Floatplanes in
Second World War at Sea
By Steve Cabral
October 2018

After the end of the Great War in 1918, a fascination with shipborne aircraft remained in the now-peaceful nations. Each decided one or more floatplanes would be useful if carried on their warships. Various designs came and went during the 1930s and early '40s as aviation evolved. The missions envisioned for such aircraft varied but included liaison (USN specialty), reconnaissance, gunnery spotting, night guide (flare-dropping a USN/IJN specialty) or night intruders (IJN specialty).

Japan had the most floatplane types including fighters, bombers and exceptionally long-range reconnaissance planes. Russia experienced many technical difficulties in trying to mount floatplanes on their ships, and Italy's attempts to adapt her army’s standard recon aircraft as floatplanes also proved problematic. The U.S. Navy suffered tremendous attrition of floatplanes (particularly in the Mediterranean), but Britain and Germany seem to have gotten good performance from their floatplanes mainly by not asking them to do too much.

A Curtiss SOC Seagull aboard the American cruiser Salt Lake City, February 1942.

Floatplanes in Combat

Flak and fighters decimated floatplanes that operated during the day. Harsh weather limited floatplane use in the Atlantic, but Japan made much better use of reconnaissance floatplanes in the Pacific than did the Americans (who relied mainly on carrier-based planes). Floatplane fuel tanks also presented a fire hazard during naval battles, and it became common practice to fly them away during combat (as in the Java Sea) or just toss them overboard.

And while floatplane designers envisioned an active role for them in spotting for gunnery during surface combat, this only happened very rarely. The British did get a floater into action once, which promptly corrected its own ship’s fire based on the shell splashes of another ship. The U.S. and Japan used dye in their heavy ships' shells to avoid the need for this, but neither ever got into any daytime surface actions and the dye was useless at night.

In notable floatplane actions:

  • A German Ar196 landed in the Baltic Sea and accepted the surrender of the submarine HMS Seal in 1940.
  • A Japanese “Jake” scouted Pearl Harbor before the attack in 1941.
  • A Japanese auxiliary seaplane tender’s four “Pete” aircraft sank PT34 in April 1942.
  • British “Walrus” floatplanes sank or damaged five enemy submarines.
  • An American OS2U shot down a Zero with its rear gun at Iwo Jima 1945.
  • Eight “Jakes” served France from 1945 to 1947 against the Vietminh.

But such successful combat actions were the exception. More often, U.S. floatplane pilots acted as “sportscasters” during naval battles, providing running and often inaccurate combat commentary. For example, one pilot broadcast “Goodbye Boise” as that ship was hit off Cape Esperance, but Boise did not sink.

Shipborne floatplanes (and later, flying boats) were replaced after World War II by helicopters.

The Dutch cruiser De Ruyter and her floatplane.


Floatplane Types


Loire 130: Entered service in 1937. A monoplane with a high mounted engine, it carried two 7.5mm machine guns (MG’s) and two 165lb. bombs.


Arado Ar-196: Entered service in 1937. A single-engine monoplane, it was in many ways the best floatplane of the war. Armed with two 20mm canons in the wings and one or two rear-mounted 7.92mm MGs, it was impervious to attack from anything but true fighters. It could carry two 110lb. bombs. It replaced He114 and Ar231 in fleet service, though these were fitted to some but not all of the AMC raiders.

Great Britain and Commonwealth

Supermarine Walrus: A large biplane with a pusher engine, the Walrus gave the Commonwealth navies an excellent workhorse. It was constructed in both metal and wooden versions. Its weapons consisted of two Vickers K .303 caliber guns and 760lb. of bombs or depth charges.


IMAM Ro.43: The Italian navy adapted the land-based Ro-37 recon plane as the Ro.43, a biplane design with a single centerline float and two 7.7mm MG’s. Too fragile for sea operations, it had to return to a shore facility to land. The Italian Navy later replaced it with a fighter, the Re2000. It had a crew of one so it couldn’t do efficient recon work, and having no float it had to land at an airfield.

Soviet Union

Beriev KOR-1: The standard shipboard floatplane of the Soviet Union. Entered service in 1937. A two-seat single-float biplane, it was armed with one 7.62mm MG and two 220lb. bombs. Few Soviet ships had catapults installed prior to 1939, and the aircraft itself had very poor flying characteristics. Its engine was also prone to overheating while taxiing, and it was unseaworthy on the water. As a result, it was confined to secondary land missions and training. In 1942 it was re-designated as the Be-2, which should not be confused with another Be-2 (aka MBR-2) which was a larger flying boat.

