David Anderson: Rebuttal to a comment in The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White


By David Anderson 

   My first reaction to Mr. Hutchinson’s text was, “Why bring this up now?  You haven’t written about this before, but you choose to make an issue of it at this point!”

   Yes, British carriers had armored (armoured) flight decks.  The American (and American-built) carriers had a thin metal deck that supported the wooden flight deck.  But this is only one side of the controversy.

   The U. S. Navy’s point of view was that their aircraft carriers had more airplanes, which could be refueled more times, before having to meet the service force.  Consequently, the USN carrier could stay on station for a longer time, fly more sorties, and do more damage to the enemy before having to replenish aviation fuel, ship’s fuel, aircraft, pilots, and food.     

   The Illustrious-class of the British and the Yorktown-class of the United States were roughly similar in displacement and, I feel, should be the standard one uses to discover how successful a particular class of aircraft carrier was. Using the displacement figures from David Brown’s Aircraft Carriers, Arco Publications Company, New York: 1977, one has a base to judge these ships. According to Mr. Brown, Illustrious had a standard displacement of 23,000 tons, and a full load displacement of 29,100 tons.  A Yorktown-class carrier displaced 19,800 tons standard, and 27,500 at full load. HMS Indomitable, a modified Illustrious-class carrier, displaced 23,000 standard, and 29,730 full load.   The Implacable-class was a further refinement on the Illustrious, and displaced 23,450 standard, and 32,110 at full load.  An Essex-class carrier had a standard displacement of 27,100 tons, and 34,200 tons at full load. (Displacements are from page 44 for Illustrious, page 46 Indomitable, page 49 for the Implacables, page 57 for the Yorktowns, and 61 for the Essexes, in Brown, Aircraft Carriers.)     

   Both the U.S. and British built their pre-war fleet carriers according to treaties.  When the Essex-class was designed, the U.S. decided to not be constrained by any treaty in their carriers.  Essentially, the Illustrious-class (and its follow-ons), should be viewed as a trade-off and compromise with certain design characteristics.  (An alternate analogy is that one is critiquing what foods two shoppers bought at the grocery stores with a certain amount of money.) The armored flight decks resulted in lower freeboard.  The U.S. carriers had more aircraft.  Aircraft (fighters especially), are a carrier’s best defense.

   There is also the matter of fuel – both the ship’s fuel and the fuel for aircraft – which the ship carries on board.  Because the British did not envision a trans-Pacific war, their carriers did not carry as much fuel, either aviation fuel or main propulsion fuel.  I think the British, when the carriers were in the planning stage, thought they could rely on their harbors around the world to refuel and reprovision their ships.  Gibraltar, Alexandria, Singapore and Hong Kong were some of the places they were expecting to use as dockyards, where the fleet could get more food, oil and other stores.  Using the latter two ports was out of the question by the spring of 1942.

   The Illustrious-class had about 2/3 of the fuel of the Enterprise, and about 3/4 of the fuel of an Essex-class carrier.  The Illustrious-class ships carried 1/3 the aviation fuel of Enterprise, and a little more than 1/4 of an Essex-class carrier’s aviation fuel. (The Illustrious-class to Essex-class aviation gas comparison is 26.20% - from Brown’s Aircraft Carriers, using the figures on fuel and aviation fuel for the Yorktown-class [page 57], Essex-class [page 67] and the Illustrious-class [page 44].)

  Due to the restrictions of the treaties, aircraft carrier designs were a series of trade-offs.   The Essex-class carriers were built with no treaty limitation in mind.  Originally, the Essex-class was thought of as an expanded and improved Yorktown-class design.   

   By April 1945 when the British began to work with the U.S. Navy, the typical U.S. Navy fleet carrier had about 72 fighter aircraft, about 15 dive bombers and about and 15 torpedo bombers.  A light carrier had 24 fighters, and 8 torpedo bombers.  In comparison, H.M.S Victorious carried 34 Corsairs, 21 Avengers, and 2 Air-Sea Rescue Walrus amphibians.  H.M.S. Indefatigable carried 40 Seafires, 12 Fireflies, and 20 Avengers.     

   There is a stereotype saying about the British armored deck carriers that served in the Pacific with Task Forces 57 and 37.  The standard idea, and one fostered by books written by British authors, is that the armored flight deck carriers  were the better idea. “If a Royal Navy carrier was hit by Kamikazes, they were relatively undamaged,” the conventional wisdom says.  As the Indefatibable’s U.S. Navy liaison officer said after the 1 April 1945 attack, “When a Kamikaze hits a U.S. carrier, it’s six months repair at Pearl.  In a limey carrier, it’s a case of ‘Sweepers, man your brooms!’” (Quoted in The Forgotten Fleet, by John Winton, page 149.)

   This glib statement obscures the truth of damage to the British carriers from Kamikazes and bomb hits.  Not only was the damage worse than advertised, the decreased number of aircraft on board was a serious problem beyond any structural damage from suicide aircraft or their bombs.

