Ark Royal – rare pictures of the symbol of Britain’s maritime might

It is a name synonymous more than perhaps any other with Britain’s maritime heritage, and today’s collection of rarely-seen pictures from the archive charts just a few of the dates on its monumental timeline.

5th June 1987: British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal moored at Greenwich, London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

There has been not one Ark Royal but five, spanning more than four centuries. The first – the flagship of the English fleet during the Spanish Armada campaign of 1588 – predated photography, but its successors belonged to the 20th century.

It was the third in the line, HMS Ark Royal 91, that burned the name into the national consciousness. Launched in 1937, and watched by a huge crowd at the Cammell Laird yard in Birknehead, she was the first aircraft carrier on which the hangars and flight deck were an integral part of the hull.

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The Germans made repeated claims to have sunk her, but she survived the campaign off Norway, the hunt for the battleship Bismarck and the first two years of the war in the Mediterranean, before finally being sunk by a U-boat in 1941.

A Harrier jet of 1(F) Joint Force Squadron takes off from the flight deck of HMS Ark Royal during Exercise Auriga on July 14, 2010 at sea in Onslow Bay near North Carolina.

But her name lived on in HMS Ark Royal (R09), an Audacious-class aircraft carrier launched five years after the war’s end. She was the first to be equipped with an angled flight deck and, when she was decommissioned in 1979, the Navy’s last remaining “catapult assisted” aircraft carrier.

The final Ark Royal, an Invincible-class light aircraft carrier built for use during the Cold War and built at Swan Hunter on the Tyne, was launched two years later and remained in use until just nine years ago.

Affectionately known as The Mighty Ark, she was the Navy’s flagship and had been given her name to appease public resentment at the scrapping of her predecessor. But she ultimately also met a sad end, sold for scrap to Turkey and towed out of Portsmouth in 2013.

The Royal Navy Audacious-class fleet aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal shortly after being launched down the slipway by Queen Elizabeth,The Queen Mother at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, Merseyside on 3 May 1950 in Birkenhead (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
The Royal Navy Nelson-class battleship HMS Rodney and the Revenge-class battleship HMS Royal Oak can bee seen tied up at anchor as viewed from the flat top flight deck of the fleet aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth Dockyard on 23 November 1938 in Portsmouth (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
A Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR1 Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (V/STOL) jet-powered attack aircraft maneuvers to land aboard the Royal Navy Audacious-class fleet aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal during trials to evaluate the Harrier for naval operations on 7 May 1971 off Moray Firth, Scotland (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).