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Four of a Kind: The Illustrious Class Aircraft Carriers

HMS Illustrious in 1944

In the mid-1930s the Royal Navy recognized the need to develop and built new Fleet Carriers. The Illustrious Class of four ships was ordered as part of the 1936 Naval Program.  The four ships of the class HMS Illustrious, HMS Formidable, HMS Victorious and HMS Indomitable were some of the most important ships to see service in the Royal Navy in the Second World War and would see action in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific.  They were tough ships and all sustained serious damage at least once in their careers that might have sunk other ships.  Different in concept than the Royal Navy’s only modern carrier the Ark Royal they displaced more than the U.S. Navy Yorktown Class and just somewhat less than the following Essex Class ships although they were over 100 feet shorter in length as compared to the American ships.

The class was built with an armored flight deck which covered the hangar deck with both as an integral part of the ship’s structure and defense.  The American ships hanger and flight deck were part of the superstructure with the armored deck being that of the hangar deck itself.  This provided advantages in protection against bombs and later Kamikazes but there was a trade off in both aircraft capacity and the ability for the ships to handle the larger aircraft that came into service following the Second World War.  As designed the ships carried just 36 aircraft as compared with the 80-100 aircraft of the American ships and the 72 that the Ark Royal was rated at.  Later in the war the Royal Navy adopted the American practice of an air park on the flight deck which increased their capacity to up to 70 aircraft. The last ship of the class, the Indomitable was built to a modified deign with an expanded two deck hangar with increased aircraft capacity similar to that of the Ark Royal.  An additional drawback to the design was that any bomb which penetrated the armored flight deck exploded inside the hangar causing deformation to the actual ship’s structure.

British defensive doctrine for these carriers was focused on the passive protection provided by the armored flight deck and by a far heavier anti-aircraft battery than the Yorktown Class and comparable to the Essex Class. This was a different doctrine than that of the Americans and the Imperial Japanese Navy which embarked large air groups believing that the aircraft were integral to the defense of the ship.

The ships displaced 28,919 tons full load and were capable of steaming at 30.5 knots with an operational range of 11,000 nautical miles at 14 knots, far more than any previous Royal Navy carrier but far less than the Essex class which could steam 20,000 nautical miles at 15 knots. The Essex Class ships were had a greater displacement as well as a higher top speed of 33 knots.  The Illustrious class was best suited for operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and less suited to the vast expanse of the Pacific where they would spend the last year of the war.

Illustrious under attack by German Bombers

HMS Illustrious: Illustrious was laid down in April 1937, launched in April 1939 and commissioned in May 1940. Upon commissioning she and her air group deployed to the Mediterranean where in the dark days following the fall of France they escorted vital convoys, supported the Royal Army in the war in North Africa and conducted strikes against Italian shore installations and fleet units.  Illustrious launched the first major raid against an enemy shore base by carrier aircraft on 11 November 1940. Her aircraft from number 813, 815, 819 and 823 Squadrons made a night attack on the Naval Base at Taranto sinking the battleship Conte di Cavour and heavily damaging the battleships Andrea Doria and the new battleship Littorio and moderate damage to the Caio Dulio This strike helped cripple Italian naval power and helped give the Japanese inspiration for the Pearl Harbor attack.    On 10 January she suffered severe damage from 6 bomb hits while escorting a convoy near Malta. She was attacked again at Malta causing more damage and she was withdrawn from action and sent to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for repairs. The damage was severe enough to keep her out of the war until May of 1942.  One of her shafts was so badly damaged that it had to be cut away and could not be replaced which reduced her speed to 23 knots. On her return to action she covered the landings against the Vichy French island of Madagascar and the Sicily landings. In 1944 she was in action with the Far East Fleet conducting raids against Japanese held islands in Indonesia and in 1945 was in action as part of the British Pacific Fleet where she saw action at Okinawa where she was hit by two Kamikazes and Formosa where a near miss close aboard by a Kamikaze caused severe damage below her waterline.  She sailed home where she underwent repair until 1946 when she was returned to duty as a training carrier in which capacity she served until she was decommissioned and scrapped in 1954.

