HMS Ark Royal (1937-1941)

HMS Ark Royal (1937-1941) was the first purpose built large aircraft carrier to be completed for the Royal Navy, and one of the most famous warships of the Second World War. Part of her fame came from repeated German claims to have sunk her, but she also took part in the campaign off Norway, the hunt for the Bismarck and the first two years of the war in the Mediterranean, before finally being sunk by U-81.

The Ark Royal followed a series of large carriers that had been converted from battlecruisers, and its design reflected the experience gained on those ships. Structurally the main change was that the flight deck was an integral part of the hull, a role that had previously been played by the existing main deck of the converted ships. This made her more rigid than her predecessors. The flight deck itself was 720ft long and 95ft wide, with a squared off bow and a very long overhanging stern. The flight deck was 56ft above the deep load waterline (compared to 38ft on the Illustrious class). This could be important when an aircraft was struggling to take off, dipping below the level of the flight deck before beginning to climb. The Ark Royal had two catapults, each capable of launching a 12,000lb aircraft at 66kts, and a series of arrestor cables. The island and funnel were carried on the starboard.

Flight of Fairey Swordfish of No.820 Squadron, HMS Ark Royal
Flight of Fairey Swordfish
of No.820 Squadron,
HMS Ark Royal

The Ark Royal had two hangers. Both were 60ft wide and 16ft high. The upper hanger was 568ft long and the lower 452ft. They were connected by three rectangular lifts, two of 45ft by 22ft and one of 45ft by 25ft. The lifts were unusual double-decker affairs, with one platform linking the flight deck to the upper hanger and a second that connected the two hangers. This could allow two aircraft to be moved at once, but it also made it much more difficult to move an aircraft from the lower hanger to the flight deck. This involved three movements of the lift - the aircraft would be loaded onto the lower platform, the lift would rise and the aircraft unloaded onto the upper deck. The lift then had to be lowered to allow the aircraft to move onto the upper platform, before finally moving to the deck.
The Ark Royal was protected by an armoured belt, and by a 1.5in protective bulkhead 13ft 4.5in from the side under the water line. This was designed to protect against a 750lb charge. She had three boilers and three engine rooms, carried in a row across the ship. The smoke ducts linking the three sets of machinery ran below the lower hanger, and would prove to be a fatal weakness.

The Ark Royal could operate sixty aircraft, although she rarely carried a full complement. This was much better than the next generation of Royal Navy carriers, where weight was taken up by the armoured hangers and decks, but still not as good as contemporary American carriers. The Ark Royal and all contemporary British carriers were also limited by the poor performance of their carrier aircraft. At the start of the war the Fleet Air Arm had no high performance carrier fighter, and relied on the biplane Fairey Swordfish as its main torpedo bomber.

Main guns of HMS Ark Royal
Main guns of
HMS Ark Royal

The Ark Royal was armed with sixteen 4.5in guns, carried in open-backed mountings at flight deck level, meaning that they could fire across the flight deck to hit targets on the opposite side of the ship if required. The original allocation of 32 2pdr pompoms was increased to 48 in May 1941, carried in six eight-gun mountings.

The Ark Royal was still a very new warship at the start of the Second World War, having only been completed in November 1938, while her first aircraft came aboard early in 1939.

Wartime Service

At the start of the Second World War the Admiralty decided to use its fleet carriers as the focus of roving hunting groups, searching for U-boats. This cost them the Courageous, sunk by U-29 on 17 September 1939. This came three days after U-39 narrowly missed the Ark Royal. The idea was quickly abandoned, and after a period patrolling the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean the Ark Royal was allocated to the Mediterranean Fleet. She was still there during the hunt for the Graf Spee, although an elaborate bluff convinced Captain Langsdorff that the carrier was rapidly approaching Montevideo, and helped convince him to scuttle his ship.

In April 1940 the Ark Royal was recalled to the Home Fleet to take part in the fighting in Norway. Her aircraft made their first contribution before the Ark Royal had actually returned from the Mediterranean. Nos.800 and 803 Squadrons had been left behind during that move, and on 10 April their Skua dive bombers attacked and sank the damaged German cruiser Konigsberg at Bergen. Three hits were scored, causing internal explosions and setting the Konigsberg on fire. She was then destroyed by another explosion, which split her in half. Only one Skua was lost.

The Ark Royal left Scapa Flow for Norway on 23 April, operating with HMS Glorious. While the Glorious flew RAF fighter aircraft into Norway, the Ark Royal provided air support for the Allied ground and naval troops in the country. Late in May she returned to Scapa Flow, before on 31 May departing for Norway again, this time providing air support for the evacuation from Narvik. She also took part in an attack on the Scharnhorst, scoring one hit with a 500lb bomb at the cost of two Skuas.

After the end of the Norwegian campaign the Ark Royal moved to Gibraltar, where she formed part of Force H, operating in the western Mediterranean and western Atlantic. At this point she carried two squadrons equipped with Rocs and Skuas (Nos.800 and 801) and two with the Swordfish (Nos. 10 and 820). Force H had a busy time. In June 1940 it took part in the attack on the French fleet at Oran. On 2 August the Ark Royal's aircraft bombed the Italian air force base at Cagliari in an attempt to keep the Italians on the ground while Hurricanes were shipped to Malta. In September she raided Elmas, again to pin down the Italians, this time while the Illustrious made her way through the Mediterranean. In September she took part in Operation Menace, the unsuccessful attack on Dakar. This began on 23 September when her aircraft dropped leaflets over Dakar, before fighting broke out. Eventually the Allies were forced to retire after it became clear that the Vichy French defenders of Dakar had no interest in joining de Gaulle and the Free French. 

