This is the second installment of my look back at the four British aircraft carriers which have carried the name Ark Royal. The second carrier had by far the shortest lifespan of the Ark Royals but had a hugely extensive wartime career operating taking her from South Africa to Norway to Egypt and everywhere in between. Consider this something of a primer only - I couldn’t possibly touch on all of this ship’s adventures and accomplishments during her short career.
Part 2 – The Fleet Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal (Pennant Number 91)
The second carrier Ark Royal was commissioned in December 1938 in the run up to the Second World War. She was originally designed to accommodate 72 aircraft, with two 16ft high and 60ft wide hangars, and an 800ft long flight deck (though her typical wartime complement was 54 aircraft). Compared with previous British carriers of World War I design and vintage, Ark Royal represented a step change in size and capability, and is viewed by many as Britain’s first modern fleet carrier design.
Due to Washington Naval Treaty limitations, weight was a critical factor, with the limit of 22,000 tons maximum displacement imposed. This is one of the reasons why Ark Royal had an enclosed hangar within the hull structure, as opposed to an open hangar as was popular on US carriers. This, perhaps paradoxically, required less overall structure to support the flight deck and hull stresses, and therefore allowed for a lighter hull. Another weight saving aspect of the design was the extensive use of structural welding by her builders Cammell-Laird on over 60% of the hull, far greater than any previous ships that large.
In a sign of the times, the Ark Royal also made extensive use of on board electrical machinery compared with older ships. Despite this, she was never fitted with radar during her wartime service, and relied on an accompanying cruiser’s radar for flight direction, relaying information between the ships with flag signals.
There was considerable debate over the ship’s armour and armament. The Ark Royal was built with 4.5” belt armour and 3.5” lower deck armour to sufficiently protect the machinery spaces, magazine and aviation fuel stores from 6” shells and 500lb bombs. Due to the weight limitations, the Ark Royal had no additional flight deck armour like later wartime British carriers.
Originally, 5.1” guns were studied, but with the understanding that a carrier would always have a cruiser escort, the main purpose for carrier guns should therefore be anti-aircraft. With that, dual purpose 4.5” guns were fitted on twin mounts just below the level of the flight deck, supplemented by six 8-barrel pom-pom anti-aircraft guns.
The pom-poms were originally to be fitted on sponsons, but this idea was abandoned after for fear that a stray aircraft would crash into them. At this time, British aircraft carriers did not have crash barriers installed; Ark Royal would later be the first British carrier to get crash barriers. Crash barriers were an American innovation and were essential to allow deck parking of aircraft during landing operations. The RN had made little use of the deck parking concept until later in the war, preferring an entirely hangar parking concept which kept the aircraft protected from the elements of the North Atlantic.
The ship was fitted with two bow catapults, known then as accelerators, which could launch a 12,000lb aircraft at 56kts. However, the catapults were cumbersome and were only used to launch the first few aircraft of an air group assembled on deck, with later aircraft being able to take-off by themselves with the freed-up deck length.
Ark Royal just after launch in April 1937.
The Ark Royal had a short but very active career, being the fleet’s largest carrier. She was originally intended to serve in the Far East, but the developing political events in Europe and Africa in the late 1930’s meant that she was kept in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters when she entered service.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, she served in home waters on ASW hunter-killer operations and was almost lost within the first couple of weeks. On the 14th September, while on an ASW sweep, she was spotted by a U-boat and fired at by three torpedoes. Luckily for the Ark, all three torpedoes missed her and no damage was sustained; the U-boat was quickly dispatched by an escorting destroyer. (Three days later, in a similar operation, the carrier Courageous was sunk by U-boat torpedoes, prompting the Admiralty to change the use of carriers away from this role.)
Later in the same year, the Ark Royal was in another near miss during an air attack by German Heinkel He 111 bombers. During the attack, the ship maneuvered sharply to avoid the bombs. One of the Heinkels dropped a bomb which exploded less than 100ft of the ship, though no serious damage occurred. However, the closeness of the explosion, the heeling of the ship due to tight maneuvering, and that the fleet was spotted without the carrier the next day by a German aircraft led the Nazi propaganda machine to announce the news that the Ark Royal had been sunk. When the Nazi propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw taunted over the radio “Where is the Ark Royal?”, the crew of the carrier, listening on the wireless, shouted “Here!” in reply.
