HMS Ark Royal – The Life And Legacy Of A Naval Giant

HMS Ark Royal, commissioned in 1938, was one of the first purpose-built aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, known for its innovative design features such as an enclosed “hangar” deck and an “island” superstructure.

She played a significant role in several key operations of World War II, including the Battle of Taranto and the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck.

The HMS Ark Royal met a tragic end during World War II. On 13th November 1941, while returning from a mission delivering aircraft to Malta, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-81 near Gibraltar.


Design Of HMS Ark Royal

The conception of the HMS Ark Royal began with the 1934 design studies aiming to improve upon the limitations of existing carriers. These studies led to an innovative blueprint that incorporated an enclosed hangar on two deck levels, both of which were accessible by aircraft lifts.

The construction of the Ark Royal marked a significant shift from the earlier designs that simply converted existing ships into aircraft carriers.

The ship’s keel was laid on 16th September 1935 at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. She was the third ship to bear the name Ark Royal, a name steeped in English naval history dating back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Her design featured a length of 800 feet, a beam of 94.75 feet, and a full load displacement of approximately 22,000 tons, making her a large and imposing presence at sea.

HMS Ark Royal with two Fairey Swordfish, 1939.
HMS Ark Royal pictured here with two Fairey Swordfish aircraft, 1939.

One of the defining features of the Ark Royal was the “flush deck” design, meaning the flight deck covered the entire ship without any superstructure obstructing aircraft operations. This design increased the space available for the launch and recovery of aircraft, facilitating more efficient operations.

However, the most revolutionary feature was the inclusion of a hangar deck below the flight deck.

This hangar, which could house up to 72 aircraft, was serviced by three aircraft lifts or elevators, each capable of lifting two aircraft simultaneously. This made the Ark Royal the first British carrier capable of storing and rapidly deploying such a large number of aircraft.

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The ship was also equipped with an ‘island’ superstructure on the starboard side, housing the bridge and command centre. This design was a departure from previous carriers, where the bridge and command centre were integrated into the hull to maximize deck space.

The Ark Royal was also the first carrier to feature an armoured flight deck, offering increased protection against enemy fire. The deck was designed to withstand bombs of up to 500 pounds.

The construction of the Ark Royal was completed in 1938, after which she underwent sea trials.

These trials were successful, and the ship was formally commissioned on 16th November 1938.

Who Built HMS Ark Royal?

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal – the 5th ship with this name – was built by Swan Hunter in Wallsend. The Queen Mother launched the ship on 2nd June 1981, and it was formally commissioned into the Royal Navy on 1st November 1985.

Operational Service Of HMS Ark Royal

Following her commissioning in November 1938, HMS Ark Royal was assigned to the Home Fleet. She spent the initial months of her service in work-ups and training exercises, where the crew honed their skills in aircraft handling, launching and recovering, and coordinated combat operations.

With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, she was immediately thrust into active service. She was initially deployed in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, participating in the hunt for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.

Although Ark Royal’s aircraft did not locate Graf Spee, they assisted in the blockade and search operations, forcing the German ship to scuttle at the Battle of River Plate in December 1939.

In April 1940, Ark Royal was repositioned to support Allied operations during the German invasion of Norway.

This campaign marked the first operational use of her aircraft in combat.

The carrier’s Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers and Skua fighter-bombers provided invaluable air support, aiding the evacuation of British forces during Operation Dynamo.

Her aircraft also attacked German shipping and provided cover for Allied troops. Notably, Ark Royal’s Skuas achieved the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm’s first aerial victory of the war, sinking the German cruiser Königsberg on 10th April 1940.

Following the Norwegian Campaign, Ark Royal was redeployed to the Mediterranean in June 1940, where she became a cornerstone of British naval power in the region.

HMS Ark Royal pictured after its completion.
HMS Ark Royal pictured soon after its completion.

Over the next 18 months, she would play a significant role in the battles for Malta and the Mediterranean convoys. Her aircraft were instrumental in attacking Italian airfields, shipping, and ground forces in North Africa.

