The Royal Navy's 'Old Ark'

By Michael D. Hull

The new carrier was fast, maneuverable, well armed, and a stable platform for a large force of airplanes (60), which was necessary in view of the poor quality of British naval aircraft development. Most of the machines in Fleet Air Arm service in the late 1930s were obsolete or near-obsolete, such as the Blackburn Skua, a monoplane, and the Fairey Swordfish and Gloster Sea Gladiator, both biplanes.

The Ark Royal was launched on 13 April 1937, and at the time of her completion in November 1938 she was one of the world’s outstanding ships of her type. With a complement of 151 officers and 1,650 ratings and commanded by Captain A. J. Power, she was commissioned on 16 November 1938 and replaced the Courageous as flagship of the Home Fleet’s carrier force. During her short but high-profile seagoing career, the Ark Royal would become one of the most famous ships of World War II.

First Taste of War

She went to sea on 3 September 1939, the day Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. The flattop was carrying Swordfish torpedo planes, Skua fighter/dive bombers, and a Supermarine Walrus flying boat. German ships, planes, and U-boats were active from the war’s outset, and the Ark Royal and other Home Fleet vessels were soon under attack.

On 14 September, while on antisubmarine patrol off Scotland’s Hebrides Islands, the Ark Royal narrowly avoided disaster when two torpedoes fired by Lieutenant Commander Gerhard Glattes’s U-39 detonated prematurely. The long-range IXA boat was sunk and her crew captured by escorting destroyers. But the British euphoria was short-lived. Three days later, Lieutenant Commander Otto Schuhart’s U-29 sank the Courageous , which was also hunting subs, with three torpedoes off southwestern Ireland.

The Admiralty soon canceled the use of its precious carriers for such operations, but the Ark Royal survived another near-miss when she was attacked by Luftwaffe bombers in the North Sea on 26 September. One of the pilots, Lieutenant Adolf Francke, was awarded the Iron Cross and promoted for reportedly sinking the carrier, though she was barely damaged and he made no such claim himself. Under strain, he was eventually driven to suicide. The Propaganda Ministry in Berlin continued to insist that the ship had been sunk, and German radio commentators repeatedly asked, “Where is the Ark Royal ?” The name became a symbol of both British defiance and German duplicity, and earned the carrier international fame.

In October 1939, the Ark Royal headed to the South Atlantic, where she joined Commodore Sir Henry Harwood’s group of British and French battleships, cruisers, and carriers in hunting the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and other German surface raiders preying on shipping. She then escorted a damaged British warship to Portsmouth in February 1940 and reported to the naval base at Scapa Flow before she was deployed to the Mediterranean Fleet, based at Alexandria, Egypt. But she quickly was recalled to the Home Fleet in April after the German invasion of Norway.

The Ark Royal , Glorious , and other British warships sailed from Scapa Flow for Norwegian waters on 23 April. Eight days later, the Ark came under heavy air attack as her planes provided cover for the evacuation of Allied troops from central Norway. The carrier briefly returned to Scapa Flow, where Captain Power turned over command of the ship to Captain Cedric Holland and the vessel was refueled. After she returned to the Norwegian Sea, her Swordfish and Skuas flew in support of the British-French expeditionary force that fought its way into the port of Narvik on 28 May. The carrier’s squadrons continued to operate in the ill-fated campaign until Allied forces withdrew in early June.

Service in the Med and Atlantic

With little respite, the Ark Royal departed Scapa Flow on 18 June, again bound for the Mediterranean. But this time she was headed to an active war front. On 10 June, as rapidly advancing German forces were closing in on Paris, Italy declared war on France and Britain. Italian naval bases and airfields were sprinkled throughout the central Mediterranean, from Sardinia to Libya; for the Royal Navy, neutralizing the enemy and keeping British forces in the region supplied and reinforced would be a daunting task.

At Gibraltar, the Ark Royal joined Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s newly formed Force H. Comprising the battleships Valiant and Resolution , the battlecruiser Hood , two cruisers, and 11 destroyers, the powerful fleet had been ordered by the Admiralty to operate in either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic as need arose. Its immediate assignment was a distasteful one in the Mediterranean.

