Saturday 14 January 2012

The Lost Ark

Almost forgotten now, one of the great public events of the 1970's in Britain was the scrapping of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, which seemed to cast a shadow over the national consciousness like a Moloch through the middle of the decade. At the time it felt far more historically significant than the comparatively trivial Silver Jubilee, as, being the Royal Navy's last proper capital ship, its demise was considered to mark the last line on the page of the British Empire.

The scrapping of the vessel was in political terms hugely controversial, with the Admiralty conducting a clandestine war with Harold Wilson's government through the press in order to keep the vessel in service. In the end though, aircraft carriers are enormous indulgences, and the cost for an essentially clapped-out former power like Britain was excessively high, regardless of the "prestige", always so important to Britain's ruling class, that the ship brought. Nevertheless, the loss of Ark Royal felt like another defeat, another colony lost, another nationalised industry given over to uncontrollable unrest. Most people of the era considered the ship to be, like the Titanic, a metaphor in waiting - one day, if people remembered anything about that decade, it would be the one where the UK finally entered the breaker's yard.

Public sympathy for the fate of Ark Royal was stoked up constantly on news bulletins and even childrens' shows like "Blue Peter", where the twists and turns in the story, with rumours of a reprieve stoked up and then dashed by the Ministry Of Defence, were documented breathlessly. The BBC made a hugely popular documentary, "Sailor" which followed the ship's last operational cruise. The clip below is well worth watching, as it's beautifully shot, and gives a sense of the almost psychedelic, mind-bending aura that can surround the military - all that technology, discipline and organisation that descends into chaos, confusion and destruction the moment it goes into action; a kind of reverse alchemy that turns gold into dross.

That said, Ark Royal was never the ship that the public imagined it to be. Like all the post-war British aircraft carriers, it had been originally designed to carry wartime piston-engined fighters, and struggled through a seemingly endless series of refits in order to fly off supersonic jets, for which it was simply too small to adequately cope with. You can see from the clip the high angle of attack that the jets had to adopt on take-off, before the high-powered steam catapults literally threw them off the deck. The American-built Phantom fighters had to be completely re-engined with higher-thrust Rolls Royce units in order to prevent them dropping straight into the sea. The loss rates on post-war British carriers were generally appalling, especially with the Royal Navy's perverse inclination towards huge, complex aircraft like the forgotten Supermarine Scimitar, which would have taxed even the massive American supercarriers.

If the received wisdom of the time, that Britain was finally retiring from the world stage, was proved wrong, it was because there was another nation, on the other side of the world, that was taking just as keen an interest in the fate of the pride of the Royal Navy. The Junta of Generals in Argentina calculated that the scrapping of Ark Royal marked the moment of decline when Britain would no longer be prepared to defend its remaining far-flung and isolated dominions. The resulting war, and surprise British victory, would re-ignite the dying embers of Britain's imperial zeal, with baleful consequences over the next three decades. Ark Royal had turned out not to be a talisman after all, but just another ship.

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