HMS Illustrious WW2 Career

HMS Illustrious WW2 Career

World War 2

The story of HMS Illustrious during World War II epitomizes the resilience and tenacity of both the ship and its crew. Despite suffering significant damage from multiple attacks, including severe hits that could have proven fatal for a less robust vessel, Illustrious managed to reach the safety of harbor and later undergo extensive repairs.


US Office of Naval Intelligence recognition drawing of the Illustrious-class carriers

The HMS Illustrious is often considered a resilient and formidable warship, boasting a record for enduring more damage than perhaps any other aircraft carrier in World War II. Serving across multiple theaters, it survived attacks from German, Japanese, and Italian forces, solidifying its status as an unsung hero of the conflict.

In 1940, the Illustrious was dispatched to Gibraltar as part of Operation Hats. Following a refueling stop, she joined battleship Valiant and Force H to enter the Mediterranean. During this phase, her Fulmar fighters and anti-aircraft guns successfully downed seven Italian aircraft. As the spearhead of a larger fleet, Illustrious coordinated with carrier Eagle to launch an attack on the Italian seaplane base at Rhodes on September 3. Shortly after, in a daring night-time operation, Illustrious’ Swordfish aircraft laid mines and sank multiple enemy ships in the port of Benghazi. The return journey was not without peril, as an Italian submarine made a failed attempt to target the British vessels.

Admiral Lyster, upon his arrival in the Mediterranean, advocated for a carrier airstrike on the Italian naval base at Taranto.

Admiral Cunningham approved the plan, originally set for October 21. However, a hangar fire aboard Illustrious postponed the mission. Despite the setback, aircraft from the Eagle replenished Illustrious’ damaged inventory.

By month’s end, repairs were finished, and Illustrious was back in action, providing air cover for a convoy to Greece. During this period, her Fulmars shot down an enemy reconnaissance aircraft. She left Alexandria on November 6, alongside battleships Warspite, Malaya, and Valiant, for another mission to Malta. Her air group, fortified by aircraft from the Eagle and additional Fulmars from Ark Royal, managed to intercept and damage Italian aircraft on multiple occasions.

Preparation for the rescheduled Taranto strike was not without its hurdles. A series of unfortunate crashes due to fuel contamination led to an exhaustive maintenance effort. Despite these setbacks, 21 aircraft were readied for the historic attack.

The HMS Illustrious continued to solidify her reputation as a resilient warrior in the pivotal attack on Taranto, Italy.

Supported by four cruisers and four destroyers, she launched two waves of aircraft to cripple the Italian fleet. Despite early detection and robust anti-aircraft defenses, her aircraft scored multiple hits on key battleships Conte di Cavour and Littorio, altering the naval balance in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, a planned follow-up airstrike was cancelled due to inclement weather, but reconnaissance photos confirmed the significant damage inflicted on the Italian fleet.

In subsequent operations, Illustrious’ aircraft consistently proved effective in both offensive and defensive roles. Her Fulmars succeeded in downing and damaging multiple Italian CANT Z.506Bs, Fiat CR.42 Falco biplanes, and Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 medium bombers. Even her Swordfish bombers took part in several raids, targeting harbors and disrupting Italian convoys, albeit with mixed results.

As 1941 dawned, Illustrious deployed as part of Operation Excess to provide air cover for convoys to Piraeus, Greece, and Malta. Her air group, augmented by additional Fulmars from 805 Squadron, remained engaged in a high tempo of operations. Despite limited ammunition and challenging situations, her fighters managed to damage or down several Italian aircraft.


The wreckage of the aft lift is visible through the smoke behind the hole made by the only bomb to penetrate through the ship’s flight-deck armour.

However, on January 10, Illustrious found herself under a concentrated air attack. Just as she was launching replacement aircraft, a swarm of 24-36 Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers descended upon her.


The Stuka had inverted gull wings, as shown in this photograph. Also visible are the two separate sliding “hoods” of the canopy.


Ju 87 diving procedure.

The first bomb hit just forward of the aft lift, causing significant damage. Nevertheless, another Fulmar took off amidst the chaos and engaged the attacking Stukas, underlining the crew’s indomitable spirit and readiness under fire.


