Iconic Ships 10: Ark Royal

October 2021

Today we are merging this month’s theme on airpower with one of our running series – on iconic ships – in which we ask the curator of an existing historic ship to make the case for their ship being iconic or we ask a historian to make the case for a long-lost ship being iconic. Today we are certainly in the ‘long-lost category’ as the vessel in question – the carrier HMS Ark Royal – was torpedoed and sunk off Gibraltar in 13 November 1941.

HMS Ark Royal, launched in 1937, represented a breakthrough in the design of aircraft carriers and she went on to serve in crucial theatres at the beginning of World War Two that redefined the nature of air power at sea, being involved in U-Boat hunting, convoy protection, the key naval campaigns in Norway, Italy and Malta and the hunt of the German battleship Bismarck.

To find out more about this extraordinary ship Dr Sam Willis spoke with Matthew Willis, a writer of naval and aviation history. Matt has written numerous titles on the British Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War and interwar period, as well as a biography of 1940s test pilot Duncan Menzies, and runs the website NavalAirHistory.com.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This week we are continuing our theme of air power at sea. I hope you enjoyed the last episode in which I discussed the excellent question “How to drive an aircraft carrier?” with three Royal Naval flag officers Rear Admiral David Snelson, Rear Admiral Roy Clare and Vice Admiral Jerry Kydd who is current Fleet Commander of the Royal Navy. Today we are merging this theme with one of our long-running series on ‘Iconic Ships’, a series in which we ask the curator of an existing historic ship to make the case for their ship being iconic, or we ask a historian to make the case for a long-lost ship being iconic. Today we are certainly in the long-lost category as the vessel in question, the carrier HMS Ark Royal, was torpedoed and sunk off Gibraltar on the 13th of November 1941. To find out more about this ground-breaking ship, though I’m not sure ground-breaking is the right word for a vessel at sea, I nevertheless spoke with Matthew Willis, a writer of naval and aviation history.

    Matt has written numerous titles on the British Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War and interwar period, as well as a biography of the 1940’s test pilot Duncan Menzies and runs the website NavalAirHistory.com. Matt has a book coming out in November ‘Fleet Air Arm Legends: Fairey Swordfish’, which to my eyes has got Christmas present written all over it. He lives in Southampton, but you can follow him in the online virtual world on Twitter @NavalAirHistory – and I would urge you all to do so. Here’s Matt.

    Matt, thank you very much for joining me today.

    Matthew Willis

    Sam, it’s a pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    So, I think let’s start with a general introduction to Ark Royal: what can you tell us?

    Matthew Willis

    Well, HMS Ark Royal, was probably the first real sort of modern aircraft carrier, really capable modern aircraft carrier built as such for the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1937, sunk only four years later in 1941. But she remains one of the best known and affectionately remembered warships in the Royal Navy in the 20th century, really. She was just known as Ark, famous for the crucial role she played in hunting and sinking the German battleship Bismarck, for sort of holding the line in the Mediterranean in the sort of early part of Second World War as the Royal Navy was really kind of on the back foot. And her loss in November 1941 was sort of it really hit the Royal Navy and the British people quite hard because she was such a popular ship.

    Sam Willis

    It’s interesting, you say the first purpose-built carrier, let’s just explain a little about that for those who don’t know. What’s the early history of carriers or non-purpose build carriers? What happened there?

    Matthew Willis

    Well, aircraft carriers evolved out of a kind of ship that was called a seaplane carrier, which as the name suggests, was just a ship for carrying around seaplanes for different places to operate them off the water. And during the First World War, they evolved in such a way that they could fly, kind of land aircraft off just a sort of simple flight deck. And by the end of the First World War, you had a ship called HMS Furious, which was almost a modern aircraft carrier – it was a big fast seaplane carrier, really, that had been converted from a battlecruiser with a big flight deck on the foredeck and aft. And there were experiments with that. And then sort of towards the end of the war, just after the war, it was converted into the first sort of fully flushed deck ship. So, you’ve really got like a miniature airfield on the top of a ship, and you can operate, land aircraft with wheels, straight off the ship without having to sort of crane them in and out of the water. And this evolved over the interwar period into a sort of integral part of the Royal Navy’s tactics and sort of order of battle.

