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Feature Extract: Weapons of War – HMS Ark Royal

Photo: The Ark Royal, pennant number 91, launching in 1937. (All photos Key Collection)


The carrier, seen from an approaching Swordfish.

Weapons of War – HMS Ark Royal

One of the most famous warship names in naval history, the title Ark Royal dates back to Elizabethan times. Felix Rowe takes a brief look at the ship’s lineage, and focuses on the combat history of the variant that served as an aircraft carrier during World War Two.

With tensions rising on the continent, Britain felt a pre-emptive response was required. A mighty ship was ordered that would protect the small island nation from the storm brewing across the water on mainland Europe. And so an English shipyard set to work building what was then one of the largest and most impressive warships of its kind. This flagship would become known as Ark Royal. Making its name for fighting in one of the greatest conflicts of its age, it would soon forge a fearsome reputation. Eventually, however, its fallibility would reveal itself and the mighty vessel would succumb to the seas. The year of her launch was 1587, the European threat was the Spanish Armada, defeated the following year, and the man who ordered her construction was one Sir Walter Raleigh.

The ship’s legend went down in the annals of English history, and over three centuries later her name would be revived once more in response to a dangerously shifting climate in Europe. Naturally, warfare had moved on considerably and this new vessel was very different to the 16th century galleon forged out of oak. HMS Ark Royal, laid down in November 1913, was the first of her kind – designed and built specifically as a carrier of seaplanes. This Ark Royal’s construction also signalled the start of a modern Royal Navy tradition of commissioning aircraft carriers with this name.

World War Two: A New Threat

History would repeat itself once more and as the 1930s rolled on, the threat of war with Germany was again imminent. And so a brand new high-tech aircraft carrier was ordered in 1934. This latest incarnation of HMS Ark Royal, which would serve valiantly in World War Two, would have the pennant number 91.

Ark Royal was conceived under the long shadows of the Washington Naval Treaty of February 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of April 1930. Collectively, these agreements signed in the aftermath of World War One placed limitations on military shipbuilding to help prevent a post-war arms race. Indeed, the latter pact’s full title was the ‘Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament’, as signed by the UK, the USA, Japan, France and Italy. A second London Treaty followed in 1936, again restricting the signatories’ naval capacity, although tellingly both Japan and Italy weren’t included among them. Despite these good intentions, global rearmament was very much on the way, with Germany’s rapid military expansion setting the tone, leaving the peace-makers playing catch-up.

Ark Royal was officially laid down in the midst of these developments in September 1935. With no little irony, Britain was in the problematic position of fast needing to act, but diplomatically restrained by the very international restrictions that she had been so keen to instigate in the first place. The limitations on ship tonnage in particular would have a notable impact on the ultimate design and build of Ark Royal. For example, in order to stay within the individual tonnage limits, plates in the hull would be welded, rather than riveted, significantly reducing the overall mass by some 500 tons.

The Ark Royal, pennant number 91, launching in 1937. (All photos Key Collection)

A New Breed of Carrier

One of the first carriers to operate in an age of prominent naval air power, Ark Royal was important in the wider development of ‘flat tops’. From the outset, she was built as a dedicated carrier, and several innovations were incorporated into the design. The ship included integrated hangars, built within the hull, rather than ‘bolt-ons’ on deck, as had been fairly typical up to that point. Ark Royal had two hangar decks for storing aircraft, with integrated lifts to bring them up ready for take-off. This gave her a particularly high flight deck above the waterline.

Ark Royal’s hull length was limited so she could be accommodated by the dry-dock facilities in Malta and Gibraltar. Hence her appearance was also characterized by large overhangs on the flight deck, extending considerably beyond the hull itself. To reduce the length of runway required, the carrier was an early adopter of pioneering new hardware – steam-powered piston catapults and arrestor gear – to assist take-off and landing, respectively.

Ark Royal was fitted with a ‘torpedo belt’ side protection system – a strap of additional armour around the section most vulnerable to torpedo strikes. She was also well armed to fend off air attacks, courtesy of an array of ‘pom-pom’ guns and quick-firing 4.5-inch guns, as well as machine guns at the front and rear. Of course, her greatest weapon was her cargo of planes, whether dive-bomber fighters, such as the Blackburn Skua, or the Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber. Some 60 aircraft could be accommodated.

When she was built, she was the Royal Navy’s most expensive ship, costing over £3 million – almost £213 million in today’s money but a snip when compared with the £3.1bn cost of the navy’s latest carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. She would be a key asset in the British fleet and hence a key target – the ultimate prize for the enemy to claim.

Operations Begin

In her short life, Ark Royal enjoyed a colourful service history, deployed in several key theatres of war across the globe. Originally destined to serve in the Far East, circumstances revised this plan to the Mediterranean, which had become the more pressing concern following the Spanish Civil War and conflict in Abyssinia.

However, as World War Two got under way she joined the Home Fleet, tasked with staving off U-boats, which were already causing great damage to British shipping in the North Western Approaches. The strategy of the time was to deploy ‘hunter-killer’ flotillas comprising a cluster of destroyers and other anti-submarine craft centred upon a carrier, which provided air support.

It was in this capacity that Ark Royal was involved in the very first U-boat kill of the war on September 14, 1939. Coming to the aid of cargo ship SS Fanad Head, which was under attack from U-30, Ark Royal was herself picked up by another U-boat, U-39. Quick thinking saved the carrier, which turned towards two approaching torpedoes, narrowly avoiding a direct hit. U-39 would succumb to depth charges from the flotilla’s F-class destroyers but only after its crew had escaped. Meanwhile, Fanad Head was sunk by a torpedo from U-30, and two Blackburn Skua dive-bombers launched from Ark Royal crashed in the action, leaving two crew dead and the two captured by the fleeing submarine.

To read the rest of this exciting feature, see the August issue of Britain at War, which can be found in all good newsagents – or visit our homepage for out latest money-saving subscription offers.

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