Famous photo's enduring mystery

It's one of the war's most dramatic photographs: Illustrious's steaming and smoking flight deck as the devastating attacks of January 10, 1941, unfold.

A crewman, slightly off balance, stands amid the fumes near the ship's centreline - starkly framed by the toppled lift platform jutting out of the smoking aft lift well.

Officers and crew - their reflection's shining clearly on the slick-wet flight deck - cluster against the island and the edges of the ship. Probably to avoid burning their feet on the hot armour directly above the aft hangar fires.

The original 1941 photograph appears to have been lost, leaving only copies of varying quality. All have been cropped to suit the publications they were reproduced for - imposing a horizontal or vertical emphasis and attempting to correct the original image's apparently skewed horizon. The above composite merges the broadest available image (showing the island at the extreme left) with the tallest (showing the smoke plume and shadows amidships - as well as a photographic etch mark at the extreme top edge).

The original 1941 photograph appears to have been lost, leaving only copies of varying quality. All have been cropped to suit the publications they were reproduced for - imposing a horizontal or vertical emphasis and attempting to correct the original image's apparently skewed horizon. The above composite merges the broadest available image (showing the island at the extreme left) with the tallest (showing the smoke plume and shadows amidships - as well as a photographic etch mark at the extreme top edge).

MANGLED MASS

Central to the image is what appears to be a large eruption of metal.

Most book captions state this is the entry point of or damage caused by the bomb which pierced the 3in armour plate above Illustrious's hangar.

It isn't.

Illustrious's Admiralty Damage Report and engineers' drawing's show the 1000kg (2200lb) "Esau" bomb had struck a few feet to port of the ship's centreline. A coil of white smoke can be seen snaking aft from the clean 19in hole it left behind before bursting a few feet above the hangar floor.

The tangled "splash" of what appears to be metal is a few feet to starboard of the centreline - also on the 3in armour plate. No smoke is rising from it, suggesting there is no penetration to the burning hangar beneath.

The photo also appears to tell us - from the length of the shadows and the position of the lift platform - that it was taken mid afternoon.

This would place it between the initial 1238 attack on January 10, and the final successful hit upon Illustrious about 1610. This bomb also landed in the aft lift well, tossing the platform out of its position leaning against the forward edge as shown in this photograph to one skewed across the starboard and stern sides.

DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE

Very little is said about the damage at flight deck level in the Admiralty Damage Report. In fact, the documentation as it is now preserved in the National Archive does not even include a copy of this photograph.

Most of what can be gleaned about this damage comes from the engineer's drawings.

One of the Naval Engineers drawings of the damage sustained by HMS ILLUSTRIOUS. For the full original Damage Report and the accompanying drawings, CLICK HERE

The illustrations show the location and shape of the 19-20in penetration hole of Hit Number 6, along with its estimated trajectory and burst point.

But it is a smaller breach nearby which appears linked to the stark mass of metal.

The drawings indicate a hole with notations stating "Deck Pierced By Splinter" / "Deck Pierced By Splinter From Bomb Burst". This point of damage is slightly forward and starboard to the bomb penetration.

It is a location which directly corresponds to the seemingly significant eruption of damage in the photograph.

The visual extent of the damage, however, does not correlate with what the drawings depict as little more than a boot-sized puncture.

Very little other evidence appears to have survived.

One picture included in the Damage Report and taken while in Malta shows the expanse of deck extending into the distance behind the buckled forward lift.

There is no sign of any sharp, twisted objects rising from the flat surface in the distance.

However, this image was taken at some point after January 13 when Illustrious's mangled aft lift platform had been lifted out of the well and placed on the deck. Such exposed - and cool - damage would have been among the first to be addressed.

The photo appears to show several figures standing about where the metal 'petaling' would have been. Another man - in white - appears stooped over a plate of metal at the bomb entry point.

OTHER EVIDENCE

There is one more image that may hold a clue - this time a photograph that is not part of the ADM 267/83 documentation held by the National Archive. Instead, it comes from the collection of Philip J. Heydon, I.S.M., as presented by the website MaritimeQuest:

It appears to have been taken on January 13, the day the aft lift was reportedly hoisted from the shattered well by Malta's crane.

Beneath the suspended lift platform is a simple square plate resting on the deck - probably covering the 19in hole left by the 2200lbs bomb.

Just to the left of this plate is a sailor, who has his foot resting on a deck protrusion little taller than ankle height.

Is this the penetration point of the bomb fragment, which some speculate to have been the tail cone?

There seems little evidence - such as discolouration or shadowing - about that point to suggest 'delamination' or 'spalling' on the scale suggested by the dramatic original photograph. 

