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Weapons of World War One:
Naval Warfare


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Before the Great War, postcards depicting naval ships were already very popular. They were introduced as a suitable subject matter for men in order to encourage them to collect within what was typically thought of as a woman’s hobby. This trend continued into the years of the Great War when the audience for military postcards was expanded by the public’s growing desire for war news. While there is a near guarantee that every ship of every major navy was pictured on a postcard, those of the newest designs were sought out the most.

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Cruisers were basically ships built to be fast and powerful enough to take on independent missions while cruising the seas. By the turn of the 20th century there had been so many different types that they became difficult to classify. Metal plating began being added to the sides of ships during the American Civil War, and by the 1870’s other navies had adapted this to create the armored cruiser. Further protection was added in the 1880’s in the form of metal ship decks to create the protected cruiser. Even more powerful ships were launched just prior to the Great War by the navies of Great Britain, Australia, Japan, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. These new battle cruisers were nearly as powerful as dreadnoughts, and were often used to hunt down the earlier class cruisers that were still in service. Unfortunately the light armor that gave them speed made them very vulnerable to high caliber gunfire.

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In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Russians saw the destruction of two of their naval fleets at the hands of the Japanese, which cost them the conflict. The Russian ships far outgunned their opponent but the guns mounted on modern Japanese ships were much larger, which gave them the capacity to hit the Russians first. The idea for an all big gun ship had already been contemplated, but the results of this war made everyone take notice and construction finally got off the ground. The first truly armored big gun vessel was the H.M.S. Dreadnought built for the British Navy in 1906. Public fascination with her led to the entire class of big gun ships to be nicknamed Dreadnoughts.

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By the outbreak of World War One, the navies of Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia had many Dreadnoughts in their fleets. While they bombarded enemy coastlines and fought in ship to ship combat, they usually stayed inactive at their home bases in fear of encountering torpedoes or sea mines. As an important part of naval defense no nation could afford to lose them and so they rarely set out to face risk. While there are many postcards of dreadnoughts to be found, they are usually pictured sailing the high seas or resting in harbor where they still could function as a deterrent.

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While no dreadnought was lost to direct ship to ship combat during the Great War, there are some postcards that depict these ships engaged in military actions. There were many serious encounters involving Italian and Austro-Hungarian ships in the Adriatic. Many French and British dreadnoughts were deployed in the attack on the Dardanelles in February of 1915. Large ships of the British and German Navies also sortied out in May 1916 to fight the Battle of Jutland. There were also smaller encounters in the Black and Baltic Seas with Russian ships.

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Though not common, a number of postcards depict the interior of ships. These cards often look dingy because they capture poor lighting conditions, though they can be dramatically enhanced by the bright fire of a boiler room. Far more appealing to the public were the interiors of large gun turrets that were more closely associated with the romance of war. The accuracy of some of these renditions come into question as these spaces can look far less dark and cramped than they actually were.

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The torpedo boat was a much smaller type of ship that played a large role in the navy of many different nations. They had evolved out of mid-19th century boats that would ram their opponents with a makeshift spar torpedo secured to their bow. These were eventually replaced by vessels that carried projectile torpedoes that traveled just beneath the waterÕs surface while being self-propelled though the expulsion of compressed air. Early models were launched from a swivel tube mounted to a ships deck. The first such torpedo, nicknamed tin fish, was invented by Robert Whitehead in 1866 but it wasn’t until the 1890’s that these devices improved enough to be widely employed by navies.

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Torpedo boats became an inexpensive way of countering the introduction of the dreadnought. These light craft were fast and agile, and when attacking in numbers they could overwhelm the ability of a large ship to defend itself. The first boat to be sunk by a whitehead torpedo was a Turkish vessel attacked by a Russian torpedo boat in 1878. The Russians themselves would fall victim to the first large scale use of torpedo boats in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. Their effectiveness against much larger vessels inspired all the world’s major navies to adopt torpedo boats or speed up their production.

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A popular way to picture warships before the War was to have them riding out stormy seas. It was the type of drama that marine artists loved, but was inappropriate to incorporate with commercial steamships. The types of ships most often depicted under these conditions were torpedo boats, most likely because their small size created more drama when pitted against giant waves. This peacetime approach continued into the Great War, where they seem to provide more action scenes than in encounters with enemy craft.

