Friday, March 10, 2017

The "baby flattops" of World War II

The good people at Vintage Wings of Canada have put up an amazingly long and detailed article (about 33,000 words and scores of photographs) about the 44 escort carriers, built on merchant ship hulls, that were built in the USA for service with the Royal Navy (out of 123 escort carriers built in total).  It's a fascinating look at the 'workhorse' carriers of the ocean war, in any navy - not just the British.  Here's an excerpt from the introduction.

During the Second World War, there were literally hundreds of vessels on all sides that could be classified as aircraft carriers; from merchant vessels with a single catapult-launched Hurricane to seaplane carriers to merchant aircraft carriers (similar to an escort carrier but without a hangar deck) to the biggest aforementioned fleet carriers. Of these, the largest number were escort carriers, the ships we have come to know as “baby flattops”. There were an astonishing 123 escort carriers built for the United States Navy, many of which were transferred to the Royal Navy after launch. These so-called “baby” aircraft carriers were hardly small—around 500 feet in length, carrying dozens of aircraft, displacing 8,000 tons and capable of speeds up to 20 knots.

HMS Nabob showing damage after being torpedoed in August 1944

While the big fleet carriers took the fight directly to the enemy and received the attention of the folks back home, the escort carriers did a myriad of necessary tasks that underpinned the very concept of carrier aviation—ferrying aircraft, replenishing aircraft, fuel and stores and carrying troops, as well as taking the fight to the enemy with anti-submarine sweeps, convoy escort, “spare deck” duty, and attacks on enemy shipping and land installations. They were the true all-purpose aviation vessels of the Second World War. The big boys made history in such battles as Leyte Gulf, Midway, Coral Sea, Santa Cruz, Taranto and Pearl Harbor, but the baby flattops supported, supplied, and suffered along with them from Operation TUNGSTEN to Operation ICEBERG. In fact, the first warship to be sunk by a kamikaze attack was the Casablanca-class escort carrier USS St. Lo in the battle of Leyte Gulf.

HMS Emperor in a snowstorm off Newfoundland

Though all of these carriers were launched with American names, many did not serve with the United States Navy. Instead, 44 escort carriers were transferred to the Royal Navy after launch and completion under the Lend-Lease program and renamed.

. . .

Some were relegated to the drudgery of aircraft ferrying and one or two never even launched a single aircraft, but most saw some combat activity either in the high arctic waters off Norway, in the swelter of the Indian Ocean or with the Royal Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

during combat operations in the Aegean Sea in September 1944

Unlike fleet carriers, escort carriers of both the United States and Great Britain had lives after their fighting careers were over. Nearly all of them sold to commercial shipbuilders after the war and were stripped down to their base mercantile hulls, then rebuilt as cargo vessels, many of which, at nearly 500 feet long, were the largest of their day. A few of them even became luxury ocean liners. These often-beautiful merchant vessels continued on for another 20–25 years or more, with most going to the breakers in the 1970s.

Former escort carrier HMS Atheling after post-war conversion
to the Italian passenger liner SS Roma

There's much more at the link, including many more photographs.

This is truly fascinating stuff for naval and military history buffs.  I'm not aware of any other detailed history of escort carriers and their activities (at least, not one that's currently available - there may be older books out there, but I don't know of any in print).  I learned a great deal that I didn't know, such as combat operations by escort carriers against German forces in Norway, Crete and the Dodecanese Islands, and strikes against Japanese positions in Burma and other 'sideshow' campaigns of the Pacific War.  I also gained a new respect for the way these small carriers supplied aircraft and essential supplies to the larger fleet carriers.  It's clear that, without the escort carriers to resupply them and replenish their aircraft inventories as they were depleted by battle losses and damage, the fleet carriers would often have become white elephants until they could return to port to resupply.

Highly recommended as a possibly unique resource on a little-known aspect of naval warfare in World War II.



TheOtherSean said...

Neat post. The CVE's are fascinating. I remember reading that the CVE's were sometimes referred to as Combustible Vulnerable Expendable, but they really came through for the Allies both in terms of logistics and in battle. The operation that caught U-505 was run from the escort carrier USS Guadalcanal, and the ferocity of their (nearly futile) attacks on the IJN Center Force during the Battle of Leyte Gulf convinced the Japanese commander to retreat.

Ron said...

My father served on one during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. If I remember correctly, they had to outrun Japanese battleships because they were sailing with the wind and could not launch their planes. He remembered it as being "close."

Anonymous said...

Anyone else hear themes from Richard Rodgers' "Victory at Sea" suite playing in the back of their heads?


Brad_in_IL said...

Don't forget the flattops of Lake Michigan. Many a carrier pilot learned take off and landing from greater Chicago's Glenview Naval Air Station.

Sherm said...

Just so you don't miss it:

The Battle of Leyte Gulf.

RHT447 said...

You can get a pretty good look at two of them in the final shoot out in the movie 'Magnum Force'. They were tied up at the west end of the Richmond Bridge over San Francisco Bay.

JohninMd.(HELP?!??) said...

Adm. Daniel V. Gallery commanded one in the Atlantic, on anti-U-boat operations. They captured the U-505, the only U-boat taken on the high seas, the last time an American warship heard the command, "AWAY, ALL BOARDING PARTYS!" As an aside, he was a pretty good fiction writer, as well!

Anonymous said...

Naval Institute Press published two volumes on CVEs by William Y'Blood in the 1980s. And can't forget the Morison multivolume history of USN in WWII.

Quartermaster said...

The Wright was modified into a command ship after the war. She was still tied up at the Inactive ships facility in NorVA in the early 70s. My father in law had been assigned to her during her active days as a command ship. The flight deck was used as an antenna deck. She also has a presidential suite as well.

Ben Yalow said...

The interesting thing about the Lake Michigan training carriers were that they were paddle wheel coal fired steamers. IX-64 (Wolverine) and IX-81 (Sable) were both originally Great Lakes passenger ships that the government bought, but down to below the passenger decks, and has flight decks built on. They could just steam fast enough to get sufficient Wind Over Deck to practice takeoffs/landings (although, since they didn't have hangar decks, the flight decks were very low to the water).

Will said...

I was a little surprised to find that they were single screw vessels.

That, and the Roma was built on a carrier that had been declared to be too slow for fleet use.

Will said...


there was a near ten knot speed deficit between the Japanese forces and those baby carriers. They sank the closest one, and were overhauling the rest, when they turned and left.
One of the carriers mauled one of the attacking cruisers with the stern 5" cannon they had.

Those DD and DE's should have acquired a lot more medals than they did. An astounding performance in repelling the attack. Reads like a naval fiction novel. You know, as they did going in, that the end was pre-ordained, but what they accomplished was stunning.

Brad_in_IL said...

Forgot about the low deck. Certainly that contributed to the number of carrier planes at the lake bottom.

Mark Lowes said...

My father in law was in the Canadian navy,on the flight deck of the nabob when it was torpedoed.He finished ww2 in a destroyer.