HMS Ark Royal (91): Wikis


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HMS Ark Royal h85716.jpg
HMS Ark Royal in 1939, with Swordfish of 820 Naval Air Squadron passing overhead.
Career (United Kingdom)
Name: HMS Ark Royal (91)
Ordered: 1934 build programme
Builder: Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd.
Laid down: 16 September 1935
Launched: 13 April 1937
Commissioned: 16 December 1938
Motto: Desire n'a pas Repos - "Zeal Does Not Rest"
Honours and
Fate: Sunk 14 November 1941
after being torpedoed by U-81 on 13 November 1941
General characteristics
Type: Unique aircraft carrier
Displacement: 22,000 tons standard,
27,720 tons loaded
Length: 800 ft (240 m) overall
721.5 ft (220 m) waterline
Beam: 94.8 ft (28.9 m)
Draught: 27.8 ft (8.5 m)
Propulsion: 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers,
3 Parsons geared turbines; 102,000 shp
Speed: 30 knots (56 km/h) (designed)
31 knots (57 km/h) (actual)
Range: 7,600 nautical miles (14,100 km) at 20 knots (37 km/h)
Complement: 1,580 officers and men
Armament: 16 × 4.5 inch (114 mm) guns (8 × 2)
32 × 2 pounder (1.5 in) Pom-poms (4 × 8)
32 × .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine guns (8 × 4)
Armour: 4.5 inches (110 mm) belt
3.5 in (89 mm) deck over boiler rooms and magazines
Aircraft carried:

72 (designed)
50 to 60 (actual)

HMS Ark Royal (pennant number 91) was an aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy that served in the Second World War. She was torpedoed on 13 November 1941 by the German submarine U-81 and sank the following day.

Designed in 1934 to fit the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty, Ark Royal was built by Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd. at Birkenhead, England. Completed in November 1938, 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 war, operations off Norway, the search for the German battleship Bismarck, and the Malta Convoys. Ark Royal survived several near misses and gained a reputation as a 'lucky ship'. The Germans incorrectly reported her as sunk on multiple occasions.

Her design differed from previous aircraft carriers. Ark Royal 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. Designed to carry a large number of aircraft, she had two hangar deck levels. She served during a period that first saw the extensive use of naval air power; a number of carrier tactics were developed and refined aboard Ark Royal.

Her sinking was the subject of several inquiries; investigators keen to know how the carrier was lost, given there were efforts to save the ship and tow her to the naval base at Gibraltar. They found several design flaws contributed to the loss, which were rectified in new British carriers. Although recorded as sinking 22 nautical miles (41 km) from Gibraltar, Ark Royal was located in December 2002, approximately 30 nautical miles (56 km) from Gibraltar.



In 1923, the Admiralty prepared a 10-year building programme which included an aircraft carrier and 300 aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm.[1] The economic downturn following the First World War caused it to be postponed. In 1930, the Director of Naval Construction, Sir Arthur Johns, began to update the plans for the carrier by incorporating recently-developed technology.[1] His aim was to increase the number of aircraft carried by shortening the landing and take-off distances of aircraft by using arrestor gear and compressed steam catapults respectively, which would make more deck space available for storage and aircraft preparation.[1][2] Along with the inclusion of two hangar decks, this allowed Ark Royal to carry up to 72 aircraft, although the development of larger and heavier aircraft during the carrier's construction meant that the actual number carried was between 50 and 60.[3] The hangar decks were placed inside the hull, thus benefiting from the protection of the 4.5 inches (110 mm) belt armour.[2] Three lifts were to move aircraft between the hangars and the flight deck.[2]

Ark Royal’s flight deck overhangs the stern. Her unusual height above the waterline is visible in comparison with the tugboat.

Another feature was the length and height of the flight deck. At 800 feet (240 m), the flight deck was 118 feet (36 m) longer than the keel; the latter dictated by the length of Royal Navy dry-docks in Gibraltar and Malta.[2] Because hangar decks were within the hull, the flight deck rose to 66 feet (20 m) above the waterline.

