Document: Illustrious, Commanding Officer January 10


Report from Commanding Officer, HMS Illustrious  to Rear Admiral, Aircraft Carriers, Mediterranean

ADM 267/ 83

26 January 1941

Air attacks on HMS Illustrious, 10– 19 January 1941

I have the honour to submit the following report of the air attacks on H.M.S. ILLUSTRIOUS on 10th January, 1941, during Operation M.C. 4.


At 1007 ‘Illustrious’ was in company with ‘Warspite’ (Commander in Chief, Mediterranean) and ‘Valiant’ in position 36 ° 14′ N 12 ° 37 ¬, course 220 °, speed 18 knots. The following aircraft were flown off at this time:–

2 Swordfish as A/ S patrol for the Fleet.
1 ““ A/ S “ for ‘Gallant’ (had been mined or torpedoed at 0834)

5 Fulmars as fighter patrol at 14, 000′ over the Fleet
(Red Section 3 aircraft, White Section 2 aircraft).

5 Fulmars and 3 Swordfish landed on at 1030.

2. At 1120 an enemy aircraft was picked up by RD/ F at 28 miles and the Fulmars were directed towards it. Red Section made contact and found the enemy to be a single S. 79 at 12, 000 feet and shot it down at 1125.

3. Two Swordfish which had been on a search to the coast of Tripoli landed at 1143 , also one Fulmar of the Red Section, the sliding hood of the cockpit having blown off during the engagement with the S. 79. At 1145 course was altered to 110 degrees, the Fleet subsequently zigzagging by Blue Pendant.

4. First Attack – torpedo aircraft.

About 1220 unidentified aircraft were detected by RD/ F distant 6 miles coming in low and the fighters were directed towards them. The aircraft were sighted at 1222 and identified as 2 S. 79s making a torpedo attack. Long range and pom pom fire was opened but the aircraft completed their attack and dropped their torpedoes about 2500 yards on the starboard beam of ‘Illustrious’. Avoiding action was taken by altering course to port and both torpedoes passed astern. Red Section of Fulmars (now only 2) attacked the enemy during their getaway and estimated that both aircraft were damaged: these 2 Fulmars expended all their ammunition and reported to this effect by R/ T. White Section were unable to catch the S. 79s before they reached LINOSA Island, but found one S. 79 which had made a forced landing in a field and attacked it. (It was learnt subsequently that this aircraft had been there for some days). 

5. At 1128 course was altered to 060 ° and station regained on ‘Warspite’. Course was altered to 110 ° at 1230 and speed increased to 18 knots at 1232.

6. 2nd attack – dive bombing. About 1225 a large group was detected by RD/ F at 28 miles approaching from the Northward. The situation at this time was that there were 4 Fulmars in the air but low down and some distance from the Fleet, 2 had expended their ammunition, the other 2 had expended about half. In accordance with the signalled flying programme relief fighters and A/ S patrols were due to be flown off at 1230, those in the air landing at 1245, to give an overlap. Immediately the large group were reported the Fighter Direction Officer ordered the Fulmars in the air to return over the Fleet and climb : he also asked that the reliefs should be flown off as quickly as possible.

7. The sequence of events in the next few minutes was as follows:

1234. Commander in Chief ordered alteration of course to 210 ° to fly off aircraft (3 Swordfish and 4 Fulmars). 1235. Large formation sighted on the starboard quarter.

1236. Opened fire.

1237. Last aircraft off the deck.

1238. Course altered to 110 °, and loose formation ordered.

1239. The dive bombing attack developed and hits scored on ‘Illustrious’.

8. Tactics of attacking aircraft.

The attacking aircraft consisted of two formations of JUNKERS 87 with German markings. It was difficult to count the numbers exactly but the first formation consisted of 15 and the second of 20 to 30 aircraft. They were in a very loose and flexible formation, constantly changing their relative positions, and split when engaged by long range fire. It is estimated that the dive was started at about 12, 000 feet and checked at 6, 000 to 8, 000 feet before going into the aiming dive. Bomb release varied from about 1,500 feet in the first wave to 800 feet in later ones. Most aircraft continued to dive after releasing their bombs and flattened out low over the water having crossed the flight deck. At least one aircraft machine gunned the ship. The majority of the aircraft attacked ‘Illustrious’.

