HMS Ark Royal and the Ascendancy of Aircraft in Naval Warfare

Tristan Hughes

3 mins

05 Nov 2018

On 13 November 1941, two U-boats attacked the British aircraft carriers Argus and Ark Royal. The carriers were en route to Gibraltar after delivering fighter aircraft to Malta when they were attacked.

The Ark Royal sets sail

The Ark Royal conducting flying operations in 1939.

The Ark Royal was launched on 13 April 1937 and commissioned on 16 November the next year. She was designed to carry a large number of aircraft and was also one of the first ships to embrace the use of extensive naval air power in operations.

During 1939 and the early stages of 1940, the Ark Royal served in a variety of theatres: the Atlantic, off the coasts of Sierra Leone, Buenos Aires and Norway, and in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Force H

In June 1940, the Ark Royal became part of a special newly-formed British naval formation called Force H. Force H was tasked with protecting British interests in the Mediterranean – especially Gibraltar and Malta.

Force H was formed in the aftermath of the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk, recently encapsulated in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The film’s historical adviser, Joshua Levine, discusses the real-life story behind the movie with Dan Snow on the History Hit podcast. Listen Now

During this period, Ark Royal came under frequent attack from the German and Italian air-forces, as its aircraft served a critical role defending convoys transporting men and supplies to the isolated island fortress of Malta.

At the beginning of July, 1941, the Ark Royal and the rest of Force H, took part in Operation Catapult, the deliberate British disabling of the French fleet off the coast of Algeria to ensure it did not fall into German hands. Following this, it spent most of its time patrolling the waters of the western Mediterranean, although it did on occasion venture out into the Atlantic on special missions.

It also indirectly contributed to Operation Judgement: the successful British attack against the Italian navy harboured at Taranto.

Sinking the Bismarck

HMS Ark Royal and its Swordfish biplanes.

The Ark Royal’s most famous mission came in May 1941, when it played a key role in an attack on the German super-battleship Bismarck. An assault by Swordfish biplanes launched from Ark Royal disabled the Bismarck’s steering, allowing her to be encircled by other vessels, including the battleships Rodney and King George V, whose attacks silenced all four turrets of the Bismarck and shattered her hull. She capsized at 10.35am with the loss of most of her crew.

The sinking of the Bismarck and the success of Operation Judgement augured the rise of the use of aircraft in naval warfare.

With the sinking of the Bismarck, the Ark Royal gained legendary status. Yet on 13 November 1941, the story of this formidable aircraft carrier came to an abrupt end.

The sinking of the Ark Royal

The sinking of HMS Ark Royal.

At 3.45pm, off the coast of Gibraltar, the German submarine U-81, launched four torpedoes at Ark Royal. Only one of these four actually hit the aircraft carrier, but it proved a fatal strike.

The torpedo ripped a large hole in her hull. The explosion knocked out the main switchboard, severing communications throughout the ship, and she began taking on water on the starboard side. Within 20 minutes she was listing to starboard at an angle of 18°.

Admiral James Somerville was desperate to save the ship, ordering salvage teams and a tug from Gibraltar. But with the flooding out of control and the ship’s list increasing at a rapid rate, Somerville was forced to abandon ship. Only one crewman was killed during the attack: Able Seaman Edward Mitchell, who died in the explosion caused by the torpedo strike.

Early in the morning of 14 November, Ark Royal capsized and broke into two before sinking.

Tags: