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The World at War

World War II: 1941-1945

USS Lexington off Diamond Head, 1933
USS Lexington (CV-2) off Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, with Diamond Head in the background, 2 February 1933.
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Photo source:
U. S. Naval Historical Center  [ Flag of United States ]
World War II saw many developments in aircraft carriers -- new technologies, new ship types and new tactics.

Prior to World War II, carriers were used as an auxiliary to the Battle Line of battleships and cruisers. They were intended primarily to provide a long-range scouting ability for the Fleet. Their aircraft would search for the enemy ships, then maintain contact while directing the fleet to an interception.

However, some naval strategists saw the possibilities of using carriers in an offensive role. In the early 30s, U. S. Navy wargames in the Pacific showed that carriers could effectively project power far beyond the range of the battleship's guns. Both the Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor fell victim to simulated attacks from carrier-borne aircraft. In fact, then-Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral) J. J. "Jocko" Clark, commanding USS Lexington's VF-2 fighter squadron during Fleet Problem XIII in 1932, staged an attack on Pearl Harbor that was almost identical to the tactics later used by the Japanese in 1941. Clark repeated his performance in 1933. Sadly, these lessons were soon forgotten.

Taranto Harbor after the attack
Aerial photo of Taranto Harbor
after the 11 Nov 40 attack
Photo source:
Fleet Air Arm Archive [ World Wide Web icon ]
Two events transpired to prove the effectiveness of carrier-borne aviation as an offensive weapon. On 11 November 1940, British Swordfish torpedo bombers from the carrier HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet at anchor in the bay of Taranto, Italy. Torpedos hit the battleships Vittorio Veneto, Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour, crippling the first two and sinking the Cavour.

Just over a year later, on 7 December 1941, the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor taught again the lessons of the early 30s and proved that carrier-launched airborne attacks were more than a match for the heavy guns of battleships and cruisers. The U. S. Navy was forced to acknowledge this fact, given that all of the Pacific Fleet's battleships were damaged or destroyed. With the proud battleships of the Fleet sitting in the mud of Pearl Harbor, only the carriers were available to take the war to the enemy.

Japanese aircraft attack Battleship Row
Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941
Torpedo planes attack "Battleship Row" at about 0800 on 7 December, seen from a Japanese aircraft.
Ships are, from lower left to right:
Nevada (BB-36) with flag raised at stern; Arizona (BB-39) with Vestal (AR-4) outboard; Tennessee (BB-43) with West Virginia (BB-48) outboard; Maryland (BB-46) with Oklahoma (BB-37) outboard; Neosho (AO-23) and California (BB-44).
West Virginia, Oklahoma and California have been torpedoed, as marked by ripples and spreading oil, and the first two are listing to port.
Torpedo drop splashes and running tracks are visible at left and center.
White smoke in the distance is from Hickam Field.
Grey smoke in the center middle distance is from the torpedoed USS Helena (CL-50), at the Navy Yard's 1010 dock.
Japanese writing in lower right states that the image was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
Photo source:
U. S. Naval Historical Center  [ Flag of United States ]
Beginning with the sinking of the Japanese submarine I-70 by aircraft from CV-6 USS Enterprise on 10 December 1941, the carriers showed what they were capable of. Along the way, they not only made history at places called Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa, but they also created and refined the formations and tactics that are still used by naval aviation today.

Four primary types of carriers served in the Navy during the war.

The Fleet Carrier was the heavy-hitter of the fleet. It carried nearly 100 aircraft of various types, and was able to defend itself against all but the most determined attacks.

Light Carriers were originally an interim measure. It was faster to convert currently under-construction light cruiser hulls to aircraft carriers, and carriers were needed quickly in the Pacific. They were used to provide additional air capability to the fleet carriers and the Battle Fleet, plus provide a fast airstrike capability to smaller operations that did not warrant the presence of the large (and expensive) fleet carriers.

In the Atlantic, the requirements of protecting merchant convoys brought about the development of the Escort Carrier. Escort carriers were also used to supplement fleet and light carriers in combat operations, and to transport aircraft and aircrew from rear areas to the front lines. A number of U. S.-designed and built escort carriers were provided to the British under the provisions of the Lend-Lease Act.

Training Carriers were used in protected home waters to allow the Navy to train pilots in carrier operations without removing a battle-capable carrier from the front lines.