five-inch gun turrets, fore and aft of the island, have been removed.

Steam catapult

Most important of the changes was the introduction of the steam catapult developed by the British.  In 1952, tests of the catapult installed in the Royal Navy carrier HMS Perseus were conducted at the Naval Shipyard, Philadelphia, at NOB Norfolk, and at sea during the first quarter of the year.


HMS Perseus, a Colossus class light fleet carrier, served as an aircraft maintenance and  trials ship. In this photograph, Perseus has a Sea Hornet loaded on her prototype steam catapult in late 1951. Between January and March 1952 the ship conducted joint RN and USN steam catapult trials with USN aircraft off Norfolk, VA. Later steam catapults were longer and had faster end-speeds. Others had bridle catchers and there were nose-wheel launch versions. In 2015 an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) catapult is projected to be in service with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), the lead ship in a new class that will also have a smaller island sited well astern on the flight deck abreast the EMALS-engined arrestor units.

Reported NANEWS:

The new catapult fared so well during the tests that the Navy has already begun an investigation into the adaptability of it to their new flush deck carrier USS Forrestal, which is now under construction.

The new catapult, invented by a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve officer, CMDR  C.  C.  Mitchell, OBE, of Messrs Brown Brothers & Co., Ltd., Edinburgh, uses the principle of the slotted cylinder, and has no rams or purchase cables.  A hook on the aircraft to be launched is connected directly to a piston which is driven along the cylinder by high pressure steam from the ship’s boilers.  A novel sealing device is used to keep the slotted cylinder steam tight.

While the amount of steam required for sustained operation is large, tests have shown that the boilers can meet the demand without interfering with the ship operations.

USS Hancock

The Hancock was the first U.S.  carrier to receive the new “steam slingshot,” designated C-11 by the USN.  On June 1, 1954, CMDR.  H. J.  Jackson, in a Grumman Tracker S2F-1, was catapulted from the Hancock in the initial U.S. tests.  Throughout the operational month, testing continued.  A total of 254 launchings were made with S2F Tracker, AD-5 Skyraider, F2H-3 Banshee, F2H-4 Banshee, FJ-2 Fury (modified F-86 Sabre), F7U-3, Cutlass and F3D-2 Skynight aircraft.


USS Hancock CV -19 was the first USN ship to launch an aircraft by a steam catapult (a type C-11). CMDR Henry J. Jackson had the honour, in an S-2 Tracker, 1 June 1954.

In addition to the C-11 steam cat, Project 27C (axial deck) also provided for a strengthening of the flight deck. The number three centerline elevator was replaced with a deck edge type of greater capacity.  Other improvements were made, in addition to those proved effcient in 27A. Even as these changes were being built in the Hancock, Intrepid and Ticonderoga, the Bureau of Aeronautics proposed, in mid-June 1952, that a new design flight deck, later embodied in Project 27C (angled deck),  be installed in Antietam.  The previous May, both jet and propellor type aircraft were tested on a simulated angled deck aboard the USS Midway.  The idea was originated by the British and proved very effective.  Antietam’s deck was to extend outboard on the port side from the normal flight deck, thus allowing aircraft landings to be angled 10° off the ship’s centerline.

USS Antietam

Pushed through the guidance design stage by the Hull Design Branch of BUSHIPS in early July, Antietam’s new deck was completed in mid-December at the New York Naval Shipyard.  At first called a canted deck, this term officially gave way to the more familiar angled deck by OPN AV Notice 9020 on 24 February 1955.  It also outlawed the use of “slanted” and “slewed” in describing the deck design.

In December 1953, BUSHIPS Journal reported:

The final detailed report on the evaluation of the canted flight deck installed in USS Antietam (CVS-36) reveals that the operational trials have met with a high degree of success.  The canted deck aircraft carrier appears to provide the safest, most desirable, and most suitable platform for all types of aircraft—those currently in use as well as those still on the design board—and is superior to the axial flight deck carrier in these respects….The canted flight deck on Antietam was finally installed at an angle of 10.5° to the centerline of the axial flight deck.  The landing area of the canted deck is 525 feet long with a width at the landing ramp of 70 feet and narrowing to 32 feet, 8 inches, at the extreme forward end of the takeoff area.  This gives the effect of “flying into a funnel,” causing the pilot to head toward the canted centerline.  This effect aids him in maintaining the flight and deck path which fully utilizes the complete length of the canted flight deck.

Fifteen types of aircraft, both propellor and jet-propelled, participated in the tests which were conducted in four phases, extending from 29 December 1952 to 1 July 1953.  A total of 4107 landings were made, including touch-and-go and arrested landings, during day and night operations.  During the entire evaluation period there was no major accident and only a total of eight minor accidents, none of which could be attributed to the canted deck principle.


USS Antietam, conducting the first angled deck landing trials, a joint USN/RN project, in January 1953.

Immediate advantages

The advantages were immediately manifest.  By eliminating the centerline elevators and using one or more deck edge elevators (not installed in the Antietam), more elevators would be available for bringing up spares from the hangar and striking “dud” aircraft below.  Once landed, the plane could easily taxi onto a starboard deck edge elevator without impeding flight operations. It was also possible to catapult aircraft and land them simultaneously, and to launch CAP and interceptors on short notice.  This gave the carrier improved combat readiness.

The pilots were impressed.  An extra margin of safety was given them by removing the danger of crashing into gassed and armed planes parked forward of the landing area.

The BUSHIPS Journal commented:

The clear deck ahead on every carrier pass relieved the pressure on the pilot.  Primarily for this reason, pilots who have flown from the canted deck are unanimous in their favorable enthusiasm.

This was found to be especially true when Antietam’s canted deck was rigged to simulate a CVE type carrier.  Pilots flying AF type aircraft confirmed that part of the mental strain of carrier landings is relieved with removal of the barriers and that landings were much easier…

Fewer cross deck arresting pendants and arresting gear engines are required for the canted deck.  It is considered desirable to keep the landing area as far aft as is practical and safe, yet far enough forward to decrease rates of descent.  This can be accomplished only by limiting the pendants to a minimum commensurate with safety and picking optimum pendant locations.  Fewer pendants also result in a decrease in topside weight.

Project 27C (angled deck), which resulted from the Antietam tests and modified the original 27A, significantly changed the silhouette of aircraft carriers.  The canted or angled deck was installed and the hurricane bow of the original Saratoga and Lexington carriers reintroduced.  The project also allowed for the improvement of the Mark 7 arresting gear by reducing the number of deck pendants by one-half and thereby cutting the ratio of arresting gear sheaves to two to one.  The forward centerline elevator was also enlarged.

Deck lighting

Air conditioning and sound proofing made the island spaces more comfortable and efficient.  The latest advancements in deck lighting were also installed in these attack carriers. Lexington, Shangri La, and Bon Homme Richard all received the improvements of this project and they were so successful that Hancock, Intrepid and Ticonderoga returned to the yards for this new conversion.

The trend extended, inevitably, to the Midway class.  In September 1953, the Navy announced new modernisation plans for these carriers under a new program called Project 110.  In May 1954, the Franklin D.  Roosevelt entered Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for the conversion.  Midway followed in September 1955.

Best features

These carriers received the best features of the 27C (angled deck) conversion which were incorporated in Project 110.  Additionally, they had a modified steam catapult installed in the angled deck area; full blisters were added for maximum protection, liquid stowage, and stability, and the after starboard elevator was relocated to the starboard deck edge.

With the changes in carrier configuration ran a parallel change in missions and these changes were reflected in the redesignation of certain carriers as they appeared in the Navy Vessels Register.

On October 1, 1952, the very familiar CV and CVB designations went by the board.  The ships were assigned the designation CVA, reflecting their reclassification as attack carriers.  Prior to this, only the CVs were known as attack carriers, in the Fleet, to distinguish them from the CVBs.  Antisubmarine Support Aircraft Carriers became a new classification in July 1953 and was applied to those attack carriers assigned to ASW; the following August 8, five CVAs were redesignated CVSs, ASW support carriers.


