HMS Ark Royal (91)

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Career RN Ensign
Laid down: 16 September 1935
Launched: 13 April 1937
Commissioned: 16 December 1938
Fate: Sunk 14 November 1941
after being torpedoed by U-81 on 13 November 1941.
Pennant number: 91
General Characteristics
Displacement: 22,000 tons
Length: 800 ft (244 m) overall
721.5 ft (220 m) waterline
Beam: 94.8 ft (28.9 m)
Draught: 28 ft (8.5 m)
Machinery: 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers
3 Parsons geared turbines
Speed: 31 knots (57 km/h)
Range: 7,600 nautical miles (14,075 km) at 20 knots (37 km/h)
Complement: 1,600 officers and men
Armament: 16 x 4.5 in (114 mm)s (8 × 2)
48 x 2 pounder (1.5 in) Pom-poms (6 × 8)
32 x .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine guns (8 × 4)
Armour: 4.5 in (114 mm) belt
3.5 in (89 mm) deck over boiler rooms and magazines
Aircraft: 60 to 72
Motto: Zeal Does Not Rest

HMS Ark Royal (91), was the third ship of the Royal Navy to carry the name and the second to be an aircraft carrier. She was designed in 1934 to meet the limits of the Washington Naval Treaty, and was built by Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd. at Birkenhead, England. Construction was completed in November 1938.

Her hull was the maximum length permitted at that time for drydocking. This was also the first time where the flight deck was an integral part of the ship as opposed to an add-on or superstructure deck as on earlier vessels. She had two levels of hangar decks.

Service history

On 25 September 1939, just weeks after World War II broke out, Ark Royal participated in the rescue of the submarine HMS Spearfish, which was damaged off Horn Reefs. During this operation on 26 September, one of her Blackburn Skua aircraft shot down a German flying boat for her first enemy aerial kill of the war.

In December 1939, she was sent to the South Atlantic to help in the search for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. In the spring of 1940, she participated in the Norwegian campaign with HMS Glorious. On June 13, 1940, Ark Royal launched an air attack on Trondheim, Norway. As Ark Royal turned into the wind to launch aircraft in foggy conditions, two destroyers, HMS Antelope and HMS Electra collided, and had to return to England for urgent repairs.

In July, she joined the attack on the French Navy's base at Mers El Kébir, Algeria with HMS Hood, Valiant, Resolution, Arethusa, and Enterprise. The following September, Ark Royal took part in a second attack on the (Vichy) French Navy, this time at Dakar. Her torpedo planes attacked the French battlecruiser Strasbourg, but no hits were scored, and the French ships made it safely to Toulon. On July 9, 1940, she was attacked by Italian aircraft with no damage. On August 1, aircraft from Ark Royal attacked the Italian base at Cagliari, while the carrier HMS Argus delivered 12 Hurricane fighter aircraft to Malta. While covering a Mediterranean convoy in late November, her planes attacked Italian battleships, though without making any hits. In return, she was attacked by enemy aircraft with no damage.

She struck the port of Genoa, Italy, in early February 1941, during a British Naval raid deep into Italian-controlled waters. During March 1941, Ark Royal pursued the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during the last phase of their Atlantic sortie. In late May, whilst serving in the Mediterranean as part of Force H along with HMS Renown and the cruiser HMS Sheffield, she was called upon to search for the Bismarck in the Atlantic. On 26 May, her scout planes found the battleship. Later that day, her torpedo planes made attacks on Bismarck. During the first attack, her planes mistakenly attacked Sheffield, as the pilots had not been informed that Sheffield had been sent ahead to shadow the Bismarck. Fortunately, the torpedoes had been fitted with the then new magnetic exploders (which, after this event, were subsequently deemed to be unreliable and withdrawn from use by the RN) and exploded upon hitting the water, and Sheffield managed to evade the rest; no major damage was incurred, and one of the pilots signalled 'Sorry for the kipper' to Sheffield. Torpedoes with the older contact exploders were then fitted to her Swordfish planes and another attack was made just before sunset. In the second attack, her torpedo planes hit Bismarck, damaging rudder machinery, making the enemy battleship virtually unmanoeuvrable, and allowing other British warships to close and sink her on the morning of 27 May. No planes were lost in either of these attacks (contrary to the storyline of the movie Sink the Bismarck!).

Ark Royal was also very active in the Mediterranean Sea during 1941. On several occasions, she ferried planes to the beleaguered base at Malta and covered Malta-bound convoys. The Germans reported her as sunk several times. While returning to Gibraltar from one such mission on 13 November 1941, Ark Royal was hit by one torpedo from the German submarine U-81. Progressive flooding choked the boiler uptakes; since she had no diesel backups, all power was lost, including power to the pumps. HMS Legion was ordered to take aboard 1487 officers and crew to transport to Gibraltar. After several hours, already listing heavily while under tow towards Gibraltar, the carrier capsized to starboard and sank on 14 November 1941.[1] Only one crewman was lost during the evacuation of the ship.

