Provided by N.J. Hickman
HMS Illustrious spent only six months in the Mediterranean, but her involvement in that short space of time was to have far-reaching consequences, both locally and halfway around the world.
When she joined Admiral Cunningham's fleet at Alexandria in August 1940, she was brand new and fitted with all the lastest equipment, including radar, at that time still an infrequent equipment on naval vessels. She also had one other more basic equipment which was to prove of vital importance to her, and much later to two of her sister ships, Victorious and Formidable - a 3-inch armored flight deck.
753ft3in overall, 673ft at waterline, 106ft9in maximum beam, 95ft9in at waterline, 28ft2in draught at deep load
3-shaft Parsons geared turbines, 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 111,000 shaft horsepower=30.5 knots
11,0000nm at 14kts
4.5in belt, 4.5in hangar side, 3in flightdeck, 2.5-3in hangar deck.
8 x twin 4.5in QF Mark III high angle, 48 x
2pdr (6 x 8) pom-pom.
740ft x 95ft9in
1 forward and to port, 14,000lb capacity.
458ft x 62ft x 16ft
2 (45ft x 22ft, bow and stern amidships)
|Aircraft:||Aug-40: 30 a/c||3 Fulmar, 8 Skua, 18 Swordfish|
|Nov-40: 39 a/c||14 Fulmar I, 4 Sea Gladiators, 21 Swordfish|
|Nov-42: 40+ a/c||16 Martlets, 21 Albacores, 1 Swordfish, 6 Seafires|
|Aug-45: 50+ a/c||36 Corsairs, 18 Avengers|
842 Ship, 434 Air Group, Total 1276 (rising to 2000 by 1945).
During an encounter between British and Italian naval forces off Calabria on 9 July, the ancient battleship Warspite - albeit now equipped with ultra-modern fire control equipment - scored a single hit on the Italian's more modern flagship, Guilio Cesare, with its first salvo at 13 miles range, an oustanding display of naval gunnery. The Italians, no doubt fearful of the consequences of a corrected shot, promptly retired behind a smokescreen. Supermarina then promulgated an order to the effect that surface combat was to be avoided unless the enemy were greatly outnumbered. Thus, even though they had six modern and powerful battleships, including two 42,000 tonners, they refused to leave port, relying on bluff to tie down the Royal Navy. The Italians were perhaps wise, for Admiral Cunningham had decided, following the addition of the brand-new carrier Illustrious and the battleship Valiant to his fleet, to eliminate the Italian Navy as a threat to British interests in the Mediterranean at his first opportunity.
When this opportunity was not immediately forthcoming, Cunningham dusted off a plan made in 1935, when the possibility of war with Italy first seemed imminent, to attack them in port instead. A fire on Illustrious spoilt the original plan, to attack under the full moon on Trafalgar Day (October 21). Instead, a three-quarter moon provided illumination on the chosen night of November 11/12. The venerable Eagle was originally planned to be part of the strike force, but the cumulative effects of some minor battle-damage forced her withdrawal, but some of her aircraft and crews transferred to Illustrious.
On November 11, a Maryland reconnaissance aircraft from Malta (one of a flight of three, diverted there from a French order) made its semi-regular flight over Taranto. The resultant photographs were then ferried from Malta to the carrier by a Fulmar. These showed five battleships in harbor (actually two harbors, the outer Mar Grande and the inner Mar Piccolo), several cruisers, and the locations of the defences, including balloons. A late-afternoon sortie added the information that a sixth battlewagon - the entire battleship fleet - was now in the harbor.
At 8.35 pm, 12 of the 21 available Swordfish, equipped with "marathon" tanks in the observers' cockpits (forcing the observer into the rear cockpit in lieu of the TAG), took off and set course to towards Taranto, 170 miles to the north-west.
The formation became scattered flying through cloud, but around 11.00 pm, the eruption of anti-aircraft fire ahead of them confirmed the accuracy of their navigation - and the loss of the element of surprise, caused by one of their number arriving too early. Dodging tracer and balloons, two aircraft carried out their assigned task of dropping flares, six attacked with torpedos (equipped with a special "Duplex" magnetic detonator, which enabled them to pass under the shallow torpedo nets and explode beneath their targets), while the others attacked the ships, fuel tanks, and seaplane base with bombs.
So low did the Swordfish fly several of them touched the water with their wheels, and this low flying saved many of them, as in the semi-circular anchorage many shots that missed would endanger other ships or the town of Taranto itself, forcing many guns to hold fire, or fire harmlessly over their targets.
