Despite the fact the Germans claimed to have sunk her on numerous occasions, even producing illustrations of her sinking after an air attack in the North Sea, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal stayed very much afloat, playing a vital part in the Royal Navy’s war until late 1941. However, on 13 November that year, writes Alexander Nicoll, fate – and the Germans – finally caught up with her.
It was with the Home Fleet that the 27,720-ton Ark Royal first went into combat. Capable of carrying 50 aircraft, she was one of the German Navy’s most formidable opponents, and one the Kriegsmarine sought to eliminate.
On 14 September 1939, the Germans had their first shot at sinking the carrier after Ark Royal had responded to a distress call from the SS Fanard Head which was being pursued by the German submarine U-30. Aircraft were despatched to help the ship but whilst the operation to assist was underway, another U-boat, U-39, spotted the carrier and fired two torpedoes. Fortunately look-outs spotted them in time for Ark Royal to turn to face the torpedoes which sped safely by. The escorting destroyers sank the hostile submarine.
On 14 September 1939, after only 27 days at sea, U-39 fired two torpedoes at Ark Royal, though both were avoided. Following the attack, three British destroyers in the vicinity of Ark Royal, Faulknor, Firedrake, and Foxhound, detected U-39. All three destroyers depth-charged the U-boat; seconds after Firedrake dropped her depth charges, the stricken U-39 surfaced. HMS Foxhound, which was the closest to U-39, picked up 25 crew members while Faulknor rescued eleven and Firedrake saved the remaining eight. They were then taken ashore in Scotland and spent the rest of the war in various POW camps, including the Tower of London, before being shipped to Canada. U-39 was the first of many U-boats to be sunk in the Second World War.
It was in the North Sea where Ark Royal’s next close encounter took place, just eleven days later. The submarine HMS Spearfish was in trouble having been damaged off the Horns Reef by German warships. Ark Royal, with HMS Hood and HMS Nelson, helped to shepherd her home. The group was spotted by German aircraft, and Ark Royal immediately sent three Blackburn Skuas to intercept the three Dornier Do 18 seaplanes. One of the Dorniers was shot down – the first German plane shot down by British aircraft in the Second World War.
The position of the ships, however, had been relayed back and soon four Ju 88s were chasing after them. Three were driven off, but the fourth was more determined in its attack, dropping a 1,000kg bomb which exploded just 30 yards off the carrier’s starboard bow.
So great was the spout of water thrown up by the bomb the crew of the Junkers could not see whether or not they had hit Ark Royal. When a reconnaissance flight later sighted Hood and Nelson together, but with the notable absence of the aircraft carrier, it was assumed Ark Royal had been hit and sunk. As can be imagined, the Germans announced their ‘success’ to the world. It took the personal intervention of Winston Churchill to convince President Roosevelt Ark Royal was indeed still afloat.
After being deployed to the South Atlantic in the hunt for Graf Spee, Ark Royal was assigned to the Mediterranean before taking part in the unsuccessful Norway campaign. Her aircraft were employed in protecting the withdrawal of British ships and the ship found herself under aerial attack. Once again Ark Royal survived, and returned to the Mediterranean with Force H, taking part in the numerous convoys to Malta.
PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS
On 10 November 1941, Ark Royal ferried aircraft to Malta before heading to Gibraltar. Admiral Somerville had been warned of the presence of U-boats, and reminded Force H to be vigilant. It was on 13 November that Ark Royal was to operate her aircraft for the last time. That afternoon, the ‘Ark’ was steering towards Gibraltar with the battleship HMS Malaya, the carrier HMS Argus, the cruiser HMS Hermione and seven destroyers. In fine weather, at 15:25 twelve aircraft were flown off for training whilst a further 14 were awaiting to be landed.
With no indication of what was about to happen, the minutes ticked by, the crew busy with the arriving and departing aircraft. At 15:40, the sonar operator aboard one of the escorts, the destroyer HMS Legion, detected an unidentified sound, but assumed it had been caused by the propellers of another destroyer. Sixty seconds later, with the ‘Ark’ just thirty miles from Gibraltar and within sight of the Rock, and the last of the returning Swordfish about to land, there was a loud explosion on the starboard side, between the fuel bunkers and bomb store, directly below the bridge island.
