HMS Illustrious bombed by the Luftwaffe

HMS Illustrious under attack on the 10th January 1941. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.

The Luftwaffe announced their arrival in the Mediterranean with a vengeance. The new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, whose planes had so successfully attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, was the subject of a sustained attack by Ju 87 dive-bombers as it escorted a convoy to Malta. MaritimeQuest has a series of images of the attack and the damage to the ship.

The main forces of the Mediterranean Fleet, consisting of H.M. Ships Warspite and Valiant with H.M.S. Illustrious and 7 destroyers, were operating in support in the Eastern Basin and covering the passage from Alexandria to Malta of a convoy which was escorted by H.M. Ships Perth, Orion, York and Ajax. On the 10th January the Fleet was attacked several times by various types of aircraft.

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.

In this attack H.M.S Illustrious was severely damaged as a result of 6-direct bomb hits and several near misses, which caused fires and disabled her steering gear. Her casualties were 83 killed, 60 seriously and 40 slightly wounded, including several officers. H.M.S. Warspiie also sustained slight damage from a near miss. During this attack one Fulmar and one Swordfish were shot down, their crews being saved, and two enemy aircraft were shot down by gunfire.

At 1330 an unsuccessful attack was made on Illustrious by high level bombers and between 1600 and 1700 a second dive-bombing attack by about 30 aircraft was made on her and the Battle Fleet in which another hit was believed to have been made on Illustrious, and H.M.S. Valiant had one killed and 3 wounded from near misses.

During this attack Fulmars from Illustrious, which had refuelled at Malta, shot down 6 or 7 Ju 87 or 88′s and damaged several others. Heavy bombs of about 1,000 lb. were used in all these attacks. Illustrious, covered by the Battle Fleet, arrived at Malta at about 2100 after a final, but unsuccessful, attack had been made oh her by torpedo bombers outside the entrance to Grand Harbour. Eleven of her Swordfish and 5 Fulmars were destroyed by fire.

From the weekly Naval Situation report see TNA CAB/66/14/33

Air Mechanic Rayburn was on board HMS Illustrious and somehow lived to tell his story:

My action station as with all maintenance crews, was in the hanger with the aircraft, which by the way were all heavily armed, and loaded with torpedoes ready for an attack on the Italian Fleet.

Illustrious was armed with 16 4.5 dual purpose guns, and 8 6 barrelled 2lb quick firing AA weapons.  The ship kept jumping and shaking.  Several large bombs hit the shop aft, and the after hanger was on fire.  The noise was indescribable.  In my baptism of fire, all that sticks in my mind are impressions. 
I was standing more or less in the centre of the hanger.  A chap came down from the flight deck; his rubber suit was full of holes with blood leaking from all of them.  I helped carry him down to the casualty station in the washroom flats.

The surgeons were busy.  Blood washed from side to side with the sway of the ship. 
I returned to my action station in the hangar.  The ship continued to rock and sway. 

I looked up with fear and apprehension.  Then there was an almighty flash as a 1,000 lb bomb pierced the 4 inch armoured deck and exploded.  I was only aware of a great wind, and bits of aircraft, debris, all blowing out to the forward lift shaft of 300 tons, which was also blown out. 
There were dead and wounded all around.  My overalls were blown off and I had small wounds to the back of my head and shoulder. 
I was probably 10-15 feet away from the bomb when it exploded.  Luck I survived?  I prefer the thought of someone looking out for me. 
The hanger by then was burning all over.  The ships commander came and said, ‘come on lads close the armoured doors.’  The overhead sprays then flooded the hanger. 

The ship started to sink by the stern, and everyone had to blow up lifebelts.  Then came a spot of humour in all that chaos.  Poor old Corporal Gater came through a side door white as a sheet saying ‘I wish I hadn’t bloody joined.’ 
The battering carried on for six to seven hours. 
There were many wounded piled up.  The aft surgeons station had been destroyed, and the forward station was unable to cope quickly with so many casualties. 
Captain Boyd finally steered with the engines into Malta.  The ship was quiet at last.

See Acepilots for his full story and much more on HMS Illustrious.

A hole in the armoured flight deck of HMS Illustrious where a 1,250 pound bomb penetrated. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.

Some repairs were carried out at Malta (where there were further air attacks) before HMS Illustrious returned to Alexandria. There she was sufficiently patched up to make the journey, via the Suez Canal and round Africa, to U.S. shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. She was out of the war for the remainder of the year.

Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing. I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo "854 Squadton  R.N. "Illustrious"aircraft carrier.

Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing.
I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo
“854 Squadton R.N. “Illustrious”aircraft carrier.

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard White July 24, 2014 at 11:34 pm

My father Geoffrey White served as a petty officer on HMS Illustrious during ww2.
He was in the Atlantic, Malta, Ceylon, Australia and the Far East.
He was in charge of one of the guns. He told me that on one occasion he was asked to go down onto the navigation room because he was able to reach charts. The ship went into action and when he emerged from the navigation room three days later his gun had received a direct hit and the gun and crew were lost.

Bob Perkins June 16, 2014 at 11:42 am

Hi,
As with some of the others my cousin Sub Lt Edgar A Perkins (wave 2 in L4F during the Taranto raid) Was killed during the Luftwaffe attack when the 1,000 lb bomb came through the flight deck, he was knocked out by the concussion and unfortunately drowned in the sprinkler system flooding of the hangar deck

Ernest James May 25, 2014 at 10:27 am

My cousin was killed on HMS Illustrious on January 10th 1941. I was told that he was killed when the bomb came down the lift shaft. His name was Corporal Frederick Albert HARLEY (Bertie to most people). 815 squadron. His father Leonard Harley was killed at Gallipoli the year Bertie was born 1915, and is buried in Malta.
I see Stephan Edwards takes care of an elderly ex-Illustrious crewman. I wonder whether he knew my cousin (If he is still alive of course). Thank you.

Keith Dunstan May 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

Hi my son in laws Father served on the Illustrious in the forties as a ships cook but hard to get much info from him, I know he was all over the Pacific area, got bombed and planes crashing on the deck
His name is Les Harding and comes from Chester, Cheshire, anybody remember him.
cheers Keith ex RE’s

Karin Stowe April 15, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Hi my father served on HMS Illustrious during the war, from 1941 I think to 1943, his name was John Harold Stowe. He served in the medical quarters, is there anyone who remembers him or knows of any where I can find official records of his services in the Navy, during and after the Second World War.

Thank you for any help, regards Karin

Bobbie Jameson April 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm

James Winton Might you have any photos of my dad John Grainger. He was in fleet air arm and maybe served with Sydney Allen your uncle. Do I need to put my e-mail on here?

Jeanette Cole March 26, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Hi my Grandfather Henry Sedgemore was a Gunnery on the Illustrious in ww2. If anyone knew him please let me know.
Thanks Jeanette

James Doherty March 16, 2014 at 10:13 am

My father Patrick Doherty SFX528 was on the Illustrious from 1/1/44 till 31/12/44.
He passed away on 5 October 1970.
He was an Air Artificer 4. He was in charge of maintenance for the 854 squadron of Avengers on this ship.
The ship was the first ship in the new dry dock in Sydney Harbour to repair a bent propeller shaft during this time.
I used to know the name of the leader of the 854 squadron but what I do remember is that he flew effectively with 1 good arm having injured the other in battle.

James

Tom Nugent November 8, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Hi all, my uncle Bob Nugent along with his friend Charlie Browne both from Co. Clare in Irl. were both on board during the attack and survived. Bob who lived until the mid 80s rarely spoke of the events but before he died told me of the bombardment in the Med. and the sailing to Alexandria and then onto the States. Both also served on HMS Repulse but were on ships leave when she was hit.

mick sene September 24, 2013 at 9:49 am

my dad was on the illustrious he started as a boy sailor and stayed for 11 years as petty officer james sene sadly he died a few years ago

Ralph Brown September 23, 2013 at 10:01 pm

My father John Brown L/FX76703 (aka Chick Brown) served on the Illustrious during WW2 as a Leading Air Fitter (aeroplane mechanic!) and was Mentioned in Despatches in 1941 for we think manning a pom pom gun during the “Illustrious Blitz” on Malta. He died in 2000 aged 79 but would not talk much about the war or how he survived when so many of his shipmates didn’t. Any info therefore gratefully received. My email address is ralphmudplugger@aol.com

Robert Kesterton September 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm

My late uncle Petty Officer Arthur Robert Cooper was on board HMS Illustrious during WW2 when she was attack on 10th January 1941 and was severley wounded. He was a Air Artisan in the Fleet Air Arm.

If anyone had relatives who served with please can you contact me via email: rnkesterton@hotmail.co.uk

Clayton Neal September 4, 2013 at 8:16 pm

I recently visited Malta, and went to the war musem in valetta
Theres quite a few interesting artifacts from hms illustrious, including a replica of the ships bell, and also a local maltese persons account of the attacks (in italian).

