10 Worst Aircraft Carriers
Seaborne airbases that didn’t quite float
Bing Chandler has tricked us. Here is an article that is more about bloody ships than planes. If I’ve used the wrong images it’s because all ships look the same to me. Over to Bing, former Royal Navy Lynx helicopter Observer and contributor to the fabulous Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes.
Aircraft carriers, big boats full of seamen and pilots, are basically massive floating aphrodisiacs – or money-burning toys for militarism – or vital tools for global security – all depending on your point of view. Britain gets bragging rights as their creator, converting an half-built Italian liner, the Conte Rosso into HMS Argus, the first recognisable aircraft carrier with a full-length flight deck which commissioned on 16 September 1918. In an interesting move both Britain and Japan can claim to have constructed the first carrier ordered and built as such from the keel up. Britain laying down HMS Hermes on 15 January 1918 but the Japanese completing the Hōshō on 27 December 1922, 14 months before Hermes, despite starting almost three years later. This is probably the sort of thing British industry should have taken as a warning at the time.
For those not of a nautical bent, ships size is generally talked about in terms of their displacement, not length or beam. For the benefit of comparison, a Nimitz class carrier is around 100,000 tons (the weight of 880,761 bearded pigs) while an Invincible class was around 20,000 tons (194,174 bearded pigs), while a cross Channel ferry is around 40,000 tons once you’ve filled it with tourists, duty free and second-rate fry-ups.
It’s scientifically impossible to make a bad aircraft carrier, however occasionally people make the wrong design compromises. Leaving them with something that could have been Top Gun but ends up being Ships with Wings. 
 A 1941 British war movie in part filmed on Ark Royal
10. Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) ‘Slattery will get you nowhere’
Worryingly short of ships to put aircraft on the Royal Navy fell on the idea of one Captain Slattery RN to convert a merchant ship by fitting the minimum amount of equipment necessary to operate aircraft. This was instantly rebuffed by the Ministry of Supply who weren’t keen on losing valuable cargo capacity for the time it would take to make the conversion. Consequently, it wasn’t until mid-1943 that the first ship, Empire MacAlpine entered service and an aircraft landed on a merchant ship for the first time. Conditions were basic with a simple flight deck of around 140m built over the cargo holds which themselves held grain, stand fast one that was converted into a rudimentary hangar. The usual merchantman’s superstructure and bridge were replaced with what was apparently a small shed near the bow on the starboard side (pointy end on the right for the landlubbers). Follow on conversions would include tankers which would not feature a hangar on something approaching health and safety grounds. For those wondering why these two classes of ship were chosen, both could be unloaded without having to access the holds from above where the flight deck now was. For oil tankers the fuel was pumped out via hoses while for grain ships it was sucked out via an industrial vacuum cleaner. A process still used today, and which is in no way annoying if circumstances have led to you living in a dockyard where it’s happening. For four days.
Operating 3 or 4 Swordfish, the only aircraft that could safely operate from something with a maximum speed of 15 knots, the air groups regularly suffered at the hands of the weather and landing accidents if not the enemy. Aside from three flights parented by 860 NAS of the Dutch Navy the other 16 ships embarked flights of 836 NAS which including spare aircraft at depots on both sides of the Atlantic parented around 100 Swordfish, probably the largest squadron ever to have existed, under the overall command of a Lieutenant Commander, something that today would require at least a Captain and a staff of Commanders.
For this great, and perilous effort, the MAC Ships were responsible for exactly no U-Boats being sunk. Although their presence was often a morale booster for the captains of the ships being escorted by early 1944 some were being used to transport a backlog of aircraft across the Atlantic instead of hunting for U-Boats. With limited utility in the vastness of the Pacific the first ships began to have their flight decks removed in October of 1944 in some cases having only entered service a year before.
On the plus side no MACs were lost to enemy action, and only a handful of ships were lost in convoys escorted by them the presence of the Swordfish arguably having kept U-Boats at a safe distance. However, the main reason for this apparent success was that by the time they were entering service the Battle of the Atlantic was if not won, firmly turned in the Allies favour. Depending on your point of view the Ministry of Supply either delayed the introduction of a convoy saving weapon or had a point about the effectiveness of the idea.