Farewell CVEs

There were no further changes in designations over the next two years, but in July 1955, Thetis Bay (CVE90) became CVHA-1.  This proved the first move in the eventual disappearance of escort carriers from the operational Fleet.  The attempt to modify CVEs for a new role in helicopter vertical assault operations was abandoned when the experiment proved too costly.  On 7 May 1959, the classification of 36 escort carriers, designated CVE, CVU, and CVHE, was changed to AKV, for Cargo Ship and Aircraft Ferry.  New hull numbers were assigned. This ended the role of escort carriers as combat ships of the Fleet.

On 30 December 1957, USS Saipan (CVL-48), last of the light carriers, was decommissioned.  On May 15, 1959, that designation was stricken from the register when the classification of four support carriers, CVSs, and seven light carriers, CVLs, was changed to Auxiliary Aircraft Transport, AVT.


USS Saipan CVL-48, displacing 14,500 tons, was the first ship of her class commissioned (in July 1946). She was also the last USN CVL to be decommissioned, ten years later. Recommissioned as USS Arlington in January 1970, she served as a major communications and command ship until 1970 and was sold for scrap in 1976.


The modernisation of individual carriers reflected Navy thinking, Navy accomplishment, and Navy planning.

The programs were successive steps in what somebody once called “a schedule of orderly retirement.” As the carriers aged (some aged “faster” because of battle damage in WW II), they were transferred from the CVA designation to the CVS, then to LPH and retirement, and it all was tied to new construction programs which made it possible to keep the number of operating CVAs up to the prescribed limits.  As each new ship was acquired, it took the top position among the CVAs while the one in the bottom position moved to the top of the next lower class.

USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) was the last aircraft carrier of World War II design to be extensively reworked during the post-war modernisation program. She entered the Puget Sound shipyard on 15 April 1957, and was recommissioned 25 January 1960.  In the interim, changes made in her configuration were contained in Project 110A, a modification of the 110 of her sister ships, FDR and Midway.

Three deck-edge elevators

The basic changes were the same as those in Project 110, but 110A added new features.  Of the three deck edge elevators installed, for instance, one was placed on the port side near the LSO platform.  This eliminated the hazardous arrangement of having an elevator contiguous to the landing area.  It also simplified maintenance problems and provided the capability of operating all three elevators during flight operations.

Existing arresting gear was replaced with five Mk 7-2 pendant and barricade engines with the new sheave and anchor dampers.  Coral Sea was the first to have installed, in the fantail area, a complete jet engine test facility; they are now (1963) installed in all new carriers.

Bigger jet fuel stowage

Coral Sea had twice as much stowage for JP-5 (jet) fuel as her sister ships, over a million gallons, in addition to a 62,000 gallon capacity for avgas.  And although Ranger was the first to have fuel centrifugal purifiers installed, she did not rely on them exclusively.  When Coral Sea deployed to WestPac, she had four of them installed and did use them exclusively.  During the first 8½ months of operation, she burned approximately seven million gallons of JP-5, according to Air Officer CMDR.  D.W.  Houck, and did not experience one case of contaminated jet fuel.

The modernisation program extended the lifetime usefulness of the Essex-class carriers built during WW II and permitted them and other class carriers to operate jet-powered aircraft of increasing designed power without compromising the combat readiness of the Fleet.  The important limiting characteristics of the planes operating from carriers are landing speed, landing weight and required catapult end speed, and—in wooden deck ships—the wheel loading.

New arrestor gear

Many new developments have had a profound effect on carrier aviation.  In August 1955, for instance, the constant run-out method of controlling arrestment was used in the Mk.  5 arresting gear installed in USS Bennington. Its primary advantage was the ability to arrest a plane with a minimum amount of hook loads.  With the earlier pressure types of controls it was necessary to stop the aircraft in a shorter run-out in order to take care of inadvertent overspeed of the aircraft.  This put a considerable strain on the planes.

The new system is set for the weight of the landing aircraft.  so that a 60,000-pound plane would pull out no more wire than a 10,000-

Other pilot aids include TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation System), which gives pilots bearing and distance from a carrier, the British-developed mirror landing system (improved by the use of Fresnel lenses), and PLAT (Pilot/LSO Landing Aid Television).

ADML  Arleigh Burke said in 1957:

We are limited by how far we can go in modernisation programs by the age of the ship.They are getting old. Their machinery is wearing out and they are becoming progressively more expensive to maintain.  Like an old car, they must be replaced.

The modernisation programs have been the proving ground for the advances which have been made in carrier operating techniques.  But the full combat effectiveness of these developments can be realised only in new construction.

Two years earlier, in 1955, USS Forrestal (CVA-59) was commissioned, the first of a new class aircraft carrier.


USS Forrestal, in 1957, with a mixed propellor-driven and jet air group embarked, possessed all the modern carrier development items. With a noticeably clear deck (below), Forrestal also demonstrated the possiblity of operating a C-130 Hercules.


It was a logical step in the evolution of one of the Navy’s proven and powerful aircraft weapons systems—the modern ship-of-the-line in the Fleet.

Carrier Evolution I: The beginning

USN Carrier Evolution I: Genesis

by Scot MacDonald
Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News Feb 1962 pp 2-8. This is the first of a series of articles written in the early 1960s.

Jules Verne, author of startling science-fiction during the last half of the 19th century, would have relished some of the sketches, plans, and ideas for “aeroplanes” that crossed the desk of CAPT W. Irving Chambers in 1910. CAPT Chambers had recently been assigned as Assistant to the Secretary’s Aide for Material, and was given the collateral duty of liaison between the navy and the swelling number of letter-writers who were eager to advance their own schemes or designs involving aviation.

Less than seven years earlier, the Wright brothers had launched their pusher biplane into a brief but impressive flight. In the intervening years, advocates of aviation fought for recognition and money.


Where it all began: the Wright Flyer, 1903.

At first, the navy’s interest in aviation was sceptical, if not openly discouraging. Twelve years before Chambers entered the picture, “The Joint Army Navy Board to Examine Langley’s Flying Machine” was formed at the urging of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. A navy member reported favourably on it to the General Board. But the Secretary, upon the advice of another Bureau in the Department, decided “the apparatus as (it) is referred to pertains strictly to the land service and not to the navy.”

On at least two important occasions between then and 1910, the navy participated in or observed the fledgling “apparatus” in flight; in the 1907 Jamestown Exposition and the 1908 tests by the Wright brothers at Fort Myer, VA. But the Navy Board held to the attitude that “aeronautics” had “not yet achieved sufficient importance in its relation to naval warfare” to warrant navy support.

A temporary wooden platform was erected on Birmingham at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The German line, mindful of the navy’s experiment, moved up its target date in an effort to be the first to launch, and thereafter bask in the honours of claiming a significant aeronautical first. Luck was not with them, however. An accident aboard, caused by a careless workman, forced a delay of the experiment.


Giant steps: 1. Eugene Ely launches from USS Birmingham, 14 November 1910 (left), and 2. lands aboard USS Pennsylvania 18 January 1911.

Chambers’ plan went ahead without a hitch. On Monday, 14 November 1910, Birmingham pulled into the waters off Hampton Roads, in company with three torpedo destroyers. Aboard were pilot Ely and his biplane. Weather was unsatisfactory; visibility was dropped by a low cloud cover and there were light showers mixed with hail.

Ely was not discouraged. He slipped into the seat of his aircraft near three in the afternoon and signalled his handlers to let loose. The plane roared off the platform, took a dangerous dip when it left the platform, then swung into the air. In the take-off, the skid framing and wing pontoons of his plane struck the water, nearly aborting the flight. The prop tips were splintered and water splashed over his goggles. This brief baptism, and a steady rain, blanketed his vision and for a moment he swung dizzily in the air. Finally, he spotted the sandy beaches of Willoughby Spit and touched down, ending a 2½-mile flight.

