I'm not an expert in WW2, but I've heard some conflicting claims about aircraft carriers and how they changed the nature of naval warfare. I know carriers entered wide use in WW2, but not how their early introduction faired. I'm trying to get a better feel for how this transition happened.

Did the various navies recognize that air power, and thus carriers, would be paramount at the start of WW2, or did they have to realize their power over the course of the war? Were navies built around the use, and defense, of carriers from the start of the war? I know that battleships were still in regular use in WW2 but as I understand it they were mostly rendered obsolete by carriers, so does that imply an inefficient use of resources building and using battleships during the war? Were any of the major nations particularly good, or terrible, at adapting to carriers?

In short, how badly did we screw it all up when we first tried out this new fangled carrier thing?

  • 1
    The three fleet-carrier-operating countries (UK, USA, Japan) all had been building expertise since WW1, and all knew they would be important. As were the few battleships built (completed) during the war, generally speaking.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 9 at 18:58
  • wondering if the OP is using a more loose definition of Battleship that might include destroyers and cruisers.
    – Yorik
    Mar 9 at 20:26
  • You may want to read Schryver's Dinosaurs of the deep blue sea Mar 9 at 20:50

1 Answer 1


The answer to the assumptions you make in your question, as hypothesis, is no: Were navies built around the use, and defense, of carriers from the start of the war?

About some weapons being more important than others in a pre-war state, I suggest to everyone to look at today's discussions about weapons. The main speech is "everything is important and we don't sacrifize anything, no no no". But in reality, obvious important weapons are made superior to some others, sometimes accurately, sometimes no. The point here is that tactical guidelines, also known as doctrine, lacks the capability, especially in technical armies such as air force or navies, to provide clear elements on what is important and what is important but secondary.

This is general consideration. Now, answering to your question for navies in ww2 and how they considered carriers:

  • Germany, Italy, Soviet Union: despite some projects, all these navies had not the opportunity to develop large fleets. They did not consider carriers important since their navies were supposed to operate under land-based air cover. USSR considered the navy as a support for land operations, so it was supposed to be close to the coast and covered by land air force. Italy did not assess correctly the danger of airplanes, and after "facing it", they relied on their land based air forces (some projects of carriers did not come to an end). Germany had two philosophy: first one planned destroyers and battleships to fight under air cover, and second one planned heavy cruisers and fast battleships and submarines to attack the trade without any air cover. The problem is that they did not respect this duality, such as for the Bismarck
  • France: Similar to the others, but they developed some carriers to support fleet of cruisers in the colonial empire
  • United Kingdom: Carriers had far more importance there. They were supposed to be used as the center of submarine-chase groups, and they were. It was also known they could attack ennemy ships, but their small air group made them only hit-and-run weapons
  • USA: They definitely consider carriers as a weapon for line battle, but they were supposed to cover the battleships and help to attack, rather than be prevalent... what they in fact were during WW2
  • Japan: Similar to the USA but the Japanese did consider the capability of carriers to attack as stand-alone fleets enemy forces, especially light surface forces and bases
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    The ironic thing about the Japanese is that, despite realizing (and repeatedly demonstrating) that carriers could operate as stand-alone fleets, they kept trying to force a battleship-versus-battleship engagement where the carriers would merely act as support.
    – Mark
    Mar 9 at 23:30
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    You'll note that the navies that developed aircraft carriers were from countries that were separated by sea from their potential adversaries. The navies that didn't were those of continental powers for whom command of the seas was a sideshow.
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 10 at 1:03
  • "...their navies were supposed to operate under land-based air cover..." -- I haven't studied the Russian and Italian navy much, but the German fleet was supposed to operate in the North Atlantic, and neither bombers nor fighters had the range to support ships there at the time, especially considering that they would have to pass through enemy airspace first (France being considered the most likely enemy for sea warfare at the time the capital ships were designed).
    – DevSolar
    Mar 10 at 7:06
  • @Mark This is more subtle: the Japanese tried often to force a battleship vs battleship engagement, but they also "happily" accepted carrier vs carrier fighting engagements, at coral sea, midway, eastern solomons... then starting 1943, they had to rebuilt their carrier force and, knowing it was overpowered by US carriers, they tried to engage "double": both carrier and battleships, but most of the time failed Mar 10 at 18:28
  • @DevSolar I answred by editing the main text: Kriegsmarine was supposed to defend and interdict coastal action under air cover, and, as you said, also planned an anti-trade action that was not under air cover Mar 10 at 18:33

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