The Washington and London Naval Treaties, which restricted warship tonnage for a number of the Great Powers, were to expire at the end of 1936.[a] With a potential naval arms race developing between Britain, Japan and Italy, the British government sought a second treaty, which included limiting the maximum displacement of an aircraft carrier to 22,000 tons.[4] Ark Royal would have to fit this anticipated limit; to conserve weight, armour plating was limited to the belt, engine rooms, and magazines, while welding instead of riveting 65% of the hull saved 500 tons.[4] Installation of an armoured flight deck was not possible, as the weight would have placed Ark Royal above the proposed limit, while reducing her endurance and stability.[4]

The ship was fitted with six boilers, which powered three Parsons geared turbines. The turbines were connected via three driveshafts to three bronze propellers 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter, to produce a maximum theoretical speed of 30 knots (56 km/h).[5][6] Speed was important, as with catapults and arrestor gear, Ark Royal would have to turn into the wind to launch and recover aircraft. To avoid endangering other ships with the frequent course changes associated with flight operations, Ark Royal would have to break away from accompanying ships, and catch up on completion. Additionally, as the carrier was not armed for ship-to-ship combat, speed was her main protection against enemy warships.[1]


Ark Royal immediately after launching. The elevators on the flight deck and the anti-aircraft positions on the hull are visible.

The deteriorating international situation by 1933, typified by Germany's rearmament and the expansion of Japan and Italy, convinced the British to announce funds for the carrier's construction in the 1934 budget proposals.[7] The plans finalised by November 1934, and were tendered in February 1935 to Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd., which calculated the cost of the hull at £1,496,250 and the main machinery at approximately £500,000.[5][8] The overall cost was estimated to be over £3 million, making Ark Royal the most expensive ship ordered by the Royal Navy.[9] Construction began on Job No. 1012 when Ark Royal’s keel was laid down on 16 September 1935.[10]

Ark Royal spent nearly two years in the builder's yard before being launched on 13 April 1937 by Lady Maud Hoare, wife of Sir Samuel Hoare, then First Lord of the Admiralty. The bottle of champagne thrown against Ark Royal’s bows did not smash until the fourth attempt.[11] The carrier spent a year fitting out, was handed over to her first commander, Captain Arthur Power, on 16 November 1938, and was commissioned on 16 December.[10] Although intended for the Far East, events in Europe during the carrier's construction, including the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War in 1936, caused the Admiralty to mark her for deployment with the Home and Mediterranean Fleets.[12] After her crew joined at the end of 1938, Ark Royal underwent Sea trials to prepare for service, during which the carrier proved capable of sailing above her theoretical speed, reaching over 31 knots (57 km/h).[13]

Armament and aircraft

Ark Royal’s armament was designed with anti-aircraft warfare in mind, as aircraft were expected to be the main threat; ships and submarines could be outrun or dealt with by escorts.[14][15] Her main armament was sixteen quick-firing 4.5 inch anti-aircraft guns in eight double turrets, four on each side of the hull.[2] The original design placed the turrets low on the hull, but was later altered to locate them just below the flight deck, which increased each turret's field of fire.[2] Four 8-barrelled 2 pounder (1.5 in) pom-poms were located on the flight deck, in front of and behind the superstructure island, while eight 4-barrelled .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine guns were installed on small projecting platforms to the front and rear of the flight deck.[16]

Sixteen Fleet Air Arm squadrons were posted aboard Ark Royal during her career; an average of five squadrons at any time. On entering service, most of Ark Royal’s squadrons were equipped with either Blackburn Skuas, used as fighters and dive bombers, or Fairey Swordfishes, for reconnaissance and torpedo bombing. From April 1940, squadrons equipped with Skuas were upgraded to Fairey Fulmars; like their predecessors, these were used as fighters and bombers. On occasion, the carrier operated Blackburn Roc fighter-bombers (from April 1939 to October 1940) and Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers (during October 1941); these were replacement aircraft used to boost squadron numbers.[17] In June 1940, Ark Royal was host to 701 Naval Air Squadron, a training squadron which operated Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance amphibians.

Service history


With the hunter-killer groups

The message sent to the ship informing her of the commencing of hostilities on 3 September 1939

The outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September 1939 had been presaged by Germany's U-boat fleet taking up positions off the British coast, where they could intercept British shipping.[18] Within hours of the war starting, the passenger ship SS Athenia was torpedoed by U-30,[18] the first of over 65,000 tons of shipping sunk by U-boats during the first week of the war.[19] Ark Royal was deployed with the Home Fleet in the North Western Approaches as part of a "hunter-killer" group, consisting of a flotilla of destroyers and other anti-submarine vessels grouped around an aircraft carrier; either HMS Courageous, HMS Hermes or Ark Royal. Carrier-borne aircraft could increase the area searched for U-boats, but made the carriers into tempting targets.[19]

