At the end of the War in 1945 the Royal Navy was no longer the world’s most powerful navy, having ceded that position to the US Navy. Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in a comparison of carrier strength. Whereas in 1939 the US Navy had only five carriers in commission, the Royal Navy had seven, although a review of aircraft numbers would actually have weighed well in favour of the American ships. However, by August 1945 the situation had changed out of all recognition and the US Navy was able to call on over twenty large fleet carriers and nine smaller light fleet carriers, as well as numerous escort carriers. On the other hand the core strength of the Royal Navy lay in six large fleet carriers with armoured decks and four new light fleet carriers, which had just come into service but did not see any wartime action. There were also substantial numbers of escort carriers, although the majority of these were US built. One point that the carriers of both navies had in common was that in most cases their basic designs went back to the pre- or early war years. Although most had been modified in the light of war experience, they were not well equipped to deal with the new generations of heavier and faster aircraft that would enter service in the post-war decade.

The build up of the US Navy’s carrier force had been driven by the need to build and equip a fleet capable of taking the war across the vast Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Japanese homeland and in this task they were ably supported by the massive US industrial infrastructure. Once geared up for war production, the US shipyards were able to turn out warships of all types in numbers that the British could only envy and the Axis partners could never hope to match. By 1945 many of the American carriers that were in service immediately after Pearl Harbor had been lost in action in the fierce carrier battles of 1942 and the only survivors in frontline service were the 19,800-ton USS Enterprise and the 33,000-ton USS Saratoga (the smaller USS Ranger also survived but had seen little action and was used for training). In a desperate effort to reinforce the fleet, nine Cleveland class cruiser hulls were adapted to form the basis of an 11,000-ton light fleet carrier (Independence class) and these all entered service in 1943. These provided a welcome boost to offset the earlier losses but the most significant new carriers were those of the 27,500-ton Essex class, which were eventually to provide the backbone of the US carrier fleet not only in the latter half of World War II but also for the subsequent decades and the period covered in this book.

The Essex class had its origin in the mid 1930s when studies were made on the characteristics to be incorporated in any future carrier. Under the terms of the Washington and London Naval treaties, the size of carriers was restricted to a maximum of 27,000 tons and there were limits on the total tonnage of carriers permitted to the signatory navies. However, by 1937 these treaties had lapsed or were in abeyance and consequently the US Navy was free of any artificial constraints when considering various design studies for the new carriers. Priority was given to embarking the maximum number of aircraft together with all the facilities required for their efficient operation. The operational requirement was for four squadrons, each of eighteen aircraft, with space for reserve aircraft and spares. The design was based on experience with the previous smaller Yorktown class but the overall dimensions were similar to the much larger Lexington and Saratoga, which had been produced by converting battlecruiser hulls. The flight deck was 886 feet long and almost 90 feet wide and in the American tradition was wood planked, although underneath was light armour plating. Below this was the hangar deck measuring 580 feet by 71 feet and having no less than 18 feet of headroom. The hangar was served by two deck centreline lifts situated fore and aft, and a deck edge lift on the port side amidships (this could be folded up to allow transit of the Panama Canal). These arrangements enabled these ships to operate with a normal complement of eighty aircraft, although in the closing stages of the war this was increased to around 100 at times.

As well as the aircraft, the Essex class carriers were well equipped for defence against air attack with a battery of twelve 5 inch/38 cal dual-purpose guns in four twin and four single mounts, while a battery of no fewer than around forty-four 40 mm and another forty-four 20 mm AA guns provided short-range defence. This was actually less than the designed light AA armament and the numbers of guns carried was increased substantially at a later stage to cope with the threat posed by Japanese kamikaze attacks. Unlike British carriers, the Essex class was very lightly armoured and relied on an extensive system of watertight compartments to absorb the effects of bomb and torpedo attacks. In practice this worked well in terms of ship survivability (no Essex class carrier was sunk) but almost inevitably any bomb hits caused substantial damage to the flight deck and could put the ship out of action for months. The most dramatic example was the USS Franklin whose crowded flight deck was hit by two bombs in March 1945. Rapidly spreading fires and blast damage killed no fewer than 724 men and injured another 265. Despite this the fires were eventually brought under control and the ship was able to return stateside for repairs under her own steam, although she saw no further action.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Essex class is the speed at which the carriers were produced and the numbers actually built. The name ship was laid down in April 1941 and commissioned on 31 December 1942. By the end of 1943 another six were in commission and these ships were forming the spearhead of the Task Forces then beginning to work their way across the Central Pacific. Another seven commissioned in 1944 and by August 1945 there were seventeen in service with two more commissioning, too late to see service, before the end of the year. Despite the coming of peace, a further four were completed in 1946 bringing the total to twenty-three and one more, the USS Oriskany, was completed to a modified design in 1950. Thus in the post-war era the US Navy had the advantage not only of having a large force of fleet carriers but also gained operational efficiency from the fact that they were all built to the same basic design. This allowed for considerable standardisation in equipment and operational procedures.

