Close this search box.
Close this search box.

HMS Eagle : Battleship Turned Aircraft Carrier

20th of February, 1924. HMS Eagle was commissioned into service.

HMS Eagle In 1913, British shipbuilder Armstrong-Whitworth laid down the keel for what was meant to be the battleship Almirante Cochrane to be delivered to Chile. In 1918, the British Royal Navy took over the contract and ordered the already under construction ship to be converted to become an aircraft carrier.

Renamed Eagle, she was commissioned into service in 1924 as the world’s largest aircraft carrier and as the only ship in the British fleet with instruments labeled in Spanish and in metric units due to its previous life as the beginnings of battleship Almirante Cochrane.

Line drawing of Almirante Latorre, illustrating what Eagle would have looked like if she had been finished in her original configuration. Shaded areas show the extent of her armour.

She spent the bulk of her 1920s career in the Mediterranean Sea, and, after a lengthy refit, she was sent to the Far East in 1933.

Aerial view of Eagle in 1931, prior to her refit

When the United Kingdom entered the war in September 1939, she was docked at Singapore for a refit. Her first mission in the war was to search out for German warships in the Indian Ocean. On 14 March 1940, she suffered an accidental bomb explosion while off the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, killing 14 men while damaging many aircraft. She was sent to Singapore for repairs, which completed in May.

She joined the Mediterranean Fleet later that month. On 9 July, her aircraft, flying from the land base at Sidi Barrani, Egypt, struck the Italian base at Tobruk, Libya, sinking destroyer Zeffiro and merchant ship Manzoni and damaing destroyer Euro, troop transport Liguria, and merchant ship Serenitas.

during trials

On 9 Jul, her aircraft participated in the Battle of Calabria as reconnaissance aircraft. On the following day, her aircraft struck Augusta, Sicily, Italy, sinking destroyer Leone Pancaldo. On 13 Jul, while under heavy attack by Axis aircraft, Sea Gladiator aircraft launched from HMS Eagle shot down three Italian bombers; six days later, they shot down an Italian SM.79 medium bomber.

On 9 Sep, together with aircraft from HMS Illustrious, she attacked Italian airfields on the Greek island of Rhodes.

And on the 12the of Oct 1940, she was damaged by near misses from bombs released by Sicily-based Italian SM.79 bombers.

Norway’s Heroic Heavy Water Sabotage

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Eagle underway. The U.S. Navy give the date as 1942, but due to the lack of camouflage and wartime modifications this photograph was probably taken in the 1930s.

Which would later necessitate repairs at Alexandria, Egypt, but not until she launched an attack on the Italian seaplane base at Maltezana, Rhodes on 27 Oct. Upon completing the repairs in early Nov 1940, she escorted a number of convoys to Malta, and launched an attack on Tripoli, Libya during the night of 24 to 25 Nov.

HMS Eagle and HMS Malaya, from HMS Argus serving with Force H in the Mediterranean, 7 March 1942
She spent most of Dec 1940 in port at Alexandria, but her aircraft were disembarked and operated from airfields.

In Jan and Feb 1941, she continued to escort convoys to and from Malta. She departed from Alexandria on 9 Apr and passed through the Suez Canal for patrols in the Indian Ocean, searching for German surface raiders. From Freetown, Sierra Leone, British West Africa, she sailed into the South Atlantic in search of German shipping starting from 29 May 1941, sinking blockade runner Elbe on 6 Jun and assisting in the capture of tanker Lothringen on 15 Jun.

Eagle in Alexandria harbour, December 1940

She returned to Britain in Oct 1941 and underwent a refit, during which her quadruple .50 machine guns were replaced by twelve 20-millimeter Oerlikon anti-aircraft weapons, and she received a Type 285 gunnery radar and a Type 290 air warning radar. She returned to duty in Feb 1942, returning to the Mediterranean Sea to join Force H, with No. 813 and No. 824 Squadrons aboard, flying Swordfish and Sea Hurricane aircraft. She made several runs for Malta in Feb and Mar 1942, delivering several Spitfire fighters to reinforce Malta. After returning to Gibraltar, she spent most of Apr 1942 in port for steering gear repairs.

On 7 May, HMS Eagle and USS Wasp delivered 17 and 47 Spitfire fighters to Malta, respectively, followed by several other missions through Jul 1942 that delivered further aircraft. In early Aug 1942, she sailed with the convoy of Operation Pedestal with 16 Sea Hurricane fighters on board as an escort.

Eagle listing to port and sinking, 11 August 1942

In the early afternoon of 11 Aug, she was attacked by German submarine U-73, which hit her with four torpedoes, sinking her 130 kilometers south of Cape Salinas on the Spanish island of Majorca. 131 were killed; 929 survivors were rescued by destroyer HMS Laforey, destroyer HMS Lookout, and tug HMS Jaunty.

HMS Eagle Written by Kim Hansen

Eagle at Hong Kong in the 1930s. The depot ship HMS Medway is in the background