The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal had been reported sunk many times by German propaganda and had survived many near misses, including a bombing attack following the Battle of Cape Spartivento. She had played a crucial role in the sinking of the Bismarck. There were huge risks involved in operating in the Mediterranean, with the almost constant threat of aircraft and U-boats. These risks had been accepted for the latest operation – when Ark Royal had been engaged in flying off more aircraft to re-inforce Malta.
It was on the return journey when she was within sight of Gibraltar that she was finally torpedoed by U-81 at 1534:
When the torpedo struck most of the ship’s company were below decks, working in the hangars, or on watch in the machinery spaces and other compartments. Men off duty were in their messes having tea. Everything was as it had been hundreds of times before. Without any warning the ship was shaken by a violent convulsion. Decks seemed to whip like springboards.
Some of the lights went out and in places near the seat of the explosion smoke gushed from the ventilating trunks. After a very short pause the ship began to heel to starboard, so quickly that at first she seemed to be turning right over.
The torpedo had exploded abreast of the bridge on the starboard side. Here, many decks down and below the waterline, four men were on watch in the lower steering position, main switchboard room and main telephone exchange. The concussion was extremely violent.
The lights went out, oil gushed in, and fumes half choked them as they groped in pitch darkness, up to their waists in a mixture of fuel and water, for the hatch leading to the compartment above. Three men escaped, but Able Seaman E. Mitchell was never seen again.
Captain Maund was on the flight-deck when he felt his ship shudder violently and saw smoke pouring from the bomb-lift doors. As he made for the bridge he thought at first there might have been an internal explosion, as none of the seven screening destroyers had reported a contact. In the very short time it took him to reach the bridge the ship had already listed some ten degrees to starboard, or rather more than the heel of a particularly heavy roll.
His first thought was to take the way off the ship (she was steaming at twenty-two knots), so as to avoid spreading the damage unnecessarily, and to send his crew to action stations; but all communications between the bridge and the rest ofthe ship were severed-no telephone would work, the broadcaster was silent and the engine-toom telegraphs jammed.
Action stations were soon ordered by bugle and word of mouth, but some minutes elapsed before a verbal order passed to the machinery control-room reversed the engines and brought the ship to rest.
A valiant battle to control the flooding was fought below decks in order to bring Ark Royal to a state where she might be towed back to Gibraltar. It was a losing battle and all the men who stayed on board were evacuated the following day just before Ark Royal sank.