On her first operational deployment since returning from repairs for the bomb damage she sustained during Operation Pedestal, HMS Indomitable would again be hit. This time by torpedo.
The long anticipated invasion of Italy was about to become a reality.
While cowed by defeat after defeat, and starved of fuel, the Italian navy remained a potentially formidable force. It still operated six battleships and had a supporting force of seven cruisers and 48 destroyers. And the air forces of Rome and Berlin had proven repeatedly just how deadly they could be against Mediterranean shipping.
So the naval fleet covering the landings on Sicily would need to be both substantial and effective.
In July 1943, Gibraltar was crammed with ships of all shapes and sizes. Destroyers. Frigates. Even monitors were scattered among the tightly packed landing ships, troop transports and munitions vessels.
Joining them were HMS Indomitable, Formidable, Rodney, Nelson and escorting destroyers. They had just arrived from Scapa Flow.
Malta would serve in exactly the role that had caused such fear among German and Italian staff officers in earlier years. From her airfields roamed aggressive fighter patrols, deep-ranging strike aircraft - and a constant stream of reconnaissance sorties.
The invasion's headquarters had already been established there, and forward naval and army units were also in place.
ORDER OF BATTLE
Allied Naval Forces
There were several groups of cruisers and destroyers operating as close escort and fire-support for the landings. But it would be Force H which provided an 'overwatch' with its heavy hunits. The main fleet elements of Force H were to be divided into three divisions to cover the invasion forces, under the overall command of Admiral Cunningham.
HMS Indomitable, Nelson, Rodney
HMS Formidable, Warspite, Valiant
Division 3 (also known as Force Z)
King George V, Howe
To confuse enemy intelligence, the capital ships were soon dispersed between Mers-el-Kebir, Alexandria and Algiers.
Division 1 and 2 would sortie in support of the invasion force. Division 3 would remain at Algiers as a ready-response group, moving towards any sightings of the Italian fleet
On July 4, it all became official. The invasion was on.
The captain spoke to us at 18.00 – he read us a message from the C. in C. Med. and told us that this was what we had been waiting for . . . We are bound for the Ionian Sea to cover landings – actually where as yet we know not – and to attack the Italian fleet – if it comes out. (Ballantyne, Iain. HMS Rodney: Slayer of the Bismarck and D-Day Saviour)
The carriers and battleships deployed to assemble south of Malta along with more than 2000 ships of the invasion force.
Force H was tasked with covering the Ionan Sea between the heel of Italy and Greece, some 180 miles East of Malta. Their job was to intercept any attempt by Italian surface forces to interfere with the vulnerable troop transports. They were also just a few hour steaming time from any invasion point needing their assistance.
HMS Indomitable had only just returned from extensive repairs following her bombing during the final hours of Operation Pedestal the previous August. At Scapa, all efforts had been to integrate and work-up her fledgling air wing.
When Indomitable deployed to cover the Sicily landings of July 1943, it would be her first new operation. Nevertheless, she was to serve as the flagship of Rear-Admiral (Aircraft Carriers) Lumley Lyster.
At this time Indomitable's air group was made up of some 40 Seafires organised into 807 Squadron (Seafire Ib), 880 Squadron (Seafire IIc) and 889 Squadron (Seafire IIc). The strike component was 15 Albacores of 829 Squadron.
The Seafires were of the non-folding variety, and could only be stowed in Indomitable's upper hangar via the larger forward lift. The other fleet carriers, HMS Formidable and Illustrious, were limited to operating some six to eight Seafires as a permanent deck park.
Only one squadron, however, would be the vastly improved Seafire L-IIC. The remainder were IICs, with their associated poor take-off and acceleration performance.
To squeeze as many Seafires into the upper hangar as possible, the aircraft were wheeled on to a tram-line trolley system that allowed the machine to be twisted onto an angle and moved down the hangar. This was to ensure there was a clear line down the centre of the hangar space for maintenance crews and their equipment to move about efficiently.
