The following is the third installment of my look back at the four British aircraft carriers which have carried the name Ark Royal. Although conceived during World War II, the carrier was completed and served out her 24-year career during the decline of the British Empire and the rise of the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. When first commissioned, she was one of several British aircraft carriers serving throughout the world; when she was finally paid-off, the Ark Royal was the last remaining fleet carrier of the Royal Navy.
I’m conscious of the fact that this Ark Royal is much closer to living memory of most people than the previous ships. This had made some information easier to come by, but will no doubt make any mistakes all the more obvious to more readers, so as before, any corrections or additions are much appreciated.
Part 3 – The Audacious-class Fleet Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal (Pennant Number R09)
Less than a year after Ark Royal (91) was sunk in the Mediterranean in November 1941, a new aircraft carrier that was to become the third HMS Ark Royal of the modern era was ordered. This ship, originally to be named Irresistible, was authorized back in 1940 and initially planned as an improved Implacable-class. Wartime experience however was pointing towards the need for a much larger carrier than the Implacables, and the decision to design an entirely new class of ship was taken as a result of the 1942 authorization for three additional ships for what would be known as the Audacious-class fleet carriers: HMS Audacious, Ark Royal, Eagle and Africa.
With increased usage of American-built carrier planes, the adoption of the US standard 17.5 ft high hangar was essential; the Audacious-class ships would have two parking hangar levels (similar to the preceding Implacables), with a dedicated workshop area on the same level as the upper hangar. The original design estimates indicated that the ships would have a standard displacement of 31,600 tons – the largest carriers Britain had ever built. The new ships would have larger aircraft and bomb elevators than previous British carriers, as well as greater aviation fuel capacity, to facilitate the operation of larger planes. The theoretical aircraft capacity of the ships, depending on type and parking configurations, changed over the course of the war, ranging anywhere from 114 or more for the most optimistic estimates, to as few as 85 or even less with restricted deck parking.
The ships were not able to be completed before the end of the war however. For the first two ships, Audacious and Ark Royal, construction was suspended in October 1945, while the second two, Africa and Eagle, we outright cancelled and broken up on the slipway (the name Eagle was subsequently transferred to the Audacious).
The immediate post-war period was a time of great change for naval aviation. The aircraft carrier had provided an overwhelming contribution to the Pacific war and was heralded as the preeminent capital ship. However, jet-powered fighters were beginning to enter service on both sides of the Atlantic; the weight, size, and high launching and landing speeds of these new aircraft made jet carrier operations very difficult if not impossible from almost all of the existing allied carriers at that time.
The Royal Navy set up a committee to determine how to integrate jet aircraft into naval aviation, and how to modify aircraft to safely accommodate and operate those aircraft. One prominent figure in those committee meetings was Capt. Dennis R. F. Campbell, who is credited for coming up with one of the key solutions to the problem – the angled flight deck. This concept allowed landing aircraft which missed catching an arrestor wire to perform a go-around (or “bolter”) rather than slam into a crash barrier at high speed. Two other concepts developed for the needs of jet-powered aircraft were high pressure steam catapults to accelerate the planes quickly enough to get up to flying speed, and a mirror landing system which gave pilots direct visual feedback on their glide scope position rather than depending on the traditional landing officer or “batman” who would have a more difficult job calling down faster aircraft. Ark Royal would be the first carrier in the world to implement all three concepts (admittedly, the angled flight deck had a relatively modest 5.5 degree offset angle).
Ark Royal during speed trials prior to entering service. Though her deck lines are not yet marked, the port-side outward buldge in her flight deck shape to accomodate the angled configuration is evident (Flight, 11 February 1955).
Drawings from Flight magazine showing the interim angled flight deck layout of Ark Royal when first commissioned (Flight, 1 April 1955).
Other notable features of the Ark Royal included a deck-edge elevator on the starboard side, something that was unique to British carriers (though common on US carriers); widely spaced and separated machinery spaces to improve damage control in the event of an attack (partly from lessons learned from the loss of the previous Ark Royal); and the ability to control the ship’s engines remotely from a hermetically sealed control room in the event of a nearby atomic attack, allowing the ship to steam away from the contaminated area and continue operations.
So dramatic were the alterations to the design of the Ark Royal to accommodate the flight deck improvements that the Ark and her sister ship Eagle (which was commissioned with a traditional straight flight deck) were often considered as two separate and unique ship classes of their own. Her standard displacement had grown from the original 31,600 tons estimate to 36,800 tons. The changes, coupled with the temporary halt in construction in 1945, meant that Ark Royal had a very long build and fitting out. Though laid down in 1943 at Cammell Laird shipyard (where the previous Ark Royal was also built), she was not launched until 1950 and not commissioned until 1955. When she was ready however, she was a pioneer in many carrier technologies; her first commander was the very same Capt. Campbell who devised her most distinguishing feature. She was the most advanced aircraft carrier serving anywhere in the world at the time, though the US supercarrier era was just around the corner - the USS Forrestal, similarly equipped and twice the size, would be commissioned 9 months later.