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The unexpected effectiveness of torpedo boats also put a fear into all navies using dreadnoughts, who now feared their capital ships were too vulnerable. This resulted in a new ship design, the small torpedo destroyer that was armed with rapid fire light guns that could more easily defend larger ships from torpedo boat attacks. By World War One both types of ships were essential components of all major navies. Their comparatively shallow drought also gave them access to coastal waters and small harbors so they were widely employed on coastal raids. They could however run into serious trouble if intercepted by larger cruisers that were often engaged in patrol duty. Torpedo destroyers came to play a large role in mine laying and anti-submarine warfare as well.

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Though torpedo boats lacked the impressiveness of the large dreadnoughts, they seem to have been pictured just as often on postcards; a trend that began well before the outbreak of the Great War. Because their size made them more expendable, they tended to engage in combat a lot more than the dreadnoughts, which were largely hidden away in protected naval bases. This fact alone made them more suitable to postcard artists who were looking to create dramatic narrative scenes.

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There is a long history of merchant vessels being armed in wartime, and by the 1890’s most large commercial ships built by major sea powers were designed to be converted into armed vessels in times of war. At the beginning of World War One a number of merchant cruisers were armed, and some engaged similar vessels in combat. The British eventually decided that these ships could be put to better use as troop transports though many remained armed for their own protection.

The Germans used their auxiliary cruisers as commerce raiders; sailing the shipping lanes to destroy enemy merchant vessels. Their guns were usually hidden so that they could more easily approach enemy ships. Unfortunately their best ships were too recognizable for this type of service. Even the vessels that were used were often disguised by adding false funnels and masts, and sometimes repainted into the colors of an enemy’s steamship line. These ships however were no match for the actual warships they might confront, and so they only had limited use early in the War before they were captured or sunk.

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There were also German warships designated as Commerce Raiders that were specifically designed to prey on enemy shipping lanes. They were largely stationed overseas but as the German colonies fell early in the War their operations were hampered by the loss of their bases. They might still scrounge up fuel but they could not easily replenish munitions. Most of these ships still had successful careers but they proved too few in number and easy prey themselves when pitted against larger ships of the Allied navy that were deployed to intercept them.




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There have always been attempts to design and construct underwater craft that might approach an enemy with stealth, but the momentum to do so greatly increased during the 19th century. A number of submersibles were built though their effectiveness for military use was mixed and none were considered reliable. Germany had built the first truly workable submarine in 1903. Those designed specifically for military use were labeled U-boats, short for undersea boat (Unterseeboot). The German Navy had twenty-nine U-boats in its service at the beginning of World War One.

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As the numbers of German commerce raiders quickly dwindled, attacks against enemy shipping primarily fell to U-boats. The idea was not just to sink ships but form a blockade that would create an economic strangle hold. England received the most attention as U-boats attempted to intercept ships carrying men, armaments, and food from its many dominions. As Britain began receiving more and more supplies from ships flying the flags of neutral nations, Germany expanded its operational procedures. In November of 1914 Germany declared the entire North Sea area a war zone and adopted the policy of unrestricted warfare in which they reserved the right to sink the vessels of any nation, both civilian and military, that was aiding their enemies. When privately owned ships began to be sunk, it set off a number of heated diplomatic disputes.

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The issue of unlimited warfare came to a head in May 1915 when the S.S. Lusitania was sunk off the Irish Coast. The loss of American lives sparked strong protests in the United States, and President Wilson offered a near ultimatum. Fearing that the United States might declare war; Germany ended this doctrine and went back to only targeting ships flying enemy colors. This change however made their blockade of England ineffectual. The German navy tried to compensate by attempting to deliver a severe blow to the Royal Navy. The German High Seas fleet and British Grand fleet met at the end of May 1916 in the Battle of Jutland. The results were indecisive though it did demonstrate that the German surface fleet was incapable of lifting the Blockade on Germany.

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The sinking of ships at the hands of German U-boats was primarily depicted on German postcards. They recorded actual events when the target was newsworthy, but there are just as many that display the generic but still dramatic sinking of merchant ships. These small victories are meant to give the impression that the War is going well. Apart from these there are also many patriotic cards involving U-boats that are clearly generic and propagandistic. They usually take aim directly at England, and their message can present their actions as revenge for the British blockade. While most of these are artist drawn, there are also many real photo cards that that present propaganda messages with U-boats that montage painting with studio poses.

