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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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The Impact of Technology on the Organization, Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War

Introduction

World War II saw some of most rapid technological advances impacting military forces in history. The advances in technology impacted the organization and tactics of major power military forces, especially those of the United States, Germany, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.  These advances combined to revolutionize the way wars were fought and military forces have been organized to the current day.

Heinz Guderian’s Theories of Mechanized and Combined Arms Warfare and His Organizational Genius Revolutionized  Land Warfare

The technical developments and their relationship to military organization and tactical applications began in the years following World War I as various writers began to analyze that war and formulate ways not to repeat the grist mill of trench warfare that dominated it.  The writers looked at tactical innovations, new technology and enunciated ways that technology and tactics could be combined with organizational changes to revolutionize the ways that wars were fought.  Chief among these writers were General Fuller and Captain B.H. Liddell Hart in Britain, Colonel Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel in Germany.  Airpower theories were dominated by the strategic bombing theories of Italy’s Guido Douhet and tactical air theories of American Marine General Roy Geiger as well as the pioneers of tactical air support in the Luftwaffe.   In the United States General George C. Marshall helped initiate doctrinal changes that would change the way that the U.S. Army would fight.

Among the common elements found in the works of these men was the necessity to apply technology to overcome the pitfalls that all of the armies which fought in the First World War found themselves.

The Mechanization of Ground Forces

Mass Speed and Firepower: The Germans Would Pioneer the New Style of Warfare

There were a number of major technological advances between the wars and during the war that helped change the nature of warfare.  One of the earliest was the mechanization of armies which began toward the end of the First World War and continued between the wars to varying degrees in each country.  All the major armies experimented with mechanized forces to one degree or another. In Britain these got the earliest start with some formations being 100% mechanized by the early 1930s.  France was more circumspect about mechanization only slowly converting forces as they were focused on a defensive strategy based on the Maginot Line.  Many in the German high command resisted Guderian and other innovators regarding the mechanization of the Wehrmacht as well as the development of the Panzerwaffe.

The Soviet Union Would Turn the Tables on the Germans using their own Tactics

The Soviet Union had a large number of mechanized and armored formations prior to the war though they were not proficient in their use and had not developed doctrine to match the forces that they controlled.  The Untied States also resisted efforts to mechanize its Army but seeing the results of the German Blitzkrieg quickly overcame years of resistance to become an Army that save for 2 Cavalry Divisions was 100% mechanized.  The development of Airborne formations added the possibility of vertical envelopment to ground operations. These developments impacted nearly every campaign in Europe and North Africa and to a much lesser degree the Pacific theater. German performance in the early Polish, French, North African and Balkan Campaigns as well as the initial foray into the Soviet Union were all successful due to the proficiency of their combined mechanized, Panzer and tactical air forces.  The Soviets would develop and become very effective at this type of warfare on a much large scale than the Germans could have imagined beginning with the Stalingrad counteroffensive and especially in the destruction  of the German Army Group Center in the summer of 1944.

Though Using Lighter Armored Forces the Americans Would become Proficient in the New Type of Warfare by the Summer of 1944

The Americans became proficient at mobile operations during the war, especially during the “dash across France” and the breakout in the Saar-Palatine campaign in 1945,  but many times uninventive commanders squandered the advantage and allowed themselves to be sucked into battles of attrition that their forces were not made for.

Communications

A key development that accompanied and accentuated the mechanization of ground forces were advances in tactical wireless communications which made it possible for commanders to keep up with fast moving formations and react in near real time to changing tactical situations.  The Germans were the first to become very proficient in this as they not only developed communications for ground forces but also for coordination between tactical air forces and ground forces.  This made the German Blitzkrieg the first example of modern air-ground combat cooperation.  The Americans, British and Soviets would follow suit but it was the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe that pioneered the communications revolution.  As the war went on communications capabilities increased and armies became more dependent on tactical and long range wireless communications.  The dependency of military forces on communications networks became a major factor in operational planning and the success of the Allies in breaking Japanese and German codes gave them an advantage in anticipating German or Japanese moves.