Nikki August 4, 2013 at 1:49 am

My Pop was on the Illustrious when it sank.
Harry Pryor was his name.

tom Walsh June 30, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Dianne Pekama April 6, 2013 at 6:22 am

Diane my Dad served on the Illustrious only for 1 month Nov 41 to Dec 41 I think that was a crossong from Norfolk VA back to the UK. Would your Dad be able to confirm that ??/ Tom Walsh, Stoker 2nd

Tom Walsh

Deborah McKenzie June 17, 2013 at 6:16 pm

My Dad served during WW2 on the HMS Illustrious he spoke about being in Malta. I would love more information on him if anyone remembers him. I am not sure what he did on board. His name Was George McKenzie and he was from Aberdeen. I would also appreciate any help you can give me on tracing crew lists and his service record. He died in 1991 and I am trying to gather information on him for his grandchildren. Thanks in advance for any help

vicky watmough June 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm

My Dad was in Y2 gun turret during Italian landings at Salerno and was a member of HO218 squad. His name is Eric Watmough and he would love to hear from anyone who was there. He now lives near Skipton.

Diane & Richard Stoddard-Howell June 5, 2013 at 4:46 am

My husband’s father, Harold Stoddard-Howell was on board the Illustrious when it was struck by bombs on 10/1/1941. He was Chief Air Artificer No FX 75131 and was badly injured with burns to his head. He was on the aircraft shaft as the bomb came down. He saw many of his friends killed. Would love to know if anyone remembers him. He was taken to Malta to convalesce. We have a photo of him in his navy uniform. Also, would love to hear from anyone if they know were there diaries kept of the actual voyage and the damage etc. to Illustrious. Did they keep a record of the injuries sustained by people. Thanks
Diane & Richard Stoddard-Howell

Trevor Vickery May 26, 2013 at 9:47 pm

My Father was aboard the Illustrious during her fight with the Luftwaffe, he was a PO Telecommunications, after the battle he was assigned to help remove the dead from the gun turrets, he never spoke of it to me but my mother told me of it, after he had a problem being around our BBQ in the summer. He had nightmare long after this event, I suppose now its called P.T.S.D, I was told that 2/3 of the crew perished in that fight. This is the first account I have read on that day.
He died in 1984
Thanks

Bobbie Jameson May 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm

My Dad served on the Illustrious in the Fleet Air Arm from around 1943-45. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago but I would love to know if anyone has photos with him on. He was John Grainger, as I’m putting together a package about his time during the war to pass on to my children. Thanks

Gary Pearson April 11, 2013 at 10:12 pm

My grandad was on the illustrious during the malta attack,his name was Walter Pearson his rank was chief petty officer. Would really appreciate if anyone know any information

Thank you

JAMES WINTON April 9, 2013 at 9:56 am

Hi
My uncle Syd Allen served on the Illustrious 1942-45 I believe in the Fleet Air Arm
He is still alive and wondered if anyone alive would know him
I do have some pictures with him and some of his mates if anyone is interested

Thanks

James

Dianne Pekama April 6, 2013 at 6:22 am

Hi there,my father Rex Marcroft was on the HMS Illustrious and the HMS Arabis,from 1941 to 1944..As my father is still leaving to this day he is 90 years of age…i love listen to his storys of his days in the navy…we had my dads 90th birthday in march,and just hearing about his days,it was so mine blowing….I would love to hear more info…I do have photos of the HMS Illustrious and the HMS Arabis…thank you Dianne

paulgeraghty February 14, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Hi Amanda – Paul Geraghty here. If you wish to get in touch please email me at paulgeraghty2010@hotmail.com

paulgeraghty February 13, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Hi, Amanda my wife uncle was James Smyth he died on board, he was from[ Nobber] in Co . Meath Ireland

Amanda Smyth February 5, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Hi, my grandfather James Smyth died on board during the Malta convoy……we sadly don’t know a great deal about him other than he was born in County Meath in Ireland. My father was just 7 when he died. If anyone knew of him we would be most great full to hear from you. Amanda.

Roger Beaven January 16, 2013 at 9:31 pm

My father was Hubert Samuel BEAVEN and was proud to have served on H.M.S. Illustrious. On the 10th.January, 1941 he was wounded whilst operating a gun turret during during the German attack on the convoy to Malta.

He was a career Royal Marine attaining the rank of Company Sgt. Major and retired in 1953 being stationed in Lympstone, Devon.

