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Escort Carrier HMS Audacity (D10)

The escort aircraft carrier or escort carrier (popularly known as the jeep carrier or baby flattop), was a small and slow type of aircraft carrier used by the British Royal Navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy in World War II. They were typically half the length and one-third the displacement of the larger fleet carriers. While they were slower, less well armed and armored, and carried fewer planes, they were less expensive and built in much larger numbers.

In the Atlantic, the escort carriers were employed to deal with the U-boat crisis of the Battle of the Atlantic, while in the Pacific they provided air support to ground forces during amphibious operations, served as backup aircraft transports for fleet carriers, and transported aircraft of all military services to points of delivery.

In the Pacific, while they were too slow to keep up with fast carriers, they were tasked in the Battle of Leyte Gulf with bombing ground forces and sinking submarines. In the Battle off Samar, the Japanese Center Force stumbled across the small and completely unprepared task force known as "Taffy 3". The action would help seal the fate of the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built when matched against the cheapest carriers and a handful of screening tin-can destroyers. Rather than "shooting fish in a barrel", the powerful fleet was bloodied and turned back by the furious defence put up by the "Taffy" task forces and its Wildcat and Avenger planes.

Of the 151 aircraft carriers built in the United States during WWII, 122 were escort carriers. Though no examples survive to this day, the Casablanca class holds the distinction of being the most numerous single class of aircraft carrier ever built, with 50 having been launched. The Bogue class escort carrier comes in a close second, with 45 launched.



Aircraft carrier construction between the world wars had been insufficient to meet operational needs for aircraft carriers as the second world war expanded from Europe. Too few fleet carriers were available to simultaneously transport aircraft to distant bases, support amphibious invasions, offer carrier landing training for replacement pilots, conduct anti-submarine patrols, and provide defensive air cover for deployed battleships and cruisers. The foregoing mission requirements limited use of fleet carriers' unique offensive strike capability demonstrated at the Battle of Taranto and the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Conversion of existing ships (and hulls under construction for other purposes) provided additional aircraft carriers until new construction became available. Conversions of cruisers, passenger liners, and fleet oilers with speed similar to fleet carriers were identified by the United States as light aircraft carriers (hull classification symbol CVL) able to operate at battle fleet speeds. Slower conversions were considered naval auxiliaries suitable for pilot training and transport of aircraft to distant bases.

The Royal Navy had recognized a need for trade defense carriers in the 1930s.[1] No construction was undertaken until HMS Audacity (D10) was converted from the captured German merchant ship MV Hannover and commissioned in July 1941. In 1940, Admiral William Halsey recommended construction of naval auxiliaries for pilot training.[2] On 1 February 1941, the United States Chief of Naval Operations gave priority to construction of naval auxiliaries for aircraft transport.[3] United States ships built to meet these needs were initially referred to as auxiliary aircraft escort vessels (AVG) in February 1942 and then auxiliary aircraft carrier (ACV) on 5 August 1942.[4] The first United States example of the type was USS Long Island (AVG-1). Operation Torch and North Atlantic anti-submarine warfare proved these ships capable aircraft carriers for ship formations moving at the speed of trade or amphibious invasion convoys. United States classification revision to escort aircraft carrier (CVE) on 15 July 1943 reflected upgraded status from auxiliary to combatant.[5] They were informally known as "Jeep carriers" or "baby flattops." It was quickly found that the escort carriers had better performance than light carriers, which tended to pitch badly in moderate to high seas. The Commencement Bay class was designed to incorporate the best features of American CVLs on a more stable hull with a less expensive propulsion system.[6]

CVE was sarcastically said to stand for "Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable". Magazine protection was minimal in comparison to fleet aircraft carriers.[7] HMS Avenger was sunk within minutes by a single torpedo, and HMS Dasher (D37) exploded from undetermined causes with very heavy loss of life. Three escort carriers—USS St. Lo (CVE-63), Ommaney Bay (CVE-79) and Bismarck Sea (CVE-95)—were destroyed by kamikazes, the largest ships to meet such a fate.