Her exact location remained unknown until mid-December 2002, when the BBC announced that a film crew had located the wreck in 900 metres of water some 30 statute miles (50 km) off Gibraltar.

Battle honours

Account of the sinking

HMS Ark Royal was torpedoed by U-81 on November 14, 1941. A single g7e torpedo struck the ship on the starboard side, abreast of the Island. This position was the worst possible: being dead amidships, it was where the list caused would be greatest, and its position relative to the transverse bulkheads was such that four main compartments, plus over 106 feet of the ship's starboard bilge, were immediately subject to flooding.

The enemy torpedo was running very deep, and at the time there was some speculation that it might have used a non-contact (magnetic) exploder. This was later discounted on the grounds that the damage inflicted by the hit was not as extensive as would have been expected for an under-the-keel hit, nor was it of the type typical of such hits.

The explosion opened a hole 130 feet long by 30 feet deep, the size being increased by the time taken to bring the ship to a halt, which resulted in additional hull plating being peeled off. The starboard boiler room, air spaces, and oil tanks were flooded, as were the main switchboard and the lower steering position. The starboard power train was also knocked out by the hit, but the port and centreline trains kept functioning.

Some of the torpedo blast vented upwards through a bomb trunk forward of the Island. The ship whipped violently with the explosion, which caused the fully-loaded torpedo-bombers on the flight deck to be hurled into the air; however she showed very little shock damage internally, and her masts remained standing. She immediately took on a 10 degree list that increased to 18 degrees within 20 minutes.

Due to the flooding of the switchboard, communications within the ship were lost, which explains the delay in bringing the ship to a halt. At this point the Captain decided to evacuate the ship. All personnel were withdrawn from the machinery spaces and assembled topside in order to determine who should leave the ship and who should remain on board. As a result of this action, damage control measures were only initiated 49 minutes after the hit, the flooding having been uncontrolled for this period. During this critical period, the centreline boiler room started to flood from below. During the evacuation of the machinery spaces several covers and armored hatches were left open, allowing the flooding to spread further than otherwise would be expected.

As the ship listed further, water came in through the uptakes of the starboard boiler room, flooding over into the centreline, and later into the port, boiler rooms. This flooding further reduced the area through which the funnel gasses could escape, causing severe local overheating and fires.

One hour and 19 minutes after the torpedo hit, all power within the ship failed. Meanwhile, most of the crew had been ordered to evacuate the ship. Those that left the ship included the entire staff of shipwrights and key members of the electrical staff, depriving the damage control crews of much-needed expertise. There were still further delays before the repair crews returned to the machinery spaces and attempts at counter-flooding started.

Only half of the available compartments on the port side were flooded (which reduced the list to 14 degrees), because there was a lack of specialist expertise in the damage control parties. To make matters worse, the flooding valves were not then closed, so the water in the counterflooded units was gradually expelled as more water entered the starboard side of the ship.

Flooding and the loss of feedwater had already shut the ship's power-plant down. Since all the generators were steam-powered, this deprived the ship of electrical as well as motive power. The ship's engineers fought to get the plant back on line despite the rising floodwaters. They won that battle five hours and 34 minutes after the torpedo hit when the portside boiler room was lit off.

However, by that time, the list had increased to 18 degrees and the flooding was starting to spread across the ship's boiler room flat. This was an uninterrupted compartment running across the whole width of the ship, making the entire area of the machinery spaces vulnerable. The efforts made by the engine room crews to restore power were futile. The boiler room flat flooding forced the plant to be shut down again.

Progressive flooding now caused the list to increase rapidly. The list reached 20 degrees 11 hours and 4 minutes after the hit and touched 27 degrees an hour and a quarter later. At this point, the abandon ship order was again given. All crew were off the ship at 0430hrs, 12 hours 19 minutes after the hit, at which time the list had reached 35 degrees. HMS Ark Royal capsized and sank at 0619hrs, after the list reached 45 degrees.

After the Second World War, the loss of Ark Royal was investigated. The conclusion drawn was that, on a target of 22,000 tons, the provision of an effective anti-torpedo scheme was difficult. However, when a comparison with the Yorktown was held, it was demonstrated that it was possible, and that the Yorktown had only sunk when all her reserve buoyancy had been exhausted. The primary cause of the loss of Ark Royal was therefore held to be the inexperience and poor judgement of those responsible for damage control. Proper measures were not undertaken in good time, nor was action to tow the ship to Gibraltar, less than 25 miles away, undertaken promptly.

The Investigation also concluded that there were a variety of design factors contributing to the loss:

  • The uninterrupted boiler room flat was a significant error: it was immediately rectified in the Illustrious and Indefatigable classes.
  • The adoption of a double hangar had forced the use of cross-deck uptakes low in the ship, adding to vulnerability.
  • The reliance on steam generators was also an error: diesel generators were retrofitted to the armoured carriers.
  • The power train design itself was strongly criticised.

Aircraft Wing


  • Roger Chesneau, Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present; An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1984)
  • Ernle Bradford, The Mighty Hood (World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1959)


External links