Below deck the carrier was plunged into darkness. The carrier whipped so violently that five aircraft were flung into the air no less than three times. One of the Swordfish pilots who had just landed was Lt Philip David ‘Percy’ Gick of 825 NAS. ‘I had landed on first,’ he recalled, having brought his squadron in, ‘and went up to the bridge. [I] was actually on the bridge reporting when the last aircraft came on, a man called Burgh [sic], did an absolute perfect landing and at that moment the torpedo hit.
‘Actually we had given him a hell of a reprimand that day because … several aircraft had bad landings and he looked out of the aircraft I am told, and said, “My God what have I done this time!” Because, literally as he touched down, the bloody torpedo hit, [and the] whole ship shook, clouds of smoke everywhere; he was quite convinced he had done something wrong poor chap…
[The] whole ship shook, clouds of smoke everywhere…
‘I was on the bridge when it hit at the time and we had started turning out of wind when the ship heeled quite a bit with that and she started heeling enormously … I was still on the bridge when she went past her critical angle which was about 22 degrees.’
The explosion which tore through Ark Royal had been caused by a torpedo fired by U-81. Commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Friedrich Guggenberger, U-81 had been en route from Brest to La Spezia in Italy when she encountered the inbound ships of Force H.
No one on Ark Royal spotted either the periscope or the torpedo’s track. The torpedo’s explosion, coupled with the 18 knot speed of the ship through the water, caused serious damage. Remarkably, only one member of the ship’s company, Able Seaman E. Mitchell, was killed. A 130-by-30-foot gash was ripped open on the starboard side and bottom by the torpedo, which was judged to have run deep, striking the bilge keel, and detonating inboard of the side protection system. The hit caused flooding of the starboard boiler room, main switchboard, oil tanks, and over 106 feet of the starboard bilge. The starboard power train was knocked out, causing the rear half of the ship to lose power, while communications were severed.
LISTING TO STARBOARD
Lt-Cmdr Hector Charles David Maclean was navigating Ark Royal the moment the torpedo struck. ‘I was having a cup of tea on the bridge with the signal officer. We had already given notice of what time we were going to get into harbour. We were undoubtedly relaxed and the first thing I remember was a bang and a lot of smoke coming up one of the aircraft lifts.
‘[The] Captain was in his cabin, and immediately all the communications within the ship failed which was one of the difficulties and she began taking a list, it wasn’t long before we discovered we had taken a hit underneath us, with one of these magnetic warheads I suppose, and the boiler rooms were flooding and we had lost all electric power because the furnaces went out.’
Immediately after the torpedo’s explosion the carrier had taken on a list of ten degrees – within just three minutes this had increased by two degrees. The first concern of Ark Royal’s commander, Captain Loben Maund, was to stop his ship. Maund gave orders to reverse the engines and to midship the helm, but all the telegraphs were jammed, nor was it possible to communicate by telephone with any part of the ship. The bridge was isolated.
The first thing I remember was a bang and a lot of smoke coming up one of the aircraft lifts
Maund therefore left the bridge and hastened to the engine control-room, where he gave the necessary orders to bring the carrier to a halt. He found the starboard engines out of action, but that there was no damage to the port or centre engine-rooms. At this point Maund gave order to flood the port compartments and to pump fuel from the starboard to the port tanks in the hope of counteracting the steadily increasing list.
Eager to re-establish controls over all of Ark Royal’s main departments, Captain Maund ordered a chain of ratings be established between the engine control-room and the flight deck. Preparations were made for telephones to be rigged to replace this human link.
The list which the carrier had taken made it impossible to fly off the aircraft on deck. The remainder of those which were in the air landed at Gibraltar. Meanwhile the destroyers were circling round, dropping depth-charges. There was still a danger a further torpedo might strike the ship at any moment.
