The first escort carrier was the British built HMS Audacity, entering service on June 17th 1941. She was the first escort carrier to operate as a convoy escort sailing with convoy, OG-74 on September 13th 1941. Although she only carried maximum of 8 fighters and had only a brief active career before being sunk, she had shown that the concept worked. The idea of converting merchant hulls into vessels capable of operating naval aircraft was to be taken forward by the US Navy who began utilising merchant 'C3' type freighter hulls for conversions into escort carriers. The first US conversion was the USS Long Island which was commissioned on June 2nd 1941.
Lend lease batch 1
Under the terms of the Lend Lease agreement between the US and Britain 39 US built escort carriers were transferred to the control of the Admiralty. Of the first five escort carrier conversions completed for the RN (Archer, Avenger, Biter, Charger, and Dasher) were essentially copies of the 'Long Island' design. Archer was the first to be handed over, commissioning in November 1941. Charger however, was reclaimed by the USN two days after she was handed over for duty as a training carrier. Archer saw little active service before machinery problems saw her laid up for a considerable time. Avenger and Dasher were both sunk, Biter being the only one of the initial batch to see continuous active service until the end of the war.
Lend lease Batches 2 and 3
The U-Boat treat was increasingly claiming merchant and military vessels on vital convoys; the need for more escort carriers was to become a priority. Orders were placed for two further batches of US CVEs whilst the Admiralty undertook to complete a further five. Batch 2 was 11 'Bogue' class CVEs, although some 'Casablanca' class vessels were initially earmarked for transfer, but these were diverted to the US navy. Batch 3 was a repeat order for a further 23 Bogue class vessels.
By the end of 1942 the RN had received 8 US escort carriers and completed two conversions in British shipyards. During 1943 it was to gain a further 30; 27 lend lease and 3 more British conversions. This was to be the height of escort carrier production for the RN, the final four US built vessels and the final British conversion had all arrived by the end of February 1944.
"Full protection could not be afforded to the convoys until it was possible to provide air escort for the whole of the Atlantic passage; and for some time there was a gap of some 600 miles in mid-Atlantic which land-based air forces could not reach. That was finally bridged partly by the provision of the ‘V.L.R.’ (very long range) aircraft, but even more effectively by the provision of escort carriers which could accompany each convoy."
Rear-Admiral H. G. Thursfield
"Failure of the U-Boat Campaign."
Illustrated London News January 22, 1944
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The escort carrier was designed as a solution to the shortage of naval air power for convoy protection by repurposing merchant hulls into pocket sized aircraft carriers. By the end of WW2 Britain had operated 45 escort carriers, in the Atlantic, Arctic, Indian and Pacific oceans: 6 of these were British built 39 were US built.
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