Aircraft Carriers: Throughout naval history, it has been the battleship that dominated on the high seas. Be it the wooden galleys of the Spanish Armada or the revolutionary dreadnought class ships from the early 20th century, all of them had a primary goal – to engage the enemy while remaining safe from their weapons.
Half of this equation was in armor protection, which was as much as possible in key areas to protect against any shells that hit. The other half was firepower. The more powerful guns the better, in order to fire from further away, and do more damage when they arrive.
WW1-era battleships were armed with enormous guns up to 18 inches in size, hopefully able to fire on their enemy long before their guns were in range.
However, the centuries-old battleship was toppled from its position of ruler of the waves in WW2, when aircraft carriers matured into serious weapons of war.
While the best WW2 naval guns had a long range of 15-20 miles, an aircraft carrier can remain hundreds of miles away from its target, making the cumbersome battleship almost obsolete.
Nations quickly caught on to the potential, and increased their efforts to produce these floating airfields, often converting semi built and sometimes completed battleships into aircraft carriers.
Carriers quickly became the primary assets of a nation’s navy, with entire fleets surrounding them.
The Japanese gave the world a first hand display of the devastating power carriers possess, when they attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Just six aircraft carriers from the IJN were able to kill 2,300 on the island, destroy almost 200 US aircraft, sink 4 battleships and damage another 13. This show of force cemented the carrier as a critical weapon, and would set the bar for the war in the Pacific that would soon follow.
The attack was meant to cripple US naval power before they could prevent Japanese conquests in the Pacific, and to give themselves time to increase their own naval capacity. This plan severely backfired, when the US responded by building the worlds largest navy by the end of WW2. By 1945, the US Navy’s fleet made up 70% of the global total.
A few months after Pearl Harbour, the US launched the Doolittle Raid. 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from the USS Hornet and attacked Tokyo, causing minimal physical damage, but a significant morale boost to the US.
Because of the huge distances involved, the mission was a one way trip. The aircraft continued to China, with one landing in Soviet territory.
This once again cemented the carrier as key weapon in future warfare.
Their size and purposed varied, from faster light carriers, which carried less aircraft, to the huge heavy fleet carriers, which doubled as flagships and a self sufficient floating airbase.
Then there were small and slow-moving escort carriers whose role was to protect convoys of merchant ships and operate in the rear during battles.
Throughout the Pacific war, the carrier became more and more essential, becoming the symbol of the war in that theatre.
Providing air support to the most displaced islands in the ocean, which became primary strategic assets, as well as hosting flocks of fighter planes and medium bombers during clashes on the open sea, these colossal sailing airports wrote history and also defined the term “naval superpower” for the present.