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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, April 16, 2017

No Certain Future

The Royal Navy carrier HMS Illustrious had started the Second World War in the Mediterranean and in November 1940 she launched the Swordfish that attacked Taranto, which had no small strategic effect on the Italian Navy. However just a few months later the Germans had overcome their initial weaknesses in anti-shipping, and decided to weaken the Royal Navy Mediterranean fleet by sinking HMS Illustrious. At the time the Royal Navy only had two carriers in the Med. The other carrier was the older and not as well designed HMS Ark Royal. Losing the better of the two carriers would have caused the Royal Navy quite some difficulties. The Germans got their chance on the 10th of January 1941.
"No Uncertain Voice" the motto of HMS illustrious, as you can see goes with her crest.
On that day the weather was fine, clear skies and bright sunshine. HMS Illustrious was with the battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Warspite, their mission was to provide cover for convoys to Malta and they were steaming near the Pantelleria Straits. She had a combat air patrol up of six Fulmars, and a few Swordfish for patrols. Earlier in the day a flight of Swordfish had made a surprise attack on a convoy of five Italian ships, causing quite considerable damage. After the strike had been recovered, another six Fulmars were being prepared to relieve the CAP, as they were low on fuel. Then, just before 1230, the radar detected large numbers of hostile aircraft approaching.
HMS Valiant and Illustrious, albeit later in the war.
The attackers were a mass of forty three Stukas and a few Italian SM.79s. The latter opened the attack, with a pair of SM.79s making a torpedo run on HMS Illustrious. The British carrier sent up a cloud of AA fire and turned to comb the torpedo spread, both the Italian torpedoes missed and headed towards HMS Valiant, who also dodged the incoming torpedoes. As the two Italian bombers broke off and raced for safety a pair of the Fulmars dived on them, rapidly shooting them down. However these were now too low to intercept the Stukas overhead.
HMS Illustrious defends herself.
Coming out of the turn, back into the wind HMS Illustrious launched the first of her Fulmars. As the Fulmar raced along the deck, the Stukas dived. The first Fulmar made it into the air and was clawing for speed and altitude as a Stuka finished its dive bombing run and pulled up slightly to strafe the low and slow Fulmar, killing the observer and wounding the pilot. The Fulmar staggered then hit the water, the wounded pilot managed to get out of his plane and inflate his life vest. As he watched the Stukas circled the carrier then as they reached a certain point they dived in an attack run. HMS Illustrious was hidden from sight by the shower of bomb blasts and smoke, one Stuka was seen to fly along HMS Illustrious' deck as it pulled out of its dive. The Fulmar pilot was forced to watch his ship sail past and disappear, shrouded in smoke and splashes from near misses. Luckily HMS Jaguar, one of the escorts saw him bobbing in the Med, and thinking him to be a German pilot sent out a boat to recover him.
HMS Illustrious was hit six times. One hit an AA gun position, and passed through to explode on the water below, killing several men. Another penetrated the ship starting a fire. Both of these were 1000 lb AP bombs, and the carrier's deck was only armoured to protect against 500 lb bombs. Oddly the worse damage of the first few seconds of action came from the 500 lb bombs the Stukas dropped.
The first hit the aft lift that had a Fulmar on it, destroying the plane, and killing its pilot. More importantly it stove in the lift, this allowed a second 500 lb to enter the hangar deck. A similar hit on the fore lift damaged the lift but failed to push it in. Then a final bomb this time of 1000 lbs penetrated the armoured deck and exploded in the hangar.
Damage to Illustrious' deck from the bomb hits.
At the same time, a Swordfish had been returning to the carrier after her anti-submarine patrol, and was lined up on his approach. The guns started firing and the pilot could see the the rear lift was "down". That should give you an idea of how quickly this all happened. Then a Stuka flashed in front of the Swordfish, the pilot triggered his Vickers gun, in a snap shot which missed. It's thought that this Stuka dropped the second 500 lb bomb into the aft hangar deck.