2 USS Ranger ‘Ranger danger’
Admiral Ernest King, USN Chief of Operations through World War Two could, if one was being cynical, be described as a bit Anglophobic. His refusal to adopt Royal Navy anti-submarine tactics on the United States entry to the war led to a second Happy Time for U-boat crews, this time along the US Eastern Seaboard. Later in the war he would go to great, but unsuccessful, lengths to prevent the RN becoming involved in the Pacific Theatre. He did however insist that no logistics support be provided by the USN leading to a black market in assistance to the British Pacific Fleet.
Given this he was faced with something of a predicament in late 1942 after the Battle of Santa Cruz had reduced his carrier fleet in the Pacific to the USS Saratoga. He could either ask for the Royal Navy to loan him a replacement or redeploy the USS Ranger from the Atlantic. That HMS Victorious spent Mar-Aug 1943 in the Pacific operating with the USN gives some indication of the deficiencies of the Ranger.
The first US carrier to be built from the keel up as such Ranger was relatively small as the USN had used up most of the tonnage available under the Washington Naval Treaty.  At 17,000 tons she was around 7,000 tons bigger than Hermes or Hōshō but the USN had somehow shoehorned 70 aircraft on her, to their 20, by making a few compromises. To keep things in trim and reduce the exhaust gasses the powerplant was small producing around 55,000 horsepower, for a top speed of 30 knots. As a weight saving measure there was no provision for a torpedo squadron as commissioned in 1934, one only being gained shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbour. More worryingly the rapid advance in aircraft sophistication and weight during the 1930s meant that by WW2 her flight deck wasn’t strong enough to support the air group. Which as that’s the point of an aircraft carrier did make her somewhat redundant. Consequently, apart from a brief stint attacking North Africa during Operation Torch and Norway in Operation Leader Ranger spent most of the war ferrying aircraft across the Atlantic and after a refit in 1944 to strengthen the flight deck as a training carrier in the Pacific.
The only pre-war US carrier not to see action against the Japanese, it arguably saw less action than any pre-war carrier aside from the French Bearn and forced Admiral King to face the ultimate indignity of asking the British to lend a hand.
 If you ever find yourself being asked why an inter-war ship has some ‘interesting’ design features just mutter ‘Washington Naval Treaty’ and nod sagely.
Top 10 naval helicopters here.
3 HMS Furious 1917 – 1920 ‘The Spurious’
HMS Furious was being used as an aircraft carrier before the Argus entered service, but not in a way that was recognisable to any sane person. Originally designed as a battle cruiser armed with two 18” guns, one at each end, the forward one was lost to a ten aircraft hangar and flying off ramp during build.  The more observant will have noticed the lack of any landing on facility. Despite this Sqn Cdr Edwin Dunning became the first person to successfully land on a moving ship by slide slipping his Sopwith Pup past the superstructure on 2 August 1917. The short coming in this process became obvious during his third attempt when the engine stopped on short finals leaving no option but to crash in the sea off the starboard bow resulting in the pilot’s untimely death.
In an attempt to rectify the issue, the aft 18” gun was also removed and a landing on deck was built in its place. In a case of close but no cigar, the superstructure remained in situ with nice little paths either side to allow aircraft to taxi around it. Despite this obvious shortcoming she was used to launch a successful raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, the first attack by aircraft launched from a ship at sea. Tellingly the direction for those aircraft making it back to the ship was to ditch alongside rather than attempting to land.
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After this interesting start Furious was extensively rebuilt in the inter-war period with a full flush deck and served through the Second World War as an entirely adequate aircraft carrier. Which is more than can be said for her two sisters Courageous and Glorious that both managed to get sunk within the first twelve months of the conflict.
 The forward gun was ultimately installed on the monitor HMS General Wolfe, a considerably smaller ship designed purely to bombard shore positions. Imagine something that looks like a barge carrying the guns to the bigger ships.
4 USS Langley ‘Kiss Kiss Lang Lang’
While most countries first aircraft carriers were conversions of existing ships, these were usually liners or battlecruisers, large fast ships. In a slightly perverse move what would become the largest proponent of naval aviation started off with a collier with a top speed of 15.5 knots. The conversion itself appears to have been done on something of a budget as the lift to the flight deck stopped some eight feet above the hangar deck. The hangar deck itself was open to the elements, being the original main deck with the flight deck mounted above it and was used for the assembly of aircraft stored in the ship’s now vacant coal holds. A time and motion study research project in itself this arrangement meant it took around a quarter of an hour to get an aircraft to or from the flight deck, never mind the time spent getting it up to the hangar deck. Initially this let the Langley operate all of 12 aircraft.