On 14 September, Ark Royal received a distress call from SS Fanad Head, which was 200 nautical miles (370 km) away under pursuit from the surfaced U-30.[20] Ark Royal launched aircraft to aid the merchant ship,[20] but was spotted by U-39, which launched two torpedoes.[21] Lookouts spotted the torpedo tracks and Ark Royal turned towards the attack, reducing her cross-section and causing the torpedoes to miss and explode harmlessly astern.[19] Three F class destroyers escorting the carrier began to depth charge U-39, and forced her to the surface.[21] The German crew abandoned ship before U-39 sank—the first U-boat lost in World War II.[21] Ark Royal’s aircraft reached Fanad Head, which was in the hands of a German boarding party.[20] The Skuas unsuccessfully attacked U-30: two crashed when caught by the blast of their own bombs.[20] The U-boat escaped after rescuing the boarding party and the pilots of the downed aircraft (both observers had drowned), and torpedoing the Fanad Head.[20]

Ark Royal returned to base in Loch Ewe, where she and her crew were inspected by Winston Churchill. The sinking of U-39 was hailed as important to morale. However, the failed attack on Ark Royal, and the successful attack on HMS Courageous on 17 September, convinced the Admiralty it was too dangerous to risk aircraft carriers in this way, and carrier-centred hunter-killer groups were abandoned.[19]

Another near miss

On 25 September, Ark Royal helped rescue the submarine HMS Spearfish, which had been damaged by German warships off Horn Reefs, in the Kattegat.[22] While returning to port with Spearfish and the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney on 26 September, the ships were located by three Luftwaffe Dornier seaplanes.[5] Ark Royal launched three Blackburn Skuas to disperse them; one Dornier was shot down in the first British aerial kill of the war.[23]

The air commander aboard Ark Royal, aware that the surviving Dorniers would report the location of the British ships, ordered the aircraft to be secured and the anti-aircraft weapons readied.[24] Four Ju 88 bombers[25] soon appeared: three were driven away by anti-aircraft fire, but the fourth launched a 1,000-kilogram (2,200 lb) bomb at the carrier. Ark Royal turned hard to starboard, heeling over and avoiding the bomb, which landed in the ocean 30 metres (98 ft) off her starboard bow and sent a spout of water over the ship. The German pilots did not see if the carrier had been hit, and a reconnaissance flight later located the two battleships, but not Ark Royal. Based on this information, the Germans incorrectly claimed that Ark Royal had sunk.[26] To prove the German propaganda false before it had a negative effect on Britain's allies, Winston Churchill personally reassured United States President Franklin Roosevelt that the carrier was undamaged and invited the US naval attaché to view Ark Royal in dock.[26] The British naval attaché in Rome was instructed to assure Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini that the ship was still in service.[26]

Hunting the Graf Spee

In October, Ark Royal was redeployed to Freetown to operate off the African coast in the hunt for the German commerce raider Graf Spee. The carrier was assigned to Force K, and sailed with the battlecruiser HMS Renown to the South Atlantic.[5] On 9 October, aircraft from Ark Royal spotted the German tanker Altmark, which supplied Graf Spee. The tanker was disguised as the US vessel Delmar, which fooled the British into passing her by.[27] On 5 November, Ark Royal captured the German merchant SS Uhenfels, which was attempting to reach Germany. The ship was later taken into British service as a cargo ship[28] and renamed Empire Ability.[29] Several neutral merchant ships were also spotted by the carrier's aircraft, twice causing crews to believe they were under attack and abandon ship.[30] A note explaining the situation was dropped in a bag to a Norwegian vessel's crew, and they re-boarded; an attempt to repeat this exercise with a Belgian crew failed when the bag was dropped down the ship's funnel.[30]

By this time, Graf Spee had put into Montevideo to repair damage received during the battle of the River Plate. Several British cruisers followed the raider, and patrolled the harbour entrance while reporting Graf Spee’s position to the fleet. Ark Royal and Renown were dispatched to join the British ships outside the harbour, but as they were 36 hours away, the British naval attaché came up with a plan to make the Germans believe that the two capital ships had already arrived. An order for fuel for Ark Royal was placed at Buenos Aires, 140 miles (230 km) west of Montevideo. This was leaked to the press, passed on to the German embassy in Montevideo, and given to Graf Spee’s captain, Hans Langsdorff.[31] This contributed to Langsdorff's decision to scuttle his ship.[31]

