HMS Ark Royal (91)

HMS Ark Royal (91)

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

Designed in 1934 to fit within 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 early stages of World War II. She was involved in a number of notable actions, including the first aerial kill of the war, operations off Norway, the search for the German battleship "Bismarck", and the Malta Convoys, making her one of the most famous ships of the Royal Navy. "Ark Royal" survived several near misses in her short career, and gained a reputation as a 'lucky ship'. The Germans incorrectly reported her as sunk on a number of occasions.

Her design incorporated many new features, and differed in numerous ways from previous aircraft carriers. "Ark Royal" was the first ship where the hangars and flight deck were an integral part of the ship's hull, instead of an add-on or part of the . Designed to carry a large number of aircraft, she was fitted with 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, with the investigators keen to know how the carrier was lost, given that there were significant efforts to save the ship and tow her to the naval base at Gibraltar. The inquiries found that several design flaws contributed to the sinking, which were rectified in new British carriers. Although recorded as sinking convert|22|nmi|km from Gibraltar, this was proved incorrect when "Ark Royal" was located in December 2002, approximately convert|30|nmi|km from Gibraltar.


In 1923, the Admiralty prepared plans for a ten year building programme, which included a new aircraft carrier and 300 aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 43–4] The economic downturn following the end of the First World War caused this plan to be postponed. In 1930, the Director of Naval Construction, Sir Arthur Johns, began to update the as-yet unused plans for the carrier, making improvements in line with recent technological developments. His aim was to increase the number of aircraft that could be carried by freeing up deck space, which involved testing methods of bringing aircraft to a halt on the flight deck more quickly using arrestor gear, and launching them in less space using two compressed steam catapults. 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. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 48–51] The hangar decks were to be located inside the carrier's hull, thus benefiting from the protection of the convert|4.5|in|mm belt armour. Three lifts were to move aircraft between the hangars and the flight deck.

Another major feature of the carrier was the length and height of the flight deck. At convert|800|ft|m, the flight deck was convert|118|ft|m longer than the keel; the latter dictated by the maximum dry-docking length at Royal Navy facilities in Gibraltar and Malta. Because hangar decks were contained within the hull, the flight deck rose to convert|66|ft|m above the waterline.

The Washington and London Naval Treaties, which had placed restrictions on warship tonnage for a number of the Great Powers, were due to expire at the end of 1936.Ref_label|A|a|none 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.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 48–9] "Ark Royal" would therefore have to fit within this anticipated limit; to conserve weight armour plating was limited to covering the engine rooms and magazines, while using welds instead of rivets to hold 65% of the ship together saved 500 tons. Installation of an armoured flight deck was not possible, as the additional weight would have placed "Ark Royal" above the proposed treaty limit, while reducing her endurance and stability.

The ship was fitted with six boilers, which were used to power three Parsons geared turbines. The turbines were connected via three driveshafts to three bronze propellors convert|16|ft|m in diameter, to produce a maximum theoretical speed of convert|30|kn|km/h. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 47] This was an important advantage, as even with the catapult and arrestor gear, "Ark Royal" would have to turn into the wind to launch and recover her aircraft. To avoid endangering other ships with the frequent course changes associated with flight operations, "Ark Royal" would have to regularly break away from any large fleet she was sailing with; her high speed allowing her to catch up on completion. Additionally, as the carrier was not armed for ship-to-ship combat, speed was her main protection against enemy warships.


The deteriorating international situation by 1933, typified by Germany's rearmament and Japan and Italy's expansionist aims, convinced the British government to allocate funds to resume the long-delayed construction programme. Funding was announced in the 1934 budget proposals, and plans for the new carrier were finalised by November 1934. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 45] The plans were tendered in February 1935 to Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd., which calculated that the cost of the hull would come to £1,496,250, while the main machinery would cost approximately £500,000.cite web |last=Mason |url= |title=HMS Ark Royal - Fleet Aircraft Carrier] [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 45–6] The overall cost was estimated to be over £3 million, making "Ark Royal" the most expensive ship by then ordered by the Royal Navy. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |page=p. 46] Construction began on Job No. 1012 when "Ark Royal"’s keel was laid down on 16 September 1935.cite book |last=Colledge & Warlow |title=Ships of the Royal Navy |pages=p. 21]