Of the other carriers in service in 1945, the pre-war survivors (Ranger, Enterprise and Saratoga) were quickly de-commissioned, as were most of the Independence class. Of the latter, two were lent to France (Belleau Wood and Langley) and another (Cabot) eventually sold to Spain. Although a few were used for training purposes at various times, only one (USS Bataan) saw frontline service as an attack carrier off Korea between 1950 and 1953. During this time she embarked USMC squadrons operating F4U Corsairs.

Despite the success of the Essex class carriers, the US Navy had three much larger carriers under construction in 1945. These were the 45,000-ton Midway class of which the name ship commissioned on 10 September 1945, only a few days after hostilities ended. The second, USS Franklin D Roosevelt, commissioned only a few weeks later. Completion of the third ship, USS Coral Sea, was not hurried and she was not completed until October 1947. In essence these ships were scaled-up Essex class with the aircraft complement increased to over 130, these being flown from a flight deck measuring 932 feet by 137 feet. Like the Essex class they carried a heavy AA armament comprising eighteen 5 inch/38 cal DP guns, all in single mountings along either beam below flight deck level. Provision was also made for eighty-four 40 mm and eighty-two 20 mm light AA guns, although this full complement was never fitted to any of the trio.

The increased size of the Midway class was not actually a result of any desire to allow the operation of more aircraft but was dictated by evaluation of the early war experience of the British armoured carriers in the Mediterranean where both Illustrious and Formidable survived several hits by 1,000 and 2,000 lb bombs (amazingly, Illustrious took a total of ten hits). This was in stark contrast to subsequent American experience in 1942 and this prompted the US Navy General Board to insist on an armoured deck for the new carriers then being planned. In the American system, the flight deck was not an integral part of the structure of the ship but was basically a platform supported above the main hull structure. This facilitated features such as open hangar sides and deck-edge lifts, but did not contribute to the strength of the ship and posed problems when the weight of a 3.5 inch armoured deck was added. By contrast, in the British armoured carriers the flight deck and enclosed hangar walls formed a rigid box girder, which contributed substantially to the strength of the whole ship. As well as protection against air attack, the Midway class was also designed to be armoured against 8 inch gunfire, which resulted in an 8 inch waterline belt, armoured bulkheads and more armour for the main and hangar decks. The total weight of armour amounted to some 4,000 additional tons and this naturally had an adverse effect on speed. In order to maintain a fleet speed of 32 knots more powerful machinery was required, which took up additional space, leading to an increase in overall dimensions. Thus the increased flight deck area and hangar space was a fortunate and useful by-product of the need to produce an armoured version of the Essex class. Deck arrangements were similar to the previous ships with two centreline lifts fore and aft, and a large deck edge lift on the port side. Unlike the Essex class this could not be folded to the vertical position as the new ships were too wide to transit the Panama Canal.

Original plans called for six Midway class carriers but one order was cancelled in November 1943 and the other two in March 1945 when it was clear that they would not be needed for wartime service. In the immediate post-war era the Midway class with their large flight decks were ideal for the trials and early deployment of the first jets. Indeed, the first landing by a US Navy jet aboard a carrier took place aboard the USS Franklin D Roosevelt on 21 July 1946 and subsequently the first US Navy jet fighter squadron (VF-17A) made an initial deployment aboard the ship in 1947.

