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Fight for survival - The Stuka bombing of HMS Illustrious

Updated: Jan 14

Unit/ Formation: HM Ships

Location: Mediterranean

Period/ Conflict: World War II

Year: 1941

Date/s: 10th January 1941

The Royal Navy’s first armoured carrier had been active a mere six months when her design and construction was put to the ultimate test.

Admiral Cunningham had taken a risk to place the newest and most powerful unit in his fleet so close to the enemy in the Sicilian Narrows. But he felt HMS Illustrious offered vital air cover and an equally important boost in morale.

On arrival south of Malta she took passage with Force A to meet military convoy on passage from Gibraltar to Alexandria. Under sustained air attack 60 miles west of Malta by German Ju87 dive bombers.

The passage of the Operation Excess escort and convoy through the Sicilian narrows 10th January 1941

During the morning of 10 January, her Swordfish attacked an Italian convoy without significant effect. Later that morning three of the five Fulmars on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) engaged three SM.79s at low altitude, claiming one shot down. One Fulmar was damaged and forced to return to the carrier, while the other two exhausted their ammunition and fuel during the combat and landed at Hal Far airfield on Malta. The remaining pair engaged a pair of torpedo-carrying SM.79s, damaging one badly enough that it crashed upon landing.

They were low on ammunition and out of position, as they chased the Italian aircraft over 50 miles (80 km) from Illustrious. The carrier launched four replacements at 12:35, just when 24–36 Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers of the First Group/Dive Bomber Wing 1 (I. Gruppe/Sturzkampfgeschwader (StG) 1) and the Second Group/Dive Bomber Wing 2 (II. Gruppe/StG 2) began their attack, led by Paul-Werner Hozzel.

Another pair were attempting to take off when the first 250-or-500-kilogram (550 or 1,100 lb) bomb struck just forward of the aft lift, destroying the Fulmar whose engine had failed to start and detonating high in the lift well; the other aircraft took off and engaged the Stukas as they pulled out of their dive.

The ship was hit five more times in this attack, one of which penetrated the un-armoured aft lift and detonated beneath it, destroying it and the surrounding structure. One bomb struck and destroyed the starboard forward "pom-pom" mount closest to the island, while another passed through the forwardmost port "pom-pom" mount and failed to detonate, although it did start a fire. One bomb penetrated the outer edge of the forward port flight deck and detonated about 10 feet (3.0 m) above the water, riddling the adjacent hull structure with holes which caused flooding in some compartments and starting a fire.

The most damaging hit was a large bomb that penetrated through the deck armour forward of the aft lift and detonated 10 feet above the hangar deck. The explosion started a severe fire, destroyed the rear fire sprinkler system, bent the forward lift like a hoop and shredded the fire curtains into lethal splinters. It also blew a hole in the hangar deck, damaging areas three decks below. The Stukas also near-missed Illustrious with two bombs, which caused minor damage and flooding. The multiple hits at the aft end of the carrier knocked out her steering gear, although it was soon repaired.

Another attack by 13 Ju 87s at 13:20 hit the ship once more in the aft lift well, which again knocked out her steering and reduced her speed to 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph).

Captain Boyd made a daring decision: He would not flood the magazines. This enabled the ship to continue defending itself.

He would later write:

“The guns crews (with about 60% of the armament) beat off the subsequent attacks.”

Illustrious was severely wounded.

But her engines were intact. There was still a chance to save her.

At a steady 17 knots, Illustrious limped towards refuge.

This attack was intercepted by six of the ship's Fulmars which had rearmed and refuelled ashore after they had dropped their bombs, but only two of the dive bombers were damaged before the Fulmars ran out of ammunition.

The carrier, steering only by using her engines, was attacked several more times before she entered Grand Harbour's breakwater at 21:04, still on fire. The attacks killed 126 officers and men and wounded 91. Nine Swordfish and five Fulmars were destroyed during the attack. One additional Swordfish, piloted by Lieutenant Charles Lamb, was attempting to land when the bombs began to strike and was forced to ditch when it ran out of fuel; the crew was rescued by the destroyer Juno.

The British fighters claimed to have shot down five Ju 87s, with the fleet's anti-aircraft fire claiming three others. Germans records show the loss of three Stukas, with another forced to make an emergency landing.

The naval historian J. D. Brown noted that "There is no doubt that the armoured deck saved her from destruction; no other carrier took anything like this level of punishment and survived."

Awarded the The Distinguished Service Medal

Sergeant Hubert Samuel Beaven, Ply/X.841, Royal Marines, H.M.S. Illustrious.

8 Royal Marines were killed.

The following Royal Marines were lost.

BLUNDY, Stanley F, Marine, PLY/22076:

FLOYD, Abraham, Marine, PLY/22407:

FRENCH, Ronald J, Marine, PLY/X 3790:

HADLEY, Jack, Marine, PLY/19943:

HORRELL, Alfred H, Marine, PLY/20788:

SELDON, Thomas H G, Marine, PLY/X 22557:

WHYLER, George, Marine, PLY/X 1898:

WILSON, Philip C, Marine, PLY/X 3366.

The Stuka bombing of HMS Illustious and lossof 8 Royal Marines see it mapped here

Related Royal Marines 'Dits'

References/ further reading the full story here;

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