The Royal Navy led the way in the development of the aircraft carrier. Sure the USN had experimented with take-offs and landings aboard anchored warships before World War One but it was the RN that developed the type as a potent strike weapon. During World War One the RN commissioned 14 ships as aircraft carriers: Hermes, Empress, Riviera, Engadine, Ark Royal, Ben-My-Chree, Vindex, Campania, Manxman, Nairana, Pegasus, culminating in the curious hybrid HMS Furious with a flight deck forward and a solitary 18-inch gun in a turret aft. The Elizabethan class cruiser HMS Vindictive also received a partial conversion. All of these operated seaplanes or had only a small flight deck. One other ship commissioned before the armistice was the HMS Argus with a flight deck the length of the ship. The Argus was obviously the shape of things to come. Excluding the Furious and the Vindictive, all of these carriers had one other thing in common, they were all converted from merchant ships. Originally given the missions of reconnaissance and shell spotting, the aircraft of these carriers developed two other missions as the war progressed. One was air superiority in which fighters would control the airspace over a naval force, keeping it clear of Zeppelins and German seaplanes. The other mission developed near the end of the war was the massed carrier strike. Multiple carriers had been organized for a massed aerial strike on German Zeppelin sheds and the High Seas fleet in harbor but after the operation was under weigh it was aborted because of bad weather. This massed air strike of 1918 would have predated the Taranto attack of 1940 and the Pearl Harbor strike of 1941 by almost a quarter of a century. As it was, the RN did successfully conduct the first large scale attack of an enemy fleet in their attack of the Italian fleet in Taranto.
Immediately following the conclusion of the war, in an effort to prevent another ruinously expensive naval arms race, the major naval powers agreed to restrictive building terms under the Washington Treaty of 1922. The Royal Navy kept many of its small converted carriers and further converted three more large warships into aircraft carriers. The light battle cruisers, HMS Glorious and HMS Courageous were converted into carriers as was the HMS Eagle, converted from a battleship being built for Chile as the Almirante Cochrane, sister to the HMS Canada. In this period the Royal Navy also built the first carrier designed from the keel up as a carrier, the second HMS Hermes. The British had run out of allowable carrier tonnage with all of these conversions, while the USN and IJN, which had not invested in any carrier conversions during the war, could start almost with a clean slate. The USN converted a collier into the USS Langley for training and converted two big battle cruiser hulls into the largest carriers in the world with USS Lexington and USS Saratoga. The IJN built the small Hosho from the keel up as a carrier and converted the battle cruiser hull Akagi and battleship hull Kaga as carriers almost as big as the two American giants. This may mark the start of the fall from grace of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) as a leader in the realm of carrier aviation. The Royal Navy was burdened with a large number of converted carriers with smaller air groups and inherently less capable than the large American and Japanese carriers. Additionally, these same less capable carriers soaked up available tonnage for British carriers, so a new one would not be designed until the mid 1930s when the excellent HMS Ark Royal was built.
However, as bad as this was for the RN FAA, this was not the worst misfortune to strike the once proud innovator of carrier aviation. Of a far greater consequence was the reorganization of the British military forces. The Royal Air Force was created and naval aviation was put under its misguided control. Pilots and flight crew belonged to the RAF and were basically seconded to the FAA. Any officer that chose this route was basically a red headed step child to the other RAF officers. It was only natural that the best and brightest aviation candidates chose the standard RAF land based forces over the FAA. FAA officers had a much slower promotion rate than their RAF brethren. Equally ominous was the delegation of FAA aircraft design to the RAF. At this time the RAF was dominated by the bomber barons, who saw the heavy bomber as the future of aviation and the FAA as an unneeded appendage that just soaked up money and personnel. In many ways this situation was the same as was confronted by the USN when the USS United States was cancelled in order to move the allocated funds for more B-36 bombers in 1949.