It was a far from ideal situation: Almost double the number of folding Martlets could have been carried - but supplies from the United States had proven to be barely sufficient to replace wastage from existing squadrons, yet alone establish new ones.
HMS Indomitable: (55 aircraft)
807 Squadron: 12 Seafire L-IIC
880 Squadron: 14 Seafire IIC
899 Squadron: 14 Seafire IIC
817 Squadron: 15 Albacore
HMS Formidable: (45 aircraft)
885 Squadron: 5 Seafire IIC (deck park only)
888 Squadron: 14 Martlet IV
898 Squadron: 14 Martlet IV
828 Squadron: 12 Albacore
Divisions 1 and 2 converged in the early hours of July 9. They joined the largest assembly of ships the world had yet seen - more than 3200 vessels.
The Italian navy chose not to react.
The big guns of the Royal Navy's heavy ships remained silent. Though the Carrier Air Patrols (CAP) of the carriers were constantly responding to radar intercepts and sighting reports.
German and Italian aircraft were adopting raider tactics, flying fast and low - in small numbers - to appear as if out of nowhere over the beachheads to loose their bombs and then vanish back among the ground clutter.
There was little the fleet's fighters could do but seek to scare away reconnaissance patrols and plug 'air gaps' in the defences of the landings.
Most busy, however, were Indomitable's and Formidable's Albacore biplane bombers.
Hostile submarines had been active, making a series of attacks against both heavy fleet units and transports. These had to be found and the invasion forces protected.
The constant state of action stations - without the action - would continue until July 14.
The crews of the big ships were left disappointed. Midshipman Corbett recalled:
We did not see Sicily but saw some flashes as we patrolled up and down some fifty miles off the coast. What was even more infuriating was seeing the cruisers Penelope and Aurora being detached to bombard Catania and other missions later. I thought they would have seen enough of the war already. It’s so discouraging not doing anything after losing so much sleep preparing. (Ballantyne, Iain. Warspite)
On July 12, Division 1 would receive the honour of becoming the first British capital ships to return to Grand Harbour, Malta, since Warspite had departed in December 1940. On July 14, Division 1 would return again.
In both instances, the respite lasted barely a day as the ship took on fresh stocks of aviation and bunker fuels.
On July 16, HMS Indomitable, Nelson and Rodney were again taking up their protective patrol with elements of Division 2 in the Ionian Sea.
On July 16, 1943, while operating with HMS Formidable, Indomitable was in formation some 90 miles north-east of Malta.
A few hours earlier, in the darkness. HMS Warspite reported sighting a hostile reconnaissance aircraft which had then transmitted a sighting report.
It was not, by then, an unusual occurrence.
But, during the moon-lit night, at 0025, a single Ju88 slipped through Force H's screen unchallenged. Subsequent investigations revealed the radar contact had been mistaken for an Albacore due to return to the fleet about the same time.
Swinging in low among the fleet, the German bomber loosed a single torpedo.
HMS Indomitable, realising late she was under attack, began an emergency turn towards the oncoming attack.
HMS Rodney also had a scare - most likely from the same Ju88 as it sought to escape:
Bill MacKinlay, looking on from the signalling station, was amazed his ship escaped unscathed, but in the darkness it was probably an error on the part of a Luftwaffe pilot who didn’t see Rodney until the last moment, his aircraft passing over the ship’s bows at no more than 100 ft. (Ballantyne, Iain HMS Rodney: Slayer of the Bismarck and D-Day Saviour)
At around a quarter past midnight on 16th July I had come off Damage Control Watch below, and just got into my cabin when there was a great thud. I picked myself up and opened the cabin door into the corridor just as a naked man rushed past, followed by another. We made eye contact and the fellow (I think it was Engineering Officer, Lieutenant Tolfree?) stopped in his tracks, "My wallet!" he exclaimed, turned around and rushed back to his cabin to get himself sorted out. There was a lot of damage to control now, so I dashed to my action station as the ship began to list. I got to my action station at the top of the magazine near the conveyors to the forward guns to see a small steward already wrestling open a hatch to pass ammunition by hand. We had been torpedoed by an aircraft, and there maybe more attacks. We listed very seriously, because water got into compartments of the ship of course, and the more she listed the more water she took, and the more water she took the more she listed, but it just happened to stop, for some reason or another.