By 16.00 Ark Royal had heeled over eighteen degrees, and the list was still increasing. There was no knowing how long she would float, and Maund feared she might capsize. If lives were to be saved he considered it essential that every man not required should be disembarked. He gave orders to bring the ratings up from their action stations below so that those whom he required to remain could be separated from those no longer needed.
AN EAR-SPLITTING ROAR
Lt-Cmdr Maclean recalled the problems: ‘She went on listing and we had no real order with which to give the ship’s company about a situation like this, about abandoning ship, and we had of course an enormous number of aircraft people on board, who weren’t wanted and were in the way, we wanted to save them and get them out.
‘And so we ordered everybody to muster on the flight deck and owing to lack of communications this had to be passed by what are called call boys. [These] are boys who went round with the bosun’s call saying “do you hear there” and like a game of rumours you know, you pass messages from mouth to mouth, and it ends absolutely different to when you started and the rumour got round that they were ordered to abandon ship. This was discovered and immediately cancelled, but too late to stop the engineers from, as far as I can recollect, from dousing the boilers which they had managed to get going, because the abandon ship required them to put them out.’
She went on listing and we had no real order with which to give the ship’s company about a situation like this
One of the many seamen aboard Ark Royal, Cliff Wilson recalled the moment he left the stricken carrier: ‘When the ship was hit, I was on duty. We had been down the Med and were on our way back, about 30 miles off Gibraltar, when there was this huge bang. It wasn’t so much an ear-splitting roar, but it was tremendous and we knew we must have been hit.
‘More or less straight away the ship began to list. There were seven of us reading signals but no-one left their station. We just kept working but we all wondered what we would do. The chief telegraphist was there and we were all looking at him and he was looking at us. In no time at all we went over to about 20 degrees and eventually the order came to abandon ship.
‘We were still looking at the chief and he said, “Ok lads, off you go”. When I came out of the control room, there was a great queue of men who had come up from below and I couldn’t push in, so I went back down through the open hangar and through the hospital – that was eerie, because there were all these beds and not a soul down there but me.
‘When I came back out on deck, Legion was alongside and a rope was thrown across. I went across the rope upside down, with a queue of people behind me, saying, “Come on, lad, get across”. I got going.’
It had only been through ‘skilful handling’ that Cmdr R.S. Jessel, Legion’s captain, had managed to bring the destroyer alongside the carrier’s, taking care to keep her stern clear of Ark Royal’s huge port propeller, which, owing to the list, was visible near the surface. Jessel also had to avoid the carrier’s wireless masts, which were projecting horizontally from her side with no power available to raise them.
So severe had the list become by this time it was only possible to crawl along the decks, and the ratings were told to slip down towards the destroyer. The men left the ship calmly, taking their time. Captain Maund was the last to leave, sliding down a rope. Three ratings gave their skipper three cheers as he slid down to join them.
Despite the difficulties presented, in a remarkably short time, some 1,540 officers and ratings were transferred to Legion. Some jumped on to hammocks in the fo’c’sle, others used lines rigged from the ship. At one point, Ark’s Paymaster-Commander appeared on deck carrying two suitcases containing the carrier’s money –£10,000 in each! There was also a number of canaries on board. Since there was no chance of taking them, their owners opened the cages. Nor were the ship’s cats forgotten. One, an enormous ginger tom, was carried aboard the destroyer in the arms of a marine.
THE SQUEAKING OF THE RATS
Lt Gick had also heeded instructions to abandon ship: ‘She had completely lost power and I collected a few people together and lowered a cutter and went off in it with my observer and these artificers and when we realised the ship didn’t seem to be sinking so we came back and shinned back on board again … While we were in the boat a lot of people had got out of the ship into a destroyer which was astern of her and as I had these four or five skilled artificers on board we thought it made sense to go back and see if we could do anything to help and got back. They then decided to bring a destroyer alongside to see if he could get some electric power because the problem with that ship, which was a shattering one really, was you couldn’t get electric power without steam, you couldn’t raise steam without electric power, and there was no diesel generator.