    Sam Willis

    So, I think other people might be also familiar with the name Ark Royal because the one we’re talking about the carrier 1937 by no means was the first Ark Royal in the Royal Navy.

    Matthew Willis

    No, absolutely. Well, the first ship obviously goes right back to the Spanish Armada and was Raleigh’s ship originally, and then it was one of the key sort of ships in the fight against the Spanish Armada. And this name sort of was dormant for a long time in the Royal Navy. And it was resurrected during the First World War for one of the seaplane carriers that I was talking about. With this sort of converted merchantman – it’s a really unlikely ship to bear this famous name. But the idea behind it was it was to carry aircraft that were to defeat the new armada of zeppelin airships that were operated by the German Navy and that were sort of going to be seen as a possible increasing threat to the Royal Navy’s operations. And from then on, it sort of – it became famous – it was applied to this first purpose-built carrier. That was really this sort of, you know, one of the prototypes of the modern aircraft carrier as we understand it today. Most of the ships before that, certainly in the Royal Navy, had been a convergence of other ships. So existing warships or merchantmen, or liners or something like that. And there was only one little carrier called Hermes, which was a purpose-built very much an experimental ship during the interwar period. So, Ark Royal was kind of the concentration of all those lessons and all that kind of building up knowledge from those ships that went into 1937 for the first real modern British aircraft carrier.

    Sam Willis

    So, she’s the first modern British aircraft carrier, but she’s the third Ark Royal that actually served in the Royal Navy. Let’s think about what was going on in the early to mid-1930s when the Royal Navy is considering this new generation of aircraft carriers, but they’re very much restricted by certain kind of rules and regulations, aren’t they?

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, absolutely. So, we’ve got the various naval treaties of the interwar period, the Washington Treaty and the London Treaty, which restrict the tonnage that various navies around the world are allowed to build in various kinds of ships. And aircraft carriers are considered capital ships. So, you’ve got to balance the tonnage of aircraft carriers you build against the battleships and battlecruisers. And most navies are still pretty wedded to their big gun warships at the time, so there’s a – they have to be careful about the number of aircraft carriers they build, and they have to be careful about the size of them. Because everything like that is eating into this total that they’re allowed until the treaties kind of are abandoned towards the end of the 1930s. So, Ark Royal is a bit of a balancing act. One of the features you can see that sort of relates from that is she’s got this very distinctive overhanging flight deck at the stern and the flight deck really kind of projects quite far out from the stern, which you don’t see on many aircraft carriers. But the idea behind that was to keep the water length, the waterline length relatively short so she was manoeuvrable, it keeps the tonnage down, but it also maximises the size of the flight deck.

    Sam Willis

    I mean what number of aircraft are we talking about here.

    Matthew Willis

    Ark Royal was quite good for the number of aircraft that she could carry relative to sort of slightly later British carriers; she could carry around 50 depending on the size of the machine and the type of machine. So, the main weapon will be the torpedo bomber or TSR as it was known at the time – so Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance. It would fulfil all those roles, which the main one, of course, is the famous Fairey Swordfish, and fighter aircraft as well. So, at the beginning of the Second World War, just in the late 1930s, you’d be looking at the Blackburn Skua – sort of two-seat monoplane naval fighter, which sort of folded down quite small, but it was you know, larger than something like a Hurricane or Spitfire. And those would be the kind of aircraft and the sort of numbers that Ark Royal would be carrying – sort of 40 to 50.

    Sam Willis

    And was that because of the strategy that they would be used to protect trade? Is that what people had in mind for the use of carriers like Ark Royal?

