The aircraft carrier turned out to be the most effective and deadliest warship in World War II, even surpassing and dwarfing the mighty battleship. What an aircraft carrier could do during World War II was to project fire power far beyond the range of the battleship naval guns, thanks to its squadrons of fighters and dive bombers on board. However, the overwhelming importance of the aircraft carrier as power projection in warfare at sea was only dimly foreseen in the years which led up to World War II. Historically, it had been the battleship and the naval gunnery which had dominated the oceans ever since the days of the Spanish Armada right up to the Battle of Jutland. In addition, battleships considerably outnumbered carriers in navies throughout the world. Nevertheless, the 1930s saw the evolution of the methods and tactics that were to dominate the Pacific Theater of Operations and which were also to contribute greatly to the successful conclusion of the war in the Atlantic. It was the US Navy that was eventually to become the master of carrier warfare; however, it was the Imperial Japanese Navy that first used the aircraft carrier in war, to destroy the Chinese ports and provide fire power to Japanese ground troops during the Sino-Japanese War and to attack the US Navy base of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.
Carrier-borne air power reached such a peak in World War II that several battles which took place over the Pacific were fought solely with carrier-borne aircraft. Elsewhere the carriers were protecting convoys, fighting submarines and covering beach assaults. The demands made by this new form of warfare were considerable, especially upon the aircraft used and upon the young pilots who flew them. The ‘controlled crash’ of a carrier landing demanded strong nerves and a strong aircraft. If the sea itself was anything other than calm (which unfortunately it so often was), the motion of the waves would cause the deck to pitch and roll alarmingly, making landings rather tricky.
Generally, carrier-based aircraft had inferior performance when compared to their land-based contemporaries – although this did not prevent the Fairey Swordfish from amassing a war record which was second to none – while conversions of land-based planes, such as the Supermarine Spitfire produced performance – at the expense of durability. Instead, it was left to the Japanese to show that the carrier aircraft, in the shape of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, could outfly and outfight its land-based opponents. It was, however, the swarm of big, beefy US Navy aircraft, which were based upon the navy’s massive American carrier force, that was to prove decisive in the Pacific. Led by the Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Vought F4U Corsair, US and Allied naval aircraft in their thousands ranged the skies over Japan during the final months of the war, in a display of naval air power undreamed of only five years before.