The flight was an extraordinary success, but Chambers tempered his jubilance with native conservatism. Said he: “After [Ely] had demonstrated his ability to leave the ship so readily, without assistance from the ship’s speed, or from any special starting device, such as that formerly used by the Wright brothers, my satisfaction with the results of the experiment was increased.”

He admitted to pre-experiment perturbation: “The point of greatest concern in my mind, carrying out the original program, was the uncertainty of stopping the ship or changing the course in time to prevent running over the aviator in case he should land in the water.”

His demonstration, that an aeroplane of comparatively old design and moderate power can leave a ship in flight while the ship is not under way, points clearly to the conclusion that the proper place for the platform is aft. An after platform can be made longer, will not require a lessening of the stays of any mast and its essential supports can be so rigged as a permanent structure of a scout cruiser as to cause no inconvenience in arranging the other military essentials of the ship’s design.

Turret ramp

News of the feat inspired a Brooklyn Navy Yard worker to design a light movable platform for installation above the turrets in battleships for the purpose of launching aircraft at sea. Some navy officials were enthusiastic, but Chambers was not quite so ready for this innovation. “Recognising the practicability of Quarterman Joiner Keithley’s idea,” he wrote, he could “not contemplate the use of aeroplanes from turret ships in the immediate future.”

Chambers’ reasoning was cautious. As a result of the Birmingham flight, he did not think it necessary to launch aircraft into the wind. He had already gone on record as supporting the placement of the platform in the aft section of the ship and saw no reason to take a different stand. The safety of pilots was another determining factor: he feared they would be run over by the ship if the plane, forced to ditch, landed forward of the carrier.

Though Ely’s flight opened a few navy eyes, it did not loosen the navy’s purse strings. Glenn Curtiss, at this time, offered to teach a naval officer the mechanics of flying, absorbing the expense himself. Chambers recommended the immediate approval of the plan and LEUT T.G. Ellyson was ordered to Curtiss’s San Diego camp. A series of experiments followed, in conjunction with the pilot’s training.

Chambers, immensely pleased with the Birmingham launching, was now interested in proving it practical to land a plane aboard a naval warship. Another platform was constructed at Mare Island and permission was obtained to install it on the armoured cruiser USS Pennsylvania. While the vessel was anchored at San Francisco on 18 January 1911, Ely launched from a shore airfield.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I would effect a successful landing,” Ely is quoted in a March 1911 Naval Institute Proceedings article. “I knew what a Curtiss biplane could do, and I felt certain that if the weather conditions were good there would be no slip.”

Arrestor gear

A simple arresting gear had been installed on the ship’s platform. It consisted of 22 weighted lines stretched across the deck. On Ely’s plane, a number of special hooks were fitted, designed to catch the lines as the plane made its rollout. In event the jury rigged experimental arresting gear failed, a canvas screen was fitted to the end of the platform as an emergency stop.

The landing was, of course, a complete success, and Chambers was now armed with more ammunition in his battle to prove the feasibility of employing aircraft at sea. He vowed to take every opportunity to emphasise this fact to officers in the Fleet. Just 31 days after the Pennsylvania landing, Curtiss taxied a seaplane from his North Island base to the same ship, then in San Diego Harbour. The plane was hoisted aboard, returned to the water, and taxied back to its base. This experiment indicated the eventual liberation of aircraft from being anchored to shore bases, a necessary advancement if the aeroplane was ever to join the Fleet.

The navy ordered its first aircraft the following May. SecNav George von L. Meyer had earlier supported appropriations for naval aviation. In a meeting of the House Naval Affairs Committee he requested and received $25,000 for aeronautics.


Meanwhile, LEUT Samson RN launches a Short S27 from the battleship HMS Africa (above), 10 January 1912. Four months later, he launched from the battleship HMS Hibernia steaming at 10.5 knots in Weymouth Bay.

Chambers was against the development of the true aircraft carrier by the U.S. Navy at this time. He vehemently opposed the seaplane carrier or hangar ship concept, classifying them as “auxiliary ships.” He stated, “I do not believe that we need such a vessel, even if we could get it,” considering it “superfluous and inefficient.”

With the hydro-aeroplane, Chambers hoped to find a method of getting a plane in the air from a fast-moving vessel without being forced to slow down the ship or stop. His solution was to devise a catapult system. Langley, the Wright brothers, and Chanute had pioneered in this field, but none of the systems developed quite met the needs of naval aviation.

Catapult challenge

The catapult was a challenge. Chambers proposed a device using compressed air for thrust. The first test of it was made at Annapolis, with Ellyson at the plane’s controls. The experiment was a failure operationally, but Chambers learned much from it. He turned the project over to Naval Constructor H. C. Richardson who, with suggestions from Ellyson and Chambers, developed it further.

Three months later, they were ready to try again. On 12 November 1912, Ellyson launched in a hydroplane, the A-3, from a catapult installed in a barge off the Washington Navy Yard. This time, they met with success. Curtiss, who witnessed the demonstration, considered it a significant achievement.


HMS Slinger, a converted hopper barge, was a highly successful catapult trials ship in 1916, despite the impression given by the apparent wreckage hanging over her starboard side.

The following January, aviation joined the Fleet. Chambers sent the entire aviation unit to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to participate in Fleet operations for the first time. During the eight-week period beginning 6 January 1913, the unit conducted scouting missions and exercises in spotting mines and submerged submarines. Under specific instructions from SecNav and Chambers, the unit, led by LEUT J.H. Towers, demonstrated the operational capabilities of the aircraft to stimulate interest in aviation among fleet personnel. More than a hundred “training” flights were made, carrying interested line officers on local hops to demonstrate the safety and manoeuvrability of aircraft, as well as to point out the superiority of aircraft in scouting and reconnaissance tactics.


HMS Hermes

Other nations, especially in Europe, were moving faster in the development of aviation for their navies, allocating more money than the U.S. for experiments. In the same month that Chambers was officially retired, in June 1913, the British reconfigured the cruiser Hermes by placing a launching platform on it and using this ship actively in manoeuvres that followed. The nations vied with each other in building up their air arms; in the offing were the faint rumblings that soon would swell to a roar, eventually erupting into the outrage of war.

HMS Hermes was a 5,600 tons Highflyer class cruiser converted in 1913 to carry initially two then ultimately ten seaplanes. U-27 sank her off Dover 31 October 1914.

In April 1914, naval aviation went into action for the first time. A crisis developed in Mexico when a U.S. naval party was placed under arrest by Mexican police. Pilots and planes were embarked in Birmingham and Mississippi. Those in the former were dispatched to Tampico and saw no action. But LEUT Patrick N.L. Bellinger, leading the Mississippi detachment, continued down the coast to Vera Cruz and conducted daily reconnaissance flights.

On 5 November 1915, RADM W.S. Benson, the navy’s first Chief of Naval Operations, visited the North Carolina and a decision was made to launch the AB-2 aircraft from a new and temporary catapult installed aboard. LCDR H.C. Mustin, who headed the Naval Aeronautic Station at Pensacola, was also aboard. He climbed into the aircraft and a successful launch was made. Though Mustin’s launching was satisfactory, obvious improvements in the system were necessary. Other pilots tested the catapult, changes were made in the unit’s mechanism, and finally, the catapult was removed altogether. Later, a permanent catapult was installed.

RN leading

Great Britain was the undisputed leader in the number and operation of aircraft from ships at this time. As the U.S. was experimenting with North Carolina, the Royal Navy already had five vessels from which aircraft operated. First of these were Hermes, a cruiser converted to carry three seaplanes. Three others, formerly used as cross-channel turbine steamers, were outfitted with hangars and partial flight decks. These were Engadine, Empress, and Riviera, all pre-Langley “carriers.” The fifth was a converted tanker, Ark Royal.