Grumman Marlett (F4F Wildcat) on flight deck of HMS Formidable

HMS Formidable: Formidable was laid down in June 1937, launched in August 1939 and commissioned in November 1940.  She actually “launched herself” a half hour before her Christening ceremony which gave her the nickname “The ship that launched herself.”  Formidable saw action in the Mediterranean in 1941 and was heavily damaged by two 1000 kg bombs while escorting a Malta Convoy. This put her out of action for 6 months as she was repaired at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  On her return she saw service first in the Indian Ocean and then in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and the Italian Campaign. She also saw service in the Arctic sinking U-331 and in raids against the German Battleship Tirpitz.  She was in action in 1945 against the Japanese with the British Pacific Fleet where she relieved Illustrious after that ship was withdrawn from action. On 4 May 1945 while supporting operations off Okinawa she suffered massive damage from a Kamikaze, temporary repairs kept her in action until hit by another Kamikaze on 9 May. She was withdrawn from action and a fleet review determined that she was not economically repairable in the austere post war years. She was placed in reserve in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1953 with the scrapping taking place in 1956.

HMS Indomitable

HMS Indomitable: Indomitable was built to a modified design which allowed her to operate far more aircraft than her sisters. She was laid down in November 1937, launched in March 1940 and commissioned in October 1941. She was slated to accompany the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to the Far East and the defense of Singapore but ran aground on a coral reef during her shakedown cruise in the Jamaica which prevented that deployment.  After repairs she operated with the Far East Fleet in the Indian Ocean and took part in the invasion of Madagascar in November 1942.  In July of 1942 she took part in the Malta resupply mission Operation Pedestal where she was heavily damaged by two 500 kg bombs which penetrated her flight deck. She was withdrawn to the United States for repairs which lasted until February 1943 when she returned to the Mediterranean.  She took a torpedo hit from a German Ju-88 bomber on 15 June 1943 during the build up to the invasion of Sicily and again returned to the United States for repairs which were completed in February 1944. She then took part in operations with the Far East Fleet in the Indian Ocean before joining the British Pacific Fleet in 1945. She received minor damage from a Kamikaze hit on 4 May 1945 while operating near Okinawa. She finished the war in good shape compared to Illustrious and Formidable but was damaged by an internal fire and explosion in 1947 the damage from which was never repaired. She remained in service until she was placed in unmaintained reserve in 1953 and scrapped in 1955.

HMS Victorious

HMS Victorious: The Victorious was probably the most celebrated aircraft carrier in the history of the Royal Navy. Her World War Two service was remarkable by any standard and she was the only ship of her class to be modernized to carry jet aircraft following the war being refitted in much the same way as the American Essex Class ships were in the 1950s with an angled flight deck.  She was laid down in May 1937, launched in September 1939 and commissioned on 14 May 1941. Within 10 days of her commissioning she was taking part in the Hunt for the Bismarck and her Swordfish torpedo bombers scored one torpedo hit on that ship.  She saw much action in the North Atlantic and Arctic escorting convoys and deterring forays of German raiders into the Atlantic. She served in the Mediterranean during some Malta operations including Operation Pedestal and the Operation Torch landings in North Africa.  Due to the shortage of U.S. Carriers from heavy combat in the South Pacific in 1942 Victorious was “loaned” to the U.S. Navy deployed to operate with the U.S. Pacific Fleet following refits to operate U.S. built aircraft. She operated in the South Pacific from March to September of 1943 with the USS Saratoga in operations against the Japanese to include the New Georgia landings. She returned home and took part in raids against the Tirpitz which put that ship out of action for several months. She deployed to the Far East in 1944 and support operations in the Indian Ocean before being transferred to the British Pacific Fleet.

Victorious on Fire off Okinawa

She was involved in extensive Pacific operations including Okinawa and the raids on mainland Japan. She was stuck on a number of occasions by Kamikazes but remained in action.  After the war she was modernized and remained in service until 1969 when the Royal Navy decided that it was going to end its fixed wing operations and decommission its remaining attack aircraft carriers. She was broken up at Faslane beginning in 1969.

The modernized HMS Victorious

The Illustrious Class ships were great ships which performed admirable work in the Second World War. They and their brave crews continued the proud tradition of the Royal Navy. It is my hope that at least the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers will be renamed for a ship of this class, preferably Victorious.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

