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The invention of the seaplane in March 1910—with the French Fabre Hydravion—led to development of the earliest ship designed as an aircraft carrier, albeit limited to aircraft equipped with floats: in December 1911 appears the French Navy Foudre, the first seaplane carrier. Commissioned as a seaplane tender, and carrying seaplanes under hangars on the main deck, from where they were lowered onto the sea with a crane, she participated in tactical exercises in the Mediterranean in 1912. Foudre was further modified in November 1913 with a 10-meter flat deck to launch her seaplanes.
Photo: Fabre Hydravion
HMS Hermes, temporarily converted as an experimental seaplane carrier in April–May 1913, was also one of the first seaplane carriers, and the first experimental seaplane carrier of the Royal Navy. She was originally laid down as a merchant ship, but was converted on the building stocks to be a seaplane carrier for a few trials in 1913, before being converted again to a cruiser, and back again to a seaplane carrier in 1914. She was sunk by a German submarine in October 1914. The first seaplane tender of the US Navy was the USS Mississippi, converted to that role in December 1913.
In September 1914, during World War I, in the Battle of Tsingtao, the Imperial Japanese Navy seaplane carrier Wakamiya conducted the world’s first successful naval-launched air raids. It lowered four Maurice Farman seaplanes into the water using its crane. These seaplanes later took off to bombard German forces, and were retrieved back from the surface afterwards.
Photo: USS Mississippi
On the Western front the first naval air raid occurred on 25 December 1914 when twelve seaplanes from HMS Engadine, Riviera and Empress (cross-channel steamers converted into seaplane carriers) attacked the Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven. The attack was not a complete success, although a German warship was damaged; nevertheless the raid demonstrated in the European theatre the feasibility of attack by ship-borne aircraft and showed the strategic importance of this new weapon.
Photo: HMS Engadine
The Russians also were quite innovative in their use of seaplane carriers in the Black Sea theatre of World War I.
Photo: HMS Hermes
Many cruisers and capital ships of the inter-war years often carried a catapult-launched seaplane for reconnaissance and spotting the fall of shot. Such seaplanes were launched by a catapult and recovered by crane from the water after landing. They were successful even during World War II. There were many notable successes early in the war, such as HMS Warspite‘s float-equipped Swordfish during the Second Battle of Narvik in 1940, which spotted for the guns of the British warships, helping to sink seven German destroyers, and sank the German submarine U-64 with bombs.
Photo: HMS Warspite
The Japanese Nakajima A6M2-N “Rufe” floatplane, derived from the Zero, was also a formidable fighter with only a slight loss in flight performance; one of its pilots scored 26 kills.