9. Most of the bombs dropped were large SAP bombs of about 500 kg. but some smaller bombs (either direct action or with very short delay) may have been used as the damage from certain hits was appreciably less than others.

10. There was a delay of a minute in opening fire as aircraft were actually being flown off when the target was sighted. Long range controlled fire and barrage fire was used by the 4.5” guns, and pom pom fire. Continuous alteration of course was made as avoiding action. One or two enemy aircraft were shot down by gunfire.

11. Damage to ship

There were 6 hits and several near misses in this attack. The probable sequence of hits with estimated sized bomb and damage done is as follows:

1 to 6 = Hits in 2nd attack.
X = Near misses in 2nd attack.
7 = Hit in 4th attack.
Y = Near misses in 4th attack.

No. 1 HIT
Probably 500 kg. Went through loading platform of P1 Pom Pom and struck the top of the side armour. May not have burst.

No. 2 HIT
Probably 500 kg. Went through the flight deck right forward on the port side, through the Recn. Space and burst below the flare causing a large number of fragment holes and 2 tears on the ship’s side. Caused a fire in the lamp room and decontamination store and flooded the paint store and the spare anchor gear store to a depth of 3 feet.

No. 3 HIT.
Probably a smaller G.P. bomb. Burst on S.2 pom pom killing the crew and most of the crew of S.1, but caused no casualties on the bridge.

No. 4 HIT.
About 250 kg. Hit the after lift and burst on the port side of the lift well, wrecking the lift and Y Group pump motors.

No. 5 HIT.
250 kg. or 500 kg. Hit the starboard forward corner of the lift well and may have exploded on the flight deck or been deflected and burst at the after end of the lift well.

No. 6 HIT.
500 kg. Pierced the flight deck and burst on the hangar deck in which it made a large hole and caused violent explosion in the ward room flat. This bomb blew up the foremost lift, bulged the hangar deck forward and the combined effect of this and No. 4 wrecked the hangar fire screens and set fire to C hangar. Many casualties were caused in the hangar and the ward room flat; all leads and piping through ward room flat destroyed. Fires were started in the cabin flats on the upper deck abaft 156 bulkhead.

In addition to these 6 hits there were at least 3 very near misses, splinters from which caused damage and casualties.

12. Summary of operations by Fulmars.

Red Section
(2 aircraft) had no ammunition having already shot down one S.79 and attacked 2 others. Made dummy attacks on 2 JU.87s. and forced them to turn away.

White Section
(2 aircraft) had 50% ammunition remaining and was returning from attacking T/B S.79s. Shot down one certain and 2 probable JU.87s. after they had bombed.

Blue Section
(2 aircraft) had only just flown off. Shot down one JU.87 before it had bombed and one after it had bombed. One Fulmar shot down, pilot picked up wounded, air gunner killed.

Yellow Section
(2 aircraft) had only just flown off. Shot down two JU.87s. after they had bombed.

All aircraft (except the one that had been shot down) then proceeded to Hal Far and those serviceable were refuelled and rearmed and returned to the Fleet later. At 1320 Vice Admiral, Malta, was asked by signal to send fighter protection and Hurricanes were sent. No signal was received reporting that they had been sent and they were fired at and one was damaged.

13. When this very severe and brilliantly executed D/B attack was over, the ship was on fire fore and aft, the flight deck was wrecked, and I decided to make for Malta at once, informing the Commander in Chief who detached ‘Jaguar’ and ‘Hasty’ as screen.
It was immediately clear that the steering gear had been affected as difficulty was experienced in checking the ship swinging, but at this time the electric steering gear was not entirely out of action.
At about 1255 the electric steering gear failed completely as did the rudder indicator from the rudder head; the ‘not under control’ signal was hoisted and the ship’s swing checked with the engines. By 1303 the ship was again under control from the steam steering gear in the Centre Engine Room and a course of 100° was set, speed being worked up to 26 knots by 1313.

