British Aircraft Carriers of the First World War

Wars Battles Biographies Timeline Weapons Blog
Full Index Subjects Concepts Country Documents Pictures & Maps

The First World War saw the appearance of an entirely new type of warship, the aircraft carrier. Pre-war experiments followed two paths. The first saw aircraft platforms built over the gun turrets of existing ships, a system that would be used with some success during the war. The second saw the light cruiser HMS Hermes converted into the first British seaplane carrier. During 1913 she was given a hanger that could carry three seaplanes, a launching platform, and cranes to retrieve the seaplanes after they had landed alongside the ship.

She was followed by HMS Ark Royal, the first ship to be completed as a seaplane carrier. Although she had a forward flight deck, this was originally designed as a working space. Seaplanes would be launched by being lowered to the water and then taking off as normal. Eventually her deck was used to launch land and sea planes.

HMS Ark Royal was not complete until the end of 1914. The outbreak of the First World War thus found the Royal Navy without a seaplane carrier. Hermes was rushed back into commission, while three cross-channel ferries (Empress, Riviera and Engadine) were taken over from the South East and Chatham Railway Company on 11 August 1914, and converted to carry seaplanes. They would be followed in 1915 by three Isle of Man steamers (Ben-My-Chree, Vindex and Manxman). Two German ships captured at Port Said in 1914 were also converted to carry seaplanes (Anne and Raven II).

While these seaplane carriers had their uses, the need for bigger ships with proper launching platforms was clear. The first such ship to enter service was HMS Campania, a converted liner that was eventually give a 200 foot flight deck, first used in August 1915. The Campania could be used to launch land or sea planes, but sea planes still had to be retrieved by crane and land planes find somewhere else to land. The basic design was repeated in 1917 in HMS Nairana and HMS Pegasus, both taken over while under construction on 27 February 1917.

The next four conversions would see the emergence of the modern aircraft carrier, ships on which aircraft could land as well as take off. The key ship was HMS Furious. She was originally designed as a rather useless light battle cruisers armed with two 18in guns and virtually un-armoured. In March 1917 this design was abandoned in favour of converting her to act as a carrier. The incomplete forward turret was abandoned and replaced with a sloping flying-off deck. On 2 August Squadron Commander Dunning twice successfully landed a Sopwith Pup on this flying-off deck, the first time this had been achieved. Sadly on 7 August Dunning was drowned while making a third attempt to land. In October it was decided to give the Furious a rear landing-deck, and on 15 March 1918 she rejoined the Grand Fleet in this new configuration. The new design was not a great success, and landings were soon suspended. After the war the Furious was repeatedly modified, eventually emerging as a recognisably modern carrier with full length flight deck and island.

Two more converted aircraft carriers would enter service before the end of the war. First to be completed was HMS Argus, built on the hull of the line Conte Rosso. She had a full length flight deck and could safely land aircraft, but she did not enter service until September 1918. She was followed into service in October 1918 by HMS Vindictive, a converted cruiser with the same split flight deck arrangement as the Furious after her second refit.  

The most ambitious conversion saw the Chilean battleship Almirante Cochrane completed as HMS Eagle. She was a flush-decked aircraft carrier, originally designed with port and starboard islands, but eventually completed with a single starboard island. She was partially completed by 1920 and fully complete by the end of 1922.

Finally, a second HMS Hermes was the first warship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. She was designed in 1917, laid down in 1918 but not completed until 1924.

Name

Date*

Type

Source

Number of planes

Hermes

1913

Seaplane carrier

Converted warship

3

Ark Royal

1914

Seaplane carrier

Purchased while building

7

Empress

1914

Seaplane carrier

Cross-channel steamer

6

Riviera

1914

Seaplane carrier

Cross-channel steamer

4

Engadine

1914

Seaplane carrier

Cross-channel steamer

4

Campania

1915

Seaplane carrier

Converted Liner

10

Anne

1915

Seaplane carrier

Ex-German

2

Raven II

1915

Seaplane carrier

Ex-German

2

Pegasus

1917

Seaplane carrier

Purchased while building

9

Argus

1918

Aircraft carrier

Purchased while building

20

Furious

1918

Aircraft carrier

Purchased while building

8

Ben-My-Chree

1915

Seaplane carrier

Cross-channel steamer

4

Vindex

1915

Seaplane carrier

Cross-channel steamer

7

Manxman

1916

Seaplane carrier

Cross-channel steamer

8

Nairana

1917

Seaplane carrier

Purchased while building

7

Furious

1917

Aircraft carrier

Warship conversion

8

Vindictive

1918

Aircraft carrier

Warship conversion

6

Eagle

1920

Aircraft carrier

Warship conversion

21

Hermes

1924

Aircraft carrier

Purpose built

24

* Date completed as aircraft carrier

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 November 2007), British Aircraft Carriers of the First World War, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/lists_carriers_british_WWI.html

Delicious Save this on Delicious

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader

Google Groups Subscribe to History of War
Email:
Browse Archives at groups.google.co.uk