   Five British carriers were hit a total of eight times by Kamikazes.  Glancing blows hit the Illustrious and Victorious, and one aircraft even bounced off the deck of Indomitable!  But the Kamikazes also did significant damage to British carriers: Indefatigable on 1 April, Formidable on 4 and 9 May, and Victorious was hit twice on 9 May.

   On 1 April a bomb-carrying Kamikaze hit Indefatigable near the junction of the flight deck and island.  The deck was only dented three inches (also the depth of the armor plating).  Both barriers on the flight deck, the sick bay, and a briefing room were destroyed.  Afterward, there was a hole at the base of the island approximately five to six feet tall by five to six feet wide.  Fourteen were killed, sixteen were wounded.  Less than an hour later Indefatigable was landing aircraft. (In Sakishima and Back, by Stuart Eadon, [Crecy Books Ltd., Bristol, U.K.:1995], there are two photographs on page 176, showing the damage to Indomitable.  I have used an educated guess as to the size of the blast hole in the carrier’s island, estimating the dimensions based upon the height of crewmen at work.)

   On 4 May, a Kamikaze hit left Formidable’s flight deck with a two-foot square hole, an indentation two feet deep at the center, and ten feet long.  A splinter of the flight deck broke away, drove through the overhead of a boiler room, and penetrated the inner bottom.  The boiler had to be shut down, which  limited Formidable’s speed to eighteen knots.  One Corsair and ten Avengers were destroyed.  Eight men were killed, and forty seven were wounded; thirteen of the wounded were seriously burned.

   On 9 May Formidable was hit by a bomb which destroyed six Corsairs and an Avenger, and “blew out a rivet in the flight deck plating.”  This allowed burning fuel to drain into the hangar, which set aircraft on fire.  Fortunately, the sprinkler system put out the fire, but four Avengers and eight Corsairs were destroyed. (The quote is from John Winton’s The Forgotten Fleet, page 149.)

   Formidable had fewer casualties on 9 May; just one man was killed with several being wounded.  Just four Avengers and eleven Corsairs were operable after the attack.

   Victorious was also hit twice on 9 May by Kamikazes.  The first aircraft dropped a bomb which put a hole in the flight deck.  The bomb, the aircraft (or possibly both), damaged the forward elevator.  After the attack, the elevator, one 4.5-inch antiaircraft gun, and the catapult were out of action. 

   A few minutes later, another Kamikaze hit the after flight deck on Victorious, before going over the side.  Four Corsairs were destroyed by the fire, as was an anti-aircraft director, and one arrestor cable was damaged.  Three men died, and nineteen were wounded

   Formidable extinguished her fires on 4 May within two hours, and about 1700 (around two hours forty minutes later), she was able to land planes.  On 9 May, Formidable was able to land aircraft less than an hour after the attack. After repairs, Victorious was able to “operate a few aircraft at a time.”  In the next few days, temporary repairs allowed Victorious to continue with Task Force 57 until the end of the campaign on 25 May.  On 5 June, Victorious arrived at Sydney, Australia where she was in the dockyard for three weeks, leaving at the end of June. 

   The damage to the flight decks of Indefatigable, Formidable (two attacks) and Victorious was serious enough to require repairs in a yard.  The same sort of impact would have damaged a U.S. carrier more severely.  But on the other hand, the U.S. ships were more capable of a quick underway repair to the flight deck.  Their flight decks, being made from thin metal and wood could be more quickly fixed. 

   Another important aspect of Kamikaze damage was the number of aircraft damaged beyond repair.  Formidable carried 36 fighters and 18 torpedo bombers but lost 14 Corsairs and 5 Avengers due to damage from one attack. About 38% of the ship’s fighters and 27% of the ship’s torpedo bombers were gone as a result of one enemy strike.

   A further problem for the British was that any replacement aircraft had to come from their own pool of spares, and it was difficult to replace any losses right away.  The British Pacific Fleet used six different types of aircraft, five of which were strike types.  They had two fighters, the Seafire and the Firefly, both built in the U.K.  But their “bread and butter” came from the U.S. aircraft factories – Corsairs, Avengers and a few Hellcats.  These last three aircraft types formed the majority of Britain’s Pacific Fleet - Almost seventy per cent of the six British carrier aircraft were U.S.-built.  One or two carriers also had two Walrus amphibians as rescue airplanes, as noted above.

   The U.S. and British fleets had vastly different abilities to replace aircraft and parts in 1945.  U.S. carriers had an entire task force with escort carriers that supplied replacement planes and pilots; deficiencies were usually made up quickly.  The service force of the Pacific Fleet had been re-supplying its ships at sea since the beginning of the war, but beginning in February 1944 the service force had expanded so that it became a second arm of the fast carriers.  Because of the service force, the carrier task force did not have to return to Pearl Harbor for supplies.  In addition, the U.S. captured three atolls in the central Pacific that became forward bases. The carrier task force and service force sortied from Majuro, Eniwetok, and Ulithi against the Japanese. 