It is odd that the US almost made the same mistake in 1949 that Great Britain did in the 1920s. With politicians listening to the bomber brethren, they saw buying national defense on the cheap without an inkling that no land based air force has the inherent flexibility of naval aviation. Fortunately for the USN the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 stopped this silly policy before it had done significant damage to US carrier aviation. The two naval powers that had the most effective naval aviation in World War Two were the USN and IJN, both of which had separate ground based aviation programs and naval based aviation programs under the navy. Of the powers that consolidated an air force into an autonomous force, such as Germany and Italy, no carrier force was developed, which was lucky for the allies.
Since the RAF never foresaw that the FAA would operate within range of enemy ground based aircraft, the designs approved for introduction into the FAA were some of the worst in the world. The RAF had a penchant of designing aircraft with multiple functions. There was no true fighter designs beyond biplanes, only hapless hybrids like the Blackburn Skua, part fighter and part dive bomber. Of all of the aircraft designs prepared during this time only the old biplane string bag, the Swordfish made any substantial contribution to the British FAA effort during WWII, although the Barracuda did serve valiantly and run a not so close second. During the Second World War the RN did try to use RAF designs such as the Hurricane and Spitfire for carrier based fighters, these designs were not entirely successful. It wasn’t until the introduction of USN aircraft specifically designed for carrier use, such as the Martlet (Wildcat), Hellcat and Avenger that the FAA regained a lot of its striking power. Even the Coastal Command was originally under the RAF and not the RN. It was indeed fortunate that the RN regained control of the FAA shortly before World War Two, or else British carrier forces would have been in even worse shape. Still the two decades of wandering in the wilderness was extremely deleterious for the FAA. When the RN did start to build new carriers, they were of the larger fleet variety. They saw no need for small carriers for protection of trade routes or for escorting convoys. The RAF also opposed the development of small carriers as they saw that this would impact funding for their bomber building.
Although the RN did look at converting merchant ships into small trade protection carriers by January 1939 the idea was dropped because even the RN thought that these would divert funds from much more important construction. It is somewhat perplexing why Great Britain, who was so close to loosing the U-Boat war of WWI, should disregard a type of naval aviation just perfect for providing the best defense against the U-Boat. However, the Admiralty was supremely confident in their ASW capabilities. They considered destroyers and other surface escorts equipped with sonar (ASDIC) were more than a match for the new German U-Boat threat. They were dead wrong and this mistake cost the RN and British merchant marine dearly. After the first year of the war the RN had lost carriers and surface ships to German submarines and aircraft and merchant losses were just starting to climb. It was belatedly realized that a small carrier could provide invaluable defense against convoys from the German wolf packs. However, by this time British yard space was already at a premium more for repairs of existing ships but also for new construction. It was Winston Churchill, who had newly become Prime Minster, that made the defeat of the U-Boat menace the first priority of the RN. He reversed the decision to have Coastal Command under the RAF and fortunately gave it back to the RN. Even so, land based aircraft even under RN control, could only find the convoys they were to protect a fraction of the time in the often overcast North Atlantic and there were huge gaps in the convoy routes where no land based aircraft could reach. The RN started into some stopgap measures like the Catapult Armed Merchant (CAM) ships with a single Hurricane on a bow mounted catapult. These one shot weapons would be guaranteed the loss of the aircraft and often loss of the pilot if they were used, so it was natural for convoy commanders to use then under only the most dire of threats.
It wasn’t until the fall of 1940 that it was suggested to fall back on the RN practice of a quarter of a century earlier of converting merchant hulls into small aircraft carriers. However, yard space was at a premium and Great Britain turned to the United States to provide the material. Although the RN did convert some merchant hulls into carriers, they were few in number. Since the RN conversions used riveted hulls and the US conversions used welded hulls, the handful of RN conversions were used almost exclusively on the Arctic convoys to Russia. The RN thought the welded hull US ships more brittle in the extreme cold than the riveted hull British ships. It was fortunate that the USN had already been working under the same premise, of converting merchant hulls for smaller, slower carriers for secondary missions, freeing up the big fleet carriers for offensive operations. Originally the small carriers were seen to provide training and aircraft transport capabilities but more important missions were forthcoming. The first US conversions were typed AVG for USN auxiliary carriers with conversions for the RN given the designation BAVG. It wasn’t until August 1942 that the type was redesignated Escort Carrier CVE. The first merchant conversion was actually commissioned for the USN and was the USS Long Island. For the first conversion for the RN it was the HMS Audacity, converted from the seized German cargo liner Hannover. Commissioned June 20, 1941 as HMS Empire Audacity, she was renamed simply Audacity the following month. Audacity was a one-off design.