Return to the fleet

With the Graf Spee sunk, Ark Royal remained in the Atlantic for a short time before escorting the damaged HMS Exeter back to Devonport Dockyard, where they arrived in February.[5] Following this, Ark Royal proceeded to Portsmouth to take on supplies and personnel, before sailing to Scapa Flow. On arrival, she transferred her Blackburn Skuas to Naval Air Station Hatston to strengthen the anchorage's defences.[32] Ark Royal was then assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet for exercises, departing Scapa Flow on 31 March and heading for Alexandria with the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.[5] The carriers arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean on 8 April, but the exercises were cancelled a day later. The ships sailed to Gibraltar to await orders.[32]

German forces had invaded Norway as part of Operation Weserübung on 7 April, and had secured sections of the coast. Attempts by the Royal Navy to operate in support of British troops were unsuccessful; air attacks had overwhelmed the ships, sinking HMS Gurkha and nearly sinking HMS Suffolk. Realising that the British ships required air cover, but aware that the Norwegian coast was outside the range of land-based aircraft in the United Kingdom, the Admiralty recalled Ark Royal and Glorious from the Mediterranean on 16 April.[32]

Norwegian campaign

Ark Royal and Glorious arrived at Scapa Flow on 23 April, and were immediately redeployed as part of Operation DX. Sailing to Norway with the cruisers Curlew and Berwick and screened by the destroyers Hyperion, Hereward, Hasty, Fearless, Fury and Juno, this was the first time the Royal Navy had deployed carriers with the primary purpose of providing fighter protection for other warships.[5] The ships took up position on 25 April off the coast; Ark Royal positioned 120 nautical miles (220 km) offshore to reduce the chance of air attacks. The carrier's aircraft conducted anti-submarine patrols, provided fighter support for other ships, and carried out strikes against shipping and shore targets.[5][17] Ark Royal returned to Scapa Flow on 27 April to refuel and replace lost and damaged aircraft, before heading back on the same day with the battleship HMS Valiant as escort.[5] During the return, Ark Royal came under air attack from German Junkers Ju 88 and Heinkel He 111 aircraft operating from Norway. The carrier was undamaged, and resumed position on 29 April.[33]

A Blackburn Skua landing on Ark Royal. The Skuas were the mainstay of the Fleet Air Arm during the early Second World War. Also visible are the arrestor wires strung across the flight deck.

By this point, the British high command had realised that they could not hold the Germans in southern Norway. The evacuation of Allied troops from Molde and Åndalsnes began, with Ark Royal providing air cover from 30 April. On 1 May, the Germans tried to sink the carrier, with numerous air attacks through the day. Ark Royal’s fighters and a heavy anti-aircraft barrage drove off the enemy, and although several bombs were dropped at the carrier, none impacted.[33] The evacuation was completed on 3 May, and the carrier was recalled to Scapa Flow to refuel and rearm before returning to Norway. While in port, Captain Arthur Power left the ship for a promotion to the Admiralty, and was replaced by Captain Cedric Holland.[34] On return to Norway, Ark Royal was told to provide air cover for operations around Narvik, including the landing of French troops on 13 May.[35] She was joined on 18 May by the carriers Glorious and Furious.[5]

Despite these efforts, it was clear by the end of May that French forces were on the verge of collapse and Norway was a sideshow compared to the German advance to the English Channel.[35] Operation Alphabet was instigated to move Allied troops from Narvik and Britain. Ark Royal and Glorious, screened by the destroyers Highlander, Diana, Acasta, Ardent, and Acheron, sailed from Scapa Flow on 1 June to cover the evacuation, which commenced the next day. Ark Royal carried out air patrols and bombing raids from 3 June to 6 June, before redeploying to Narvik on 7 June. Disaster struck the next day, when Glorious, escorted by Acasta and Ardent, were detached to return to the UK. The three ships were attacked and sunk by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. A search by Ark Royal’s aircraft failed to locate the German ships, which had returned to Trondheim.[36]

The last evacuation convoy left Narvik on 9 June. Before the British ships could withdraw, a raid on Trondheim located Scharnhorst. An attack by Ark Royal’s Skuas took place at midnight on 13 June.[37] The attack was a disaster: the escort destroyers Antelope and Electra collided while Ark Royal was launching aircraft in fog and returned to England for repairs, eight of the fifteen attacking Skuas were shot down, while Scharnhorst escaped damage.[38] Ark Royal returned to Scapa Flow the following day, and was reassigned to the Mediterranean Fleet.[39]