HMS Ben-my-Chree was a fast steam packet, converted to a seaplane tender in 1915. Her aircraft torpedoed Turkish freighters in the Dardanelles in 1915, but Turkish artillery sank her off the Dodecanese on 11 January 1917.

CAPT Mark L. Bristol relieved Chambers in the winter of 1913. Mindful of Great Britain’s progress in carrier experiments, he shot off a memorandum to SecNav:

I desire to suggest the taking up of this question at once, along the line of purchasing a merchant ship and converting her into an aircraft ship, and at the same time considering the plans for a special ship of this type, developing these plans as more information is received from abroad.

It is strongly recommended that the bureaus consider the question of including in the estimates for the coming year money for the purchase and fitting up of such a ship with an idea of recommending to Congress the appropriations with the provision that it become immediately available without waiting until (1 July 1916).

The memo went through the Chief of Naval Operations who sensibly felt such a venture premature. In his endorsement, he wrote:

It appears to the Department that the more immediate need of the Aeronautic Service is to determine by experience with the USS North Carolina, now fitted to carry aeroplanes, the details of such service upon which the characteristics of special aircraft ships, if needed, could be used.

RADM Benson concurred with Chambers:

It was not wise to spend large sums of money on carriers when the aircraft itself had not reached an acceptable state of development. There was still much to learn.

Undeterred, Bristol asked for funds for two three-million dollar carriers in his estimates for fiscal year 1917. It was a futile try. Next, he requested permission to take the command of naval air to sea and, upon receiving it, moved aboard North Carolina. He retained command over the navy’s aircraft, their development, the shore establishments connected with aviation, and the shaping of the air service.

Shortly after he assumed command of North Carolina, Bristol sailed for Guantanamo Bay to participate in war games with the Fleet. This 1916 exercise proved the most important participation of naval aircraft in any Fleet problems to date. By the end of the exercise, the four planes aboard had logged more than 3890 miles in a series of tests that proved instructive and, at the same time, emphasised the lack of equipment available and problems with coordination and planning.

US naval aviation morale low

In the summer of 1916, the organisation, morale, equipment and prospects of naval aviation reached the ebb tide mark. The status of naval air so exasperated the normally reticent Bellinger that he wrote to SecNav a detailed, realistic summation of equipment available and experiments conducted. “Aeroplanes now owned by the navy,” he noted, “are very poor excuses for whatever work may be assigned them.” Viewing current catapults, he continued, they are “by no means the finished mechanism desired in some of (their) essential features.” The letter was frequently quoted by officers in the Aviation Department.


The Royal Navy Short Type 184 was the first aircraft to torpedo an enemy ship, a 5,000-ton Turkish Freighter in the Dardanelles on 12 August 1915. The aircraft had two crew, a 260 hp engine and a maximum speed of 89 mph (143 kph). It carried one Lewis gun and one 14-inch torpedo or 520 lbs (236 kg) of bombs.

With war imminent, the Appropriations Act of 29 August 1916 helped pull naval aviation out of the doldrums. Granted a million dollars the year before, this Act now allotted an additional $3½ million to the development of naval air.

Carriers can’t keep up

In October, Towers completed a tour in London as assistant naval attaché and reported to the Executive Committee of the General Board to inform it of European progress in aviation. He spoke glowingly of zeppelins, advocated the assignment of land planes on capital ships, and discouraged the direction of attention toward aircraft carriers. “Aeroplane ships cannot keep up with the Fleet,” he reported, echoing a widely held conviction. “If (the British) build a ship big enough and powerful enough to keep up with the Fleet, its cost is so high that they do not consider it worthwhile. They are rather giving up the idea.”

Towers’ recommendations weighed heavily with the Board. In its subsequent recommendations, it requested over 500 planes, in addition to kite balloons, non-rigid dirigibles, and an experimental zeppelin. No recommendation was made for the fitting out of a major ship of the line for the operation of aircraft on the scope of an aircraft carrier.

USA enters WW I

The U.S. entered WW I in April 1917. In the years prior to this, naval aviation concerned itself with the development of aeronautical design and a continuing series of studies was implemented to determine the adaptability of planes on ships. The war interrupted these studies. Instead, emphasis was on expansion in aircraft inventory, increase in the number of trained pilots and ground crew men, and anti-submarine warfare.

In April 1917, RADM W. S. Sims, heading the European naval forces, recommended to SecNav that, since German U-boats were sinking tremendous tonnages, attention be directed toward acquiring large numbers of seaplanes for anti-submarine reconnaissance. He also asked for the development of seaplane carriers for small seaplanes. Going a step further, he advocated the development of vessels from which seaplanes could be launched directly from their decks. This emphasis on ASW was a reflection of the experiences of the Allied nations. Expectations of the British were high.

Sims, in answering SecNav’s request for information on what Allied nations’ requirements for naval air support were, revealed the British preoccupation with ASW problems. Through Sims, they requested four seaplane carriers, with a capacity of six two-seater planes, six single-seaters, and a speed of at least 18 knots. They also requested four or more seaplane tenders, 100 kite balloons with necessary manpower to operate and maintain them, “any number of trained pilots,” and a good 300 hp engine.

But Sims appended a note of caution to these requests. He did not advise the U.S. Navy to develop this line of aeronautics if it would interfere with the completion of anti-submarine programs already in progress.

Though the British pioneered in aircraft carriers, their emphasis in WW I—and that of U.S. naval aviation—was on the development of seaplanes. Throughout this war, seaplanes and their tenders achieved far greater attention than any other weapon in the naval air arm arsenal.

The U.S. looked for the super seaplane, one that would be large enough to carry enough fuel aboard to make a trans-ocean hop feasible. This was an attempt to circumvent the worrisome number of sinkings of cargo ships by German U-boats; with the stricken ships went a large number of aircraft built for flight against the enemy in Europe. This plane was given the designation NC and was later to prove such a flight possible.

Summer, 1918

In the summer of 1918, the General Board showed considerable interest in the future of aircraft carriers. It called before it most of the leading naval aviators of the day in an effort to determine how much importance to attach to this development. Testimonies presented offered a wide range of thought on the subject. Several wanted carriers for ASW work. Towers suggested the conversion of a merchant ship—for experimental purposes. Others pointed out that aircraft aboard Huntington were smashed by concussion when that ship fired a practice salvo. Only a ship with the major mission of launching and landing aircraft at sea would do. The Board deliberated and in September recommended a six-year program of expansion in all branches of the fleet. For naval aviation, it recommended that six carriers be built within that time span, each having a 700-foot flight deck, with an 80-foot beam “absolutely clear of obstructions.” Designed top speed was to be 35 knots, with a cruising range of 10,000 miles.


Seven Sopwith Camel 2F1s launched from HMS Furious 0n 19 July 1918 in Operation F7 to strike the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern. This was the first strike by wheeled aircraft from an aircraft carrier on a shore target. The Camels destroyed two Zeppelins in one hangar and led to the abandonment of the site as a Zeppelin support base. Returning from the raid, three Camels ditched near RN surface units and the pilots were recovered. Three others landed in neutral Denmark. The seventh pilot was lost at sea. Camels, in fighter and scouting roles, were launched from many British battleships and cruisers, including the battlecruiser HMAS Australia and the cruisers HMAS Sydney and Melbourne. The Camel 2F1 had a 150 hp Bentley rotary engine and a maximum speed of 115 mph (185 kph). It could carry two .303 machine guns and four 25 lb bombs.

The bright future darkened swiftly on 2 October when SecNav Josephus Daniels temporarily put an end to the project. “The question of building aircraft carriers of special construction is held in abeyance,” he wrote, “and no action will be taken until the military characteristics considered advisable by the General Board are submitted, and no action will then be taken of a positive character unless it appears probable that these vessels can be completed and made serviceable during the present war.” This did not put a period to the program, simply a series of suspension dots — until the Armistice.

