Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020: Spaghetti & Stringbags
Here we see a great bow-on shot of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (87) underway in the Indian Ocean during the Spring of 1944, while the British flattop was operating with USS Saratoga (CV-3) during WWII. “Lusty” was one of the luckier of HM’s early fleet carriers during the conflict, and a handful of hopelessly obsolete aircraft flying from her decks, borrowing a bit of that luck, would pull off an amazing feat some 80 years ago today.
While today the U.S. Navy is the benchmark for carrier operations, the British would be incredibly innovative in the use of such vessels in warfare. This included being the first country to lose a carrier in combat when HMS Courageous (50) was lost to a German U-boat in the third week of the war and sistership HMS Glorious was embarrassingly lost to the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during the withdrawal from Norway in June 1940. With that being said, it was a good thing that Illustrious was on the way to make up losses.
Laid down at Vickers Barrow-in-Furness on 27 April 1937, 13 months after German troops marched into the Rhineland as part of the British rearmament due to such muscular action, Illustrious was the lead ship of a new class of a planned six aircraft carriers designed from the first steel cut to be modern flattops. Displacing 25,000-tons full load, they had a 740-foot overall length and the ability to touch 30-knots on a trio of steam turbines.
Carrying up to 4.5-inches of armor– to include an armored flight deck designed to withstand 1,000-pound bombs– and protected by 16 excellent QF 4.5-inch Mark I guns, both of which would have rated her as a decent light cruiser even without aircraft, the class could carry 36 aircraft in their hangars, which was smaller than American and Japanese carriers of the same size, but keep in mind the Brits guarded their birds inside an armored box. Further, they were fitted with radar, with Illustrious having her Type 79 installed just before she joined the fleet.
Commissioned 25 May 1940, during the fall of France, Illustrious was to do her workup cruise to Dakar but plans changed once the French surrendered, sending the carrier instead to do her shakedown in the relative safety of the West Indies. Meanwhile, Italy had clocked in on Germany’s side, declaring war on 10 June.
By 30 August, she set out for the Mediterranean on her first operational deployment, sailing for Alexandria in convoy with Force F. Within a week, her airwing, which included Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers of Nos. 815 and 819 Squadrons, would be flying combat missions against Axis-held airfields on Rhodes.
While Illustrious carried a mix of quaint Fairey Fulmar and Sea Gladiator fighters, it was her embarked Swordfish, biplanes capable of just 124 knots and nicknamed “flying stringbags,” that made up the bulk of her strike capability.
On the 17th, Swords from Illustrious drew blood during shipping attacks on Benghazi harbor, sending the Italian Turbine-class destroyer Borea to the bottom while air-dropped mines would take out several merchantmen. The proven carrier then spent the next several weeks riding shotgun on convoys between Malta and Egypt.
Then, on 10 November, Illustrious was detached on Operation Judgement, a planned midnight home invasion of the Italian fleet’s main base at Taranto under the cover of darkness, where her airwing would target Rome’s mighty battleships at anchor. As an ace in the hole, they had up-to-date reconnaissance photographs of the harbor, taken by Martin Maryland light bombers flying from Malta.
The carrier strike force? Even including aircraft cross-decked from HMS Eagle, Illustrious could count a mixed bag of just 21 Swordfish of Nos. 813, 815, 819, and 824 Squadrons. To give them a boost in range, each would be fitted with a spare av gas tank that they only had to leave their rear gunner behind to accommodate– what could go wrong?
The first wave, of 12 aircraft, would launch at 20:40 on 11 November and consist of six Swords each with a single 18-inch torpedo, backed up by four Swords each with a half-dozen light 250-pound bombs, and two aircraft with a mix of 16 parachute flares and four bombs each.
The second wave (!), of nine aircraft, would launch an hour later and included five torpedo carriers, two with bombs and two flare-droppers. In all, the Brits planned to bring a total of 11 Mark XII torpedoes and 52 almost lilliputian bombs.
The tiny force of biplanes faced some serious opposition.
Besides the masses of guns on the Italian ships themselves– which were under standing orders to keep their AAA batteries at least half-manned even when the vessels were anchored– around the Regia Marina’s primary roadstead were land-based anti-aircraft batteries that held no less than 21 4-inch, 84 20mm and 109 13.2mm guns at the ready in addition to smaller numbers of 125mm, 90mm, and 40mm guns. While there was no air-search radar at Taranto, the Italians did have at least 13 “war tuba” sound-detection devices capable of hearing aircraft engines as far out as 30 miles away. Two dozen powerful searchlights scanned the heavens.
Even if the British bombers could get inside the harbor, the Italians had over 23,000 feet of counter-torpedo netting ready to catch any trespassing Royal Navy fish. Further, there was a flotilla of 90 barrage balloons tethered by steel cables, deployed across the harbor in three rows.
While the Brits caught some breaks– two-thirds of the barrage balloons were not on station due to storms and a lack of hydrogen; and 2.9km of the torpedo nets were coiled up, in need of repair– it was still a dangerous mission as witnessed by the more than 12,000 shells of 20mm or greater from shore-based batteries alone during the strike.
In the end, just two Swords were lost while three of six Italian battleships present were seriously damaged, and the last of 18 recovered aircraft were aboard Illustrious by 0230 on 12 November.
