HMS Victorious was the only carrier of the original Illustrious class not to have sustained serious damage from bombs or torpedoes during the opening years of the war.
But she had been near-missed on several occasions, partuclarly during Operation Pedestal. Perhaps this had set a chain of defects in motion that gave Victorious her later troubles.
On August 20, 1944, Victorious had just participated in the launch of Corsairs and Barracudas against Sumatra. As the fleet returned to Trincomalee, Victorious’ rudder suddenly jammed.
For a time the carrier was not under control. Engineers worked furiously for 30 minutes before the fault was rectified. But it would be only the first instance of what would become a recurring problem.
On October 17, Victorious was with Indomitable to launch a raid on the Nobar islands. The rudder started to give problems once again, but did not impair her ability to operate aircraft.
Two days later, the rudder jammed. This time it delayed her launch of Corsairs and Barracudas.
On February 11, 1945, HMS Victorious arrived in Sydney for a 16-day respite. Other carriers - especially HMS Illustroius - needed the docking facilities more urgently, so Victorious did not have her rudder extensively examined.
While at Manus, Victorious was exercising with other ships of the fleet when - at 1525 on March 14 - a serious fire took hold in the centre boiler room.
PO Ted Martin later explained:
I took over my watch in the boiler room. It was hot, but soon became much hotter as small fires began. They were quickly extinguished with buckets of sand but, as just after 3pm, there was a massive explosion and the boiler room was engulfed in a mass of flames under the boiler and I grabbed a foam extinguisher and worked my way into the bilges. After what seemed an eternity the flamers were at last out, but with the boiler room in a state of partial darkness I was very relieved when damage control parties took over from me.
Victorious was able to rejoin her companions after half an hour.
KAMIKAZE ATTACK: APRIL 1
A radar contact was detected at 1730 and the CAP spotted two aircraft which evaded them by flying into cloud.
A short time later, a low-flying kamikaze popped up over the outer destroyer screen at 500ft and drove towards Victorious from the starboard quarter, climbing at the last minute. It then dove towards the carrier on what one commentator described as a steep landing approach from a right-hand circuit.
Task Force 57 was already coming about under “Raid Warning Red” procedures Captain Michael Denny ordered the helm hard over to increase the rate of swing in an effort to out-manoeuvre the diving aircraft.
Captain Denny would later state:
“Actually the kamikazes were much more frightening than they need have been because in a big aircraft carrier, with enormous horse power on the engines, I reckoned I could dodge them.”
The aircraft – either a Jill or a Zeke – was seen to bank in an effort to match the turning ship. It failed.
“Victorious was now swinging very fast and as we watched the aircraft banked more steeply trying to keep on the target. He roared in and his starboard wing struck the port edge of the flight deck and caused his plane to cartwheel into the sea on the port side. The bomb detonated underwater about 80ft clear of the ship’s side and threw tons of water, a quantity of petrol and many fragments of the aircraft and pilot on to the flight deck.”
The eight aircraft on Victorious’ deck park were positioned forward at the time of the attack and suffered minimal damage from the huge quantities of water and aviation fuel thrown over the ship.
Two of the deck crew were injured.
Among the scraps thown up from the kamikaze was a sheath of papers detailing target priorities for pilots. Captain Denny was not impressed:
“The only unmistakable feature of it was its reek of cheap scent”.
KAMIKAZE ATTACKS: MAY 9
Captain Denny was full of confidence in his big, flat-topped ship when it again faced kamikaze attack:
“Our anti-aircraft fire was pretty effective and the Victorious was an immensely handy ship to handle, with a big rudder. I could spin her round quite rapidly and I managed to ruin both my kamikaze attacks that day. They aimed originally for between the lifts – with American ships they could open up the flight deck and go right through to the hangar space below; but eventually they found that this didn’t work with the British carriers – they had armoured flight decks.”
Admiral Vian had ordered the carrier squadron to make a 60 degree course change when the first Japanese aircraft were detected by King George V’s radar at 1647 at a range of 28 miles.
