Chapter 1 - The Early Years

(Part 3)

World War I and the First Carriers

In 1913, the cruiser HMS Hermes was converted to a seaplane carrier, becoming the first ship to set sail with the sole purpose of carrying aircraft into combat. The HMS Hermes also became the first carrier to be a casualty of war, when she was sunk by a German U-boat in October 1914. By that time, the Royal Navy had converted several merchant ships to seaplane carriers. These ships saw much action during World War I.

HMS Hermes
The seaplane carrier HMS Hermes

On October 8, 1914, seven seaplanes were launched from the HMS Empress, HMS Engadine, and HMS Riviera on raids against the German base at Cuxhaven. The bombs dropped by the aircraft did little damage, however. On August 12, 1915, the HMS Ben-my-Chree launched a Short S-184 seaplane to attack a 5,000-ton Turkish supply ship in the Sea of Marmora. Although a torpedo hit the ship, the kill was awarded to a British submarine which had launched its own torpedoes at the same time. Two days later, the HMS Ben-my-Chree sank another supply ship and a tug.

The Royal Navy also began carrying seaplanes on some of its larger ships, and by 1917 many cruisers and battleships had takeoff platforms built over their forward gun turrets. One of the first uses of these aircraft in combat was at the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916, when the battleship HMS Iron Duke launched scouting and spotter planes. However, one disadvantage of carrying aircraft on battleships was that the planes could not return and land on the ships.

During the early years of World War I, Germany converted six cargo vessels for use as seaplane tenders. However, because these ships were rather slow and had limited range, they were used primarily for coastal patrol and observation duties. Russia likewise converted several ships for use as seaplane carriers and two, the Imperator Nikolai and the Imperator Alexandr I, launched successful attacks against Turkish shipping during 1915 and 1916. For example, on February 6, 1916, aircraft from these two Russian ships sank the Turkish collier Jamingard, the largest merchant ship sunk during the entire War.

The advent of the German Zeppelin airships convinced the Royal Navy that aircraft with better performance than existing seaplanes were needed to meet the airship threat. This led to experiments with the cruiser HMS Furious. In 1917, a 228-foot flying-off ramp was built across her foredeck and later a landing ramp across her stern. The first landing of an aircraft onto a carrier at sea was made on the HMS Furious by Commander Ernest Dunning on August 3, 1917. However, wind turbulence caused by the ship's superstructure made landings on the aft landing ramp dangerous and impractical. Five days later, Dunning was killed when his Sopwith Pup went over the side of the HMS Furious during a landing attempt. The HMS Furious was eventually modified to have a complete flush deck, with that conversion being completed in 1932.

HMS Furious
The HMS Furious with a foredeck ramp

HMS Furious
The HMS Furious as a flush deck carrier

On July 19, 1918, HMS Furious launched seven Sopwith Camels on a raid on the Zeppelin base at Tondern. This, the first carrier strike against a land target, was a huge success. The first wave of planes hit a large storage shed, destroying the hydrogen-filled Z-54 and Z-60 airships. The second wave hit another shed which housed an observation balloon.

Meanwhile, in September 1918, the HMS Argus became the first ship to be built with a complete flush deck for launch and retrieval of aircraft. She was converted from the Italian passenger liner Conte Rosso. The HMS Argus was considered a strike carrier, with a compliment of 20 aircraft, including Sopwith Camel fighters and Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bombers. She served continuously until the 1930's and saw occasional action during World War II.

HMS Argus
The HMS Argus, world's first flush deck carrier

The second HMS Hermes, the first ship to be designed from the outset as an aircraft carrier, was commissioned in July 1923. She had most of the elements common to aircraft carriers to this day, including an island superstructure offset from the ship's centerline, deck elevators, and landing arrestor cables. Like her earlier namesake, this HMS Hermes was also lost in action, being sunk by Japanese carrier aircraft in the Pacific in April 1942.

HMS Hermes (2)
The second HMS Hermes was the first ship
designed as an aircraft carrier

Like the Royal Navy, France converted several existing ships to act as seaplane carriers during World War I and commissioned its first flush deck carrier, the Bearn, in 1927. The Bearn was used primarily as a training vessel and aircraft ferry. She was held by the U.S. Navy in Martinique from 1940 to 1943 to prevent her capture by Germany. Japan also took note of the importance of aircraft at sea, and commissioned the seaplane carrier Wakamiya in 1912 and the flush deck carrier Hosho in 1923.

The Bearn
France's Bearn

The Hosho
Japan's Hosho

In the United States, most Navy admirals still saw the role of the aircraft as being in support of the battleships. Catapult-launched seaplanes were used for patrol duties and as spotters for the battleships' big guns. However, at the prodding of Army flyer Billy Mitchell, Navy brass agreed to a series of tests during June and July 1921 in which captured German ships were attacked by aircraft carrying bombs of different sizes. The most famous test resulted in the sinking of the old battleship Ostfriesland by 2,000-lb. bombs dropped by Army Air Corps planes. While the results of these tests were not conclusive, they did show that aircraft were a potential threat to the traditional battleship fleets.

In 1922 Congress authorized the Navy to convert an old collier into an experimental aircraft carrier. This ship was the USS Langley. The USS Langley carried a compliment of 34 aircraft. She had no superstructure or catapults, but she was equipped with arrestor cables and a deck elevator. The USS Langley was used for a wide range of experiments during her early service which helped to develop operating procedures for aircraft at sea. She was, however, too slow to be a part of the battle fleet and during World War II served as an aircraft transport.

USS Langley
The USS Langley CV-1, America's first carrier

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Last Updated: January 1, 2003