The brand-new 35,000-ton fast battleship Littorio suffered three torpedo hits, while the older battlewagons Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour picked up one each, with the latter so wrecked she would not be repaired for the duration of the war. Bombs lightly damaged the 13,000-ton heavy cruiser Trento, the destroyers Libeccio and Pessagno, and two fleet auxiliaries in addition to falling on the dockyard and oil depot. The fleet suffered nearly 700 casualties, although less than 10 percent of that figure was mortal.
The raid upset the balance of power between the strong Italian fleet and the weaker British force in the Med at a crucial period.
As a booby prize, the Italians captured two downed British Fleet Air Arm members and were left with several dud bombs and torpedoes to examine. Two RN aircrewmen were killed. The morning after the Taranto raid, the undamaged battleship Vittorio Veneto, assuming ADM Inigo Campioni’s flag from the crippled Littorio, led the Italian fleet to Naples. Campioni would be relieved of command three weeks later, replaced by ADM Angelo Iachino.
Interestingly enough, this attack took place while both America and Japan were at peace and each country’s navy took notes from the engagement, although they were applied very differently by the respective note takers a year later.
As encapsulated by the Royal Navy today, “The Fleet Air Arm’s attack on Taranto ranks as one of the most daring episodes in the Second World War. It transformed the naval situation in the Mediterranean and was carefully studied by the Japanese before their carrier-borne strike on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941.”
How do you top a 20-aircraft raid from a five-month-old carrier that sidelined half of the Italian battlefleet? For the rest of the war, Illustrious was a one-ship fire brigade supporting operations in the Med to include earning honors for keeping Malta alive during Operation Excess.
Her luck ran out on the Excess run on 10 January 1941– hit by five bombs from a swarm of 18 He 111s and 43 Stukas 60 miles west of Malta. “Illustrious was the main target and was enveloped in waterspouts and mist of exploding bombs. Some bombers diving from an altitude of 12,000 feet delayed bomb release until they pulled-out lower than the height of Illustrious’ funnel.”
Even so, she reached Malta that day and would suffer 126 dead and 91 wounded by the time she departed the besieged island stronghold– the subject of continuing German and Italian air attacks the entire time she was there.
She was sent to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the ostensibly neutral United States for repair, eventually arriving there via the Suez Canal on May 27.
Post repairs, Illustrious was soon back in the war, covering the landings at Diego Suarez in Vichy-held Madagascar during Operation Ironclad in 1942, where her Swords were back at work.
She then shipping back to the Med for the Salerno landings in 1943.
From there she set out for the Indian Ocean in 1944 where she worked alongside USS Saratoga and raided the Japanese-held island of Sabang (Operation Cockpit).
By January 1945, she was off Sumatra in the Japanese-held Dutch East Indies, launching raids on the vital Soengi Gerong oil refineries near Palembang while dodging kamikazes.
Speaking of which, she continued to reap the divine wind off Okinawa in April, with a Japanese D4Y3 Judy making contact with her deck, leaving the carrier with a vibration in her hull and the remains of a Japanese rubber dinghy as a trophy.
Sailing at a reduced speed of 19 knots for Sidney and emergency repairs, she ended the war in the dockyard.
Post-VJ-Day, Illustrious was used for deck-landing trials until being place in reserve in late 1947.
Recommissioned the next year, she was used for further trials and training duties, clocking in as a troop carrier to Cyrus in 1951.
She attended Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Review at Spithead in June 1953 and continued to provide some service, she never again deployed as an operational carrier.
Illustrious was sold to BISCO for breaking-up at Faslane, arriving there on 3 November 1956.
As for her three sisters that were completed, HMS Formidable (67) and HMS Indomitable (92) had been broken up shortly before Illustrious leaving only HMS Victorious (R38) to soldier on, paid off in 1968 and scrapped the next year.
While the name HMS Illustrious would go on to be used by an Invincible-class Harrier carrier, which was retired in 2016, several artifacts of the WWII-era vessel endure.
Of course, as a great ship, she was the subject of great maritime art:
And of a variety of scale models from Heller, Aoshima, Revelle, and others.
The rubber survival dinghy recovered from the kamikaze that struck her deck off Okinawa is in the IWM.
While both her original ship’s bell– which was damaged in 1941 by the Germans off Malta– and her U.S.-cast replacement, presented while she was at Norfolk, are preserved.
This week, the Royal Navy is planning a spate of remembrance activities concerning the 80th anniversary of Taranto, keeping the memory of Lusty and her 21 stringbags alive.
Displacement: 28,661 tons, full load
Length: 710 ft
Beam: 95 ft
Draft: 28 feet
Propulsion: 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 3 Parsons geared turbines producing 110,000 shp, three shafts
Speed: 30.5 knots, range= 10,700nm @ 10 knots
Complement: ~1,200 designed. Up to 1,600 during 1944-45
Armor: 3 to 4.5-inches
Aircraft: 36, later increased to 60
16 × QF 4.5-inch naval gun (8 × 2)
40 x QF 2 pounder naval gun (5 × 8)
Later fitted with:
3 x Bofors 40 mm gun (3 x 1)
38 x Oerlikon 20 mm cannon (19 x 2), (14 x 1)
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