Could a Battleship Really Manage to Sink an Aircraft Carrier?

Michael Peck

Key point: If an aircraft carrier makes the mistake of letting a battleship too close, the results could be disastrous.

If you are the captain of an aircraft carrier, these are the words you do not want to hear: “Enemy battleship in sight!”

Yet on June 8, 1940, the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious discovered why carriers should need to stay far away from enemy surface fleets. The Glorious encountered not one, but two German battleships off the Norwegian coast. What ensued was a disaster that cost the lives of more than 1,500 sailors.

Not that the Glorious was ever a lucky ship. Built in late 1916 as a battlecruiser, it did manage to avoid the fate of its three sisters that blew up at the Battle of Jutland. However, one of its fifteen-inch guns exploded at the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1917, when a shell detonated in the barrel.

In 1930, the Glorious was converted into an aircraft carrier, just as the U.S. Navy did with the Lexington and Saratoga. Battlecruisers had proven fragile in World War I, but they could travel thirty knots and had large hulls suitable for planting a flight deck on.

However, the bad luck of the Glorious continued. On April 1, 1931—April Fools’ Day—the carrier was sailing through fog when it rammed the French ocean liner Florida. The Glorious lost one sailor, and the Florida lost twenty-four passengers and crew.

The worst was yet to come. The Glorious was committed to the Norwegian campaign, perhaps the rock bottom of the Royal Navy’s performance in World War II. On April 9, 1940, the Germans launched an amphibious invasion of Norway. It was an invasion that should never have have succeeded: the German Kriegsmarine, heavily outnumbered by the British fleet and operating relatively close to British naval bases in Scotland, should have been wiped out.

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