"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 she threw against "Ark Royal"’s bows did not smash until the fourth attempt. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 41] The carrier spent a year fitting out, was handed over to her first commander, Captain Arthur Power, on 16 November 1938, and was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 16 December. She was originally intended for service in the Far East, but events in Europe during her construction and fitting out, including the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, caused the Admiralty to instead mark the carrier for deployment with the Home and Mediterranean Fleets. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 61–2] After her crew joined her at the end of 1938, "Ark Royal" began an intensive period of trials and tests to prepare her for service with the Home Fleet. During these trials, "Ark Royal" proved capable of sailing above her theoretical speed, reaching over convert|31|kn|km/h. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 16]

Armament and aircraft

"Ark Royal"’s armament was designed with anti-aircraft warfare in mind, as enemy aircraft were expected to be the main threat to the carrier; surface ships and submarines could either be outrun or dealt with by the carrier's escorts. [cite book |last=Westwood |title=Fighting Ships of World War Two |pages=p. 66] [cite book |last=Rossiter | title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 47] Her main armament was sixteen quick-firing 4.5 inch anti-aircraft guns, located in eight double turrets, four on each side of the hull.cite book |last=Bishop & Chant |title=Aircraft carriers |pages=p. 45] The original design had the turrets located low on the hull, but the plans were later altered to place them just below the flight deck, which increased each turret's field of fire. Four 8-barreled 2 pounder (1.5 in) pom-poms were located on the flight deck, in front of and behind the superstructure island, while eight 4-barreled .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine guns were installed on small projecting platforms to the front and rear of the flight deck. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 47–8]

Sixteen Fleet Air Arm squadrons were posted aboard "Ark Royal" during her service, with an average of five squadrons at any given time. On entering service, most of "Ark Royal"’s squadrons were equipped with either Blackburn Skuas, which were used in the fighter and dive bomber roles, or Fairey Swordfishes, which performed the roles of reconnaissance and torpedo bombing. From April 1940 onwards, squadrons equipped with Skuas were upgraded to the newer Fairey Fulmars; like their predecessors, these were used as fighters and bombers. On occasion, the carrier also 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. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 112] In June 1940, "Ark Royal" was host to 701 Naval Air Squadron, a training squadron which operated Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance amphibians.

ervice history

With the hunter-killer groups

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 shipping travelling to and from British ports. Within hours of the war starting, the passenger ship SS "Athenia" was torpedoed by "U-30",cite book |last=Edwards |title=Döntiz and the wolf packs |pages=p. 18] the first of over 65,000 tons of shipping sunk by U-boats during the first week of the war.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 74–7] "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 aircraft carriers into tempting targets.

On 14 September, "Ark Royal" received a distress call from the SS "Fanad Head", which was convert|200|nmi|km away and being pursued by the surfaced "U-30". "Ark Royal" immediately began to launch aircraft to aid the merchant vessel, but the carrier was spotted by "U-39", which fired two torpedoes in a surprise attack. Lookouts spotted the torpedo tracks and provided enough warning for "Ark Royal" to turn into the direction of the attack, reducing her cross-section and causing the torpedoes to miss and explode harmlessly astern. Three F class destroyers escorting the carrier began depth charging "U-39", and successfully forced her to the surface.cite book |last=Edwards |title=Döntiz and the wolf packs |pages=p. 87] The German crew abandoned ship before "U-39" sank—the first U-boat lost in World War II. Meanwhile, "Ark Royal"’s aircraft reached the "Fanad Head", which was in the hands of a German boarding party. The aircraft unsuccessfully attacked "U-30": two were destroyed when they were caught in the blast of their own bombs and crashed into the sea. The U-boat escaped after rescuing their boarding party and the pilots of the two downed Skuas (both observers had drowned), and torpedoing the "Fanad Head".cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 75–8]

"Ark Royal" returned to her base in Loch Ewe, where she and her crew were inspected by Winston Churchill. The successful sinking of "U-39" was hailed as an important boost to morale. However, the failed attack on "Ark Royal", and the successful attack on HMS "Courageous" on 17 September, convinced the Admiralty that it was too dangerous to continue risking their few aircraft carriers on such operations. The practice of carrier-centred hunter-killer groups was abandoned.

