The 1920s and 1930s were dotted with many naval military warships designed under the constraints of the Washington Naval Treaty signed in 1922. The treaty attempted to reign in a new arms race such as the one that contributed to World War 1 (1914-1918) and overall tonnage of this new generation of vessels was the primary concern. HMS Ark Royal (91), a straight deck aircraft carrier of the British Royal Navy, was one such product of the period. Her arrival marked the first truly "modern" aircraft carrier in Royal Navy service for the last carrier addition of note was a remodeled HMS Glorious in 1930 and she was originally constructed in 1915 as a battlecruiser and converted to aircraft carrier form in 1924.
HMS Ark Royal was ordered in 1934 during the military rearmament of many of the major European players and was laid down on September 16th, 1935 by Cammell Laird & Company Ltd. She was launched on April 13th, 1937 and was formally commissioned on December 16th, 1938. During her time at sea, the vessel earned the nickname of "The Lucky Ship" and fought under the motto of "Zeal Does Not Rest".
Because of the time between major carrier designs for the Royal Navy, many new and revolutionary features were implemented into Ark Royal. Her hangars and flight deck were integrated into the hull from the outset as opposed to being simply added on to the superstructure. This produced a very modern arrangement which sat the island superstructure along starboard and allowed the straight-line flight deck be relatively free of obstructions. Three hangar elevators served the flight deck in aircraft launching and recovery efforts, aircraft being pulled from one of the two available hangar decks. One of the more unique features of her design was in the implementation of armor protection across her flight deck and hangar areas for improved survivability (the hangar walls were attached directly to the main hull understructure). Her belt was protected over in up to 4.5" armor thickness and her deck covered in 3.5" of armor. Designed to carry as many as seventy-two aircraft, her typical fielding was closer to fifty with her early complement made up of Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers and Blackburn Skua dive bombers / fighters of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). These aircraft were launch-assisted by "accelerators" which were essentially catapults by another name. Overall dimensions of the vessel included a length of 800 feet, a beam of 94.9 feet, and a draught of 28 feet.
Armament, purely defensive in nature, was 16 x 114mm (4.5") Dual-Purpose (DP) high-elevation guns in eight twin-gunned mounts supported by 32 x 2-pounder "Pom Pom" 40mm Anti-Aircraft (AA) systems showcased as four eight-gunned emplacements. 8 x 0.50 caliber heavy machine guns provided a last line-of-defense for the ship.
Her machinery consisted of 6 x Admiralty 3-drum boiler units feeding 3 x Parsons geared steam turbines through 102,000 horsepower driving 3 x shafts under stern. She could make headway at up to 31 knots in ideal conditions and held a range out to 8,700 miles. Fast for her size, well-armored, and carrying a healthy contingent of warplanes, HMS Ark Royal was an upgrade from previous Royal Navy attempts at carrier construction.
Britain went to war with Germany in September of 1939 and Ark Royal's career was in hunting down German U-boats. The first British air kill of World War 2 - a Dornier Do 18 seaplane - came from Blackburn Skuas launched from Ark Royal in September. In a subsequent attack by German warplanes, the carrier survived though she was reported sunk by German media . The next month, HMS Ark Royal joined a British naval contingent sent to the southern Atlantic in search of the German cruiser Graf Spee which was bent on disrupting Allied commerce activity. The hunt eventually forced the Graf Spee into harbor at Montevideo, Uruguay for repairs in December. Due to the presence of the British fleet outside of neutral Uruguay, the German vessel was eventually emptied of its crew and scuttled on December 17th, removing her from the war for good. Ark Royal escorted the damaged cruiser HMS Exeter to Devonport for repairs and arrived there in February of 1941.
Ark Royal was then committed to the Norway Campaign where her aircraft could provide air cover for other warships and her facilities could also be used in engaging submarine. Its aircraft was also used in bombing shore-based enemy targets when possible. The vessel's "reach" was essentially limited by the operational ranges of these aircraft so her impact was somewhat restricted during the campaign. She supported a landing of Allied troops at Narvik though Norway was eventually lost forcing the evacuation of any remaining forces. Ark Royal continued to support the operation through her air power and later (unsuccessfully) hunted the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst for their work in sinking HMS Glorious, HMS Acasta, and HMS Ardent. A coordinated response against Scharnhorst backfired on June 13th with 53% of the launching aircraft being downed and Scharnhorst left undamaged.
HMS Ark Royal was then relocated to the Mediterranean Sea for June 23rd where she was to continue the fight against the Italians. In November, she participated in the Battle of Cape Spartivento which resulted in rather inconclusive results for both sides (one ship damaged on either side).
For early 1941, Ark Royal was dispatched with Force H in search of the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst who were headed for Atlantic waters to combat Allied shipping. This action once again came up empty for the fleet. In April, the carrier was used to deliver aircraft to beleaguered forces at Malta and undertook some convoy protection duties as well. Her aircraft successfully fended off attacks from both Italian and German warplanes in a convoy action en route to North Africa.
Ark Royal was then pressed into the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck which had eluded Allied warplanners for some time and was now threatening commerce in the Atlantic along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. One of Ark Royal's Fairey Swordfish aircraft spotted the massive battleship and the Royal Navy sprung to the pursuit. Her torpedo warplanes eventually laid three torpedoes into the enemy warship which caused it to sail in circles before ultimately sinking on May 27th.
More Mediterranean convoy sorties and aircraft deliveries followed - particularly to Malta. This would mark the last chapter of the British vessel for, on November 10th, 1941, HMS Ark Royal caught a torpedo at midships which caused considerable damage before introducing flooding. The flooding then produced a noticeable list to starboard which only worsened the situation for the survivors. The order was given to abandon ship with thought given to retaining a skeleton crew for damage control and possibly saving the stricken vessel. However, all was deemed lost as the warship continued to list and take on water. All but one crew survived after being rescued.
The aircraft carrier rolled over, broke in two, and sank to the bottom of the sea some 30 miles from Gibraltar. The loss was scrutinized extensively and led to improved measures regarding flood control and backup power sources for future British vessels.
The remains of the vessel were located in December of 2002 by a documentary film crew.
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