Formation of Ju 87 A dive-bombers, with the A’s characteristic large wheel “trousers”, each having one transverse bracing strut

The sustained attack on January 10, 1941, was a trial by fire for the carrier. Multiple bombs struck the ship, damaging critical systems and causing heavy casualties. Nevertheless, the crew managed to keep the ship operational, displaying exceptional skill and bravery under extreme conditions. That the steering was knocked out yet quickly repaired, even in the heat of battle, speaks volumes about the ship’s design and the crew’s competence. Despite the hits she took and the men she lost, the Illustrious managed to limp back into Malta’s Grand Harbour, still ablaze but defiant.

German air attacks continued even while the ship was in port for repairs, proving the considerable threat she posed to Axis powers. The resilience of Illustrious was nothing short of remarkable, underlined by naval historian J. D. Brown’s observation that her armored deck undoubtedly saved her from destruction.

Illustrious‘s bow after colliding with Formidable, 16 December 1941

The journey to the United States for permanent repairs marks another phase in the carrier’s life. Modifications not only repaired the battle damage but also updated her capabilities, preparing her for further service. The change in command to Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, a significant figure in British naval history, adds another layer of interest to the Illustrious’s story.

Collisions, like the one with HMS Formidable, are a testament to the hazards of naval warfare even beyond enemy action. Yet, these incidents, while serious, were not catastrophic, and both ships lived to fight another day.

The continued operational trials and upgrades, including the testing of a “hooked” Supermarine Spitfire, known as the Seafire, show that Illustrious was not just a survivor but an evolving platform, adaptable to the changing needs of the Royal Navy and the broader war effort.

The role of HMS Illustrious in the 1942 campaigns in the Indian Ocean and around Madagascar shows a ship and crew capable of rapid adaptation and action, even after enduring significant damage and setbacks.

Valiant conducting gunnery training to the rear of Illustrious. Fulmars of 806 Squadron are preparing to take off while Martlets of 881 Squadron are behind them.

Operation Ironclad, the invasion of Madagascar, illustrates the carrier’s multifaceted capabilities. The fact that Illustrious’s aircraft could attack naval units, sink submarines, and provide support for ground forces shows a degree of operational flexibility that was highly valuable for the British forces. The British aimed to prevent Vichy French-controlled Madagascar from falling into Japanese hands, a move that could severely affect Allied shipping lanes. Illustrious played a significant role in achieving this objective.

Despite the early setbacks such as a hangar fire that destroyed several aircraft, Illustrious showed resilience by making quick repairs and re-arming with additional aircraft. The addition of ASV radar to the Swordfish planes reflects the continual upgrades that kept her capabilities up-to-date.

The ship’s air group proved effective, sinking or disabling multiple French naval units and shooting down enemy aircraft. These actions, while against a less formidable opponent than the German or Japanese navies, still contributed to the successful capture of strategic points in Madagascar and safeguarded vital maritime routes for the Allies.

After Madagascar, the Illustrious was formally assigned to the Eastern Fleet, indicating her importance in the larger strategic picture of the war in the Indian Ocean and Pacific theatres. The role she played in operations such as Operation Stab and Operation Streamline Jane again shows her flexibility and utility. Operation Stab became a diversionary operation intended to distract Japanese attention away from the American landings on Guadalcanal. Moreover, showcasing how the British and American operations were coordinated for mutual benefit.


A prototype Fairey Firefly taking off with a prototype Blackburn Firebrand behind it, during deck-landing trials, February 1943

Captaincy changes, like those from Talbott to Cunliffe, reflect the human aspect of naval warfare—commanders come and go, but the mission continues. Illustrious was instrumental in the early success of British efforts to control key points in the Indian Ocean and prepare for future offensive actions. Despite not encountering significant resistance during the occupation of the remainder of Madagascar, her presence was undeniably a factor that contributed to the campaign’s success.

Throughout all these operations, the resilience and adaptability of HMS Illustrious and her crew are evident. Whether engaged in full-scale battle or acting as a deterrent, the carrier showed the importance of naval air power in a variety of roles, from attacking naval and ground targets to providing vital support for invading troops.