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, very much so. When Ark Royal was built, it was very much the trade protection and looking at the trade routes, the sea routes to connecting the Empire, so you know, over quite large distances and out into the Pacific. So, you’d be looking at aircraft that could range far and wide – that wouldn’t be going too close to land. Wouldn’t need to be bothered about land-based aircraft, but they will be out at sea patrolling, doing reconnaissance for surface raiders, and things like that. That was kind of the thinking that framed the way Ark Royal, and her air group work were originally designed.

    Sam Willis

    And when it came to sort of the early service of the Second World War, is that what she ended up doing? Did she end up doing the job she was designed for or not?

    Matthew Willis

    Absolutely not. Well, I say that, actually, to be fair, in the first months of the Second World War, sort of up to the end of 1939, she was doing a bit of that she was involved in the hunt for the Graf Spee. She was using her aircraft to – as a sort of part of a kind of task group with surface warships to hunt down these raiders. And she did do a bit of that. She missed Garf Spee, unfortunately, by probably less than 100 miles at one point. And it ended up, it is quite ironic, that one of the few hunting groups that were out there without a carrier was the one that actually tracked down Graf Spee and brought her to action. But after that, the first of the main thing that she did after that, was the Norwegian Campaign, which was completely at odds with what Ark Royal had been designed and intended for. She was very sort of close into restricted waters, quite close into the coast, within range of land-based aircraft. And she was really sort of almost then the prototype of the modern strike carrier, sort of sitting off the shore and projecting power rather than being way out at sea and protecting trade routes. So, it was not something that the Royal Navy had foreseen but she’s she stepped into that role and was more successful than I think anyone had any right to expect.

    Sam Willis

    Let’s sort of paint the picture of the Norwegian Campaign. So, spring of 1940 and the Germans they’re beginning to occupy Denmark and Norway, which had before been neutral. What was the challenge for the Royal Navy there?

    Matthew Willis

    I think the challenge for the Royal Navy was, as I said before, in a sense that this was not a role that they’d anticipated for the Fleet Air Arm. And they were having to adjust their tactics and their strategy and how they really waged this war. Ark Royal was not an armoured carrier; the later generation of carriers that were just coming along just after this point, had armoured flight decks, so they had a lot better protection against air attack. Whereas Ark Royal was quite well protected against torpedoes and things like that, although ironically, it would be a torpedo that later sank her, but she had quite good underwater protection, but nothing really above the surface that was focused on aircraft. And then you also had the sort of systems that were not in place at the time. So, the very successful fighter direction that would later become a feature of Fleet Air Arm operations just didn’t exist at the time. Ark Royal herself didn’t have any radar. So, she didn’t have any way of detecting incoming air raids, of which there were quite a few during the Norwegian Campaign. Certainly, once the Germans, the Luftwaffe got established on Norwegian airfields, they could send out quite frequent and quite large air raids to attack the Royal Navy shipping that was trying to sort of prevent them from overrunning the country completely. And this was sort of something that had to be kind of cobbled together. So, there was a cruiser that had a relatively new radar set and she would work in partnership with Ark Royal kind of radioing through – signalling through -the air raids that were coming in and allowing Ark Royal to direct her aircraft. And it worked pretty well. It was a sort of cobbled-together arrangement and it really focused on learning for the Mediterranean and later operations. But yes, it was very much the Royal Navy learning as it went.

    Sam Willis

    And what role, in thinking about the Norwegian campaign here, what particular role did her aircraft have? Were they sort of more focused with the submarine threat or with land operations?

    Matthew Willis

    The chief focus of Ark Royal’s aircraft in this phase was mostly support of the land operations. It was a variety of operations. So, she was doing anti-submarine cover for the fleet. She was doing reconnaissance. She was doing some sort of, you know, air attacks against German shipping, not that there was very much that was getting involved at the time. It was predominantly air cover for the land forces. And providing a sort of fighter umbrella above the land forces to defend against bombers. So, the Skua fighters again were sort of mainly be patrolling above the troops and the Swordfish were doing things like trying to attack aerodromes, performing reconnaissance, you know, dropping messages and things like that. So, this was not a role that had been anticipated for those aircraft especially beforehand, but they got involved quite heavily in that side of things.