Furthermore, her Swordfish squadrons made significant contributions in the pivotal Battle of Taranto and the pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck.

Throughout her operational service, Ark Royal proved herself to be a potent and flexible weapon. Despite the limitations of her aircraft and the risks inherent in carrier operations, the ship and her crew consistently performed with resilience and skill.

Whether providing air cover, striking at enemy shipping, or supporting ground operations, Ark Royal demonstrated the critical importance of aircraft carriers in World War II, thereby justifying the innovations and design philosophies that had led to her creation.

Battle Of Taranto

The Battle of Taranto, fought on the night of 11-12 November 1940, represents one of the milestones in the operational service of the HMS Ark Royal.

This battle not only marked the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history but also dramatically shifted the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean during World War II.

Italy’s Regia Marina, based at Taranto, posed a significant threat to British naval operations in the Mediterranean.

The British Admiralty recognized the need to neutralize this threat, leading to the planning of Operation Judgment. This operation aimed to launch a night-time attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto using torpedo-armed Fairey Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle.

Due to damage, HMS Eagle was unable to participate, and HMS Ark Royal, although part of the force in the Mediterranean, was not directly involved in the strike. However, its contributions came in other forms.

The ship under attack from Italian aircraft.
HMS Ark Royal under attack from Italian aircraft during the Battle of Cape Spartivento.

The Swordfish aircraft that played a pivotal role in the attack were part of No. 810 and No. 818 Naval Air Squadrons that had been formed on Ark Royal. Their crews had trained on Ark Royal and honed the techniques of night flying and deck landing that were instrumental to the success of the Taranto raid.

Moreover, in the run-up to the battle, Ark Royal was instrumental in diverting Italian attention away from Taranto by launching air attacks on Italian airfields in Sardinia.

This diversion, combined with reconnaissance operations and supply convoy escorts, helped to maintain the element of surprise that was critical to the operations success.

On the night of the attack, 21 Swordfish from HMS Illustrious launched in two waves. They successfully penetrated the harbor defenses and launched their torpedoes, achieving surprising success.

The raid resulted in heavy damage to the Italian fleet, sinking one battleship and severely damaging two others, along with several cruisers and destroyers. The Battle of Taranto effectively halved the Italian battleship fleet’s operational capacity, providing a huge strategic advantage to the British.

Hunt For The Bismarck

The pursuit and eventual sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941 stands as one of the most notable episodes in the operational history of HMS Ark Royal.

The German battleship Bismarck, one of the largest warships of its time, posed a massive threat to British convoys in the North Atlantic. On her maiden voyage in May 1941, she sank the British battlecruiser HMS Hood, prompting a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy.

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On May 26, Ark Royal was part of Force H, a group of ships dispatched from Gibraltar to intercept the Bismarck.

At this point, the Bismarck was damaged but still capable of reaching the safety of occupied French ports. Ark Royal’s role was to launch air attacks to further damage the Bismarck and slow its progress.

Initially, the operation faced a disastrous setback when aircraft from Ark Royal mistakenly targeted the British ship HMS Sheffield.

HMS Ark Royal pictured with a flight of Fairey Swordfish in 1939.
HMS Ark Royal pictured with a flight of Fairey Swordfish in 1939.

Fortunately, the torpedoes were equipped with magnetic detonators that proved unreliable, and Sheffield escaped unscathed.

Learning from the mistake, a second wave of 15 Fairey Swordfish planes took off from Ark Royal later on the same day. This time the pilots were armed with more reliable contact-fused torpedoes and had orders to identify the target visually to prevent friendly fire.

Against all odds, the antiquated biplanes successfully penetrated the Bismarck’s formidable defences and scored at least two torpedo hits.

One hit caused minor damage, but the other struck a vital spot, jamming Bismarck’s rudder and steering gears. This critical blow left the Bismarck virtually unable to maneuver, forcing her to sail in a slow circle.

Unable to reach the safety of the French coast, the crippled Bismarck was besieged by British warships on the morning of May 27. After an intense bombardment, the Bismarck sank, marking a great victory for the Royal Navy.