100 Years of Navy Aviation: Part One the Aircraft Carriers

Eugene Ely makes the first takeoff from USS Birmingham on November 14th 1910

On a blustery November 14th in the year 1910 a young civilian pilot hailing from Williamsburg Iowa became the first man to fly an aircraft off the deck of a ship.  At the age of 24 and having taught himself to fly barely 7 months before Eugene Ely readied himself and his Curtis biplane aboard the Cruiser USS Birmingham anchored just south of Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads.  Ely was there because he was discovered by Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers who had been tasked with exploring how aircraft might become part of Naval Operations. Chambers had no budget or authority for his seemingly thankless task but hearing that a German steamship might launch and aircraft from a ship hustled to find a way to stake a claim for the U.S. Navy to be the first in flight. Weather was bad that day as is so typical for Hampton Roads in November and between rain squalls Ely decided to launch even though Birmingham did not have steam up to get underway to assist the launch.  Ely gunned the engine and his biplane rumbled down the 57 foot ramp and as he left the deck the aircraft nosed down and actually make contact with the water splintering the propeller and forcing him to cut the flight short and land on Willoughby Spit about 2 ½ miles away not far from the southern entrance to the modern Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is.  Chambers would talk Ely into making the first landing on a Navy ship the Armored Cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18th 1911.  Ely died in a crash at the Georgia State Fairgrounds on October 11th 1911.

USS Langley CV-1

The Naval was slow to build upon the early achievements and the British and France would commission Aircraft Carriers well before the USS Langley CV-1 a converted Collier was commissioned.  After Langley the Navy commissioned the converted Battlecruisers USS Lexington CV-2 and USS Saratoga CV-3 in the mid 1920s.

USS Lexington CV-2 October 1941

The three ships formed the nucleus of the Navy’s embrace of aviation and the pilots that they trained and the experience gained would be the foundation of the Navy’s success in the Second World War.  They would be joined by the USS Ranger CV-4 the first U. S. Navy Carrier designed as such from the keel up in 1934.

USS Enterprise CV-6

In 1937 the Navy commissioned the first of its true Fleet Carriers the USS Yorktown CV-5 which was followed by the USS Enterprise CV-6 in 1938, the USS Wasp CV-7 an improved version of Ranger in was commissioned in 1940 and the USS Hornet CV-8 in 1941.   These ships would bear the brunt of US Navy operations in the first year of the war following the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Of these ships only the Enterprise and Saratoga would survive the first year of the war in the Pacific.  Langley now a Seaplane Carrier was sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942. Lexington would go down at Coral Sea in May 1942.  Hornet would launch the Doolittle Raid against Japan on April 18th 1942.  Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet would take on and defeat the Japanese Carrier Strike force and sink the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu at Midway to avenge Pearl Harbor. Yorktown was sunk in the battle but Midway stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific.

The U. S. went on the offensive in August invading Guadalcanal in the Solomons Islands. The Guadalcanal campaign and the numerous sea battles in the adjacent waterways would claim many American and Japanese ships. Wasp was sunk by a Japanese submarine on September 15th 1942 and Hornet was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 27 October 27th 1942.  Saratoga spent much of 1942 in the yards having been torpedoed twice leaving the often battered Enterprise as the sole U. S. Navy Carrier facing the Japanese until Saratoga was repaired and the first of the Essex Class Fleet Carriers and Independence Class Light Fleet Carriers entered service and arrived in the Pacific.

USS Yorktown CV-10 1944 a good example of the wartime Essex class ships  below USS Cabot CVL-28 an Independence Class Light Fleet Carrier


The Essex Class ships became the nucleus of the Fast Carrier Task Forces in the Pacific and with their smaller consorts of the Independence Class would dominate operations at sea from 1943 on.  The Essex class would eventually number 24 ships with several more canceled before completion becoming the most numerous of any class of Fleet Carriers produced by the U. S. Navy.  The Essex class would figure prominently in all offensive operations including the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf, the campaigns at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and raids on the Japanese home islands.  In the process they and their air groups would be instrumental in sinking hundreds of Japanese ships including the Battleships Yamato and Musashi and destroying thousands of aircraft.  A number were heavily damaged by Kamikazes but none were lost with the epic story of the USS Franklin CV-13 and her survival after being hit by two bombs from a Japanese plane that slipped through the Combat Air Patrol. The resultant explosions and fires amongst her fueled and armed aircraft nearly sank her but for the heroic efforts of her crew including Chaplain Joseph O’Callahan who won the Medal of Honor caring for the wounded and dying and directing damage control teams. The ship lost 724 men killed and 265 wounded in the attack but survived though without power and dead in the water 50 miles off the Japanese coast.

Murderers’ Row

The Essex class were iconic and the ships etched their names in naval history. The Essex, Yorktown, Hornet, Wasp, Hancock, Ticonderoga, Franklin, Bunker Hill, Intrepid, Lexington and the other ships of the class had legendary careers. These ships became known as “Murderers’ Row” for their expertise in killing off Japanese ships and aircraft.  Fittingly four of the ships, the Hornet, Yorktown, Lexington and Intrepid have found a second life as museum ships and Oriskany was sunk as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida where she is a favorite of recreational divers.

