If, by name alone, the Ark Royal is known as the premier ship in the Royal Navy's Fleet, then also that fairest of Yorkshire cities, Leeds, can be regarded as being the premier UK city, because it and its population, collected and paid for the first "modern" warship to bear that name.  Since that event, the City of Leeds has always been the adopter of the Ark Royal, now three ships into our national maritime history. 

The name 'Ark Royal' is not part of our "splendid" naval heritage period of the 18th and 19th centuries,  being used once only for a brief period back in the 15th century in Tudor times. It is a name very much of the 20th century.  However, the first 20th century ship {the SECOND Ark Royal} was built {pre WW1}as a collier, a low-key affair, which at the onset of WW1 was converted into a seaplane carrier.  She saw war service and acquitted herself well during the Dardanelles campaign.  During that war, the navy acquired an ex-merchant ship which they commissioned as a seaplane carrier naming her HMS Pegasus.  She was sold in 1931 for scrap and coincident with that sale, the navy renamed Ark Royal as Pegasus and also gave her a job change too. This was her lot post WW1:  Became depot ship 1923.  Renamed Pegasus 21st December 1931.  Became catapult ship April 1941 and accommodation ship 1944.  Sold 18th October 1946 and scrapped 1950. 

The next Ark Royal, the third ship and the one purchased from the money raised in Leeds, was a small to medium size aircraft carrier of some 22,000 tons and she had but a short life. See also this page from my web site CLICK HERE.

Whilst she was a favourite with the British public who were deeply shocked at her sinking just over two years into the six year WW2 in 1941, she could not compete for the accolade of THE FAVOURITE when ships like the Hood, twice her tonnage, were around.  Sadly, Hood, {a very old lady} was also lost in 1941 with an unbearable number of men taken with her, whilst thankfully, the loss of the Ark Royal {just a young girl by comparison} resulted in just one death.  The demise of the Hood transcended all other national mourning overtly shown by the great British public for a war loss.

The next Ark Royal {R09} was an after thought, the keel having been laid down to support the carrier HMS Irresistible. Yet another keel was laid for the carrier HMS Audacious.  Both keels were more or less abandoned and the ships were built upon them many years later eventually commissioning in the late 1950's. Audacious was renamed Eagle.  Both were enormous ships displacing in the low 50,000 tons of seawater when fully loaded. Ark Royal [the fourth] was over twice as big as Ark Royal the third, and she really was the darling of the Nation.  People actually went on holiday to the West Country to sit on Plymouth Hoe just to see the Ark Royal rounding Drakes Island - they made a stunningly successful television documentary about her and her crew called 'Sailor' - and yes, the City of Leeds were top-dogs at civic-hosting on the ship which often coincided with visits by HM The Queen Mother Queen Elizabeth, who launched and loved the ship as though it was her own - oh to be the Lord Mayor of Leeds in those heady days!   Portsmouth lamented that the ship didn't belong or come to the City and that Plymouth and Devonport had the glitz of the Navy in their port.  The Eagle, in which I served, was however, marginally heavier than her sister, although of course no good Ark Royal'er would admit that.  Ark Royal had the name and the style, so much so, that eventually, Eagle was decommissioned and sent to a mid-stream anchorage where they took bits off her to keep the Ark Royal at sea as a fighting unit.

The tonnage you see above refers to the basic hull of the Audacious class [not the Ark Royal class as stated] which after changes to Ark Royal/Eagle, manifestly increased in size and displacement by an additional 10,000 tons.

The current Ark Royal [R07 - and the fifth] reverted back to the 1937 Ark Royal and was delivered as a small to medium size carrier [through-deck-cruiser] of 19,500 tons, which now [2007], is slightly heavier because of modifications but only marginally so.  Regrettably, as now configured and operated, she cannot claim to be a carrier in the same way as her two predecessors were, and she is relegated to the commando role carrying and operating only rotary wing aircraft and amphibious troops. How the Royal Navy ever got to such a position that it does not have fixed wing aircraft  is scandalous,  and I believe there are politicians [and probably admirals as well] who should be tried for out and out treason to the nation and to the navy.

