In World War I the most powerful ship in the navy was a large battleship called the dreadnought. This changed in World War II, however, with the invention of the aircraft carrier. By the end of World War II, the aircraft carrier became the most feared and important part of any country's navy.
USS Enterprise Source: US Navy
Why were aircraft carriers so important?
Aircraft carriers were like floating islands. They allowed for planes to take off and land from anywhere in the ocean. This changed the way battles were fought forever. Cities that were once considered safe from air attack were now vulnerable.
Aircraft carriers also allowed planes to be launched from a distance to attack other warships. They could drop torpedoes into the water or dive from up high to drop bombs directly on a warship's deck. Aircraft could also be used to spot enemy ships from far away.
Japanese Aircraft Carrier Akagi Source: Kure Maritime Museum
How big were they?
Aircraft carriers were huge. The largest of them in World War II were around 800 feet long, 90 feet wide, and carried around 100 planes. Thousands of sailors were needed to crew these large ships and to keep all the planes in order.
The top of the ship was a large flat area that acted as the runway and landing strip for the planes. In order to keep the deck clear for take offs and landings, many of the planes were stored below the deck and would be brought up by an elevator.
How did the planes land and take off?
Because the planes only had a short distance to take off, they needed help to get up to the speed needed to take off. The aircraft carrier had a catapult that would slingshot the plane, giving it the boost of speed needed to get airborne before it hit the ocean.
Landing on an aircraft carrier was even more difficult. Each plane would have a tailhook installed at the end of the plane. When landing, the hook would catch on to a wire on the landing strip. This wire would help the plane to slow down and land on the short runway without running right off the end of the ship. Pilots had to be very skilled and specially trained to make this kind of difficult landing.
USS Enterprise in battle Source: National Archives
Type of Planes on Aircraft Carriers
Most aircraft carriers in World War II carried three types of planes.
Fighter - The fighter plane's main job was to protect the carrier from attacking bombers and to protect the carrier's bombers from other fighter planes.
Torpedo Bomber - Torpedo bombers carried a torpedo that would be dropped into the water to try and sink another carrier or enemy warship.
Dive Bomber - Dive bombers carried bombs that would be dropped on top of a ship or target. They would fly up high and then dive straight down on their target, dropping bombs.
Are aircraft carriers still used today?
Yes, there are still around 20 active aircraft carriers in world today (2014). The United States has the most carriers by far with 10.
Interesting Facts about the Aircraft Carriers of WW2
The first successful aircraft landing on a ship was made in 1911.
The first ship specifically designed to be an aircraft carrier was the HMS Argus built by the British. It was launched in 1918.
The Japanese built special submarines that could surface and then launch up to three aircraft.
The wings on the planes were designed to fold up in order to save space.
Current U.S. aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered. They are over 1000 feet long and can operate for over 20 years without refueling.