In Britain, the Royal Navy was not able to enjoy the luxury of a large fleet of newly built carriers and for a while work on carriers under construction virtually came to a halt as soon as hostilities ended in August 1945. The six operational fleet carriers had all seen arduous war service and most were in need of a refit. A further problem was that they lacked the homogeneity of the American Essex class, being in fact made up of three distinct sub groups. The first three ships (Illustrious, Formidable and Victorious) had all been completed to the original design with an armoured flight deck and a single deck hangar capable of accommodating thirty-six aircraft. These entered service in 1940/41 and at the end of 1941 were joined by a fourth ship, HMS Indomitable. In this ship the design was recast to increase hangar capacity to forty-eight aircraft and this was done by inserting a lower hangar deck below the after section of the main hangar deck. However, whereas the main hangar in the original ships had a headroom of 16 feet, this was reduced to 14 feet in Indomitable, although the lower half hanger retained the 16-foot clearance.

The next two ships, Implacable and Indefatigable, were laid down in 1939 but not completed until 1944 (compare this with the average of around eighteen months or less to complete some of the American Essex class carriers - a clear demonstration of the strength of the US industrial base). In this case the lower hanger deck was extended to a total length of 208 feet but headroom in both hangars was only 14 feet and in practice the forward section of the lower hangar was taken over to provide additional storage and accommodation. As a result the designed aircraft complement was only slightly increased to fifty-four.

All six of these carriers were heavily armed with a total of sixteen 4.5 inch DP guns in semi-recessed twin mountings positioned in pairs at the forward and after corners of the flight deck. Secondary AA armament varied but by the end of the War most ships carried the original forty-eight 2-pdr guns in quadruple mountings backed up by around forty to sixty 20 mm guns in single or twin mountings (in many cases any twin 20 mm mountings had been replaced by single 40 mm guns in ships deployed in the Pacific). This heavy armament, together with the armoured deck and hangar, was one of the reasons why the British carriers carried significantly fewer aircraft than their American contemporaries. In fact, Royal Navy doctrine at the start of the War envisaged all aircraft being struck down into the hangar in the event the ship came under attack, defence then being left to the guns and escorting vessels. It was only slowly realised that high-performance fighters were the real answer to air attack and demand for these grew throughout the War. Eventually the Royal Navy adopted the American concept of a permanent deck park and was able to increase the numbers of aircraft carried. The first four ships could eventually embark up to fifty-four aircraft while in Indomitable and Indefatigable this rose to eighty-one by a combination of a deck park and the use of outriggers. (Outriggers were narrow tracks projecting from the edge of the flight deck in which the tailwheel could rest while the aircraft was pushed back so that it overhung the deck edge - precarious but effective!)

Despite the rise in aircraft complement the latter two ships were handicapped by their hangar headroom and could only accommodate aircraft whose wings folded alongside the fuselage (such as the Hellcat and Avenger) but not the larger Corsair, which otherwise became the standard Royal Navy fighter in the Pacific. The British Seafire could also be accommodated in the lower hangers as although its wings folded upwards, the tips then folded down to reduce height. In this respect the light fleet carriers of the Colossus class that were coming into service in 1945 were a much better bet with no less than 17.5 feet of headroom in their single hangar. While the varying hangar heights may have been inconvenient at worst in the closing stages of the War, it became much more significant in the post-war era as the size of aircraft increased. In fact, despite being the newest and least damaged of the fleet carriers, the two Implacable class had a very limited post-war career, being laid up in reserve or used as training ships. When the time came to consider the modification and modernisation of existing ships to cope with new generations of post-war aircraft, the work involved in either increasing hangar headroom or converting to a single hangar deck was just too expensive to contemplate and these fine ships were scrapped in the mid 1950s.

By 1942, at the same time that the US Navy was ordering the Midway class, the Royal Navy was also laying down the first of four planned new carriers of the Audacious class, which would benefit from wartime experience. The basic design of the Implacable class was followed but the lower hangar was extended so that it was served by both the forward and after centreline lifts (in all previous ships the lower hangar was only served by the after lift - a potential problem if this was put out of action for any reason). A 4 inch armoured deck was planned and a complement of seventy-eight aircraft would be embarked. Initially the hangar height was set at 14.5 feet but by the time orders were being placed, it was realised that this was too low to accommodate the American aircraft on which the Royal Navy was becoming dependent and so this was increased to 17.5 feet. This had several knock-on effects and the increase in hull depth by 6 feet required a substantial increase in beam to maintain stability. The increase in dimensions extended to the hangars where more aircraft could be stowed and the complement rose to 100, requiring additional stores and fuel to be stowed. Consequently the standard displacement rose from 24,000 tons for the initial design to 33,000 tons in the revised version and, in fact, when the first ship (HMS Eagle) commissioned in 1951 she displaced 36,800 tons (45,750 tons at full load).