Desperation being the mother of invention the USN reacted by inventing the deck park and developing techniques that allowed faster launch and recovery of the air group. By 1927 Langley’s air group was 36 aircraft and she was successfully carrying out mock attacks on the Panama Canal. More importantly the knowledge gained would inform the development of all subsequent US carriers.
Langley herself was converted a second time into a seaplane carrier in 1937, operating as an aircraft ferry she was sunk by the Japanese in early 1942.
5. FS Bearn ‘Feel the Bearn’
The Bearn was France’s first aircraft carrier and like most of the early attempts was tacked on to an already built hull. In this case although originally laid down in 1914 as a battleship she had spent most of the First World War being worked on very slowly between breaks for Gitanes and an absinthe. Finally in 1920 a wooden deck was built on top of the half complete hull while various trials were carried out using Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters and Hanriot HD.3s, meanwhile the Marine Nationale spent the best part of a year trying to decide whether or not to finish the top half as a battleship or an aircraft carrier. The Washington Naval Treaty finally forcing their hand in 1922 when further Battleship construction was effectively banned for a decade.
After studying the state of the art in the United Kingdom they came up with a typically French solution to the problem of the flight deck being unusable while the elevators were down. Giant clamshell doors that would serve as the flight deck while the elevator was shuttling aircraft between hangars although it’s not clear these really helped. Bearn could recover 15 aircraft in just over an hour thanks to the lack of crash barrier which meant each aircraft had to be placed in the hangar after it landed. For comparison without the benefit of fancy elevator shaft doors Glorious could manage 32 aircraft in 42 minutes despite also not having a crash barrier, while with one Saratoga could manage 40 in just under 11 and a half minutes. The French aviation industry didn’t help the situation, the Dewoitine D.376 fighter was a navalised development of the D.373 with wings that took an hour to fold.
With a top speed of only 21.5kts the Bearn was slow, which as well as making flight operations increasingly difficult as aircraft got bigger and faster, also made fleet operations challenging as she would be unable to keep pace with battleships.
The German invasion of France saw Bearn carrying reserves of gold to Canada and she was returning with a mix of Curtiss Hawk fighters, Stinson Voyagers, and surplus Curtiss Helldiver bi-planes when France fell. The highlight of her Vichy French war time carrier was discovering a propeller blade had fallen off while being serviced in Guadalupe. Switching to the Free French side with the rest of the French Antilles. Bearn spent 1944 being converted to an aircraft ferry, managing one trip in that role before the war ended.
The Bearn did manage at least one first however, when a Potez 565 landed and took off from her deck in September 1936, becoming the first twin engine aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier. Despite what’s claimed for Winkle Brown and the Sea Mosquito.
6 Avenger Class (All of them) – Avengers disassemble!
Before WW2 had even started the idea of using converted merchant ships as aircraft carriers had been advanced on both sides of the Atlantic. With the early loss of Glorious and Courageous and the impact of the Focke-Wulfe Condor on convoys the Royal Navy rapidly turned concept into practice by adapting a spare German merchantman they’d captured, it’s probably lucky that HMS Audacity was so successful during her short existence as the next batch of Escort Carriers as they came to be known may well have been more deadly to the Allies than the Axis.
Adapted from merchant hulls that were under construction at the time of Pearl Harbour Avenger, Biter, and Dasher (seemingly named after Dennis the Menace’s dogs) were small ships of 8,200 tons with an air group of up to 15 aircraft, typically Martlets or Swordfish. For the OCD inclined a fourth ship Charger was retained by the USN as a training carrier. As the ships were already half built when the decision was made to convert them into pocket carriers their basic design left a little to be desired when it came to being a warship. Although unlike Audacity they at least had a small hangar.
Top 10 carrier fighters here
After arriving in the UK Avenger acted as convoy escort to and from Russia where her Swordfish and Sea Hurricane aircraft made a valiant attempt at defence despite their various shortcomings, assisting in the sinking of U-589 and downing at least 5 aircraft. After this she took part in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, on the return from which she was hit by a torpedo from U-155. Unfortunately, this hit what was euphemistically referred to as the depth charge magazine, but which was really just an unarmoured part of the ship’s hold. The subsequent explosion destroyed the ship with the loss of 516 members of the ship’s company.
Biter fared slightly better, surviving the war, however she did manage to breakdown on her delivery trip to the UK and gain a Swordfish in the island during a landing accident the next day. To add insult to injury later in the war she was hit by a homing torpedo from one of her own Swordfish that crashed astern of her.
