- Payne, Alan
- Ship design and development, Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Two more carriers of the same class were ordered in the 1937 Program – the Formidable built by Harland and Wolff, actually completed in November 1940 well ahead of Victorious. The fourth carrier, Indomitable was also late completing, but this was due to being altered while under construction to carry more aircraft by fitting a second hangar deck.
Lady Henderson launched HMS Illustrious on the 5th April 1939 at Barrow, but unfortunately Sir Reginald Henderson had been forced to relinquish his office in March due to ill health, and died on 2nd May. For nearly five years he had been responsible for an unprecedented activity in naval rearmament as Controller of the Navy. After years of starvation the Navy expanded at a higher rate than it had ever done before and it was essential that there should be continuity as well as great skill and experience in its guidance. This Admiral Henderson provided at the cost of his life.
Illustrious left Barrow on the 20th April 1940 and ran her acceptance trials on the 24th May in Liverpool Bay. When completed the standard displacement proved to be 23,207 tons, only 207 tons above the design figure fixed by the London Naval Treaty. In view of the wartime additions such as radar, this is an incredible figure and shows that Mr. Forbes always kept something in reserve.
The dimensions of the ship as built were length overall, 743’6″ with a beam of 95’9″. The all important armour weighed 4,941 tons or nearly 40% of the hull weight. Armament consisted of sixteen 4.5 inch AA guns and forty-eight 2-pounder guns. The machinery consisted of geared turbines of 111,000 shaft horse power with three shafts. The maximum speed on load draught was 30½ knots.
After working up in the Caribbean she carried out a short refit on the Clyde before joining the Mediterranean Fleet. In a radio broadcast Admiral Boyd recalled that: ‘In August we met them off Malta and promptly started a fantastic life under Admiral Andrew Cunningham. Life from that day until the end was fairly exciting. We escorted a convoy to Malta on the average every month, depending on the moon. Of course we were attacked again and again, but so efficient were the pilots of our inefficient aircraft and our radar that not a bomb hit any ships while Illustrious was there, and we took heavy toll of enemy aircraft.
‘Of course Taranto got a lot of publicity and was indeed a good show. Having taken a convoy to Malta, the Fleet moved into a covering position while Illustrious flew off the attacking aircraft as soon as it was dark from near the island of Cephalonia on the Greek coast. Only nineteen Swordfish took part, nine were to dive-bomb selected points and attract attention from the very vulnerable torpedo-carrying aircraft. It all worked like a charm. Three Italian battleships found themselves sitting on the bottom of the main harbour and the dive-bombers damaged two cruisers and some oil tanks.
‘That ended our personal war with Italy. From now on we were up against the Germans, who sent some five hundred aircraft down to Sicily. This was awkward, as we had to shepherd a convoy from the West. On 11th January, a lovely day, off Pantelleria we were first attacked by torpedo aircraft. These were not much of a menace, but then came a series of brilliant dive-bombing attacks. Near misses on all sides were followed by three hits, one right through the flight deck, exploding in the hangar and setting fire to all the aircraft in it. This bomb killed all but one in the hangar. Our steering gear had gone, we were going round in a circle. Five more attacks came in before we got to Malta eight hours later, steering on our engines, and we were hit by three more bombs.’
Admiral Cunningham later wrote that, ‘We opened up with every AA gun we had as one by one the Stukas peeled off into their dives, concentrating the whole venom of their attack upon the Illustrious. At times she became almost completely hidden in a forest of great bomb splashes. The attacks were pressed home to point-blank range, and as they pulled out of the dives some of them were seen to fly along the flight deck of the Illustrious below the level of the funnel’.
Illustrious left Malta on the 23rd January and arrived, undetected by the enemy, at Alexandria two days later. Further repairs were carried out to fit her for the long ocean passage and on the 29th March she left Port Suez for Aden. It had been decided that permanent repair would be carried out at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia.
After docking at Durban the voyage was resumed via Cape Town, Freetown and Trinidad. Norfolk was reached on the 12th May, four months after the bombing. The Americans gave the carrier top priority and six months later she undocked. The after end of the ship had been virtually rebuilt and an extension had been added to the flight deck aft.
Illustrious left Norfolk on the 28th November and proceeded to the Jamaica area to undergo trials and collect twelve Swordfish. She then returned to Norfolk to join Formidable, which had been under repair since August 1941. The sister-ships left on 12th December with American Lend-Lease aircraft embarked for delivery to the United Kingdom.
A quite different outlook on the conception of the armoured carrier was given to me by Admiral Sir Denis Boyd, who was to be the first captain of Illustrious. In reply to a letter regarding the bombing of Illustrious in the Mediterranean in 1941 the Admiral gave his views very frankly:
‘The history of the Illustrious design as far as I am concerned was that I formed a committee of the brightest naval officers at the Admiralty to study the Navy of the future. We were in a fury because we thought we were building the Navy of the past instead of the Navy of the future. Our chief target was the out of date battleships, the first of which was the Prince of Wales. Our idea was that the carrier was the prime fighting ship. In all this the Constructors were most sympathetic and helpful. The Controller Henderson was not. But then we came up against a snag. Who suggested an armoured carrier I cannot remember, what I am certain is that we took advice on the menace against which the carrier had to be protected. The RAF assured us that a 500 pound bomb was the largest we would be liable to meet in the next ten years. This was in 1935. So a carrier was designed to keep out a 500 pound bomb. As no one ever threw such a small bomb at us, we were well off the mark. All the rest is wisdom after the event’.
It is quite evident that as Controller, Henderson had his critics at the Admiralty and the critics were mainly those who wanted carriers at the expense of battleships. But it is most astonishing that Admiral Boyd should have stated that the Controller was not sympathetic, since Henderson had been one of the staunchest supporters of the Fleet Air Arm and the carrier from the early days, as the designer Mr. Forbes was well aware.
It would appear that the Boyd Committee was an informal one, which kept no records and made no submission to the Board of Admiralty. But Boyd and his committee were right in one sense. At the outbreak of war Britain had nine battleships building or authorised, but only six carriers, two of which were not completed until 1944. If those six carriers had been completed by the end of 1941 the war at sea might have taken a very different direction.
In January 1941 Illustrious survived the heaviest damage inflicted on an Allied warship at sea. It has generally been assumed that it was the armoured flight deck that saved the ship, but Admiral Boyd did not entirely accept this. ‘The only bomb that hit the armour went right through it and exploded on the floor of the hangar. Now had there been no armour that bomb would probably have exploded in the engine room and this could well have been disastrous. All the other bombs struck outside the area which had been armoured. Three in the after lift well, one right forward, which was touched off by striking something solid. It exploded outside the ship and blew about two hundred holes in our side creating quite a fire.
‘As usual there is no easy answer to your question. The design of the Illustrious shook the world as the words ‘an armoured carrier’ had a magic of their own, but as you see it was not quite true. When she was in the design stage I asked if I could be considered for commanding her. That I did is my lasting pride.’
The final and supreme test of the armoured carriers did not come until April and May 1945 when three were hit by Japanese Kamikaze attacks. All were back in action in a few hours.