The German U-Boats struck terror into the heart of every British and American sailor during World War Two, and for good reason. Initially these shadowy craft posed little threat, simply because there were so few of them that there were rarely more than half a dozen out at a time, and the lack of Luftwaffe support meant that these were often unable to find the convoys; however, as soon as Hitler was convinced of its potential, he poured money into improving his U-Boat fleet. By the end of 1941, according to ‘Witness to World War II’ by Karen Farrington, the force had increased tenfold, and by using the German Radio Monitoring Service the U-Boats were now able to find the convoys quickly. In that one year 1,299 Allied and neutral ships were lost, almost half to submarines. One of those was HMS Royal Ark.
On 13th November, 1941, the aircraft carrier, travelling as part of Force H, was just 30 miles away from Gibraltar when disaster - in the form of an enemy torpedo – struck at 3.41. It was hit on the starboard side, under the bridge, and all power sources were cut. For that reason, the Captain was unable to telephone his order for the ship to reverse, and had to run down to the engine room himself to deliver it. The U-boat was nowhere in sight. One man, Able Seaman E. Mitchell, had been killed, but otherwise the crew were safe. The ship was definitely not, listing to the side by 10 degrees as she was.
‘Ark Royal: the Admiralty Account of her Achievement’ explains that Captain Loben Maund actually ordered the port-side compartments of the ship to be flooded, and fuel pumped from starboard tank to the port one, to try to correct the angle. Meanwhile, the destroyers that had been accompanying HMS Ark Royal circled around her, dropping depth charges to try to protect her from further attack and lingering in case their aid was needed. Just 20 minutes after the attack the list had increased to an angle of 18 degrees, the flooding not having taken effect yet, and the captain began to panic that it might sink altogether. He therefore ordered 1,540 of the crew to abandon ship, signalling the destroyer Legion to come and collect them. This it duly did, and it continued to patrol the waters round the afflicted ship for a further 6 hours, despite the fact that the poor sailors were crammed together like sardines in the overloaded craft. Only around 250 men, including of course the captain, stayed behind to try to save the ship, which was now heeling less sharply thanks to the port side flooding.
They did this by calling on the destroyer Laforey to help provide electricity and feed water, to work the pumps, and requesting a tug to drag the ship towards the island. The St Day arrived at 7.30, but made slow progress due to a strong opposing current. Eventually, at 2.15am, Laforey was forced to return and help drag the ship after a fire broke out in the port boiler room, rendering the steering useless. It was able to provide electricity again, but couldn’t help the list, which was again 20 degrees. By 4am the list was making it hard to stand on deck any longer, and the captain reluctantly ordered the ship to be roped closer to the St Day, so that the remaining men could be transferred first to the tug, then on to the Laforey. While the published report from the Admiralty states that Captain Maund was the last member of Ark Royal's crew to abandon ship at 4.30 am, a confirmed report from a Captain P.E.I. Bailey who was serving aboard the ship suggests he was the last soul to leave. At 6.13 the ship finally capsized, and minutes later it sank down into the black waters of the Alboran Sea. Later, Captain Maund would be court-marshalled for clearing the ship of the bulk of the crew far too early, thereby depriving the ship of the manpower necessary to facilitate her attempted rescue. The mystery attacker was later revealed to have been U-81, captained by Friedrich Guggenberger.
Eventually, the day of the U-Boat would pass. The breaking of the Enigma cypher in 1940 helped to tip the balance of the Battle of the Atlantic somewhat, though the British of course had to be careful not to use their advantage too often, so as not to alert the Germans that the code had been broken. The US entering the war helped massively, in providing the British with more boats and men, and the closing of the Atlantic Gap (the district which planes could not reach) thanks to aircraft improvements sealed the final nail in the narrow metal coffin of the previously unbeatable U-Boat. U-81 would eventually join its prey at the bottom of the sea, having fallen foul of a US bomb on 9th January 1944.