Another near miss

Despite the end of the hunter-killer tactics, "Ark Royal" continued to deploy with the Home Fleet. On 25 September, she participated in the rescue of the submarine HMS "Spearfish", which had been attacked and damaged by German warships off Horn Reefs, in the Kattegat. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 81] Whilst escorting "Spearfish" back to port on 26 September, in the company of battleships HMS "Nelson" and HMS "Rodney", the ships were followed by a group of three Luftwaffe Dornier seaplanes. "Ark Royal" launched three Blackburn Skuas to disperse them; one Dornier was shot down in the first British aerial kill of the war.cite book |last=Westwood |title=Fighting Ships of World War II |pages=p. 66]

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, choosing to rely on anti-aircraft weapons for defence. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 82] Five Heinkel bombers soon appeared to attack "Ark Royal": four were driven away by anti-aircraft fire, but the fifth launched a convert|1000|kg|lb|adj=on bomb at the carrier. "Ark Royal" turned hard to starboard, heeling over and avoiding the bomb, which landed in the ocean convert|30|m|ft off her starboard bow and sent a large spout of water over the ship. The German pilots did not see if the carrier had been hit, and a later reconnaissance flight was able to locate the two battleships, but not "Ark Royal". Based on this information, the Germans claimed that "Ark Royal" had sunk, while in fact the carrier returned safely to port.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 84–5] 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, whilst inviting the US naval attaché to view "Ark Royal" in dock. Additionally, the British naval attaché in Rome was instructed to assure Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini that the ship was still in service.

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. On 9 October, aircraft from "Ark Royal" spotted the German tanker "Altmark", which was used to supply "Graf Spee" with fuel and provisions. The tanker was disguised as a US vessel, "Delmar", which fooled the British into passing her by. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 88–9] On 5 November, "Ark Royal" intercepted and captured the German merchant SS "Uhenfels", which was attempting to reach Germany. The ship was later taken into British service as a cargo ship.cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 53] Several neutral merchant ships were also spotted by the carrier's aircraft; in two cases causing the crews to believe they were under attack and abandon ship.cite book |last=Jameson |title="Ark Royal" |pages=p. 42] A note explaining the situation was dropped in a bag to a Norwegian vessel's crew, and they re-boarded their vessel, while an attempt to repeat this exercise with a Belgian merchant crew failed when the bag was dropped down their ship's funnel.

By this time, "Graf Spee" had put into Montevideo to repair damage sustained during the battle of the River Plate. She had been trailed by several British cruisers, which established a patrol outside the harbour entrance and reported "Graf Spee"’s position to the rest of the fleet. "Ark Royal" and "Renown" were dispatched to join the forces patrolling off the harbour entrance, but as they were 36 hours away, the British naval attaché came up with a plan to fool the Germans into thinking the two capital ships had already joined the blockading force. An order for fuel for "Ark Royal" was placed at Buenos Aires, convert|140|mi|km west of Montevideo. This information was leaked to the press, passed on to the German embassy in Montevideo, and given to "Graf Spee"’s captain, Hans Langsdorff.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 94–6] This misinformation contributed to Langsdorff's decision to scuttle his ship.

Return to the fleet

With the "Graf Spee" sunk, "Ark Royal" remained in the Atlantic for a short period before escorting the damaged HMS "Exeter" back to Devonport Dockyard, where they arrived in February. "Ark Royal" then proceeded to Portsmouth to take on supplies and personnel, before departing again for Scapa Flow. On arrival, she transferred her Blackburn Skuas to Naval Air Station "Hatston" to strengthen the anchorage's defences.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 99] "Ark Royal" was then transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet for a series of exercises, departing Scapa Flow on 31 March and heading for Alexandria with the aircraft carrier HMS "Glorious". 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 further orders.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 99]

German forces had invaded Norway as part of Operation Weserübung on 7 April, and had secured large sections of the Norwegian coast. Attempts by the Royal Navy to operate in support of British troops were unsuccessful; heavy air attacks had overwhelmed the ships, resulting in the sinking of HMS "Gurkha" and the near-sinking of HMS "Suffolk". Realising that British ships desperately required air cover, but aware that land-based aircraft in the United Kingdom did not have sufficient range to operate effectively off the Norwegian coast, the Admiralty recalled "Ark Royal" and "Glorious" from the Mediterranean on 16 April.

