How previous Royal Navy warships have been the blueprint for HMS Prince of Wales

AIRCRAFT carriers have had a pivotal role to play in Britain’s military history for the past century.

Saturday, 16th November 2019, 12:00 am

They have been involved in every major conflict since the First World War, with the Royal Navy blazing a trail in technical innovation and military foresight.

Now, with the imminent arrival of Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, The News is reflecting on the development of the mighty class of warships through the ages.

Britain’s first foray into creating an aircraft carrier came during the First World War.

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HMS Furious, pictured in 1935. The navy's first aircraft carrier PP391

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HMS Furious, a previous battlecruiser, was hastily converted into the first of the navy’s experimental new warships, having her primary turret removed, aircraft hangar installed and a short flight deck installed.

Her sister ships HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious would later follow the same path, of butchered conversion.

HMS Ark Royal visiting Portsmouth in June 1972 - a marvellous photograph from Mike Nolan’s collection.

The ship made history when, on August 2, 1917, Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning became the first man to touch down on a moving ship at sea.

The trailblazing aviator did so with his Sopwith Pup biplane in Scapa Flow, Orkney. Tragically, he died days later attempted to repeat the same feat for the second time.

But his sacrifice proved planes could land on ships at sea.

The third HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth Harbour in November 1938

After the end of the Great War, the navy continued with its aircraft carrier development programme.

Next on the list was HMS Hermes. She introduced the modern-look to the aircraft carriers, with a control tower protruding above the flight deck.

Completed in 1924, she fought through the opening half of the Second World War until she was sunk by the Japanese on April 9, 1942.

HMS Ark Royal, commissioned in 1938, suffered a similar fate during the war.

Previously unissued handout photo of HMS Ark Royal and her task force heading down to the North Arabian Gulf to take part in Operation Telic, Monday March 10, 2003. PA Photo/Royal Navy Handout. Crown Copyright

She was the first ship on which the hangars and flight deck were an integral part of the hull instead of an add-on or part of the superstructure.

She served in some of the most active naval theatres of the Second World War and was involved in the first aerial and U-boat kills of the conflict, operations off Norway and the search for the Bismarck.

Tragically, she was torpedoed off the coast of Gibraltar by German U-boat U-81, on November 13, 1941. She sank the next day.

HMS Illustrious was among the most successful British carriers in the war against the Nazis, fighting across the Mediterranean before heading to the Pacific to fight against the Japanese in the closing chapters of the Second World War.

She was damaged while off the coast of Okinawa by two Japanese attack aircraft.

Post-war came the new backbones of the navy’s carrier fleet, HMS Eagle and HMS Ark Royal.

The pair, weighing 36,800 tonnes, were capable of carrying between 45 and 60 aircraft. They were the last to sport the catapult assisted take-off, barrier-assisted recovery system.

Eagle was eventually decommissioned in 1970 with Ark Royal axed 10 years later.

In 1977, the first of three Invincible-class aircraft carriers, HMS Invincible, was launched.

Alongside HMS Hermes, Invincible became the linchpin of the invasion fleet when the Falklands War broke out in 1982.

The pair were able to operate an airgroup of Sea Harriers and Sea King helicopters, providing vital air cover for British troops fighting to retake the Falklands from Argentine invaders.

Invincible’s sister ship, HMS Illustrious, was also rushed into service during the war.

Ark Royal was the last of the trio to be commissioned, joining the navy in 1985. She was deployed to the Adriatic Sea during the Bosnian War in 1993 and served in the Gulf during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Illustrious-class warships were phased out following the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, with Illustrious being the last to leave Portsmouth, destined for a Turkish breakers yard in 2016.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are the latest aircraft carriers developed by the Royal Navy.

The pair of 65,000-tonne behemoths are the largest warships ever built for the navy and are designed to operate the new F-35 stealth jets.

Queen Elizabeth the oldest of the pair, is in Florida carrying out her second round of trials with the jets before her first operational deployment in 2021.

Each will have a lifespan of about 50 years.