Mediterranean deployment

Ark Royal left Scapa Flow with HMS Hood and three destroyers, arriving at Gibraltar on 23 June. Here she joined Force H, under Sir James Somerville. After the capitulation of France there was concern that a French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir might fall under Axis control and tip the balance of power in the Mediterranean, affecting the whole war.[40] Ark Royal’s captain, Cedric Holland, had been the British naval attaché in Paris, and was sent to negotiate the surrender or scuttling of the French fleet.[41] Force H was deployed outside the harbour, and when the French admirals refused to agree to the offered terms, opened fire on the French ships. During the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, Ark Royal’s aircraft provided targeting information for the British ships.[42] The French battleship Strasbourg escaped, despite attacks by Swordfish from Ark Royal.[43] Two days after the attack, aircraft from Ark Royal incapacitated the French battleship Dunkerque, which had been beached in the initial attack.[44]

A Fairey Swordfish aircraft lands on Ark Royal’s flight deck, whilst a Blackburn Skua circles overhead. Photograph taken from HMS Kelvin after the attacks on the Italian Fleet off Sardinia.

Having reduced the possibility of a French challenge in the Mediterranean, Force H prepared for attacks on Italian targets, and sailed from Gibraltar on 8 July.[45] The force was attacked by Italian bombers within eight hours of departing, and although Force H escaped damage, Somerville cancelled the raids and ordered the fleet to Gibraltar.[46] During July, the British colony of Malta came under attack from the Italian air force, with Force H ordered to deliver Hawker Hurricanes to reinforce the island's air defences. Force H was deployed from 31 July to 4 August, with the carrier HMS Argus used to deliver the aircraft, while Ark Royal provided air cover for the fleet.[45] On 2 August, Ark Royal launched a successful air attack against the Italian air base at Cagliari.[47]

Force H remained at Gibraltar until 30 September, when it escorted reinforcements for Admiral Andrew Cunningham's fleet to Alexandria.[48] En-route, diversionary attacks were planned on Italian air bases at Elmas and Cagliari to direct attention from both the reinforcement operation and a supply convoy sailing to Malta. The attacks were successfully carried out on 1 October, and the fleet reached Alexandria without significant attention from the Italian air force.[49] From Alexandria, Ark Royal was detached and sent to West Africa to support British attempts to encourage Vichy French colonies to switch alleigance to the Free French. During negotiations, several Free French aircraft flew from Ark Royal, but their aircrews were arrested at Dakar. Negotiations failed, and bombers from Ark Royal were directed against military installations during the unsuccessful British attempt to take Dakar by force.[50] Following this, Ark Royal returned to the United Kingdom for refit, docking in Liverpool on 8 October after being escorted by HMS Fortune, HMS Forester and HMS Greyhound.[51] The refit, which lasted until 3 November, included repairs to her machinery and the installation of a new flight deck barrier.

Bombs falling astern of Ark Royal during an attack by Italian aircraft during the Battle of Cape Spartivento. Photograph taken from the cruiser HMS Sheffield.

Following refit, Ark Royal, accompanied by HM Ships Barham, Berwick, and Glasgow, sailed for Gibraltar, arriving on 6 November.[52] They were deployed with the rest of Force H to escort convoys from Gibraltar to Alexandria and Malta, performing several runs before being assigned to Operation Collar, one of 35 convoys to support Malta between 1940 and 1942, on 25 November. An Italian fleet, led by the battleships Giulio Cesare and Vittorio Veneto, was despatched to intercept the convoy.[53] The Italian fleet was detected by a reconnaissance aircraft from Ark Royal and the carrier launched Swordfish torpedo bombers while the capital ships of Force H turned to meet the enemy.[54] During the engagement, the Battle of Cape Spartivento, the Italian destroyer Lanciere was damaged, although it is uncertain if torpedoes from the bombers or British gunfire were responsible. The British mistook Lanciere for a cruiser, while the Italian commanders received incorrect reports that the cruiser Bolzano had been hit.[55] British attacks failed to damage any other Italian ships or sink the disabled destroyer, and a retaliatory attack by the Italian air force saw Ark Royal as the subject of multiple bombing runs, none of which hit.[55] The battle had no clear result, although the British convoy reached its destination unscathed.

