Ark Royal

HMS Ark Royal participating in an Amphibious Exercise off the Eastern coast of the United States in 2008. Photo: POA(Phot) Jonathan Hamlet/MOD

On the 20th of May 2013, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal began her final journey from her Portsmouth base to Turkey where she will be broken up for scrap.

This mighty ship, pride of the Royal Navy was decommissioned as part of the government’s defence review, leaving Britain without a single fleet carrier able to project airpower overseas in the event of future threats to our interests and dependences.

She was the fifth British warship to carry the name, the first being launched in 1587 at Deptford for Sir Walter Raleigh and was originally to be called Ark Raleigh in the convention of the time where ships were given the owner’s name. The ship was then bought by the Crown for the sum of £5,000 and renamed Ark Royal. She had two gun decks, a double forecastle, a quarter deck and poop deck.

She first saw action during the attack of the Spanish Armada where she was flagship of the Lord High Admiral Howard and led the chase of the Spanish ships into the North Sea. She was again Howard’s flagship during the 1596 raid on Cadiz which resulted in the destruction of much of the Spanish fleet and during 1599 when another Spanish invasion was threatened.

When James VI ascended the throne she was renamed Anne Royal in honour of James’ wife, Anne of Denmark. She underwent major refitting in 1608 as a 42 gun royal ship and remained in service until 1636, when she was moved to the River Medway to serve as flagship to Sir John Pennington. Nearing her new station, she struck her own anchor, piercing her hull and sinking in the river. She was raised at great cost, but was found to be damaged beyond repair and finally broken up in 1638.

The second ship to carry the name was launched in September 1914 and was the first ship in history to be designed specifically as a seaplane carrier. This revolutionary design enabled the Royal Navy to project air support to British forces around the world and was quickly taken up by other nations. During the First World War she was involved in the Gallipoli campaign where her planes conducted reconnaissance and observation missions and later supported British troops on the Macedonian Front. In 1916, she returned to the Dardanelles to serve as a depot ship for all the seaplanes operating in the area. In January 1918, her planes launched attacks on the German battlecruiser SMS Goebden when it sortied from the Dardanelles to attack allied ships. She spent the remainder of the war in the Aegean Sea conducting anti submarine patrols.

After the war she served as an aircraft transport and depot ship for the seaplanes in support of White Russians and British forces in operations against the Bolsheviks in the Caspian and Black Seas and later supported RAF aircraft in British Somaliland in the campaign against the Mad Mullah. In 1920, she was placed in reserve.

In 1930, she was recommissioned as a training ship for seaplane pilots and to test aircraft catapult techniques. The old warhorse was renamed HMS Pegasus in 1934 and continued to serve as a training ship until the beginning of World War II, when she was modified to serve as a prototype fighter catapult ship, defending convoys from attacks by German long range Maritime Patrol bombers. She carried out these duties until 1941 and then reverted to her role as a training ship and later a barracks ship.

She was sold off in 1946 to be converted to a merchant ship, but the new owners ran out of money and she was sold for scrap.

The third ship to carry the name was launched in December 1938 at the Cammell Laird ship works in Birkenhead. Her design differed from previous carriers in that she was the first to have hangars and flight decks built as an integral part of the hull instead of being built as add-ons to the superstructure. She came into service at a time that saw the extensive growth of naval airpower and pioneered a number of carrier tactics that were developed and refined in the early days of the Second World War.

Her armaments were designed with anti aircraft warfare in mind, as aircraft were expected to be the main threat; ships and submarines could be outrun or left to her escorts to deal with. She carried sixteen quick firing 4.5 inch guns in eight double turrets, four on each side of the hull, plus six 8 barrelled “pom poms” located on the flight deck in front of and behind the superstructure island, while eight 4 barrelled .52 inch machine guns were installed on projecting platforms at the front and rear of the flight deck. She was powered by three Parsons Turbines that gave her a maximum speed of 30 knots.

She carried five squadrons of aircraft at any one time, ranging from fighter and dive bombing Blackburn Skuas, Fairey Swordfish for reconnaissance and torpedo attacks, Blackburn Roc fighter bombers and Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers.

War was declared between Britain and Germany on September 1939, but Germany had already deployed U Boats to take up position off the British coast in readiness to attack British shipping and within hours of war being declared, the passenger ship SS Athena was torpedoed and sunk by U 30, the first of over 66,000 tons of merchant shipping sunk in the first week of the war.

Ark Royal and her sister carriers Courageous and Hermes were deployed as part of  “hunter killer” groups consisting of a flotilla of destroyers and other anti submarine vessels grouped around a carrier who could increase the area for U Boat searches with her planes but did make them tempting targets to the Germans.