USS Croatan CVE-25 a Bogue Class Escort Carrier

During the war the Navy also built 118 Escort Carriers converted from merchant ships for use as convoy escorts, anti-submarine warfare and close air support for amphibious operations. 38 of these ships saw service in the British Royal Navy during the war.

USS Hancock CVA-19 in 1969 showing the extent of the modernizations that brought the Essex Class into the jet age

In the post World War II drawdown many carriers were decommissioned and the oldest, the Saratoga and Ranger disposed of.  The three ship Midway class entered service after the war and incorporated design improvements learned from combat operations in the war. As the Navy entered the jet era it was found that the existing carriers would need significant modernization to handle the new aircraft. Among the improvements made to the Midway and Essex class ships was the angled flight deck, steam catapults, hurricane bows and improved landing systems.  These improvements allowed these World War II era ships to remain front line carriers into Vietnam and in the case of the USS Midway and USS Coral Sea into the 1990s.

Artists’ conception of USS United States CVA-58 a victim of Truman Era Air Force politics

The Navy began its first super-carrier the USS United States in 1949 but the ship and class was cancelled by Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, not a fan of the Navy or Marine Corps due to opposition by the Army and the newly founded Air Force.  The ship would have carried 12-18 nuclear capable bombers as well as 45-50 jet fighters and attack aircraft and been 1090 feet long and displaced 65,000 tons.  It would not be until after the Korean War that the Navy would begin construction of its first super-carriers.

USS Midway CVA-41 in 1971

During the Korean War most of the Essex class ships were called back into service with 15 modified to conduct jet operations while others were converted to serve as ASW Carriers and Helicopter Carriers (LPH) to support Marine amphibious forces. Likewise the Midway’s were modernized as the Navy began to construct the four-ship Forrestal Class which were 1036 feet long and displaced 56,000 tons and designed to carry 100 aircraft. The four ships, Forrestal CVA-59, Saratoga CVA-60, Ranger CVA-61, and Independence CVA-62 would all serve into the early 1990s before being decommissioned. In the past few months Forrestal and Saratoga have begun the journey to be scrapped, sold for a penny each to scrapyards in Brownsville, Texas.

USS Ranger CVA-61

They were all heavily involved in the Vietnam War on Yankee and Dixie Station and both the Atlantic and Pacific during the Cold War. All four have been stricken from the Navy List and are awaiting disposal.  Forrestal was programmed as an artificial reef but she, like Saratoga which had been on donation hold was approved for scrapping. Ranger is still on donation hold and the USS Ranger Foundation is attempting to raise the money to save her. Independence which had been programmed as an artificial reef project was approved for scrapping in 2008.In the past few months Forrestal and Saratoga began the journey to be scrapped in 2014, sold for a penny each to scrapyards in Brownsville, Texas.

USS John F Kennedy CV-67 a modified Kitty Hawk class ship

These ships were followed by the Kitty Hawk class consisting of Kitty Hawk CVA-63, Constellation CVA-64, America CVA-66 and John F. Kennedy CVA-67 which were improved versions of the Forrestal Class with a 60,100 ton displacement and 1047 foot length with the ability to carry 100 aircraft. Kitty Hawk had the distinction of being the last fossil fuel carrier in active U. S. Navy service being decommissioned and placed in reserve in 2009. Her sister the Constellation CV was decommissioned in December 2003 and in 2008 was programmed to be scrapped in the next five years.  America was decommissioned in 1996 after not being given a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) refit in the 1990s due to budget cuts.  America was involved in much of the Cold War, Gulf War and Vietnam including responding to the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, the Intervention in Lebanon in 1983 and the conflict with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra in 1985.  She was sunk as a test bed to see how modern carriers would be affected by battle damage and to incorporate those lessons into future carrier design in May of 2005.  John F. Kennedy was originally planned to be a nuclear ship equipped with 4 A3W reactors.  This plan was shelved and she was completed as a fossil fuel ship. “Big John” served in Vietnam as well as throughout the Cold War and Gulf War and also engaged the Libyans in 1985.  She was placed in the Reserve Force in the 1990s to save money and also served as a training carrier.  Like America she did not receive the necessary maintenance and by 2002 she needed emergency repairs in order to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kennedy made three deployments in support of the War on Terror and decommissioned in 2007.  She was placed in donation hold and currently two groups are making progress to acquire her as a Museum ship. Like the Forrestal’s the Constellation’s served in Vietnam, the Cold War, Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and three continued their service into Operation Iraqi Freedom. Constellation began her journey to the scrapyard in August 2014.

