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HMS Ark Royal: Pride of Force H

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HMS Ark Royal: Pride of Force H

HMS Ark Royal with Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, 1939.

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Overview:

Construction

  • Type: Aircraft Carrier
  • Nation: Great Britain
  • Laid Down: September 16, 1935
  • Launched: April 13, 1937
  • Commissioned: December 13, 1938

Specifications

  • Displacement: 22,000 tons
  • Length: 800 feet
  • Beam: 94.8 feet
  • Draft: 28 feet
  • Speed: 31 knots
  • Range: 7,600 miles
  • Propulsion: 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 3 Parsons geared turbines
  • Complement: 1,600 officers and men

Armament

  • 60-72 aircraft
  • 16 x 4.5" (8 × 2) guns
  • 48 x 1.5" Pom-poms (6 × 8) guns
  • 32 x .50 calibre machine guns (8 × 4)

Construction:

Designed in 1934, under the limitations imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty, HMS Ark Royal was the second purpose-built aircraft carrier constructed for the Royal Navy. Laid down in September 1935, the ship was built along the banks of the Mersey by Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd. of Birkenhead. The only ship of its class, Ark Royal possessed two levels of hangar decks and was the third ship of the Royal Navy to carry the name. Its predecessors included Lord Howard's flagship during the battles with the Spanish Armada (1588) and a seaplane tender during World War I.

World War II Service:

With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Ark Royal put to sea to commence operations against Nazi Germany. On the 25th of that month, it aided in the rescue of the submarine HMS Spearfish and the next day one of its aircraft downed a German flying boat for the air group's first kill of the war. In December, the carrier was dispatched to the South Atlantic to aid in dealing with the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, however it arrived after the German ship had been scuttled by its crew at Montevideo.

The following spring, Ark Royal participated in the Norway Campaign and provided air support as the British attempted to defend the country from German invasion. On June 13, 1940, the carrier executed an air strike on the port of Trondheim. While turning into the wind to launch its aircraft in foggy conditions, two of the carrier's escorts, the destroyers HMS Antelope and Electra collided and were forced to withdraw for emergency repairs. With the fall of France in June 1940, Ark Royal was assigned to Admiral Sir James Somerville's Force H which was based at Gibraltar.

Intended to replace French naval presence in the western Mediterranean, Somerville's force was first given the unenviable job of neutralizing French naval units operating under Vichy French control. The largest concentration of these was at Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria. Arriving on July 3, Somerville requested that the French join with the Allies or surrender their ships to the British. After this ultimatum was refused, Force H attacked sinking one battleship and badly damaging two more. In the fighting, the battleship Strasbourg was able to escape to sea where it was ineffectively attacked by aircraft from Ark Royal.

Through the remainder of 1940, Force H was largely engaged in escorting convoys to British-held Malta. On July 9, Ark Royal was attacked by Italian aircraft and on August 1 launched a raid of its own on Cagliari. In November, Ark Royal participated in the Battle of Cape Spartivento. Begun when an Italian surface force attempted to intercept a Malta convoy, the battle was largely inconclusive. During the fighting, Ark Royal prepared to launch its Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, but the fighting ended before the aircraft could depart.

After attacking Genoa in early February 1941, Ark Royal was called into the Atlantic to aid in the unsuccessful search for the Germans cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The carrier again returned to the Atlantic in May, with other units of Force H, to help hunt the German battleship Bismarck. On May 26, Ark Royal's scout planes located Bismarck and the carrier launched its Swordfish. The first flight of aircraft accidentally attacked the cruiser HMS Sheffield which was shadowing the German battleship. The cruiser was able to evade the planes' torpedoes and a second attack was launched near sunset.

This attack accurately identified Bismarck and succeeded in scoring a critical hit which jammed the battleship's rudder and steering gear. Unable to maneuver, Bismarck was finished off by British battleships and cruisers the next day. Returning to convoy protection in the Mediterranean, Ark Royal aided in ferrying planes to the increasingly beleaguered island of Malta. While returning from one of these missions, the carrier was struck by a single torpedo fired by U-81 on November 13, 1941. Opening a hole 130 feet long, the explosion caused progressive flooding which choked the ship's boiler intakes.

As Ark Royal had no diesel generators, all power was lost which shut down the ship's pumps. While damage control parties attempted to control the flooding, the crew was removed and the carrier taken under tow for Gibraltar. Fourteen hours after the torpedo hit, Ark Royal capsized and sank approximately 30 miles from its destination. Postwar studies have found that the sinking was largely the result of critical flaws in the ship's design as well as a lack of expertise and experience in the damage control parties.

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