The Rise of Naval Air Power over Capital Ships: A Breakdown of Significant Advances

Few advancements have changed naval warfare as drastically as the introduction of aircraft. The rise of naval air power heralded in a new age of warfare while simultaneously  bringing an end to the era of dreadnaughts. The exact time that this took place however, is still being debated. The most popular opinion is that air power arose following the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. However, some would argue that Pearl Harbor was more symbolic due to the triumph of aircraft over dreadnaughts. The attack on Force Z is highly cited by many, while others like to think that Midway was the point where aircraft showed their superiority. Others point to the tests performed by the Army Air Corps in the 1920s or the arrival of guided anti-ship weapons in the 1940s.

I would argue that the arrival of naval air power was not instantaneous. Rather, it occurred over a series of five milestones. Each one representing a major advancement in naval aviation that slowly but surely wrested power from capital ships. The first of these advancements began in 1921 and concluded in 1943. These advancements follow the progression of aircraft from novel support units to the dominant power in naval combat.

Sinking of SMS Ostfiesland (1921)

Air CorpsOn July 20th, 1921 the sound of explosions could be heard off the coast of Cape Hatteras. Billy Mitchell, a man who had far more confidence in aircraft than anyone else at the time, organized a series of air attacks on various ships. One such ship was the German battleship Ostfiesland. Taken as war reparations from Germany following the Great War, it would be used as the primary target for bombers. It was a highly debated test and conducted under much scrutiny. The Navy sought to utilize the test to prove that battleships could survive an air attack while Mitchell sought to prove that aircraft could sink capital ships.

Over the coarse of the day, aircraft continued to pound the German warship with progressively heavier munitions. At first, it appeared that the battleship truly was invulnerable to aircraft. Light bombs appeared to detonate harmlessly around the battleship. While the Ostfiesland suffered little topside damage, near misses buckled her plates and allowed water to invade. Throughout the day, she settled by the stern and began to list. During this time, aircraft continued to pummel the ship with heavier bombs. Finally, when heavy aircraft were brought in with 2000lb bombs, the damaged became too great and the Ostfiesland rolled over and sank. The tests were widely circulated and drew intense criticism. Naval officials attacked Mitchell over perceived wrongdoing in the tests. The Navy believed that a manned ship would have been able to fight back and survive. Mitchell believed that the tests proved that aircraft were viable for sinking capital ships.


Regardless of the controversies surrounding the tests. The sinking of SMS Ostfiesland was the first major milestone for naval air power. While the attack was carried out by land based aircraft, It proved that aircraft could carry the weaponry to seriously damage or even sink capital ships. Of course, it was said that aircraft had to locate a ship to attack and a maneuvering ship would be impossible to locate at any distance.

Interception of S.S. Rex (1938)

Air Corps

B-17 bombers flying past the SS Rex following their successful mock interception. Crowds gathered on the decks of the liner to wave at the American Aircraft.

Following the Ostfiesland tests, tensions were high between the Navy and Air Corps. The Navy performed some of its own tests that they called discredited the effectiveness of aircraft. The Navy was determined to humiliate the Air Corps into submission. Furthermore, the Air Corps faced stiff resistance from the Army over its attempts to procure long range bombers. The Army was determined to hold total command over air operations. The Air Corps knew they had to do something to get out from under the other branches to prove their worth. Their chance came in May of 1938 with a truly audacious plan.

In May 1938, the Air Corps was conducting one of its largest maneuvers ever. The goal was determine how well the Air Corps could protect the coastline of the United States from a hostile fleet. The maneuvers were large enough that they had considerable media attention. However, the Air Corps needed to do something that would truly make headlines. In a move that would have won the approval of Billy Mitchell, the Air Corps decided to intercept the Italian Liner SS Rex as it was traveling towards New York Harbor. Not only would they intercept the ship at long range, but they would bring along members of the press along to publicize the event. Using information on the speed and bearing of the SS Rex in addition to careful plotting, the Air Corps was sure they could locate the ship on the vast ocean. On the 12th of May, three B-17 bombers took off and began a long journey through inclement weather to the position where they predicted the Rex to be. Despite bad visibility, terrible weather, and errors in plotting, the bombers were able to intercept the Rex while it was still over 600 nautical miles from the US.

The interception of the SS Rex was another important milestone for airpower. It showed that aircraft could be used to conduct long range reconnaissance missions to detect enemy shipping. It also showed the aircraft could protect an area much larger than what was possible with naval ships and at a much cheaper cost. Lastly, it showed that aircraft were evolving from tactical weapons into potent strategic weapons.

Battle of Taranto (1940) / Attack on Pearl Harbor (1941)

the rise of naval air power

The Attack on Pearl Harbor in progress. An explosion can be seen at battleship row on the far side of Ford Island.

the rise of naval air power

The aftermath of the Attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto. Several heavy cruisers can be seen surrounded by oil from their ruptured tanks.




The Attacks on Taranto and on Pearl Harbor were the third major milestone in air power. They were some of the first actions that naval air power started to show its true potential. Prior to these battles, the use of aircraft carriers was still being debated. Land based bombers were considered the better choice for conducting large scale attacks. Carrier aircraft were thought to be too few and too weak to cause lasting damage. The battles of Taranto and Pearl Harbor changed this method of thinking.

In both battles, the attackers sought to eliminate enemy warships as part of a larger operation. The British hoped to eliminate a large portion of Italian strength from the Mediterranean sea while the Japanese wanted to eliminate any American retaliation in their conquest of the Pacific. Both attacks were carried out entirely by carrier aircraft. A Britain used a single carrier while the Japanese used a far stronger force of six aircraft carriers. Both attacks were surprise attacks that caught the defenders off guard. Most importantly, both attacks caught the enemy ships at harbor where they could do nothing to avoid the attackers.

Both attacks were successes. Half of the Italian capital ships were damaged and unusable. In the Pacific, the American battleship fleet was smashed and out of service for over a year. The attacks highlighted the strengths of aircraft carriers and displayed the increasingly vulnerability of the once almighty dreadnought. Following these attacks, nearly every other major naval battle involved aircraft carriers.

This milestone showed that aircraft carriers could allow for far greater flexibility than land based bombers. Carriers provided mobile airbases that allowed naval aircraft to attack on a global scale. Properly performed, a carrier strike could cause immense damage in a short amount of time and without any warning. Aircraft were now a dominant force in naval combat.

Attack on Force Z (1941)

attack on force z

The battlecruiser Repulse is surrounded by explosions from no less than six bombs. At the top of the photo, the battleship Prince of Wales can be seen maneuvering.

Despite the lessons learned from Taranto and Pearl Harbor, some naval officers remained convinced that dreadnaughts would remain the primary power of the fleet. Ironically, even Japan clung to this belief as they launched the world’s largest battleships at the same time that their carrier forces were showing the vulnerability of battleships. A general thought was that Taranto and Pearl Harbor proved nothing as the attacked ships were stationary targets. It was thought that a warship, maneuvering and putting up a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, would greatly reduce the effectiveness of attacking aircraft. Indeed, up until this point, no capital ship had been sunk by aircraft while underway.

Force Z was a British naval squadron created to reinforce garrisons in the Pacific. It consisted of the Battleship Prince of Wales, the Battlecruiser Repulse, and supporting destroyers. They were originally tasked with intercepting the Japanese invasion fleet. However, after failing to locate the Japanese fleet, they attempted to return to Singapore. On route, they were intercepted by Japanese land based bombers.

In an attack made up of 88 aircraft (34 torpedo bombers, 51 bombers, and 3 scouts) the Japanese sank both the Prince of Wales and Repulse for the loss of only four aircraft. They effectively crippled the Royal Navy in the Pacific and left the Allies as a whole with only four capital ships in the entire pacific region.

The Attack on Force Z was a milestone that proved that even maneuvering ships, putting up intense anti-aircraft fire, were still highly vulnerable to coordinated air attacks. It also showed that the best way to deter an air attack was with aircraft providing cover. While the attacking aircraft did miss many of their initial attacks, the accumulating damage took its toll. It was not apparent that no battleship could survive a sustained air attack.

Arrival of Guided Weapons in Combat (1943)

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A Fritz X bomb seen today in a museum.

While aircraft could effectively attack ships, once they released their ordnance it was still possible for the ship to evade as the initial attack on Force Z showed. The final proponents of battleships thought that aircraft still had a weakness as it would take many of them and a lot of ordinance to sink a single battleship. However, technology would soon rectify this problem as well.

Increasing accuracy of anti-ship weapons became a major goal as more accurate weapons  would dramatically increase the lethality of aircraft. Relatively early in World War II all major powers were working on developing the first guided munitions.

Germany was the first to debut the results of their labor in the form of the Fritz X bomb. This bomb was an armor piercing bomb that was guided by an aircraft bombardier onto target. A flare in the tail of the bomb allowed the bomber to keep track of the bomb as they guided it towards the target. The Fritz X could penetrate just over 5″ of armor and was intended for use against enemy capital ships. The greatest success with this weapon occurred on Sept 9th, 1943. The Italians were going to turn over their battleships to the Allies and Germany was determined to prevent this. Six aircraft were dispatched to intercept the Italian flotilla. Once the German aircraft began their attack, the Italian battleships began evasive maneuvers and putting up an anti-aircraft barrage. However, the battleships Roma and Italia were both hit. Roma was struck again by another Fritz X that penetrate

guided anti-ship weapons

A VB-6 Felix homing bomb. Though it was not ready in time for the Second World War, it paved the way for the modern anti-ship weapons we use today.

d her deck armor. This caused a catastrophic explosion in her forward magazine. Roma quickly capsized, taking over 1200 down with her.


Outside of Germany and its Fritz X, other guided weapons made their appearance. In 1944, the United States introduced the ASM-N-2 “Bat”, this was a radar-guided glide bomb that would autonomously home in on its targets, a huge advancement over the Fritz-X that relied on visibility for optimal performance. A year later, the even more advanced VB-6 Felix was introduced. This was a guided bomb that tracked targets based on their infrared signature. Felix was the first of the true “Fire and Forget” munitions.

These weapons, perhaps more than any other advancement, truly brought the age of battleships to a close. Planes equipped with these weapons could attack at ranges in which return fire would largely be useless. Furthermore, once the weapons were released, they could be guided to reliably hit a moving ship no matter how evasive. Released in large numbers, these weapons could easily overwhelm any defensive capabilities the ship might have. With advantages like these, aircraft could now attack with near immunity against ships and cause greater damage for less ordinance expended. The conquest of aircraft over warships had now become complete.

Final Word and Links

As always, I hope you enjoyed the article. Feel free to leave a comment below if you liked or disliked the article. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to keep up with all the latest articles.

guided anti-ship weapons

A Bat glide bomb mounted on the wing of a patrol bomber.


My next article will be on the “all or nothing” armor scheme so keep an eye out for it! In the meantime, check out these other articles on naval airpower:

The Decline of Light Aircraft Carriers 

The Return of Light Aircraft Carriers

Chris Knupp

A student of military history, I am working to make history more interesting and accessible for everyone.

1 Comment

  1. Ernesto Novillo on 10/07/2017 at 1:56 AM

    Excelent site Chris. As former Navy Officer of the Argentine Armada Nacional I’m your follower.
    Ernesto Novillo

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