USS Enterprise CVN-65

As the Navy continued to develop the capabilities of the aircraft carrier it commissioned the nuclear powered USS Enterprise CVAN-65.  The added capability of nuclear power enabled her to operate without dependence on fossil fuel which in addition to her range and speed allowed her to carry more aviation fuel and munitions than the fossil fuel ships.  Unique among the Nuclear Carriers she produces 280,000 SHP and is powered by 8 Westinghouse (A2W) Reactors driving geared turbines, 4 screws with a classified top speed in excess of 35 Knots and is the quickest carrier going from all stop to full speed. At 1101 feet long and 75,700 ton (93,000 Full Load) displacement she was larger than any other carrier. She served in Vietnam, the Cold War, the Gulf War and Operation Enduring and Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was and was decommissioned in 2013.

USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71 of the Nimitz class

The Nimitz Class of nuclear powered carriers is the most numerous class of capital ship in the U.S. Navy since the Essex Class.  Slightly smaller than Enterprise with a 1088 overall length and 91,000 full load displacement the Nimitz CVN-68 and her sister ships are the mainstay of the U. S. Navy carrier force.  These ships have been the symbols of American naval power for three decades and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.  Each of the ships has embodied successive improvements gained from the previous ships and the latest ships of the class the USS Ronald Reagan CVN-76 and USS George H. W. Bush CVN-77 incorporate technologies that were not known when Nimitz was on the drawing board. Thus whenever a ship is taken in for their Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) it is upgraded to the capabilities of the newest ship.  The class consists of the Nimitz, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN-69, USS Carl Vinson CVN-70, USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71, USS George Washington CVN-72, USS Abraham Lincoln CVN-73, USS John C. Stennis CVN-74, USS Harry Truman CVN-75 as well as the previously mentioned Reagan and Bush. They can carry 90% more fuel and 50% more ordnance than the Forrestal class. Carrying 90 or more aircraft they pack a mobile offensive punch that is not matched by any other surface ship.  The have served in every major military and many humanitarian missions since Nimitz was commissioned in 1974.

Artist conception of USS Gerald R Ford CVN-78

The Nimitz class will be joined by the USS Gerald R. Ford CVN-78.  The Ford is the first ship of an entirely new class. While approximately the same size as the Nimitz class at 1092 feet long and approximately 100,000 tons full load displacement the Ford class of which three are currently authorized and one under construction will feature many improvements over their predecessors. Among improvements are an advanced arresting gear, automation, which reduces crew requirements by several hundred from the Nimitz class carrier, the updated RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missile system, the AN/SPY-3 dual-band radar (DBR), as developed for Zumwalt class destroyers an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) in place of traditional steam catapults for launching aircraft, a new nuclear reactor design (the A1B reactor) for greater power generation, advanced stealth features to help reduce radar profile and the ability to operate the new F-35C Lightning II. If the class is built as programmed on a one ship every five year rate with the Ford commissioning in 2015 then 6 ships of the class will be in commission by 2040. The next two ships have been named, the John F Kennedy and Enterprise. 

Of course as with any military technology the future never is certain. In 1918 no one would have thought that the all-big gun Dreadnought Battleships would be eclipsed by the Aircraft Carrier in less than 25 years. While the Carriers have ruled the waves since Midway there are threats to them both military and financial.  Countries such as China while building their own carriers have are developing weapons such as guided ballistic missiles designed to destroy carriers.  As of now there is no defense against such a weapon if a carrier is within range. While China has not yet deployed the weapon it could be a game changer in the Western Pacific. Likewise there is the ever present threat posed by new and advanced submarines even those deployed by 2nd and 3rd world nations.  Finally there is the financial cost which could derail the procurement of more carriers in an era of austerity. The cost of the Ford is currently estimated to be $9 Billion Dollars which if stretched end to end would probably reach Vulcan where the Vulcans would come up with an answer to our current problems.

At the same time the carriers have defied those who predicted their demise since the Truman administration.  Currently no sea based platform has the multitude of capabilities of a carrier and its associated air wing and battle group and thus they should remain the Queens of the Sea for some time to come and the United States Navy which has led the world in their development and operation should continue to lead the way.

The next installment which will appear later this week will discuss the aircraft employed by the United States Navy not only those from carriers, but seaplanes, rotor-wing aircraft and lighter than air ships.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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