On the 14th September, Ark Royal received a distress signal from SS Fannard Head who was some 200 miles away and being pursued by the surfaced German submarine U 30. Ark Royal launched aircraft to aid the merchant ship, but was then herself attacked by U 39 who launched two torpedoes. The carrier turned towards the attack to reduce her profile and the torpedoes missed. Three of the escorting destroyers dropped depth charges on the submarine, forcing her to surface with the crew just managing to abandon ship before she sank.

U 39 was the first U Boat to be sunk in the war.

The flight of Skuas sent to aid the merchantman which had been boarded by the raider and launched an unsuccessful attack on the U 30, but two of them crashed when caught by the blast from their own bombs. The U Boat quickly recovered the boarding crew, plus the pilots of the two Skuas and escaped.

On the 17th September, the carrier HMS Courageous was patrolling of the west coast of Ireland when it was spotted by U 29. Two of the carrier’s destroyers had been despatched to aid a merchant ship that was under attack, leaving only two to protect Courageous. Captain Schuhart of U 29 launched three torpedoes, two of which struck the carrier on her port side, knocking out all electrical power. She capsized and sank within 20 minutes with the loss of 519 crewmen including her captain.

This sinking, plus an earlier unsuccessful attack on Ark Royal, caused the Admiralty to rethink their strategy and carriers were withdrawn from anti submarine patrols.

On the 25th September, Ark Royal came to the rescue of the British submarine HMS Spearfish which had been damaged in a fight with German warships in the Kattegat. She was returning to England with the submarine, plus the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney when they were spotted by three German Dornier 18 seaplanes. Ark Royal launched three Skuas who shot down one Dornier and chased the others off. The Dornier was the first British aerial kill of the war.

Ark Royal was aware that the surviving Dorniers would report her location and ordered the anti aircraft gunners to action stations just in time as four Junkers 88 bombers from the Luftwaffe Kampfgruppe 30 appeared overhead. Three were driven off by the gunners, but the fourth launched a 1,000 kg bomb at the carrier. The ship turned hard to starboard, heeling over and avoided the bomb which landed in the water some 30 yards off her starboard bow and sent a huge column into the air. The German pilot was convinced he had hit the carrier and when a later reconnaissance flight found only the two battleships, the German propaganda machine crowed that Ark Royal had been sunk. Britain was concerned that such news could have a negative effect on her allies and Churchill immediately assured Roosevelt that Ark Royal was intact and undamaged and invited the US naval attaché to visit Ark Royal in dock.
The Germans were to claim on a number of occasions that they had sunk Ark Royal and claimed that the British would not confirm her loss. Lord Haw Haw would often ask in his propaganda broadcasts, “Where is the Ark Royal? .These broadcasts were relayed over the ship’s tannoy and the sailors on board would gleefully reply “We’re here!, we’re here!”.

In October 1939, the carrier was deployed to Freetown on the African coast to hunt for the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee. The raider was eventually found and badly damaged in the Battle of the River Plate and had put into Montevideo for repairs. Two British cruisers followed her and patrolled outside the harbour and radioed her position to the fleet. Ark Royal and HMS Renown were sent to join the ships outside the harbour, but were 36 hours away. The British naval attaché in Montevideo came up with a plan to make the Germans believe that the two ships had already arrived.

An order for fuel for Ark Royal was placed in Buenos Aires and this information leaked to the press and picked up by the German embassy. Graf Spee’s commander, Captain Langsdorf, believing that a large British force awaited him outside the harbour, scuttled his ship.

Ark Royal saw further active service in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but on 16th April 1940, was recalled to give air support to British troops in Norway fighting to help the Norwegians following the German invasion of April 9th.  The Royal Navy, while trying to aid the defenders had come under fierce attack from German air and naval forces that had sunk the destroyer Ghurkha and badly damaged the cruiser Suffolk. The fighting was outside the range of land based aircraft and the carrier was sent to help, together with the cruisers Curlew and Berwick screened by the destroyers Hyperion, Hereward, Hasty, Fearless, Fury and Juno. She took position 120 miles off the Norwegian coast to reduce the chance of air attacks and provided fighter support for other ships in addition to carrying out strikes against shipping and shore targets. She returned to Scapa Flow to refuel and replace damaged aircraft, before returning to Norway with the battleship HMS Valliant. During her return she came under attack from JU 88s and Heinkel 111s, but escaped undamaged, adding to her reputation of being “a lucky ship”.

When it was decided to evacuate allied troops from southern Norway, Ark Royal was sent as part of the air cover for the move and on May 1st, came under intense air attack, and despite a number of near misses, came through unscathed.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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