German newspaper claiming the "sinking" of Ark Royal.
Towards the end of the year, the Ark Royal was sent to the South Atlantic in support of the search for the German surface raider the Graf Spee. Although not involved in the Battle of the River Plate when Graff Spee was damaged and sought refuge in Montevedeo, the Ark did indirectly play a role in the Graf Spee’s ultimate demise when the ship’s commander, Capitain Langsdorff, became convinced by press leaks that a large force led by Ark Royal was waiting for her just over the horizon; Langsdorff decided to scuttle the ship. (In reality, Ark Royal was still 36 hours away.)
In the spring of 1941, the Ark Royal was back in the North Sea during the Norwegian campaign. In a first for the Royal Navy and what would later become a fundamental carrier task, the Ark’s fighters were used to provide primary air cover for other Allied ships, as well as conduction naval and ground attack missions. However, with the fall of France in June 1940, and the French Mediterranean fleet under Vichy control, the Ark Royal was sent to Gibraltar to join the newly formed Force H to cover the Western Mediterranean.
As part of Force H, the Ark Royal took part in some of her most dramatic, dangerous and in some cases controversial operations (most notably, the sinking of the Vichy French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir). In her time in the Mediterranean, the Ark Royal provided air cover for several convoys travelling to Malta or Egypt, and she mounted attacks on the Italian air base at Cagliari and the ports of Genoa and La Spezia. Life in the Mediterranean was dangerous for Ark Royal, and she had a number of close calls with Italian bombers and further Axis claims of her sinking, leading Flight magazine in July 1940 to state “Poor Ark Royal! She is always being sunk by air bombs.”
Ark Royal under attack from Italian bombers.
Probably the most famous action of the Ark Royal was her attack on the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. The carrier had been dispatched from Gibraltar to join the hunt for the Bismarck after it had sunk the British battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Straights. With the Bismarck only a day’s sail away from German air cover in occupied France, the Ark Royal’s Swordfish aircraft were sent out to attack the ship with torpedoes in order to slow her down and prevent her from reaching safety before the British Home Fleet could catch her. The Swordfish were successful with three hits on the Bismarck, one critically disabling her rudder and causing an uncontrollable course change in the ship towards the oncoming Home Fleet which would sink her.
In many ways, the operation to find and sink the Bismarck was a classic example of how carriers were expected to be utilized as part of a fleet action. The carriers would accompany the battleship fleet, using their aircraft to harass and damage elements of an enemy fleet, slowing them down sufficiently to allow the pursuers to bring about a general surface action. Before the Pacific War, in particular the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, aircraft carriers were not really expected to provide decisive victories on their own in battle on the open sea. The battleship was still regarded as the most decisive weapon of the fleet.
The Ark Royal returned to the Mediterranean for another round of convoy cover to Malta. It was on return from Malta in Novemeber 1941 that the ship which had evaded so many bombs and torpedoes was finally struck by a U-boat torpedo off the Spanish coast. Flooding quickly spread through the ship and she listed heavily. Despite efforts to tow the carrier into port, she eventually capsized and sank some 30 miles from Gibraltar.
Ark Royal sinking after being struck by a torpedo.
The investigations that followed, though originally critical of the ship's commander for failing to undertake sufficient damage control, finally placed most of the blame on the design of the ship itself. The layout of the ships machinery spaces and bulkheads meant that the flooding was able to spread quickly through the ship, and there was a general lack of redundancy in the electrical system which hampered efforts to save the ship. Many of the design recommendations resulting from the loss of the Ark Royal were implemented onto new carriers being built, including the upcoming enlarged Audacious-class, of which one of the ships would be renamed to carry on the legacy of the Ark Royal.
