The Buzz

The First Aircraft Carrier Air Strike: Camels vs. Zeppelins in the Tondern Raid

Nearly a century ago during World War I, the Royal Navy launched the first air strike from an aircraft carrier ever, targeting a zeppelin base in Tondern. After dropping a cumulative bomb load that barely exceeded the weight of a single five-hundred-pound bomb carried by a typical World War II fighter, the naval strike planes all proceeded to crash in the sea or were forced to land on neutral territory.

This attack actually constituted an enormous success—and remains a landmark in the history of naval aviation.

To be clear, ship-launched seaplanes preceded their carrier-launched counterparts in battle. The Japanese took the initiative by deploying ship-launched Farman seaplanes against German ships off of Qingdao in 1914. The Royal Navy soon followed in December with a ship-launched seaplane raid on a German airbase near Cuxhaven. However, though highly useful for spying upon enemy ship movements and hunting submarines, seaplanes could not be launched or recovered very quickly—they need to be lifted into the water by crane—and their performance was compromised by their underslung pontoons.

The American aviation pioneer Eugene Ely had proved it was possible to fly an airplane onto a ship when he took off and landed on a platform built atop the battleship USS Pennsylvania while it sat at dock. This was only achieved with great difficulty—and the Pennsylvania had not even been moving. During World War I, navies did devise launch platforms that could dispatch conventional fighters from atop the turrets of heavy cruisers or battleships. But each ship could only carry a few aircraft, and these would have to ditch at sea after being launched.

The Royal Navy was enthusiastic about sea-launched aircraft, in part because it had a zeppelin problem. The giant German airships, typically measuring six hundred feet long—two football fields back to back—were widely employed in spying upon Royal Navy ships, and occasionally trying to bomb them. Seaplanes sent to chase them down often couldn’t fly high enough to shoot them down. In 1916, in an effort to stamp out the problem at its source, the Royal Navy sailed up off the coast of Germany and deployed eleven seaplanes to scout out and destroy one of the zeppelin bases. They discovered its exact location near Tondern, which lies in present-day Denmark, but failed to inflict much damage upon it.

As it happened, the Royal Navy was nearly done building the last of its twenty-thousand-ton Courageous-class battlecruisers—a ship type it no longer really wanted. These were meant to be “large light cruisers”: ships as fast as light cruisers but with the guns of a battleship. The Courageous class took the concept to the extreme by mounting two enormous eighteen-inch guns so powerful that simply firing them blew rivets out the ship’s hull. High speed was achieved by sacrificing armor protection under the mantra that “speed was armor.”

Battlecruisers were supposed to chase down smaller ships that didn’t have the firepower to fight back. However, give a navy a two-hundred-meter-long ship with large guns and it will send them fight other vessels the same size. In the Battle of Jutland, British battle cruisers charged the German High Seas Fleet—and lost three of their number to titanic ammunition explosion in the gun turrets. No longer enamored with the lightly armored capital ships, British naval planners decided to convert the last of the new Courageous-class vessels into an aircraft carrier. This was accomplished by replacing the front turret with a small hangar that had a 160-foot flight deck on top.

The Furious’s Sopwith Pup fighters could take off from this short flight deck—but not land on it. To address this shortcoming, in the winter of 1917–18 the Furious’s rear gun turret was replaced with a second three-hundred-foot flight deck. The Royal Navy had devised a method in which a Pup flying into a stiff headwind could actually almost match velocity with the Furious as it sailed at a maximum speed! (Yes, World War I aircraft were very slow.) The Pup would approach parallel to the carrier then slide sideways towards the deck, where waiting flight crew would leap up and hook arresting cables to leather straps under the airplane, bringing it down to the deck.

If this sounds extremely dangerous and unreliable . . . it was. Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning was the first pilot to pull off a landing on the deck of the Furious—indeed, the first landing ever on a moving ship. However, he died when his Pup flipped off the deck while attempting his third landing. Part of the problem was that tall superstructure in the middle of the Furious’s deck created intolerable turbulence for approaching aircraft. Of the subsequent eleven attempted landings, only three succeeded.

The Royal Navy concluded it had a good platform for launching fighter planes—but not recovering them. The new plan was for the pilots to ditch their aircraft at sea, where escorting destroyers could recover both the plane and the pilot. If everything worked perfectly—and frequently it didn’t—the naval fighter could be recovered intact and its fabric skin replaced. Unlike today’s multimillion-dollar jets, World War I aircraft were relatively cheap to manufacture and considered expendable. The use of “disposable” fighters even continued into World War II in the form of CAM ships that could rocket Hurricane fighters up into the sky to protect Atlantic convoys from air attack—without any expectation of finding a safe place to land.