The entry hole left by the 2200lb (1000kg) bomb which pierced ILLUSTRIOUS's 3in 'box hangar' armour on the flight deck.

The entry hole left by the 2200lb (1000kg) bomb which pierced ILLUSTRIOUS's 3in 'box hangar' armour on the flight deck.

SPECULATION

So what is the apparently large 'petaling' of split and bent metal in that vicinity?

Is this a dramatic example of  'delaminated' / 'spalled' armour - where the surface layers of metal plate are "shocked" outward from the main mass?

Or is it a 'splash' of metal from some other cause?

Perhaps from the Stuka which some accounts state was shot down and crashed into the inferno of the aft lift well? Or a molten piece of a Fulmar - one of which was said to have been on the aft lift at the time of the first bomb strikes?

QUESTIONS REMAIN

Why would such a visually dramatic piece of damage rate so minor a mention in the Damage Report?

Was its significance far less than the photograph implies?

What could it have been? 

What could have caused it? 

Is there any further evidence which may suggest an answer?

Any input would be greatly appreciated.

Join the discussion at the bottom of this page.

 


UPDATE:
It appears the image has been uploaded by the IWM. Click on the picture for the link to the IWM source.
The title/caption reads: "THE BOMBING OF HMS ILLUSTRIOUS AT MALTA. 10 JANUARY 1941, ON BOARD THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER."

The sub-caption reads: "The view of the flight deck from the ship's bridge.(Same as MH 4623)."

It seems marginally wider than the version I have used above, though once again has had its height cropped into a square. I am attempting to order a high-resolution digitised version to examine more closely (The IWM online photo sales system doesn't recognise its ID number).

While only 800 pixels wide, the IWM's sample image is somewhat "crisper" than other online versions. Zooming in on the damage scene shows the severe splintering of the material on the deck, and strengthens the impression that there is a figure in the steam and smoke (top left of zoomed crop below)

large (3).jpg

UPDATE 2

Some readers have suggested the wreckage may be that of a crashed Swordfish (Illustrious had a few in the air at the time of the attack), a Fulmar (some accounts say one was in the aft lift well) or a Stuka (some accounts say one was shot down into the aft lift well).

If so, it would likely have to be only a portion of the aircraft, say a wing. The volume does not seem substantial or solid enough for anything else.

The wreckage, though distant, also does not immediately display any other characteristics of an aircraft. One would expect to see a largely intact engine (doesn't melt like the aluminium airframe), its aluminium structure (which may have melted) is usually perforated in airframes.

I've included here images of burnt aircraft from the kamikaze attacks on HMS Formidable as comparison.


UPDATE 3

There also has been the suggestion that the sharp, splintered wreckage may have been plate blasted from the aft lift that had come to rest on the deck.

This remains a possibility: I've uploaded below all the images of the damaged lift I can find (other than the one already shown above).

Only the top one gives any further indication of how much of its plate may have been blasted off. I don't believe this matches that shown on the deck.


UPDATE 4

There is a quote in Crowood Aviation Series: Junkers Ju87 Stuka which may shine light on the topic. It isn't clearly attributed, but it may belong to "Report of Air Attacks on HMS Illustrious during Operation MC4, 26 January, 1941" (0404/427/172, No. 3320/0197, AIR2/ 4221).

I'll try to obtain a copy.

It reads: "About twenty feet of the wing of a Ju87 fell on the after lift. Aircraft assumed to have crashed. A Ju87 was seen to fall into the sea by the Chaplain and another crashed into the sea just astern of one Swordfish on A/S patrol"

This would have had to be in the opening minutes of the attack for the lift to be in a position for the wing to "fall on". 

The size quoted, 20ft (6m) may be roughly in the ballpark of the wreckage seen in the photo. Though little about its heavily distorted shape appears to suggest a wing (or does the far right of the wreckage suggest the thick aerofoil leading-edge section of a Stuka wing?).

An extrapolation of events could allow this "wing" to have been blasted further up the deck when the aft lift was struck - first by a contact-fused bomb and then by what is likely to have been a semi-armour piercing weapon.


UPDATE FIVE

No luck unfortunately trying to obtain a copy of this less-well composed photo of Illustrious' flight deck. FAA Museum seem to be somewhat overwhelmed and the image seems to have been miscategorised at IWM.

This picture seems to have been taken somewhat before the more famous image which is the subject of this discussion. I had been hoping it may cast a new perspective and reveal a few more clues as to the nature of the debris on the flight deck....


UPDATE SIX

The picture was incorrectly filed. It has been tagged as 1943...

Here is the 800px version available on the IWM 

The wreckage is much crisper than in the generally available image. Though I'd need a much higher resolution image to try and determine what it is.



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