Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers
Reviewed by James Thomas

World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers

by Mark Lardas
Osprey Publishing, 2016

HMS Ark Royal

The modern United States Navy, like all of today's major navies, is built primarily around air power and the aircraft carrier. These massive ships, with all their support vessels surrounding them, exhibit the nation's strength through their ability to launch aircraft to deliver ordnance anywhere in the world. Even today's newest class addition, USS America, LHA-6, is designed to deliver marine amphibious forces entirely by aircraft without landing craft. As fundamental as this naval philosophy is today, however, prior to the Great War aviation was still a novelty. Few, if any, in the naval establishment believed little airplanes could do any damage to great big warships. As with so many other types of technology and thinking, World War I began the process of changing that notion.

Mark Lardas takes on one element of naval transformation in his excellent little book, World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers. As with most Osprey publications, it is brief, concise, and heavily illustrated. It is a bit simplistic, with the occasional grammatical imperfections, yet it is also a very fine examination of the topic. Lardas describes both general naval aviation development and the differences in development by the principal belligerents of the Great War.

Sopwith Camel Taking-Off HMS  Pegasus

As military aviation evolved, navies developed two basic types of aircraft and thus two means of transporting those aircraft. Seaplanes are those craft that have flotation devices so they can land and take off from the water, rather than having wheels and skids for the usual airfield runway use. These seaplanes can be hoisted onto and off ships with cranes and simply carried on board. Without floats, planes with landing gear require ships with either catapults to launch them off short platforms or ocean-going flight decks, allowing them to land on and take off directly from ships.

Initially, as no ships were designed with aviation in mind, the first aircraft transports were conversions from other types of vessels. Sections of deck were cleared and platforms built or large portions redesigned so that flight decks could be fitted. Later ships would be designed specifically to handle aircraft of all types. Each nation had a different view about what aviation meant to naval operations and as aircraft evolved, so did the development of ships to carry them. Britain led the way, and earlier than the other countries built the first seaplane carrier, HMS Ark Royal, and through design evolution, by the end of the war had a ship designed as a true aircraft carrier for transport, landings and takeoffs of airplanes, HMS Argus.

None of the other nations devoted as much energy in the development of naval aviation, though all made some efforts. France was advancing very well until the necessities of national survival in the trenches shifted her efforts away from naval aviation. France's land-based aircraft, of course, were exceptional. Without global empires as large as Britain's, other countries did not need navies as big or as technologically advanced. Still, the work of all the nations and especially the developments in the years following the war, set the stage for World War II, when navies and especially aircraft carriers played such a fundamental role.

Mr. Lardas's book is a very fine study of this extremely important foundational stage in naval aviation development. Because it is also an Osprey publication, the reader can expect outstanding illustrations, including both photographs and colorful drawings. World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers should be on the shelves of anyone interested in naval aviation.

James Thomas

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