Norwegian campaign

"Ark Royal" and "Glorious" arrived at Scapa Flow on 23 April, and were almost immediately redeployed as part of Operation DX. Sailing to the Norwegian coast with the cruisers HMS "Curlew" and HMS "Berwick" and screened by the destroyers HMS "Hyperion", HMS "Hereward", HMS "Hasty", HMS "Fearless", HMS "Fury" and HMS "Juno", this was the first time the Royal Navy had deployed aircraft carriers with the primary purpose of providing fighter protection for other warships. The ships took up position on 25 April off the Norwegian coast, with "Ark Royal" positioned convert|120|nmi|km offshore to reduce the chance of German air attacks. The carrier's aircraft conducted anti-submarine patrols, provided fighter support for other ships, and carried out offensive strikes against shipping and shore targets. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 112] "Ark Royal" returned to Scapa Flow on 27 April to refuel and replace a small number of lost and damaged aircraft, before heading back on the same day with the battleship HMS "Valiant" as escort. During the return voyage, "Ark Royal" came under a series of air attacks from German Junkers Ju 88s and Heinkel He 111s, operating from bases on the Norwegian mainland. The carrier escaped damage, and resumed her position on 29 April.cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 97]

By now it had been realised by the British high command that they could not hold the Germans in southern Norway. The evacuation of Allied troops from Molde and Åndalsnes was ordered, with "Ark Royal" providing air cover from 30 April. On 1 May, the Germans made a determined effort to sink the carrier, with numerous air attacks occurring throughout the day. "Ark Royal"’s fighters and a heavy anti-aircraft barrage succeeded in driving off the enemy, and although several bombs were dropped at the carrier, none impacted. The evacuation was completed on 3 May, and the carrier was recalled to Scapa Flow to refuel and rearm before returning to the Norwegian coast. While in port, Captain Arthur Power left the ship for a promotion to the Admiralty, and was replaced by Captain Cedric Holland. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 117] On her return to the Norwegian coast, "Ark Royal" was tasked with providing air cover for Allied operations around Narvik, including the landing of additional French troops on 13 May.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 119] She was joined on 18 May by the carriers HMS "Glorious" and HMS "Furious".

Despite these efforts, it had become clear by the end of May that French forces were on the verge of collapse and Norway was turning into a sideshow compared to the German advance to the English Channel. Operation Alphabet was instigated, to evacuate Allied troops from Narvik and return them to Britain. "Ark Royal" and "Glorious", screened by the destroyers HMS "Highlander", HMS "Diana", HMS "Acasta", HMS "Ardent" and HMS "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 HMS "Glorious", escorted by HMS "Acasta" and HMS "Ardent", were detached to return to the UK. The three ships were spotted by the German battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau", which attacked and sunk the carrier and destroyers. A search by "Ark Royal"’s aircraft failed to locate the German ships, which by then had returned to Trondheim. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 120–1]

The last evacuation convoy left Narvik on 9 June. Before the British ships could withdraw, a raid on Trondheim located the "Scharnhorst". An attack on the German ship was organised for "Ark Royal"’s Skuas, taking place at midnight on 13 June. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 137] The attack was a disaster for the British: escort destroyers HMS "Antelope" and HMS "Electra" collided while "Ark Royal" was launching aircraft in foggy conditions and had to return to England for urgent repairs, eight of the fifteen Skuas involved were shot down, while "Scharnhorst" escaped damage. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 140–1] "Ark Royal" returned to Scapa Flow the following day, and was reassigned to the Mediterranean Fleet. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 128]

Mediterranean deployment

"Ark Royal" left Scapa Flow in company with HMS "Hood" and three escorting 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 anchored at Mers-el-Kébir might fall under Axis control and tip the balance of power in the Mediterranean, in turn affecting the whole war. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 154] "Ark Royal"’s captain, Cedric Holland, had previously been the British naval attaché in Paris and was sent to negotiate the surrender or scuttling of the French fleet. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 132] Force H was deployed outside the harbour, and when the French admirals refused to agree to the British terms, opened fire on the French ships. During the engagement, which came to be known as the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, "Ark Royal"’s aircraft provided targeting information for the British ships. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 136] The French battleship "Strasbourg" managed to escape, despite multiple attacks by Swordfish from "Ark Royal". [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 138] Two days after the attack, aircraft for "Ark Royal" were used to incapacitate the French battleship "Dunkerque", which had been beached in the initial attack. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 170]

