Tuesday, July 23, 2013

HMS Ark Royal

Figure 1:  HMS Ark Royal photographed circa 1939, with a Fairey "Swordfish" aircraft taking off as another approaches from astern. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2:  HMS Ark Royal photographed soon after completion, circa late 1938 or early 1939. Photograph from the collections of the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3:  HMS Ark Royal photographed in 1939, with a flight of No.820 Squadron Fairey "Swordfish I" aircraft passing overhead. The plane nearest to the camera, marked "650," is No. L9781. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1977. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4:  Bombs falling astern of HMS Ark Royal in an attack by Italian aircraft during the Battle of Cape Spartivento, 27 November 1940. The photograph was taken from the cruiser HMS Sheffield. This photograph is from the Imperial War Museum Collection, London, England. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Figure 5:  Watercolor of HMS Ark Royal by Edward Tufnell, Royal Navy (Retired), depicting the ship under attack by German bombers in 1941. Courtesy of the US Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. Donation of Melvin Conant, 1969. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Figure 6:  "Force 'H' off Gibraltar." Watercolor by Edward Tufnell, Royal Navy (Retired), depicting British battlecruiser Renown, battleship Malaya, and aircraft carrier Ark Royal operating together in 1941. “Force H” was a major British task force in the Mediterranean and Ark Royal was one of its principal assets. Courtesy of the US Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. Donation of Melvin Conant, 1969. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.   

Figure 7: German battleship Bismarck at sea enroute to Norway, circa 19-20 May 1941, prior to her Atlantic sortie. Photographed from the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Copied from the report of officers of Prinz Eugen, with identification by her Gunnery Officer, Paul S. Schmalenbach, 1970. On 26 May 1941, obsolete Fairey "Swordfish" aircraft from HMS Ark Royal crippled Bismarck, damaging her rudder and making her virtually unmaneuverable. British battleships and heavy cruisers intercepted the Bismarck on the morning of 27 May. After less than two hours of battle, shells and torpedoes had reduced Bismarck to a wreck. She capsized and sank, with the loss of all but 110 of her crew of some 2,300 men. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: A Fairey “Swordfish” torpedo bomber from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal returns at low level over the sea after making a torpedo attack on the German battleship Bismarck.  This photograph is from the Imperial War Museum Collection, London, England. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 9:  After being torpedoed on 13 November 1941 by the German submarine U-81, HMS Ark Royal rapidly developed a severe list. Note the Fairey “Swordfish” aircraft parked on the ship’s flight deck. This photograph is from the Imperial War Museum Collection, London, England. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 10:  The destroyer HMS Legion came alongside Ark Royal and took off almost 1,500 men, while a smaller group of sailors stayed on board and tried to prevent the carrier from sinking. This photograph is from the Imperial War Museum Collection, London, England. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 11:  View from the escorting destroyer HMS Hermione of HMS Legion moving alongside the damaged and listing Ark Royal in order to take off survivors. The aircraft carrier was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-81 off Gibraltar on 13 November 1941. HMS Ark Royal sank the following day. This photograph is from the Imperial War Museum Collection, London, England. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 12: HMS Legion coming alongside the sinking Ark Royal on 13 November 1941. This photograph is from the Imperial War Museum Collection, London, England. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Figure 13: The way she should be remembered. One of her faithful Fairey “Swordfish” torpedo bombers, affectionately known as the “Stringbag” in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, is seen flying over HMS Ark Royal in 1939. Ark Royal was the third ship in the British Royal Navy to bear this famous name. This was originally a black-and-white photograph showing a Fairey “Swordfish I” of 820 Squadron flying over HMS Ark Royal in1939. Copyright © Charles Brown Collection, Royal Air Force Museum. This photograph was digitally colorized by “umbry101” and can be found on this web page: https://www.flickr.com/groups/navyhistory/pool/36758831@N04/?view=lg
Click on photograph for larger image.

The 22,000-ton aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (91) was the third ship in the British Royal Navy to bear that famous name. The ship was built by Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd., at Birkenhead, England, and was commissioned on 16 December 1938. Ark Royal was approximately 800 feet long and 94 feet wide, had a top speed of 31 knots, and usually had a crew of around 1,580 officers and men, although this number varied during the war. The aircraft carrier was armed with 16 4.5-inch guns, 32 40-mm guns, and 32 12.7-mm anti-aircraft machine guns. Ark Royal could carry between 50 to 60 aircraft, depending on the type of planes.

The principal aircraft on board Ark Royal, though, was the famous Fairey “Swordfish” torpedo bomber. The Swordfish was unique in that it was a biplane and was considered to be obsolete at the start of World War II. Yet it became one of the most effective, durable, and reliable torpedo bombers of the war (even though its maximum speed was roughly 139 miles-per-hour, slow even for those days). The Swordfish remained in front-line service throughout the entire war in Europe. Fairey followed the Swordfish with two more torpedo bombers, the "Albacore" and the "Barracuda.”  Neither achieved the fame of the Swordfish, and in fact the Swordfish outlived the Albacore in service. The Swordfish also participated in some of the most famous battles of the war, such as the search for and the crippling of the German battleship Bismarck and the famous British attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto on the night of 11–12 November 1940.

Ark Royal completed her shakedown cruise only a few months prior to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Ark Royal then played a critical role in the Royal Navy during the first two years of the war. In December 1939, the carrier was sent to the south Atlantic to assist in the search for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. During the spring of 1940, she participated in the defense of Norway, which was being invaded by Germany.