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Occasionally U-boat attacks were documented on the postcards of Allied countries. Here however they were presented as atrocities committed at the hands of a barbaric enemy. There is usually an accompanying caption to make sure their message is properly conveyed. These depictions are usually artist renderings but there are real photo cards of survivors in lifeboats to be found. They appear in limited numbers for while it was important to show the barbarity of the enemy, they had to be careful not to panic the public by advertising the mounting losses.

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Though they lack the glamour of warships, a great number and variety of the vessels that served as troop transports during the War were captured on postcards. The ship may be the focus of attention on these cards if it had a well known name; otherwise many of these images are fairly anonymous scenes of troops posing on deck as well as embarking or disembarking. The generic nature of so many cards was twofold; there was most likely a problem with military censors in naming ships, and by making them generic they would appeal to more customers. While many often think about the many Americans that were transported across the Atlantic, many soldiers from Great Britain’s dominions and the colonies of France were transported to the theaters of war in similar fashion. Many laborers were also transported by ship, usually from Asia, but under far worse conditions. All transports regardless of passengers were prime targets for U-boats.

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By October 1916 Germany returned to its doctrine of unrestricted U-boat warfare under the calculation that they could knock Britain out of the war before the United States Navy became strong enough to oppose them. The campaign proved to be very effective at first though the further loss of neutral shipping would eventually prompt the United States, Portugal, and Brazil to all declare war on Germany. U-boats were sinking Allied ships at a faster rate than they could be replaced until a convoy system was developed in which armed ships would escort groups of merchant vessels. The Germans countered by attacking convoys with larger numbers of U-boats but these maneuvers were difficult to coordinate and U-boat losses only increased. The added protection of escorted convoys did not stop all losses to Allied shipping but it broke the effectiveness of the U-boat campaign just enough to keep Britain in the war.

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Norman Wilkinson, a marine artist who was serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy used his knowledge of the arts to come up with the idea of painting ships with geometric patterns, not to camouflage them but to confuse U-boat commanders. Reading a target through a periscope was difficult under the best conditions, and it was thought that these painted razzle dazzle patterns would distort the perception of range and direction. In August of 1917 the HMS Alsatian and the merchant ship SS Industry became the first two ships to be painted this way. Soon an entire experimental section sprang up and many Allied ships were painted in this fashion for the duration of the War. The merits of this program are still debated. There are many examples of these ships on real photo postcards but few examples of them exist in color.

(See Razzle Dazzle dated June 7, 2008, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on this subject)

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While U-boats were primarily deployed against merchant vessels, they occasionally went up against warships. This sometimes occurred as part of a defense against an enemy naval attack, but often warships were just a target of opportunity. The most famous case is the sinking of three British Cruisers by U-9 early in the war. It immediately propelled its U-boat captain into celebrity status and the incident might just be the one most reproduced on German naval postcards. Smaller incidents like the sinking of the Italian submarine Medusa by U-15 in the northern Adriatic are barely remembered today, but nearly every encounter seems to have been represented on postcards during the war years.

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U-boats typically ran as surface vessels, submerging only when necessary. This gave them more speed and a greater ability to spot targets and threats from their conning tower. Running their diesel engines while surfaced not only propelled them, they were used to charge their batteries from which they drew power while underwater. Many postcards depict U-boat lookouts on conning towers, often in storms when the visual drama was the greatest. While these situations captured reality, they were primarily intended to increase card sales.

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The primary advantage that submarines had over other ships was their stealth as they were able to approach an enemy vessel while submerged. This hidden danger quickly became part of their romance and was so strongly painted in the public’s mind that illustrations of U-boats with a cloud belching smokestack typical of a steamship seem like an artistic fantasy. While the power from giant batteries allowed submarines to travel underwater without notice, they were weak and could only be used for short durations. The main source of power for most submarines at this time was their diesel engines. While they burned fairly clean, they still gave off exhaust that could only be vented while the craft rested on the water’s surface. Smokestacks were designed that could be lowered into a groove placed in the ships deck when not in use, and a hatch was then closed to seal off the pipe to the engine. They defy public expectations to such a degree that few postcards were published that show smokestacks on any kind of submarine.