One torpedo sunk the Conte di Cavour, and two damaged Littorio. The bombers set the seaplane base on fire, and damaged dock facilities. An hour later, the second wave arrived and added further hits to the Littorio and to a third ship, Caio Duilio.
Of the 21 Swordfish, two were lost. One was the strike commander's, but Lt Cmdr Kenneth Williamson - whose torpedo had sunk the Conte di Cavour - and his observer, Lt Norman Scarlett, survived and were taken prisoner. The other missing crew, Lt Bayley and Lt Slaughter from Eagle, part of the second wave, were killed when their Swordfish was sent blazing into the bay.
The Italians withdreaw their remaining fleet north to Naples, but a Maryland that flew over Taranto two days later revealed they left behind three stricken battleships - Littorio awash with a heavy list, Conte di Cavour with her stern underwater, Caio Duilio beached and abandoned - and two damaged cruisers and other vessels, plus a wrecked seaplane base and port facilities. Littorio and Caio Duilio finally returned to operations after many months of repairs, but Conte di Cavour was lost to the Italian Navy for good.
The repercussions were far-reaching. On the other side of the world, Admiral Yamamoto was intrigued enough to send members of his staff to Taranto to learn as much as they could about this attack and why it succeeeded. The results of his research are quite famous - or should that be infamous....?
Closer to the scene of this victory, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had clearly shifted in favor of the Royal Navy. It became easier for Britain to move men and supplies to the Eastern Mediterranean, and harder for the Italians to send convoys southwards. This must surely have contributed to the success of Operation Compass, when Wavell's 30,000 set out on a five-day raid which quickly turned into a rout of the far larger Italian force. This defeat, along with the Italians' losing struggle against the Greeks, brought Germany into the Balkan and Mediterranean theatres, diverting men and material originally intended for battle against Russia. This firstly delayed the launching of Barbarossa, which itself was a fatal blow to this campaign as it denied it several weeks of summer weather. the Mediterranean then provided a continuing diversion, right up until the surrender of the last of the Afrika Korps in Tunis - at the same time the Sixth Army was surrendering in Stalingrad, having lost through the lack of the reinforcements being sent to North African POW cages instead.
The Regia Aeronautica's inability to subdue Malta as an air and naval base drew the first German involvement, when Fleigerkorps X moved into bases in Sicily - no doubt a pleasant change in climate, having come from Norway! Their role was to cover the movement of the first elements of the Afrika Korps to North Africa, by establishing the aerial command over the central Mediterranean their Allies could not. Their first raid was a small one on Malta on 9 January 1941. The next day they were in action in force, and the results were dramatic.
Illustrious was part of a convoy escort, along with the battleships Warspite and Valiant and a screen of five destroyers, bound for Malta and Greece, when the carrier was attacked at 12.20 by two Italian SM79 torpedo-bombers north-west of Malta. Her four airborne Fulmars had been drawn down to sea level by these, and had nearly exhausted their ammunition, when a force of 40 Ju87s plus a second group of Ju88s appeared on radar at 12.28. Illustrious turned into the wind and launched four more fighters, which had been due to relieve her CAP at 12.35 in any case, but too late; the Ju87s began their attack at 12.38 from 12,000 feet without fighter opposition, thirty concentrating on the carrier and ten attacking the two battleships. Admiral Cunningham, watching the attack on Illustrious from Warspite, wrote later:
|"There was no doubt we were watching complete experts. We could not but admire the skill and precision of it all. The attacks were pressed home to point-blank range, and as they pulled out of their dives, some of them were seen to fly along the flight deck of Illustrious below the level of her funnel."|
The action took six and a half minutes to inflict seven hits on the carrier, plus a near-miss, which caused the following damage:
It could have been worse; although caught out of position during the initial attack, her fighters were able to disrupt the latter half of the attackers, and were credited with five victims between them. To add to the bomb damage, one of the shot-down Ju87s also crashed onto the deck near the after lift well, starting a fire and adding to the damage to the after end of the ship. Fires blazed out of control on the hangar deck and in other compartments, including near her for'ard magazine, and flames shot out of the aft lift well. Her rudder was out of action, as was her flight deck, forcing her remaining airborne fighters, low on fuel and ammo, to make for Malta. Steering by differential revolutions of her engines and listing, Illustrious laboriously followed them.
