Who was responsible for creating the pre-war aircraft carriers?

10/25/2012 • Ask Mr. History, Pearl Harbor

Both Japan and the U.S. had impressive carrier fleets at the beginning of WWII.  Considering the "battleship" mentality so prevalent in both navies’ admiralties, I’ve always been curious who the people were who were primarily responsible for driving the creation of these aircraft carriers years before the start of WW2.


Sam Fleming

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Dear Mr. Fleming,  

Arguably the earliest advocates of carrier air power in its halting early states were Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914, Winston Churchill, and Commander Charles Rumney Samson. Churchill had been behind forming the royal Naval Air Service as a separate entity and Samson experimented with a variety of means of operating aircraft from seaplane tenders as well as seaborn platforms before HMS Furious launched the first true carrier operations in the summer of 1918. Even so, during the postwar years the Royal Navy tended to regard the aircraft carrier as a supplement to the battleship, rather than as an independent offensive weapon—until the Taranto raid of November 11, 1940, demonstrated its full potential.  

Among the early American advocates of carrier air power was Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, who in 1925 declared that "Naval Aviation cannot take the offensive from shore; it must go to sea on the back of the fleet." Captain Thomas T. Craven was the chief driving force for converting the collier Jupiter into the first U.S. Navy carrier, Langley.  

Japan was the first power to conduct an offensive operation from a seaplane carrier, during the 1914 siege of Tsingtao, and in 1919 it laid down the first carrier to be built from the keel up as such, Hosho, which entered service on December 27, 1922. And yet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, like the British, put the emphasis on battleship power, with the carrier as a supplement, for most of the interwar years. In 1945, Fleet Admiral Osami Nagano admitted "We were doing our utmost all the time to catch up with the United States." Apparently the great mold-breaker was Minoru Genda, who enlisted in 1929 with the specific ambition of becoming a fighter pilot and, after becoming an officer, urged the Japanese navy to abandon battleships, which he dismissed as "piers," in favor an emphasis on carriers and submarines, backed by cruisers and destroyers. It was also Genda who advocated the use of multiple carriers as a primary striking force, realized by the Kido Butai—a "Combined Fleet" centered around an unprecedented six carriers—at Pearl Harbor.  



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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