The first true aircraft carriers entered service at the end of World War I, as the Royal Navy converted several of its excess warships into large, floating airfields. During the interwar period, Japan and the United States would make their own conversions, and all three navies would supplement these ships with purpose-built carriers. Within months of the beginning of hostilities in September 1939, the carrier demonstrated its worth in a variety of maritime tasks.
By the end of 1941, carriers would become the world’s dominant capital ship. These are the five most lethal carriers to serve in the world’s navies, selected on the basis of their contribution to critical operations, and on their longevity and resilience.
The U.S. Navy supplemented Lexington and Saratoga, the most effective of the interwar battlecruiser conversions, with the purpose-built USS Ranger. Experience with all three ships demonstrated that the next purpose-built class would require a larger hull and flight deck, as well as a heavier anti-aircraft armament. This resulted in USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise, which along with their third sister (USS Hornet) would play a critical role in stopping the Imperial Japanese Navy’s advance in 1942. Capable of cruising at 33 knots, Enterprise displaced around 24,000 tons and could carry up to 90 aircraft.
While both Hornet and Yorktown were lost in the carrier battles of 1942, Enterprise served throughout the entire war. She helped search for the Japanese fleet in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and carried out the first reprisal raids in the early months of the war. She escorted Hornet on the Doolittle Raid, then helped sink four Japanese flattops at the Battle of Midway. She filled a crucial role during the Battles of Guadalcanal, surviving several near-catastrophic Japanese attacks.
Later in the war, Enterprise operated with the growing American carrier fleet as it formed core of the counter-offensive that would roll up Japanese possessions in the Pacific. Enterprise fought at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, helping to destroy the heart of Japanese naval aviation. She served in the final raids against Japan in 1945 until a kamikaze caused critical damage in May. Returning to service just as the war ended, she helped return American soldiers to the United States in Operation Magic Carpet. Enterprise was the most decorated ship in any navy during World War II, but sadly post-war preservation efforts failed, and the carrier was scrapped in 1960.
Between September 1939 and April 1942, the Royal Navy lost five of its seven pre-war aircraft carriers. HMS Illustrious and her three sisters filled the gap. Laid down in 1937, Illustrious traded aircraft complement for an armored deck, an innovation that would make the ship more robust than her Japanese or American counterparts. Displacing 23,000 tons, Illustrious could make 30 knots and carrying 36 aircraft.
Illustrious’ first major achievement came in November 1940, when her Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked the battleships of the Italian navy at anchor at Taranto. The attack, carried out on a shoestring compared to the great raids of the Pacific War, nevertheless managed to sink or heavily damage three Italian battleships. Illustrious spent the next few months carrying out raids in the Mediterranean and covering the evacuation of Greece. In the course of the latter, she survived several hits from German divebombers.
After receiving repairs in the United States, Illustrious operated against the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. She returned to the European theater in 1943, making additional raids on Norway and in support of Allied landings in Italy. Later Illustrious returned to the Pacific, where supplied with superior American carrier aircraft, she helped spearhead the Royal Navy counter-offensive into Southeast Asia. After surviving a kamikaze attack, she returned to Great Britain and eventually served as a training carrier before being scrapped in 1957.
Zuikaku represented the zenith of pre-war Japanese carrier development. Along with her sister Shokaku, Zuikaku filled out Kido Butai with the addition of two large, fast, modern carriers. Displacing 32,000 tons and capable of carrying 72 aircraft, Zuikaku could make 34 knots, and absorb a relatively large amount of battle damage.
The size and modernity of the carriers meant that they could handle a greater operational tempo early in the war. After the Pearl Harbor raid, they participated in the Indian Ocean Raid, helping to sink the British carrier Hermes and several other ships. Afterward, Zuikaku and her sister deployed to Port Moresby to cover Japanese landings in what became the Battle of Coral Sea. Zuikaku survived undamaged, and contributed to the sinking of USS Lexington, but because of a lack of aircraft could not participate in the Battle of Midway.
Zuikaku continued to form the core of the Japanese carrier fleet into 1944, participating in and surviving the battles of Guadalcanal (where her aircraft helped sink USS Hornet) and the Battle of Philippine Sea. By October 1944, her supply of aircraft and pilots was almost completely exhausted. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Zuikaku and several other carriers served as bait for Halsey’s battleships and carriers, luring them away from the center of the Japanese attack. The last survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, Zuikaku sank under a barrage of bombs and torpedoes.