In November 1940 the Ark Royal returned to Gibraltar, where she swapped No.803 Squadron's Skuas for No.808's Fulmars. November was a busy month. On 9 November she attacked Italian airfields on Sicily to divert attention from Illustrious's raid on Taranto, on 17 November she supplied cover for HMS Argus on a supply mission to Malta, and on 27 November she took part in fighting off Cape Spartivento.

1941 was a quieter year, but the main events were perhaps more dramatic. In February 1941 the Ark Royal carried out a torpedo attack on a dam at Tirso on Sicily. On 22 March she was damaged when a Swordfish crashed on take-off and its depth charges exploded, but the damage was not considered serious, and on 24 May the Ark Royal ferried Hurricanes to Malta.

May 1941 saw the German battleship Bismarck break out into the Atlantic after sinking the Hood. A massive operation was put in place to catch her, but despite this she nearly managed to circle around the British Isles and reach Brest. The key moment came on 26 May. The Ark Royal and Force H had been sent out of the Mediterranean to join the hunt, approaching the main battlefield from the south. On 26 May the Ark Royal was finally able to launch her Swordfish against the Bismarck, scoring two hits, one of which jammed the Bismarck's rudder. The Germans were forced to steam in circles while they attempted to repair the damage, but before they could do strong elements of the British fleet caught up with her, and on 27 May she was sunk.

After this drama the Ark Royal returned to the Mediterranean. In October 1941 she took part in Operation Perpetual, yet another attempt to get RAF fighters to Malta. On 13 November, on the way back from Malta, the Ark Royal was hit by a torpedo from U-81. The torpedo hit low on the starboard side, close to the starboard boiler room, and tore a 130ft by 30ft hole in the side of the ship. At first it seemed as if the ship would be saved, but the design of her engine rooms doomed her. As she settled lower in the water the engine intakes were submerged. This allowed water to flood into all three boiler rooms. The pumps were unable to remove water fast enough, and eventually electric power failed. On 14 November, Fourteen hours after being struck, the Ark Royal capsized and sank. Fortunately only one crewman was killed.



No.800 Squadron operated Skuas and Rocs during the early anti-submarine patrols and in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans. The squadron was left in the UK when the Ark Royal first moved the Mediterranean, taking part in the attack on the Konigsberg during this period. She then returned to the Ark Royal, taking part in the attack on Oran. In April 1941 the squadron transferred to HMS Furious


No.801 Squadron reformed in January 1941 with six Skuas. She operated from the Ark Royal against targets in Norway, before moving to HMS Furious.


No.803 Squadron was operating the Blackburn Skua on the Ark Royal at the outbreak of the war. On 26 September 1939 the squadron scored the first victory by any British fighter squadron shooting down a Dornier Do.18. The squadron spent the winter of 1939-40 onshore, replacing its last Rocs with Skuas. The squadron took part in the land-based attack on the Konigsberg, and was on the Ark Royal for the attack on the Scharnhorst of 6 June, where it lost all but two aircraft. When the squadron was re-equipped it moved to HMS Formidable.


No.807 Squadron was equipped with the Fairey Fulmar II in April 1941, and then embarked on the Ark Royal to take part in Operation Perpetual. The squadron was thus on the Ark Royal when she sank, although four of her aircraft did escape.


No.808 Squadron's Fulmars joined the Ark Royal in October 1940. Over the next ten months Nos.807 and 808 Squadrons claimed nineteen victories, mostly while attacking targets on Sicily or defending Malta convoys. After the Ark Royal sank No.808 Squadron was absorbed by No.807.


No.810 operated Fairey Swordfish from the Ark Royal from the start of the war until September 1941. On 14 September 1939 her aircraft made one of the attacks on a U-boat. In September 1941 the squadron was reduced to six aircraft and transferred to HMS Furious.


Transferred to the Ark Royal from HMS Furious in the late summer of 1941, but had aircraft airborne when the Ark Royal was torpedoed, allowing the squadron to reform at Gibraltar.


Transferred to the Ark Royal from HMS Furious in the late summer of 1941, merges with No.812 Squadron after the loss of the Ark Royal.


No.818 Squadron joined the Ark Royal on 25 August 1939, but by October most of her aircraft were on-shore, and the rest were on HMS Furious. The squadron rejoined the Ark Royal in the Mediterranean, and took part in the attack on Oran and the hunt for the Bismarck. Two of the squadron's aircraft scored the vital hit on her rudder. The squadron then transferred to HMS Furious to return to Arbroath where it converted to the Albacore.


No.820 Squadron was the first squadron to fly aircraft on the new carrier, early in 1939. Her Swordfish remained on the Ark Royal until June 1941 when the squadron transferred to HMS Victorious.


No.821 Squadron's Swordfish operated from the Ark Royal from the start of the war until the squadron was disbanded in December 1940.


No.828's Albacores were briefly on the Ark Royal after transferring from the Argus in early October 1941. Flew off to Hal Far, Malta on 18 October.

Displacement (loaded)

22,000t standard
27,720t deep load

Top Speed



11,200 miles at 11 knots

Armour - belt


 - bulkheads



685ft pp/ 800ft oa


60 aircraft
Sixteen 4.5in/ 45 QF Mk I HA guns in eight two-gun mountings
Thirty two 2pdr pompons in four eight-gun mountings
Four 3pdr saluting guns

Crew complement



13 April 1937


16 November 1938


14 November 1941

Fleet Air Arm Carrier Warfare, Kev Darling. A complete history of the Fleet Air Arm's use of aircraft carriers, from the earliest experiments during the First World War, through the Second World War, where the carriers became the most important capital ships in the navy, the Korean War, which saw the Fleet Air Arm involved from the beginning to the end, the Falklands War, which re-emphasised the important of the carrier and right up to the current 'super-carriers'. [read full review]
cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 July 2010), HMS Ark Royal (1937-1941) ,

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