Allied escort carriers were typically around 500 ft (150 m) long, not much more than half the length of the almost 900 ft (300 m) fleet carriers of the same era, but actually less than one-third of the weight. A typical escort carrier displaced about 8,000 tons, as compared to almost 30,000 tons for a full-size fleet carrier. The aircraft hangar typically ran only a third of the way under the flight deck and housed a combination of 24 to 30 fighters and bombers organized into one single "composite squadron'". (A late Essex-class fleet carrier could carry a total of 103 aircraft organized into separate fighter, bomber and torpedo-bomber squadrons.)

The island on these ships was small and cramped, and located well forward of the funnels (unlike on a normal-sized carrier where the funnels were integrated into the island). Although the first escort carriers had only one aircraft elevator, two elevators, one fore and one aft, quickly became standard, so did the one aircraft catapult. The carriers employed the same system of arresting cables and tailhooks as on the big carriers, and procedures for launch and recovery were the same as well.

The crew size was less than a third of that of a large carrier, but this was still a bigger complement than most naval vessels. It was large enough to justify the existence of facilities such as a permanent canteen or snack bar, called a gedunk bar, in addition to the mess. The bar was open for longer hours than the mess and sold several flavors of ice cream, along with cigarettes and other consumables. There were also several vending machines, which made a "gedunk" sound when operated.

In all, 130 Allied escort carriers were launched or converted during the war. Of these, six were British conversions of merchant ships: HMS Audacity (D10), Nairana (D05), Campania (D48), Activity (D94), Pretoria Castle F61) and Vindex (D15). The remaining escort carriers were US-built. Like the British, the first US escort carriers were converted merchant vessels (or in the Sangamon class, converted military oilers). The Bogue class carriers were based on the hull of the Type C3 cargo ship. The last 69 escort carriers of the Casablanca and Commencement Bay classes were purpose-designed and purpose-built carriers drawing on the experience gained with the previous classes.

Royal Navy

Originally developed at the behest of the United Kingdom to operate as part of a North Atlantic convoy escort rather than as part of a naval strike force, many of the escort carriers produced were assigned to the Royal Navy for the duration of the war under the Lend-lease act. They supplemented and then replaced the converted merchant aircraft carriers which were put into service by the British and Dutch as an emergency measure until the escort carriers became available. As convoy escorts, they were used by the Royal Navy to provide air scouting, to ward off enemy long-range scouting aircraft and, increasingly, to spot and hunt submarines. Often additional escort carriers also joined convoys, not as fighting ships but as transporters, ferrying aircraft from the US to Britain. In this case the aircraft cargo could be doubled by storing aircraft on the flight deck as well as in the hangar.

The ships sent to the Royal Navy were slightly modified, partly to suit the traditions of that service. Among other things the ice cream making machines were removed, since they were considered unnecessary luxuries on ships, which served grog and other alcoholic beverages. The heavy duty washing machines of the laundry room were also removed since "all a British sailor needs to keep clean is a bucket and a bar of soap" (quoted from Warrilow).

Other modifications were due to the need for a completely enclosed hangar when operating in the North Atlantic and in support of the Arctic convoys.

US Navy Service

Meanwhile the US discovered their own use for the escort carriers. In the North Atlantic, they supplemented the escorting destroyers by providing air support for their anti-submarine warfare. One of these escort carriers, the USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60), was instrumental in the capture of the German submarine (U-boat) U-505 off North Africa in 1944. The Guadalcanal and her task force were commanded by Captain (later Admiral) Daniel V. Gallery. In 1955 the U-505 was moved to Chicago, restored, and made a permanent exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

In the Pacific theatre, escort carriers often escorted the landing ships and troop carriers during the island-hopping campaign. In this role they provided air cover for the troopships and flew the first wave of attacks on beach fortifications in amphibious landing operations. On occasion they even escorted the large carriers, serving as emergency airstrips and providing fighter cover for their larger sisters while these were busy readying or refueling their own planes. They also transported aircraft and spare parts from the US to remote island airstrips.

Battle off Samar

USS Gambier Bay, burning from earlier gunfire damage, is bracketed by a salvo from a Japanese cruiser (faintly visible in the background, center-right) shortly before sinking during the Battle off Samar.