He passed away at the age of 75 in 1987. He was awarded the D.S.M. for his actions
during the 1941 attack but never divulged the circumstances of those actions.

Roger Beaven. Ontario, Canada.

Mick Eames January 13, 2013 at 8:40 pm

I’m looking for anyone who new my father Edward (Ted) Eames on Lusty 1940 /45 I belive he was an aircraft machanic below / above decks. I would like to find out more about his war time carrier along with the men he served with during the war. Is there any shipmate still alive who new him and can help with any information regarding Ted who has now pasted over in 1978 from a heart attack.
Yours Truely
Mick Eames. (son)

Clayton Neal January 7, 2013 at 9:50 pm

My grandad Herbert Jackson was on the illustrious for all of ww2 as chief petty officier engineer. During malta he was mentioned in dispatches for operating pom pom guns.

Ian Stanley December 29, 2012 at 11:11 pm

My grandad was on the illustrious at that time and other carriers, who’s name was ‘Leslie Stanley’ a stoker. I wish I was able to remember more of what he told me as a youngster.

If anybody knows anything more information about my grandad, please post I would really appreciate it.

Andrew Macdonald October 15, 2012 at 12:37 pm

My Grandad was on the Illustrious at this time, his name was Robert Bambrough and he was a wireless operator, if anyone has any info about him it would be much appreciated.

Ken Madden August 11, 2012 at 11:38 am

My wife’s Uncle Hugh Cree was killed on 10th April 1941. He was a stoker and is buried in Haifa cemetery.

Editor July 9, 2012 at 8:12 am

Hi Amanda

Thanks for getting in touch. I am sorry I have no further details myself. Hopefully someone may have something after reading this post.

regards

Martin

amanda(Tallack) Tunsley July 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Hi, My uncle airman petty officer Norman e Tallack was killed on the Illustrious in this attack in 41. I wondered if you had any info on him on record. I keep his photo on my wall as he was a hero. I am the youngest and last in this family line. Unfortunatly all Norman’s medals and trophies were lost when the house in Plymouth was bombed. My father Fredrick Tallack and my mum petty officer Betty Gillian are now deceased. Yours sincerly Amanda Jane Tallack

Stephen Edwards May 17, 2012 at 8:08 pm

I take care of an elderly neighbour who was on the illustrious went it was hit. His name is Danny Patterson he is originally from Stanhope St. Liverpool 8 but he now lives in Widnes Cheshire..He was on his way to his action station at the hangar when he saw the plane lift going up towards the deck with about 15 crew but with no plane on. All he remembers from the point of the bombs impact is a blue flash and then waking up next to a Sworfish. He sufferered an injury to his right shoulder caused by debris from the explosion.

Raymond wright May 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm

My father was on the Illustious he was a range taker on the guns. He was on board when it was bombed. The rest of the fleet left them for dead and they made it back to Malta for a refit.

charlotte phillips February 15, 2012 at 7:51 pm

my grandad was on HMS illustrious during the Malta convoy, and also did 5 other convoys on HMS illustrious too, all we know that he was a stoker (not sure of rank) he’s name was Leslie Stanley

Bridgette Kelly February 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm

My Father, John Pearson of Birmingham, was on the Illustrious – he was a navigator and in the fleet air arm. He survived when the plane flew off the deck into a freak wind that cUsed the plane un to the ocean. The ship circled twice – against all rules – but they found my Dad and Nobbie the pilot – and they were rescued. He lived until he was 64years of age but when the war ended, he refused to fly again and never left the UK.

Ivan Jenkins January 1, 2012 at 11:32 pm

Re ‘Billy’ Horton – his official names were Lancelot Harry.
He was a Stoker 1st Class not Leading Stoker.

Ivan Jenkins January 1, 2012 at 11:03 pm

My cousin ‘Billy’ Horton was also a leading stoker on Illustrious; ‘killed in action’
10.Jan.1941. His home was in Bulawayo, S. Rhodesia.

John Boorman November 7, 2011 at 6:01 pm

My uncle who was an aircraft mechanic 2nd class was killed in the attack 10th Jan 1941.
His name was Phillip Kinslow.

Keith Dunstan July 18, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Hello my son in laws Father RON HARDING was on the Illustrius in the forties, I beleive, he was a cook
came from Chester, Cheshire. ring any bells ?????

valerie wood June 29, 2011 at 8:24 pm

his name was Phillip wood

valerie wood June 29, 2011 at 8:22 pm

my dad was on The Illustrious….he was a leading stoker at the time she was bombed in Malta

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