Naval Aviation Development in World War II–U.S. Navy Versus Royal Navy Experience

By U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart R. Lockhart (Ret.)

Naval History and Heritage Command writer Carsten Fries’s recent narrative of the support lent by the British carrier HMS Victorious to the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the first half of 1943 brings to mind a comparison of naval aviation experiences of these two navies during World War II. Although the U.S. Navy through its early history felt much like a younger sibling when it compared itself to the history, tradition, and fighting experience of the British Royal Navy, this could not be said for the experience of bringing aircraft to sea “on the backs of the fleet,” which began in earnest in the interwar period and was brought to fruition during the war years. The U.S. Navy, through the heavy use of experimentation, exercises, and the annual Fleet Problems, learned the issues surrounding carrier operations both in terms of shipboard procedures, as well as squadron and carrier air wing operations. By the war’s end, U.S. naval aviation had a record of success second to none among the world’s navies.

The Royal Navy’s loss of control over its own aviation organization and requirements in the wake of the 1918 unification of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service into the Royal Air Force had serious consequences during World War II. A significant impact to the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) returning to control of the Admiralty in May 1939 was that the service was still learning to employ its aircraft, its squadrons, and multi-carrier task forces until well into the 1939–45 war. It is one of the reasons why the November 1944 formation of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was striking. The largest fleet assembled by the Royal Navy during the war became a single carrier task force (Task Force 57) of the U.S. Pacific Fleet for Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa from April through May of 1945, and later strikes against the Japanese home islands. Well before VJ Day, it was clear that the traditional relationship between these navies had changed forever.

A Royal Navy Martlet IV fighter (Grumman F4F-4B) at Naval Air Station Anacostia, Washington, DC, after application of British markings. The original photograph is dated 21 April 1942. This aircraft is FN100, the first Martlet IV (NH 89675).

Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this difference between the two fleets in experience and preeminence had to do with aircraft requirements. In the early years of World War II, the FAA had to make do with land-based designs that were adapted for carrier use. Early-war examples included the “navalizing” of such fighter types as the Gloster Gladiator and Hawker Hurricane by fitting arrestor hooks. In contrast, the U.S. Navy maintained relationships with the major aircraft corporations to develop purpose-built aircraft types that could withstand the rigors of carrier operations–most notably illustrated by the success of Grumman aircraft designs from the pre-war F3F biplane to the F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat fighters. Similar relationships in England resulted in the multipurpose Blackburn Skua/Roc dive bomber/fighter and the Fairey Fulmar and Firefly reconnaissance fighters—aircraft that were conceived to perform multiple roles, but could not meet the standards of advanced land-based designs.

A Fairey Firefly lands on board HMS Illustrious, February 1943. Note the two-seater configuration called for by outdated Fleet Air Arm requirements (© IWM A 14867).

 

Illustrative of these difficulties is the Seafire, the naval adaptation of the famous Supermarine Spitfire. Although the Spitfire was—and still is—an aircraft with a sterling reputation as a land-based air superiority fighter, its naval cousin was held in nowhere near the same regard due to its tricky handling characteristics on takeoff and landing, its narrow-track landing gear, and short range. As recounted by wartime FAA pilot Henry “Hank” Adlam in his recent book, “The Disastrous Fall and Triumphant Rise of the Fleet Air Arm from 1912 to 1945,” Seafire operations invariably resulted in frequent deck crashes with the associated loss of skilled pilots and deck crew, as well as “fouling” of operational flight decks during critical moments of carrier operations. Embarked Seafire squadrons were often relegated to providing combat air patrols (CAP) over the carrier task force in order to utilize their strength as a fighter and overcome their inherent weakness in terms of operational radius. This was but one example Adlam cites of questionable decision-making by senior Royal Navy officers who were not pilots themselves and who lacked the experience with aircraft operations due to the service’s past “broken” relationship with its flying arm.  In Adlam’s opinion, the FAA did not have the right aircraft for their purposes until they obtained quantities of U.S.-made aircraft through Lend-Lease.  By the end of the war, most of the carrier air wings of the BPF were equipped with American-supplied F6F Hellcats, F4U Corsairs, and TBM Avengers. British types were in the minority. Moreover, Royal Navy fighter development was handicapped throughout the war by such requirements as a second crewman—a navigator/observer—which further limited the performance of these aircraft. Late in the war—and like their U.S. Navy counterparts—the strike leaders/carrier air group commanders in the BPF flew U.S.-built Hellcats or Vought F4U Corsairs. Confidence in an experienced naval aviator flying a single-seat aircraft while conducting strike package coordination had finally been gained—albeit very late in the global conflict.

The Fleet Air Arm at sea, July/August 1944: U.S.-produced Chance-Vought Corsair fighters, with Fairey Barracuda torpedo bombers behind them, ranged on the flight deck of HMS Formidable off Norway (© IWM A 24787)

 

May 1945: British Pacific Fleet (Task Force 57) TBM Avengers returning to HMS Illustrious following a strike on the Sakishima Islands in support of Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa. Note the national markings unique to this theater of operations. The wing of the aircraft in the foreground has been damaged by Japanese anti-aircraft fire (© IWM A 29196).

 

A split-second picture of deck-handling ratings as they “get from under” when a Seafire fighter crashes into parked aircraft on the flight deck of a British Pacific Fleet carrier, June 1945. Two American- built TBM Avengers and one Fairey Firefly also appear in this image. (© IWM A 29715)

 

The Royal Navy’s contributions to the development of the aircraft carrier are often cited—from the development of HMS Furious, the world’s first carrier, to the armored flight deck that proved its worth in both the Mediterranean and in later withstanding Japanese kamikaze attacks in the Pacific War, and culminating in the angled deck and mirror landing system in the post-war period. With the notable exception of their pioneering work in adapting the superb Corsair fighter for carrier use, similar kudos could not be said of the Royal Navy’s development of naval aviation as a capability during World War II.  Here, highest honors belong deservedly to the U.S. Navy.

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