After the collapse of France in late June, the British feared that the French fleet would be seized by the Germans or their new Italian allies, so it was decided that ships outside French European ports should be neutralized. Somerville’s Force H stood off the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, where the largest French squadron was anchored, on 3 July 1940. Its commander, Admiral Marcel Gensoul, was given several choices: join forces with the British, sail to ports in Britain or the West Indies, have his ships disarmed in an American port, or scuttle them. Thinking that the British were bluffing, Gensoul angrily rejected all of the alternatives and started clearing his ships for action.

Somerville had no choice but to open fire. While Swordfish from the Ark Royal provided air cover, the Force H ships swiftly capsized a French battleship; set fire to another, which then ran aground; immobilized the battleship Dunkerque ; and damaged a destroyer. A total of 1,300 French sailors died. The battleship Strasbourg and a few destroyers managed to flee to Toulon. Three days later, planes from the Ark Royal inflicted further damage on the Dunkerque . The Royal Navy attack caused Marshal Henri Philippe Petain’s Vichy French government to sever diplomatic relations with Britain, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill admitted later that it was a “hateful act.” But it showed that the British meant business, and the French ships stayed out of the enemy’s clutches.

During the remainder of the summer and into the early autumn of 1940, the Ark Royal was kept busy in the Mediterranean. After a July mission against airfields near Cagliari, Sardinia, was scratched, Ark Swordfish struck one of the bases in August as part of an operation to provide cover while the aging Argus ferried Hawker Hurricane fighters to the strategic British bastion of Malta. In the early hours of 1 September, her bombers again hit Cagliari (Operation Smash); 24 hours later, the Swordfish were back over southern Sardinia, bombing Elmas Airfield and the Cagliari power station (Operation Grab). The strikes helped divert the Italians’ attention as a convoy and British warships slipped through the Strait of Sicily. The vessels, including the modern carrier Illustrious , were reinforcements for Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet.

Setting out less than a week after returning to Gibraltar, the Ark Royal left the Mediterranean and took part in an attack on Vichy French naval units in Dakar, Senegal, on 26 September. But the operation was called off after the loss of nine Ark Royal planes, and the flattop returned to Britain for a short refit.

After replacing a squadron flying obsolete Skuas for one with Fairey Fulmar fighters, the Ark Royal rejoined Force H at Gibraltar in early November. During her absence, Italian troops had invaded Egypt from neighboring Libya. The carrier’s Swordfish “Stringbags” bombed Sicilian airfields to divert enemy attention from the Illustrious ’ crushing attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto on 11 November 1940, she covered further ferry runs to Malta by the Argus , and during a 27 November surface clash off southern Sardinia’s Cape Spartivento, her squadrons helped drive off an Italian naval force. Early in February 1941, her sturdy biplanes torpedoed a dam in northern Sicily, spotted for the battlecruiser Renown and battleship Malaya while they bombarded Genoa, and hit naval installations at La Spezia and Pisa.

About the time those operations were wrapping up, news arrived that the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had slipped into the North Atlantic. In February and March, the Ark Royal and other Force H ships participated in a long search for the raiders while also escorting Atlantic convoys. During a late afternoon sweep on 20 March about 400 miles west of Brest, the pilot and observer in one of the Ark ’s Fulmars spied the two battlecruisers far below. But a fractured screw in the fighter’s radio prevented the crew from transmitting news of the sighting to the carrier and Renown 110 miles away. After the Fulmar returned to the Ark Royal and the news was reported, a striking force of Swordfish was readied; however, with only an hour of sunlight left and contact with the German ships needing to be reestablished, the mission was cancelled. Under the cover of heavy fog, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau reached the safety of Brest on 22 March.

That same day, the Ark Royal suffered slight damage when a Swordfish crashed ahead of her and one of its depth charges exploded. The hull was shaken, but there was no immediate need for repairs. The carrier returned to Gibraltar with Force H on 1 April, and Captain Loben Maund succeeded Captain Holland as commander of the ship on the 19th. Otherwise, the Ark spent much of April escorting convoys and ferrying aircraft to Malta.

