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A brief History of Aircraft Carrier Warfare during the 20th Century



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It was in World War I that the Royal Navy first combined planes with naval vessels. Then the first flat deck aircraft carriers sailed, but had little impact. They launched a few small aircraft carrier raids, targeting German airship bases, but battleships still remained prevalent in the world's foremost navies.

However, as interwar naval treaties limited the tonnage of battleships and battlecruisers navies built aircraft carriers to larger scales and in greater numbers. The U.S. Navy, IJN and Royal Navy all expanded their aircraft carrier fleets. Added to their decks were reconnaissance planes, dive-bombers, torpedo-bombers and combat aircraft to provide further air support.

It was in the Battle of the Mediterranean that aircraft carriers were first widely deployed for naval combat. When the Italians declared war on the British Empire, their navy came up against the Royal Navy aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. Italy had no aircraft carriers at their disposal, and that would be one factor in the Royal Navy's victories.

It was in 1940 that the Royal Navy targeted the Italian naval base at Taranto with their aircraft. With a relatively small number of Swordfish torpedo-bombers, they ravaged three Italian battleships in the shallow-water port. After the raid, the Italians had to move their warships to alternative bases.

After the resounding victory at Taranto, others followed in 1941. During the Battle of Cape Matapan, Royal Navy warships went head-to-head with a smaller Italian fleet. They had more battleships at their disposal, but it was the Royal Navy aircraft carrier that gave them air superiority during the battle. Their planes bombed the battleship Vittorio Veneto, which later withdrew from the battle, cruisers and destroyers. When the Battle of Cape Matapan was over, the Italians had lost three cruisers and a couple of destroyers.

Elsewhere, the IJN began planning for a large-scale airstrike targeting the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. They planned to wipe out the U.S. Pacific Fleet with their aircraft carriers. The operation was given the go-ahead in the winter of 1941, and under radio silence the Japanese aircraft carriers approached Pearl Harbor seemingly undetected.

When they arrived, the IJN launched over 300 hundred Japanese carrier planes from their decks which flew nonchalantly towards the airfields and harbor. With two waves of planes, they ravaged the battleships in port, and aircraft at the surrounding airfields. When the smoke had cleared and the fires burnt out, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was short of battleships, but they salvaged some of them from the shallow-water harbor. In addition, they had lost 188 planes at the surrounding airfields.

A momentous shift in naval warfare, which sidelined the battleships, was beginning in the Pacific. The sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales, taken out by Japanese aircraft in 1942, further highlighted how battleships could be defeated from the air. The Battle of Coral Sea, where the Allies lost the USS Lexington, was dominated by aircraft carriers.

In that same year, the IJN approached Midway Island with four fleet aircraft carriers topped with hundreds of planes. Their plan was to invade Midway Island, and then wipe out any Allied aircraft carriers sent to intercept them. Having been informed of the approaching Japanese fleet by code-breakers, three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers sailed to Midway.

At Midway Island planes were hastily launched, and it was they that began the Battle of Midway as the first Japanese aircraft flew toward the island. The Allied aircraft had heavy losses during the opening aerial skirmishes. However, when a few SBD dive-bombers dived-in towards three Japanese aircraft carriers, their bombs set the carriers' decks ablaze. The three IJN fleet carriers were lost in combat, and a further fourth was later wiped out by the U.S. fleet.

The Allies rejoiced after a momentous victory in the Pacific War. The Battle of Midway was not the last aircraft carrier naval battle then, but the IJN did not recover until 1944. By then, the Allies had already developed more advanced carrier planes, such as the F6F, which were flown in further aircraft carrier battles such as the Battle of the Philippine Sea. In that battle, the IJN lost a further three aircraft carriers, and many hundreds of planes before withdrawing. The Allies had crushed the Japanese fleet air arm.

In the postwar period, the Allied navies constructed new larger, nuclear, aircraft carriers, whilst battleships were steadily removed from their fleets. Then they added new jet aircrafts to their decks. The angled flight deck was another notable new addition to the Cold War aircraft carriers. Military helicopters, for anti-submarine warfare, also became a part of their arsenal.

There were no notable direct aircraft carrier naval battles in Cold War flare-ups. They were largely deployed to strike at land-based targets from their decks. In Vietnam, they provided notable air support for combat operations in the south.

Aside from the Cold War, they were also deployed in post-colonial wars. During the Suez Crisis, both the French and Royal Navy struck at Egyptian positions with their aircraft carriers. Some were also floating bases to ferry troops ashore with their helicopters.

In the Falklands, the Royal Navy dispatched a couple of aircraft carriers to retake the islands after the Argentine invasion. With their Sea Harriers, they shot down a number of Argentina planes during the battle in the skies. In addition, their helicopters transported troops to the ground. Even though Argentina had their own aircraft carrier, it was largely left in port. As such, there was no direct aircraft carrier naval battle.

Aircraft carriers have also been sent on NATO operations in the Balkans. Whilst primarily sent in a peacekeeping role, for aerial reconnaissance, carriers stationed in the Adriatic launched air sorties over Kosovo. During the bombing campaign, they bombarded various ground targets in Kosovo.

The aircraft carrier transformed naval warfare in the 20th century. With a plethora of planes at their disposal, with increasingly accurate bombs and missiles, aircraft carriers have a greater range to strike at both land and naval targets. Their deployment all but rendered battleships obsolete.

More about this author: Matthew Adams

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