Ark Royal Torpedoed
The 13th of November 1941 AD
The third ship to bear the name Ark Royal was launched in Liverpool in April 1937 before a cheering crowd of 60,000. Two years later she was engaged in naval action, as she continued to be until her sinking.
Ark Royal rapidly gained the reputation of being a lucky ship. On September 14 1939 she was involved in the action that saw the first U-Boat sinking of the war; on September 25 a Blackburn Skua aircraft launched from her decks made the first British aerial kill of the war, downing a Dornier sent to attack her; that same day she was reported as sunk by the Germans, though Ark Royal had evaded the bomb they thought had hit her. Most famously in May 1941 Ark Royal played a major part in the sinking of The Bismarck, the giant battleship which was one of Germany’s greatest symbols of power – it was Swordfish aircraft from her complement that hit the Bismarck with three torpedoes, two causing damage in the forward part of the ship, and the third fatally crippling her rudder so that she steamed in circles while the British fleet caught up with her.
But Ark Royal’s luck deserted her, at least in part, on November 13 1941. Returning to Gibraltar after delivering aircraft to Malta she was hit by a single torpedo fired from U-81 at 15.41. A 40m long gash was created in her side, and extensive damage done to aircraft in her hangars. Given the known instability of aircraft carriers once holed her commander, Captain Maund, ordered the crew to abandon ship. A subsequent enquiry found that this precipitate action may have contributed to the loss of the ship. A party of sailors was later put aboard to attempt to restart her boilers, briefly succeeding, but when the ship listed beyond recovery they were evacuated. Ark Royal sank at 6.19 on November 14.
The ship’s loss was a blow to Britain, but the propaganda machine made a positive out of it: only one life was lost in the action, Able Seaman Mitchell who had been killed by the torpedo blast.
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