The war in the Mediterranean was rapidly expanding, giving added importance to the need to keep the Malta outpost well supplied and armed. German Luftwaffe units had begun arriving in Sicily in early January, and in February Major General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps had been dispatched to western Libya. Britain had meanwhile sent its best Middle East Command troops to defend Greece against German invasion, and by May Rommel was routing, bypassing, or besieging British and Commonwealth forces in eastern Libya during a 350-mile race to Egypt. One of the most effective ways for Britain to fight back was for its Malta-based aircraft and submarines to attack the enemy’s North Africa–bound convoys.

The Ark participated in one of her most perilous missions in the Mediterranean when she and the rest of Force H, along with the battleship Queen Mary and several cruisers—reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet—were called on to escort five transports carrying 307 tanks halfway across the sea. On 8 May, as the convoy and warships approached the Strait of Sicily, it was repeatedly attacked by Italian aircraft. The Ark Royal narrowly avoided being torpedoed and hit by bombs, and late in the afternoon her Fulmars repelled an attack by 30 to 40 German bombers. Shortly afterward, Force H turned to return to Gibraltar while the convoy and reinforcing warships continued toward Alexandria. One of the transports would fall victim to a mine, but the others reached port with the much-needed tanks.

Pursuit of the Bismarck

The Ark Royal soon faced the most challenging assignment in her career and played a significant role in one of the epic naval actions of World War II. It started on 18 May 1941, when the battleship Bismarck and the new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sailed from Gotenhafen (present-day Gdynia, Poland) to attack Allied convoys in the Atlantic. The powerful Bismarck displaced 41,700 tons, mounted eight 15-inch guns, and flew the flag of Vice Admiral Gunther Lutjens. As they made their way toward the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, and the Atlantic, the raiders were sighted and then shadowed by British cruisers. Alarms had sounded at the Admiralty in London, and the Royal Navy marshaled forces for interception.

The battlecruiser Hood , the new battleship Prince of Wales , and six destroyers left Scapa Flow on 21 May, and Home Fleet units headed out the next day. These were the battleship King George V , flying the flag of Admiral Sir John Tovey, the battlecruiser Repulse, the carrier Victorious , five cruisers, and seven destroyers. Late on the 23rd, Admiral Somerville’s Force H was ordered to join the pursuit. His battlecruiser Renown , the cruiser Sheffield , and the Ark Royal sailed north from Gibraltar. The battleship Rodney and four destroyers, 550 miles southeast of the enemy ships, were also ordered to close in.

As Admiral Lutjens exited the Denmark Strait early on 24 May, he found his two raiders blocked by the Hood and Prince of Wales . A short, sharp battle erupted in which the Germans concentrated their salvos on the Hood . She disintegrated in a huge fireball and sank at 0600. The damaged Prince of Wales was forced to retire, but she had hit the Bismarck twice, rupturing a fuel tank and reducing her maximum speed. Lutjens decided that the battleship would need to put in at Brest to have her oil leak repaired.

Late that afternoon, the Prinze Eugen escaped to the southwest while the mighty battleship steered to the southeast, Lutjens hoping to reach the protection of French-based Luftwaffe aircraft. Because of foul weather, poor visibility, and plotting errors at the Admiralty and on board Tovey’s flagship, the British lost contact with their quarry. Not until the evening of 25 May did they know that the Bismarck was heading for a French port. Tovey’s ships were then about 150 miles astern of her.

Although the pursuers had lost valuable mileage, the net was gradually closing around the German behemoth. Finally, at 1030 on the 26th, a Catalina PBY of RAF Coastal Command spotted her almost 700 miles west of Brest. The King George V and Rodney began a long stern chase, but the British capital ships were too far away and too low on fuel to catch the Bismarck unless she could be slowed. The Force H ships, coming from the south, were in a better position to do so. After two reconnaissance Swordfish from the Ark Royal made contact with the Bismarck , ten search planes were launched successively from the carrier to keep sight of the German ship throughout the day. The cruiser Sheffield went ahead and made radar contact with her. But Force H’s Renown and Sheffield were no match for the Bismarck , so it would be up to the Ark Royal ’s torpedo-bomber squadrons to slow her down.