Of the original four ships, one was cancelled before construction began and a second was cancelled in October 1945. The lead ship, Audacious, was renamed Eagle and as noted was completed in 1951. Her sister ship, Ark Royal, was not completed until 1955, by which time she had been extensively modified and incorporated several new features to enable her to operate new-generation jet aircraft, as will be described later. Had the War not ended, there were plans for three further carriers of the Malta class, which were ordered in 1943, although all were cancelled at the end of 1945 when only preliminary work on the lead ship had commenced. Whereas the Eagle and Ark Royal were really only just equivalent to the American Essex class in terms of flight deck size and aircraft capacity, the Malta class would have been more in line with the Midway class with similar flight deck dimensions (900 × 136 feet). The standard displacement at 46,900 tons was also similar but whereas the new American carriers adopted the British principle of an armoured flight deck, the Royal Navy decided to abandon this feature and instead followed previous American practice of a lightly armoured flight deck and open hangar structure. Two deck edge lifts were incorporated (a first for a British carrier at that stage) as well as two centreline lifts. The standard battery of sixteen 4.5 inch DP guns was retained and this was to be backed up by over fifty 40 mm AA guns. The stated aircraft complement was set at only eighty aircraft but this was set by hangar capacity and would have been increased by the use of deck parks.

Despite the orders placed for the Audacious and Malta classes in 1942 and 1943, only Eagle and Ark Royal were actually completed and as already related, these did not enter service until 1951 and 1955 respectively. This meant that British carrier capacity up to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1951 rested on the Illustrious/Indefatigable class fleet carriers and the ten smaller light fleet carriers of the Colossus class, which were completed between 1944 and 1946. To take the fleet carriers first, some of these saw little or no use as operational carriers before being scrapped in the 1950s. HMS Formidable was laid up in reserve in 1947 after several voyages to the Far East acting as a troopship. Although subsequently considered for modernisation, inspection revealed that she was in too poor a condition and she was scrapped in 1953. HMS Victorious was also used for training duties and as a training ship until laid up in 1950 for an extensive eight-year modernisation refit (described later).

Paradoxically, it was the oldest of the fleet carriers, HMS Illustrious, which saw the most active service in the post-war era. This was partly because in 1945 when the hostilities ended she had just commenced a major refit and the opportunity was taken to incorporate modifications that would enable her to operate some of the newer aircraft then about to enter service. The forward and after ends of the flight deck were extended and widened, additional arrester wires fitted and the deck lifts were enlarged and strengthened. Considerable efforts were made to improve crew accommodation and facilities, restoring recreational spaces that had previously been taken over for other purposes under wartime manning conditions. The light AA armament was rationalised and comprised nineteen single 40 mm and twenty single 20 mm guns. The original multiple 2-pdr mountings were retained. The radar outfit was updated and of particular interest was the installation of a Carrier Controlled Approach (CCA) radar and closed circuit television cameras to allow flight deck operations to be monitored. Both of these were firsts for a British carrier. These modifications made Illustrious the Royal Navy’s most up to date carrier and it was natural therefore that the ship would be utilised on several occasions for tests and trials with new aircraft. In 1947 for instance, the prototype Supermarine Attacker, which was to be the Royal Navy’s first fully operational jet fighter, carried out deck landing trials. A further refit in 1948 resulted in the multiple 2-pdrs being replaced by twin 40 mm guns and the radar outfit was again improved. From the aviation point of view the catapult was modified to permit the launching of heavier aircraft. Subsequently Illustrious remained in service as the Home Fleet trials and training ship until she was laid up in 1954. During that time virtually every prototype naval aircraft including the jet-powered Sea Hawk and Sea Venom, and turboprop Gannet and Wyvern flew from her decks. In addition a whole generation of naval pilots made their first deck landing aboard Illustrious.