Having successfully reduced the possibility of a French challenge in the Mediterranean, Force H prepared for a series of attacks on Italian targets, and sailed from Gibraltar on 8 July.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 179] The force was attacked by Italian bombers within eight hours of sailing, and although Force H escaped damage, Somerville cancelled the raids and ordered the fleet back to Gibraltar. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 180] During July, the British colony of Malta began to come under attack from the Italian Air Force, and the Admiralty decided to use Force H 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. On 2 August, "Ark Royal" launched a successful air attack against the Italian air base at Cagliari. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 185–7]

Force H remained at Gibraltar until 30 September, when they escorted reinforcements for Admiral Andrew Cunningham's fleet to Alexandria. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 192–3] Whilst en-route, diversionary attacks were planned on Italian air bases at Elmas and Cagliari to direct Italian attention away from both the reinforcement operation and a supply convoy sailing to Malta. The attacks were successfully carried out on 1 October, and the fleet was able to reach Alexandria without significant attention from the Italian air force. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 190] From Alexandria, "Ark Royal" was briefly detached to travel to West Africa as part of an attempt to encourage the Vichy French colonies to switch their allegiance to the Free French. During the negotiations, several Free French aircraft were flown from "Ark Royal", but their aircrews were arrested on landing at Dakar. The negotiations failed, and bombers from "Ark Royal" were directed against military installations during the unsuccessful British attempt to take Dakar by force. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 212–5] 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". [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 222–5] The refit, which lasted until 3 November, included repairs to her machinery and the installation of a new flight deck barrier.

Following the refit, "Ark Royal", accompanied by HMS "Barham", HMS "Berwick" and HMS "Glasgow", sailed for Gibraltar, arriving on 6 November. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 192] They were almost immediately 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. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 230] The Italian fleet was detected by a reconnaissance aircraft from "Ark Royal", and the carrier launched a strike force of Swordfish torpedo bombers while the capital ships of Force H turned to meet the enemy ships. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 236–58] During the following engagement, which is referred to as the Battle of Cape Spartivento, the Italian destroyer "Lanciere" was damaged, although it is uncertain if torpedoes from the bombers or British gunfire was responsible. The British mistook "Lanciere" for a cruiser, while the Italian commanders received incorrect reports that the cruiser "Bolzano" had been hit.cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 239] 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. The battle did not have a significant result for either side, although the British convoy reached its destination unscathed.

On 14 December "Ark Royal" and Force H were briefly redeployed from Gibraltar to the Atlantic Ocean, to search the waters around the Azores for commerce raiders. "Ark Royal" returned to the Mediterranean on 20 December, and was involved with escorting the battleship HMS "Malaya" and a group of merchant ships from Malta until 27 December. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 210] Force H then became involved in Operation Excess, a complicated plan to move convoys through the Mediterranean to support the Western Desert Force, which was endeavouring to push Italian land forces from Egypt and 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". [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 218–9] The Mediterranean Fleet was under heavy 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. In order 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 a series of raids against Italian targets, supported by bombardment from heavy fleet units. The first bombing raid, occurring on 2 January against the Tirso Dam in Sardinia, was unsuccessful in inflicting damage, [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 222–6] but "Ark Royal"’s Swordfish bombers were more successful on 6 January, when they successfully bombed targets in the port-city of Genoa. The carrier's aircraft were also used to cover the battleships HMS "Renown" and HMS "Malaya" whilst 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. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 228–30]

earching 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, in order to draw capital ships from other theatres of the war. On 8 March, Force H and "Ark Royal" were ordered to the Canary Islands to begin to search for the two battlecruisers, and to provide cover for convoys crossing the Atlantic from the United States. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 259–60] During this deployment, "Ark Royal" used her aircraft to search for captured ships returning to Germany under the control of prize crews. Three such ships were located on 19 March: two scuttled themselves, while the third, SS "Polykarp", was recaptured. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 260]

On the evening of 21 March, a Fairey Fulmar from "Ark Royal" stumbled across "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" underway at sea. Because of a radio malfunction, the crew had to return to "Ark Royal" and land before they could report the sighting, by which time the German ships had escaped under the cover of fog. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 260–2] The next day, "Ark Royal" re-established air patrols in the hope of finding the two raiders again. During the day, a malfunction in the catapult launch system destroyed a Fairey Swordfish; flinging the fuselage into the sea ahead of the carrier. Unable to stop in time, "Ark Royal" ran over the Swordfish, and was directly overhead when the aircraft's payload of depth charges reached their pre-set depth and detonated. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 242] "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" were able to reach the port of Brest without suffering British harassment, while "Ark Royal" was forced to return to Gibraltar to refuel and carry out repairs, arriving on 24 March. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 243]