At 1450, while rough seas sloshed across the carrier’s 62-foot-high flight deck, 14 Swordfish lumbered off through high winds and driving rain and flew for an hour toward the target. They fanned out and went down to wave-top level, and only after 11 of their torpedoes were in the water did they realize that they were attacking the cruiser Sheffield . A signal reporting her presence had not been decoded in the Ark Royal . But, because of evasive maneuvering and faulty magnetic pistols fitted to the torpedoes, no damage was caused. Shaken and penitent, the Swordfish crews returned to the carrier and landed safely.

At 1910 a second wave of 15 Swordfish took off from the Ark Royal ’s heaving flight deck. Led by Lieutenant Commander T. P. Coode, they flew to the Sheffield , which directed them to the Bismarck a dozen miles away. Though fading light and low clouds prevented a coordinated attack, the lumbering Swordfish went in for the kill at 2047 as the battleship’s antiaircraft guns opened up. Several planes were hit, but all survived the salvos. They loosed their contact-pistol torpedoes and limped back to the carrier.

Three Swordfish crashed on landing, and others were damaged beyond repair. One plane had 175 holes from shell fire in it. The crews turned in pessimistic reports because they had not seen any effects from their raid. But in fact, two torpedoes had hit the German ship. One had caused only minor damage to her massive armored belt, but the other had hit her stern, damaging the propellers, wrecking her steering gear, and jamming her rudders 15 degrees to port. She was incapable of holding a course, and her speed was reduced to about seven knots.

Without realizing it, the valiant Swordfish crews had sealed the Bismarck ’s fate. At 2140, while British vessels started closing in, Admiral Lutjens signaled Berlin: “Ship no longer maneuverable. We fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”

After peeling off from convoy duty, the cruiser Dorsetshire and Rear Admiral Philip Vian’s destroyer flotilla shadowed the Bismarck through the night and fired torpedoes, scoring two probable hits. The King George V and Rodney approached from the northwest soon after dawn on 27 May. They attacked at about 0845 from a range of 16,000 yards, and the Bismarck was a burning wreck by 1020. All of her main guns were out of action, but she was still afloat, listing to port and wallowing in a tempestuous sea. The Dorsetshire delivered the coup de grace with her last three torpedoes.

News of the destruction of the Bismarck was a much-needed tonic for the British people, shaken by a series of land defeats from France to Norway to North Africa, appalling shipping losses in the Atlantic, daily bombings, severe rationing, and the death of the Hood .

Final Operations

The Ark Royal arrived back at Gibraltar on 29 May. Exhausted from the Bismarck pursuit, the men and ships of Force H briefly rested. Meanwhile, in the eastern Mediterranean, the war swung heavily in the Axis’ favor when German forces captured Crete and closed the supply route from Alexandria to Malta. On 13 June, the Ark Royal and Victorious headed east with cargoes of RAF Hurricanes for the embattled island. During the summer and into the autumn of 1941, while the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet battled German and Italian warships and convoys, the carriers Ark Royal , Victorious , and Furious proved invaluable many times in ferrying planes and escorting merchantmen and naval supply ships to besieged Malta.

Consequently, the aircraft and submarines based there were able to decimate enemy shipping, which in turn crippled the Afrika Korps’ offensive power. Axis tanker losses were running at 40 percent, and between June and September Allied forces destroyed 108 enemy ships in the Mediterranean. In mid-September the German high command reacted by detaching six U-boats from Battle of the Atlantic duty and ordering them into the Mediterranean.

On the evening of 10 November, Force H ships weighed anchor at Gibraltar for yet another run to Malta, with the Ark Royal and Argus carrying a total of 37 Hurricanes and seven Bristol Blenheim medium bombers. Two days later, the planes were flown off. Three Hurricanes crashed en route. On the afternoon of the 12th, the Force H vessels started heading back to Gibraltar, where the nearby presence of at least one U-boat had been reported. Several Ark Royal planes were in the air on exercises on the clear, bright afternoon of 13 November when an escorting destroyer reported a submarine contact. The ships changed course, and the supposed submarine turned out to be whales.