On 14 December Ark Royal and Force H were redeployed from Gibraltar to the Atlantic to search the Azores for commerce raiders. Ark Royal returned to the Mediterranean on 20 December, and escorted the battleship HMS Malaya and merchant ships from Malta until 27 December.[56] Force H then became involved in Operation Excess, a plan to move convoys through the Mediterranean to support the Western Desert Force, which was trying to push Italian land forces from Egypt into Libya. Over the next month, British control of the Mediterranean theatre was weakened, particularly by the entry of the Luftwaffe and the near-loss of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.[57] The Mediterranean Fleet was under pressure from Axis forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, while the British port at Gibraltar was likely to be lost if the Spanish chose to ally with the Germans instead of remaining out of the war. To relieve the Mediterranean Fleet, while demonstrating British strength to the Spanish, the Admiralty and Admiral Cunningham planned to use Ark Royal’s Swordfish bombers in raids against Italian targets, supported by bombardment from heavy fleet units. The first bombing, on 2 January against the Tirso Dam in Sardinia, was unsuccessful,[58] but Ark Royal’s Swordfish bombers were more successful on 6 January, when they bombed the port city of Genoa. The carrier's aircraft also covered the battleships HMS Renown and HMS Malaya while they shelled the port. On 9 January, Ark Royal launched aircraft to bomb an oil refinery at La Spezia, and to lay mines in the harbour. Both operations were successful.[59]

Searching for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau

In early February, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau headed into the Atlantic on the orders of Admiral Erich Raeder. They were to disrupt Allied shipping and draw capital ships from other areas. On 8 March, Force H and Ark Royal were ordered to the Canary Islands to search for the battlecruisers, and to cover convoys crossing from the United States.[60] Ark Royal used her aircraft to search for captured ships returning to Germany under the control of prize crews. Three ships were located on 19 March: two scuttled themselves, while the third, SS Polykarp, was recaptured.[61]

On the evening of 21 March, a Fairey Fulmar from Ark Royal stumbled across Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at sea. Because of a radio malfunction, the crew had to return to Ark Royal to report, by which time the German ships had escaped under fog.[62] The next day, Ark Royal re-established air patrols in the hope of re-locating the raiders. During the day, a catapult malfunction destroyed a Fairey Swordfish; flinging the fuselage into the sea ahead of the carrier. Unable to stop, Ark Royal ran over the Swordfish and was overhead when the aircraft's depth charges detonated.[63] Scharnhorst and Gneisenau reached Brest without British harassment, while Ark Royal returned to Gibraltar for repairs, arriving on 24 March.[64]

Malta convoys and Operation Tiger

An intense anti-aircraft barrage is visible during an attack by Italian torpedo bombers on Force H. Ark Royal is on the left, with an Italian aircraft over her bows, and HMS Renown to the right.

Ark Royal spent April alternating between covering convoys and delivering aircraft to Malta and forays into the Atlantic to hunt commerce raiders. By May 1941, Rommel's Afrika Korps were driving through North Africa towards the Suez Canal, pushing the Western Desert Force before them. With British forces close to collapse and strategic locations threatened, the British High Command risked sending a reinforcement convoy across the Mediterranean to Alexandria. The convoy consisted of five large transport ships, escorted by Ark Royal, the battleships HMS Renown and HMS Queen Elizabeth, the cruisers HMS Sheffield, HMS Naiad, HMS Fiji, and HMS Gloucester, and screened by destroyers of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla.[65] Prior to Ark Royal’s departure, Captain Holland left to recuperate from stress and poor health, and was replaced by Captain Loben Maund.[66] The convoy left Gibraltar on 6 May, and was detected by Italian aircraft. The convoy, limited to 14 knots (26 km/h) and escorted by so many capital ships, was such a tempting target that Italian and German aircraft were mobilised.[67]

The British convoy came under air attack on 8 May, first by the Italian air force, then German Luftwaffe. Over the day, twelve of Ark Royal’s Fairey Fulmars (the maximum number available) drove off over fifty aircraft, with the assistance of targeting information from HMS Sheffield’s radar and anti-aircraft fire from the escorts.[68][69] During the initial waves, one Fulmar was lost, killing Flight Lieutenant Rupert Tillard and Lieutenant Mark Somerville, Admiral Somerville's nephew; another was destroyed with the aircrew recovered, while several others were damaged.[70] Consequently, only seven were able to face the main Luftwaffe force of thirty-four aircraft, while an attack just before dark was driven off by two aircraft and heavy fire from the ships.[70] The convoy survived without serious damage: the only casualties were to mines, with the Empire Song sunk and the New Zealand Star damaged but able to reach port.[71]

Ark Royal underwent another aerial attack on 12 May, during her return to Gibraltar. Later that month, she and fellow aircraft carrier HMS Furious delivered Hawker Hurricanes to support Malta.[72]

Hunting the Bismarck

On 18 May, the German battleship Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen began Operation Rheinübung by breaking into the Atlantic to raid shipping. After sinking HMS Hood and damaging HMS Prince of Wales during the Battle of the Denmark Strait, Bismarck shook off her pursuers and headed for the French Atlantic coast.[73] Ark Royal, Renown, and Sheffield, accompanied by HM Ships Faulknor, Foresight, Forester, Fortune, Foxhound, and HMS Fury, were despatched to the Atlantic on 23 May to search for the battleship.[74] On 26 May, a Fairey Swordfish from Ark Royal located Bismarck and began to shadow her, while the Home Fleet was mobilised to pursue.[75]

One of Ark Royal’s Fairey Swordfish returns at low level over the sea after making a torpedo attack on the Bismarck.