The British had been mulling over the problem of ASW and in October 1918 proposed a possible solution to it. The proposal, at the same time, gave a keen revelation of the effectiveness of its carrier operations. Since most submarine sightings and sinkings (there were few of the latter) made by aircraft were from shore-based seaplanes, the RN suggested planes be given a much wider range than they enjoyed. They proposed a plan to tow the planes on lighters or barges to within striking distance of the targets selected. A rear compartment in the barge would be flooded sufficiently to float the plane. The aircraft would then take off, bomb its target and return to home base.

Surprisingly, the plan met with favour. The British volunteered to contribute 50 of the lighter units and asked the U.S. to provide 30, along with 40 planes. By the end of July 1918, the towed-lighter project saw the commissioning of a base at Killingholme, Ireland, with an American detachment in command. In a dress rehearsal for the scheduled bombardment of the submarine base at Heligoland, a German Zeppelin appeared on the scene and photographed the entire operation. The secret type of attack no longer secret, the British called off the campaign in August.

The first draft for naval aviation’s request for appropriations after the war contained no provision for the construction of aircraft carriers nor the conversion of a current ship of the line to carrier characteristics. But on the return from Europe of CAPT Noble E. Irwin, who then had the aviation desk in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the entire budget was revamped, new estimates were made, and the navy was subsequently authorised to convert the collier USS Jupiter into the first experimental carrier.

The British, at that time, had three operating carriers, two training carriers and two under construction.


HMS Furious, in her mid-1918 configuration, had a flying off deck forward and a landing deck aft. Furious was laid down in June 1915 as a “large light cruiser” with two 45 cm (18-inch) guns. In March 1917, before her forward gun was installed, modifications commenced to make a 96.5 metres (228 feet) runway forward and a six-aircraft hangar below. In November 1917 a 86.6 x 21.3 x 4.6 metres (284 x 70 x 15 feet) box that provided a landing deck, enlarged hangar and workshops, replaced the after gun. Despite experimenting with both longitudinal and athwartships arrestor wires, the landing deck experiment was a failure chiefly because of superstructure turbulence. Experience with Furious contributed to the decision to fit Argus, then under construction, with a flush deck. Furious initially housed a crew of 796 plus 14 officers and 70 RNAS sailors. She could steam at 31 knots on her 19,000 ton hull. Rebuilt in 1924, she survived WW II.

In 1919, the General Board met again, this time centering its attention on naval aviation. It was an exhaustive inquiry from which was produced a report on “Future Policy Governing Development of Air Service for the United States Navy.” In it the Board stated, “The development of Fleet aviation is of paramount importance and must be undertaken immediately if the United States is to take its proper place as a naval power.”

At the close of the war, the evolution of thought on carrier designs centred on the development of two types, one a fast vessel with large radius for scouting operations with scout cruisers, and the other a larger, slower vessel to operate with battleship units as a base for launching torpedo plane attacks. The experiments and experiences of the British Navy in operating aircraft carriers influenced American thinking when design and performance were considered. Their carrier Argus weighed 18,000 tons and flew 20 Sopwith planes carrying 1000-lb. (454 kg) torpedoes. Its speed was 21 knots. Two other British carriers, Furious and Cavendish, were designed for scouting missions, travelled at 31 knots, and carried reconnaissance planes.

Hand wringing, project shelved, revived

Several years later, LCDR B. G. Leighton commented on the controversy surrounding the selection of Jupiter for the first conversion to a carrier design. He said:There is no good reason, why a battleship might not become an aircraft carrier, or an aircraft carrier a cruiser. The Langley, 14 knots, no guns, 400 officers and men a “converted collier” is an aircraft carrier. The Saratoga, 33 knots, eight-inch guns, three times the size of the Langley with three times as many men a “converted battle cruiser” is an aircraft carrier. The British Argus “a converted passenger ship” is an aircraft carrier. “Aircraft carrier” may mean almost anything!

Arguments continued during the Board meetings. One faction wanted to convert battleships instead of colliers, but was out-argued by Irwin who pointed out the lack of stowage space below decks, the smoke menace amidships, the small headroom between decks and the additional personnel needed for the fire room. One admiral protested the conversion. “l believe the development is going to be so rapid that by the time you get your carriers you will find you have to make all your ships carriers.” But another voice was heard, that of LCDR E.O. McDonnell: “A plane carrier would carry 15 torpedo planes and, in my opinion, would be a menace to a whole division of battleships and in the same way a fleet of carriers could attack a place like Hawaii.”

Congress considered converting cruisers. Merchant ship possibilities were renewed, but the Board prevailed; the collier Jupiter was selected.

Even at this late date, a new threat developed. After Congress authorised the carrier, RADM Benson shelved the project. CAPT Thomas T. Craven, who had by then relieved Irwin, found himself in the awkward position of facing a Congressional hearing and admitting that the appropriated money would not be used. He consulted Daniels who at once reversed the CNO’s decision and ordered work to proceed immediately. In January 1920, Daniels allocated $500,000 for the conversion and the future of Jupiter-Langley was assured.

So, what’s an aircraft carrier?

Carrier Evolution II: Post WW I

USN Carrier Evolution II: Post Jutland

Second article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News, March 1962, pp 9 – 15.

It is impossible to resist the admiral’s claim that he must have complete control of, and confidence in, the aircraft of the battle fleet, whether used in reconnaissance, gunfire or air attack on a hostile fleet. These are his very eyes. Therefore the Admiralty view must prevail in all that is required to secure this result.” Winston S. Churchill.

Though these words were written in 1936 as a private citizen, Winston Churchill earlier, as First Lord of the Admiralty, advocated the development of aviation in the navy while the aeroplane was still young. He was partially responsible for placing the new machines aboard British ships shortly after the first decade of this century. As a result, during World War I Great Britain developed the aircraft carrier and built a small number of them before any other country had a single ship designed for the operation of planes at sea. Heavier-than-air craft had its start in Great Britain four-and-a-half years after Orville Wright launched the world’s first successful aircraft at Kitty Hawk. Mr. Alliott Verdon-Roe completed constructing his plane at Broadside, England. Modelled after a Wright brothers’ aeroplane, it was successfully flown on 8 June 1908. On 2 March 1911, three Royal Navy officers and one Marine officer began taking flying instruction given by a civilian enthusiast. The first of the four to solo was LEUT Charles R. Samson who, in the next ten years, built a distinguished reputation for being a flamboyant man of action.

In 1912, Horace Short produced Britain’s first seaplane (Churchill has been credited with coining this one-word description of the aircraft) and it was successfully flown by Samson. Only months earlier, Samson demonstrated the potentials of naval aviation when in December 1911, he test-launched a Short S.27 biplane from rail platforms on the foredeck of HMS Africa while the warship was at anchor at Chatham. He made a safe landing alongside, using flotation bags strapped to the wheels of his plane. Four months later, in May 1912, the first British flight from a moving ship was effected when LEUT R. Gregory, one of the “original four,” took off from a temporary flight deck of the battleship Hibernia. The ship was steaming in Weymouth Bay at a speed of 10 to 12 knots.

Central Flying School

British Joint Central Flying SchoolBritain’s first step toward carrying aeroplanes to sea was to establish an official air arm. On 13 April 1912, the Royal Flying Corps was constituted by Royal Warrant and, on 19 June, a Central Flying School was opened at Upavon Downs. Both the Corps and the School were planned for the centralisation of aviation activities in the Royal Navy and the “Military.”


Central Flying School, Upavon Downs, 1913.