Photos of Ark Royal in Flight magazine on the occassion of her commissioning in 1955 (Flight, 4 March 1955).
Despite her modifications and updates during construction and a 1960 refit, much of her equipment and machinery still dated from the early 1940’s. Consequently the ship quickly began to show her age during service and she gained a reputation for poor equipment reliability. It was estimated that she would not serve past 1972, and the Admiralty decided against giving her a second costly refit to extend her life beyond that.
However, the cancellation of Ark Royal’s replacement, CVA-01, in the 1966 Defence White Paper changed the situation. In order to maintain NATO carrier commitments in the Atlantic (when additional US carriers were required in the Pacific for Vietnam War service), the Ark underwent a “special refit and modernization” starting in 1967 that would last nearly three years. (Eagle was to receive a similar refit following Ark Royal’s return to service, but this too was cancelled.) The refit gave the carrier new electronics, higher power catapults with jet blast deflectors and deck cooling plates, and an increased 9 degree angled flight deck; her standard displacement grew to 43,060 tons.
The updated Ark Royal returned to service in 1970 and was at the peak of her capability. Her air wing would consist of Spey-powered Phantoms for air defence, Buccaneers S2s for attack and to counter Soviet surface ships, venerable Gannets for AEW and COD, and Sea King and Wessex helicopters for anti-submarine and SAR duties.
Aerial view of Ark Royal as she looked following her 1967-70 refit.
A Phantom at full power about to take-off from the bow catapult of Ark Royal.
The modified Phantoms stemmed from the cancellation of the Hawker P.1154, a supersonic VTOL fighter. The switch to the more powerful Rolls-Royce Spey engines was deemed necessary to allow the aircraft to operate from the small deck of the Ark Royal and Eagle (it also ensured that British industry got a share of the money), but the inlet and airframe modifications to accept the larger engines meant that aircraft costs ballooned, and the higher drag they created caused high end performance to be somewhat hampered. Nonetheless, successful flight trials on Eagle allowed the Phantoms to enter service in time for Ark Royal’s return from refit.
Ark Royal would soldier on as Britain’s last strike carrier through the 1970’s, her air wing arguably manned by the most experienced and skilled aircrews that the Fleet Air Arm ever put to see during the Cold War (since with the run-down of fast-jet operations to only a few squadrons, the Navy retained the best and most experienced pilots). And they needed to be to make up for the small size of the Ark compared to the US supercarriers which served alongside in the North Atlantic.
Ark Royal alongside USS Nimitz, demonstrating the vast difference in the size of the ships.
US Navy A-7 Corsairs flying with Royal Navy Phantoms and Buccaneers from Ark Royal, 1976.
Ark Royal finally left service at the end of 1978, and was sold for scrap in 1980. Although she never saw direct combat, she maintained the long arm of the Royal Navy, being Britain’s largest and most advanced carrier for her entire career, and providing a valuable deterrent to would-be aggressors. Although her primary purpose in later life was to counter the threat of Soviet cruisers to ensure that the Atlantic was kept open in the event of hostilities, one of her more storied roles of late came in an altogether different situation. Rowland White's excellent book Phoenix Squadron brought to the public eye a successful operation carried out by Ark Royal’s Buccaneers over Belize in 1972. The operation was a great demonstration of the strong deterrent effects of having an aircraft carrier on hand – a deterrent which may well have prevented another conflict flaring up a decade later had the Ark Royal been replaced by a similarly capable ship.
As it was, with budget pressures being as they were and the re-focus of the Royal Navy as an anti-submarine force in NATO waters, Ark Royal was to be replaced by what was referred to at the time as three “through-deck cruisers” – essentially anti-submarine aircraft carriers – of the Invincible-class. Of course many of the capabilities of the Ark Royal would not be replaced at all, though in the end the three Invincibles would at least retain limited fixed-wing aviation in the form of the STOVL Sea Harrier. (The pre-Harrier prototype P.1127 Kestrel first conducted shipboard trials on the Ark Royal in 1963.) After a failed effort to preserve the carrier, and the public outcry over her scrapping, the Navy decided to adopt the name for the third Invincible-class ship, which is of course the Ark Royal we know today.
Post Script: in 1976, the Ark Royal was featured in a BBC television series entitled "Sailor". The episodes offer a wonderful insight into life onboard the carrier at that time. Several excerpts from the series are available on YouTube, including this great one of a Buccaneer "bolters" and landings. Apparently the series is now available on DVD, though I have yet to come across it.