Perhaps the finest moment for these escort carriers was the relatively little known Battle of Leyte Gulf's Battle off Samar, where aircraft of three escort carrier groups (many unarmed or armed only for harassment), along with their hopelessly outmatched escorting destroyers not only fended off but turned back the battleship Yamato and the Japanese Combined Fleet, allowing General Douglas MacArthur's Army to complete the liberation of Leyte. In this battle, the slow ships could not hope to outrun 30-knot cruisers, nevertheless they launched their aircraft, and maneuvered out of the way of shellfire for over an hour. They then endured dozens of hits, mostly from ineffective armor-piercing shots, with the USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) the only US carrier lost to surface fire in the war. The carriers carried only a single 5-inch anti-aircraft gun as a stinger, but to land accurate hits, pursuing cruisers had close to within range where one of the guns finished off the burning Japanese cruiser Chokai with a lucky hit on the Achilles' heel torpedo mount. Several kamikaze aircraft were shot down by carrier gunners, with only the St Lo lost to air attack. In the costly victory, the small task force had suffered a number of ships and men lost comparable to the Battle of Coral Sea and Battle of Midway combined.

USN escort carrier Division Commanders in World War II

Escort carrier tactics when escorting convoys

There are three basic tactics for operating an escort carrier in defence of a convoy:

  • Within the convoy, which gives it the protection of the convoy's escort but limits the space to turn into the wind to operate aircraft.
  • Near the convoy, which gives the carrier freedom of manoeuvre, but puts it outside the screen provided by the convoy's escort, making it necessary for the carrier to have its own separate escort. The carrier is also likely to be spotted by enemy forces approaching the convoy, making it vulnerable to attack.
  • Some distance away from the convoy. This increases the time required for aircraft to reach the convoy but reduces the risk of being spotted by forces attacking the convoy.

HMS Audacity was sunk while operating in the second position which was later banned by the Admiralty as too risky.

The ships

Many escort carriers were Lend-Leased to the United Kingdom, this list specifies the breakdown in service to each navy.

  • Long Island class: Two ships, one in USN service (USS Long Island (CVE-1)) and one in British service (HMS Archer (D78)).
  • Charger class: Four ships, one mainly in USN service (USS Charger (CVE-30)), three in British service as Avenger class.
  • Sangamon class: Four ships, all in USN service.
  • Bogue class: 45 ships, 11 in USN service, 34 in British service as Attacker class (first batch) and Ameer class (second batch).
  • Casablanca class: 50 ships, all in USN service.
  • Commencement Bay class: 19 ships, all in USN service, including two which were accepted but not commissioned and laid up for many years after the war. Four more units were canceled and scrapped on the building slips. The Commencement Bay class ships were seen as the finest escort carriers ever built[8], and several units continued in service after the war as training carriers, aircraft ferries and other auxiliary uses.

In addition, six escort carriers were produced by the British during the war (all converted from other vessels).

The table below lists escort carriers and similar ships performing the same missions. The first four were built as early fleet aircraft carriers. Merchant aircraft carriers (MAC) carried trade cargo in addition to operating aircraft. Aircraft transports carried larger numbers of planes by eliminating accommodation for operating personnel and storage of fuel and ammunition.