United States

Curtiss SOC Seagull: A single-engine biplane. Entered service in 1935 and was carried on all US catapulted warships. It carried two .30 caliber MG’s and 650lb. of bombs. It was very well-liked, but was phased out of fleet service on battleships in 1941 and cruisers in 1942.

Vought OS2U Kingfisher: A single-engine monoplane. Entered service in 1940. It was armed with two .30 caliber MG’s and 650lb. of bombs. Depth charges could be fitted on the OS2U-3, and 100 were supplied to Britain for anti-submarine warfare purposes. Others were Lend-Leased to Russia, but were based on land.


E8N Dave: A single-engine biplane. It was in service from 1935, and served aboard all capital ships and heavy cruisers in the fleet. Armed with two 7.7mm MG’s and two 66lb. bombs. Many Daves served from shore-based facilities in roles including area-defense fighter, convoy escort, bomber, ASW, ocean patrol, rescue and transport.

F1M Pete: A single-engine biplane. It was in service from 1936, and was armed with three 7.7mm MG’s and two 132lb. bombs. Pete and Dave aircraft served on seaplane carriers together.

E7K Alf: A single-engine, twin float biplane. Entered service in 1934. Was common on the old light cruisers in IJN service. It carried three 7.7mm MG’s and 265lb. of bombs.

E13A Jake: A single-engine, twin-float monoplane. Entered service in 1941 and was armed with one 7.7mm MG and 550lb. of bombs. Used first aboard the Tone-class heavy cruisers and became the standard shipboard floatplane by 1943.

E14Y Glen: Single-engine, twin float monoplane used aboard all IJN subs with floatplanes except I-400.

E16 Paul: A fast twin-float monoplane recon and dive bomber. Intended for battleship-carrier conversions but doesn’t seem to have ever been deployed. It was armed with two 20mm canons, one 7.7mm MG and a 550lb. bomb.

M6A1: A fast twin-float monoplane bomber designed for use on I-400 class submarines. Armed with one 12.7mm MG and 1 torpedo or 1800lb bomb.

Variant Floatplane Range/Endurance
in Second World War at Sea

Rule 11.6 in the SWWAS rulebook says that all floatplanes have a range of 6. This should be clarified to say that floatplanes have a range/endurance of 6/2 (meaning they can participate in Air Search out to 6 zones from their home ship).

If players wish, they may use the variant floatplane range/endurance numbers below based on the historical capabilities of various nations’ floatplanes. Note that some nations get no floatplanes at all or none in certain periods; ignore any floatplane icons on ships of such nations when using these variant rules.

Nations other than Japan and Germany have uniform floatplane types, as follows:

Floatplane Range/Endurance by Nation

Dates U.S. Navy Britain France Soviet Union Italy
1939–1941 6/2 5/2 6/2 No floatplanes 12/1*
1942+ 7/2 5/2 5/2 No floatplanes No floatplanes

* From 1939 through 1941, each Italian floatplane can operate for only one turn. After an Italian ship uses its floatplane(s) in air search it may not use it again until after it has spent six turns in a port and received a new mission per rule 5.4.

Japanese Floatplanes

Japan has a much wider variety of floatplanes, so different Japanese ship types carry floatplanes with differing range/endurance capabilities, as follows:

Ship Type Dates Floatplane Range/Endurance
CL 1939–1945 12/2
CA (except Tone class in 1941 and 1942) 1939–1942 5/2
Tone-class CA 1941–1942 13/2
CA (all classes) 1943–1945 13/2
BB/BC 1939–1941 5/2
BB/BC 1942–1945 13/2
Seaplane carrier 1939–1942 5/2
Seaplane carrier 1943–1945 13/2
Submarines with floatplanes, except I-400 class All 5/2
I-400-class submarines All 11/2

German Floatplanes

Most German warships carry a standard floatplane type, but German AMCs carry different types of floatplanes as follows:

Ship Type or Name Dates Floatplane Range/Endurance
All warships other than AMC All 6/2
AMC Stier All 3/2
AMC Widder All 5/2
AMC Atlantis and Pinguin 1940 5/2
AMC Atlantis and Pinguin 1941–1945 6/2
All other German AMCs All 6/2

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