    Sam Willis

    And the fleet’s under pretty constant attack as well. I mean there’s a significant defensive role going on here isn’t there?

    Matthew Willis

    Oh absolutely! Yes. So, the fleet is coming under quite frequent air attack and there are stories from people who were involved at the time of Ark Royal’s flight deck just being thick with the shell casings from the anti-aircraft guns that have just been going off – the barrels kind of red hot constantly. And the aircraft which are you know, not designed for this but they’ve got to try and ward off these bombers. So, Ark Royal doesn’t but a couple of the other carriers have some sort of borrowed, well not really borrowed, but Gladiator fighters that have been converted really from RAF aircraft and just used as a sort of stopgap. And they’ve got these Skuas, which were designed as a dive bomber and reconnaissance aircraft which are, you know they’re not great air to air but the Fleet Air Arm pilot’s kind of find ways to make them work. So, they are sort of orbiting at slightly higher altitudes which allows them to dive in on the bombers as they come in and actually kind of gain some performance from speed in the dive. And the first Fleet Air Arm ace is a fella called William Lucy who gets all his kills on a Skua, which is a very sort of unlikely aircraft for an aerial ace, but he’s the first Royal Navy pilot to secure his five kills and he does that in the Skua, chiefly over the Norwegian Campaign

    Sam Willis

    It’s good work in a Skua, isn’t it? Everything changes then that summer because of the Mediterranean and opening up a new front there. And this is primarily – Italy declares war on Britain and it changes everything, doesn’t it?

    Matthew Willis

    Absolutely. Because the Mediterranean has been a backwater until that point. It’s been a sort of useful quiet place where the Royal Navy can send its squadrons to train and its ships don’t have a great deal to do. And then suddenly it’s a hotbed of activity. And then you have things like the Suez Canal which needs to be protected and Malta which is simultaneously a place that has to be protected but is useful for its offensive capacity as well for the access supply lines across the Mediterranean, Malta is a knife at its throat, so the Royal Navy has a huge role in trying to keep Malta from falling. And then sort of supplying convoys to North Africa and supplying material to the armies in North Africa now finding themselves fighting. So, yes it causes a major headache for the British for the Royal Navy really just overnight.

    Sam Willis

    And it was interesting to read about Ark being involved in the attack on the French Navy because this becomes a serious problem, isn’t it? You know, you’ve got the surrender of France, but what do you do with the French Navy?

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, very much so. And the, I mean, the German Navy is something to worry about, but it hasn’t developed its capabilities; it’s still a work in progress, it doesn’t have the big surface powerful ships – quite so many of them. The French Navy, however, does and it’s potentially a big threat in the Mediterranean either if France becomes an enemy, or if those ships find their way into German hands. So, you have these operations called Operation Catapult and Operation Menace which are designed really to take those powerful ships out of play and kind of try to deal with the political ramifications of threatening to attack someone who was quite recently your major ally and not sort of making things worse in those scenarios. So, you know, Ark Royal was involved in the – in one end of the Mediterranean things go quite well and Alexandria – the French sort of disarm peacefully and agree not to be a problem for the Royal Navy – whereas at the other end, Mers-el-Kebir, they’re much more unwilling to put their weapons down and take the ships out of use. So, the Royal Navy, Ark Royal, in particular, finds itself in a stand-up fight with a navy and a country that had been a solid ally just really weeks before. And the first sort of attack on major warships, like battleships and battlecruisers that the Fairey Swordfish and Ark Royal take part in were against the French rather than against the Germans or Italians, which I think probably not many people are aware of.

    Sam Willis

    It’s surprising, isn’t it how are all of these sort of jigsaw pieces fall into place because the next problem is the Italians and Italian fleet at Toronto. This is the winter following this – the November of 1940. And I thought this was fascinating. So, Ark’s not fully involved in that battle at Toronto, the raid on Toronto, but was involved in this diversionary raid on Sicily, which I hadn’t heard about.