Name Date Nation Displacement Speed Aircraft Notes
HMS Argus (I49) 1918 Britain 14,000 tons (net) 20 knots 18 converted liner
USS Langley (CV-1) 1922 United States 11,500 tons 15 knots 30 converted collier
Hōshō 1923 Japan 7,500 tons (standard) 25 knots 12 early fleet carrier
HMS Hermes (95) 1924 UK 10,850 tons (standard) 25 knots 12 early fleet carrier
HMS Athene, HMS Engadine (1941) 1940 UK ~10,000 tons 17 knots 40 aircraft transports
HMS Audacity (D10) 1941 UK 5,500 tons 15 knots 6 merchant conversion
USS Long Island (CVE-1), HMS Archer (D78) 1941 United States and UK 9000 tons 17 knots 15–21 merchant conversions
HMS Avenger (D14), HMS Biter (D97), HMS Dasher (D37), USS Charger (CVE-30) 1941 United States and UK 8,200 tons 17 knots 15–21 merchant conversions
Taiyō, Unyō, Chūyō 1941 Japan 17,830 tons (standard) 21 knots 27 converted liners
USS Kitty Hawk (APV-1), USS Hammondsport (APV-2), USS Lakehurst (APV-3) 1941 United States 8,100 tons 17 knots merchant conversion aircraft ferries
HMS Activity (D94) 1942 UK 11,800 tons (standard) 18 knots 10–15 merchant conversion
Bogue class 1942 United States and UK 9,800 tons 18 knots 15–21 45 conversions of C-3 merchant hulls
USS Sangamon (CVE-26), USS Suwanee (CVE-27), USS Chenango (CVE-28), USS Santee (CVE-29) 1942 United States 11,400 tons (standard) 18 knots 31 converted oilers
HMS Campania (D48) 1943 UK 12,400 tons (standard) 18 knots 18 merchant conversion
HMS Vindex (D15) 1943 UK 13,400 tons (standard) 16 knots 15–20 merchant conversion
HMS Nairana (D05) 1943 UK 14,000 tons (standard) 16 knots 15–20 merchant conversion
Acavus, Adula, Alexia, Amastra, Ancylus, Gadila, Macoma, Miralda, Rapana 1943 UK 12,000 tons 12 knots 3 tankers converted to Merchant aircraft carriers
Casablanca class 1943 United States 7,800 tons 19 knots 28 50 built as escort aircraft carriers
Kaiyō 1943 Japan 13,600 tons (standard) 23 knots 24 converted liner
HMS Pretoria Castle (F61) 1943 UK 17400 tons (standard) 18 knots 21 merchant conversion
Empire MacAlpine, Empire MacAndrew, Empire MacRae, Empire MacKendrick, Empire MacCallum, Empire MacDermott 1943 Britain 8,000 tons (gross) 12 knots 4 grain carrying Merchant aircraft carriers
Empire MacCabe, Empire MacKay, Empire MacMahon, Empire MacColl 1943 UK 9,000 tons (gross) 11 knots 3 tanker Merchant aircraft carriers
Commencement Bay class 1944 United States 10900 tons 19 knots 34 19 built as escort aircraft carriers
Shinyō 1944 Japan 17500 tons 22 knots 33 converted liner

Relative carrier sizes in World War II

Relative carrier sizes
Bogue class Escort carrier Independence class light carrier[9] Essex class fleet carrier[10] Illustrious class carrier
Length: 151 m 190 m 266 m 205 m
Beam: 21 m 22 m 28 m 29 m
Displacement: 9,800 t 11,000 t 27,100 t 23,000 t
Armament 1x 127 mm, light AA light AA 8x 127 mm, light AA 16x 114 mm
Armor None 50-125 mm 150-200 mm 75 mm deck
Aircraft: 24 33 90 72
Speed: 17 knots (32 km/h) 31 knots (58 km/h) 33 knots (61 km/h) 30 knots
Crew: 850 1,569 3,448 817 + 390

Post World War II

The years following World War II brought many revolutionary new technologies to the navy, most notably the helicopter and the jet fighter, and with this a complete rethinking of its strategies and ships' tasks. Although several of the latest Commencement Bay-class CVE were deployed as floating airfields during the Korean war, the main reasons for the development of the escort carrier had disappeared or could be dealt with better by newer weapons. The emergence of the helicopter meant that helicopter-deck equipped frigates could now take over the CVE's role in a convoy while also performing their own traditional role as submarine hunters. Ship-mounted guided missile launchers took over much of the aircraft protection role, and in-flight refueling abolished the need for floating stopover points for transport or patrol aircraft. As a result, after the Commencement Bay class, no new escort carriers were designed, and with every downsizing of the navy, the CVEs were the first to be mothballed.