The Stuka pilots on seeing the comedy bi-plane decided their ultra modern machines would soon be able to smash this obsolescent Stringbag from the sky. That's a mistake many commentators make, the Swordfish wasn't obsolescent, her first flight was in 1934, just a year before the Stuka. But she was designed for a job which wasn't dogfighting. Naval aircraft are rugged, they have to be to withstand what are closer to controlled crashes than landings.
Equally the Swordfish pilots on HMS Illustrious had trained with their Fulmars on their way across the Atlantic to the Med in ways to avoid aircraft with superior speed. They would perform a series of tight diving turns which would cause the attacker to overshoot repeatedly. As they got lower a misjudged dive would send the attacking plane slamming into the sea, this tactic was used successfully several times throughout the war.
Although it failed to work on the slow Stukas the Swordfish was still airborne after four attacks, although riddled with bullets. Lacking the ability to navigate (the rear two cockpits had flooded with fuel rendering the navigation boards unusable), and obviously losing fuel the Swordfish ditched near a friendly destroyer to be picked up.
Illustrious' bell, damaged in the attack.
On the carrier, they were learning important lessons, however these were learnt at a high cost of dead and wounded. HMS Illustrious had a single hangar which housed all the planes. Along the roof of this hangar was the armoured upper deck. To prevent fire spreading there were giant metal roller blinds that could be dropped to seal the hangar into multiple spaces.
Equally the hangar deck was the action station for anyone not otherwise employed on their normal role. When the two bombs hit it turned these shutters into shrapnel shards that scythed through a large part of the ship's company. The blasts also started numerous fires and disabled part of the sprinkler systems. 126 men were killed and 91 wounded in the battle, a large part of these injuries were in the hangars.
Another near miss on Illustrious
Now a raging inferno, with the boiler room reaching sixty degrees from radiated heat, HMS Illustrious steamed for Malta and help. Despite the damage to the hangar the armoured deck had worked for the rest of the ship, although fires were still burning in several places. As she limped along the Germans and Italians kept attacking her throughout the day. Even after receiving hits to her steering the wounded HMS Illustrious never slowed beneath 18 knots, and all her guns kept in action. Seven hours later she entered Malta's Grand Harbour, still burning, it's reported that her decks were glowing hot from the fires as she entered the port.
Illustrious at Norfolk for repairs, you can easily see the scars from the near misses.
Illustrious spent two weeks in Grand Harbour having temporary fixes applied. For the first three days the weather prevented the Germans from attacking, however from January the thirteenth the skies were clear and she became a target for the Germans. Despite this she was repaired and made a dash for safety, heading first for Alexandria, then through the Suez Canal to Durban. Finally after more repairs at the Durban dry dock she ended up at Norfolk in the US for a full refit.

"Lies!" The Historylisty edition.
One of the sources I used to write this article was a book I had on the incident. Turns out the writer may, or may not have been entirely thorough in his research. Or at least was a bit confused as to some of the information. My alarm should have been sounded by some of his comments about the Swordfish.
Luckily my proof reader, Scott Wichall, spotted the issue. He found the following website with the official report on the bomb damage to HMS Illustrious.


So for accurate detailed bomb damage reports use the stuff in the above link over the items in the narrative.

Image credits:


  1. Is there a German post action report?

    1. No idea. It is likely one would have been generated, but I have no idea if it survived the war, or if anyone has found it and read it yet.

  2. I'd love to know which book you used as your primary source. I'm only really aware of Poolman's Illustrious and Lamb's War in a Stringbag. As I understand it there are only a couple of pages of documents surviving from Fliegerkorps X ops in Sicily in January 1941.

    1. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Swordfish-Story-Taranto-David-Wragg/dp/0297846671/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492414680&sr=1-1&keywords=swordfish+David+wragg

      The BDA seems off, however he does seem to have interviewed an awful lot of people involved and used them as primary sources.

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  4. It's the weekend. Time for another history lesson.