    Matthew Willis

    Yes. I mean, obviously, one of the issues for HMS Illustrious, and the force in the other half of the Mediterranean that was trying to take out as much of the Italian fleet as possible was to remain secret for as long as possible and not to give the game away. So, one of the ways that Ark Royal, over in the eastern Mediterranean, could help was with these diversionary raids. And one of the things they were getting quite good at was night raids. So, they take part in this diversionary raid on airfields on Sicily just really in order to keep the Italians kind of looking the other way until the last moment.

    Sam Willis

    And it wasn’t just Sicily was it because they were involved in attacks in Sardinia as well.

    Matthew Willis

    Yes. I mean, one of the targets on Sardinia was this huge dam with a hydroelectric plant, which produced the majority of electricity for the island. So, one of the things that that Ark Royal’s aircraft were sent to do was to go and kind of try and carry out this early Dam busters raid on Sardinia – and do this with torpedoes. And there was bad weather, really horrible visibility, and they had trouble even finding it and really heavy anti-aircraft fire. But four Swordfish managed to find their way and attack the dam and they did actually do some damage to it though unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to sort of create a breach although – so that would have been a sort of early Dam busters in the Royal Navy getting there first – they didn’t quite manage it, but it was you know, it’s quite an audacious raid.

    Sam Willis

    In the following spring, she gets a new armament or new fighters she gets, some new fighters, how significant was that to her operational ability?

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, well the Fairey Fulmar, which is the first sort of Merlin-powered fighter that the Navy’s got – the first with eight guns – is still a two-seater, and it doesn’t quite have the sort of performance of the Hurricanes and Spitfires, but it’s a step up from the Skua: It’s got twice the armament that the Skua does, it’s a good chunk faster, and it feels like a fighter which I think the fighter squadrons in the Fleet Air Arm had not really felt like they had to hands on something that was they could do much in the way of aerial combat with before and now they did. And this was sort of an important increase in capability and at the same time the fighter direction is improving. And one of the things that makes a success of the Fulmar is that the controllers are able to put them, put the aircraft, where they need to be so it’s sort of quite an important boost in performance. And it’s got a good range, it’s useful as a reconnaissance aircraft it can sort of escort the Swordfish all the way to the target in most cases, so things are improving slightly from the aircraft front.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, it feels like a significant moment, doesn’t it because it happens just before I suppose the action, she’s most famous for. That spring, you’ve got Britain kind of keeping the hopes of the war alive with these crucial maritime convoys coming in, and the British are terrified of a German battleship getting into the Atlantic and then worst of all, it happens, Bismarck breaks out.

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, absolutely. And Bismarck is the most powerful, certainly the most powerful Krieg marine ship at the time, arguably the most powerful battleship in the world; very heavily armoured, she could quite easily take on any battleship that’s in the Royal Navy at the time. And could handle sort of the kind of escorts that had been applied to convoys at the time. So, she had the power to potentially overwhelm the warships and go and make havoc among the convoys. So, it was really, when she broke out into the Atlantic in spring 41, it was absolutely imperative that she be stopped. And if you think of the sort of the fear and the effort that they’d been over the Graf Spee, which was a much less powerful ship, the terror that there was over the Bismarck being able to get out into the Atlantic – into those wide-open wastes where it’d be really difficult to find her – it was a really serious kind of issue in the war with Britain totally dependent on supplies from overseas and out of European allies at this time so it was a really dangerous moment.

    Sam Willis

    And then I mean, it wasn’t just the planes from Ark Royal which finally defeat Bismarck there’s Victorious, who also plays a role, doesn’t she?

