"Zeal does not rest"

HMS Ark Royal was commissioned in December 1938,  at a time when war with Nazi Germany was becoming increasingly  likely. Her commanding officer, Captain Arthus Power, addressed his crew in January 1939 with the following words: "Is there any man here with his hand on his heart who can say that we will not be at war in six months?  It´s my job to get this ship welded together as a fighting ship."

Battle Honours and Service History

1939: September, Anti-submarine patrols off Northern Ireland; missed by 2 torpedoes from U39; 14 September near-miss by bomb from German aircraft; 26 September Germans announce Ark Royal sunk - the first of many.  February 1940: Anti-merchant-raider patrols in South Atlantic;  April-June 1940: Norwegian campaign.  10 April: Her aircraft sink German light cruiser Konigsberg; 12 June: strike against Scharnhorst at Trondheim ;  with Force "H" in Mediterranean Jun.-Oct. 1940; refit at Gibraltar July 1940; strike on Cagliari harbour 2 Aug. 1940; Dakar operation 23-25 September 1940; refit UK October-November 1940; action off Cape Spartivento November 1940; search for German heavy units in Atlantic; February-April 1941 ferried Hurricanes to Malta; May 1941 aircraft torpedo Bismarck 26 May 1941; ferried Hurricanes to Malta Jun.-Nov. 1941; strike against Sardinia 24 August 1941; strikes against Genoa, Leghorn and Spezia 9 September 1941; hit by one torpedo from U81 13 November 1941; sank 13nm from Gibraltar 14 November 1941, while under tow.

Born in New York and brought up in Ireland, 'Lord Haw-Haw', the man with the fake 'upper class' voice made propaganda broadcasts to Britain and Ireland from Nazi Germany throughout the war.  "Jairmany calling," he'd begin each broadcast, aimed at destroying British morale. Geoff Temple-Smith, a lieutenant in the 8th Army, was on his way to the Middle East in a convoy of ships, when 'Lord Haw-Haw' came on the radio and announced that the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal  had just been sunk- something he did on a regular basis, at the instigation of Joseph Goebells, Hitler's notorious propaganda minister. Geoff might have been bothered too if the Ark Royal  hadn't, at that very moment, been steaming happily alongside them!

My Father labelled this photograph, 'The Signal Boatswain has time for a quickie in the Old Ark Royal, 1940.

Ark Royal returned to the United Kingdom for refit, docking in Liverpool on 8 October 1940. The refit, which lasted until 3 November, included repairs to her machinery and the installation of a new flight deck barrier. During this period, my Father took four days well-earned leave and travelled south to Stapleford Tawney in Essex, staying with my Grandparents at Little Tawney Hall Farm, in order to spend time with my Mother. The farm was on the route frequently taken by German bombers, returning from raids on the East End of London. One night, Great Tawney Hall, my Great Uncle's farm, a mile down the lane from my Grandfather's farm, received the unwelcome attention of the Luftwaffe, by way of a stick of bombs, some of which set  the stackyard ablaze. Everyone was lying flat, with their heads under the sturdy kitchen table, when my Father commented, "It's a lot safer - and quieter - aboard the Ark Royal  in the  Liverpool docks!" 

HMS Glorious

Ark Royal and Glorious arrived at Scapa Flow on 23 April 1940, and were immediately redeployed as part of Operation DX. Sailing to Norway with the cruisers Curlew and Berwick and screened by the destroyers Hyperion, Hereward, Hasty, Fearless, Fury, and Juno. This was the first time the Royal Navy had deployed carriers with the primary purpose of providing fighter protection for other warships. The ships took up position on 25 April off the coast; Ark Royal positioned 120 nautical miles (220 km) offshore to reduce the chance of air attacks. The carrier's aircraft conducted anti-submarine patrols, provided fighter support for other ships, and carried out strikes against shipping and shore targets. Ark Royal returned to Scapa Flow on 27 April to refuel and replace lost and damaged aircraft, before heading back on the same day with the battleship HMS Valiant as escort. During the return, Ark Royal came under air attack from German Junkers JU88 and Heinkel HE111 aircraft operating from Norway. The carrier was undamaged, and resumed position on 29 April.

At midnight, 13 June 1940, a striking force of fifteen Skuas from HMS Ark Royal  attacked the German battleship Scharnhorst in Trondheim harbour. The striking force met heavy resistance and eight Skuas failed to return. My Father took this photograph of Ark Royal from HMS Renown, pictured below. As a Warrant Officer, he served as Signal Boatswain to Admiral Sir James Somerville, commanding  Force H, in both Ark Royal and Renown.