In early 1943, the HMS Illustrious underwent multiple trials and upgrades, including the installation of new radars and an extended flight deck. Following these modifications, she joined the Home Fleet and participated in Operation Governor, a diversionary tactic to mislead the Germans during the invasion of Sicily. The operation was modestly successful, as two enemy reconnaissance aircraft were shot down.

In August 1943, the Illustrious provided air cover for the RMS Queen Mary, which was transporting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to a conference in Quebec. Following that, she took part in Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion at Salerno, Italy. Her aircraft notably escorted a surrendering Italian plane.

Afterwards, she underwent another refit in Britain to further enhance her capabilities. By late 1943, the Illustrious moved to the Pacific Theater, stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There, she carried out various sorties against Japanese targets as part of the Eastern Fleet. In April 1944, during Operation Cockpit, her aircraft struck naval bases in Sumatra, Indonesia, causing substantial damage. Another notable operation, Operation Transom, targeted an oil refinery in Java, but it was only moderately successful.


Illustrious (right) and Unicorn (left) anchored in 1944

On June 10, the Illustrious and the accompanying escort carrier Atheling set sail to feign another air assault on Sabang. This was designed to divert Japanese attention while American forces targeted airfields in the Mariana Islands and prepared for the Saipan invasion. For the upcoming mid-June operation against Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, Illustrious’ air group was bolstered with 14 Corsairs from 1837 Squadron. To accommodate these new fighters, six Barracudas from No. 21 TBR Wing were removed.

On June 21, Illustrious launched a combined air fleet of 15 Barracudas and 23 Corsairs aimed at Port Blair’s airfield and harbor. However, mechanical issues forced two Barracudas to turn back, and another was shot down over the target area. Additionally, one Corsair had to make an emergency water landing but its pilot was rescued by a destroyer. Poor weather conditions impacted the Barracudas’ accuracy, resulting in minimal damage. Only a handful of aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and a few small vessels were sunk in the harbor.

With more than 50 planes in the air simultaneously, British command realized that a single mishap on the deck could risk losing all airborne aircraft, as there was no alternative carrier for emergency landings. The Illustrious and her escort vessels returned to Trincomalee on June 23. A week later, 847 Squadron was integrated into 810 Squadron.

On 30 July, she sailed for Durban to begin a refit that lasted from 15 August to 10 October and arrived back at Trincomalee on 1 November.

In 1945, the Illustrious was assigned to the British Pacific Fleet and participated in Operation Meridian, where her aircraft severely damaged oil refineries in Palembang, Indonesia. However, she also suffered losses, including damage from friendly fire. Repairs took place in Sydney, Australia, where issues with her central propeller were finally addressed, albeit with a reduction in her maximum speed.


The main strength of the BPF in anchored in San Pedro Bay, April 1945. Illustrious is the second-closest ship to the photographer in the background left column.

Joining American forces in Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, the Illustrious was assigned to neutralize airfields on the Sakishima Islands. During this period, she narrowly escaped a kamikaze attack, although the ensuing explosion did cause some damage to her aircraft and exacerbated existing issues with vibrations.

On the afternoon of 6 April, four kamikaze aircraft evaded detection and interception by the CAP, and one, a Yokosuka D4Y3 “Judy” dive bomber, attacked Illustrious in a steep dive. The light AA guns managed to sever its port wing so that it missed the ship, although its starboard wingtip shattered the Type 272’s radome mounted on the front of the bridge. When the 1,000-kilogram (2,200 lb) bomb that it was carrying detonated in the water only 50 feet (15.2 m) from the side of the ship, the resulting shock wave badly damaged two Corsairs parked on the deck and severely shook the ship. The initial damage assessment was that little harm had been done, although vibrations had worsened, but this was incorrect as the damage to the hull structure and plating proved to be extensive.


Kamikaze attack on Illustrious on 6 April

Throughout her service, HMS Illustrious proved to be a versatile and resilient aircraft carrier, participating in a wide range of operations across multiple theaters of World War II.

HMS Illustrious WW2 Career

Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works

Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works

Harry Gillespie is a writer who resides in the UK with his family. His work focuses on Naval & British history with a specific look at 20th century warfare and ships. From World War 1 to The Falkland Islands Campaign.

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