Ark Royal

Later in the month she was sent together with the carrier Glorious to cover the evacuation of troops from Narvik. She carried out air patrols and bombing raids until early June when Glorious, escorted by the destroyers Acasta and Ardent, were detached to return to Britain. The three ships were found and attacked by the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneinenau and sunk. The carrier sent out air patrols to locate the German ships, but they escaped back to the safety of Trondheim. On the 19th June, she launched an attack on Scharnhorst with fifteen Skuas, but the event became a disaster when her two escorting destroyers collided in heavy fog and eight of the Skuas were shot down in the attack. Scharnhorst was undamaged.

In June 1940, Ark Royal with the battle cruiser Hood, plus three destroyers, set sail for Gibraltar to join Admiral Sir John Summerville’s Force H. The recent capitulation of France raised concerns that the French fleet based at Mers-el-Kebir might fall under Axis control and Cedric Holland, the captain of Ark Royal, a former naval attaché to Paris, was sent to negotiate the surrender or scuttling of the fleet while the British force patrolled outside the harbour. The French admirals refused either option and Force H opened fire on the anchored fleet. During the bombardment, the carrier’s aircraft acted as spotters for the British gunners. The French battleship Strasbourg managed to escape despite attacks from Ark Royal’s bombers.

In July, Force H was deployed to deliver vital supplies and aircraft to the beleaguered island of Malta which was suffering badly from Italian air raids. The carrier Argus carried Hawker Hurricane fighters to assist the island’s air defence, while Ark Royal provided air cover for the force.

Following a refit in Liverpool the carrier returned to the Mediterranean for the rest of 1940, escorting Malta convoys. In November 1940, the hitherto inactive Italian fleet, led by the battleships Giulio Cesare and  Vittorio Veneto, was sent to intercept the convoy and was spotted by Ark Royal’s aircraft. Torpedo bombers were despatched and the Italian destroyer Lanciere was damaged. The Italians retaliated with air raids on Ark Royal, but caused no damage and the convoy reached Malta safely. She also took part in the attacks on Genoa and the oil refineries at La Spezia.

In 1941, the carrier was back in the Atlantic searching for the German battleships Scharnhorst  and Gneisenau, sent out to raid allied shipping, but was recalled to the Mediterranean when Rommel’s Afrika Korps began driving British forces back towards the Suez Canal. British forces were in urgent need of supplies and a convoy consisting of five large transport ships, escorted by Ark Royal, together with the battleship Queen Elizabeth, the battlecruiser Renown, the cruisers Sheffield, Naiad, Fiji and Gloucester and screened by destroyers, headed for Alexandria.

On the 8th of May, the convoy came under attack by Italian and German aircraft. The carrier’s twelve Fairey Fulmars fought heroically, eventually driving off the attackers, but costing them five of their machines. Attacks continued the next day and the remaining Fulmars bravely defended the merchantmen and the convoy eventually reached Alexandria. The only casualties being Empire Song, sunk when she struck a mine and New Zealand Star, damaged but still able to reach port.

Later in the month, the carrier was ordered to join the Home Fleet in the Atlantic to search for the German battleship Bismarck and on the 26th of May, one of Ark Royal’s Swordfish located the enemy and alerted the British fleet. The German ship was 150 miles from the Home Fleet and it was feared that she would escape to the safety of St Naziare before the British could catch her. Ark Royal launched a number of sorties and on her second raid, hit Bismarck with three torpedoes, two striking the hull while a third struck the port steering room and jammed her rudder. The stricken ship was forced to sail in circles until she was caught by the British fleet and destroyed.
Meanwhile, British naval strength in the Mediterranean was starving the Afrika Korps of vital supplies and Hitler ordered U Boats into the area to sink allied shipping. On the 10th of November, Force H and the carrier were returning to Gibraltar after ferrying more Hurricanes to Malta. Also at sea was the U Boat U 81 which had received reports of the enemy’s position. At 15.40 on the 13th of November, the U Boat launched a torpedo which struck Ark Royal amidships between the bomb store and fuel bunkers, causing a huge explosion and killing Able Seaman Edward Mitchell, the only casualty. The ship took on a severe list and the captain gave the order to abandon ship and Legion came alongside to take off her crew. The speed of her sinking prompted an investigation by a naval Board of Enquiry and a Court Martial for her captain. The captain was cleared, but faults in the ship’s design and construction were identified, particularly weaknesses in the boiler intakes and bulwarks. Two carriers currently under construction, Illustrious and Implacable, were modified to include the Board’s suggestions.