But two undetected U-boats did lay in wait when the Force H ships were about 30 miles from Gibraltar. At 1541, while the Ark Royal was recovering planes, she was shaken by an explosion. Lieutenant Friedrich K. Guggenberger’s U-81 had penetrated the destroyer screen at periscope depth and fired a spread of four torpedoes. One of them tore a 130-foot-long hole near the Ark Royal ’s starboard boiler room. “The ship whipped violently,” according to a technical report, “and aircraft loaded with torpedoes bounced off the flight deck.” One crewman died in the attack.

The stricken carrier listed to starboard almost immediately, but continued steaming at about 22 knots. Electric power was lost, internal communications were cut, fires broke out, and one of her boiler rooms began to flood. At 1602, with the ship listing 18 degrees and in danger of capsizing, the temporarily restored loudspeaker system blared, “Hands to station for abandon ship,” and “Everyone over the port side.” A destroyer eased alongside and took off 1,487 officers and ratings. Most of carrier’s air wing, meanwhile, flew off to Gibraltar. But Captain Maund and more than a hundred men stayed on board the flattop and struggled for several hours to save her.

All steam was lost at 1700, stopping the pumps and other auxiliary machinery, but a destroyer moved in close to supply some electrical power. Working with only the light of battle lanterns, repair parties gradually restored steam and more power, and pumped fuel oil from the starboard to port tanks to reduce the list. At 1055 the Ark Royal was taken in tow by the tug Thames . Another tug arrived, and the carrier’s chances looked better. Shepherded by destroyers and motor torpedo boats, she limped along toward Gibraltar at two knots. A destroyer helped with the tow, and there were hopes that the Ark Royal might be saved.

But, while her skeleton crew toiled through the night, the ship’s wounds became critical. Water pushed through joints and bulkheads damaged by the torpedo explosion, more boiler-room fires broke out and spread, and the vessel’s list increased. All steam and power was lost, and the carrier was dead in the water. There was no saving her now.

At 0400 on 14 November, with his ship listing 27 degrees, Captain Maund gave the final order to abandon ship. Tow lines were cast off, and the two tugs moved in to take off the begrimed, weary salvage crew. Half an hour later, the last man slid down the port side and climbed aboard an attendant destroyer. With the list reaching 45 degrees at 0613, the Ark Royal capsized and sank only 25 miles east of Gibraltar.

In announcing the sinking, First Lord of the Admiralty A. V. Alexander said, “The loss of the Ark Royal is a sad blow to the Royal Navy but the old Ark has given the nation a rich dividend.” With few breaks, the Ark Royal had battled in the North Sea; ranged the Atlantic in search of enemy raiders, helping bring down the Royal Navy’s most fearsome opponent; and played a pivotal role in the survival of British forces in the Mediterranean. A court of inquiry would attribute her loss partly to poor damage control and flaws in her design “which had never been rectified because she had been in almost continuous service.”


Correlli Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War (New York: W. W. Norton; 1991).

Norman Friedman, British Carrier Aviation: The Evolution of the Ships and their Aircraft (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988).

“Graphic Description of Sinking of the Ark Royal,” Adelaide, South Australia News , 15 November 1941, .

David Hobbs, Aircraft Carriers of the Royal and Commonwealth Navies (London: Greenhill Books, 1996).

Bernard Ireland, The War in the Mediterranean: 1940–43 (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1993).

William Jameson, Ark Royal: 1939–41 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957).

Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A Graphic History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).

Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, UK.

HMS Ark Royal

Displacement: 22,500 tons

Overall length: 800 feet

Beam: 112 feet

Speed: 31 knots

Flight deck: 720 by 95 feet

Aircraft: 60 (54 in 1941)

Armament: 8 twin 4.5-inch Quick Firing guns, 4 8-barrel 2-pounder pom-poms,  8 .50-caliber machine guns

Catapults: 2

Elevators: 3



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