Armor, Firepower and Mobility: The Tank Comes into its Own

World War Two Saw Tanks become Deadly Instruments of Modern Warfare

Mechanization was a major factor in the war and the most decisive component of the mechanization of ground forces was the development of the tank as well as specialized formations which employed tanks in close cooperation with other arms, such as mechanized infantry and artillery.  The development of such forces really began with the British but the best example of this was the German Panzer Division.  The Panzer Division was a totally mechanized and integrated force of all arms which was employed in mass and capable like all German units to be task organized into Kampfgruppen to optimize tactical flexibility.  British Armored Divisions were tank heavy and infantry light which made them far less flexible organizations.  Soviet Armored forces were slow to develop but they became masters of large level operational maneuver using mechanized and tactical air forces to a deadly effect against the Wehrmacht.  The Americans delivered a light and flexible armored formation and became very proficient in combined arms warfare though the divisional structure often proved too light and not as resilient as German formations.  It was in this environment that the tank truly came into its own to dominate the battlefield in a way that many could not have imagined prior to the war. Firepower, protection and mobility advantages gained through technological advances increased the lethality and survivability of the tank and forced each side to develop better ways of neutralizing tanks through more powerful anti-tank guns, sabot rounds and shaped charges.

Tactical and Strategic Air developments

The Americans and the British Would Develop the Concept of Strategic Bombing against Germany

With the technical revolution came revolution in the skies both at the strategic and tactical levels.  Modern bombers with good navigational gear guided by radar and assisted by modern bombsites such as the Norden developed by the United States would wreak havoc on industrial and civilian centers. Advances in aircraft technology saw fast and more lethal aircraft being fielded by all powers as the war progressed and while Jet propulsion developed during the war would doom piston powered aircraft as first line assets.

The P-47 Thunderbolt Would Serve as both a Long Range Bomber Escort and as Seen Here as an Excellent Ground Attack Aircraft

Tactical air developments would be led by the Germans but as the war went on the Allies developed sophisticate tactical air forces that dominated battlefields when the weather permitted. The Germans pioneered the use of ballistic missiles as well as the cruise missile while the United States and Britain developed the Atomic Bomb.  Specialized types of tactics and organizations were developed for strategic, tactical and naval air forces. At the strategic level there were the dueling schools of precision versus area bombing while at the tactical level the developments were as much predicated on air-ground communications as they were the aircraft flown.  Specialized aircraft were developed or modified as tank-killers while fighter forces became more specialized to into interceptors, bomber escorts and night fighters.

The Obselecent Junkers JU-87 found New Life on the Eastern Front as a Tank Killer armed with 2 37mm FLAK cannon

The influence of air assets, especially at the tactical level would become more pronounced as the war went on.  Allied air superiority ensured that the landings in France and the breakout in Normandy succeeded and tactical air dominance by US Navy and Marine air forces in the Pacific aided ground operations as well as sea battles.

Amphibious Warfare developments

The US Navy and Marine Corps Would Perfect Amphibious Operations in the Pacific

Technology came to the fore in amphibious operations with the development of specialized landing craft, beach clearing equipment and naval gunfire support.  This effort was led by the United States with the most advanced force being the Marines.   The combined use of air, land, sea and naval air forces to include the use of Aircraft Carriers revolutionized how the campaign in the Pacific would be fought to a conclusion long before anyone thought that it could be.

General Naval Developments

At sea ship design advanced new and better classes of warships as technologic advances in radar, sonar, gunnery systems, torpedo and ant-aircraft technology made warships far more formidable than those built only years before the war.  This was nowhere more apparent than in submarine development especially that of Germany’s U-boat arm with the development of streamlined hulls and “schnorkel” technology.  The use of U-Boats and later American submarines in the Pacific into “Wolf Packs” increased the lethality of submarine forces to a near decisive state in the war.  Naval tactics were influenced by the use of air and surface search radar as well as sonar.

US Fast Carrier Task Forces Would Dominate the Pacific War and Naval Warfare to the Present Day

The development of the US Navy into the dominant Naval Power of the next 65 years was built upon the success of the Navy in the Second World War.  The largest and some of the bloodiest sea battles in history were fought in the Pacific with decisive results in that theater of operations.  Operationally the major Navies all were influenced to one degree or another by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Summary and Conclusion

The course of World War Two was determined by the strategic and operational theories developed in the inter-war years. These were applied correctly by some powers and not by others.   The use technological advances and more effective organizational structure developed in the inter-war years and refined by the experience of war impacted the war on land, at sea and in the air in every theater of war.  The use of combined arms and joint operations revolutionized the manner in which wars would be fought.  If the technology, theory and force structure had not come together when it did the war might have been fought much as the First World War.  Instead warfare became faster and more lethal than ever and would lead to even more advances in the years to come.

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