The fourth ship of the class, HMS Indomitable, also saw some significant post-war service, although initially she was employed on trooping duties before being taken in hand for a three-year modernisation refit in 1947. In general this followed the changes already incorporated in HMS Illustrious and in 1951 she joined the Home Fleet as flagship and as a fully operational carrier with an air group comprising Sea Furies and Fireflies, with Firebrands and Sea Hornets being embarked on occasions. One significant feature was that Indomitable was the first British carrier to permanently embark a helicopter, this being a Westland-built S-51 Dragonfly, which was used for search and rescue duties. Indomitable’s operational career ended in October 1953 and she was scrapped two years later.

Despite being the newest fleet carriers, Implacable and Indefatigable were, as has already been noted, handicapped by the low headroom of their hangar decks. In fact, Indefatigable was used almost exclusively as a troop ship and then as a seaman’s training ship, the latter role involving the construction of classrooms on her flight deck, which precluded any aviation activity, and she was decommissioned in 1955. On the other hand, Implacable saw a more active post-war career. She did not actually return to the UK after the end of the War until June 1946, having provided an operational presence in the Far East with an air group of Seafires later joined by Avengers (828 Squadron, the last to operate the torpedo/bomber version of this aircraft) and Fireflies. She then recommissioned with the Home Fleet and in March 1949 she embarked 801 Squadron equipped with Sea Hornet F.Mk.20s and Firebrand TF.Mk.5s - the first operational deployment of these aircraft. Later that year she embarked four de Havilland Sea Vampire F.Mk.20s and these took part in exercises off Gibraltar, this being the first operational deployment of jet fighters by the Royal Navy, although four years had elapsed since a Vampire had made the first landing of any jet aboard an aircraft carrier in December 1945. Although in the forefront of naval aircraft development, Implacable was also involved in something of retrograde step when in 1950 she embarked 815 Squadron equipped with Fairey Barracudas modified for anti-submarine use. This came about due to a chronic shortage of ASW aircraft pending the introduction of the turboprop Gannet, although this would not occur until 1955. Implacable was paid off into reserve in September 1950 and subsequently recommissioned in 1951 as a seaman’s training ship and although in this the capability to operate aircraft was retained she was never again used as an operational carrier. She was paid off in August 1954 and was scrapped in the following year.

In this way the wartime fleet carriers rapidly faded from the scene and, with the exception of Victorious (whose further career is described in Chapter 5), they had all been laid up or scrapped within the decade covered by this book. As will be seen, this is in stark contrast with the American Essex class, which were constantly updated and remained in service well into the 1970s. There were a number of reasons for this, including the state of the ships after arduous wartime service and the limitations imposed in some cases by the low hangar headroom. In one respect, however, all six ships were well able to accept new and heavier aircraft as their armoured decks were tremendously strong and well able to accept the increased loads. Nevertheless, the overriding constraint was financial and the plain fact was that post-war Britain was in no condition to fund major refits as well as build new carriers and produce the numbers of aircraft required to equip them. Consequently, some hard decisions had to be made and the policy of investing in the new ships was adopted at the expense of modernising some of the existing ships.

While the Royal Navy struggled to maintain a nucleus of large fleet carriers, it was able to maintain an effective overseas deployment of naval air power by the use of the Colossus class light fleet carriers. Ten of these were completed and although two were modified as aircraft repair ships and could not operate aircraft, the remaining eight rendered sterling service and several were transferred to foreign navies where they remained in service for several decades. In particular the Royal Navy maintained at least one light fleet carrier in the Far East throughout the Korean War. Those involved were HMS Triumph, HMS Theseus, HMS Glory and HMS Ocean, all of these operating air groups consisting of Sea Furies and Fireflies except for Triumph, which was the first carrier off Korea and at that time was equipped with Seafire 47s and Firefly FR.1s. In Royal Navy service these light fleet carriers were little modified for normal service, a tribute to the soundness of the basic design. However, at one time or another some were involved in some interesting experiences. HMS Vengeance made a cruise to Arctic waters in early 1949 to carry out trials of aircraft operation in extreme cold weather conditions. Aircraft embarked for a six-week period included a Sea Vampire jet fighter and a Dragonfly helicopter. Also in 1949 HMS Warrior was modified to conduct trials of the bizarre rubber deck experiment and in 1951 HMS Triumph was the first carrier to conduct trials of the angled deck concept. Both of these events are described in detail in Chapter 5.

The Colossus class displaced 15,690 tons (standard) and the normal aircraft complement was thirty-five, although this could be increased to forty-five under war conditions. The flight deck measured 695 feet by 80 feet, only some 60 feet shorter than the Illustrious class (740 to 760 feet) but 15 to 20 feet narrower, which did put a wingspan limitation on the type of aircraft that could be operated. This wasn’t significant in respect of standard post-war types such as the Seafire, Sea Fury and Firefly but precluded larger aircraft such as the Firebrand and Sea Hornet. In an effort to speed production, the design of these ships was based on mercantile principles and propulsion was provided by two sets of standard destroyer machinery to give a speed of 25 knots, slower than the fleet carriers but sufficient for most operational purposes. As already mentioned several found their way into service with other navies. The first to go was Colossus herself, which was transferred to France in 1946 and renamed Arromanches. In 1948 HMS Venerable was transferred to the Royal Netherlands Navy as HMNS Karel Doorman, later being resold to Argentina in 1958 where as the 25 de Mayo she posed a threat to British forces during the 1982 Falklands War, although no operational missions were flown due to catapult problems. HMS Warrior was loaned to the RCN from 1946 to 1948 and after further Royal Navy service was sold to Argentina in 1958. Finally, HMS Vengeance was sold to Brazil in 1957 and remained in service for several decades.

In addition to the ten Colossus class, a further six Majestic class were laid down in late 1943 and these were basically a repeat of the basic design except that the flight deck was strengthened and larger lifts (54 feet by 34 feet) were fitted to permit the operation of larger and heavier aircraft. Although all were launched in 1944/5, none had been completed by the end of the War and they were laid up while decisions were made as to their future. In fact, none were destined to serve with the Royal Navy. HMS Magnificent was completed in 1948 and transferred on loan to the RCN until 1957, after which she was laid up and scrapped. She had been completed to the original design with an axial flight deck. Her sister ship, HMS Powerful, was sold to Canada but was completed to a substantially revised design with an angled deck to enable jet operations before being delivered in 1952 as HMCS Bonaventure. A similar arrangement occurred with the Royal Australian Navy, which took over HMS Terrible as HMAS Sydney in 1948, completed with a conventional axial flight deck. She subsequently saw service in the Korean War and was not finally retired until 1973. The RAN also took delivery of HMS Majestic, renamed as HMAS Melbourne in 1955, in this case completed to a totally revised design incorporating an angled deck and other equipment to allow the operation of Sea Venom jet fighters and Gannet ASW aircraft. The last of the class to be completed was HMS Hercules, which was sold to India in 1957 and commissioned as INS Vikrant in 1961, by which time she also had an angled deck, steam catapult and mirror landing sight. The sixth ship of the Majestic class, HMS Leviathan, was never completed and was eventually scrapped in 1968, although her boilers and turbines were sold to the Netherlands for use in a refit of the Karel Doorman.

One of the reasons why the Majestic class carriers were not completed for the Royal Navy was that, apart from the fact that the existing Colossus class were deemed sufficient for the immediate post-war era needs, the service also had four Hermes class light fleet carriers under construction. With a standard displacement of over 20,000 tons and a flight deck measuring 733 feet by 103 feet, these ships were originally designed to carry fifty aircraft and were a substantial improvement on the Colossus and Majestic classes. Originally, eight ships were projected but in the event only four were completed and the first of these, HMS Centaur, did not commission until 1953. Consequently these ships are described in more detail in Chapter 5.

