The untold story of the Royal Navy's struggle to invent carrier warfare

 

Great Britain was breaking new ground with the first fleet to actively deploy carrier air power at 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.

 
 

 

UPDATE MAY 1: Matapan to Tiger - HMS Formidable's 1941 fight

 

BLOG, INFORMATION & UPDATES

 

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

 
 
 
 
 

Doctrine determined

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?

Striker or Survivor?
 

 

illustrious Class

Born in an era of uncertainty, treaty and constant change, the armoured carrier was as radical as it was controversial.

Armoured Carrier Design
Specifications | Staff Requirements

INDOMITABLE

Aircraft and radar technology was developing fast. Suddenly, aircraft numbers seemed relevant again.

Armoured Carrier Development
Hart Inquiry - On Radar

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Implacable class

Delays due to war shortages enabled the design to be revisited. But, with refinements came new restrictions.

Armoured Carrier Dilemma

HMS UNICORN

The concept, design and deployment of this fleet support carrier represents a 'missing link' in the understanding of RN doctrine.

HMS Unicorn - The Missing Link

Audacious Class

More and bigger aircraft. Better protection. Greater endurance. Putting it all together was an audacious proposal.

The Ultimate Armoured Carrier

Taiho

Did the concept of armoured carriers apply to the Pacific Theatre? Japan certainly thought so, fielding their own in 1944.

IJN Taiho - Japan's armoured carrier

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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.
 

 
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BATTLE OF TARANTO

In just one night, HMS Illustrious changed the balance of the war and cemented the aircraft carrier at the core of the battlefleet.

The Battle
Captain's Report | Admiral's Report

OPERATION EXCESS

Operating alone and with minimal escort, HMS Illustrious survived the worst bomb damage of the war.

The Battle | The Illustrious Blitz
 Gunnery Report | Captain's Report

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FORMIDABLE PRESENCE

Five months of intensive operations, including a fleet action, pushed HMS Formidable and her aircraft beyond the limit.

Overview

OPERATION MAQ3

The success of a carrier cannot be separated from that of its aircraft. Such was the case with HMS Formidable in May 1941.

The Battle
Captain's Report

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OPERATION PEDESTAL

Three fleet carriers versus Italy and Germany's land based might. HMS Indomitable would bear its brunt.

The Battle
Admiral's Report

OPERATION HUSKY

Operating close to Sicily in support of invasion forces, HMS Indomitable found herself again in Axis sights.

Battle & Damage
*Damage Report

 
 
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Damage Detailed

 

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.

 

 

ILLUSTRIOUS BOMBED

HMS Illustrious' deck armour was defeated: but it took a 1000kg (2200lb) bomb to do the deed.

Damage Overview
Official Damage Report | Captain's Report

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FORMIDABLE BOMBED

HMS Formidable took two blows from 1000kg (2200lbs) bombs, but remained an operational carrier.

Damage Overview
Official Damage Report | Captain's Report

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INDOMITABLE BOMBED

At the height of the battle to get the Pedestal convoy through to Malta, Stukas delivered a triple-blow to HMS Indomitable.

Damage Overview
Official Damage Report 

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INDOMITABLE TORPEDOED

Quick counter-flooding, on the captain's initiative, saved HMS Indomitable from the same fate as Ark Royal.

* Official Damage Report

 
 
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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.
 

 
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Britain's 'Midway'

In the dark days of 1942, Britain and Japan came within 100 miles of changing the course of history.

The Battle for Ceylon
Admiral's Report of Proceedings

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OPERATION IRONCLAD

Securing the strategically vital Vichy French island of Madagascar would be the Royal Navy's first multi-carrier strike mission.

The Battle *

'USS ROBIN'

The ship that never was: HMS Victorious was to be 'loaned' to the United States Pacific Fleet in 1943 to plug a carrier gap.

HMS Victorious' USN Deployment
Captain's Report | USN Liaison Report

When 'Lusty' met 'Sara'

HMS Illustrious, with a fresh purpose and new aircraft, was to be 'schooled' in Pacific warfare by USS Saratoga.

Operations Diplomat, Cockpit and Transom
Liaison Officer's Report  |  Commander Clifton, USN

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'CLUB RUNS'

A series of 'working-up' missions in the Indian Ocean would expose the RN's lack of experience in strike carrier operations.

Operations Councillor to Lentil

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THE FAA's FINEST HOUR

The freshly formed British Pacific Fleet had to prove its worthiness. Japan's remaining oil refineries were an ideal test.

Operations Meridian I & II
Air Commander's Report  |  Admiral's Report

 
 
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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.

Political Battle Overview

ICEBERG I

The wait was over. The British Pacific Fleet would now face its first test in the Pacific - including the dreaded kamikaze.

Battle Overview

ICEBERG OOLONG

The US fleet at Okinawa was being hammered. So Admiral Spruance sent his 'ready reserve' on a desperate diversion.

Battle Overview

ICEBERG Redux

Stretched to the limit by its first experience in Pacific warfare, the British Pacific Fleet volunteered for an extra round

Battle Overview

Leyte Layover

It had taken a mad scramble to assemble a functional Fleet Train. Now it worked frantically to reprovision and repair the carriers.

Overview

ICEBERG II

The final stint off Sakishima Gunto would present Task Force 58 with its most intense kamikaze attack yet.

Battle Overview

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READYING & REPAIR

With the lessons of ICEBERG learnt, the British Pacific Fleet raced to prepare itself for the final act of World War II.

Overview *

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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.
 

 

HMS Formidable: May 4

HMS Formidable would suffer the most severe kamikaze strike made against an armoured carrier days after joining TF 57. 

Battle & Damage   |  Captain's Report

HMS Indomitable

The Flagship of the British Pacific Fleet carrier squadron was hit by glancing blows twice, once on April 1st and again on May 4 

Battle & Damage  |  Captain's Report

HMS Formidable: May 9

Five days after her first blow, Formidable would receive a second direct hit on her armoured deck from a suicide bomber.

Battle & Damage  |  Captain's Report

HMS Indefatigable

On April 1, sweepers 'manned their brooms' after a kamikaze attack and Indefatigable was back in action within 37 minutes.

Battle & Damage   |  Captain's Report

HMS Victorious

HMS Victorious' violent manoeuvers under Captain Denny turned two kamikaze death-dives into glancing blows.

Battle & Damage   |  Captain's Report

HMS Illustrious

This tired old veteran of the worst the war could throw at a ship suffered a kamikaze near-miss which re-opened old wounds.

Battle & Damage |  Captain's Report

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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.

 

 
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Fairey Fulmar

It was a stop-gap emergency program that produced results: The Fulmar entered service at exactly the right time to stem the tide.

Development  |  Variants  |  Service

GRUMMAN MARTLET

Against the odds, Grumman's tubble little 'cat' clawed its way back from obscurity to 'hold the line' and set new standards

Development | Variants

HAWKER SEA HURRICANE

The RAF considered them obsolete cast-offs. But the FAA proved Hawker's stoic defender still had some fight left.

Development | Variants

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Supermarine Seafire

Those who flew it, loved it. Those who didn't, loathed it. The Supermarine Seafire was as controversial as it was lethal.

Development  |  Variants  |  Service
Seafires 'drop in' on USS Essex

 

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?