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Escort Carriers (CVE)


Photograph of Sangamon class escort carrier

U.S. Navy

Escort carriers were developed by the British as a response to the deadly U-boat threat in the Atlantic. Their direct ancestor was the MAC, a cargo ship equipped with a catapult with which to launch a Hurricane fighter if the convoy containing the MAC was shadowed by German reconnaissance aircraft or attacked by long-range bombers. The concept was a desperate one: The fighter had no way to land once its mission was complete, so the pilot either had to be close to a land base, or he had to ditch in the water near his ship and hope for the best.

The next logical development was conversion of a cargo ship to a small carrier by the addition of a flight deck. As it became clear that air cover was an effective force multiplier against submarines, the idea of a small, cheap carrier that could provide such air cover became increasingly attractive. The British build several experimental escort carriers that demonstrated the soundness of the concept.

Roosevelt followed the British experiments with great interest and asked the U.S. Navy to explore the concept. Kimmel, commanding Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, also requested in a 22 October 1941 report to Stark that a cargo ship be "converted to a carrier for training purposes at San Diego" (Prange 1981). The result was Long Island, which found itself assigned to the Pacific in an aircraft-ferrying role. This proved sufficiently valuable that the Navy began constructing entire classes of escort carriers. Sometimes called “jeep carriers” because they were small, mass-produced, and versatile, the escort carrier crewmen also grimly joked that the type designation (CVE) stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable.” They were cramped and uncomfortable, and flight operations were always hairy. Nevertheless, the ships were a success. During one six-month period, escort carrier aircraft sank 31 U-boats, over half of all U-boats destroyed by the U.S. Navy during that time period.

Because the Japanese failed to effectively deploy their submarines against Allied shipping lanes, the escort carriers assigned to the Pacific were able to branch out from the antisubmarine role.  They accompanied amphibious invasion forces, flying ground support missions while also providing combat air and antisubmarine patrols. They provided replacement aircraft to the fleet carriers, allowing the latter to remain on station longer, an idea that apparently originated with Nimitz. Those converted for delivery of replacement aircraft were unofficially designated CVET. The CVETs also returned a small number of moderately damaged aircraft (about 212 by the end of the war) to the West Coast for salvage.

The Japanese badly needed escort carriers of their own, given the threat posed by American submarines to Japanese shipping. They had a number of small carriers that would have been ideal for this role, and built more, but it was not until much too late in the war that these carriers were actually employed in this fashion.

Japanese escort carriers

Kaiyo

Shimane Maru class

Shinyo

Taiyo class

U.S. escort carriers

Bogue class

Casablanca class

Commencement Bay class

Long Island

Sangamon class

British escort carriers

Activity

Ameer class

Attacker class


References

Klein (2013)

Morison (1959)

Prange (1981)

Sears (2008)



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