Then a major blow occurred when France surrendered to Germany on 22 June 1940. The British Royal Navy, fearing that the substantial French Navy would fall into the hands of Germany, gave France an ultimatum. French warships in overseas ports controlled by France could either surrender to the Royal Navy and join the fight against Germany, or be destroyed. France, in an unbelievable act of arrogance and selfishness, refused to surrender its warships to the British. As a result of this decision, the Royal Navy was given the task of destroying the major components of the French fleet that were docked in some of France’s colonies. In July 1940, Ark Royal was one of the British warships that attacked the French Navy’s base at Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria. In September, Ark Royal also took part in a second assault on the French Navy, this time at Dakar, Senegal. In both instances, the Royal Navy decimated the French Navy, causing much death and destruction and sinking or severely damaging several valuable warships that could have been used in the Allied war effort. It was a tragic waste of men and ships.

In November 1940, Ark Royal escorted British convoys in the Mediterranean to the beleaguered island of Malta. Ark Royal participated in numerous convoys to Malta and, between 1940 and 1942, the Royal Navy sent roughly 35 convoys to Malta, bringing to that vital British outpost the food, fuel, and aircraft it needed to withstand the almost constant air and naval attacks being made by the Italians and Germans. During one of these convoys to Malta, planes from Ark Royal attacked Italian battleships that were sent to intercept the convoy. But the planes from the carrier did not score any hits. In return, Italian bombers attacked Ark Royal, but none of those planes succeeded in damaging the carrier. This confrontation on 27 November 1940 became known as the Battle of Cape Spartivento and, although no ships were sunk during this action, the British convoy made it through to Malta without sustaining any losses.

On 18 May 1941, the powerful German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen began “Operation Rheinübung.” These two major warships left Germany to go into the Atlantic to raid British shipping. After sinking the British battlecruiser Hood and damaging the battleship Prince of Wales on 24 May during the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the Royal Navy lost contact with Bismarck, which was steaming towards the French Atlantic coast. Ark Royal, along with several other powerful British warships, was sent from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic on 23 May to join in the hunt for Bismarck. On 26 May, after arriving in the area, a Fairey Swordfish from Ark Royal spotted Bismarck and began following her. Bismarck’s position was radioed to all of the British ships in the area and a large task force moved to intercept the German battleship.

When Bismarck was found, British ships were approximately 150 miles away and would arrive too late to prevent the German ship from reaching the protection of the French port of Saint Nazaire. Fifteen Swordfish torpedo bombers from Ark Royal were sent to attack Bismarck and stop it from reaching the French port. The slow and obsolete Swordfish aircraft located and attacked the heavily armed Bismarck just before sunset on 26 May. Three torpedoes from the attacking aircraft hit the battleship. Two of them hit just forward of the engine rooms while the third one damaged the port steering room and jammed Bismarck’s rudder. The battleship was forced to steam in circles, making it almost impossible to maneuver. The next day on 27 May, the pursuing heavy British surface warships arrived in the area and pounded Bismarck to death, sinking the German battleship with heavy loss of life. Had it not been for the Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal crippling Bismarck, the ship would have reached France and gotten away.

Ark Royal returned to the Mediterranean on 29 May 1941. She continued escorting convoys to Malta during June and July and assisted in transporting vital fighter aircraft to that island. Despite some terrible losses, these convoys succeeded in keeping Malta alive. The continued Allied occupation of Malta was a huge problem for the German Army fighting in North Africa, since roughly a third of the supplies being shipped to North Africa from Italy was sunk by British submarines and aircraft based at Malta.

On 10 November 1941, Ark Royal ferried more aircraft to Malta before returning to the British island of Gibraltar. By now German U-boats were prowling the Mediterranean to help their Italian allies in stopping the convoys to Malta. On the afternoon of 13 November, as Ark Royal was steaming back to Gibraltar, she was hit by a single torpedo from the German submarine U-81. Ark Royal was struck amidships by the torpedo, right between the fuel bunkers and directly below the bridge of the ship’s “island,” which was the superstructure towering over the flight deck. The explosion from the torpedo caused the ship to shake, hurled loaded torpedo bombers into the air, and killed one sailor. A 130-foot hole was torn on the starboard side of the ship and caused major flooding of the starboard boiler room, main switchboard, oil tanks, and more than 106 feet of the ship’s starboard bilge area. The starboard power train was knocked out, causing nearly half the ship to lose power, and communications were severed throughout the carrier.

Valiant efforts were made by the crew to save Ark Royal, but too much water was entering the ship. By 0230 hours on the morning of 14 November 1941, Ark Royal was suffering from a 20-degree list. When the list reached 27 degrees, the order to “abandon ship” was given. Ark Royal’s entire crew was transferred to the escorting destroyer HMS Legion by 0430 hours and, with the exception of that sailor killed in the initial explosion, not one other life was lost. The entire 1,487 officers and crewmen on board the carrier at that time were taken by Legion to Gibraltar. When the list reached 45 degrees, Ark Royal capsized at 0619 hours on 14 November. Witnesses on nearby ships stated that the carrier rolled over and remained afloat for roughly three more minutes before inverting. HMS Ark Royal then broke in two, the aft section sinking within a few minutes, followed by the bow.

The loss of Ark Royal caused much controversy within the Royal Navy. After all, how could a single torpedo sink such a large aircraft carrier? A committee was formed to look into the loss of the ship and a report was issued at the end of its investigation. The report stated that the lack of backup power sources was a major design failure which contributed to the loss of the ship. Ark Royal depended on electricity for much of her operation and once the boilers and steam dynamos were knocked out, the loss of power made damage control very difficult. The committee recommended that the design of the bulkheads and boiler intakes be improved to decrease the risk of widespread flooding in boiler rooms and machine spaces. These recommendations were incorporated into the designs of the new British aircraft carriers then under construction, dramatically increasing their ability to survive in combat.  In the end, the loss of Ark Royal taught Britain to build tougher and more durable aircraft carriers, a lesson that would serve the Royal Navy well in the years to come.