Between 1912 and the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Europe became increasingly restless. In October 1912, following the establishment of the Corps, Britain commissioned a number of naval air stations for coast guard duty. One was placed at Cromarty, Scotland, and the remaining three in England, by the Channel coast at Calshot, Yarmouth, and Felixstowe. Two others were already in operation, one at Eastchurch and the other on the Isle of Grain. The sites were selected to form a chain so that planes could fly from one station to the next without requiring an interstop for refuelling.

British naval aviation moved more closely toward the carrier concept when a wheeled launching platform was installed in the cruiser Hermes in June 1913. At first, two seaplanes operated from the ship. Later, she was capable of carrying a third. By October 1914, Hermes had been fitted to handle ten.

Winston Churchill

In the summer months of 1914, Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed Winston Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty.

In a series of sudden decisions, Churchill immediately called out of retirement brilliant Lord Fisher, a cantankerous admiral who advocated great changes in the Royal Navy. He was made First Sea Lord. Almost at the same time, Churchill elevated the bellicose Sir John Jellicoe to command the Home Fleet, bypassing several senior officers en route. Aviation fascinated Churchill. He flew at every opportunity and encouraged the development of aircraft for the Navy’s use. In this respect, he was militant. In the words of Sir Sefton Brancker, then Deputy of Military Aeronautics, “The first sign of Churchill’s policy was his sudden announcement that the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps had become the ‘Royal Naval Air Service’, this without any reason or warning to the War Office.”

His most startling decision was made shortly before war was declared. On his own initiative, Churchill called up full mobilisation of the Navy, risking a veto by the Cabinet and not waiting for a signature from King George V. The entire reserve strength went on active duty; the ranks of naval aviation broadened with other units of the fleet. It was one of the few times in history that a defending nation’s navy was adequately prepared upon the declaration of war.

Events moved swiftly. On 28 June 1914, the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Serbian students at Sarajevo. On 17 July Churchill concentrated the fleet at Spithead for review and manoeuvres. All available naval aircraft took to the air: 17 seaplanes and two flights of aeroplanes. On 28 July Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with the Serbs and Germany mobilized. On 1 August, the British planes at Eastchurch were tuned up. On 4 August, England declared war on Germany, and Germany declared war on Belgium.


HMS Ark Royal: 7,800 tons, 107 x 15.5 metres (352 x 51 feet), 4 x 12 pdr guns, four aircraft.

At that time, Great Britain had only one vessel that could even remotely be referred to as an aircraft carrier, the Hermes. Her wartime activity was cut short, however. On the evening of 30 October 1914, she was torpedoed and sunk. Fortunately, most of her crew survived. In short order, an old merchantman was placed in a shipyard and her superstructure converted to carry and launch seaplanes from wheeled trolleys. It was the same type installation used in the Hermes. The merchantman displaced 7800 tons, was slightly longer than 350 feet, and had a speed of about 11 knots. This ship, HMS Ark Royal, was to prove valuable to the Royal Navy in future years. In quick succession, other vessels were converted. The former fast cross-Channel packets, Empress, Engadine, and Riviera, were fitted with hangars for seaplanes and equipped with cranes for hoisting aircraft into and out of water. Later, an Isle of Man packet, Ben-my-Chree, was refitted for seaplane operations. Except for submarine activities, which proved deadly in the early years of the war, the German Navy seemed tenaciously timid. The Kaiser adamantly refused to permit the High Seas Fleet to engage the British, so it hung reluctantly to safe ports. There were, therefore, few demonstrations of German belligerence by surface ships at sea. But in the early months, two engagements are notable, for they eventually affected some future designs of Royal Navy ships.

Rufigi Delta

In September 1914, the German cruiser Königsberg, attacked and sank the British cruiser Pegasus in port at Zanzibar.

(Ed. note: See Battles/Rufigi for an expanded report that describes one of the earliest Naval Gunfire Support operations, some of the vicissitudes of operating early aircraft designs in tropical climes and contributions by the Australian cruiser, HMAS Pioneer.)

The third German-British naval engagement of WW I has been entered in history books as the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Over on the China Station, Germany had eight cruisers operating in these and nearby waters. When Japan declared war against the Central Powers, the German squadron, commanded by VADM von Spee, sailed for South America, bombarding Papeete and Fanning Island en route. He was joined by two more cruisers at Easter Island and, in company, they proceeded to the coast of Chile. The Admiralty, intent on destroying this enemy force, assembled as many ships as possible off the southeast coast of South America, and even dispatched three from the Grand Fleet to join in the hunt.

Von Spee, still eager for battle, decided to attack the Falkland Islands. It was a fatal decision: the British squadron came upon him unexpectedly and sank all the German ships save one, which managed to escape. These two incidents—the spotting and sinking of the Königsberg and the Battle of the Falkland Islands—led to the later development of gun turret launching experiments in HMS Repulse, and the construction of Lord Fisher’s “Hush! Hush!” ships, Courageous, Glorious, and Furious.


A Sopwith One-and-a-half Strutter launches from the battlecruiser HMAS Australia‘s turret-mounted platform.

The British turret-launching system was designed and developed in 1917. By early 1918, nine battlecruisers and two light cruisers were equipped to launch seaplanes from systems installed over ships’ gun turrets.

(Ed. note: “Flying-off decks” were mounted in HMAS Australia, Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney‘s aircraft, piloted by F/Lt Sharwood, launched 11 April 1918, intercepted and probably destroyed a German bomber off Heligoland.)

Though developed by the British under the pressures of wartime urgency, the idea was first recorded as early as November 1910 when New York Navy Yard quartermaster joiner E.C. Keithley proposed a design shortly after Ely’s successful take-off from the Birmingham. Keithley’s idea was rejected—too advanced for its time—tossed into Navy files and forgotten. But Fisher’s “Hush! Hush!” ships have fascinated naval architects and historians since they were uncovered. Originally, they were built as cruisers of a sort under the war emergency program.

White elephant light cruisers

Ships of the Royal Navy describes them as white elephants. “In design,” it states, “they suffer from being too strong and too weak. For light cruiser work, they are ludicrously over-gunned, while the absence of armour precludes their being employed as battlecruisers.” Apparently, the First Sea Lord wanted powerfully armed ships of high speed, capable of navigating very shallow waters. Officially described as light cruisers, they were ordered shortly after the sinking of Königsberg. Subsequently, all three were converted into carriers, Courageous and Glorious after the war. Before Furious was commissioned in July 1917, she underwent the first of several conversions and emerged from the shipyard initially as an awkward-looking aircraft carrier.

Britain, in the first months of the war, realized the danger of Zeppelin raids on home shores when the Germans became entrenched in Belgium. A series of air patrols in the Channel was immediately established, costing the Royal Naval Air Service in casualties a number of seaplanes and pilots.

In December 1914, the British planned a raid on Zeppelin bases at Cuxhaven. This time, they tried a new tactic, launching the attack with seaplanes based aboard ships. The converted Engadine, Riviera, and Empress were pressed into service, accompanied by a screen of destroyers and submarines. The mission was not restricted to the bombing of the airship sheds, but broadened to obtain as much information as possible on the strength of the German Navy in the area.


The December 1914 Cuxhaven raid (Engadine, Riviera and Empress) is considered by many to be the first sea-launched strike on a shore target. Shrouded by poor visibility, the aircraft failed to find their primary target and the results were inconclusive. Others favour the highly successful July 1918 raid on the German Zeppelin base at Tondern by wheeled Camels from Furious that led to the base’s virtual evacuation.

On Christmas morning, the ships converged at a point some 12 miles north of Heligoland. An hour later, seven planes took off. En route, they were attacked ineffectively by two Zeppelins, and, as they neared the enemy’s main naval base, by seaplanes. Three hours after launching, three of the seaplanes returned to their ships, the mission only partly accomplished. The remaining four were forced to ditch. The crews of three were rescued by a friendly submarine; the fourth was captured by a Dutch trawler.