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The torpedo was the U-boats primary weapon system. Early torpedoes did not always work well but better and more ingenious designs were perfected during the War. Although torpedoes could be used from a position of stealth, it was the U-boats deck gun that probably saw the most use. Torpedoes were large and a U-boat could only carry so many, especially when compared to artillery rounds for a gun. A U-boat’s deck gun could only be used when it was surfaced exposing the sub and its gun crew to danger, so it was largely used to shell unarmed merchant vessels or coastal facilities. A ship could even be threatened with a gun without having to fire it, and it could also be used to sink small vessels when a valuable torpedo was overkill.

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U-boats were often paired with sailing ships on postcards produced during the Great War. While this can seem incongruous to us today, a good part of all nation’s merchant fleets were still made up of sailing vessels at this time, and such encounters were common. The problem we have arrises from our own emphasis on the modern technology that grew out of the War, which was already being promoted on cards produced during the conflict. Such cards are not meant to capture real encounters but contrast the ways of the past with the future. Nearly all such postcards were produced by German publishers who wished to show that their nation’s advancements in naval warfare would overpower the enemy and make them rulers of the sea.

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While submarines where primarily designed to make war against ships, they sometimes used their deck guns to bombard coastal facilities. There small guns had a limited range, which meant they had to get in close. This eliminated many potential targets as major harbors were usually protected by multiple shore batteries, designed to ward off the largest of ships at an extensive range. There were however many small harbors that only had light defenses or none at all, which were open to attack. These types of small raids were so far from public expectations that they rarely appear on postcards.

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The preponderance of U-boat postcards were produced in Germany and as such they show many Allied warships succumbing to their attacks. In reality encounters with warships usually did not go well for U-boats with many being badly damaged or sunk. This was especially true if caught by a fast moving ship while on the surface. Later in the War, merchant vessels began to arm themselves, and many unsuspecting U-boat was damaged or sunk by their small guns when they got in too close.

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Austria-Hungary also operated U-boats from their Pola naval base on the Adriatic Sea. While they could not effectively extend their range to interfere with Allied shipping in the Mediterranean, they did inflict damage on the French blockading fleet that had them bottled up at the Straits of Otranto. German U-boats based at Constantinople faced no such restrictions and proved more damaging to Allied shipping. They had arrived in the Mediterranean early in 1915 to aid the Turks in protecting the Dardanelles and Bosporus from Allied attacks.




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Sea mines have a long history and were used in abundance and to great effect in World War One. They traditionally came in two varieties. Controlled mines were designed to be warehoused during peacetime, but they would be taken out on small boats and anchored submerged at predetermined locations when a conflict arose. They were only detonated through electric cables stretching to an operator onshore so that they could be used against an enemy ship while not posing any danger to friendly shipping.

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The Russians made extensive use of contact mines to protect the Gulf of Riga, but they lay so far from defenses that the Germans were able to clear a passage through them using special light draft boats were designed for this work. These minesweepers trawled for submerged mines, raising them to the waters surface at a safe distance behind the ship where their cable could be cut. The Turks also used mines to defend the Dardanelles, but here they were positioned under the guns of shore batteries that prevented minesweepers from doing their work.

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Belts of sea mines could even deter ships from entering larger bodies of water such as the English Channel and the Kattegut between Denmark and Norway. The largest minefield, the North Sea Mine Barrage, began to be laid in the North Sea between Scotland and Norway by the British in late 1917 to block the movements of German U-boats. The Germans placed mines in shipping lanes to cut off supplies en-route to Britain. Mining operations also played major roles in the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas. Even neutral nations such as the netherlands employed sea mines to prevent hostile amphibious landings in it coastal waters. It is estimated that 235,000 sea mines were planted during World War One. They were a major hazard and took down many ships. These mines would sometimes free themselves of their tether and wash upon a beach where they became the subject for postcards. Some untethered mines were also dropped into enemy waters despite signed conventions prohibiting this activity.

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A variety of ships were used to deploy mines, the earliest being designated mine planters that usually protected harbors. Sea mines were particularly hazardous to handle, and special care had to be made for their storage and movement aboard ship. During world War One ships specifically designed for this task began to be called mine layers, especially after the planting of mines became part of an offensive strategy. Since these ships strayed further from coastal waters, they needed to be faster and armed.