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, absolutely. And Victorious is one of the new armoured carriers that’s sort of really designed for the Mediterranean theatre. So, it’s sort of ironic that she sees her first major action out in the Atlantic. And she’s barely – she’s not quite worked up: her squadron of Swordfish has not fully trained, they’re really sort of thrown into the fight because there’s no alternative and in an ideal world you wouldn’t be putting such an unprepared ship into such important battle. But it was really essential that her aircraft, get into the fight and try and do what they could. And to be fair to them, they step up to the plate: they fly off an attack, they find Bismarck, and they put a couple of torpedoes into her. And these don’t do anything, they cause no significant damage. When I say significant damage, that’s kind of – that’s a bit of a debated point because they didn’t sink her, they didn’t do the kind of damage that Ark Royal Swordfish did later, but there was one torpedo hit on her armour belt, which had potentially loosened the repairs that had been done earlier to a shell hit that she’d received from HMS Prince of Wales, caused further flooding and – well actually it’s not in doubt that the attack of Victorious’s aircraft actually caused that damage, caused further flooding, caused further leaks into a fuel tank because it was either caused by the torpedo or it was caused by Bismarck manoeuvring to try and avoid the torpedo. So, either way, we can chalk that one up to Victorious’s Swordfish and that slowed Bismarck down a little bit, and it meant that it was – she had no choice but to try and put into a French port where she might have had other options before that.

    Sam Willis

    But along comes the aircraft from Ark Royal and finish her off.

    Matthew Willis

    Well not quite as simple as that. Because first, they attack HMS Sheffield out of a mistake.

    Sam Willis

    Oh! Tell me about that. What happened there?

    Matthew Willis

    Right. So yes, HMS Sheffield has been sent forward to keep tabs on Bismarck with her radar. There’s a breakdown in communication and nobody tells the aircrew from Ark Royal that there’s a friendly warship in the area they think that the only major warship they’re likely to come across is Bismarck. Now out in the Atlantic at the time, terrible weather, terrible visibility, it’s not easy to see any ship at all. So, when they come upon a big grey ship, bristling with guns, they make an assumption, and they attack it. And fortunately for them, the captain is on his game realises that these are friendly aircraft and doesn’t fire back with his anti-aircraft guns. He manages to avoid most of the torpedoes but some of them crucially blow up as they hit the water. And this is a surprise to the Swordfish crew as well as the captain of Sheffield, quite a welcome surprise in both cases because they realise that there’s something about their torpedoes that’s not right. This is a device that they’d actually put into torpedoes just before Taranto, and which had actually worked very successful in Taranto, which enables the torpedo to go under the warship and explode in proximity without actually making contact and exploding the more vulnerable area of the warship and it was generally a better thing to do than to try and hit it in the side where it’s nicely armoured. But these things aren’t working in the rough conditions that Ark Royal’s aircraft are facing. So, they realise that these duplex pistols as they’re called aren’t working so they head back to Ark Royal, tail slightly between their legs having attacked a friendly ship but having learned a valuable lesson and they change their torpedoes for ones with contact pistols that explode on contact.

    Sam Willis

    And do they do the job? What happens?

    Matthew Willis

    Right! So, the next attack they managed to find their way through the weather, you know, snow, blizzards, ice forming on the wings; and these open-cockpit biplanes, they’re kind of limping their way into the teeth of a gale and they find Bismarck. Bismarck is pelting them with anti-aircraft fire. The Swordfish are sort of dodging in and out of clouds to try and find a clear window to come in and attack. And they managed to get a couple of torpedoes on target, again one of them goes into the armour belt, which doesn’t do a great deal of damage. The other one crucially hits the stern near the rudders – sends a huge shock right through the stern of the ship – does kind of tremendous damage within the ship but most crucially it jams the rudder into a port turn. And Bismarck can’t free the rudder, so she’s now stuck in a very large circle going to port and this changes everything because she doesn’t have freedom of movement. She’s going in a circle rather than heading directly towards France. And there’s a big pack of Royal Navy warships who are heading in that direction and just sort of itching for the chance to get within gun range.

    Sam Willis

    And then is it she’s just destroyed sort of bit by bit?

