10 January 1941 - the attack on HMS Illustrious

Discussion in 'WW2 General' started by parsifal, Jan 8, 2013.

  1. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    #1 parsifal, Jan 8, 2013
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2013
    The 10 January marks the anniversay of the Luftwaffes attack on the HMS Illustrious. The Luftwaffe and RA came within an ace of sinking the great ship. She had previously almost single handedly neutralized the Italian Battleflleet and thoroughly demoralized the RM as she rampaged throughout Mussolini's Mare Nostrum

    The ship was attacked some 85 miles west of Malta by 40 Stukas from the newly arrived Fliegerkorps X, in a well planned attack lasting an hour. In this attack 1.000 pound pound bombs were used. The design of Illustrious was capable of withstanding only 500 lb bombs. Before the bombing the squadron of Fulmars managed to get off.

    After this attack Illustrious was left steaming in circles with raging fires below. 2 enemy aircraft are believed to have been shot down by the CAP and 2 by flak, a further 12 were lost in the remaining actions in the day.

    After the first hits, Illustrious ran up signals that said, 'I am not under control'.

    The 2 lifts each weighing some 300 tons were wrecked welded into different shapes by the white hot fires which raged below deck. Fires were now a main priority to extinguish before the ship which carried high octane fuel ammunition caught alight.

    The power at one stage failed the pumps were put out of action. The Luftwaffe returned after refueling rearming in Sicily to give the final blow. The fleet went to Illustrious' aid put up a heavy barrage. Fulmars from Illustrious fought to save the ship before staging back to Malta to refuel and re-arm. they then returned to the continue their cover mission. In a series of fights that lasted al day, the Fulmars are believed to have shot down at least 5 more Stukas. She was still 40 miles from Malta after the last attack.

    The boilers were still untouched but the stokers were working in temperatures of 130°F. A shell splinter had jammed the sprinkler system full on which was flooding the ship. For a time the sprinkler systems could not be shut down because of the out of control fires....

    The last attack by the Luftwaffe saw another 1,000 pound bomb hit the ship. This bomb penetrated a damaged lift shaft reignited some of the fires.

    It took the ship 5 hours from this last attack to make Grand Harbour, arriving in Malta at 10 o'clock in the evening. The fires were extinguished that night

    The arrival of such an important ship brought a lot of civilian onlookers who crowded the harbour area. At a quarter past noon on the 16th January an announcement was made over loudspeakers to the civilians to make for air raid shelters on hearing the air raid sirens as a new defence strategy was to be used to protect the harbour flying shrapnel from exploding shellls falling from the sky would make the area very dangerous. Many civilians at this time would stay above ground to watch the bombing. The Luftwaffe continued to pound the ship mercilessly, but to no real avail.

    At 13.55 the radar picked up a large contact - 'It was the largest that had ever been recorded in Malta till then'. The harbour guns lifted to their fixed positions - light AA, heavy AA, 4·5" guns, pom poms, machine guns even heavy guns on the fort not used as they could not reach high levels were brought to bear against the lower flying dive bombers.

    The bombers from Fligerkorps X were escorted by Messerschitt, Fiat Macchi fighters. The RAF managed to send up 4 Hurricanes, 3 Fulmars 2 Gladiators. These were instructed to stay out of the harbour area pick off stragglers. The attack comprised of 2 seperate attacks - the first by Ju 88's (shallow dive bombers) the second by Ju 87 (Stuka's). This force amounted to 70 bombers all concentrating on sinking Illustrious. No other ship, before or since has endured such a sustained, concentrated intensity of attack and survived.

    The harbour guns opened up to a deafening noise described as 'hell let loose'. The ships in harbour including Illustrious fired their guns in protective fire.

    Despite the bravery of the German airmen only one bomb hit Illustrious this being on the quarterdeck caused little damage. Despite the RAF pilots being told not to enter the harbour area a Fulmar chased a Stuka right through the barrage. After the bomber released his bombs he swept off down the harbour so low to the water he had to climb to get over the 15' breakwater. The Fulmar eventually shot it down. This returned to Hal Far where the pilot remarked - 'Don't think much of Malta's bloody barrage'.

    The plane however was so badly damaged it didn't fly again apparently.

    During this attack the merchantman Essex which was lying at the other end of the creek was hit by a heavy bomb in the engine room with the loss of 38 men. Luckily the bulkheads contained the explosion. She was loaded with 4,000 tons of ammunition torpedoes.

    On the 19th January came the last bombing raid which raised up clouds of dust to 1,000 feet. This probably screened the ship was accurate bombing.

    Illustrious left Malta at sunset on the 23rd quickly accelerating to 20 knots on leaving harbour for a 2 day trip to Alexandria. Later she would travel to the USA for repairs later return to Malta for Operation Husky the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

    I find Illustrious's ordeal a remarkable story of adversity, courage and amazing luck really. Something worth a second or two to remember...
     
  2. Capt. Vick

    Capt. Vick Well-Known Member

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    Wow! Thanks for posting!
     
  3. Crimea_River

    Crimea_River Well-Known Member

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  4. vinnye

    vinnye Member

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    I knew that Illustrious had been damaged during operations in the Med, but had not realised how many attacks involving so many planes she had endured and still made it out !
    That is remarkable!
    Thanks for the posting!
     
