It lost this lead during the interwar period due to a range of factors including limited spending on defence and an unclear national strategy, exacerbated by the Navy losing control of its air arm to the newly independent Royal Air Force — which both insisted that it should control all air power and also attached a very low priority to maritime or naval air power. The Admiralty also wrongly believed that it had mastered the threat from submarines and was slow to fully appreciate the potential of aircraft in attacking warships, either as a threat that needed to be countered or as an asset that could be exploited.
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The return of the Fleet Air Arm to naval control shortly before the outbreak of war helped, but the Royal Navy began the conflict far short of the naval air power it would need to fulfil its roles in national and allied strategy. Efforts to build up its strength had to compete for resources with all of the other pressing needs, which not only included land and air forces, but other priorities at sea including escorts and merchant ships.
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The result was a strikingly imaginative and innovative approach, which saw a profusion in the ways of providing air power at sea, prefiguring the wide range of air-capable warships in service today. Yet hopes that the light fleet carriers could be made available rapidly were dashed; there was no point in having carriers that were incapable of operating modern aircraft and the rapid advances in aircraft capability forced ship designs to evolve.
The light fleets would therefore take more time to complete. They then provided valuable service and, indeed, went on to form an important element of post-war naval aviation both in the Royal Navy — in which they distinguished themselves in the Korean War, the Suez conflict and even, in the case of HMS Hermes , in the Falklands War — and in other navies to which some were transferred but in the meantime, other solutions were needed. The key to the approach taken was to split the tasks of naval aviation. The more demanding roles required an ability to take on front-line enemy aircraft or warships fitted with powerful anti-aircraft armament.
Sea Flight: A Fleet Air Arm Pilot's Story
This was the role of the fleet and light fleet carriers. Yet there was also a desperate need for air power in the protection of merchant shipping against the threat posed by enemy U-boats and land-based strike aircraft both of which benefitted from bases in occupied France and Norway, transforming the threat posed by Germany in comparison to the First World War. Air power had a central role to play in this struggle, both land-based when Coastal Command could prise a few crumbs from a table dominated by the insatiable appetite for long-range aircraft of Bomber Command and sea-based, particularly in the mid-Atlantic air gap.
Aircraft conducting these roles, and the carriers from which they operated, would not face the same threat as those operating with the fleet; less modern aircraft, in smaller numbers would suffice but would need many platforms. These vessels lacked a flight deck so they were a one-shot weapon, with the embarked fighter launching to shoot down a shadowing enemy reconnaissance aircraft which could otherwise report the location of the convoy.
The pilot would then ditch in the sea in the hope of being picked up by one of the ships he had just protected.
These countered the objection that converting merchant ships into carriers cost Britain precious cargo tonnage; they were large grain ships or tankers fitted with a flight deck, allowing them both to launch and recover aircraft for the loss of only a small proportion of their carrying capacity. These innovations were only part of the solution, an interim measure while the main effort came into play.
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Amazingly, the Admiralty only had operational pilots and eight carriers when war broke out, but a mere six years later there were over 3, operational pilots and 53 aircraft carriers patrolling the seas in every theatre of the war. Swordfish, Albacores, Avengers, Martlets and Sea Hurricanes all flew some of the most hazardous missions. Extreme exhibitions of courage in the face of both adversity and enemy action were commonplace.
Failure to maintain this supply line would render us unable to continue the fight in Europe.
The last week of May in was the vital watershed after which every Atlantic convoy had air cover. Slowly but surely the tide turned and more and more arms, ammunition, fuel, trucks, tanks, aeroplanes, food and troops were able to cross the Atlantic enabling Britain firstly to feed and defend itself and, ultimately, to take the battle back onto mainland European soil.
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These flimsy biplanes and their aircrews, with an average age of 21, flew from the pitching decks of merchant ships, in all that the Atlantic could throw at them, including mountainous seas and bitter cold. They patrolled in an area known as the mid-Atlantic gap, the mile wide gap in the middle of the Atlantic, out of range of land based Allied aircraft. Here the U-boats had almost complete freedom to operate; freedom to surface and recharge their batteries and to communicate by radio with their brother wolves, their home bases and their long range Condor bomber aircraft scouting for convoys.
Over , tons of enemy shipping was sunk by Navy Swordfish aircraft but the statistics on U-boat sinkings only tell half the story.
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The tactic that made the Swordfish so successful in ensuring the safe passage of convoys was not the number of U-boat kills, but the deterrent effect it had in keeping U-boats submerged. U-boats had to spend many hours of each day on the surface in order to replenish their batteries. They could travel at quite good speeds and fire their torpedoes very effectively whilst on the surface, but once submerged their weapons and more particularly their diesel engines were almost inoperable.
Relying on their electric batteries for power they were restricted to barely three knots and, unless they could surface and recharge their batteries, they were virtually dead in the water and easily detectable by Allied surface units.