A Proud Name: The Ark Royal Carriers - Part 1
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.