HMS Illustrious was taken in for an urgent refit at the still incomplete Captain Cook Dockyard on Garden Island the day after the British Pacific Fleet arrived in Sydney in February 1945.
The ship was battered and worn from her years of hard service. And the superficial damage sustained from HMS Euryalus’ guns during Operation Meridian also needed remediation.
But the immediate problem was severe vibration from the centre propeller shaft. A previous hasty docking at Durban had failed to reduce the problem.
The decision was made to cut it out.
It was a drastic compromise compelled by the need for a minimum four fleet carriers in the Pacific deployment.
Anything less would restrict the British Fleet’s air group to a point of virtual uselessness.
HMS Formidable was supposed to have already been in Australia. But she – the second hardest used armoured carrier – had suffered a critical machinery breakdown while en-route through the Mediterranean.
Her delay had removed the British Pacific Fleet’s reserve carrier capacity.
Illustrious' urgent work was carried out between February 11 and 24.
It was believed the gland at the point where the shaft left the hull had deteriorated, allowing an unacceptable amount of movement and leakage. The central propeller was cut away and the shaft locked firmly in place with new watertight packing. The gunfire damage and turbine bearings were also hastily patched up.
HMS Indomitable, Victorious and Indefatigable left Sydney on February 27. Illustrious was delayed by the work being done on her shafts, and did not follow until March 6.
The veteran carrier became something of a lame duck with her maximum speed reduced to just 24 knots. The whole fleet was restrained by this limitation, and the carrier still experienced strong vibrations – especially in the island - above 19 knots.
However, it was considered to be enough of an improvement to remain operational.
KAMIKAZE ATTACK: APRIL 6
At 1655, all fighter direction frequencies among Task Force 57 were suddenly jammed.
Almost at the same time, radar rooms began to report bodies of aircraft assembling 50 miles to the north.
Then, at 1700, four aircraft appeared out of the clouds at 3000ft, diving towards the fleet. One had chosen HMS Illustrious and made his approach from the ship’s Port quarter.
The carrier immediately turned under full helm.
The kamikaze, committed to its dive, was aiming for the forward lift.
It would be just 11 seconds between the initial sighting of the D4Y3 “Judy” and its collision with the carrier. But the close armament managed to fire at it for 7.5 seconds.
An early burst hit the “Judy” in the tail. It was hit again only 500ft from the carrier, shearing off one wing. The kamikaze broke apart in mid air, spilling the pilot and debris from the shattered aircraft onto HMS Illustrious' flight deck.
ILLUSTRIOUS - Kenneth Poolman
The gunners saw him coming, diving towards the forward part of the ship. Perhaps he was following the usual Tokko practice of aiming at the forward lift. Whatever he had in mind the Bofors gunners changed it for him, knocking him about so much that he exploded over the side.
But he left some souvenirs behind....
Pieces of plane and pilot were scattered over the flight deck.
Bob Ellison bent down rather dazedly and picked up two eyeballs and a piece of skull. He was looking stupidly at them when Don Hadman, a wild Kiwi from 1833, dashed up and grabbed the piece of skull from his hand.
“That’s my mascot from now on!” he yelled.
Then he booted the eyeballs over the side, for Don had never heard of the Emperor Meiji and cared even less for the immeasurable blessings of imperial Goodness. Even so, he very soon helped yet another young acolyte towards deification and ‘everlasting honours in the temple’, for Don was carrying his mascot when he took off and stopped the breath of the next Divine Wind to appear over the Fleet.
The shattered kamikaze careened through the sky before its wingtip clipped the front of the island - reportedly only 9ft from where Captain Lambe stood. The glancing blow put a gash in a radar dome but did little other damage.
The bulk of the burning wreckage then plunged into the sea some 50ft from the carrier where its bomb load - estimated at being some 1700lbs - detonated on contact.
The blast whipped through the carrier and two Corsairs of the deck park were damaged by the shower of spray and debris.
The kamikaze’s life raft was found tangled in the ship’s outrigger transmission aerials. Part of the pilot’s skull and face were scooped up off the flight deck. A slither of burnt flesh was found affixed to the gunsight of one of the bridge pom pom mounts.
The fleet’s CAP claimed three of the Japanese aircraft destroyed. A screening destroyer also reported shooting one down.
One Seafire of the CAP, however, was destroyed by friendly fire while above the fleet. Three other FAA aircraft were lost.
Initially, HMS Illustrious had not appeared to be at all affected by the attack. Her air operations were not disrupted and the ship remained under full control.
However, later, when the fleet worked up speed to take up a new position, Illustrious would report her vibrations had intensified to an almost unsustainable level.
It was suspected her already battered hull had been further compressed and distorted by the near-miss.
As the ship and crew struggled to endure the shaking over the following days, Admiral Rawlings realised Illustrious had to be let go.
HMS Formidable was about to arrive. The vital four flight-deck minimum could be maintained.
Rawlings resolved to send HMS Illustrious back to Sydney, and then Britain, for the extensive refit she so desperately needed.
HMS Illustrious stopped at Leyte Gulf earlier to take on fuel for her trip back to Australia. Her kamikaze damage was assessed by divers from among the Fleet Train and found to be much worse than initially thought.
Almost the whole of her starboard side had been corrugated around the frames from a succession of near misses she had sustained in the Mediterranean. A fresh check of her hull below the waterline revealed some of these plates and frames had now cracked.
Quick repairs were made as she lay moored alongside HMS Unicorn – handing over her unneeded spare parts and aircraft to the replenish the fleet’s stocks.
HMS Illustrious would finally return home to Rosyth on the morning of June 27. The ship was immediately put into dry dock for a four-month overhaul - another rushed job in anticipation of the land invasion of Japan.
Work commenced on removing her rear 4.5in gun mounts to create more accommodation space for the overcrowded ship. However, the war would end before this work was completed.
This allowed the refit to be reassessed, and the veteran would eventually undergo an extended 12 months of deep maintenance and modification which included extending her flight deck and upgrading her radar.
A new five-bladed propeller was fitted to the centreline shaft to address the veteran's violent shaking. But the issue would return after only a few years - this time due to the heavy wear on the outer shafts.
Capt. (E) J. A. Hans Hamilton RN
...The Judy was riddled by the forward Bofors on the island superstructure just in the nick of time when the junior seaman leapt in to the layer’s position and opened fire after the layer had deserted his post. He shot off the port wing resulting in the Judy corkscrewing to port just clipping the glass of the beacon and Plunging over the side to explode there. There was plenty of debris. The PM0 (Mackenzie) had a piece of the pilot’s skull cured and mounted. I have a piece of the main wing frame. The explosion so close to the ship’s side fractured one of the twin oil fuel tanks which we did not discover till later when we next replenished...
Talking with Ronnie Hay, the totally inadequate ventilation and disgraceful disregard of tropical conditions by the naval constructors and ship design team had a deleterious effect to efficiency and flying capability. The resulting decimation of our pilot strength through the resulting accidents was proof of these awful blunders by those responsible for the construction of our ships.