Malta convoys and Operation Tiger

"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 vital strategic locations threatened, the British High Command decided to risk sending a reinforcement convoy across the Mediterranean to Alexandria. The convoy consisted of five large transport ships, which were 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. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 268–9] Prior to "Ark Royal"’s departure, Captain Holland left the ship to recuperate from a combination of high stress and poor health, and was replaced by Captain Loben Maund. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 266] The convoy left Gibraltar on 6 May, and was quickly detected by Italian reconnaissance aircraft. The convoy, limited to 14 knots and escorted by so many capital ships, was such a tempting target that Italian and German aircraft were immediately mobilised to attack. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 269]

The British convoy came under heavy air attacks on 8 May, first by the Italian air force, then the German Luftwaffe. Over the course of the day, twelve of "Ark Royal"’s Fairey Fulmars (the maximum number of combat-available aircraft at the time) were able to disrupt and drive off over fifty enemy aircraft, with the assistance of targeting information from HMS "Sheffield"’s radar and anti-aircraft fire from the convoy escorts. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 271–4] [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 258] During the initial waves, one Fulmar was lost, resulting in the deaths of Flight Lieutenant Rupert Tillard and Lieutenant Mark Somerville, Admiral Somerville's nephew; another was destroyed with the aircrew recovered, while several others were damaged. 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.cite book |last=Rossiter |title="Ark Royal" |pages=p. 249] The convoy survived the attacks without serious da
cite book |last=Jameson |title="Ark Royal" |pages=p. 274]

"Ark Royal" underwent another aerial attack on 12 May, during her return voyage to Gibraltar. Later that month, she was involved in another Malta Convoy: she and fellow aircraft carrier HMS "Furious" delivered Hawker Hurricanes to support Malta's air defences. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 276–7]

Hunting the "Bismarck"

On 18 May, the German battleship "Bismarck" and the cruiser "Prinz Eugen" commenced Operation Rheinübung; breaking out into the Atlantic to raid Allied 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. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 279–90] "Ark Royal", "Renown" and "Sheffield", accompanied by the destroyers HMS "Faulknor", HMS "Foresight", HMS "Forester", HMS "Fortune", HMS "Foxhound" and HMS "Fury", were despatched into the Atlantic on 23 May to search for the battleship. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 294] On 26 May, a Fairey Swordfish from "Ark Royal" located "Bismarck" and began to shadow her, whilst the Home Fleet was mobilised to pursue and engage. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 296]

At the time of detection, the pursuing British ships were still convert|130|nmi|km away, and would not be able to catch up with "Bismarck" before the battleship reached the French port of Saint-Nazaire and safety. Fifteen Swordfish bombers were armed with torpedoes and sent to disable or delay the enemy ship. Unbeknownst to the pilots, HMS "Sheffield" was also shadowing "Bismarck", and was at the time between "Ark Royal" and "Bismarck". The aircraft falsely identified the British cruiser as their target and fired their torpedoes. The thirteen fired torpedoes were fitted with the new (and at the time unreliable) magnetic detonators, causing most to explode on contact with the water, while "Sheffield" was able to evade the rest. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 299–300] After realising his mistake, one of the pilots signalled 'Sorry for the kipper' to "Sheffield".

On their return to the carrier, the fifteen Swordfishes were re-armed with the older contact-detonator warheads, and launched at 19.15 hours for a second attack. The torpedo bombers successfully located "Bismarck", and attacked just before sunset. Three torpedoes hit the battleship: two impacted forward of the engine rooms, while the third struck the port steering room, with the resulting machinery damage jamming her rudder in a 15° turn to port. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 303–5] "Bismarck" was initially forced to sail in circles, and when the disabled rudder was finally reset to a neutral position, the battleship found herself sailing directly towards the approaching British warships with almost no manoeuvring capability. The German battleship suffered heavy attack from the pursuing ships during the night of 26–27 May, and sank at 10:39 hours on 27 May.

