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 8×12 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.
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-aircraft 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.
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 loaded.
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.