14. 3rd attack – high level bombing.

At 1329, 7 aircraft approached at 14, 000 feet and were reported by ‘Valiant’ (‘Illustrious’ RD/F was put out of action in the previous attack). This formation was sighted and engaged well before bomb release; aim was inaccurate and the bombs fell scattered, the whole attack being similar to those carried out by the Italians recently. There were no hits but the steam steering gear failed at this time and the ship was out of control and turning in circles. A and B groups only fired, S and Y being out of action.

15. Speed was reduced to 21 knots by 1338 and to 15 knots by 1345 and at 1348 the ship was again under control from the Steam Steering engine. Course was set for Malta (now 74 miles distant) and speed increased to 20 knots, but at 1350 she was again out of control and began to swing rapidly to port. Speed was reduced accordingly. Further efforts were made to continue using the rudder but they were unsuccessful and orders were given to put the rudder amidships which was accomplished. By 1435 the ship was under control steering by the engines and was heading for Malta, speed being gradually increased. The ship was steered by the engines from this time onwards.

16. 4th attack – dive bombing.

At 1604 another group of aircraft was reported by ‘Valiant’ to be closing; it was sighted at long range at 1609 and consisted of about 15 JU.87s escorted by 5 Fighters. They were engaged by the forward 4.5 guns with controlled and barrage fire and later by 5 pom poms. This attack was neither so well synchronised or so determined as that at 1240. The first wave of about 6 aircraft attacked from astern and both quarters and were well engaged, fire being continuous in spite of difficulty of seeing targets to port owing to the smoke and haze from the fire in the hangar. Only 2 bombs fell near the ship. Three aircraft carried out an attack from the starboard beam at least a minute after the first wave; the last aircraft pressed his attack well home and scored a near miss abreast the funnel. The remaining 6 aircraft were seen retiring to the N.E. at a considerable height, and 2 attempted an attack through clouds on the port beam, but on being engaged made off without dropping their bombs.
Nine bombs were dropped, one (size not known) hit the after lift causing casualties among those tending wounded and putting out fires. There were two very near misses, one starboard side abreast the island and one close to the quarter deck which caused damage aft and killed a number of wounded and those tending them on the quarter deck.
Avoiding action was taken by altering course. There were no Fulmars present during this attack but there may have been some Hurricanes. The early sighting of this and subsequent formations was due to the prompt receipt (on Auxiliary Wave) of ‘Valiant’s’ RD/F reports.
At 1643 the ship was in position 224° Gozo Lt. 12 miles, steering 125° for the end of the Swept Channel and making good 17 to 18 knots. A list of about 5° to the starboard had developed, chiefly due to the amount of water in the hangar and in the wardroom flat. This water came from the hangar sprays and hoses and could not run away as the scuppers were blocked with debris.

17. 5th attack – High level and dive bombing.

At 1656 ‘Valiant’ reported enemy aircraft at 52 miles, closing. Seventeen aircraft were sighted at 1710 outside gun range. They circled astern of ‘Illustrious’ and worked up into the sun from her but then attacked the battle fleet with High Level and Dive Bombing.
18. At 1803 ‘Illustrious’ reached the entrance to the Swept Channel. Tugs had been asked for to meet the ship there but as there were only 2 A/S vessels to be seen I continued up the channel still steering by main engines and gradually reducing speed. Sunset was at 1808.

19. 6th attack – Torpedo aircraft.

Malta reported by W/T that enemy aircraft were approaching and at 1922 2 aircraft were heard and sighted on the starboard bow. A blind barrage from 4.5” guns and pom poms was fired. No torpedo tracks were seen and nothing more was seen or heard of the aircraft.