Escorting the Malta convoys

"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. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 316–7]

"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. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 318] 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.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 327] Adolf Hitler decided to send a flotilla of U-boats into the Mediterranean to attack Allied shipping, against the advice of Admiral Raeder.

Final voyage and sinking

On 10 November "Ark Royal" ferried more aircraft to Malta, before making the return voyage to Gibraltar. Admiral Somerville had been warned of U-boats operating off the Spanish coast and reminded the ships of Force H to be vigilant. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 337] Also at sea was Friedrich Guggenberger's "U-81", which had received an intelligence report that Force H was expected to be returning to Gibraltar. On 13 November, at 15:40 hours, the sonar operator aboard the escorting 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 single torpedo, [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 329] between the fuel bunkers and bomb store, and directly below the bridge island. The impact and subsequent explosion caused "Ark Royal" to shake violently, hurled fully loaded torpedo-bombers into the air, and killed one man, Able Seaman Mitchell.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 332] A convert|130|ft|m long by convert|30|ft|m deep hole was created on the starboard side of the carrier, which allowed the starboard boiler room, main switchboard, oil tanks, and over convert|106|ft|m of the ship's starboard bilge to flood immediately. The starboard power train was knocked out, causing the rear half of the ship to lose power, while communications were severed shipwide.

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.cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 338] The hole in the hull was enlarged by the ship's motion, and by the time "Ark Royal" came to a stop she had taken on a considerable amount of water and began to list to starboard, reaching an angle of 18 degrees from centre within 20 minutes. Considering the lean of the carrier, as well as the fates of British aircraft carriers 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 try and save the ship while HMS "Legion" came alongside to take off the rest of the crew; as a result, comprehensive damage control measures were not initiated until 49 minutes after the attack. The flooding spread unchecked during this time, and was exacerbated by several covers and armoured hatches left open during the evacuation of the lower decks. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 338–40]

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. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 345] 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, whilst Swordfish aircraft from Gibraltar arrived to supplement anti-submarine patrols around the stricken carrier. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 342] The tug "Thames" arrived from Gibraltar at 20:00 hours and attached a tow line to "Ark Royal", but progressive flooding caused the angle of list to increase rapidly. Water had reached the boiler room flat, an uninterrupted compartment running across the width of the ship, forcing the shutdown of the restored boiler.

The angle of list reached 20 degrees between nowrap|02:05 and 02:30 hours, and when 'abandon ship' was declared at 04:00 hours, had reached 27 degrees. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 346] "Ark Royal"'s entire complement had been evacuated to "Legion" by 04:30 hours; with the exception of Able Seaman Mitchell, there had been no fatalities. The 1,487 officers and crew were transported to Gibraltar. [cite book |last=Duffy |title=Target America |pages=p. 136] The angle of list reached 45 degrees before "Ark Royal" capsized and sank at 06:19 hours on 14 November. [cite book |last=Jameson |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 348] Witnesses reported that the carrier rolled to 90 degrees, where she remained for about three minutes before completely inverting. "Ark Royal" then broke in two, with the aft section sinking within a couple of minutes, followed quickly by the bow. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 375–6]


Following the sinking, a Board of Inquiry was established to investigate the loss of "Ark Royal". Based on the findings of the Board, Maund was court-martialled on charges of negligence in February 1942. He was subsequently found guilty on two counts: one of 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.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 372–3] The board tempered their judgement with an acknowledgement that a very high standard was being expected of Maund, and that at the time of the attack he was primarily concerned with the welfare of his crew.

Meanwhile, the Bucknill Committee, which had been set up to investigate the loss of major warships, also produced a report on the sinking. The report stated that the lack of backup power sources was one of the main design failures: "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 measures difficult. The committee also recommended that the design of the bulkheads and boiler intakes be improved to decrease the risk of widespread flooding in the boiler rooms and machine spaces, while the uninterrupted boiler room flat was criticised. The design flaws were immediately rectified in the under-construction carriers of the "Illustrious" and "Implacable" classes. [Papers of Admiral Sir Hugh Binney, "reports of Second Bucknill Committee relating to loss of HMS PRINCE OF WALES and HMS ARK ROYAL, 1941-1942", held at Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College London] [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 374]

The Board of Inquiry closed its report with the observation that "Ark Royal" had sunk convert|22|nmi|km east of Europa Point, the southernmost tip of Gibraltar. This location was widely accepted as the wreck site for the next sixty years. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=p. 30]