Dasher meanwhile also participated in Operation Torch where on D-Day she lost two thirds of her Sea Hurricanes due to geographical confusion among the aircrew. This was partly recovered after those that had landed ashore found fuel but on the second morning only 6 serviceable aircraft were available. The following year while departing for her second Arctic convoy Dasher suffered one of the engine breakdowns that cursed the class and returned to the Firth of Clyde where on the night of 27 March 1943, with no help from the enemy, she blew up. With the loss of 379 crew this was one of the largest maritime disasters in British waters. There was much finger pointing with the RN complaining of the inadequate fuel storage system on the American built CVEs which had led to a strong smell of petrol throughout Dasher. The US meanwhile blamed poor limey petrol-handling skills, although oddly they did also introduce some of the RN’s suggested fuel system modifications to all subsequent escort carrier.
4. Graf Zeppelin ‘Max Plank‘
To counter the Royal Navy, second-rate painter and best-selling author Adolf Hitler proposed a decade long expansion of the German navy (the Kreigsmarine), known as Plan Z. Plan Z called for 10 battleships, 3 battlecruisers, 33 cruisers, and 4 aircraft carriers. Fortunately, as the plan was only authorised in January 1939 most of the construction didn’t happen and that which did had generally been started before the plan was even finalised. The Graf Zeppelin laid down in 1936 and would be as close to a carrier as Germany would get.
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At a projected 33,000 tons and able to carry 43 aircraft the Graf Zeppelin would have been broadly comparable to an Illustrious class carrier of the Royal Navy. For an air group the Kreigsmarine originally intended to use the Fieseler Fi 167 a purpose designed biplane torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Think the result of an illicit liaison between a Swordfish and a Storch. Due to delays with the Graf Zeppelin only a handful were completed and none of them ever went to sea. When construction of the carrier was briefly restarted in 1942 a navalised Stuka, was intended to take on the torpedo bomber role. Given the success of the Aichi D3A Val during the early years of the war in the Pacific this would almost undoubtedly have been outclassed if it had entered front line service at any point after 1943. The fighter element was to consist of a squadron of Me 109T, a number of which were built and in lieu of a ship to fly from provided point defence to Heligoland. Which was probably a good thing as it’s hard to imagine an aircraft less suited to carrier operations. Apart from the Seafire. With a similarly narrow track undercarriage and with a long DB601N V-12 in front of the pilot to obscure his view of the ship it has to be assumed the attrition rate through landing accidents would approach 100% on any reasonable length deployment. Still at least they’d have enough endurance to wait while the deck was cleared…
Top 10 US Navy aircraft of WW2 here.
The Graf Zeppelin itself was occasionally upgraded during the war with a fighter direction compartment and extra anti-aircraft weaponry installed, but never quite got to an operational state. She did however see sterling service as a timber store in the Baltic before being captured by advancing Soviet Forces in April 1945. After some desultory testing the Soviets sank the Zeppelin in 1947, which is a shame as it was probably the best aircraft carrier they ever had too.
3. Akitsu Maru
If you think the US Navy’s Army having an Air Force is odd, by the end of WW2 the Imperial Japanese Army had a Navy with an Air Arm. The Akitsu Maru was taken over by the IJA during build and completed as an amphibious warfare vessel, similar to the modern-day Wasp class. A flight deck was built over the main deck, which itself was used for storing aircraft in the absence of a hangar. Additionally, 27 landing craft were carried to allow men and light tanks to be put ashore.
Although intended to provide air support for amphibious landings the Akitsu Maru was of limited use in the role due to the lack of arrestor gear, IJA doctrine requiring a landing field ashore to be made available as soon as possible. Consequently, she spent most of her limited-service life employed as an aircraft ferry. However, the Kokusai Ki-76 spotter plane was able to take off and land on her flight deck, as was the Kayaba Ka-1 autogyro.  As the war progressed not necessarily to Japan’s favour these aircraft were pressed into service to search for submarines and armed with 60kg depth charges to attack them, allowing the Akitsu Maru to act as an escort carrier. As plans go this seems quite sensible and was basically what the Royal Navy were doing in the Atlantic. However, on one such mission on 15 November 1944 she was hit by torpedoes from the submarine USS Queenfish and sank in three minutes.