HMS Renown

Here's the Ark Royal again, this time under attack by the Italian air force, in the Mediterranean, south of Malta in July 1940. She seemed to lead a charmed life and was always in the thick of the action.

Perhaps Ark Royal's most notorious action was the key role she played during the chase of the battleship Bismarck in May 1941. Her Swordfish torpedo bombers crippled the German battleship, thus allowing Admiral Tovey's force to engage and sink her.

27th May 1941, Swordfish torpedo bombers ranged on deck in preparation for the attack on Bismark

Bismark from Prinz Eugen

The first enemy aircraft shot down by a Fleet Air Arm aircraft went to one of the Ark's Blackburn Skuas in late September 1939, then on 10 April 1940 her aircraft achieved another first when they bombed and sank the German light cruiser Konigsberg - the first instance of a major vessel being sunk by air attack.

Throughout her illustrious career, the Ark Royal was frequently in the Newspaper headlines and received many battle honours. After participating in the ill-fated Norwegian campaign, she moved to the Mediterranean, becoming  the nucleus of Admiral Sir James Somerville's Force "H. 

The realities of the British military situation had necessitated an urgent settlement of the French problem. As Churchill pondered, Germany was poised in the Low Countries and along the coast of France, ready to intensify its attack on the convoys carrying vital supplies to Britain. German bombing raids were already a frequent occurrence in many of Britain’s southeastern cities. In Berlin, Hitler was completing plans for the invasion of Britain–Operation Sea Lion.

To meet the invasion threat, the overriding concern for Churchill and his advisers was to concentrate the maximum possible naval strength in home waters. The uncertainty regarding the French fleet had to be dissipated as soon as possible in order for the British warships now shadowing the French to be released for operations elsewhere.

Because Britain was militarily inferior to her enemies, her only hope of survival during a protracted war was persuading outside powers to intervene on her behalf. Unfortunately, the predominant world opinion was that Britain would soon collapse.

In July 1940, Ark Royal's aircraft took part in operations against the French warships at Mers-el-Kebir, near Oran, mining the marked channel to the port and carrying out torpedo attacks on the battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg. On 1 August 1940, her aircraft bombed Cagliari, then in September were in action against French ships at Dakar. In November 1940, she saw action against the Italian fleet off Cape Spartivento, then from February to April 1941 Force "H" carried out an unsuccessful search for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the Atlantic.


Ark Royal was designed with the experience benefited from the previous 6 Fleet Carriers completed between 1918 and 1930. For this reason, and because she was designed as a fleet carrier from the start, she showed a considerable improvement over the earlier carriers and set the pattern for all subsequent fleet carriers. The flight deck, instead of being carried by the hull, was incorporated as part of its structure; the side plating continued up to the flight deck, resulting in a fully enclosed bow that was to become a distinctive feature of British aircraft carriers. The two hangars could accommodate 60-72 aircraft for 6 squadrons.

HMS Renown, Ark Royal and Sheffield

Ark Royal with Swordfish aloft

On 13 November 1941,while on her way to Gibraltar in company with the Malaya, Argus, Hermione and seven destroyers, the Ark Royal was attacked by the German submarine U-81. At 1541, a torpedo struck the starboard side and the ship immediately took a 10º list. Within 20 minutes, the list had increased to 18º, and the captain ordered all those not required to remain aboard to abandon ship. The destroyer Legion came alongside, taking most of the crew on board, leaving around 250 men who tried valiantly to save their ship.  Fourteen hours after being torpedoed, the Ark Royal rolled over and sank. Out of a crew of more than 1,500 officers and men, miraculously, only one man lost his life. It was reported that he had returned below decks, in order to retrieve his best reefer jacket.

The Fairey Swordfish - or 'Stringbag'

The Channel Dash, known officially as Operation Cerberus, was one of three operations during the Second World War for which the Fairey Swordfish was to become famous - and justifiably so. On February 11, 1942 heavily outgunned in the Straits of Dover, by Scharnhorst,  Gneisenau and Prinz  Eugen, with their accompanying flotilla of destroyers and motor torpedo boats, and with top cover provided by deadly fighter aircraft of the Luftwaffe, all six Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish were shot down. Only five of the eighteen aircrew survived. Here in this wonderful painting by Philip West, we see the Swordfish flown by Sub Lieutenant Kingsmill and Sub Lieutenant. Samples with Petty Officer Bunce in the rear, fighting for their lives with his machine gun. The bravery of the Fairey Swordfish aircrew in this and all other operations is a matter of history and must never be forgotten.

On a Wing and a Prayer by Philip West

If you have any pictures, anecdotes or memories of the mighty Ark, I would love to hear from you!