Friday, May 09, 2008

Jackie Fisher's Dream Boat

This article of mine which appeared in the summer 2006 edition of the Navy Review Newsletter contends that the aircraft carrier was born out of British First Sea Lord Sir John "Jackie" Fisher's attempt to shape the battlecruiser into the new capital ship for the 20th Century.

Ironically, the man who instigated the building of the most powerful and
revolutionary warship of her day, HMS DREADNOUGHT, was convinced the day of the battleship was near an end. Tragically, for his country, Admiral
John “Jackie” Fisher of the British Royal Navy was also convinced the
fast but thin-skinned battlecruiser would displace the DREADNOUGHT as
capital ship at sea.

When Sir Jackie came to head the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in October
1904, he was already convinced of the Navy’s obsolescence. To him, most
of the fleet which guarded Pax Britannica was “too weak to fight and too
slow to run away”. With the coming of modern technology at sea;
including naval mines, torpedoes, and the submarine, he felt only speed
could save his beloved battle fleet from impending doom.

Though the DREADNOUGHT, which was bigger, faster, and more heavily armed than its contemporaries, would be Fisher’s legacy, it was on the
battlecruiser that the maverick admiral pinned his hopes. The first
three were named INVINCIBLE, INDOMITABLE, and INFLEXIBLE and began
appearing 2 years after DREADNOUGHT in 1908. Each was 17,000 tons, could
make 28 knots, and was armed with 8x12 inch guns. With a slightly
smaller armament and greatly reduced armor, the battlecruisers were also
cheaper to buy than battleships. Soon other nations were building the
speedy Titans as well as new dreadnoughts. Germany built the VON DER
TONN, a slower but better protected version of INVINCIBLE, and Japan
ordered KONGO from English shipyards, as well as constructing her own.
America belatedly joined the race by ordering 6x 35,000 ton LEXINGTONs
in 1916, but by then modern warfare had greatly altered the
battlecruiser’s fate.

HMS Hood

In the summer of that year, Fisher’s new capital ships, under the
command of Admiral David Beatty, were not considered as such by the
navy, but adjuncts to the battlefleet under Admiral John Jellicoe. It
was as scouts the battlecruisers were seeking their counterparts of the
German High Seas Fleet off Jutland. By chance and dumb luck, Beatty
blundered into the entire German High Seas Fleet with 16 dreadnoughts.
In quick succession two battlecuisers were lost, including INDEFATIGABLE
and QUEEN MARY, with a third, INVINCIBLE, following the others to the
deep later that day. Beatty was heard to remark, “there’s something
wrong with our bloody ships today”.

There was something wrong with Fisher’s ships, both in the design and
concept. The First Sea Lord had it right on the need for increased
speed, but more important was the need to increase their killing range.
Gunnery, which could reach out to 9000 yards was hardly better than in
Nelson’s day a century earlier. Obviously, something better was needed
to counter new weapons at sea.

Already, Fisher’s new capital ship was taking shape, though he had
little inkling of its nature. The first successful heavier-than-air
craft was flown in America in 1905, the same year Fisher entered the
Admiralty. Before World War 1, the Royal Naval Air Service was formed
and experimented with air-launched torpedoes. In 1915, the first
successful carrier raid was conducted by the British, sinking three
Turkish steamers in Istanbul Harbor.

The worlds first aircraft carrier, formerly the battle cruiser HMS Furious.

Though the first seaplane carrier HMS HERMES was ready in 1913, the
world’s first fix-wing carrier was a converted battlecruiser, HMS
FURIOUS, conversion completed in 1918. Though she entered service too
late to see significant action, her speed of 30-32 knots and the
capability of her aircraft inspired the imaginations of future

After the Washington Naval Conference, Britain, Japan, and America
possessed a surplus of battlecruisers, whose role of scouting for the
fleet was in doubt after Jutland. The US converted the giant and
unfinished LEXINGTON and SARATOGA into carriers capable of loading up to
120 planes. Both entered service in 1927-28. Japan converted two of her
own battlecruisers, starting with AKAGI and AMAGI. When an earthquake
damaged the latter in 1923, she was replaced by KAGA of 28 knots. These
speedy and powerful ships could carry over 60 aircraft, entering service
in 1927 and 1928 respectively.

America's first battlecruisers were to have been 6 Lexington class vessels.

USS Lexington in her new guise.

Great Britain followed FURIOUS with COURAGEOUS and GLORIOUS, the last,
which joined the fleet in 1930. Both were fast at 31 knots, but
originally created as “light battlecruisers”, were smaller than the
Japanese and American conversions. Only 30 aircraft were typically

It was these conversions, which gave interwar Admirals their first
glimpse of future carrier task forces. The new ships, with their
long-ranging aircraft quickly overtook the cruiser’s role as scouts for
the fleet. Meanwhile far seeing naval strategists also planned aerial
attacks with bombs and torpedoes against surface ships. During the years
before the next world war, numerous exercises were conducted by the
major navies, which would extend war at sea from the gun range to the
extended spans of airpower.

Britain quickly fell behind in the race, with her inadequate ships and a
Naval Air Service under the control of the newly formed RAF. It was left
to the rising powers of America and Japan to fully develop the new
capital ship into war winners. The converted vessels were the backbone
of the three navies well into World War 2 and the mold was set from
Fisher’s bold, but ultimately flawed design. With new weaponry and at
ranges the First Sea Lord never imagined, the battlecruiser finally came
of age.