Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Dec.9, 2015: HM’s Enterprise
Here we see the Illustrious-class fleet carrier HMS Formidable (R67) of the Royal Navy. This war baby flattop, completed in the darkest days of World War II when Britain stood alone, was used hard during the war, rushed from fight to fight, and at times was the only carrier in the region. In many ways, she was HM’s equivalent to the USS Enterprise (CV-6).
During WWII, the Royal Navy saw the writing on the wall in the respect that, to remain a first-rate naval power with a global reach, it needed a fleet of modern aircraft carriers. Entering the war in 1939 with three 27,000-ton Courageous-class carriers converted from battlecruiser hulls, the 22,000 ton battleship-hulled HMS Eagle, the unique 27,000-ton Ark Royal, and the tiny 13,000-ton HMS Hermes (pennant 95, the world’s first ship to be designed as an aircraft carrier)– a total of six flattops, within the first couple years of the war 5/6th of these were sent to the bottom by Axis warships and aircraft.
Luckily two 32,000-ton Implacable-class and four 23,000-ton Illustrious-class carriers, laid down before the war, were able to join the fleet to help make good those losses until the follow-on Colossus-class light fleet carriers, and Audacious-class, Malta-class supercarriers (57,000-tons), and 8 planned Centaur-class carriers could be built (although most weren’t).
The Illustrious-class, designed before the war, was limited by the restrictions of the Second London Naval Treaty in displacement (much like the pre-war U.S. carriers). With concerns about the vulnerability of flattops in the 1930s to air attack– the Brits were forward-thinking in this– the “Lusties” were laid out with their hangar in an armored box, with 3-inches of steel plate on the roof and 4.5 on the side to protect against either 5-inch naval shells or 1,000-pound iron bombs. This and the fact the Brits refused to keep aircraft stored on deck limited their air wing to just 36 aircraft.
The 740-foot/23,000-ton Lusties were comparable to the 824-foot/25,000-ton U.S. Yorktown-class aircraft carriers though the Brits had twice the AAA battery with 16 QF 4.5-inchers while the Yanks had 8×5-inchers and other small pieces. Likewise, the two classes had comparable speed (30~ knots) and range (over 10,000 nm) for overseas operations. However, the Yorktown trio (Yorktown, Hornet, Enterprise), while they did have an armored tower and belt, lacked the deck/hangar armor of the Lusties but, due to their huge hangar and doctrine to store planes on “the roof” could accommodate as many as 90 in their air wing.
All of the Illustrious-class carriers were ordered and laid down in 1937 before the start of the war, with three of the four at Vickers with the oddball being Formidable, who was laid down at Harland and Wolff in Belfast– builders of RMS Titanic among others.
HMS Formidable was the 5th (or 6th depending on if you count a French Téméraire class 74-gun third rate ship of the line captured during the Napoleonic Wars with the same name) vessel in the RN to carry the name and between 1759-1953 there were only about 40 years of which the name did not appear on HM’s Naval List, with the last before our WWII flattop being the unlucky battleship torpedoed twice by German submarine U-24 and sunk, 1 January 1915.
Our particular HMS Formidable was commissioned on 24 November 1940 and rushed into service.
Armed with two squadrons of Fairey Albacore biplane torpedo bombers and one of Fairey Fulmar fighters, she engaged in covering convoys searching for German surface raiders for her first few months of the war.
Chopping to the Mediterranean Fleet in 1941, she started with a bang by sinking the Italian merchantman SS Moncalieri and, during the Battle of Cape Matapan, torpedoing the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto and cruiser Pola.
During the evacuation of Greece and Crete, she covered the fleet and kept the German and Italians land-based bombers under thumb with repeated air attacks, accounting for several aerial kills and destruction of aircraft on the ground– although her own air wing dwindled to as low as a dozen operational aircraft at some times.
On 26 May she shrugged off two hits by Stuka dropped 1,100-pound bombs which caused little damage but sent her to Norfolk in the States for repair.
Back in the fight in early 1942, she swapped out her Fulmars for Grumman Martlets (F4F Wildcats) and spent most of the year playing cat and mouse games with the Japanese as part of Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force A in the Indian Ocean.
Then in October, she transferred back to her familiar waters of the Med as part of Force H, covering the Torch Landings in North Africa where her planes (with Supermarine Seafires augmenting and later replacing her Martlets) provided air cover, downed some random German aircraft and scratched the German submarine U-331 on 17 November.
She was the sole Allied carrier in the Med for nearly six months and the first one to enter Malta in over 30 after helping cover the Allied invasion of Sicily. In this respect, she emulated the Enterprise‘s lonely experience as the sole operational Allied carrier in the Pacific between the sinking of the USS Wasp (CV-7) in Sept. 1942 and the commissioning of the USS Independence (CVL-22) in January 1943 while Saratoga was in dry-dock undergoing repair from a Japanese torpedo.
In late 1943, Formidable found herself in the frigid North Atlantic with a new air wing of 18 Vought Corsairs and 24 Fairey Barracuda torpedo bombers. She spent the rest of the year as well as most of 1944 escorting convoys and throwing good pilots and brave aircrews at the SMS Tirpitz in a series of air attacks (Operations Mascot and Goodwood) in her lair in a Norwegian fjord which produced few results.
After refit to expand her hangar deck to accommodate 54 aircraft (including a few topside), upgrading her torpedo planes to 18 Grumman TBF Avengers with three dozen Corsairs providing cover, and upping her AAA suite, she sailed for the newly formed British Pacific Fleet of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser in early 1945 as the need for carriers in the European Theater at that time was waning.
