An Overview of Naval Aviation During World War I

The First World War established the fundamentals of military aviation; this includes naval aviation. Like the armies of Europe, which gathered the air assets that would later become the air forces of their nations, the navies were alert to the possibilities presented by air power. Airships, towed balloons, seaplanes, and conventional aircraft were all available to Europe’s navies during the war. Naval aviation itself was effectively shaped by the experience of World War I, with the beginning of the war seeing mainly reconnaissance by airships and the end of the war unveiling the first aircraft carriers.

At the beginning of the war, airships and balloons served as the primary air auxiliaries for Europe’s navies. Grouped together as lighter-than-air craft, they represented the latest developments in a technology that had been proven for 130 years. In this context, balloons refer only to craft that lacked any power to move horizontally. Such a balloon could be raised and lowered, and it would drift with the wind if not properly tethered, but it could move its position only by being towed. Airships, on the other hand, were large dirigibles, meaning that they carried engines for self-propulsion. Airships came in two categories, rigid ones with a light but solid skeleton inside of the outer skin, and non-rigid ones that lacked such a skeleton. The use of such a skeleton permitted the construction of larger airships than was possible without one, and the size of the airship affected its range and stability.

In 1914, the Germans had a prohibitive lead in rigid airships. Germany possessed eleven airships at the start of the war, and these craft could travel as far as 900 miles, in up to 40 hours, on a single mission. Capable of flying as far as Scapa Flow and back, the German Zeppelins could effectively reconnoiter the entire North Sea, offering the German Navy a substantial advantage. In 1914, most of Germany’s Zeppelins were in Army hands, with only one belonging to the Navy; two others had been lost to accidents in 1913. German industry was to produce another 64 Zeppelins for the Navy alone during the course of the war, however; unchallenged, they would represent a powerful asset to the German Navy.

Britain’s experiments with rigid airships had been disappointing, and so the Royal Navy was outfitted solely with non-rigid airships. These were poorly suited to travel across the high seas, and generally found their niche near the coast. They proved especially useful against submarines; while they could not often make a telling attack on a submarine, they could force the submarine to submerge, slowing it down until surface assets could be brought to bear against it. Still, the British were haunted by the gap between what the German Zeppelins could accomplish and what British airships could do in response. As early as September, 1914, the British sought to employ airplanes against Zeppelins through a series of bombing raids on Zeppelin hangars. While it is true that the British were concerned about the possibility of a Zeppelin bombing raid on Britain, these attacks began several months before the Germans attempted such a thing; the risk of Zeppelins challenging the superiority of the Royal Navy was also a major motivator.

Italy also had airships in naval service, accumulating 22 by war’s end, although these were primarily used for bombing missions, rather than naval reconnaissance or anti-submarine activity.

All belligerents used balloons on land and at sea. In the naval context, balloons were tethered to warships, offering a far wider perspective to lookouts than could possibly be offered by the highest crow’s nest attached to a ship. Such observation balloons also offered the only early warning mechanism that the navies of World War I had to alert sailors to the presence of an enemy submarine. Communication between the observer and the men on deck was generally carried out by semaphore; wireless transmitters were still rare at this time.

While fixed-wing aircraft were viewed with low expectations in 1914, some efforts had been made to make them useful in a naval context. Experiments had been performed on both British and American vessels to allow aircraft to take off from, or land on, large vessels. These vessels were cruisers and battleships, and there was no intention to make them exclusively aircraft carriers, but it was considered useful for major warships to have a handful of airplanes for reconnaissance purposes.

Almost immediately thereafter, an alternative became available in the form of the seaplane. Seaplanes came in two major varieties, floatplanes and flying boats. Floatplanes were built mostly like land-based airplanes, but with pontoons instead of wheels as landing gear. Flying boats had no landing gear at all, but instead had large bodies built to float on water much as a conventional boat might. Flying boats were larger than floatplanes and often had two engines. The use of one or the other was sometimes a matter of national preference: the British and French used both, while the Germans opted mainly for floatplanes and the Austrians for flying boats.

Seaplanes could take off from, and land on, water without having recourse to a vessel, but the concentration of seaplanes as well as their directed deployment argued for an ability to carry such planes aboard ships. The first experiments in this arena also took place shortly before the war began. Here, it was neither necessary nor possible for such planes to take off from the ship’s deck, but instead, they were lowered to the sea by cranes, and once on the water, the seaplanes could take off (and eventually land) normally.

Seaplanes and the cranes used to service them could easily be carried on cruisers and battleships, but again, the need to concentrate aircraft in larger numbers argued for the use of dedicated vessels to carry such aircraft. The first operational aircraft carriers, like the HMS Engadine, were actually seaplane tenders; having been built as ferries, they were converted for carrier use in 1914, and the first air attack by planes carried by some sort of aircraft carrier was made on Christmas Day that same year.

Weight distribution and drag functioned differently on seaplanes than on land-based planes, and as a result, seaplanes tended to be more fragile. They could be armed, and they could perform attacks on ground, air or sea targets, but they were most often used in the reconnaissance role. One form of attack did favor seaplanes, however: torpedo attacks. Torpedoes could be carried under the fuselage of floatplanes, and with the plane aiming itself in the direction of the targeted ship, the torpedo could be dropped and allowed to propel itself toward the target.

Seaplanes had performance limitations, however, and the British in particular were keen to make use of the rapidly expanding capabilities of land-based aircraft at sea. From 1914 through 1917, the British experimented with different patterns of flight decks for allowing airplanes with wheeled landing gear to take off from such vessels, and eventually to land on them again. The need for aircraft to achieve a given take-off speed led to tests of partially-angled decks, but by the last year of the war, advances in airplane technology permitted take-off in a shorter space. It took a longer period of time to develop techniques for letting the airplane land on the deck again.

Britain’s first aircraft carrier, as opposed to seaplane tender, was the Ark Royal, which had begun service as a collier but was converted to carry airplanes. The HMS Furious was converted to a more modern design, and the Furious would launch in 1918 the first carrier-borne air raid. A still more advanced flight deck was built onto the Argus, a liner converted to carrier, and on the Hermes, which was built from the start as a carrier (and not to be confused with the earlier Hermes, a cruiser converted to seaplane tender and lost in 1914), but these carriers were completed too late in the war to be used practically. They did, however, serve as inspiration for other nations that would invest in carriers after the war, notably the United States and Japan.

By late 1917, the military application of Zeppelins was dwindling rapidly as disasters in the bombing campaigns over Britain demonstrated their susceptibility to fire from the new varieties of fixed-wing fighters. Seaplanes would remain in limited use, as they have endured even to today, but the future of naval aviation was shown to rest in carrier-based aircraft. Such planes would be constructed like land-based aircraft, but would be built as light as possible to permit take-off from short runways. On British carriers, this would lead to the retention of biplanes like the Fairey Swordfish in World War II, after biplanes were considered obsolete for land-based use. Other navies would find other ways to limit the weight of carrier aircraft; the Japanese would resolve the problem with the A6M Zero, which was fast and maneuverable but totally unarmored. These were all the product of lessons learned during World War I.



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