There were more than one ship completed to the next BAVG carriers. These were all merchants being built at the Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Corporation of Chester, Pennsylvania. The were designed as US merchant ships but then purchased for conversion for the RN under the lend-lease program. There is some variance among authorities in the class name for these ships. In Royal Navy Escort Carriers by CDR David Hobbs, MBE RN, they are all called the Archer class. However, in Aircraft Carriers of the World 1914 to Present by Roger Chesneau and in Conway’s Fleets of the World, 1922-1946 the ships are broken down into two classes, the sole Archer, ex-Mormacland, and the follow-up Avenger class. They shared almost identical hulls and there was variation among the appearance and armament of these ships. The Archer displaced 10,220-tons (standard), 12,860-tons (deep load) and was 492 feet long (oa) with a flight deck 410-feet long. She was designed to carry 16 aircraft. Originally purchased for the USN she was transferred to the RN as BAVG-1 and converted into a carrier at Newport News. The Archer had no island. The propulsion system of four diesel engines turning a single shaft was far too elaborate and as a consequence the Archer suffered frequent mechanical failures, resulting in her early retirement in August 1943.
The other four Sun Shipbuilding merchants became the Avenger class, or more accurately three RN ships, as one was kept by the USN as USS Charger. The three RN members of the Avenger class were HMS Avenger BAVG-2, HMS Biter BAVG-3 and HMS Dasher BAVG-5. The Avenger began as the Rio Hudson and like the Archer was not completed with an island. However, both the Biter and Dasher were completed with small block islands on the forward starboard edge of the flight deck. These carriers were slightly heavier than the Archer with a displacement of 10,366-tons (standard), 15-120-tons (full load). They had the same hull as Archer and the flight deck was the same 410-feet. Unlike the Archer, these ships used a single Doxford 8.500bhp diesel engine for propulsion of the single shaft, providing a maximum speed of 16.5-knots. Armament was three 4-inch US deck guns with Oerlikon 20mm AA guns in galleries at deck edge. After arrival in Great Britain the flight decks were lengthened to 440-feet. British 4-inch Mk V guns replaced the US designed guns in fall 1942. The ships were equipped with Type 79 air warning and Type 271 surface search radars. Avenger was launched November 27, 1940 and commissioned March 2, 1942. Biter began as Rio Parana, was launched December 18, 1940 and commissioned May 1, 1942. Dasher began as Rio de Janeiro, was launched April 12, 1941 and commissioned July 1, 1942. Avenger was used for Sea Hurricane trials in the summer of 1942 and along with Biter and Dasher, provided air cover for the Torch landings in November 1942.
Both Avenger and Dasher had limited service lives. In addition to supporting the Torch landings, they did serve for a limited time as convoy escorts but both came to a violent end. On December 15, 1942 Avenger was operating off of Gibraltar. She was spotted by U-155 who put a torpedo into her. This started a fire, which in turn exploded the magazine. Avenger went down in five minutes with only 17 survivors of a crew of 555. On March 27, 1943 the Dasher was off of Little Cumbrae Island when she suffered a massive internal explosion. The carrier sank in three minutes with 149 survivors. The explosion was determined to be caused by a build up of gasoline vapor from the AVGAS tanks. As a result the AVGAS storage in RN US built CVEs was replaced with a British design, which halved the amount of aviation fuel that could be carried.