Several escort carriers were pressed back into service during the first years of the Vietnam War because of their ability to carry large numbers of aircraft. Redesignated AKV (air transport auxiliary), they were manned by a civilian crew and used to ferry whole aircraft and spare parts from the United States to Army, Air Force and Marine bases in South Vietnam. However, CVEs were only useful in this role for a limited period. Once all major aircraft were equipped with refueling probes, instead of shipping a plane overseas to its pilot, it became much easier to fly the aircraft directly to its base.

The last chapter in the saga of the escort carriers consisted out of two conversions: As an experiment, the USS Thetis Bay  (CVE-90) was converted from an aircraft carrier into a pure helicopter carrier (CVHA-1) and used by the Marine Corps to carry assault helicopters for the first wave of amphibious warfare operations. Later, the Thetis Bay became a full amphibious assault ship (LHP-6). Although in service only from 1955 (the year of her conversion) to 1964, the experience gained in her training exercises greatly influenced the design of today's amphibious assault ships.

In the second conversion, in 1961, the USS Gilbert Islands (CVE-107) had all her aircraft handling equipment removed and four tall radio antennas installed on her long, flat deck. In lieu of aircraft, the hangar deck now had no less than 24 military radio transmitter trucks bolted to its floor. Rechristened USS Annapolis (AGMR-1), the ship was used as a communication relay ship and served dutifully through the Vietnam War as a floating radio station, relaying transmissions between the forces on the ground and the command centers back home. Like the Thetis Bay, the experience gained before she was stricken in 1976 helped develop today's purpose-built amphibious command ships of the Blue Ridge class.

Unlike almost all other major classes of ships and patrol boats from World War II, most of which can be found in a museum or port, no escort carrier or light carrier has survived: all were destroyed during the war or broken up in the following decades. The last escort carrier, USS Gilbert Islands, was broken up for scrap starting in 1976. The last light carrier (the escort carrier's faster sister type) was the USS Cabot (CVL-28), which was broken up in 2002 after a decade-long attempt to preserve the vessel.

The United States designed the Sea Control Ship[11] to serve a similar role, whilst none where actually built the Spanish aircraft carrier Principe de Asturias and HTMS Chakri Naruebet are all based on the concept.

See also

For complete lists see:


  1. ^ Hague 2000 p.83
  2. ^ Friedman 1983 p.162
  3. ^ Friedman 1983 p.165
  4. ^ Evans, Robert L. "Cinderella Carriers" United States Naval Institute Proceedings August 1976 pp.53-60
  5. ^ Friedman 1983 pp.159-160
  6. ^ Friedman 1983 p.159
  7. ^ Friedman 1983 p.176
  8. ^ Friedman 1983, p.199.
  9. ^ Brown 1977 p.63
  10. ^ Brown 1977 p.61
  11. ^ Sea Control Ship -


  • Adcock, Al (1996). Escort Carriers in Action. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications. ISBN 9780897473569.
  • Brown, David (1977). Aircraft Carriers. Arco Publishing Company. ISBN 0-668-04164-1.  
  • Cox, Robert Jon (2006). The Battle Off Samar: Taffy III at Leyte Gulf. Murrieta, Calif.: Ivy Alba Press.  
  • Friedman, Norman (1983). U.S. Aircraft Carriers. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-739-9.  
  • Gallery, Daniel V. (1965). 20 Million Tons Under The Sea. New York: Ballantine.
  • Galuppini, Gino (1981). Le guide des porte-avions. Paris: Fernand Nathan.
  • Hague, Arnold (1998). Convoy Rescue Ships 1940–45. World Ship Society. ISBN 0-905617-88-6.  
  • Morison, Samuel E. (1958). History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Leyte, June 1944–January 1945, Volume XII. Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books. ISBN 0-7858-1313-6.  
  • Poolman, Kenneth (1972). Escort Carrier 1941–1945: An Account of British Escort Carriers in Trade Protection. London: Ian Allan.
  • Warrilow, Betty (1989). Nabob, the First Canadian-manned Aircraft Carrier. Owen Sound, Ont.: Escort Carriers Association.
  • Y'Blood, William T. (1987). The Little Giants: U.S. Escort Carriers Against Japan. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0870212753.  

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