The escort carrier or escort aircraft carrier (hull classification symbol CVE), also called a "jeep carrier" or "baby flattop" in the United States Navy (USN) or "Woolworth Carrier" by the Royal Navy, was a small and slow type of aircraft carrier used by the Royal Navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, and the United States Navy in World War II.
They were typically half the length and a third the displacement of larger fleet carriers. While they were slower, carried fewer planes and were less well armed and armored, escort carriers were cheaper and could be built quickly, which was their principal advantage. Escort carriers could be completed in greater numbers as a stop-gap when fleet carriers were scarce. However, the lack of protection made escort carriers particularly vulnerable and several were sunk with great loss of life. The light carrier (hull classification symbol CVL) was a similar concept to escort carriers in most respects, but were capable of higher speeds to allow operation alongside fleet carriers.
Most often built on a commercial ship hull, escort carriers were too slow to keep up with the main forces consisting of fleet carriers, battleships, and cruisers. Instead, they were used to escort convoys, defending them from enemy threats such as submarines and planes. In the invasions of mainland Europe and Pacific islands, escort carriers provided air support to ground forces during amphibious operations. Escort carriers also served as backup aircraft transports for fleet carriers and ferried aircraft of all military services to points of delivery.
In the Battle of the Atlantic, escort carriers were used to protect convoys against U-boats. Initially escort carriers accompanied the merchant ships and helped to fend off attacks from aircraft and submarines. As numbers increased later in the war, escort carriers also formed part of hunter-killer groups that sought out submarines instead of being attached to a particular convoy.
In the Pacific theater, CVEs provided air support of ground troops in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. They lacked the speed and weapons to counter enemy fleets, relying on the protection of a Fast Carrier Task Force. However, at the Battle off Samar, one U.S. task force of escort carriers managed to successfully defend itself against a much larger Japanese force of battleships and cruisers. The Japanese met a furious defense of carrier aircraft, screening destroyers, and destroyer escorts, proving that CVEs could appear to have the same striking power as full CVs.
Of the 151 aircraft carriers built in the U.S. during World War II, 122 were escort carriers. Though no examples survive to this day, the Casablanca class holds the distinction of being the most numerous single class of aircraft carrier ever built, with 50 having been launched. The Bogue class comes in a close second, with 45 launched.
The Navy's escort carriers never received the headlines or glory accorded their bigger sisters. Jeeps did the routine patrol work, scouting and escorting of convoys that their larger fleet-type counterparts couldn't do. Lightly armored, slower than the fleet carriers and with far less defensive armament and aircraft, they performed admirably when called upon.
Jeep carrier crews, who joked that "CVE" (the Navy's designation for this type of ship) really stood for "Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable," became experts at hunting, finding and killing U-boats in both ocean theaters.