The sinking was a result of Hitler’s having recently reinforced U-boat strength in the Mediterranean following huge losses experienced by Italian supply convoys destined for North Africa. (Rommel had pleaded for additional U-boats to be sent from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean). When the U-81 delivered its attack, the Ark Royal had been returning from delivering fighter plane reinforcements to the island of Malta. With the Ark Royal gone, the Illustrious and Formidable being repaired in the United States, and the Indomitable having been damaged by running aground, Britain had no modern carriers available for service in the Mediterranean. Without adequate air cover, Malta could no longer be supplied.
The first Ark Royal had been the flagship of the English fleet in Elizabethan times and had fought against the Spanish Armada. The Ark Royal of World War II was a favourite of the British public. The ship had achieved spectacular fame in May 1941 when planes from the Ark Royal had launched the attack against the Bismarck which had led to the German battleship’s eventual sinking.