20. At 1930 ‘Hasty’ on the starboard beam reported that she was investigating a contact and shortly afterwards fired depth charges.
At 1935 the ship was turned to port for the harbour entrance which was closed at slow speed waiting for tugs. At 2025 a tug was secured aft and then 2 tugs were secured forward, the ship being about ¾ mile from the Grand Harbour entrance.

21. ‘Illustrious’ passed St. Elmo Breakwater Light at 2104 and berthed starboard side to at Parlatorio Wharf at 2215.

22. The work of landing the wounded and dead was begun. All wounded men were got away at 0200 and the dead by 0300.
The fires aft were finally extinguished by 0300.



Pilot. Lieut. W. L. Barnes. Observer. Lieut. Vincent-Jones. Aircraft. 6A.

Took off with 6Z in company. H.A. guns opened fire immediately we left the deck. When at about 1, 000 feet observed ship being heavily attacked by dive-bombers (JU.87′s) which pulled out at about 1, 000 feet. Chased two of these as they pulled out, and they separated.
 Sub-Lieutenant Lowe (6Z) attacked one while we attacked the other; the latter pulled up in a steep zoom and I was able to get in a short burst before my aircraft stalled. The enemy rear gunner opened fire obtaining one hit from above through hydraulic pipes in the rear cockpit. After this we did not see this enemy aircraft again. Climbed to 6, 000 feet and observed single JU.87 slightly above us over convoy. Pursued it and as we approached it jettisoned its bomb and turned to Northward. Got in long bursts astern – the first put rear gunner out of action and subsequent bursts caused it to go down in shallow dive into the sea, the pilot having been hit. Ammunition being expended, we made for Malta landing at about 1345.
1650: Took off from Hall Far [sic] in 6F with 6K (Sub.Lieut. Orr.) and 6C (Sub.Lieut. Roberts.) Controlled by W/T from VALIANT. Immediately after crossing coast ran into eight or nine JU.87’s steering North after having attacked Battle Fleet. Got in astern attack on one of these, putting rear gunner out of action. My reflector sight went out during this attack so I broke off to renew bulb. Reformed the section and remained in the air until 1820, being controlled by VALIANT. Did not encounter further enemy aircraft.
Damage to 6A. 
(a) Two gravity feed pipes shot away in rear cockpit.
 (b) Bullet through port aileron.
Pilot. Sub.Lieut Lowe. Air Gunner. L.A. Kensett. Aircraft 6Z.
Took off in company with 6A and was last seen engaging one of a pair of JU.87’s. The enemy rear gunner hit the water cooler of 6Z but was then shot down by Sub.Lieut. Lowe and seen to crash into the sea. At the same time another JU.87 got on his tail wounding Sub.Lieut Lowe in the shoulder and killing L.A. Kensett. Sub.Lieut. Lowe immediately broke away but at the same time his engine stopped and he made a forced landing into the sea. Sub. Lieut. Lowe cleared himself with difficulty and went to the rear cockpit and found his air gunner under water and obviously dead. He was unable to release him before the machine sank. Sub.Lieut. Lowe was picked up after about 20 minutes by H.M.S. JAGUAR.


Pilot. Lieut. Henley. Observer. Mid. Cullen. Aircraft. 6F.

1015: Took off from ILLUSTRIOUS in company with 6G (Sub.Lieut. Marshall and 6H (Sub.Lieut. Griffith). Proceeded to 15, 000 feet for patrol. After several false alarms (friendly aircraft).
1120: Directed on to one S.79 at about 11, 000 feet. Carried out a Section beam attack. Then attacked from astern and below until it burst into flames and dived in. Returned to patrol over Fleet with 6H and 6G returned to land on.
1210: Saw 2 S.79′s making torpedo attack on Fleet. Dived after them and carried out stern attack about 5 miles from Fleet towards Linosa at a height of about 50 feet. Attack continued until ammunition was expended. Put starboard motor of leading S.79 out of action and silenced rear guns of both aircraft. Returned to Fleet to land on but encountered barrage so sheered [sic] off. Carried out dummy attack on two JU.87′s which turned away and dived to sea level. Then proceeded to Malta as instructed by R/T and W/T. Landed 1340.
1700: Patrolled over ILLUSTRIOUS – nothing sighted.
1830: Landed at Hal Far.
Pilot. Sub-Lieut. Griffith. Air Gunner. L.A. Stevens. Aircraft. 6H.
In company with Lieut. Henley throughout – narrative similar.