The Zeke was spotted when it was only three miles out to starboard of Victorious, diving from 3000ft amid scattered cloud. Captain Denny ordered his carrier into an additional 25 degree turn to starboard in an attempt to throw off the pilot’s aim.
The kamikaze was hit repeatedly by the light armament at about 500 yards, but it was not disabled.
Captain Denny would write:
Our first kamikaze that day started from almost astern of us and my turn put him on my beam. He tried to pull up and start again, but he was not quick enough. I crossed ahead of him pretty close and his wheels touched the flight deck at right angles. The undercarriage sheered of and the plane broke up, sliding eighty feet across the flight deck to crash over the side and onto the 4.5inch guns.
From the first moment I started to swing the ship, he had been trying to adjust and steer up the flight deck – which would have given him the whole length in which to drop his stick down and hit – but he didn’t make it.
The kamikaze succeeded in diving on over the starboard quarter, past the bridge and crashed into the flight deck at Frame 31 between “B2” 4.5in turret and the raised catapult.
Shortly before the impact a small white parachute was seen to flare behind the plunging aircraft. Its 500lb bomb detonated at the junction of 3in and 1.5in “D” quality deck plates over a longitudinal bulkhead.
The explosion ripped up the 60lb plating (the strengthened but unarmoured steel which supported the lift well over a 12ft diameter. The blast depressed the deck some 3in over an area of 144sq ft and the bulkhead below was buckled.The accelerator was knocked out of alignment and put out of commission.
Aviation gasoline lines caught fire and some spilled through the small hole at the centre of the deck impact crater. The burning liquic spread to the smith’s workshop below the point of impact and spilled over into the catwalks.
To make matters worse, part of the 60lb steel deck had spalled, ripping through nearby fire fighting equipment. But hoses were quickly hauled over from the starboard fire fighting stations and the blaze extinguished.
The “B2” 4.5in turret was almost directly under the impacting aircraft and was riddled with splinters and fire, killing its gun crew and putting the mount out of operation. The right barrel had been wrecked and much of its ready-use ammunition ruined by the spray from fire hoses.
The nearby forward lift also suffered the failure of one of its motors. This slowed its speed, but did not prevent aircraft movements. Repairs to the disabled machinery was not possible without dockyard intervention.
Leading Air Mechanic B.M. Evans recalled:
On the lighter side, one of the kamikazes exploded on our catapult rail piercing four decks just aft of our mess. When matters had calmed down, I was absolutely amazed to see the lift ascending loaded with a wheelbarrow, sand, gravel, cement, shovels and shuttering. In no time at all the hole was filled with concrete which soon hardened in that climate, and we were operational once more, albeit minus a catapult for the remainder of the war. Consider what the results would have been on a U.S. carrier. Whilst we envied them all their mod cons and home comforts, we did have well-built ships with reasonable security.
Six minutes later, at 1656, Victorious was again selected for attack.
A second Zeke was seen in a shallow dive approaching Victorious once again from the starboard quarter.
Captain Denny again waited until he was sure the Japanese aircraft was committed to its dive before ordering Victorious’ helm to be put hard over.
Hit repeatedly and set on fire at about 500 yards by the close range 20mm Oerlikons, the kamikaze nevertheless remained under control long enough to align with the flight deck – striking with a glancing blow it on the port side at frame 135.
His speed and damage caused the aircraft to plunge over the side, burning furiously. It hit the sea some 200 yards off the port beam.
Raymond Barker of HMS Victorious
They were very difficult to shoot down. Once you saw them wheel and start to dive you loosed every gun you had on them but it’s a fact of life that a lot of gunnery is very inaccurate … most of it is … and whilst we shot some down, most of them that attacked the fleet got through … they caused damage but not the damage they caused on the American ships … we were different from the Americans insofar as we had an armored flight deck; 3-1/2 inches thick (of) armor plate … the Americans had wooden flight decks under which was a ½ inch steel plate and when a Kamikaze hit their flight deck it went straight through and often into the hangar where other airplanes were either being bombed up or being fueled or whatever and tremendous explosions and conflagrations took place. When we were hit we had a hole … 3 feet in circumference and we just put a steel plate over and some quick drying cement and our airplanes were back to flying in a quarter of an hour’s time. The material effect (of Kamikaze hits) was very small but the morale sapping effect was in a different league … and then they had a variation of that towards the end of the war when an airplane would drop, from twenty miles away, a bomb with a man attached to it and he had a little guidance system and he was rocket propelled … he could chase you around. They were very unpredictable … most of them got nowhere near the fleet; they crashed into the sea, they blew up in mid-air; all sorts of things happened to them. We never suffered a single hit from these. We called them “Chase McCharlies”
While spectacular, the attack was less damaging than the first. One arrester cable was put out of action, a 40mm gun director was destroyed and four Corsairs written-off.
