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Documentary Histories

Post-War: Naval Aviation

Post-War Naval Aviation

     Although the first use of the airplane in combat was during the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912), it was World War I that entrenched an aerial arm in the militaries of every industrialized nation. Begun barely a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the first heavier-than-air flying machine, World War I saw dramatic leaps in the development of aircraft technology: during the war, the first aircraft carrier put to sea, a plane launched the first aerial torpedo, and aircraft assisted with convoy escorts for the first time.1 In the aftermath of the war, while it was clear to American naval leaders that aviation would play a significant role going forward, there was no shortage of debate over the exact nature and extent of that role.

     With the signing of the Armistice, the U.S. Navy’s first task was to demobilize, and that meant freeing itself of seventeen aviation stations in France. This process was far from painless, as the two countries differed considerably over reimbursement for American expenses incurred and sale prices for American-built facilities.2 It was not until the spring of 1920 that the United States was finally free of its aviation stations in France, after a contentious negotiation process that generated considerable anger on both sides.3 The turning over of naval aviation stations in Ireland proved a simpler matter, although most of these were in such “flimsy” and “unsatisfactory” condition that the British had little interest in their continued use.4

     After the war, and especially after the final peace treaty was signed, Germany’s will and capacity as far as military innovation were destroyed. Great Britain also gave little thought to naval aviation, having shifted all of its air-minded naval officers into the newly-created Royal Air Force. In the 1920s, the development of an aerial arm for forces at sea fell to the United States and Japan.5

     At the signing of the Armistice, only one nation had a recognizable aircraft carrier. The British launched the first flattop, HMS Argus, in September 1918.6 The United States never got a carrier to sea during the war, but moved quickly thereafter in developing one. The first American flattop was Langley, a converted collier (Jupiter), whose transformation began in July 1919 and was completed by March 1922.7 After the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 capped the number of battlecruisers the U. S. could produce, two intended battle cruisers, Lexington and Saratoga, received a hasty conversion to carriers.8

     The biggest question on aircraft carriers was what their significance would be relative to the battleship. For a number of air-minded officers, the aircraft carrier had supplanted the battleship, and would soon establish itself as the most important component of the fleet. Others saw aircraft playing a more auxiliary role, arguing that surface warfare would remain dominant in naval planning. This argument came to an abrupt and decisive end on December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes rained bombs on Pearl Harbor. The supremacy of naval aviation was reinforced six months later at Midway, when the United States and Japan fought one of the most decisive naval engagements in history without their fleets ever coming into sight of one another. For the Interwar Period, however, the question was a source of deep contention.

     Long-term planning aside, for Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Chief of Naval Operations William S. Benson the most urgent priority was the United States claiming the honor of being the first nation to fly across the Atlantic.9 Three specially-designed NC seaplanes left Rockaway Beach, Long Island, on 8 May 1919. They made their way first to Trepassy, Newfoundland, and departed from there for the 1,200-nautical mile stretch to the Azores. NC-1 and NC-3 were both unable to reach the Azores. They drifted off course in the heavy fog and were forced to land at sea to try and get their bearings. Rough seas soon made it impossible for the planes to resume their flight, and both crews were picked up by the Navy. NC-4, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read, made the stop-off point at the Azores, and later touched down in Lisbon, Portugal on 29 May, completing the first aerial trip across the Atlantic. A thrilled Daniels and President Woodrow Wilson cabled hearty congratulations, while newspapers across America celebrated the country’s historic achievement: “After awhile, such flights will become commonplace,” one paper presciently observed, “but the credit of the first accomplishment is to the glory of the Navy of the United States.”10

     The euphoria was short-lived, however, as Read’s accomplishment stood for less than a month. British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown succeeded in the first continuous transatlantic flight on 14-15 June 1919. They crossed from Newfoundland to Ireland in just over 16 hours, handily eclipsing Read’s 21-day trip.11 American leadership in naval aviation, however, continued unabated until the Second World War. Bolstered in 1921 with the founding of the Bureau of Aeronautics and then by the creation of an Assistant Secretary of the Navy for aeronautics in 1925, the United States rapidly developed an impressive naval aviation program despite skepticism from some of its officer corps. Unfortunately, across the Pacific Japan kept pace, and by 1941, these two powers had “[developed] sea-air warfare to levels of precision and lethality far beyond anything seen” in Europe.12

Footnote 1: Lee Kennett, The First Air War: 1914-1918 (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 187-206; Martin Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), 25-50.

Footnote 3: William N. Still Jr., Victory Without Peace: The United States Navy in European Waters, 1919-1924 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 67-71.

Footnote 5: Spector, At War at Sea, 126-127.

Footnote 6: Kennett, First Air War, 194.

Footnote 7: See: McKean to Halstead, 25 April 1919. See also: DANFS, Langley, accessed 18 April 2019.

Footnote 8: DANFS, Lexington and Saratoga, accessed 18 April 2019.

Footnote 10: For the transatlantic flight, see, Richard K. Smith, First Across!: The U.S. Navy’s Transatlantic Flight of 1919 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1973), passim. Quotation from Rocky Mountain News, 172.

Footnote 11: Ibid., 191-192.

Footnote 12: See Spector, At War at Sea, 141-185 for advances in U.S. and Japanese naval aviation capabilities. Quotation on page 185.


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