Mike Rossiter’s “Ark Royal”; D K Brown's "Nelson to Vangaurd"; Conway's History of the Ship: "Eclipse of the Big Gun"; Bernard Ireland's "Aircraft Carriers"; and of course Flight’s archives.
As ever, I would gladly accept corrections for any errors or glaring omissions. Expect the third and fourth installments of the Ark Royals in the new year. Happy holidays everyone.
The name Ark Royal has become almost synonymous with British naval aviation – there has existed a British aircraft carrier of that name for almost every year of the last century. Altogether, four aircraft carriers have carried the name Ark Royal, named for the original Elizabethan flagship, spanning from 1914 to the present. With the current HMS Ark Royal passing into retirement, marking the start of a 10-year hiatus to British carrier operations, it gives a chance to look back at the long and illustrious (not THAT Illustrious!) history of the Ark Royal carriers (in a four-part series, of course).
Part 1 - The Seaplane Carrier Ark Royal (1914)
The first modern Ark Royal was a dedicated seaplane ship, commissioned 96 years ago in December 1914 during the early months of the First World War. Built at the Blyth shipyard in Northumberland, she was originally laid down as a merchant ship, but in May 1914 the Admiralty bough the partially built hull early during the construction and had her completed as a dedicated aviation ship.
Ark Royal would represent the first ship that was built as an aircraft carrier. In 1915, Flight magazine’s editor stated confidently that the ship was "[the] first of what will certainly be a new class of naval vessel, which will no doubt form a by no means unimportant unit in all future naval squadrons.”
The fact that such a historic and prestigious name should be bestowed onto an essentially experimental and modest ship was a little strange to say the least; the name was likely chosen by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. (Flight magazine offered up a theory on the name, as written by Mr. Archibald Hurd in the Daily Telegraph. It would appear that Mr. Hurd was something of an authority on the matter of air-sea power at the time.)
The ship design was adapted considerably to her new task during construction. The ship’s engines and superstructure were located well to the aft of the ship, leaving a large clear hold. This gave the ship space for ten aircraft below deck, as well as workshops, stores and aviation fuel storage (with fire protection). The aircraft could be hoisted onto the top deck and into the water by two large cranes. Uniquely, she could be fitted with a sail on her mizzen mast to help keep her pointed into the wind.
The entire forward-third of the deck was cleared to allow wheeled aircraft (and seaplanes on trolleys) to take-off directly from the ship, though wheeled aircraft could not be recovered and had to return to shore for landing. However, her low speed of only 11kts meant that launching wheeled aircraft was operationally impossible as it was difficult to get enough wind over the deck to allow the aircraft to take-off in such a short distance. As a result, she operated with only seaplanes which could take-off from the water.
Soon after commissioning, Ark Royal was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean with six seaplanes to take part in the Dardanelles campaign. Her aircraft were available from the outset of the campaign, providing reconnaissance for the fleet, and helping to relay the fall of shots from the battleships as they fired on the Turkish coastal forts.
Ultimately however, the still-infant technology of naval aviation meant that the Ark Royal and her seaplanes could provide only limited (though none the less pioneering) operational value for the fleet at the Dardanelles. With the eventual arrival of German U-boats to the area, the ship’s slow speed made her too vulnerable and she was withdrawn back to the comparative safety of Salonika, where she operated for the remainder of the war.
Ark Royal continued in service after the war, providing British assistance to the White Russians during the Russian Civil War, supporting aircraft in Somalia, and serving as a seaplane depot ship. Ark Royal was later used as an experimental platform for new naval aviation concepts, notably being fitted with a catapult on her forward deck for trials in the 1930’s. In 1935 she was renamed Pegasus to free up the name Ark Royal for the new large fleet carrier then under construction. In the Second World War, Pegasus was mainly used to transport aircraft, but did briefly serve as a fighter catapult ship on Atlantic convoys, being one of the few aircraft carriers to serve during both world wars. She was eventually paid-off in 1946, and scrapped in 1950 after her long naval career.
Some additional photos of the 1914 Ark Royal can be found here. Stay tuned for part 2 for the second carrier Ark Royal which gained fame during the Second World War.