The untold story of the Royal Navy's struggle to invent carrier warfare
Great Britain was breaking new ground with the first fleet to deploy carrier air power in a high-intensity war in 1939.
Captains, crews, pilots and admirals were making things up as they went along.
And the world was watching.
Anti-submarine hunter-killer groups? Costly failure.
Surprise strikes against major harbours? Resounding success.
Close escorts for convoys running the gauntlet to Malta?
It was the ultimate test of doctrines determined during the disruptive 1920s and 30s.
So why have the experiments, endeavours and endurance of the Royal Navy’s carrier operations seemingly been lost to history?
This website seeks to give you a detailed account of the actions in which Britain's radical armoured carriers sustained damage, what that damage was, and how well these ships met both design requirements and unexpected adaptations.
*JANUARY 2019 UPDATES*
I’ve added two RN Admiralty documents discussing the varying merits of US and UK carrier design doctrine - open versus closed hangars, which also touches on the value of armoured decks.
I’ve added the original Captain’s reports from HMS Indomitable and Victorious detailing the events and lessons of Operation Pedestal, the relief of Malta:
SCROLL DOWN FOR:
Doctrine Determined - The thinking behind the armoured carrier designs
Baptism of Fire - Battle and damage overvews for actions in the Mediterranean
Damage Detailed - Original damage report documents, diagrams, photos
Firestorm in the East - Battle reports for the Indian and Pacific Oceans
Between Fire & Ice - Battle and damage reports for the British Pacific Fleet
Reign of Fire - Understanding the key aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm
* Denotes work in progress
The 1930s was a time of explosive technical advance and rapidly shifting strategic and tactical demands. War games had revealed the immense power and intrinsic vulnerability of the fleet carrier.
What did the Royal Navy need?
Delays due to war shortages enabled the design to be revisited. But, with refinements came new restrictions.
More and bigger aircraft. Better protection. Greater endurance. Putting it all together was an audacious proposal.
Did the concept of armoured carriers apply to the Pacific Theatre? Japan certainly thought so, fielding its own in 1944.
Did the concept of armoured carriers apply to the Pacific Theatre? The US certainly thought so, fielding its own in 1945.
Baptism of Fire
The reality of war in 1939 proved harsher than anyone imagined. Aircraft were more effective than anticipated. Anti-aircraft technology simply was not up to the job. Radar was turning everything on its head. The armoured carriers had to fight their way through - and survive - the brutal lessons of this tumultuous time.
Five months of intensive operations, including a fleet action, pushed HMS Formidable and her aircraft beyond the limit.
Many books brush over the damage dealt to HMS Illustrious, Formidable and Indomitable in the early war years. Others get it wrong. While Top Secret for a considerable time, the Damage Report findings, drawings and testimony are now easily available. The detail they contain casts new light on the ships and their capabilities.
famous photo's enduring mystery
It's one of the war's most dramatic photographs: Illustrious's steaming and smoking flight deck as the devastating attacks of January 10, 1941, unfold.
Given what we know, what does this picture actually show?
Firestorm in the East
The Royal Navy was never supposed to have been fighting in the Arctic, Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the same time . Now things had gotten so much worse - with the loss of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, and the Imperial Japanese navy threatening the arterial supply lines of the Indian Ocean.
Securing the strategically vital Vichy French island of Madagascar would be the Royal Navy's first multi-carrier strike mission.
The Battle *
A series of 'working-up' missions in the Indian Ocean would expose the RN's lack of experience in strike carrier operations.
Between Fire & Ice - The British Pacific Fleet
With the Italian fleet surrendered and the remaining units of the German navy neutralised, Britain was forced to turn her attention towards her responsibilities in the Far East. But two questions were at the forefront of the United States' mind: Could the British Pacific Fleet sustain extended operations?
Were the armoured aircraft carriers up to the task?
Task Force 57
As the fire and ice of politics clashed around them, the commanders and crew of the BPF prepared to fight.
The US fleet at Okinawa was being hammered. So Admiral Spruance sent his 'ready reserve' on a desperate diversion.
It had taken a mad scramble to assemble a functional Fleet Train. Now it worked frantically to reprovision and repair the carriers.
READYING & REPAIR
With the lessons of ICEBERG learnt, the British Pacific Fleet raced to prepare itself for the final act of World War II.
ECLIPSE OF THE RISING SUN
Now fully up to speed alongside the USN in Pacific warfare, the armoured carriers took their place in the bombardment of Japan.
The Battle *
Kamikaze - Pacific Firestorm
Britain's armoured carriers had been optimised to fight in the close confines of the Mediterranean and North Sea. It is ironic that their armour and fire suppression systems proved most successful in the Pacific.
Fire in the Sky - The Fleet Air Arm
The consequences of the RAF's control over Britain's naval aviation during the 1930s was to have repercussions throughout World War II in the transition from big guns to air wings. The formation of the Fleet Air Arm was barely in time to get the Royal Navy's carrier air power program back on track.