At the time of detection, the British ships were 130 nautical miles (240 km) away and would not catch Bismarck before the battleship reached Saint-Nazaire. Fifteen Swordfish bombers were armed with torpedoes and sent to delay the ship. HMS Sheffield was also shadowing Bismarck, and was between Ark Royal and Bismarck. The aircraft falsely identified the British cruiser as their target and fired torpedoes. The torpedoes were fitted with unreliable magnetic detonators, which caused most to explode on contact with the water, while Sheffield evaded the rest.[76] After realising his mistake, one of the pilots signalled 'Sorry for the kipper' to Sheffield.

On return to the carrier, the Swordfishes were re-armed with contact-detonator warheads, and launched at 19.15 hours for a second attack; locating and attacking Bismarck just before sunset. Three torpedoes hit the battleship: two impacted forward of the engine rooms, while the third struck the port steering room and jammed her rudder in a 15° port turn.[77] Bismarck was forced to sail in circles until the disabled rudder was reset to neutral, at which point she was sailing towards the British warships with almost no manoeuvring capability. The German battleship suffered heavy attack during the night of 26–27 May, and sank at 10:39 hours on 27 May.

Escorting the Malta convoys

Six Blackburn Skuas of No. 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm lined up on deck before taking off

Ark Royal and the ships of Force H returned to Gibraltar on 29 May. Despite the boost in Allied morale from the sinking of the battleship Bismarck, the war in the Mediterranean was going against the Allies. Greece and Crete had fallen to the Axis Powers, and the Afrika Korps was preparing to launch a final push into Egypt. Malta remained an important stronghold in the Mediterranean, but was coming under increased pressure from Italian and German air attacks, and could no longer be supplied from the east since the fall of Crete.[78]

Ark Royal was pressed into service, delivering aircraft to Malta during several supply runs throughout June and July, and escorting the convoys of Operation Substance in July and Operation Halberd in September. Despite some losses, the convoys succeeded in keeping Malta supplied and fighting.[79] The continued Allied presence in Malta was a considerable problem for Rommel in Africa, who was losing as much as a third of his supplies from Italy to submarines and bombers based there.[80] Adolf Hitler decided to send a flotilla of U-boats into the Mediterranean to attack Allied shipping, against the advice of Admiral Raeder.[80]

Final voyage and sinking

On 10 November 1941, Ark Royal ferried more aircraft to Malta before returning to Gibraltar. Admiral Somerville had been warned of U-boats off the Spanish coast, and reminded Force H to be vigilant.[81] Also at sea was Friedrich Guggenberger's U-81, which had received a report that Force H was returning to Gibraltar.[80] On 13 November, at 15:40 hours, the sonar operator aboard the destroyer HMS Legion detected an unidentified sound, but assumed it was the propellers of a nearby destroyer. One minute later, Ark Royal was struck amidships by a torpedo,[82] between the fuel bunkers and bomb store, and directly below the bridge island.[83] The explosion caused Ark Royal to shake, hurled loaded torpedo-bombers into the air, and killed Able Seaman Mitchell.[83] A 130 feet (40 m) long by 30 feet (9.1 m) deep hole was created on the starboard side, which caused flooding of the starboard boiler room, main switchboard, oil tanks, and over 106 feet (32 m) of the ship's starboard bilge. The starboard power train was knocked out, causing the rear half of the ship to lose power, while communications were severed shipwide.

HMS Legion moving alongside the damaged and listing HMS Ark Royal to take off survivors

Immediately after the torpedo strike, Captain Maund attempted to order the engines to full stop, but had to send a runner to the engine room when it was discovered communications were down.[84] The hole in the hull was enlarged by the ship's motion, and by the time Ark Royal stopped she had taken on water and begun to list to starboard, reaching 18° from centre within 20 minutes.[84] Considering the list of the carrier, as well as the fates of other carriers, including HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious, which had sunk rapidly with heavy loss of life, Maund gave the order to abandon ship. The crew were assembled on the flight deck to determine who would remain onboard to save the ship while HMS Legion came alongside to take off the rest; as a result, comprehensive damage control measures were not initiated until 49 minutes after the attack. The flooding spread unchecked, exacerbated by covers and hatches left open during evacuation of lower decks.[85]