Pilot. Sub-Lieut. Orr. Air Gunner L.A. Douet. Aircraft. 6K.

1015: Took off with Sub-Lieut. Hogg (6Y) in company. Climbed to 15, 000 feet. Directed to several false alarms.
1210: Ship reported Fleet being attacked by Torpedo Bombers. Sighted them closing the Fleet.≠ When barrage opened they turned away to Westward towards Linosa. Unable to catch them by the time they reached this island. Observed an S.79 which had force landed in a field – some troops were surrounding it. Opened up on this S.79 and carried out ground strafing, repeatedly hitting the S.79 with tracer. * Dived from 4, 000 ft. to sea level.
1220: Returning to ship, received order to resume patrol at full speed and climb.
1235: Saw a large number (at least 20) JU.87′s bombing Fleet with others above. Attacked JU.87′s after they had pulled out from dive. First attack sent one spinning down into the sea. Attacked two others and caused them to lose height and disabled rear-gunners –consider it unlikely that either of them reached their base.
1650: Took off in company with 6F and 6C. Attacked formation of JU.87′s (at least 8) immediately we passed over the coast. They were proceeding Northward after having attacked the Fleet. Engaged in dogfight with these and definitely damaged two, but did not see what happened to them in the bad visibility.
1830: Landed at Hall Far [sic].
Pilot. Sub-Lieut. Hogg. Air Gunner. L.A. Oakes. Aircraft. 6Y.
1015: Took off in company with Sub-Lieut. Orr in 6K. Climbed to 10, 000 feet.
1215: After several unfruitful chases we were put on to two S.79′s which Red Section were attacking. They made off to Linosa which they reached before we got within range. At Linosa we broke off and ground strafed one S.79 which had force landed in a field – surrounded by a crowd of people. Light ground M.G. fire encountered. Returned to Fleet climbing at full throttle.
1230: Arrived over Fleet at about 4, 000 feet and encountered a barrage. Circled Fleet with wheels down at 1,500 feet to identify, then observed about twenty JU.87′s above leaving Fleet in Northwesterly direction. Pursued this group and opened fire on the rear aircraft from astern. Continued firing until within 200 yards when I was forced to break off to deal with a JU.87 which had got on my tails [sic]. Before breaking off, I noticed smoke pouring from the fuselage of my first target. My air gunner told me that this aircraft broke away and lost height. By this time I got round on to the tail of the second JU.87 he was about ½ mile away. I set a course for Malta due to lack of petrol and landed at 1335.


Pilot. Sub-Lieut. Sewell. Air Gunner L.A. Tribe. Aircraft 6Q.

