She was a legend in her own short lifetime.
The loss of HMS Ark Royal was almost as numbing to beleaguered Britain as the sinking of HMS Hood six months earlier.
She entered service in November 1938 as a revolutionary design in aircraft carriers, but exactly three years later she lay 3,000 feet on the seabed 30 nautical miles from Gibraltar.
In that short time, she won fame in action, including the hunt for the Graf Spee, the Norway Campaign, Malta convoys and the Battle of Cape Spartivento.
Tim says: ‘My father served in her as a warrant officer and I found several pictures and memorabilia in his sea chest. However, I was surprised there was no reference in The News’ photo montage to, or photos of, the carrier’s key role in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck.
‘It will be the 80th anniversary of that epic battle on May 27 and had it not been for Ark Royal’s Swordfish, the 42,000-ton Nazi raider, which had been causing havoc to British merchant shipping, would have escaped.’
Just three days earlier, Bismarck had sunk the flagship of the British Fleet, the battle cruiser HMS Hood, which blew up in the Denmark Strait with only three survivors from the company of 1,419 – one of them was Signalman, later Lieutenant Ted Briggs MBE from Lambourne Close, Fareham – and seriously damaged the Royal Navy’s newly completed battleship HMS Prince of Wales.
But two of Prince of Wales’s 14-inch shells hit Bismarck, one of them causing a serious oil leak and the German squadron commander Admiral Günther Lütjens ordered the ship to make to Saint Nazaire in occupied France for repairs.
HMS Hood’s disastrous encounter with Bismarck stunned the nation.
Prime minister Winston Churchill ordered all Royal Navy warships in the area to pursue the Nazi goliath and such was the tone of immediate revenge in the PM’s message that six battleships/battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers – HMS Ark Royal and HMS Victorious – 13 cruisers and 21 destroyers were committed to hound down the enemy.
Despite the damage, Bismarck was still capable of 28 knots and unless she could be slowed, there was no chance of British battleships catching up to engage.
Six Fairey Fulmars and nine Fairey Swordfish from 825 Naval Air Squadron were launched from Victorious and attacked Bismarck which dodged eight of their torpedoes, but the 9th struck the armoured belt amidships, causing little damage but exacerbating previous damage during evasive manoeuvres, initially slowing the battleship to 16 knots before damage control teams managed sufficient repairs to allow speed to be increased back to 28 knots.
By dawn on May 25, the search turned into a frenzy after Lütjens had outmanoeuvred shadowing cruisers and slipped out of radar range. And the pursuers were running short of fuel, but after more delays because of the misreading of intercepted German messages, an order to the Luftwaffe to provide air cover as Bismarck changed course for Brest was decoded.
The navy was in the last chance saloon. Everything now depended on Force H commanded by Admiral James Somerville... and Ark Royal.
At 10.30am on May 26, a Catalina flying boat from Coastal Command in Northern Ireland found Bismarck 790 miles north west of Brest and only 60 miles from Ark Royal, whose Swordfish launched two attacks, the second sealing Bismarck’s fate when one torpedo struck amidships causing minor damage and then, what proved ultimately to be the coup de grace, the second exploded near the port rudder shaft and the giant warship’s steering was instantly locked in a 12-degree inescapable circle of death and destruction.
Destroyers kept the Germans busy throughout the night until the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney broadsided Bismarck at an eight-mile range reducing the decks, turrets and superstructure to utter devastation within 90 minutes. The cruiser HMS Dorsetshire put three torpedoes into the wreck and Bismarck sank at 10.36am on May 27, 1941, with 110 survivors from a company of 2,200.
German propaganda claimed to have sunk Ark Royal on several occasions and they finally told the truth when, as part of Force H, she was torpedoed by U-81 at 3.41pm on November 13, 1941.
Only one of her company was killed, the other 1,487 being picked up after abandoning the heavily listing carrier.
Despite a brave effort to tow her to Gibraltar for repairs, weaknesses in the damage control and lack of training of personnel in dealing with flooding, which were rectified in later carriers, proved fatal and she capsized and sank at 6.19am the next day.
But The Ark and the Royal Navy’s subsequent carriers proved that the days of the likes of the ‘unsinkable’ pride of Hitler’s Kriegsmarine as capital ships were numbered.
A message from the editor, Mark Waldron.
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