This force would be the largest modern fleet the RN ever assembled post-1918, consisting of four battleships and six fleet aircraft carriers, 15 smaller aircraft carriers, 11 cruisers, and a host of escorts, subs, and auxiliaries. It announced Britain’s re-entry into the huge ocean from which it was chased in early 1942. The force sailed with Spruance’s Fifth Fleet as Task Force 57 (TF-57) and then with Halsey’s Third Fleet as TF-37.
Formidable arrived in the Philippines in April 1945, as the war in Europe was in its last days, and was soon in hot action in the Kamikaze-rich waters off Okinawa.
On 4 May, she was struck by a Mitsubishi A6M Zero “Zeke” carrying one 550-pound bomb, which created a two-foot square hole and a 24 x 20-foot depression in the armored flight deck.
While splinters penetrated into her engineering spaces and her speed was reduced to 18 knots, she only lost eight men to the attack– though 11 of her aircraft were destroyed in the resulting blast. After a patch job, she was able to operate aircraft by the next morning.
Just five days later she was struck by a kamikaze into the after deck park which killed one and wounded eight. The armored deck was depressed 4.5 inches but seven aircraft were destroyed and 11 damaged. Her crew brushed off the deck and was able to launch and land aircraft 50 minutes later but only had a paltry four Avengers and 11 Corsairs left serviceable.
A Pacific Fleet report of May 1945 stated, “Without armored decks, TF 57 would have been out of action (with 4 carriers) for at least 2 months,” a recommendation that was key to adding armored flight decks to all U.S. carriers built after the war.
After some repairs in Australia, she was back in action of the Japanese Home Islands in July.
On 18 July, Lt. Wally Stradwick, a Fleet Air Arm fighter pilot from Clapham, south London, took off from Formidable in his corsair on a mission to strafe an airfield east of Tokyo.
He was the first British aviator killed over Japan in the war.
The last entry had been made on July 14, 1945, four days earlier, when Stradwick knew he was about to attack mainland Japan for the first time.
‘We have been at sea for some time now, and for the last week have known where we are next striking – the absolute full, apart from getting out and saying “Hallo” to the yellow baskets,’ he had written.
‘I don’t know if it is a particular fault of this Air Arm or not, but we have been on the ship so long, with long periods between ops, that I feel the full twitch over this coming “do”.
‘The whole thing hinges on strafing. God knows I’m just as scared as anybody flying on any op, but that disappears once the fun starts.
‘However, I like the idea of fighting with brains and skill. Air to air fighting is the ideal. You have to use both whether the odds are for or against you.
Over the next few weeks, Formidable’s aircraft crippled or sank several small Japanese naval and merchant vessels and coasters including the Etorofu-class frigate Amakusa on Aug 9 (with a single 500-pounder dropped from Lt. Robert “Hammy” Hampton Gray’s Corsair, an act that earned the 27-year-old Canadian a posthumous VC, one of only earned by the Fleet Air Arm in the war).
During this time, her aircraft also left the escort carrier Kaiyō a smoking ruin though later attacks by U.S. Army Air Force bombers and the carrier Ticonderoga ended her career for good.
When the end of the war came, Formidable’s days as a carrier were numbered. She spent the next 18 months shuttling Indian, British, and Dutch troops and personnel around the Pacific and back and forth to Europe, carrying up to 1,500 at a time. Her wartime service earned her seven awards.
In 1946 she received a young replacement gunner, a Scot by the name of Sean Connery who served in the weapons department on HMS Formidable into 1947 though he was released from duty on a 6s pension a year later due to chronic stomach ulcers.
It was planned to refit and keep the battered old girl who had sunk Italian, Japanese, and German ships and received punishment from Axis aircraft in return, but it was found that she was in poor material shape on inspection in 1947. Paid off, she was sold for scrap in January 1953 and towed to Inverkeithing from breaking. Her American counterpart, Enterprise, was laid up at the same time and sold for scrap in 1958.
In all, she carried aircraft from over 20 Air Arm squadrons in her brief seven years of service as a carrier. Of these, 17 have been disbanded while three, No. 820, 829, and 848 remain in service today– all chopper units flying Agusta-Westland Merlin HM.2s. During the war, all three flew torpedo planes (Albacores or Avengers) from Formidible‘s deck.
Formidable was the first of her sisters to meet the torch. Class leader Illustrious and sister Indomitable, also showing severe trauma from wartime service, followed within three years while Victorious, who also survived kamikazes off Okinawa, was extensively reconstructed to operate jets in the 1950s and later carried Gannets, Scimitars, Sea Fury’s, Sea Hawks, Sea Vixen, and Buccaneers until she was put out to pasture in 1969.
Since 1953, the name Formidable has not graced the Royal Navy.
Displacement: 23,000 long tons (23,369 t) (standard)
740 ft. (225.6 m) (o/a)
710 ft. (216.4 m) (waterline)
Beam: 95 ft. 9 in (29.2 m)
Draught: 28 ft. 10 in (8.8 m) (deep load)
111,000 shp (83,000 kW)
6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers
3 geared steam turbines
Speed: 30.5 knots (56.5 km/h; 35.1 mph)
Range: 10,700 nmi (19,800 km; 12,300 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
processing systems: 1 × Type 79 early-warning radar
8 × twin QF 4.5-inch dual-purpose guns
6 × octuple QF 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns
Waterline belt: 4.5 in (114 mm)
Flight deck: 3 in (76 mm)
Hangar sides and ends: 4.5 in (114 mm)
Bulkheads: 2.5 in (64 mm)
Aircraft carried: 36–54
Aviation facilities: 1 catapult
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