1235: Took off in company with 6C (Sub-Lieut. Roberts). Climbed up to 8, 000 feet during which time I noted the ship being attacked by JU.87 dive bombers. I counted 15 in the first wave and this was followed by two further waves which appeared equal in size. These waves were peeling off from at least 10, 000 feet. The air gunner confirmed that there were three distinct waves of about 12 aircraft per wave. I attacked one JU.87 at about 7, 000 feet from the quarter after it had pulled out from a dive and after a short burst it made a vertical dive to the sea. I then attacked another from the stern and followed it down to about 3, 000 feet at about 15 miles from the Fleet, when I left it with a stream of liquid pouring from port wing root. The rear gunner had ceased firing. I returned to the Fleet and 6C (Sub-Lieut. Roberts) formed up with me. He told me over R/T that he had a leak and had expended all ammunition. Returned to Malta on instructions by R/T from ship in company with 6C.
1400: Landed at Hal Far.
Damage to 6Q.
(a) 2 bullets in airscrew.
(b) 1 in Hydraulic system.
(c) 1 explosive bullet in starboard tail root.
(d) 1 non-explosive in port tail plane elevator.
Pilot. Sub-Lieut Roberts. Air. Aircraft 6C.
1235: Took off in company with Sub-Lieut. Sewell (6Q). Unable to retract port wheel; while endeavouring to do this, observed the first wave of dive-bombers attacking the ship. Had climbed to 3, 000 feet. I noticed some of these JU.87′s making away to Northward. Engaged one of these and saw it swerve, drop out of formation and continue down in a left hand turn into the sea. Starboard wheel had come down in this combat and with both wheels down speed and climb were very poor. Joined up with Sub-Lieut. Sewell and proceeded to Malta as ordered by R/T.
1650: Took off with Lieut. Barnes and Sub-Lieut. Orr and proceeded Southwards towards the Fleet. Almost immediately after crossing the coast encountered about seven JU.87′s making away to the Northward, having dropped their bombs. Attacked the left hand aircraft of the formation, two others dropped behind and came in on my tail. On completing the first attack, turned to attack one of the two who had dropped back. Registered large number of hits on his fuselage which caused his rear gunner to cease firing. Did not notice other damage. He continued away to Northward. Climbed to 12, 000 feet and patrolled until dark when the Section returned to Hal Far.


1. All those encountered bore the standard German markings.
2. Camouflage. Black and grey mottling above, half black and half white below. General camouflage similar to a Fulmar.
3. Tactics. (i) Single JU.87 when attacked from astern will pull the nose up in order to allow the rear gunner a good downward shot.
(ii) If attacked in formation, two of formation drop astern and use their front gun on the attacking aircraft.
4. A Fulmar should have no difficulty in catching or outmanoeuvring a JU.87. Being of metal construction, a JU.87 will not burn like an Italian aircraft. JU.87′s appear to be well protected from stern attacks. Every endeavour should be made to carry out beam and quarter attacks.


Certain: 1- S.79, 5- Ju87
Probable: 2- Ju87
Damaged: 5-Ju87, 1- S.79


Five air attacks were made on ILLUSTRIOUS during the day, two by dive bombers, two by torpedo aircraft, and one by high level bombers.
2. The first dive bombing attack was the heaviest and nearly all the damage was done at this time. It was brilliantly executed and pressed home with determination.
3. This attack came at a bad moment for the fighters. Those in the air had already been engaged in two combats and were low down, and with little ammunition remaining. Relief fighters were ready on deck, but as the whole fleet had to be turned by signal from the Commander-in-Chief before they could be flown off, valuable minutes were wasted. In any case the Fulmar has not sufficient climbing speed to ensure being able to counter this type of attack, particularly if a heavy attack is launched shortly after a minor or diversionary attack.
4. Six hours of daylight remained after the action [during which the] serious damage was sustained. The guns crews (with about 60% of the armament) beat off the subsequent attacks. The damage and fires were got under control. The ship was taken to Malta and up the swept channel without the use of the rudder.
5. In conclusion I wish to pay tribute to the sound construction of the ship which enabled her to withstand such heavy punishment.


(a) That a more flexible organisation be introduced as regards flying off, so that the carrier may have more freedom in moments of urgency such as occurred on this day. It is suggested that an emergency flying off signal is required similar to the emergency landing signal so that when the situation demands it the carrier turns and flies off at once. This is particularly necessary where the Fleet Flagship is not fitted with R.D./F.
(b) An interceptor fighter with a good rate of climb is essential for encountering this type of attack. At least twelve in the air would be required to make any impression on the enemy and double that number to keep them off. These requirements can only be met by a single seater …

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