Water spread to the centreline boiler room, which started to flood from below, and power was lost shipwide when the boiler uptakes became choked; Ark Royal had no backup diesel generators.[86] About half an hour after the explosion, the carrier appeared to stabilise. Admiral Somerville, determined to save Ark Royal, ordered damage control parties back to the carrier before taking the battleship HMS Malaya to Gibraltar to organise salvage efforts. The damage control parties were able to re-light a boiler, restoring power to the bilge pumps. The destroyer HMS Laforey came alongside to provide power and additional pumps, while Swordfish aircraft from Gibraltar arrived to supplement anti-submarine patrols.[87] The tug Thames arrived from Gibraltar at 20:00 hours and attached a tow line to Ark Royal, but flooding caused the angle of list to increase rapidly. Water had reached the boiler room flat, an uninterrupted compartment running the width of the ship, which forced the shutdown of the restored boiler.

Another photograph showing the degree of the list

The list reached 20° between 02:05 and 02:30 hours, and when 'abandon ship' was declared again at 04:00 hours, had reached 27°.[88] Ark Royal's complement had been evacuated to Legion by 04:30 hours; with the exception of Mitchell, there were no fatalities. The 1,487 officers and crew were transported to Gibraltar.[89] The list reached 45° before Ark Royal capsized and sank at 06:19 hours on 14 November.[90] Witnesses reported the carrier rolling to 90°, where she remained for three minutes before inverting. Ark Royal broke in two, the aft sinking within a couple of minutes, followed by the bow.[91]


Following the sinking, a Board of Inquiry was established to investigate the loss. Based on its findings, Maund was court-martialled for negligence in February 1942. He was found guilty on two counts: negligence in failing to ensure that properly constituted damage control parties had remained on board after the general evacuation, and one of failing to ensure the ship was in a sufficient state of readiness to deal with possible damage.[92] The board tempered their judgement with an acknowledgement that a high standard was being expected of Maund, and that he was primarily concerned with the welfare of his crew.[92]

The Bucknill Committee, which had been set up to investigate the loss of major warships, also produced a report. This report said that the lack of backup power sources was a major design failure, which contributed to the loss: Ark Royal depended on electricity for much of her operation, and once the boilers and steam generators were knocked out, the loss of power made damage control difficult. The committee recommended the design of the bulkheads and boiler intakes be improved to decrease the risk of widespread flooding in boiler rooms and machine spaces, while the uninterrupted boiler room flat was criticised. The design flaws were rectified in the Illustrious and Implacable class carriers, under construction at the time.[93][94]

The Board of Inquiry closed its report with the observation that Ark Royal had sunk 22 nautical miles (41 km) east of Europa Point, the southernmost tip of Gibraltar. This was accepted as the wreck location for sixty years.[95]


The exact location of the wreck remained unknown until mid-December 2002, when it was discovered by a BBC film crew 30 nautical miles (56 km) from Gibraltar.[96] The crew had been working on a documentary on maritime archaeology related to major battles of the Royal Navy.[96] Ark Royal lay in two sections: 20 metres (66 ft) of the bow had separated from the rest of the ship. A large debris field, which included the remains of the funnel and bridge island, parts of the ship that came loose as the carrier sank, and aircraft from the hangars, was located between the two hull sections. Analysis revealed that the port side of the ship hit the seabed first.[97]

The wreck was found further east than was claimed after the sinking. Initially, researchers thought the wreck had been caught in currents through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean as she sank, causing the ship to drift eastwards underwater before settling.[98] The presence of other debris in close proximity to the wreck, including a Swordfish bomber that was tipped off the flight deck before the ship rolled, proved this false, as the debris would have been spread over a much wider area. The currents did impact on her progress towards Gibraltar, despite being under tow for several hours.[99] Study of the wreck also showed that attempting to restart the engines to provide power increased the stresses placed on the hull, adding to the flooding. Once power was lost, it was impossible to prevent the carrier from sinking—her fate was more due to design flaws than the actions of her captain.[99]


a. ^  The Washington Naval Treaty (signed in February 1922) imposed a limit of 135,000 tons on total British aircraft carrier tonnage, with no one ship allowed to exceed 32,000 tons, and only two to exceed 27,000 tons.[100] The London Naval Treaty (signed in April 1930) prevented signatories from constructing new capital ships, or converting existing capital ships into aircraft carriers, until 1937.[101]


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