   The U.S. Navy had been perfecting carrier warfare since 1942.  The British were assigned a formidable task.  The Royal Navy had to start in March of 1945, and to be equal with the U.S.N. almost at once.  The Battle of theAtlantic had sunk many British merchant ships.  Because of this, the British had to draw upon their limited supply of Royal Navy, Commonwealth, and civilian ships to supply their task force with the essentials of “beans, bullets and black oil.”  A Royal Navy sailor found out the Pacific is a huge ocean, with vast distances from the forward base to the refueling area, and even farther to Okinawa and the Japanese coast.     

  The British carriers carried less fuel oil and less aviation fuel than their USN counterparts.  This led to fewer missions per aircraft, and a British carrier could not stay in the front as long, because their ships did not have the fuel and ordnance as American ships.  I think these disadvantages tend to balance out the lack of an armored deck on U.S.N. carriers.

   Refueling at sea for the British was a slow, drawn-out process.  They were not accustomed to passing hoses from one ship to another, side-by-side.  The British ships normally refueled using the astern method, where a hose was passed from a tanker to the next ship, behind the tanker.  This took longer, and there were many broken hoses. 

   Lastly, there is one key fact that I have not brought up until now – the habitability factor.  The British carriers, with their armored decks, tended to collect the heat of the Pacific sun.  This made for very uncomfortable living conditions aboard their carriers.  The hangar deck was enclosed in an armored box, and no part of the hangar was a part of the skin of the ship.  In a U.S. carrier, hangars were placed atop the main deck of the ship, and had large roller curtains that let in fresh air.  Few British ships had much, if any, air conditioning – which only made those spaces even hotter.   The ready rooms and combat information centers of the US Navy were air-conditioned.  The British carriers had been designed for the colder climate of northern Europe, and almost no thought had been given to living in the tropics for a prolonged time.  Additionally, the British ships were carrying more officers and men than they had been designed to hold.  Some men had to string up their hammocks wherever there was room – not in a designated berthing compartment.   This is not to say that the U.S. Navy’s carriers were floating palaces.  They also carried more officers and men than originally designed.  By the standards of the 21st Century, conditions were cramped.  But when one compares these ships to the Royal Navy, one sees that “life was easier on an American CV.”

   I believe the evidence of Kamikaze damage I cited above shows the Royal Navy’s Pacific Fleet was not merely inconvenienced by Kamikaze damage.  Indeed, three of the six British fleet carriers had to be repaired in a yard.  A fourth carrier, Illustrious, was near-missed by a Kamikaze and its bomb that exploded close aboard. In early 1945, due to central shaft leaking and propeller vibration, Illustrious had her center propeller removed. (Warship Profile 10 HMS Illustrious Technical History 1971, by Jeffery Lyon RNR, page 235)  Because of damage from January 1941 and wartime service in general, Illustrious was sent to England. On the way to England, she docked in Leyte, and divers found that plating in Illustrious’ side had been split, and “transverse frames were cracked on both sides of the ship.” (Warship Profile HMS Illustrious Operational History, 1971, by David Brown, page 261.)

   The differences in carrier construction can be attributed to a slightly different idea of how a carrier would be used and supplied, and basing that product upon the limitations imposed by the treaties that existed in the 1930’s.  To raise the subject of “American carriers were more vulnerable to Kamikaze attack” than the British, demands an explanation.  Mr. Hutchinson’s statement is an out of context condemnation that begs for a rebuttal, which I believe this provides. 

  There were three ships in the Illustrious class – Illustrious, Victorious, and Formidable.  These aircraft carriers were designed to improve on other pre-war carriers, with the Ark Royal being the latest - a one-ship design built just before the war began.  The Illustrious-class had a three-inch thick armored flight deck, with two elevators.  The hangar was an armored box enclosed within the hull.  Since the treaty put a practical limit on the overall tonnage, these ships were rather like the U.S. Yorktown-class (also of three ships – Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet).  While in construction, Indomitable was altered to have an extra hangar.  David Brown wrote of the hangar as an extra “half hangar;” mathematically the size of the second hangar was a space that was 36.6% of the length of an Illustrious-class hangar. (Hangar dimensions from Aircraft Carriers, comparing Illustrious’ hangar on page 44 to Indomitable’s hangar on page 46.) “Indom” has always appeared to me to have a slightly “pumped up” appearance, as if an Illustrious carrier had been allowed to lift weights while building in the dockyard.

   Indefatigable and Implacable were the later two British fleet carriers.  Externally, they were quite similar to the Illustrious.  Internally, some of the differences were that “Indefat” and “Implac” had two full hangars and four shafts where the Illustrious-class and “Indom” had three shafts.  
Regards, David Anderson