Final Voyage And Sinking

HMS Ark Royal’s final voyage commenced after the sinking of the Bismarck when the carrier was tasked to ferry aircraft to Malta, a critical base for the Allies in the Mediterranean.

Codenamed Operation Perpetual, it involved the Ark Royal and HMS Argus delivering 37 Hurricane fighters to reinforce the island’s defences.

On 10th November 1941, Ark Royal successfully launched the Hurricanes before turning back for Gibraltar. The return voyage was fraught with danger as the Mediterranean was rife with German and Italian submarines seeking to disrupt British naval operations.

On 13th November, about 30 miles from Gibraltar, Ark Royal was struck by a single torpedo launched from the German submarine U-81.

The torpedo hit the carrier on the starboard side, near the stern, causing a 130-foot hole in the hull. This resulted in an immediate list, severe flooding, and the loss of power.

Despite the damage, the crew performed remarkably in the aftermath of the strike. Emergency response procedures were promptly initiated, and efforts to counteract the list by counter-flooding were undertaken.

The ship listing after the attack from German submarine U-81.
HMS Ark Royal listing after the attack from the German submarine U-81 as HMS Legion assists the survivors.

Moreover, due to efficient evacuation procedures, almost all of the 1,488 crew members were saved – Petty Officer Pilot S. D. B. Craig was the only fatality, claimed by the initial explosion.

Despite the crew’s valiant efforts, by the early morning of 14th November, it was clear that she was beyond saving.

The carrier was listing too heavily to the starboard side, and evacuation orders were given. Later that day, the once formidable HMS Ark Royal capsized and sank.

The loss of the Ark Royal was a major blow to the Royal Navy.

What Replaced HMS Ark Royal?

In 2011, the HMS Ark Royal was decommission. The tradition formed from the very first HMS Ark Royal was broken and HMS Albion took the place as the British Royal Navy flagship.

The change did not come as a surprise, however. The HMS Ark Royal was scheduled for decommission in 2016. It only happened early because the Strategic Defence and Security Review had triggered a restructuring,  one year prior.

The Lasting Impact Of HMS Ark Royal

The legacy of HMS Ark Royal extends far beyond her operational life, having influenced naval warfare’s evolution and direction during and after World War II. As one of the earliest purpose-built aircraft carriers, her design, operations, and tactics had significant implications for future aircraft carrier development.

The Ark Royal’s innovative design had a profound impact on the future of naval architecture. It presented a shift from the converted carriers of the past, incorporating features such as an armoured flight deck, a ‘hangar deck’ for aircraft storage, and the ‘island’ superstructure.

These elements are now standard in modern aircraft carrier design.

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The tactical use of Ark Royal during World War II demonstrated the decisive role of carriers in naval warfare.

From supporting ground operations to engaging in ship-to-ship combat, the Ark Royal’s versatility across various roles showcased the aircraft carrier as a force multiplier. Its role in battles like Taranto and the hunt for the Bismarck were notable examples of carrier-based airpower’s potential.

Furthermore, the Ark Royal and her aircraft squadrons’ performance under fire were instrumental in developing naval aviators’ tactics and strategies. The experience gained in night operations, precision strikes, and coordinated attacks proved invaluable and shaped future naval aviation doctrine.

The Ark Royal also left a cultural and symbolic legacy. As one of the Royal Navy’s most famous ships during World War II, she captured the public imagination and became a symbol of British naval power and resilience.

The ship’s name continues to be used in the Royal Navy, honoring its significance and the crew who served aboard her.

Lastly, the sinking of Ark Royal underscored the growing threats posed by submarines and the need for improved anti-submarine measures. This led to enhancements in ship design, damage control procedures, and convoy tactics.

While the HMS Ark Royal had a relatively short service life, her legacy has endured. The lessons learned from her design, operations, and ultimate fate have influenced naval warfare and the development of future aircraft carriers. Thus, the Ark Royal stands as a critical chapter in the history of the Royal Navy and naval aviation.