While the Royal Navy effectively lived from hand to mouth in the early post-war years and delayed the completion of newer carriers, the US Navy was in a much more fortunate position. Its numerous Essex class carriers were already in commission and the three Midway class ships were all completed and retained in service in the late 1940s. Of the twenty-four Essex class, most were already in service in September 1945 and the final six built to the standard design were all completed by the end of 1946. One more ship, the USS Oriskany, was launched in October 1945 but her completion was delayed to incorporate numerous modifications and differed in several aspects from her sister ships when she entered service in 1950. Nevertheless, even the US Navy did not require all of these in peacetime commission and only four of the newer ships were retained on active service (Boxer, Leyte, Valley Forge and Philippine Sea), the remainder being laid up in reserve. Although superficially similar in appearance, the standard Essex class carriers were in fact built as two separate sub groups, the first ten ships being completed to the original design with an almost straight stem and a single quadruple 40 mm gun on the bows below the flight deck overhang. The remaining thirteen had a lengthened bow and two quadruple 40 mm mountings were carried side by side, giving an easy recognition point. Interestingly, the Essex class originally perpetuated the US Navy practice of equipping carriers with arrester wires on the forward flight deck so that aircraft could be landed while the ship went astern. The first five ships were also fitted with a hangar deck catapult capable of launching an aircraft on the beam. Both of these features were deleted during the course of the War and an additional deck catapult was installed in the bows. The Essex class carriers were then normally equipped with two H4 catapults, which were capable of launching all the various wartime aircraft types but struggled to cope with some of the larger types embarked after 1945.

Inevitably these ships were modernised over the years but in the case of the Essex class the process was complex and varied. Initially there were ambitious plans to convert them to operate pilotless aircraft and guided missiles but by the end of 1946 the emphasis was on carrying an air group of heavy attack aircraft and jet fighters. This reflected the US Navy’s perceived role of supporting operations against land targets as there no longer existed any potential naval power that would provide any credible sea-based opposition (except for submarine attack and ASW was taken very seriously, although this resulted in differing lines of development described in Chapter 9). The project to convert the Essex class carriers to the new role was termed SCB-27A (the acronym SCB deriving from Ships Characteristic Board) and incorporated some drastic changes. These included eliminating the island superstructure to provide a flush flight deck and the full load displacement would have risen to in excess of 40,000 tons. However, even the US Navy with all its resources could not afford such an ambitious project and the whole thing was scaled down to the minimum necessary to operate prospective jet fighters and the heaviest attack aircraft without major structural alterations.

The conversion programme commenced in 1948 and over the next five years eight ships were modified to SCB-27A standard. The immediate objective of this programme was to equip the ships to operate aircraft up to 18 tons (approximately 40,000 lb), this being sufficient to deal with new heavy piston-engined types such as the Skyraider, Mauler and Guardian, and with the early generations of jet fighters, few of which exceeded 25,000 lb. The most obvious change was the installation of new H8 catapults capable of launching such aircraft and these were considerably longer than the H4s that they replaced. These were still conventional hydraulic catapults in which pressure drove a piston through a bore, its motion being magnified by a system of cables and pulleys to increase the actual throw of the catapult. In the H8 this system reached its practical limit and further improvements to cope with the new heavy attack aircraft would require a completely new approach. To cope with larger and heavier aircraft the SCB-27A ships had strengthened flight decks and larger lifts of greater capacity. The deck edge lift could now accommodate aircraft up 30,000 lb and the flight deck lifts were rated at 40,000 lb, while the flight deck could cope with parking and take-offs by aircraft of this weight, but could only accept aircraft up 30,000 lb landing weight. Not so obvious were a number of important improvements to enable the operation of jet aircraft whose arrival was having a considerable impact on the ships themselves. For example, jet aircraft used considerably more fuel than the piston-engined types they replaced. The F2H Banshee entering service in 1949 carried over 16,000 lb of fuel compared with a typical 2,400 lb uplift by an F6F Hellcat. The Essex class carriers were originally designed to carry 209,000 US gallons of aviation fuel and even the later Midway class only carried 330,000 US gallons when first commissioned. In the SCB-27A modernisation this capacity was increased by approximately 30 per cent, a process partly made easier by the fact that the standard kerosene-based jet fuels were much less volatile than the gasoline used in piston engines.

Another feature required for jet operations was the fitting of retractable blast screens behind the catapult launch points to protect other aircraft ranged on deck. Here, the coming of jet aircraft again had a major impact on deck operations. In the case of a deck load of wartime piston-engined fighters and strike aircraft, the favoured method of launch was to carry out free rolling take-offs along the deck. In some cases the first few aircraft of a strike force would be catapulted off until enough of the deck was available for the remainder to carry out rolling take-offs. Jet aircraft, however, required much longer take-off runs and consequently fewer aircraft could be ranged. In fact, later versions of the Banshee and Panther could not take off in the length of deck available, even with a strong wind over the deck. In these circumstances a catapult launch was essential and deck-operating routines had to be adapted to reflect this.

