ESSEX CLASS, 1943-1991 & U.S. AIRCRAFT CARRIERS, 1939-45

11 Feb 22

It would be easy to dismiss these two books as spotters’ guides, but that would be unfair. Admittedly, they are descriptive rather than analytical and are mainly focussed on getting over as much data on their subjects as possible. Leo Marriott looks at the genesis and evolution of the long lived and very successful Essex class of American aircraft carriers, effectively using the construction and operational careers of the 24 of them that made it that far ( two didn’t), more or less chronologically  arranged. This is quite cleverly done, and there is not too much overlap. Given the simultaneity of those careers, this is a real achievement. Apart from several times appearing to think that the Korean War began in 1951 rather than 1950, the information seems authoritative and accurate.

The text is enlivened by a great many photographs which are usefully described in detail, so readers really appreciate what they are looking at. Some are really interesting and novel; many are dramatic too, not least those that show carriers coping with the threat of kamikaze attack.

Ingo Bauernfeind’s US Aircraft Carriers 1939-45 is a very different, literally glossier, affair which covers all American carriers of the Second World War, not just the Essex class. Sharp black and white and coloured illustrations compare well with the rather grey and grainy grey ones in Marriott’s book. Its coverage of the Essex class is much less of course, but in compensation it deals with light fleet and escort carriers as well. Its concise examination of carrier aircraft (which Marriott lacks) is a timely reminder that without aircraft a carrier is just another hull with guns.  Bauernfeind is twice as expensive though. Nothing comes for free!

So what big ideas should we pick out of the mass of material presented in these two books? The first perhaps might be the evolutionary way in which major changes in the character (not the nature!) of naval warfare come about. War certainly can speed things up, but even then the immediate exigencies of actually fighting it, slows the process. The organisational context matters too. Marriott touches on the early lead in carrier aviation that the Royal Navy established during the First World War, but this was frittered away by a combination of disarmament, much reduced defence expenditure and the unfortunate way in which responsibility for what became the Fleet Air Arm was shared between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry. When war came to the Pacific, the Americans fielded a carrier force that was their response to some of the same set of circumstances, but some different ones too. They benefitted from the absence of an independent air force and the anticipated demands of a maritime war fought on the open ocean far from land (quite unlike the geo-strategic nature of a coming European war). As a result, they pulled ahead of the British in many ways. Responding to the same imperatives, the Japanese did even better, although for all three, the heavy guns of their battleships remained into 1942 the ultimate expression of power at sea.

But once war came, the huge financial and industrial resources of the United States provided the means for a rapid response to their initial operational set-backs. Both books show how central the Essex class of carriers was to this effort. The Americans, when designing and authorising this class of carrier from the late 1930s, profited from the experience gained through operating their earlier carriers, most notably the big 27,000 ton Lexington and Saratoga that were allowed under the terms of the 1922 Washington treaty. The front-line operational careers of the Essex class of 24 carriers started in 1943 and most continued into the 1970s. Some of them remained in support functions into the 1990s, and four are now museum ships. Bauernfeind though illustrates an essential point that Marriott, because of his narrower focus, misses.

Staggering though the industrial effort to produce the Essex class was, it was just a part of a much bigger carrier aviation project that in 1945 provided the Navy with a fleet of 28 large carriers, 71 smaller ones and 41,000 aircraft. The introduction of radically new methods of mass construction made all this possible. The somewhat ill-fated fleet carrier USS Franklin was completed in just 18 months, for example. In 1942, a time of crisis, Henry Kaiser responded to the urgent need for smaller, simpler, slower escort carriers by promising to deliver 50 of them (the Casablanca class) in one year, and did it too. Against such industrial odds, the Japanese stood little chance of winning. The Americans could produce carriers, and everything else, much faster than the Japanese could sink them – just as Admiral Yamamoto had always feared.

Even so, realising that the Essex class would take some time to arrive, the Americans also invested in a smaller category, of light fleet carriers, the Independence class, which mostly commissioned in 1943, essentially as gap-fillers. Based on cruiser designs they were fast with a speed of 31.5 knots and so could keep up with the rest of the battlefleet. It was from one of those, USS San Jacinto, that George H.W. Bush, later to be President of the United States, flew with some gallantry.

When the Essex class appeared, each was modified in the light of previous experience. This was an evolutionary process not a sudden overnight transformation. Partly it was in response to the needs of increasingly demanding aircraft, especially those of the jets of the mid to late 1940s. Partly, like the British before them, the US Navy had constantly to adjust the balance struck between reliance on heavy AA gunnery and fighter screens for defence against air attack, as circumstances and levels of success dictated. The kamikaze attacks of 1944-5 showed that both were essential, but to a much higher degree than anyone had predicted. Marriott makes the interesting point that of the complement of about 3,500 men in an Essex class carrier (when the airgroup was on board), no less than 750 were required to fire the suite of AA guns.

Perhaps the RN, so often criticised for their initially excessive reliance on AA gunnery for carrier defence was not so misguided after all! Pacific experience also justified the British approach to building carriers where the flight deck and hangars were regarded as part of the hull, rather than a superstructure above it. Despite this, however, none of the Essex class were sunk. The ability of carrier borne aviation not only to decide the outcome of encounters on the high seas (which provided the conditions for the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific) but also to take on and defeat enemy land-based air made for a costly but ultimately triumphant display of the carrier airpower, spear-headed by the Essexclass.

If there’s a lesson here for today’s naval planners, though, it must surely be for scepticism about the big bang theory of technological advance in naval war-fighting; instead advance comes cumulatively in a succession of small technical steps and improvements in operational procedures. It cost money, and in wartime, lives and it took time. Browsing through both of these books provides plenty of evidence for this argument. Something to keep in mind, perhaps, when considering the likely impact of AI, machine-learning, hypersonics and all the rest of it. But, on the other hand, maybe things are different now?

Another lesson perhaps is the advantage of big platforms which can take punishment as well as deliver it. They have the growth space that allows them to more easily be re-calibrated either in design or in their complement of weapons (in the carrier case, the mix of their aircraft) to perform tasks very different from what they were originally intended and designed for. The Essex class of fleet carriers were often reconfigured into attack carriers (CVA) or anti-submarine carriers (CVS). Even the 10,000 ton escort carrier, the USS Thetis (CVE-90), for example was used first as an aircraft transporter in the last year of the war, but was reconfigured in 1955 as a helicopter carrier, before going on to participate in the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962 as an ‘amphibious assault ship’. Perhaps something for today’s advocates of a disaggregated fleet of small fast units, networked together to bear in mind?

A final point that comes out loud and clear is the huge advantage the Americans derived from their technological and industrial proficiency. Given the current naval stand-off between the US and China, this too needs to be well hoisted in. The next campaign in the Western Pacific could be very different from the last for this reason alone.

Whether you go into this subject in search of evidence for these larger themes or because you just happen to be interested in aircraft carriers and the role they have played in the naval wars of the past, then both of these books are for you. But I have to say that the wider reach and decidedly superior presentational standard of the much more expensive Bauernfeind book would have made a rather nicer Christmas present than the perfectly acceptable but modest Marriott one. Best of all – get both for contrast and comparison.