The seaplanes did not succeed in finding the Zeppelin sheds, thus failing that aspect of the mission. But they did bring back valuable information on harbours and the number of German ships in them. The Admiralty was not disappointed.

If any single action gave birth to the concept of aircraft carrier operations, says one noted U.S. naval historian, this raid would qualify. Several similar raids were made in later years of the war, but attention was directed first at the development of seaplanes and then of flying boats. It was not until the last months of the war that Britain fully realized the limitations of seaplane characteristics and the superiority of landplanes. She then began various experiments with true aircraft carrier design.

Meanwhile Turkey refused to remain neutral. Influenced by Enver Pasha, the Minister of War, the country was pro-German. On 29 October 1914, Turkish warships, in company with two German cruisers, opened fire on Odessa, Theodosia and Sevastopol on the coast of the Russian Black Sea. Russia declared war on 2 November, and England and France followed three days later. The Ottoman Front was opened.

Churchill soon conceived a brilliant strategy. Had it been successfully carried out, the war could easily have been ended in 1915. Instead, the campaign ended disastrously, and the war dragged on bloodily until November 1918.

He proposed to concentrate British Forces in the Dardanelles, defeat Turkey, and force the Germans and Austrians to deploy troops and machines to that area. The Balkan states would probably join the Allies. And Russia would make a devastating victory in the east; the Central Powers would crumble. It nearly worked.

Though opposed at home and in France, Churchill ordered the Navy into action. As soon as a force of ships was gathered, including Ark Royal, the British armada headed toward the Dardanelles to force an entrance. In Ark Royal were six two-seater seaplanes and two single-seater land-planes. Of these, only a Short seaplane, equipped with a good engine, was efficient. The rest could barely get high enough for effective spotting and could launch only when waters were calm. On 5 March 1915, a Sopwith seaplane, manned by a pilot and observer, took to the air. The plane was to direct fire on a Turkish fort for the guns of the new superdreadnought, Queen Elizabeth. It climbed torturously to 3000 feet and, as the observer readied to call the shots, the propellor fell off.

The Sopwith plunged to the sea, under furious fire from the fort. Miraculously, both men were saved.


HMS Queen Elizabeth displaced 32,000 tons, on a 195.3 x 27.6 x 10.3 metres (641 x 90.5 x 34 feet) hull. She carried 950-1300 crew, four twin 38.1 cm (15 inch) guns plus 12 x 15 cm (6 inch) guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes. HMS Queen Elizabeth was the first ever oil-fired battleship. Her 24 boilers drove her at 24 knots through four turbines. First commissioned in 1915, she paid off in 1948.

More catastrophes followed. The assault force, entering the straits, ran into a minefield and lost three battleships. Action was broken off abruptly by the admiral—although other ships had managed to toss the Turkish and German troops into confusion. Churchill composed a telegram insisting the battle be resumed immediately, but was dissuaded by the Admiralty on the ground that the officer commanding the situation should be allowed to make his own decisions. For the prospect of a shortened war, later events proved this decision was unfortunate.

At war’s end, German General Liman von Sanders, in charge of the Dardanelles during the battle, wrote: “If the orders given at that moment had been carried out, the course of the war would have been changed after the spring of 1915, and Germany and Austria would have been constrained to continue the fight alone.”

The attack on the Ottoman Front next centred on Gallipoli, but this proved a worse disaster. The enemy learned of the next tactic and buttressed their defences. The campaign—doomed to drag on till the following January—was lost.

Samson arrived on the scene, via brisk battles at Dunkirk and Belgium, commanding No. 3 Aeroplane Squadron. Ark Royal moved to the Gulfs of Enos, Smyrna and Xeros, providing effective spotting, and returned to her base at Mudros. Fighting was sporadic, both a success and a failure—about equal measure. The Turks were worthy adversaries.



Submarine threat

By late June the threat of German submarines in these waters was real, and Ark Royal was retired to the safety of Imbros where she functioned as a depot ship. Barely a week earlier, Ben-my-Chree was added to the force. Reconnaissance and spotting flights were frequent, but the Dardanelles campaign was now a stalemate.

In early August, a major landing was effected by the British at night without opposition. With the enemy forces nearly all routed and running, the general in charge failed to press the attack. In the meantime, reinforcements came up and the battle raged anew, continuing until the British realized the hopelessness of the situation and evacuated, ending the campaign.

Great Britain recognized the deadliness of the German U-boats early in the war. Lusitania was torpedoed 7 May 1915 with 1200 lives lost; 139 Americans were among them. Britain searched for a long-range seaplane that was capable of carrying heavy bombloads. In 1914, Sopwith developed a flying boat he called a Bat, but it was inadequate.

A year later, CMDR J.C. Porte was given command of the Felixstowe naval air station. He took up the problem, started with Curtiss flying boat designs, added improvements, and finally produced an operational craft that weighed between four-and-one-half and six-and-one-half tons. As Porte described them, they “carried sufficient petrol for work far out from land and big enough bombs to damage or destroy a submarine otherwise than by a direct hit.” Called Large Americas, they were operational by the spring of 1917.

Until 1915, vessels converted for aviation at sea were designed as seaplane tenders. This year, a new experiment was tried and proved successful. The Isle of Man packet, Vindex, was refitted to launch landplanes as well as seaplanes. A 64-foot-long deck was mounted on the ship, and a successful flight from it was made on 3 November by a Bristol Scout. The Scout seaplane was equipped with wheels which dropped off as the aircraft took to the air. It made a water landing, taxied alongside the ship, and was hoisted aboard again. Refitted with wheels and refuelled, the plane was once more ready to fly.


RNAS Bristol Scouts initially had an 80 hp Gnome Lambda rotary engine but later versions were fitted with the more powerful 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape. Later versions also mounted a single Lewis machine gun above the top wing.

Two other experiments were made in attempts to launch aircraft at sea to provide wider range. In the first, British Navy men designed a floating barge upon which seaplanes were towed. Nearing target, the aft compartments of the lighter were flooded, permitting the plane to slide easily into the water and take off. A variation of this was a larger platform from which small landplanes were launched. They enjoyed a brief popularity and operated in the North Sea early in the war. In the closing months of hostilities, a Sopwith Camel was launched in the same area, engaged and downed a Zeppelin. The towed lighter was not refined further and saw comparatively little action.

(Ed. Note: In this 11 August 1918 action, SBLT Stuart Culley, in Sopwith Camel 2F-1 N6812, shot down Zeppelin L 53 after launching from a sled towed by HMS Redoubt. His aircraft hangs in the Imperial War Museum and Culley won a DSO.)

The second experiment made by the British in 1916 tried a new approach toward launching aircraft at sea. On their own initiative, two naval officers made a design that was a departure from the standard envelope-gondola airship. The envelope they used was comparatively small but, they hoped, capable of lifting an FE-2C airplane. Once aloft and sufficient power given the plane, the envelope was to be detached. Bizarre? Perhaps. At any rate, a trial launching was made of the contraption on 21 February. The plane lifted off successfully and was gaining altitude when the envelope detached prematurely. One of the officers was spilled from the plane and the other crashed with it.


In mid-1916, the war’s major sea battle was fought, the Battle of Jutland. Earlier in the year, the 20,000-ton Cunarder Campania was converted by the British to carry seaplanes and was assigned to ADML Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet.


HMS Campania, 18,000 tons, 183 x 19.8 x 2 metres (601 x 65 x 6.5 feet) carried 10 aircraft. She won the blue riband as a Cunard passenger liner. She sank 5 November 1918 after dragging her anchor in the Firth of Forth and colliding with HMS Royal Oak and Revenge.

May approached and nearly ended before the German High Seas Fleet, now under ADML Reinhard Scheer, made a definite move to encounter the Royal Navy. Jellicoe was ready. Advised in advance that a squadron of German battlecruisers had been ordered to Norwegian shores for a show of force, he ordered VADM Sir David Beatty, leading a similar but larger British squadron, to intercept. HMS Engadine, operating with Beatty’s squadron, launched a seaplane for reconnaissance at 1530 on the 31st.

