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.
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.
In 2014 Andrew Wilson wrote to me:
During 2000, some friends of mine moved into a house in Epsom, Surrey, where the previous owners had left a desk. Tucked away in the desk was a letter from HMS Illustrious, a personal letter, with references to the Malta convoy.
Attempts have been made to try to trace the identities of the addressee and the writer, so far without much progress. It is almost certainly one Royal Navy officer writing to another. It would appear that the letter was addressed to an officer who had formerly served on HMS Illustrious and was anxious for news of the casualties sustained in January 1941. There can be little doubt that the letter is authentic and refers to this action and the aftermath.
This is a raw and powerful document that deserves to be seen more widely, a vivid memorial of what these men went through:
3 March 1941
My dear old E.J.,
Your very kind letter of 16th January has just arrived. I knew how you would feel it and longed to be able to assure you that all the team you knew were still alive. I not only could not but dared not say anything until we left Malta and got to Alex as our expectation of life was not very high. But, as you know, we all survived and live to fight again.
How the buzz about Bill started I have no idea as he was more full of life than anyone! My chief sorrows were Lt. Gregory whom you may remember was very sweet to Elizabeth. He was hit on the spine by a bomb splinter and fell down saying ‘I think something has hit me.’ He then turned very grey and asked for morphia knowing he was dying. Keevil gave him a shot and then he had to be moved as a fierce fire was raging under the quarter deck where he was lying. A marine picked him up and his back was heard to break. He was, I think, already dead.
Luddington, ex England and Navy rugger and our Master at Arms, was blown to bits in the hanger where a bomb exploded. He was a golden man.
Clifford, a Lieut. and pilot who had done very well at Taranto, was wounded in the first attack and then devoted himself to the other wounded. After the third attack he was never seen again. Either he was blown overboard or he disintegrated. He was a pattern of gallantry and gentility and one of the best three-quarters we have had for a long time.
Our young marine Manisty, whom Les knew, was killed by a bomb which did not wound him but just blasted him. The other officer casualties you would not know unless you remember Mr Anstis our gunner. He was blown to bits by a bomb which hit the pompom just in front of the bridge. He and all the crew were in an awful mess but were clearly killed instantly. I ordered them to be thrown overboard as they were dreadful sights. Arms, legs, heads and trunks going over the side were awful to see but were better there than lying about the deck where they chilled the stomachs of others.
Analysing one’s feelings afterwards I felt no sorrow at the time as my feelings were that the dead had perhaps the easiest job. Nor was I afraid, it was all so terrific and one’s responsibility so great that I had no uncomfortable feelings other than intense sorrow for the ship as I never expected her to be of any use again. I was on the wing bridge watching the bombs come down and I saw both lifts fly into the air like leaves. An amazing sight.
Fear came later when I realised we must have more attacks before reaching Malta. I then felt utterly sick for a while and trembled from head to foot. I went down to my sea cabin, took a good hold of myself, offered up a prayer that I’d do my stuff and then went back and was waggling the engines to steer her for the next 8 hours and through 2 more attacks without any particular feeling other than an unsatisfied desire for food. From breakfast until 10 pm, when we secured I only had cocoa and a biscuit which Lloyd the Padre brought me.
Our real strain came with the repeat attacks at Malta. On one occasion I was ashore not 20 yards from a cave shelter and the ship was 100 yards away. On the warning I walked to the gangway saying to myself after all there is nothing I can do and when I got to the gangway I stopped, feeling utterly cowardly and bloody nearly ran for the shelter. However I climbed slowly and reluctantly up the gangway and then felt alright. The others were the same I think. I allowed no one on board (there were wonderful shelters) except the gun crews and supply parties. Some of them failed to turn up and we manned the guns with 4 commandos, 6 Lt Cdrs, 2 Paymasters Seamen and Westmacott , 4 Po’s and 6 first class able seamen.
Rosey Barker and I went to the air defence position on the top bridge where we directed the guns on to the targets until the attack developed and then we just watched. However if you have seen Bill you will have heard as stirring a yarn as ever was spun. I sent Bill home because we did learn a lot and I wanted the powers that be to know what we learnt. To say I was indifferent to the fact that Bella had had a baby would be a ruddy lie, but Bill must never know that I thought of that first! He was splendid and deserved a little thought of that kind.
I think my worst job was to see people suffering from strain. It was horrible and some got it badly. Tamplin the Chief, a fat cheerful self indulgent bachelor went ashore and just couldn’t come back so I sent him to hospital. Duckworth, who was badly blasted, cried at the least excuse and yet stuck at it and was always there though I think useless. Men I thought tough were no good at all in fact the only really good ones were the team and a few sailors and engineers of the quiet nice type. Martin whose funny little wife vamped old N.R. was the senior engineer and was the supreme man of the whole show. His guts and skill were quite remarkable and he was quite delighted when owing to the chief cracking he was left with the whole responsibility.
The senior gunner went to the hospital to see the wounded and collapsed staying there! Others in varying degrees were looking like death but they stuck it well. I think I saved them all from going really potty by abandoning ship for 3 days after the Sunday attacks. It was a ghastly thing to do but I had to do it and as usual got away with it as during those 3 days we were not attacked. Had I not done so half of us would have been loonies and in any case we would not have saved the ship. On the Thursday they all came back gladly and were able to produce the goods for an awful passage to Alex. I have often had to bear responsibility but never anything to equal this. To them the 3 days were a rest, to us they were just hell but I knew it was right.
I seem to have run on a bit but your very kind thoughts in your letter and various inspired me to tell you a little, added to Audrey’s they all help to make a picture of which we are all, not without justification, very proud.
I went to a ship’s company dance the other night and jawed with some of them. We were a happy family and I did not realise quite how much they hung on what I said and did.
God bless you both your T.6 (not clearly decipherable)
D.B. [but looks like D.W.]
I thought this was possibly written by the Captain – but there was confusion over whether it was signed D.B. or D.W. . This account by Malta at War Museum suggests that he was Denis Boyd – and this has been confirmed by Alistair Horn (see comments below).
In November 2014 I was pleased to be able to add the following account by 92 year old Sydney Millen:
EXTRA PICTURE ADDED March 2014
I remember that on the 9th January our escorts including “Warspite” did a practice air defensive exercise, and to all our eyes nothing could penetrate that barrage. How wrong could we be proved.
From first light the action started, HMS Gallant had her bows blown off after hitting a mine, and then towards noon action stations was sounded, and from then on all hell broke loose. I at the start was on duty in the after end of the hanger, but in what seemed a short space of time there was a terrific explosion for’ard and what I am sure was the forward lift was struck ,luckily despite the debris etc I was unhurt and left the hanger.
After that the ship shudderred many times as she was hit and like many of my comrades I helped in the rescue of the many injured. One of the after gun turrets suffered a near direct hit and the carnage was awful. After a period owing to damage to our steering gear we were just going in circles, quite a target for the aircraft attacking, our escort had I presume decided to keep a fair distance as they were not conspicuous by their presence.
Anyway that’s as maybe , we eventually arrived at the entrance to Malta harbour, with what seemed to me crowds of people, cheering us in, I often wondered if they would have been so enthusiastic if they had realised that this day would have been the start of the terrible ordeal to which they would have to suffer in the coming years.
Anyway we eventually tied up and the following days were spent in the unenviable task of clearing up, not pleasant,the ship was in dock for I think several days, but as what was left of my sqdn.was ashore I left the ship and stayed at Hal Far aerodrome for I think several months doing what we could to defend Malta.
Not very specific I know, but a day I shall always remember, my first taste of action.