The exact location of the wreck remained unknown until mid-December 2002, when it was discovered by a BBC film crew approximately convert|30|nmi|km from Gibraltar.cite web |url= |title=Film team finds wreck of Ark Royal |] The crew had been working on a documentary on the maritime archaeology related to major battles in the history of the Royal Navy. "Ark Royal" lay in two main sections: convert|20|m|ft of the bow had separated from the rest of the ship. A large debris field, which included the remains of the funnel, bridge island, parts of the ship that came loose as the carrier sank, and aircraft from the hangars, was located in between the two hull sections. Analysis of the damage to "Ark Royal" revealed that the port side of the ship hit the seabed first. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 368–9]

The location of the wreck was further east than was claimed after the sinking. Initially, researchers thought that the submerged wreck had been caught in the currents that flow through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, causing the ship to drift eastwards underwater before settling on the seabed. [cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 168–9] 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.cite book |last=Rossiter |title=Ark Royal |pages=pp. 377] 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.


a. Note_label|A|a|none 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. [cite book |title=Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States |pages=pp. 247–266] 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. [Reproduced in cite book |last=Goldman |title=Sunken treaties |pages=pp. 307–319]




*cite book |last=Bishop |first=Chris |coauthors=Chant, Christopher |title=Aircraft carriers: the world's greatest naval vessels and their aircraft |url= |accessdate=2008-07-22 |year=2004 |publisher=Zenith |location=Grand Rapids, MI |isbn=0760320055 |oclc=56646560
*cite book |last=Chesneau |first=Roger |title=Aircraft Carriers of the world, 1914 to the present; an illustrated encyclopedia |year=1984 |publisher=Naval Institute Press |location=Annapolis, MD |isbn=0870219022 |oclc=11018793
*cite book |last=Duffy |first=James P. |title=Target America: Hitler's plan to attack the United States |origyear=2004 |edition=3rd ed. |year=2006 |publisher=Lyons |location=New York |isbn=1592289347 |oclc=70264388
*cite book |last=Edwards |first=Bernard |title=Döntiz and the wolf packs: the U-boats at war |origyear=1996 |edition=2nd ed. |year=1999 |publisher=Cassell |location=London |isbn=0304352039 |oclc=41465151
*cite book |last=Goldman |first=Emily O. |title=Sunken treaties: naval arms control between the wars |year=1994 |publisher=Pennsylvania State University |location=University Park, PA |isbn=0271010347 |oclc=28723444
*cite book |last=Jameson |first=William |title=Ark Royal: the life of an aircraft carrier at war 1939-41 |origyear=1957 |edition=2nd ed. |date=2004-04-01 |publisher=Periscope Publishing |location= |isbn=1904381278 |oclc=
*cite book |last=Lenton |first=H. T. |title=British and Empire warships of the Second World War |year=1998 |publisher=Greenhill Books |location=London |isbn=1853672777 |oclc=39245871
*cite book |title=Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States |accessdate=2008-07-07 |volume=Vol I |year=1922 |publisher=U.S. G.P.O. |location=Washington |oclc=24045525 |pages=pp. 247–266 |chapter=Conference on the Limitation of Armament |chapterurl=
*cite book |last=Rossiter |first=Mike |title=Ark Royal: the life, death and rediscovery of the legendary Second World War aircraft carrier |origyear=2006 |edition=2nd ed. |year=2007 |publisher=Corgi Books |location=London |isbn=9780552153690 |oclc=81453068
*cite book |last=Westwood |first=J. N. |title=Fighting ships of World War II |origyear=1971 |year=1975 |publisher=Sidgwick and Jackson (for Book Club Associates) |location=London |isbn=028398287X |oclc=2090062


*cite news |title=Film team finds wreck of Ark Royal |url= | |publisher=BBC |date=2002-12-19 |accessdate=2008-06-24
*cite web |url= |title=HMS Ark Royal - Fleet Aircraft Carrier |accessdate=2008-06-24 |last=Mason |first=Geoffrey B. |year=2003 |work=Service Histories of Royal Navy Warships in World War 2 |publisher=Naval-History.Net

External links

* [ Maritimequest HMS Ark Royal photo gallery]
* [ HMS Ark Royal - Operational History and Photos]

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