Indomitable was heeling hard under the emergency turn when the torpedo hit, so it detonated on the underside of the side belt alongside the port boiler room. Structural components fragmented, sending metal shards spearing into the ship.
The force of the explosion tore a 28ft square hole and compressed the skin along a large section of the ship’s side. The sponson supporting a Pom-Pom above the impact point also collapsed.
Flooding was fast and extensive, and the carrier rapidly lost speed to seven knots as the port boiler room flooded. It was the same critical situation Ark Royal had found herself in: The ship rapidly heeled to 12.5 degrees as water rushed into the transverse uptake trunking.
THE ITALIAN CONNECTION
Italian historians argue HMS Indomitable could not have been torpedoed by a Ju88 as German records indicate none were operating in the area at that time. Instead, they correlate a report of a successful torpedo strike against a "heavy transport" from an S79 crewed by Captain Carlo Capelli and Lieutenant Ennio Caselli of 204a Squadriglia of the Italian 41st Torpedo Bomber Group
It remains a very possible proposition, given the difficulties in night identification of ships and aircraft.
This is from historian Alberto Santonie and Francesco Mattesini, in their book "La partecipazione tedesca alla guerra aeronavale nel Mediterraneo (1940-1945)":
In the days following the landing in Sicily, the first result achieved by Italian aircraft occurred shortly after midnight on July 16 by captain Carlo Capelli, commander of the 41st Group Squadron (Major Massimiliano Erasi) of the 4th Air Force team, taking off with Its S. 79 from the Puglia airfield of Gioia del Colle. Heading south of Sicily with great visibility conditions, Captain Capelli was able to hit the left side, 50 miles to the east of Capo Passero, the large, 23,000-ton British aircraft carrier INDOMITABLE, part of the force of Admiral Cunningham.
"To date, no one has been able to establish the paternity of the indecision of the INDOMITABLE, attributed by some to a Ju88 German aircraft. In fact, no German-powered torpedo aircraft operated that night in the eastern Sicilian waters, while eight S79 were employed. It was one of the latter, belonging to the 41st Aerosiluranti Autonomo Group of the 4th Aviation Squadron (Puglia). Was it aircraft that made the attack? The aircraft, piloted by Captain Carlo Capelli and subordinate Ennio Caselli, taking advantage of the lack of lunar brightness at 00.25 of 16, reported engaging against a large unit forming part of a naval formation of more than ten ships at speed on a course of 110°, eighty kilometers east of Capo Sparrow. The crew of the plane, who managed to get off a shot before return fire opened up, observed the burst of a torpedo. Captain Capelli reported that the target was a 15,000-tonne steamer, while the navigator was right in reporting it to be a carrier. "
According to the reconstruction of the episode in an article by Tullio Marcon, the approach of the S79 Captain Capelli was favored by the lack of response from the British, which proceeded in a row, opened by the cruiser AURORA, followed by the battleships NELSON and RODNEY, by INDOMITABLE and by the PENELOPE cruiser, while eight destroyers were deployed in a defensive arc, from north to south: PIORUM, TYRIAN, TUMULT, TROUBRIDGE, QUEENBOROUGH, OFFA, ILEX and ECHO. This formation was tasked with a naval bombardment in Catania on the following day, which did not take place after the damage to the INDOMITABLE.