 Shockingly footage of this happening is available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EFt7cLCRSY
2. Kuznetsov ‘Smoke on the water’ or ‘The Flanker Tanker’
The Soviet Union and its successor have had something of a love hate relationship with carrier aviation. On the one hand claiming to have created a carrier killer, the ill-fated Slava class one of which is now resting on the bottom of the Black Sea due to mild weather, and on the other still seeing enough benefit in them to have one as the pride of its navy. The Kuznetsov is probably most famed for the plume of dark smoke that follows it everywhere but the engines running a bit rich is the least of her worries. 
Having failed to build a successful VSTOL fighter the Russian Navy decided to go with the worst of both worlds and equip their ship with a ski jump and arrestor wires and use conventional aircraft. Using a ski ramp with a conventional aircraft isn’t without its advantages versus flying off a flat deck but you still need a longer run than most carriers can provide to take-off at your maximum all up mass.  Which is why footage of the Kuznetsov’s flying operations don’t feature much weaponry beyond a few air-to-air missiles.
Soviet doctrine preferred equipment to be capable of multiple roles, attack helicopters that can carry troops that sort of thing. Consequently, like its predecessor the Kiev class the Kuznetsov has a range of missiles including 12 launch tubes for the 7-ton Granite missile in the forward flight deck. Which raises some interesting questions such as how long does it take to clear the FOD after a missile launch, or wouldn’t that space be better used for storing aircraft?
The main issue working against the Kuznetsov however is Soviet build quality and Russian maintenance. Since commissioning in 1991 she’s deployed 8 times, to the Atlantic or Mediterranean, which is an average of once every 4 years. During the most recent of which she lost two aircraft due to issues with the arrestor wires before giving up and sending the remainder of the air group ashore. Seemingly never a priority for funding previous refits have been drawn out and failed to meet the initially ambitious plans advertised by the Russian Ministry of Defence. To this the most recent has added an element of farce. In 2018 the floating dry dock she was in sunk while also dropping a 70-tonne crane through the flight deck. Over a year later a fire broke out causing around $8 million of damage. Finally in 2022 a special dry dock was constructed, apparently by digging a large muddy ditch to join two smaller ones together. Currently the Kuznetsov is expected to return to the Russian Navy in 2024, about 8 years after the refit started. Which is about the same length of time it took the UK to build two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers.
 Pedants may like to point out that the Russian language refer to ships as masculine, which is correct. But this is written in English where they’re referred to as feminine.
 Helpfully if you can get up to the speed required it will probably break the nose gear as it hits the ramp.
1. Shinano ‘Shinano 21-speed gears of war’
Yamato and Musashi are well known as the largest and most powerful battleships ever constructed and if Space Battleship Yamato is to be believed the only to achieve faster-than-light travel. Less well known is their half-sister the Shinano, possibly because only two known photos of her exist and halfway through construction, she was converted into a 66,000-ton support carrier. To put that into context the Essex class attack carriers that formed the backbone of the US Fleet by the end of the war displaced only two-thirds as much and carried a striking force of 90 aircraft.
Laid down in May 1940 under great secrecy construction was paused in December 1941, presumably because the IJN had a lot going on that month. By June of 1942, the Battle of Midway led the IJN to be unexpectedly short of four fleet carriers and the decision was made to complete the Shinano as a carrier able to provide replacement aircraft to the rest of the fleet. In this role she was planned to carry 120 reserve aircraft while operating her own small air group of 18 Mitsubishi A7M fighters, 18 Aichi B7A torpedo bombers, and 6 Nakajima C6N reconnaissance aircraft. Or at least that was a plan.
With events increasingly turning against the Japanese Empire the construction of the Shinano was accelerated with the dockyard working with the kind of ‘hardcore’ practices favoured by Elon Musk. Finished some 7 months ahead of schedule she was launched in October 1944 with a build quality even British Leyland might consider suspect.
Shinano left the construction yard on 28th November with a cargo of Shinyo special attack boats and Ohka special attack aircraft, sailing to Kure where fitting out would be completed.’ On the 29th of November some nine hours after sailing, four torpedoes from the USS Archerfish hit her port side where thanks to bad damage control practices and the aforementioned build quality, they caused widespread flooding which took her to the bottom seven hours later. Thanks to the secrecy with which Shinano had been built the USN initially refused to believe the Archerfish’s Captain’s claim as it didn’t match with the location of any known carrier.
The biggest carrier ever built until the USS Forrestal was launched in 1954 the effort expended probably wasn’t worth it for a minor intelligence victory over the USN.
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