The pilot reported three enemy cruisers and ten destroyers taking a north-westerly course. Fifteen minutes later, the German ships changed course to the south. The pilot tried to flash this signal by searchlight, but his message was not received. One of the ships of the squadron noted the alteration, however, and the ships shifted in time. Thereafter, poor visibility and rough water kept Beatty’s plane on deck. The two squadrons clashed and, even though outnumbered, the German ships under VADM Franz von Hipper, sank two of Beatty’s vessels. Scheer’s High Seas Fleet crested the horizon, and Beatty led his remaining ships on a strategic retreat, north toward Jellicoe.

On the day before, Campania had conducted a series of successful gun-spotting training flights, returned to her Scapa Flow anchorage about five miles from the main fleet, and awaited orders. At 1735, a signal was flashed to all ships of Jellicoe’s fleet to stand by to get under way. At 1900 the order to raise full steam was given and two-and-a-half hours later, Campania was ready. At 2254, the “proceed” signal was flashed—but the Campania did not receive it. Several hours passed before her C.O. realized that the rest of the fleet had gone.
Until 0200 the following morning, Jellicoe assumed his “aircraft carrier” Campania was in company. Thus Jellicoe at Jutland fought without benefit of aerial observation.

Briefly, about 1800 on the 31st, the High Seas Fleet met with the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe made a thrust to cut off Scheer’s retreat, but the German admiral ordered his ships first south and then east. By this manoeuvre, he came up in pursuit along the flank of the British ships, turned again and launched torpedoes, forcing Jellicoe to retreat.

Scheer then ordered Hipper to engage Jellicoe’s attention while the High Seas Fleet manoeuvred for an escape route. Scheer found it by 2100, cutting east across the southerly-moving British ships, and dashed to safety.

At battle’s end, each fleet had lost several ships, but the British suffered more heavily in tonnage—by almost double. In post-battle retrospect, the Battle of Jutland could easily have ended in a triumphant victory for the Allies, had Jellicoe had the advantage of Campania‘s plane to report movements of Scheer’s ships. The German fleet had no seagoing aircraft. This, combined with lessons already learned in previous sea encounters with the enemy—especially in countering U-boats—strengthened more than ever the British Navy’s dedication to the perfecting of the aircraft carrier.

USA enters war

In February 1917, the pacifism of a patient president broke when, on the last day of January, Kaiser Wilhelm notified Woodrow Wilson and the American people that unrestricted submarine warfare would commence the following day. Diplomatic relations were severed on 3 February, but the President decided to wait until the next overt act before asking Congress to declare war. He did not have long to wait. In February and March, several U.S. ships were sunk and in March, the British Secret Service obtained the famous Zimmerman note, detailing German plans against the U.S. The note was deciphered and passed on to the Americans. Wilson sent his war message to the Senate on 2 April and war was declared four days later.


Failed landing experiments aboard Furious included skid-mounted aircraft and longitudinal wires on the aft deck (left) and a “handraulic” system at the other end. S/CMDR Earnest Dunning lands a Sopwith Pup on the forward deck of HMS Furious in about 31 knots of relative wind (right). He was killed making his third attempt. After waving off his handlers and attempting an overshoot, he stalled and fell over the starboard side.

Advances in British naval aviation were rapid in the closing years of the war. Furious joined the fleet, and experiments on landing aircraft aboard were conducted. The first attempt was successful, though unorthodox; no mechanical arresting gear was used. On 2 August 1917, a Sopwith Pup landed aboard. On deck, handlers grasped hold of lines from the plane’s wingtips as soon as the motor was cut and the plane was skidding to a stop. In the next attempt two days later, a tire burst upon touchdown, the plane rolled over the side, and the pilot was killed.

(Ed. note: This was, in fact, Dunning’s third attempt. He conducted two successful landings on 2 August. There is little evidence that a burst tyre contributed to the crash.)

Further studies were conducted and a primitive arresting arrangement was installed, along with netting to protect the ship’s bridge. Other conversions followed promptly. A cruiser of the Hawkins class was fitted with a flight deck and commissioned the HMS Vindictive. This deck was removed after the war. In 1917, three ships were planned for conversion to carriers, but work was delayed intentionally on two of them. All three figured prominently in Britain’s post-war development.


HMS Argus (above) converted from a hull laid down as the passenger ship Conte Rosso, commissioned in September 1918, was the world’s first flush deck “true” aircraft carrier. She carried 20 aircraft and could make 21 knots on her 18,000 tons hull. She even survived WW II, seeing action ferrying aircraft to Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt, providing fighter and ASW cover for Operation Harpoon (Malta resupply), an Arctic convoy and a North Africa landing. The Japanese flush deck carrier HIJMS Hosho (below) was the first purpose-built carrier to be commissioned (in December 1922). The temporary island superstructure was removed after sea handling trials in 1923. HMS Hermes was laid down earlier, but modifications while building delayed her commissioning until July 1923.


The first of these was the Argus, originally designed as the Italian liner Conte Rosso, and is generally considered the first true aircraft carrier. Argus had a flight deck 558 feet long by 60 wide and displaced 18,000 tons. She was the first “island” carrier, her superstructure moved to a tight location on the starboard side of the ship.

Eagle, but was originally laid down as the dreadnought battleship Almirante Cochrane under a contract with Chile. War interrupted completion of the ship, contracts were renegotiated and she was converted to an “island” carrier. She was the only aircraft carrier to have two funnels. HMS Hermes, the second carrier to bear that name, was designed from the keel up to operate as a carrier, the first such (RN) vessel constructed.

Argus was the first completed, but saw no action in the war. Convinced now that the progress of sea power lay in the future of aircraft carriers. Great Britain suspended construction on the Eagle and Hermes until tests were made on the first carrier. The lessons learned were incorporated in the Eagle—and this carrier was further tested. Results from experiments on both her predecessors contributed heavily to the eventual construction of the Hermes.

Armistice, 1918

But at war’s end, the U.S. had no vessel specifically built to carry aircraft to sea. Primarily, U.S. Naval Aviation launched patrol flights from shore bases. During the expansion of military forces. The Navy’s General Board made concrete recommendations in favour of carrier developments. After the Armistice, it listened to exhaustive testimony concerning the role of aviation in the Navy. Acting on the Board’s findings, Congress authorized a small amount of money for conversion of the collier USS Jupiter.


Collier #3 USS Jupiter (above) became the USN’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1), in 1922.

When the refitting was completed, the ex-collier was renamed USS Langley (CV-1) and commissioned on 20 March 1922 at Norfolk, VA. Surrounded by modern vessels of her day. She appeared to be the strangest-looking ship to join the fleet since the Federal ironclad Monitor squatted heavily in the water during the Civil War. Small and gangling as she was, USS Langley was the first-born of a large fighting family of powerful Navy ships.

[Ed. note: MacDonald fails to mention three relatively important WW I milestones: 1. the first successful torpedo attack on a ship (by a Short 184 flown by F/CMDR C.H. Edmonds RNAS, from HMS Ben-my-Chree, on 12 August 1915 in the Dardanelles campaign); 2. the loss to Turkish artillery of Ben-my-Chree off Castellorizo, in the Dodecanese Islands, 11 January 1917, and 3. the first successful carrier-launched strike by wheeled aircraft (seven Sopwith Camels from HMS Furious) that destroyed two Zeppelins and their shed at Tondern, in Operation F7, 17 July 1918.]


Bishop, C. and C. Chant. Aircraft carriers: The world’s greatest vessels and their aircraft. Silverdale Books: Wigston, 2004.
Preston, A. Aircraft carriers. Bison Books: Greenwich, 1979.