Construction and Conversion
In 1911, the Chilean Navy ordered two 28,000-long-ton (28,450 t) super-dreadnought battleships, each to be armed with ten 14-inch (356 mm) and sixteen six-inch (152 mm) guns, to be named Almirante Latorre and Almirante Cochrane. Latorre was laid down in December 1911, followed by Almirante Cochrane at the Armstrong yards at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 20 February 1913. On the outbreak of the First World War, construction of the two ships was suspended. As Almirante Latorre was almost complete, she was purchased for the Royal Navy, entering service as HMS Canada in 1915. Almirante Cochrane was virtually complete up to the forecastle, although her side armour had not yet been installed when war broke out. No work was carried out during the war until the British decided to complete her as an aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy. She was therefore purchased from Chile on 28 February 1918 to be converted into the carrier HMS Eagle. She was the fourteenth ship of the Royal Navy to bear that name.
The Director of Naval Construction began preliminary design work even before the ship was purchased and submitted an outline design on 8 February 1918. This design had a full-length flight deck and its most distinctive features were the two islands separated by the flight deck. Each island was 110 feet (33.5 m) long and contained two funnels and a tripod mast. Although they were staggered to make it more difficult for an enemy ship to estimate the ship's course, they were connected to each other with heavy bracing. The bridge was mounted on top of this bracing which left a clear height of 20 feet (6.1 m) for the aircraft on the flight deck. There was a 68-foot (20.7 m) wide space between the islands where the aircraft were to be assembled before taking off. Aircraft were transported between the hangar and the flight deck by two aircraft lifts (elevators). A crane was located at the aft end of each island to lift aircraft aboard and to recover seaplanes. Bulk petrol storage consisted of 15,000 imperial gallons (68,000 l; 18,000 US gal) in 2-imperial-gallon (9.1 l; 2.4 US gal) tins stowed on the forecastle deck and protected by 1-inch (25 mm) plating. Two ready-use tanks near the islands allowed aircraft on the flight deck to refuel. The ship's planned armament consisted of nine 6-inch guns and four 4-inch (102 mm) anti-aircraft guns mounted on the platform between the islands. Eagle retained the battleship's mixture of coal and fuel oil, but the quantities of each were increased to 3,200 long tons (3,300 t) of coal and 1,750 long tons (1,780 t) of oil as the forward and rear 14-inch magazines and shell rooms were converted to be used as oil tanks.
Based on trials with HMS Furious, in which pilots were found generally to turn to port when recovering from an aborted landing, the design was revised to eliminate the port island in April 1918. The starboard island was lengthened to 130 feet (39.6 m) and its width was reduced to 15 feet (4.6 m) to minimise air turbulence. The island contained the bridge, both funnels and the tripod mast that carried the fire-control directors for the armament. At the request of Admiral David Beatty, commander of the Grand Fleet, the main armament was increased to 12 six-inch guns, including one mounted on the island, and eighteen torpedo tubes were added, three triple fixed mounts on each broadside, in case the ship met German light cruisers at night. The anti-aircraft armament was reduced to a single 4-inch gun mounted on the island between the funnels as Beatty believed that the ship's own fighters would be her best defence against enemy aircraft. This design was approved in June, although work had begun earlier.
The 4.5-inch (114 mm) armour planned for her upper belt was used as the ship's waterline armour. The already-completed superstructure was removed as were the barbettes for the 14-inch guns. Eagle was launched on 8 June 1918 and was towed downriver to the shipbuilder's High Walker yard for fitting-out ten days later. The boiler uptakes were re-routed and the existing openings were plated over. The existing 1.5-inch (38 mm) upper deck became the floor of the hangar deck and a new superstructure was built above it. The flight deck was 1 inch (25 mm) thick and served as the uppermost strength deck, or main supporting deck, of the ship. When the war ended in November 1918, the ship was about nine months from completion.
Construction was slowed by industrial action after the war, and was suspended on 21 October 1919 as Chile wanted to repurchase the ship and have it re-converted to a battleship. The £2.5 million cost to do so would have been higher than the £1.5 million offered by the Chileans and the Admiralty decided to retain the ship. The Royal Navy needed to carry out flying trials with a carrier fitted with an island, and the Admiralty approved her use for said trials shortly afterwards on 11 November. Armstrong Whitworth plated over the openings for the undelivered elevators on the flight deck (which had been cancelled when they could not meet the specifications), finished the rear funnel, removed the torpedo tubes, and plated over the forward funnel uptakes before she sailed to the Royal dockyard at Portsmouth for the modifications necessary for the trials on 20 April 1920. Only two of her boilers, converted to run on fuel oil only, could be used during the trials.
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