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The Aircraft Carrier

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The aircraft carrier played a significant role in the bombing of Darwin. Four Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu situated in the Timor Sea, were the launching pad for the 188 aircraft that took part in the first bombing on 19 February 1942.

At the beginning of World War II, the aircraft carrier was a concept that was slightly uncertain. Aircraft seemed useful at sea in reconnaissance roles but the battleship  reigned supreme, their mighty guns dominating all naval matters, and their armour rendering them invulnerable against attack.

By the end of the war, everything had changed.

Taking aircraft to sea gave advantages to ships. Trials in World War I showed that aerial reconnaissance could reveal the enemy's whereabouts but soon using aircraft in an attack or defence role emerged.

The first steps were difficult. Test pilot Eugene Ely took off from USS Birmingham in 1910, and the technique blossomed, but recovery was difficult. It wasn’t until August 1917 that the first deck landing occurred.

Aircraft had many problems at sea. The early machines were slow and fragile – a hail of machine-gun fire was often fatal. Aircraft also had annoying features. They needed wind over the deck to become airborne, they required flammable fuel, specialized mechanics and aircrew to fly them. 

As World War II progressed, significant carrier combat events, including attacks on land targets, began to prove the worth of the carrier-based aircraft. Notable among these attacks were Pearl Harbour and Darwin, which bypassed shore gun defences designed for use against surface ships.

As the war concluded carriers came to the fore. In the Pacific the strategic concern was to take land bases such as Saipan. Bombardment was necessary before landings; and aircraft – carried along with the assault forces by carriers – used rockets and bombs to great effect.

The concept of an amphibious assault carrier, complete with hovercraft and close attack aircraft, has been continued beyond World War II, and the strategic carrier has evolved, designed for land attack to influence foreign affairs. 

Carriers proved their usefulness again in the Korean War, where few convenient airbases were available for flying operations. The Royal Navy used carriers as the mainstay of its victory in the Falklands War – the amphibious assaults would have been impossible without them. 

Today the most militarily-powerful nation on earth, the United States of America, keeps many carrier battle groups ready to bring decisive power to bear wherever it needs it around the planet.

​A Kate B5N Type 97 torpedo bomber landing on Japanese carrier Shokaku, somewhere in the South Pacific, 18 Mar 1943. (Japanese Self-Defence Force)