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Since most sea mines were designed to explode when contact was made with a ships hull, great care had to be taken with both the storage and deployment of these weapons. The Germans first began using moored mines, a design latter copied by the British, which would float above their anchorage. These anchors also served as their base while in storage so they could be packed closely together but still far enough apart to keep them from exploding. These same anchors acted as sleds that were designed to run on rails attached to a mine layers deck. This not only allowed them to be safely moved, they could be easily be dumped off the back of a speeding ship at precise intervals when planting a line.

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Starting in June 1915 U-boats were also used to plant sea mines while submerged. Depictions of this activity are rare, and when they appear they are of course all artist drawn, which sometimes led to strange renditions. A number of publishers produced postcards illustrating the cross section of submarines, often to demonstrate how they fired a torpedo, but mine laying subs are pictured as well. Cross sections no doubt solved some of the public’s curiosity, but they also allowed illustrators to render an activity that was largely went unseen.

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Both raiders and U-boats laid contact sea mine as a form of offensive warfare. These were usually placed at the entrance to enemy harbors or in sea lanes to disrupt commerce. While they were laid under conditions of stealth it was still risky business for these areas were often well patrolled. The presence of such devises were usually first discovered when a ship was sunk, so great vigilance was taken to be aware of all coastal activities. Fishing trawlers were first used to sweep for enemy mines, but as the War progressed dedicated shallow draft minesweeping ships were designed for this task. Not every navy had such vessels, and mine clearing would often be preformed by men in small boats.

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Quite a number of vessels, both commercial and naval were claimed by sea mines. There was no problem showing enemy ships going down on postcards, but when it came to friendly ships, publishers had a tricky line to walk. Damage to warships was rarely officially reported because this information might hurt morale and aid the enemy. On the other hand the sinking of merchant vessels by mines could be portrayed as another barbarous act by the enemy, and a reason to fight him. As with many modern weapons, the public had a distain for sea mines because they were a hidden danger that could not be countered by superior character or skill. Many publishers just chose to represent these events with generic images that gave nothing away as they increased public anger.




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The first commercial seaplanes (floatplanes) that appeared in 1910 were little different from other aircraft of these times except for the two pontoon-like floats that replaced its wheels. The size and weight of the floats made these planes far slower and less maneuverable than ordinary craft, but they had the advantage of being able to land on water. This turned any stretch of coast where they could be safely hauled back ashore and supplied with fuel into a potential airbase. By the time the Great War started, most navies had these planes in their service. They would be used extensively in the Adriatic, Black, and North Seas.

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The ability of planes to land on water also enabled them to use ships called seaplane tenders as their home base. Without the need to be attached to the coast their range of operations was theoretically limitless; only constricted by the range of their mothership. A crane aboard ship would lower the plane over the side for take off on the waters surface, and then haul it back aboard once their mission was over. Seaplanes could now launch surprise raids into enemy territory for it was difficult to determine where they were flying from.

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On Christmas Day, 1914 the British mounted an attack on the German Zeppelin base at the port of Cuxhaven using seaplanes launched from ships. The pilots however did not have a clear idea of where their targets where and so they inflicted little serious damage. The Germans counterattacked with their land based aircraft. This was the first use of sea-borne airpower in combat.

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The primary duty of seaplanes was that of reconnaissance, which often involved searching for submarines. These naval scouts could not only spot craft just below the waters surface, they were armed to destroy them. The first successful attack on a submarine by aircraft came in September 1916 when two Hungarian seaplanes spotted the submerged French submarine operating in the Adriatic and forced to the surface by dropping bombs. Often the threat of an air attack was enough to halt an unarmed ship until it could be captured by warships. Their ability to land on water also allowed them to do rescue work out at sea. Seaplanes were used on bombing missions the ships they were assigned to gave them mobility and range greater than their own. In this way surprise raids could be made from the sea. Airpower had created unprecedented threats to navies.

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Just before the War began there was some experimentation with modifying warships with platforms for planes to take off from and land on, but there were too many obstacles to overcome for them to be truly effective. Seaplane tenders would continue to support navies with airpower, but some ships began installing catapults capable of launching a plane. Toward the end of the War the British battlecruiser Furious had its front gun turret removed and a flight deck installed. Planes from it were sent on a raid against the Zeppelin base at Tonder in July 1915, the first of its kind. Construction of full deck aircraft carriers began during the war years but were not completed until after the conflict was over.




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