The next ship to carry the name was commissioned in February 1955 and was the first British carrier to be constructed with both an angled flight deck and steam catapults. Throughout her service she was constantly undergoing refitting and modification. One year from her commission she had her forward 4.5 inch guns removed to improve flight deck layout and four years later her starboard guns were also removed. Her remaining guns were removed in a 1964 refit and Sea Cat launchers were installed, but without missiles, leaving her without defensive armament. She carried twelve Buccaneer strike aircraft and fourteen Phantoms for air defence.

In 1965, she was part of the Beira Patrol enforcing the naval blockade of Rhodesia and later carried out trials for a new type of Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (Vistol) aircraft which later developed into the Harrier.

In 1972, her Buccaneers took part in a long range strike operation over British Honduras shortly before its independence to deter a possible Guatemalan invasion.
The ship also received much attention from the media including an episode of the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s show, “Not only, but also”, when a piano was fired into the sea from the ship’s catapult.
She was also the subject of the BBC documentary “Sailor”, showing life on board ship.

She was decommissioned in February 1979, leaving the navy with no fixed wing aircraft at sea. In September 1980 she was towed to Stranraer to be broken up.

The last of her name was launched on the 2nd of June 1981 at the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne, She was originally to be called Indomitable, but following public resentment at the loss of the Ark Royal, scrapped in 1980, her name was changed. Even before her completion, the armchair generals at the MOD were offering her for sale to the Australian navy, but in the face of a public outcry, the offer was withdrawn.

She followed her sister ships Invincible and Illustrious into service in 1985 and was affectionately known as “The Mighty Ark”.

She served in the Adriatic during the Bosnian War and also in the Persian Gulf during the allied invasion of Iraq. She later assisted in trial landings of army WAH 64 Apache helicopters, the success of which greatly increased her attack capability.

During the Icelandic volcano eruptions in 2010 and the disruption in air travel, she was used to ferry stranded British tourists across the Channel from Europe and in June of that year she sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take part in the Royal Canadian Navy Centennial Celebrations. In October 2010, it was announced that, as part of the never ending defence cuts, she would be decommissioned early, to be replaced in the long term by the proposed new carrier, Prince of Wales and a campaign was begun to have one of the new carriers named Ark Royal, but in December 2010, it was announced that the amphibious warfare ship HMS Albion was to take the place of the carrier as the Royal Navy’s flagship.

She sailed to Loch Long to have her munitions removed and then began her last trip, visiting North Shields and then on to Hamburg. She launched her remaining Harrier GR9s for the last time on the 24th of November. A farewell parade by her captain and crew was held in Guildhall Square in Portsmouth in January 2011 and another in Leeds, the latter being a Freedom of the City parade. She was docked at Portsmouth in March with the last of her crew leaving in May.

The government had typically failed to make any proper plan for her disposal and various ideas were put forward, including turning her into a museum, a hotel, a casino and even a hospital ship. One suggestion was to sink her off the Devonshire coast as an artificial reef!

In March 2011, the MOD announced that it would be sold by auction and a year later it was confirmed that it had been bought by Leyal Ship Recycling of Turkey and, on the 20th May 2013, sailed to her final destruction.

In today’s once mighty Royal Navy, there are just 78 ships, of which just 18 are major surface combatants (five guided missile destroyers and eleven frigates) and eleven are nuclear powered submarines. It also has one aircraft carrier, the helicopter assault ship HMS Illustrious, and two amphibious transport docks, the rest being patrol ships, mine hunters and  icebreakers. Compare this to the outbreak of the war in 1939, when the Royal Navy could muster fifteen battleships, seven aircraft carriers, sixty six cruisers, one hundred and eighty four destroyers and sixty submarines.

The improvements made in aircraft and missile technology of course dictates that we no longer need a huge fleet to protect our national interests, but common sense requires that we, as an island nation, still need the ability to defend ourselves against threats such as the Argentine invasion of the Falklands or the Icelandic “cod wars” of recent history.

Successive governments have nibbled away at our armed forces to a degree where morale is at rock bottom. God help us should we need to call on them to save us in the future as they have so often done in the past.

About The Author

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. Read more about Jim »