If the aircraft was carrying a bomb, it failed to explode. Other accounts speculate that the aircraft itself did not hit the ship, but that its bomb did.
Both kamikaze attacks killed three and wounded 19.
Victorious was able to land five of her CAP Corsairs at 1830.
The wheeling carrier spotted a third Zeke in a shallow dive from 3000ft, coming out of the clouds.
As the crew braced yet again for impact, the kamikaze seemed to change his mind. The fighter swung away from Victorious, selecting the nearby battleship Howe as its target instead.
Under the concentrated anti-aircraft barrage of Victorious, Howe and Formidable, the Zeke burst into flames.
The pilot must have been killed or wounded, or the aircraft controls shot away, as it glided over the battleship's stern and crashed harmlessly into the sea 100 yards beyond
As the threat lifted, Victorious’s damage control teams set about making good the damage. The small hole in the forward flight deck and the depression around it had to be filled and leveled.
The only significant damage was found to be to one of the electric motors for the forward lift. While not disabling the lift, it did cause its operations to be somewhat slowed.
A quick inventory of aircraft revealed the carrier had 28 operational Corsairs left.
Four of her crew had been killed and four seriously injured. Some 20 others reported wounds of varying degree. The ship’s Medical Officer said the figures would have been lower if all had been wearing the required anti-flash clothing.
Victorious would remain operational, but the damage to her forward lift would for a time slow her ability to stow and deploy aircraft from her hangar .
On May 17, during operations off Sakishima Gunto, a Corsair which had been damaged by flack attempted to land on Victorious.
It made a very fast approach and slammed into the deck, its arrestor hook breaking No 6 and No 8 wires. The flaming aircraft catapulted along the deck into another Corsair at the rear of the forward deck park before plunging over the side.
Three people - including the pilot - were killed. Victorious’ flight deck was out of action for almost three hours as jury-rigged crash barriers were put in place.
Shortly after restarting air operations, another crash destroyed whatever structural integrity remained in Victorious’ crash barriers.
The 20 Corsairs and Avengers in the air at the time were forced to land on the other carriers.
While Victorious was able to rig more crash barriers, the flimsy wires were to cause continuous concern.
Leading Air Mechanic B.M. Evans recalled:
Awaiting the return of our aircraft on a glorious day, a deckhand sat on an arrester pulley housing, reading a novel. He did not realise we were about to receive the first plane until the arrester cable tensioned and he pushed the book into the pulley housing. After landing on, the book vanished with the retracting cable and the next plane had a disastrous landing due to the seized mechanism. We were unable to accept any further aircraft for four hours. That night, ‘Captain Speaking’. He related the incident to the entire ship’s company and concluded with the words, ‘If any man commits a similar offence he will be shot’. We all knew he meant just that and it was only then we realised he had the authority to carry it out.
Victorious had been scheduled to undergo a short refit in Sydney prior to joining the campaign to invade Japan. She arrived on June 5.
Work crews immediately set about fabricating and fitting new crash barriers, as well as replacing the patched-up electrical motor on the forward lift.
Six days later, she was on her way back to Manus.
It was not without reason that Admiral Vian would refer to Victorious as his “Trojan”. She had missed only one minor operation since joining the Eastern Fleet in July 1944.
A new rudder had arrived in Sydney from Britain while Victorious was on station off Japan. It would not be fitted. Instead it was hoisted on deck and welded down for the passage back to the British Islands with Formidable. They would be carrying passengers and former prisoners of war home.