‘So without electric power the senior engineer, Oliver, who was still on board with a few chaps down in the engine room, could do nothing and Legion came alongside. At this time it was just my observer and I and we chucked [a] line down, pulled some enormous great wires with hooks on the end – hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with them – and finally we found some enormous great studs somewhere and one of the officers in the Legion shouted, “Well have a go at those”, and we put them on and sure enough on came some lights … Oliver got some power and was able to raise steam and we were actually under our own power doing about three or four knots towards Gibraltar.
‘At this time because she was in danger of bumping alongside Legion had cast off. We were sitting there very happily; two or three other people had joined us and my observer had managed to kick open the wardroom bar and got some cans of beer and we were quietly sitting there drinking and throwing the empty cans at the rats when there was a terrific lurch and the power went again. This was because the funnel uptake went down and across to the boiler room under the hangar deck and up – that elbow was under water and had collapsed and cut the power off …
‘Anyhow, we went on quite a long time. Then they got a tug out from Gib and she was being towed back and finally she was listing further and further and Maund … decided he must get everyone out, the only people we forgot where the gunnery officer and four chaps up on the fo’c’sle.
‘I think it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life because we got the destroyer alongside and the last few of us were sliding across the rope and Maund said, “I wonder if anyone is left”. And I said, “Oh, I will go and have a look”.
‘Walking round that ship the only noise was the rats squeaking and the ticking of the clocks, every now and again there was a crunch and a lurch. It was fortunate I did go back because there was some bloke down there and he duly heard the buzz and came up.’
Gick was one of the last men to leave Ark Royal. ‘We eventually slid off into the destroyer,’ he continued. ‘[The] Captain came down last, followed me down, and suddenly realised we had forgotten the unfortunate gunnery officer and his four chaps up forward and we had to nip up and get them.
‘So that was it and finally she went. Very sad.’
Captain Maund watched the last moments of the carrier. For a time she hung over at an angle of 45 degrees. Then, momentarily, the flight deck hung vertically above the surface, like a great table on its side. At 06.13 she turned over, remained bottom upwards for a few minutes, then, 14 hours after she had been torpedoed, disappeared from sight.
As soon as it was light a sub-flight of the Ark Royal’s Swordfish flew out from Gibraltar in the expectation of escorting their carrier back to port. When they reached the position where she should have been, all they saw from the sky was a great patch of oil.
The loss of Ark Royal was announced in London at 13.00. It proved as much a triumph for Germany as an embarrassment, for Berlin had claimed many times the carrier had been sunk. It took 24 hours for the Ministry of Propaganda in the German capital to select carefully the words of its communiqué. Finally the Germans decided to quote the British Admiralty – it was the only way the world would believe the resilient warship had at last succumbed.
One of the legends surrounding the sinking of Ark Royal is the story of ‘Unsinkable Sam’. ‘Sam’ was a black and white patched cat that had been owned by an unknown crewman of the German battleship Bismarck. After Bismarck had been sunk on 27 May 1941, ‘Sam’ was found floating on a board and plucked from the water by the British destroyer HMS Cossack. Unaware of the cat’s name, he was at this point christened Oscar.
Oscar remained onboard Cossack for the next few months as the ship carried out convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. On 24 October 1941, however, Cossack was severely damaged by a torpedo fired by U-563. Her crew was transferred to the destroyer HMS Legion and an attempt was made to tow the badly listing destroyer back to Gibraltar. The tow was subsequently abandoned due to worsening weather conditions and Cossack sank to the west of Gibraltar. The initial explosion had blown off one third of the forward section of the ship, killing 159 of the crew, but Oscar survived this. Along with the other survivors he was landed at Gibraltar.
Perhaps unsurprisingly having gained the nickname ‘Unsinkable Sam’, Oscar was transferred to Ark Royal. His luck held and, surviving a third sinking, he soon found himself back at Gibraltar. Described as ‘angry but quite unharmed’, he was brought ashore once again by Legion.
‘Unsinkable Sam’ never returned to sea again as part of a ship’s crew. If his tale is indeed true – and there are some who state that it is little more than a ‘sea story’ – then Oscar gained the unusual distinction of having served in both the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy.