How Did Carrier-Based Aircraft Influence Naval Battles In WWII? (2024)


  • Aircraft carriers were crucial in WWII for supporting naval battles and maintaining shipping lanes.
  • The US Navy is the largest operator of aircraft carriers today, with 11 supercarriers.
  • Key battles like the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Philippine Sea significantly impacted the course of WWII in the Pacific.

Naval historians all agree that some significant battles of World War II (WWII) could not have been fought without the support of aircraft operating from Navy aircraft carriers. During WWII, the ability to keep shipping lanes open was crucial to not only supplying food to the people of Great Britain but also ensuring that forward-based troops received enough supplies, vehicles, and ammunition.

As of July 24, 14 countries use 47 aircraft carriers around the globe. The largest operator, with a fleet of 11 supercarriers capable of carrying 80 flighters on each, is the United States Navy (USN). The USN has nine amphibious warships with its aircraft carriers that can operate vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) fighter jets like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

How aircraft carriers developed leading up to WWII

The aircraft carriers we see today are nothing like the ones used during World War I (WWI) and are capable of deploying aircraft to fly missions many miles from the ship. The first use of a ship-based plane in warfare took place on September 6, 1914, when the Imperial Japanese Navy ship Wakamiya used a French-built Farman aircraft to attack the Austro-Hungarian cruiser SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth and the Imperial German gunboat Jaguar. Neither ship was damaged as Japan used the backdrop of WWI to expand its influence in China.

Following WWI, it was apparent to all nations the importance of aircraft during military conflicts, and the world's navy was no exception. It saw aircraft as the best way to gain reconnaissance and help protect its fleets. When Great Britain entered WWII following the German invasion of Poland, the Royal Navy had seven aircraft carriers but only 400 aircraft.

Having had only limited use during WWI, the Royal Navy's carriers were highly vulnerable to German destroyers and submarines. After many losses, the Royal Navy stopped using its aircraft carriers for anti-submarine patrols.

When the United States entered WWII following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, aircraft carriers were used again in the Atlantic, but it was in the Pacific where they came into their own. The attack on Pearl Harbor showed just how effective aircraft carriers could be, and by turning six aircraft carriers into a single unit, the Japanese changed naval warfare forever.

The Doolittle Raid and what followed

In an attempt to show the American people that the United States could also strike mainland Japan, the USS Hornet sailed within 650 nautical miles of the Japanese coastline. Now within range, on April 18, 1942, it launched 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. After dropping their bombs without enough fuel to fly back to the USS Hornet, the aircraft landed in China.

Despite killing around 50 people, the raid did nothing to damage Japan's industrial complex. Still, it prompted Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to bring forward his plan to attack and destroy the American fleet somewhere near Midway Attol. While the Doolittle raid boosted American spirits at home, it enraged the Japanese to massacre 320,000 Chinese.

The Battle of Midway

After attaining its strategic goal of capturing Great Britain's territories in the Far East and the critical oil fields in the Dutch East Indies, Yamamoto began planning to destroy America's aircraft carriers. The Japanese Admiral's plan was to attack Pearl Harbor for a second time and lure the Americans out to sea.

Yamamoto received intelligence that the Americans had significantly increased the number of land-based aircraft in Hawaii and decided it would be foolish to attack Pearl Harbor for a second time. After calculating the range of American land-based planes in Hawaii, Yamamoto selected the tiny Midway Atoll as the site of the conclusive battle.

Because Midway would give the Japanese a base from which to strike Hawaii, Yamamoto correctly predicted that the Americans would want to defend it. One month earlier, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese had sunk the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and severely damaged the USS Yorktown.

How Did Carrier-Based Aircraft Influence Naval Battles In WWII? (3)

Photo: Photolibrarian | Flickr

Yamamoto concluded that the USN's only aircraft carriers in the Pacific were the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. Yamamoto did not know that the USS Yorktown had been repaired and was sea-worthy. Unknown to Yamamoto was that the United States had successfully broken parts of the secret code the Japanese used to communicate.

Now aware of Yamamotos' plan, American Admiral Chester W. Nimitz began devising his own plan. On Midway Atoll, the USN had several PBY Catalina flying boats that it used for reminiscence and six Grumman TBF Avengers. Meanwhile, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) had 19, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, 9 Douglas SBD Dauntless, seven F4F-3 Wildcats, and 17 Martin B-26 Marauders.

A month earlier, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, they had lost an aircraft carrier, and the number of aircraft and pilots was severely depleted. On the morning of June 3, 1942, while flying a Catalina flying boat, Navy Ensign Jack Reid spotted the Japanese fleet 580 miles southwest of Midway. By the end of the epic three-day battle, the American forces had effectively neutralized Japan's ability to launch any more long-range attacks, making the Battle of Midway a turning point in the war in the Pacific.

Solomon Islands battle

In the spring of 1942, the Japanese invaded Papua New Guinea to cut off supplies between America, Australia, and New Zealand. United States Marines landed on Guadalcanal in the Soloman Islands on August 7, 1942, to counter this. What followed later that month was the third-largest carrier battle between the Americans and the Japanese. After several damaging air attacks, both sides withdrew to fight another day.


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Often referred to as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, in October 1942, American aircraft carriers saw action again. Unlike Midway, where both navies could see each other, Guadalcanal and Santa Cruz were aircraft battles fought from a distance. In an attempt to force the Americans out of the Solomon Islands, the Japanese planned a major ground offensive supported by aircraft from Japanese aircraft carriers. The Japanese ground forces emerged victorious while the Japanese Navy's ships retreated.

Japan expected the Allies to seek peace

From the very outset of the war, Japan planned to inflict heavy casualties on the Allied forces so that it would get their governments to seek peace and allow Japan to keep the territories it had conquered. By 1943, Japanese Admiral Yakamoto had grown weary of this but was killed on April 18, 1943.

Now in charge of the Japanese Imperial Navy was Admiral Mineichi Koga was eager to defeat the American Navy in one final decisive battle. He, too, died after his Kawanishi H8K crashed while flying in a Typhoon. His chief of staff's plane crashed in the same Typhoon, and while he survived, plans for the mission were recovered by Filipino guerrillas and sent to General Douglas MacArthur's Military Intelligence Service in Brisbane, Australia.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea

Now, forewarned, the Americans knew of Japan's plans to have a decisive battle in the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Unlike the Americans, the Japanese would be able to supplant their carrier aircraft from air bases on land. On June 14 and 15, American aircraft led bombing raids while ships bombarded the Marianas. On June 15, the first American troops went ashore on Saipan to build airstrips that would allow American bombers to hit targets in mainland Japan.

The Americans' arrival in the Marianas sped up what the Japanese hoped would be the decisive battle of the war. Now gathering his ships in the western part of the Philippine Sea, Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa prepared for battle. Rather than intercept the Japanese ships, the United States aimed to construct the airfields, so they waited for the Japanese to come to them.

By the time the battle was over, the Japanese Imperial Navy had lost three aircraft carriers, more than 350 carrier aircraft, and around 200 land-based planes.

In the spring of 1945, the Americans started a Napalm firebombing campaign from the Marianas. They ultimately forced Japan to surrender after dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August 1945.


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How Did Carrier-Based Aircraft Influence Naval Battles In WWII? (2024)


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