HMS Biter was the lucky one among the trio. Although she had her own mishaps she served in two wars and served for a quarter century but not exclusively with the Royal Navy. Completed as a carrier at the Atlantic basin Works in Brooklyn, New York, the HMS Biter was commissioned into the RN in Brooklyn. She was not completed until May 1, 1942. For the transit of the North Atlantic Biter was assigned six Swordfish of 838 NAS. Upon arrival in the United Kingdom in June, she was assigned to the Home Fleet. In September 1942 she carried six Fulmars of 808 NAS and three Swordfish of 833 NAS. The Fulmars were only aboard for that month. In October 1942 she was assigned 800 NAS, equipped with 15 Sea Hurricane fighters and worked up in preparation for operations in the Mediterranean. On October 22, 1942 she weighed anchor to escort convoy KMF1 for the Mediterranean. The 3 Swordfish of 833 NAS remained with her for ASW protection until disembarking at Gibraltar but the 15 Sea Hurricanes of 800 NAS remained for her next mission, Operation Torch. On November 8, 1942 Biter, Furious and Dasher were part of the Center Naval Task Group off of Oran. While escorting a strike of Albacores from 822 NAS from Furious on La Senia, the Sea Hurricanes of 800 NAS intercepted a force of Vichy French Dewoitine D520 fighters and shot down five of them. They also provided tactical ground support and reconnaissance for the ground forces.
After the success of Operation Torch, Biter returned to Great Britain for preparation for North Atlantic convoy escort. 800 NAS was landed and Biter was assigned 811 NAS, which she carried for the rest of her RN career. When assigned in February 1943 811 NAS had nine Swordfish, which were excellent for ASW work plus three Martlet (F4F Wildcat) fighters. On April 21, 1943 Biter joined Western Approaches Command with the 5th Escort Group. Her first mission was to support convoy ONS4 that month. She got into action right away. On April 25, 1943 the Swordfish of Biter, along with a depth charge attack from HMS Pathfinder and the Biter, sank the U-203. In May 1943 she escorted convoys HX237 and SC129. On May 11, 1943 her Swordfish shared credit in sinking U-89. From September 1943 the composition of 811 NAS changed to 6 Swordfish and 6 Martlets. On October 9 she sailed as part of the 7th Support Group covering convoy ON207. In November she supported convoys HX265 and SC146. It was during this mission that on November 16, 1943 one of her Swordfish had to ditch close along side Biter. The aircraft was carrying a homing torpedo. Although the torpedo did not explode, it broke loose from the aircraft and damaged the rudder of Biter, which required a month of repairs.
In February 1944 Biter, along with HMS Tracker, supported the 7th and 9th Escort Groups in covering convoys OS68 and ONS29 of off France. During this support on February 16, 1944 one of her Wildcats, (the RN adopted the US designations in 1944), shot down a Ju290, which had carried out an unsuccessful glider bomb attack. Later that day Biter vectored a Beaufighter from 235 Squadron Coastal Command to shoot down a second Ju290. In March she supported convoys SL150 and MKS41. 811 NAS changed its aircraft complement to 11 Swordfish and 4 Wildcats in April and in that month escorted convoys OS73 and KMS47. On April 14, 1944 the U-448 attempted to torpedo Biter but the submarine was sunk by HMS Pelican. In June 1944 she was supporting Gibraltar convoys. After this it was decided to change missions of the carrier into an aircraft transport. In August she was docked at Greenock for the conversion and transferred to the merchant navy on the 21st but on August 24, 1944 Biter was seriously damaged by an accidental fire.