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, sort of dismantled very much by the heavy gunnery and this sort of proves what a tough nut Bismarck was to crash – to crack – because even after having been disabled, having gone through several air attacks, not having freedom of manoeuvre, she still takes absolutely hours to be dismantled by the combined guns of half a dozen battleships and cruisers. They also try and put torpedoes into her. The Swordfish are sent out again with torpedoes but by the time they get there, it’s more or less certain that it’s just a matter of time, so they don’t then make another attack. But this was all really down to the Fairey Swordfish. And you can call it a lucky hit but, in essence, this was what the – this is what the Fleet Air Arm had been developed to do. Its main job, when it was being built up in the interwar period, was to act as a sort of an integral part of the battle fleet and for its aircraft to disable and damage the enemy battleships so that the Royal Navy warships can catch up and finish the job with the gun. And well they did finish the job – you can argue over whether Bismarck was scuttled or whether a torpedo sank her or whether the gunfire did the job eventually – she was no more use as an effective battleship regardless of what caused the final sinking. And that had come down to Ark Royal and Victorious as well – give her her due – and the Fairey Swordfish doing exactly the job for which they’d been developed.

    Sam Willis

    It’s amazing the sheer number of vessels, the number of people and the aircraft involved to actually finally sink Bismarck. If you compare it to what actually eventually happened to Ark Royal because the November following after all of her operations in Malta, she was struck by this torpedo and then just sinks. Tell us about this terrible moment at the end of Ark Royal’s life.

    Matthew Willis

    Well, yes, as you say she was hit by a single torpedo from a U-boat, which was unlucky. But it was – the submarine direct detection was not quite at the state it would be later on. Ark Royal has got reasonably good underwater protection – underwater subdivision and those sorts of protections and she doesn’t sink immediately, she takes on a list and other ships come to her aid. And initially, it looks like she could be saved. They take her in tow – they’re taking her towards Gibraltar. It shouldn’t be the end of the world. But there are flaws within Ark Royals design that are only just starting to become apparent with this torpedo that’s hit her in a fairly vital place. And as the listing continues, the water rises and crucially it blocks the uptakes for the funnel so the boiler fires go out and without steam, she’s finished essentially, she can’t – her pumps can’t continue to work, she can’t continue to do damage control; the lights are out below deck; the damage repair teams they’re fighting a losing battle by this stage. So, at this point, it’s just a matter of time and she’s almost within sight of Gibraltar when she finally rolls over and sinks. So, this is a huge blow to the Royal Navy, which doesn’t have much in the way of modern aircraft carriers. It’s had a couple of the new armoured ones coming through just in the sort of previous months. But Ark Royal has been – has proved – such a success that she can’t easily be replaced and it’s a big morale blow as well as a big tactical blow.

    Sam Willis

    But they did learn lessons, didn’t they? And it feels like, again, another sort of significant moment in the history of the war where this transition from carriers like Ark Royal to the new ones really does change everything.

    Matthew Willis

    Yes, I mean, they learn an awful lot about damage, and how to keep a ship in line when it’s been – when it’s received heavy damage. And about procedures as well, because there was this famous comment from the inquiry into HMS Courageous, an older carrier that had sunk early in the war, which was that against this process of counter flooding, which is if a ship takes a hit below the waterline and starts listing, one of the ways you can try and deal with that is to flood compartments on the other side to try and bring it level again, so it doesn’t eventually roll over and capsize, which happens to Ark Royal. But they don’t do this on Ark Royal, and one of the reasons is because the criticism over Courageous when the Board of Inquiry made a sort of rather a sniffy statement to the effect of it’s the enemy’s job to let water into a ship and he should not be assisted in his job by the Royal Navy counter flooding its own ships. So, this was the kind of sniffy line which has sort of hung over the heads of damage control parties was sort of quickly swept out of the lexicon and it was realised that actually let’s discourage the process of counter flooding. And I think it’s possible that it could have helped save Ark Royal, but it was a wake-up call in all kinds of respects.

    Sam Willis

    Well, it’s a wonderful story, Matt, thank you very much for sharing it with us. And I’m pleased that Ark Royal is the first aircraft carrier in our ‘Iconic Ship’ series. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

    Matthew Willis

    You’re very welcome.

    Sam Willis

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