Now for our story line which involves the third Ark Royal which had a very short life and in that time, saw almost continuous front line action without a break in WW2. We start with her detailed involvement in the war which commences on the day hostilities were declared in September 1939. See here for the City of Leeds connection ARK ROYAL'S BELL CITY OF LEEDS.pdf

September 1939 Operated in the NW Approaches.
October 1939 With Force K at Freetown.
November 1939 Captured German ship UHENFELS.
December 1939 Blockaded Graf Spee at Montevideo.
February 1940 Operated in S. Atlantic.
March 1940 Transferred to Mediterranean.
April 1940 At Malta. Then returned to the UK and took part in the Norwegian campaign  at ANDALSNES and MOLD.
May 1940 Covered landing of troops at NARVIK.
June 1940 Covered evacuation of Norway then joined Force H at Gibraltar.
July 1940 Took part in the Oran attack [Operation CATAPULT] and covered aircraft delivery to MALTA [Operation HURRY].
August 1940 Raided CAGLIARI [Operation SMASH and GRAB] and covered Operation HATS.
September 1940 Raided PORT  ELMAS and was with the DAKAR Force [Operation MENACE] which attacked the French Battleship RICHELIEU.
November  1940 Covered Operation COAT to Alexandria.  Attacked ELMAS and CAGLIARI  [Operation CRACK].  Covered aircraft delivery to MALTA [Operation WHITE].  Covered Operation COLLAR and took part in the Battle of SPARTIVENTO.
December 1940 Escorted merchant ships from MALTA [Operation HIDE].
January 1941 Covered MALTA Convoy EXCESS.
February 1941 Raided TIRSO DAM in Sardinia  [Operation PICKET].  Flew mine laying operations off SPEZIA during the bombardment of GENOA [Operation GROG].  Despatched to the Atlantic to defend Convoy SLS65.
March 1941 Searched for SCHARNHORST and GNEISNAU in Atlantic
April 1941 Thrice ferried aircraft to MALTA [Operations WINCH, DUNLOP and SALIENT].
May 1941 Covered the TIGER Convoy [Gibraltar to Alexandria].  Delivered aircraft to MALTA [Operation SPLICE].
May 1941 In action against the BISMARCK.  Her Swordfish aircraft made the torpedo hit which crippled the Bismarck's steering and led to her timely end.
June 1941 Ferried aircraft to MALTA four times [Operations ROCKET, RAILWAY 1 and 2, and TRACER].
July 1941 Covered MALTA Convoys SUBSTANCE and STYLE.
August 1941 Raided SARDINA and covered MANXMAN mine laying off LIVORNO.
September 1941 Ferried aircraft to MALTA [Operation STATUS].  Covered MALTA Convoy HALBERD.
October 1941 Ferried aircraft to MALTA [Operation CALLBOY].
November 1941 Torpedoed by German submarine U81 off Gibraltar whilst returning from MALTA after delivering aircraft [Operation PERPETUAL].  Ark Royal was taken in tow but sank the next day, the 14th November 1941.

One young sailor who served in Ark Royal at the outbreak of war, eventually emigrated to South Africa where he married a local girl called June. Some years later, a good friend of mine who had served as a senior warrant officer in the fourth Ark Royal [the big 50'odd thousand tonner] took his family to South Africa to join the then South African Navy, later to become part of the South African Defence Forces.  On leaving the Defence Force he stayed on in South Africa in successful civilian employment taking part in civic activities.  Not long after my friend arrived in South Africa he helped to set up the HMS Ganges Association S.A. Division which attracted many ex-pats, one of whom was the ex young sailor from the WW2 third Ark Royal.  They [the men] and their wives became firm friends and were often seen together socialising in the village of KOMMETJIE. They had a great deal in common.

The WW2 sailor was a man called GORDON SYKES, a telegraphist [on the left below] and my friend is called JOHN EILBECK who served in the RN and the SAN as a Warrant Officer First Class Telegraphist.  John spent approximately 28 years in South Africa but returned home to the UK a few years ago for family reasons.


We do know that Gordon joined HMS Ganges [at Shotley Gate, near Ipswich, Suffolk UK] as a boy in 1937, so his birth year would be 1921.  It is thought that he served his country for 7 years continuous service [with a commitment to serve 5 years in the Reserves to be ready for call-up should hostilities reoccur - overall a 12 year commitment] which was counted from his 18th birthday.  On that assumption, Gordon would have left the navy when age 25 in the year 1946 [shortly after the war finished]  leaving to start a new life at the bottom of the world in South Africa. He worked for the Marconi Company [SA] and for a period, as a civilian in his late 60's after his retirement from that Company, he worked for the Defence Forces as a wireless telegraphy Morse Code operator at the Slangkop Wireless Station whose radio callsign was ZSJ. John recalls Gordon dying when in his early 70's and when his belongings were put together, his wife June gave his naval papers to John in recognition of his friendship which had brought so many happy times to her husband.