  5. meatloaf109

    meatloaf109 Well-Known Member

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    There is a good eyewitness account in Cmdr. C.A. Lamb's "To War in a Stringbag"
     
  6. FLYBOYJ

    FLYBOYJ "THE GREAT GAZOO"
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  7. Gnomey

    Gnomey World Travelling Doctor
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    Pics not showing Joe.

    It is a remarkable story, there was as ever a fair amount of luck involved but still it was a great effort of courage and bravery to get her to Malta, repaired sufficiently to move on and continue in the war. Also highlights the importance of Malta to the Allies in the Med.
     
  8. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    Here are a couple of shots which I think are contemporary.
     

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  9. vinnye

    vinnye Member

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    The bombing looks pretty intense, would not have liked to have been there!
     
  10. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    To give some reference, in the last photo, the tops of the bomb splashes tower over the highest point of the Bridge island. The flight deck was over 60 feet high. The beam of the ship was 95 feet. Those bombs are only spaced about 60 feet apart, and the explosions are reaching about 150 feet into the air. It would have been terrifying.

    Cunningham was on board, or in the Task Force at the time of the attack. He said something about how it was obvious they were now witnessing the work of absolute professionals. It was the beginning of a new phase in the battle for the med.
     
  11. nuuumannn

    nuuumannn Well-Known Member

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    Great stuff, Parsifal!
     
  12. Glider

    Glider Well-Known Member

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    excellent posting. I think the last photo is of the Ark Royal but could easily be wrong
     
  13. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    Im not at all sure either. There are very few photos of the action that day. but it is still relevant because it gives some idea of the conditions the RN carriers were operating under from January onward
     
  14. buffnut453

    buffnut453 Well-Known Member

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    Great stuff, Parsifal. Agree entirely with your sentiments.
     
  15. Denniss

    Denniss Active Member

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    It's strange there were no italian or german torpedo bombers around for the first attack - this would have been a deadly combination if properly co-ordinated.
    Even more strange that they were only able to score one hit at the stationary carrier - the AAA was probably not that ineffective as suggested.

    BTW 500kg bomb = 1100 pound. Ship was really lucky, badly damaged but survived.
     
  16. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    The initial attack was a combined torpedo divebombing attack. Italian SM79s came in initially, about 10 minutes ahead of the main force. This was a deliberate ploy by the Axis forces. These SM79s were detected about 30 minutes before the main attack The Illustrious fighter controller committed a cardinal error by allowing the standing CAP to be drawn down and away from the Carrier as they chased the Sparvieros off. About 10-15 minutes out from the first main engagement, the main force was detrected, and the remainder of the Fulmar squadron (I think 6 aircraft) were scrambled. however the shortcomings of the Fulmar really played into the equation. They struggled to gain sufficient height in time. With a climb rate of just 1200 feet per minute, the Germans were able to form up into their standard "clover leaf" attack formation unhindered and deliver the first few of their attacks with little or no interference. The CAP made up for that in spades later on during the day in subsequent engagements but for the initial attack, were credited with just two enemy aircraft This initial attack lasted just under an hour. Overall, the CAP for the entire day did quite well, shooting down as many, or more than its own total numbers and staying on station for as long as possible before staging back to Malta. I believe also that 3 Swordfish were airborne at the time of the attack and survived by also staging back to Malta. Some accounts I have read even say the Stringbags tried to get into the air defence battle. if so, I can only describe it as "gutsy".

    The Germans at this point of the war were not equipped (or at any rate were not using) an effective aerial torpedo. They were impressed with the italian torpedoes (which were superior to the German early war types) and the way the italians were using them (albeit on a small scale), with 1941 significant for an increasingly effective usage of torpedoes by the LW.

    I know that the germans were using 500kg bombs, but for some reason that escapes me, British sources always refer to this category of ordinance as 1000lbers. Its a bit like references to Japanese cruiser armamanent as 8"....it was actually 8.1".....
     
  17. fastmongrel

    fastmongrel Well-Known Member

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    Parsifal I think Glider is right that is a pic of Ark Royal. HMS Illustrious radio homing beacon was mounted lower down the main mast just above funnel height. The radio beacon is the drum shape.

    HMS Illustrious
    800px-HMS_Illustrious_bow_1944.jpg

    HMS Ark Royal
    19sb2j1.jpg
     
  18. fastmongrel

    fastmongrel Well-Known Member

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    I believe this is Illustrious under attack.

    Targets-Ju-87-Stukas-attacking-HMS-Illustrious-160km-from-Malta-1941-01.jpg
     
  19. Glider

    Glider Well-Known Member

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    #19 Glider, Jan 11, 2013
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2013
    The Malta AA defences were amongst the most effective anywhere at the time. People (including myself) often forget that amongst the most important attribute for effectiveness is experience, its far more important than just looking at the number and size of the guns. Malta was under attack for the best part of two years and its AA guns often in action every day.
    I don't know how many guns were in place during this time but I do know that before the war the Admiralty were pushing for the dockyard area to be protected by approx 100 AA guns. In the allocation of AA guns the admiralty often got their way but what happened I do not know.

    I admit that I wouldn't fancy going up against 100 modern AA guns with many months of daily practice under their belt.

    edit - its worth remembering that most of the AA guns were manned by Maltese troops
     
  20. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    Fantastic photography when you think about it.....has captured the exact moment when bombs are detonating around the ship.

    It is a shot of the illustrious, well at least ive seen it elswhere captioned as such
     
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