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Dragon salutes the Mighty Ark as destroyer remembers legendary WW2 carrier

HMS Ark Royal
1 December 2021
Sailors from HMS Dragon paused to remember the most famous aircraft carrier in the Royal Navy’s history, 80 years after she was lost.

The destroyer’s Mediterranean patrol took her over the wreck of HMS Ark Royal which finally succumbed to a torpedo strike about 30 nautical miles east of Europa Point in Gibraltar in November 1941.

Just one sailor was lost – Able Seaman Edward Mitchell – out of a complement of 1,749 sailors.

They struggled for more than 12 hours after the carrier was hit by a torpedo from U-81 to prevent her sinking.

Engineers toiled to maintain steam and shore up the damage – the torpedo blasted a hole 130ft long and 30ft deep in the hull – but when the list reached 27 degrees, Captain Loben Maund reluctantly gave the order to abandon ship.

The evacuation was carried out with first-rate discipline with Maund the last man to leave – sliding down a rope on to a waiting tug to the resounding cheers of his men.

The survivors were returned to Gibraltar where they voted to use the ‘canteen fund’ (today the welfare fund) rescued from the safe before the ship went down to commission a silver bell weighing some two hundredweights at a cost of £598.

The bell accompanied the successor ships Ark Royals IV (of post-war, Sailor-fame) and V (the Harrier carrier which served from 1985 until 2010) and now resides in the Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton. 

The wartime Ark Royal (the third Royal Navy ship to bear the name, going back to the days of the Armada) was a constant thorn in Hitler’s side for more than two years.

His propaganda machine repeatedly proclaimed the ship sunk. By the time the Germans succeeded, Ark Royal had attained almost mythical status.

Courage and determination are values that transcend thousands of years of seafarers

Commander George Storton

She served extensively in the Atlantic, Norway and Mediterranean. Most famously in May 1941, it was Swordfish flown from the Ark which crippled the German battleship Bismarck, bringing her under the heavy guns of the British fleet.

Fate caught up with her as she returned to Gibraltar after delivering aircraft to under-siege Malta.

With the wreck – broken into two large sections – more than 3,000 feet beneath the stern of the Type 45 destroyer, 190 sailors gathered in the wind and rain to remember the ship and those who served in her.

“When we think of Ark Royal we must remember that we too are men and women of the sea; we are mariners who are trained and committed to our ship and our shipmates,” Dragon’s Commanding Officer Commander George Storton told his ship’s company.

“Courage and determination are values that transcend thousands of years of seafarers. We must all take a moment to stop and think of the times, such as Ark Royal, when men and women no different to ourselves, fought bravely on the ocean in times less peaceful than the present.”

He cast a wreath provided by the HMS Ark Royal Association into the Mediterranean in memory of AB Mitchell as Leading Hand “Cherry” Blakeway piped the Still.

With the passing of the members of the wartime crew, a new Association has been formed to embrace the ships’ companies of the succeeding Arks, which welcomes all former members to come together and perpetuate the spirit and memories of the three carriers. Those interested in keeping this most famous of all names alive should contact the secretary: [email protected]

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