The papers are not grand [indeed in total, they are pathetic because there are so few of them]  and they are of little importance historically, except that they belong to a man who fought for his country, and as such, are worthy of showing to produce a little cameo both about himself and about the hapless, famous and much loved third HMS ARK ROYAL.

Gordon went to HMS Ganges, and in those days [1937] the Establishment trained boys for the seaman branches and for the communications branch both telegraphists and signalmen.  In Gordon's photographs there are images of life at Shotley which, whilst not unique, are nevertheless rare.

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CLICK HERE for Gordon's Life Saving Certificate awarded whilst at Ganges and dated October 1937

The first picture above Gordon chose to send to his mother as a birthday card and shows scenes of Ganges in the 1930's.  However since there is nothing on the back of the card which would assist in its deliverance by Royal Mail one wonders whether his mother ever received it.  Picture two and three are replicas of two of the pictures shown on the card.  Picture two shows the mast swarming with boy's with countless other boy's either seated or standing underneath the mast itself.  This was most unlike my time there [1953] when the mast was manned ceremonially and the only group near to or beneath the mast were either the Royal Marines Band or the Blue Jacket Ganges Band. Picture three I have never seen portrayed in this manner before.  It appears that there are two masts almost of equal proportions side by side. The one on the right [opposite the entrance to the Long Covered Way] is the Quarter Deck Mast and is much closer to the photographer than is the tall mast proper on the left which is of course approximately 142 feet high as compared to the Quarter Deck mast which I would guess it no more than 20 feet high.  Picture four shows a huge Royal Guard arranged either side of the Saluting Dias with the rest of the boys [2000 of them ?] fell in in their Division behind.   Note the officers with their cocked hats. The event? The Kings Birthday Parade c.1937.

On completion of training after approximately 15 months at Ganges, Gordon joined HMS Ark Royal an almost brand new ship equipped with the very latest technology of the day.

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CLICK HERE for Gordon's Crossing the Line Certificate

CLICK HERE to see the Ark Royal Christmas Card

CLICK HERE to see the Ark Royal Sods Opera Programme

CLICK HERE to see Gordon's letter home to his mother in 1939

There is a sadness in the first two pictures above - the first being the first Christmas meal of the war and the second being Ark Royal's last Christmas ever.  The third picture shows the Ark Royal with her chaser or plane guard astern.  This ship was always a fast vessel, usually a destroyer, which was stationed on the quarter of the carrier, there ready to speed to the assistance of a ditched aircraft to rescue the aircrew. Number four - planes on the flight deck awaiting a German target. Number five - this man is called Charlie by the crew of Ark Royal and seemingly he is a German spy and was arrested as such whilst in South African waters.  Number six - taken from Ark Royal shows German bombs dropping on capital ships in company with the Ark Royal. Number seven - is the Renown alongside the wall in Rio.  Number eight - Renown from the Ark Royal's flight deck having just launched a Swordfish aircraft. Number nine - Renown in Cape waters wearing a wreath on the main mast indicating a wedding onboard. Number ten - self evident.

Finally in Gordon's belongings was a Certificate given for crossing north,  the Arctic Circle latitude.  This undated certificate was issued to him in HMS Bulldog and it shows the highest rate he achieve whilst in the service namely a Leading Telegraphist.

CLICK HERE for Gordon's Arctic Circle Certificate

Much will be written and recorded for posterity about the third Ark Royal's  life and her sinking which was witnessed by many many scores of people, and with fortunately just one casualty - 1941 was a terrible year for losses of ships and men in the Royal Navy.  However,  I wonder how many close and personal articles of data are treated in the same manner of collecting and recording, and of them, how many will belong to a humble sailor like Ordinary Telegraphist Gordon Sykes.

Here's to your memory Gordon, wherever you are, and thanks for doing your bit which gave us left behind a much better life than what we might have had had it not been for the likes of you.