Her ordeal was not yet over. Following the shortest route to port - straight through the Sicilian Channel, rather than south to curve around Malta - she was attacked again in the late afternoon by fifteen Ju87s, this time with an escort. In spite of air cover from Malta, in the form of three of her own Fulmars and nine Hurricanes, Illustrious sustained another hit on the after lift, as well as two more near-misses by her stern. But she survived this attack, and another even later by torpedo bombers, and at 10:00 pm she finally arrived at Grand Harbour, listing to port and down by the stern, and was immediately berthed in French Creek (one of the many arms of Grand Harbour) for repairs to make her seaworthy again - although it was obvious even to the casual observer, witnessing the glow of fires still burning out of control below decks, her operational days were over for some time.
Strangely, the Germans did nothing for several days, other than to send over an occasional recon plane (after the war it transpired that the delay was caused by a combination of bad weather and shortage of bombs, such was the intensity of their previous operations). Then on the 16th they struck - beginning a period the Maltese called "The Illustrious Blitz."
The three days grace had been put to good use by the defenders, with every available AA gun sited around the harbor. An experienced artillery officer, Brigadier Sadler, who had commanded the Dover guns during the Battle of Britain, had recently taken over and made sure a formidable box barrage would greet the Stukas. Gunners on other ships in the harbor, such as the cruiser HMAS Perth, also stood ready, as well as the gunners on the Illustrious herself. The air-raid sirens wailed at 13.55, and soon the hordes of bombers - 70 Ju87s and Ju88s - came into view. The pre-planned barrage put up was fearsome, but the first wave of some sixty-five Ju88s dove into it, shallow diving from 8,000 feet. Following them were the Ju87s, stooping from 10,000 feet, keen to finish the job they started.
The defending fighters (a trio of Fulmars from Illustrious now based ashore, four Hurricanes and a pair of Gladiators, survivors of the original "Three Graces") at first circled the barrage, sniping at bombers on their entry and exit from the maelstrom, but then threw caution to the wind and followed their targets into the cauldron. One Ju87 came through the box barrage and flew down the harbor so low it had to climb over the 15-foot sea wall at the entrance. As it did so, the Fulmar that had followed it throughout its dive shot it into the sea beyond.
The score for this attack was fighters five, barrage five, and in reply the Luftwaffe scored a single hit on the Illustrious' quarterdeck, causing only minor damage. Of their misses, some had landed in the harbor, causing minor damage to the carrier as they exploded in the mud of the shallow creek bed, and one had entered the engine room of the merchantman Essex moored on the other side of the creek. Fortunately, the engine room bulkheads contained the explosion, as she had 4,000 tons of ammo and torpedoes in her holds - which would have finished the illustrious had they gone up. The remaining bombs found their mark in the Three Cities around Grand Harbour, destroying or damaging hundreds of houses and causing many civilian casualties.
The next day no attack developed, possibly because of the bad weather, possibly to regather strength. On the 18th they returned, but the target switched to the airfields in an attempt to put them out of action. Takali was already unusable due to rain, which turned it into a bog, and the bombers managed to put Luqa out of action for a time, but lost eleven of their number in the process. When they attacked the carrier and docks once more on the 19th, six Hurricanes, one Fulmar, and one Gladiator joined the guns in defence - against an estimated eighty aircraft. Near-misses caused some damage to the boiler rooms, but again the defences took their toll, the fighters claiming eleven and the gunners eight - about a quarter of the attacking force.
Not even the Luftwafffe could absorb these rising losses, and so they stayed away. After a few more days, Illustrious was ready, sneaking out of Grand Harbour in darkness on the 23rd at a healthy 26 knots. She arrived in Alexandria two days later, unmolested, and was sent to America for repairs. It was eighteen months before she was operational again.
Yet, without her armored deck, it is quite probable she would not even have made it to Malta, let alone eventually return to duty. No other aircraft carrier took as many hits as she did - eight direct hits (five of 1,000 ponders) and seven near-misses - and survived. In fact, no other warship survived such punishment. The value of her armor was demonstrated again several years later, in May 1945, when her sister ships Victorious and Formidable were both hit by two kamikaze attacks, yet both were operational again with hours.
Sky Battles!, Alfred Price
Faith Hope and Charity, Kenneth Poolman
Wings at Sea, Gerard A Woods
2194 Days of War (various)
The World At Arms (various)
The Crucible of War I - Wavell's Command, Barrie Pitt
Dive Bomber!, Peter C Smith
War in a Stringbag, Charles Lamb
Siege: Malta 1940-1943, Ernle Bradford