Famed World War II Carrier Ark Royal
By James Donahue
Among the best known fighting ships of the Second World War was the HMS Ark Royal, one of the first
of the aircraft carriers using modern technology and design. The ship offered an 800-foot-long flight deck, arrestor gear,
compressed steam catapults and two levels of below-deck hangers offering space for up to 72 aircraft.
Launched in 1937, the British carrier was fitted with six boilers and three turbines connected to
three drive shafts, giving the Ark Royal a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour. Speed was important because the ship was not
equipped with armor for ship-to-ship combat so it was designed to outrun enemy ships and submarines.
The Ark Royal came into play even as Hitler’s Germany was gearing up for war in Europe and the
Japanese military was actively invading China and the island nations of the South Pacific. World War II was breaking out at
a time when England was still a world empire.
The carrier consequently was involved in some of the most active early naval theaters of the war.
Its aircraft were involved in the first aerial and U-boat kills of the war, was involved in naval operations off Norway, was
involved in the search and destruction of the infamous German battleship Bismarck and was active in Force K in the South Atlantic
in 1939 and the hunt for another German commerce raider, the Graf Spee.
After the Graf Spee was out of the picture, the Ark Royal was assigned to Force H on the Mediterranean
patrol. During various engagements, the carrier narrowly escaped several bombings and attacks, and she gained a reputation
among the British sailors as a lucky ship.
But the Ark Royal’s days were numbered. She was sunk after being struck by a torpedo on November
13, 1941 off the Spanish coast. That fateful torpedo was fired by U-81, under the command of Friedrich Guggenberger. The blast
hit amidships between the fuel bunkers and bomb store and directly below the ship’s bridge island. Only one seaman,
named Mitchell, was killed, but the torpedo tore a 130-foot-wide hole on the starboard side down to the bilge keel, flooded
the starboard boiler room, knocked out the starboard power train and severed the ship’s communication system.
The ship took on so much water that it soon was listing hard to starboard. Captain Loben Maund gave
the order to abandon ship. Admiral James Somerville ordered damage control back to the carrier and made a last ditch effort
to save the ship. They managed to re-light one of the boilers and restore power to the bilge pumps, and the tug Thames took
the cripples ship in tow, but they could not save the Ark Royal. The ship eventually turned over and sank. All of the crew
Captain Maund was later court martialed for not staying with his ship with a small crew to try to
save the Ark Royal. Maund was guilty of putting concern for the lives of his crew above that of saving his ship.
A report later determined that there was a design flaw that played a major role in the loss of the
Ark Royal. The ship was totally dependent on electricity from its boilers and steam dynamos, and lacked a back-up generation
system to help in damage control.