Fleet Air Arm myths, No. 4: The Inter-War Admiralty had no interest in aviation.

Admiralty Arch in 1934 hoping one day to make the background of Danger Mouse or a Monty Python animation.

It’s popular to say the Admiralty had no interest in aviation between the wars, being obsessed by battle ships. Which to be fair do look more impressive with their serried ranks of 14” guns. [10] In a recent essay in The Times noted university and army drop-out Max Hastings observed that ‘By, say, 1942 the admirals who before the Second World War had gone big on battleships, light on aircraft carriers, bitterly regretted this.’.

Threesome anyone?

The only problem with this is that, much like the rest of Hastings’ essay, it’s bobbins. In 1939 the Royal Navy had six aircraft carriers in service and one in reserve, which compared well to the US and Japanese navies who both had five in service. For those under the delusion that Britain still had the biggest navy in the world at this point and so should have had more, alas the Washington and London naval treaties prevented this. These allowed the UK and USA to build to parity, while the Japanese could have 3/5ths the tonnage of either of those countries. Closer examination reveals that by 1930 the RN had used the most of their aircraft carrier tonnage allowance using 115 out of a possible 135 thousand tonnes for their five flat-tops. [11] The USN having used 76 thousand tonnes and the IJN 54 of their allowed 81 thousand tonnes. So, the only way the Royal Navy could have had more carriers was if they’d made them smaller, something the Japanese tried with the Ryūjō a carrier the weight of a modern destroyer but carrying 48 aircraft on two decks. Stability was problematic.

Ark Royal in 1939


But what about future plans, presumably the stuffy old Admiralty were concentrating on assembling a battleship orgy now they had a small collection of carriers. Well not so much, the King George the Fifth class were being delivered but they were only replacing ships that had to be retired under the afore mentioned treaties. What they were building were six carriers of the Illustrious class which would almost exactly use up their treaty allowance minus the Ark Royal, Courageous, and Glorious. Oh, and an aviation depot ship that due to treaty limitations was definitely not an aircraft carrier. The flight deck being crucial to its role supporting a squadron of three fleet carriers and definitely not something that could be used for offensive operations. [12]

HMS Unicorn definitely not escorting a convoy in the North Atlantic

So, the Admiralty hadn’t just gone big on aircraft carriers, they’d gone bigger than they were really allowed to. That they didn’t go bigger once war was declared was purely down to shipyard capacity in the UK. This also led to the cancellation of any further battleships, some of which were already laid down. Only Vanguard eventually being built to use up some spare guns and placate Churchill who had a battleship fetish.

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It’s also worth pointing out the Admiralty had spent two decades trying to regain control of the Fleet Air Arm from the Air Ministry. Hardly the actions of an organisation with no interest in aviation. They’d even created the Observer branch to at least have some Naval officers with specialist aviation knowledge independent of the RAF.


All in all, the only way you can say the Admiralty had no interest in aviation prior to WW2 is if you’re completely oblivious to what happened between the wars. Which is fine for the man in the street but not the sort of misinformation a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society should be spreading.

[10] Size may vary by country and class.
[11] Jordon, John. Warships after Washington: The Development of the Five Major Fleets, 1922-1930, 2011. P 193
[12] Dr Alexander Clarke has an excellent YouTube video on this, even if he’s wrong about the Swordfish being rugged.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.

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7 comments

  1. kimmargosein

    I checked in Wikipedia, and it seems on Sep 1, 1939, only Furious, Glorious, Courageous, Eagle, and Ark Royal were in service. The Illustrious class did not enter service until 1940-41. What was the sixth in service carrier and reserve carrier?

  2. Dr David Chessum

    Your basic thesis is correct – but there are one or two errors of fact in this article:
    • It is misleading to suggest that Britain had used most of their aircraft carrier tonnage allowance by 1930, as several of the RN carriers were classified as “experimental” under the Washington Naval Treaty, and could have been replaced at any time.
    • The first four King George V class were not replacement ships, but were intended to supplement the existing battle fleet – none of which were required to be retired after the expiry of the Washington Naval Treaty.
    • There were no quantitative treaty limits for aircraft carriers when the Illustrious class aircraft carriers were laid down – all quantitative limits expired at the end of 1936.
    • After some prevarication, the RN finally did accept that the aviation depot ship HMS Unicorn was technically an aircraft carrier under the 1930 London Naval Treaty, and advised her Treaty partners accordingly.
    • The RN had not gone bigger than they were really allowed to with carriers – they never approached the limit of carriers they could have built prior to the end of 1936, and they were free to build as many of they wanted from 1937 onwards.

    • Bing Chandler

      Thanks for the feedback, just to explain my thinking.
      – That, as along with most of my knowledge is from Warships After Washington by John Jordon, my point was really that the RN was using its carrier allocation more enthusiastically then the other nations.
      – Noted, that was based on my reading of the table for Replacement Ship Construction in WAW, which was based on the planning assumptions after the conference rather than what actually happened after the treaties lapsed. Although could they have been said to have restored capability lost under the London Naval Treaty? i.e. Marlborough, Emperor of India, Benbow, and Tiger which had all been scrapped by 1932, the KGV were the only BB built after then.
      – Ahh, I’d thought it was a quantitative limit in the Second London Naval Treaty that led to the design of the Illustrious class, but as you rightly state there wasn’t one, it was just on the maximum size of an aircraft carrier. Annoyingly I missed the point I meant to make which was that they had more carriers on order than anyone else!
      – Understood, although I find it amusing that they felt they could get away with not calling it one! Do you have a reference for the RN advising her Treaty partners? I’ve not actually seen one as all my sources concentrate on the mental gymnastics involved in not calling her an aircraft carrier.
      – This is really based on my reading around Unicorn, e.g D K Brown ‘Nelson to Vanguard’ where he states ‘By now Unicorn was looking more and more like an aircraft carrier and the UK had already used or allocated its quota of such ships.’ (p61 in the 2012 paperback)
      I’m now going to raid your website for reference material…

  3. phuzz

    “It’s also worth pointing out the Admiralty had spent two decades trying to regain control of the Fleet Air Arm from the Air Ministry. Hardly the actions of an organisation with no interest in aviation.”
    I could also be the actions of a bureaucracy attempting to bring more things under it’s control.
    Compare it to the USAF’s insistence that they operate the A-10 instead of the Army, but then doing everything they can to kill it in favour of more pointy jets.

    Of course, the Admiralty was a large organisation, and it’s likely that it contained both people who genuinely cared about naval aviation and it’s applications, as well as those who just wanted some new badges on their dress uniform.

  4. Vulcan

    It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t until VERY late in the interwar period that aircraft became capable enough to become an actual threat to battleships. Even as late as the mid-thirties most carrier navies were still operating biplanes as their primary naval fighters and attack craft. The best estimate of exactly when carriers and carrier aircraft became capable of routinely taking down battleships? 1940-41. Prior to that, the average carrier aircraft lacked the range, speed, and payload to do so.

    So what does this mean for naval fleet construction and planning? Planning and building carriers and battleships takes three to five years. So in the 1930s your building programs reflected the capabilities of ships (and aircraft ) at the time of planning… and at that point yo DO NOT risk your national security by skimping on your proven battleship fleet in favor of the aircraft carrier that would not be proven in capability until 1941.

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