The torpedo stike, carried out with the engines at idle, was facilitated by the fact that although NELSON had spotted the Italian plane at an 8 mile distance and INDOMITABLE had noticed its presence, the two British ships mistakenly believed it to be one of the six Albacore aircraft that, with ASV Naval Detection Radar, was returning to the aircraft carrier from an anti-Snoop patrol night flight, which began at 23.30 on July 15th. British ships began to fire only a few moments before the torpedo, discharged from a distance of 300 yards, struck the left side of the INDOMITABLE, flooding the boiler and causing seven deaths. Captain Capelli, passing between the aircraft carrier and the RODNEY, then evaded the escort screen by flying over the ILEX destroyer, easily flying away without damage. An INDOMITABLE observer officer correctly recognized that the attacking aircraft was an Italian aircraft. "
She was then able to slowly right herself again, and we just steamed back to Malta. I was told that Captain Grantham took the calculated risk of counter-flooding to get the ship on an even keel, in doing so he had flagrantly disobeyed the Admiralty who believed that "letting water into the ship is exactly what the enemy intended," but saved Indomitable from the fate that befell Ark Royal in 1941. Indomitable had been torpedoed by a German [Ju88] aircraft during the Fleet's own airborne attack, and so had appeared to the guard ships to be a returning friendly aircraft, you see. The torpedo struck roughly mid-ships on the portside, below my cabin, it tore a 30-ft. (9m) hole on the waterline stretching aft, it should have been a mortal blow.
Unlike Ark Royal, the captain of Indomitable did not give the same ridiculous ideology-based order not to counterflood (the reason given being that letting in water was the enemy's objective!)
Counterflooding reduced the severity of the list and by 0230 Indomitable was capable of making her way back to Malta at 14 knots. Indomitable's pumps were able to control and reverse the flooding. These measures, combined with the calm seas, saved the ship.
With the flooding stemmed and the immediate crisis over, the decision was made to move HMS Formidable into Division 1 to cover Nelson and Rodney, while HMS Indomitable would return to Malta with Division 2's Warspite and Valiant.
It was a slow but steady journey. Indomitable reduced her speed to just 11 knots for fear of worsening the gaping hole in her side.
She moored in Grand Harbor shortly after 12.30pm.
After 10 days of intense efforts, HMS Indomitable was judged seaworthy for the return to Gibraltar. She would depart with HMS King George V and Howe in company.
HMS Illustrious, however, had to be brought in to the Mediterranean to fill the gap left by her larger sister.
On July 29 her 10 remaining serviceable Albacores and 34 Seafires were flown off to RNAS North Front. The escort carrier HMS Stalker immediately benefited from the transfer of personnel from 807 and 880 Squadrons.
Indomitable herself was moved into dry dock the next morning. After just one day, she was judged capable of crossing the Atlantic to Norfolk, Virginia.
At 4.45pm, Tuesday August 31, Indomitable secured alongside at the Norfolk naval shipyards. It would take eight months before she could be restored to service.
We went into Grand Harbour, Malta's primary port surrounded by the capital city, Valetta, which had suffered a most ferocious blitz by German and Italian forces. We dropped the anchor and I think almost everybody just seemed to sort of sit down and drop off to sleep wherever they were, from the strain of it! I couldn't, my team's next task started immediately.
In order to reduce hazards whilst emergency hull repair work was undertaken, Indomitable's munitions stores had to be unloaded into a lighter .I was required to supervise the unloading from aboard the lighter. We knew that it was just a question of when the enemy would try to finish us off, and we were making good progress, then the air raid sirens wailed. I looked up to see Captain Grantham peer over the side of HMS Indomitable at the lighter alongside and give one clear order; "Cast off!"
The lines were immediately slipped and the lighter given a hefty shove-off. In an instant I received my first Royal Navy "command", which just happened to be the most unpopular, un-powered, and highly volatile vessel afloat. Sat atop the pile of approximately 300 tons of high explosive, aimlessly wallowing around the harbour in indifference to other traffic and the full scale air raid above.