Since the UK lacked yard space for repairs to the ship, she was left in her damaged condition. On April 9, 1945 HMS Biter’s career with the Royal Navy came to an end, as she was transferred back to the USN. The USN fixed her up and lent her to the new French Navy. Renamed by the French to Dixmunde, her initial duties were to ferry aircraft from the US to France. In 1946 now equipped with SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, the carrier was sent into her second fight. While operating off of French Indochina (Vietnam) her Dauntless aircraft attacked Viet-Minh forces in support of French ground forces. In 1947 Dixmunde resumed aircraft ferry service and kept this mission until 1956 when she became an accommodation ship. In 1966 the Dixmunde, formerly HMS Biter, formerly SS Rio Parana was transferred back to the US where she was broken up for scrap. (History from Royal Navy Escort Carriers, Maritime Books, Cornwall 2003, by LCDR David Hobbs, MBE RN, and Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present, Arms and Armour Press, London 1984, by Roger Chesneau)
L’Arsenal HMS Biter
There is not doubt about it, the HMS Biter does not have any claim to grace. Where purpose built warships has sleek, graceful lines with rakish bows, which cuts through the sea at high speed. The Biter is short and stubby with a blunt bow, which waddles over the waves at low speed. The homely Biter will never be elected queen of the prom. As a converted merchant, the model reflects this lineage. The hangar is only on the aft half of the hull with an open area under the flight deck forward. On the sides the flight deck forward is supported by X shaped lattice bracing. However, to partially take up this vacant space, there are deckhouses and fittings on the main deck, under the flight deck. The lower portion of the hull shows the nondescript merchant lines. There still is a rake to the bow and the stern ascends gradually to the single 4-inch gun tub. Hull detail includes two rows of port holes and anchor hawse on either side of the bow. The hull continues upward to the flight deck on the rear hull. Two horizontal strakes divide the lower hull from upper hull and mark the hangar base. These strakes may actually be external fuel lines, as it was far safer to run fuel lines on the exterior of the hangar rather than inside. Near the rear of the upper hull is a vertical strake and there are six raised square fittings on each side.
Another intriguing characteristic is that the forward part of the exterior to the hangar steps inboard forward, not once but twice, like Aztec stairs laid on their sides. This design undoubtedly restricted hangar space. The forward face has a row of portholes, which wrap around to the sides. To further add interest there is a notch at the main deck level where the upper hull first goes inboard. There are two prominent deckhouses forward. Closest to the bow is a large square structure and between this structure and the hangar is a smaller six-sided structure. The navigation position was in the forward structure in a design reminiscent of many Japanese carriers. The aft face of the hangar has two catwalks overhanging the quarterdeck with twin detailed doors on each of the two lower levels.
With almost half the hull rising from the waterline to the flight deck, there is a restricted area for deck detail but L’Arsenal has added enough of it to satisfy any modeler. At the bow there is a notch at the top of the cutwater before solid deck bulkheads start. These are short because they immediately connect with the two forward 4-inch gun tubs on the forecastle. These are angular in design with open backs. The resin casting is extremely thin. Resin casting is excellent with one exception. There was an air bubble void at the waterline at the bow. This can be easily remedied with minor filling and sanding. There is also a small amount of flash to be removed. Other forecastle detail are anchor hawse, deck access coaming, locator outlines for flight deck supports and twin bollard fittings. Aft of the first deckhouse are ore fittings. These include cable reels to forward starboard and aft port of the second superstructure, ventilator cowlings, and four twin bollard fittings. The largest fitting in this location is a large, low square structure, which appears to be a cargo loading hatch from the original merchant design. The short quarterdeck has a round gun tub for a 4-inch gun, ammo locker, four and sets of twin bollards.
The flight deck is injected plastic and just snaps over the superstructure. Galleries run along the sides with an intermittent Oerlikon tub providing variety. Detailed tie-down strips run length-wise across the deck. The underside also has support ribs and bracing. Since, the HMS Biter is an escort carrier, there is a minimal amount of superstructure, if you exclude all the structures under the forward flight deck. There are some smaller resin superstructure parts which include the island. The lower part has bracing underneath. In the photos of the dry-fitted parts, this part is not shown flush with the bottom of the flight deck. If attached to the deck, it would be higher. The resin navigation bridge rests atop this. Other resin [arts include an Oerlikon platform, two anchors, four ship’s boats, boat positions, three searchlights, twenty carley rafts, radar housing and mast.
Brass Photo-Etched Fret