Landing aircraft also required changes. The arrester gear needed be considerably uprated to deal with heavier aircraft landing at higher speeds and even then a longer roll out was required to absorb the energy of the landing. This further reduced the forward area available for a deck park. The SCB-27A ships had thirteen arrester wires instead of the original eleven and had to be fitted with several types of barriers to catch aircraft that did not engage the wires. Traditionally this took the form of steel cables stretched across the deck amidships whose function was to stop landing aircraft running into the forward deck park. In piston-engined aircraft this was an acceptable method as the pilot sat well back, protected usually by a large radial engine and propeller. Although the aircraft was quite often seriously damaged, the pilot usually survived and damage to other aircraft was prevented. However, it was soon realised that such barriers were not suitable for jet operations, the taut steel wires being potentially lethal to the pilots who now sat well forward in the nose of the aircraft with little to protect them. Eventually a new type of barrier utilising a series of vertical nylon webbing straps suspended from a cable strung high across the deck was introduced (this was a British design that had been introduced aboard HMS Eagle when she commissioned). With this type of barrier the nose of an overrunning aircraft would pass below the cable and through the loosely hung nylon straps, which would then catch the wings and bring the aircraft to a halt. This not only offered better protection to the pilot but generally resulted in less damage to the aircraft.

Another aviation-related factor that impinged on the ships was the greater weight and variety of ordnance that the newer aircraft could carry. In World War II a load of two 1,000 lb bombs was as much as many aircraft could carry, even dedicated attack aircraft such as the Avenger and Helldiver. The post-war generation of aircraft such as the Skyraider and Mauler could carry up to 8,000 lb and weapons available included not only conventional bombs but rocket projectiles of varying sizes (including the 11.75 inch Tiny Tim) and later came air-to-air and air-to-surface guided missiles. All these required safe stowage in magazines below deck, and lifts and hoists to bring them up to deck level. A whole host of specialised handling equipment was then needed to move the ordnance around the flight deck and lift it into position for arming the aircraft.

Wartime experience showed the need for adequate aircrew rest and briefing facilities and these required easy access to the flight deck, a passage made harder by the increasing accoutrements collected by crews, including g-suits, parachutes, ‘bone domes’ and other specialised flying equipment. In the Essex SCB-27A modernisation these issues were addressed and a moving escalator installed to enable to crews to quickly reach the flight deck with ease. Other changes included a complete restructuring of the island superstructure with the single funnel now faired in behind the bridge and a taller mast stepped to allow optimum installation of a new suite of radars including SPS-6 search, SPS-8 height finder and a CCA radar. All these changes inevitably had a weight penalty, which affected the performance and stability of the ship. To counteract this, beam was increased, waterline armour was removed and all the deck-mounted twin 5 inch gun mounts were removed, although some were replaced by additional single open mounts below the edge of the flight deck, while all the 40 mm and 20 mm guns were removed and replaced by a battery of radar-directed 3 inch/50 cal guns. The final armament was eight 5 inch/38 cal guns and twenty-eight 3 inch/50 cal in twin mountings.

The SCB-27A modifications were extended to eight ships in all (Essex, Yorktown, Hornet, Randolph, Wasp, Bennington, Kearsarge and Lake Champlain). In addition, work on the twenty-fourth and last of the class, USS Oriskany, was delayed so that she could be completed to SCB-27A standard.

During the period under review in this chapter the three Midway class carriers entered service and initially few modifications were required as due to their size there were initially few problems encountered in handling the first generations of naval jet aircraft. All three had their flight decks strengthened in 1947-8 in order to operate the new AJ-1 Savage nuclear bomber. Although Midway and Franklin D Roosevelt were completed in 1945 with the designed main armament of eighteen single 5 inch/54 cal guns, the Coral Sea did not commission until 1947 and carried only fourteen 5 inch guns and no 40 mm light AA weapons. However, in 1948 the armament of all three was standardised as fourteen single 5 inch/54 cal and twenty twin 3 inch/50 cal mountings with any existing 40 mm and 20 mm guns being removed. More extensive changes were made in the 1950s and these are described in Chapter 5.

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