The Sinking of HMS Ark Royal

The Sinking of HMS Ark Royal

HMS Ark Royal
HMS Ark Royal

Launched in 1937, the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal would see much distinguished service during the Second World War. She found herself involved in some of the earliest sinkings of German U-boats, supporting operations in Norway and the hunt for the mighty German battleship Bismarck. As the war progressed, she took part in the vital convoys to the besieged island of Malta. However, on 13/14 November 1941 her luck violently ran out.

In early November, Ark Royal had been tasked with ferrying aircraft to Malta, after which she turned back for Gibraltar.  At this time a warning had been issued that German U-boats were known to be operating off the coast of Spain; one of these was U-81 under the command of the 26-year old Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Guggenberger.

It would be around 3:40pm when the sonar of HMS Legion, an L-class destroyer, detected an unidentified sound. However, it was decided that the sound was in fact coming from the propellers of another ship in the convoy; it would turn out to be a fateful mistake. Moments later, a torpedo slammed into the side of the Ark Royal at a point directly below her bridge island. As the torpedo exploded, an horrific and powerful shudder was felt throughout the ship, the force of which threw fully loaded torpedo-bombers on the flight deck into the air, killing Able Seaman Edward Mitchell. Guggenberger had claimed his latest victory.

Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Guggenberger
Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Guggenberger

Recalling the moment Ark Royal was hit was Lieutenant-Commander Hector Maclean: ‘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 torpedo had created a fatal 130-by-30-foot gash in Ark Royal’s hull, part of which was below the waterline. Water began to flood into the starboard boiler room, and as it rushed in, power to the stern of the vessel was lost, and electronic communications systems failed all over the ship. This failure left Captain Loben Maud, Ark Royal’s commanding officer, with little option but to send a runner to the engine room to order a full stop, a costly delay which caused the hole to grow bigger as the ship continued to plough forward.

Within 20 minutes of the torpedo strike, Ark Royal was listing 18° to starboard. Maund, who feared his ship was about to rapidly sink, now ordered his men to abandon ship. Seeing the stricken carrier, the Legion came alongside in an attempt to take off the men. This rapid evacuation resulted in many damage control measures not being taken, and so the flooding was virtually left unchecked. All remaining power was soon lost.

HMS Ark Royal heavily listing to starboard
HMS Ark Royal heavily listing to starboard

Seaman Cliff Wilson recalled how Ark Royal began to dangerously list: ‘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.’

Despite what appeared to be a catastrophic situation, the Ark Royal seemed to have become stabilised within about an hour and a half of the torpedo strike. Admiral James Somerville, therefore, took the decision to order men back aboard the carrier in the hope of saving her. These damage control parties re-lit Ark Royal’s boilers, while HMS Laforey came alongside to provide much needed pumps and power.

One of the men to go back aboard Ark Royal was Lieutenant Philip Gick: ‘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.’

HMS Legion alongside the listing HMS Ark Royal
HMS Legion alongside the listing HMS Ark Royal

At around 8pm, a tug arrived from Gibraltar to tow the carrier back to port, but by now the flooding had increased and Ark Royal began listing even more heavily. Between 2am and 2.30am, the list had reached 20°, and those still aboard were finally told to abandon ship. This second evacuation, again conducted by the Legion, was complete by 4:30am. Incredibly, apart from the unfortunate Mitchell, all of the ship’s 1,487 crew mercifully survived the sinking and were taken to Gibraltar.

Finally, at around 6:20am on 14 November, Ark Royal capsized after reaching a list of 45°. It is said the ship rolled over to 90°, holding position for around three minutes after which she inverted. Breaking into two, her aft section disappeared under the waves first, followed by her bow.

Maund would be court-martialled in early 1942 for failing to ensure damage control parties remained aboard in an attempt to save his ship, and for failing to ensure the ship was prepared to deal with the damage she received. However, it was recognised that Maund was greatly concerned about loss of life amongst his crew, since the carrier HMS Courageous had sank rapidly after being torpedoed in 1939 by U-29, resulting in the tragic loss of over 500 of her crew. In reality, Ark Royal likely sank more due to her design than the actions of her captain.

Ark Royal would remain lost to the world until December 2002, when she was rediscovered by C & C Technologies, Inc, an American based underwater survey company, which had been contracted by the BBC for the making of an historical documentary about the ship. Her remains lay some 30 nautical miles off Gibraltar at a depth of about 1,000 metres.

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