Four of a Kind: The Illustrious Class Aircraft Carriers

HMS Illustrious in 1944

In the mid-1930s the Royal Navy recognized the need to develop and built new Fleet Carriers. The Illustrious Class of four ships was ordered as part of the 1936 Naval Program.  The four ships of the class HMS Illustrious, HMS Formidable, HMS Victorious and HMS Indomitable were some of the most important ships to see service in the Royal Navy in the Second World War and would see action in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific.  They were tough ships and all sustained serious damage at least once in their careers that might have sunk other ships.  Different in concept than the Royal Navy’s only modern carrier the Ark Royal they displaced more than the U.S. Navy Yorktown Class and just somewhat less than the following Essex Class ships although they were over 100 feet shorter in length as compared to the American ships.

The class was built with an armored flight deck which covered the hangar deck with both as an integral part of the ship’s structure and defense.  The American ships hanger and flight deck were part of the superstructure with the armored deck being that of the hangar deck itself.  This provided advantages in protection against bombs and later Kamikazes but there was a trade off in both aircraft capacity and the ability for the ships to handle the larger aircraft that came into service following the Second World War.  As designed the ships carried just 36 aircraft as compared with the 80-100 aircraft of the American ships and the 72 that the Ark Royal was rated at.  Later in the war the Royal Navy adopted the American practice of an air park on the flight deck which increased their capacity to up to 70 aircraft. The last ship of the class, the Indomitable was built to a modified deign with an expanded two deck hangar with increased aircraft capacity similar to that of the Ark Royal.  An additional drawback to the design was that any bomb which penetrated the armored flight deck exploded inside the hangar causing deformation to the actual ship’s structure.

British defensive doctrine for these carriers was focused on the passive protection provided by the armored flight deck and by a far heavier anti-aircraft battery than the Yorktown Class and comparable to the Essex Class. This was a different doctrine than that of the Americans and the Imperial Japanese Navy which embarked large air groups believing that the aircraft were integral to the defense of the ship.

The ships displaced 28,919 tons full load and were capable of steaming at 30.5 knots with an operational range of 11,000 nautical miles at 14 knots, far more than any previous Royal Navy carrier but far less than the Essex class which could steam 20,000 nautical miles at 15 knots. The Essex Class ships were had a greater displacement as well as a higher top speed of 33 knots.  The Illustrious class was best suited for operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and less suited to the vast expanse of the Pacific where they would spend the last year of the war.

Illustrious under attack by German Bombers

HMS Illustrious: Illustrious was laid down in April 1937, launched in April 1939 and commissioned in May 1940. Upon commissioning she and her air group deployed to the Mediterranean where in the dark days following the fall of France they escorted vital convoys, supported the Royal Army in the war in North Africa and conducted strikes against Italian shore installations and fleet units.  Illustrious launched the first major raid against an enemy shore base by carrier aircraft on 11 November 1940. Her aircraft from number 813, 815, 819 and 823 Squadrons made a night attack on the Naval Base at Taranto sinking the battleship Conte di Cavour and heavily damaging the battleships Andrea Doria and the new battleship Littorio and moderate damage to the Caio Dulio This strike helped cripple Italian naval power and helped give the Japanese inspiration for the Pearl Harbor attack.    On 10 January she suffered severe damage from 6 bomb hits while escorting a convoy near Malta. She was attacked again at Malta causing more damage and she was withdrawn from action and sent to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for repairs. The damage was severe enough to keep her out of the war until May of 1942.  One of her shafts was so badly damaged that it had to be cut away and could not be replaced which reduced her speed to 23 knots. On her return to action she covered the landings against the Vichy French island of Madagascar and the Sicily landings. In 1944 she was in action with the Far East Fleet conducting raids against Japanese held islands in Indonesia and in 1945 was in action as part of the British Pacific Fleet where she saw action at Okinawa where she was hit by two Kamikazes and Formosa where a near miss close aboard by a Kamikaze caused severe damage below her waterline.  She sailed home where she underwent repair until 1946 when she was returned to duty as a training carrier in which capacity she served until she was decommissioned and scrapped in 1954.

Grumman Marlett (F4F Wildcat) on flight deck of HMS Formidable

HMS Formidable: Formidable was laid down in June 1937, launched in August 1939 and commissioned in November 1940.  She actually “launched herself” a half hour before her Christening ceremony which gave her the nickname “The ship that launched herself.”  Formidable saw action in the Mediterranean in 1941 and was heavily damaged by two 1000 kg bombs while escorting a Malta Convoy. This put her out of action for 6 months as she was repaired at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  On her return she saw service first in the Indian Ocean and then in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and the Italian Campaign. She also saw service in the Arctic sinking U-331 and in raids against the German Battleship Tirpitz.  She was in action in 1945 against the Japanese with the British Pacific Fleet where she relieved Illustrious after that ship was withdrawn from action. On 4 May 1945 while supporting operations off Okinawa she suffered massive damage from a Kamikaze, temporary repairs kept her in action until hit by another Kamikaze on 9 May. She was withdrawn from action and a fleet review determined that she was not economically repairable in the austere post war years. She was placed in reserve in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1953 with the scrapping taking place in 1956.

HMS Indomitable

HMS Indomitable: Indomitable was built to a modified design which allowed her to operate far more aircraft than her sisters. She was laid down in November 1937, launched in March 1940 and commissioned in October 1941. She was slated to accompany the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to the Far East and the defense of Singapore but ran aground on a coral reef during her shakedown cruise in the Jamaica which prevented that deployment.  After repairs she operated with the Far East Fleet in the Indian Ocean and took part in the invasion of Madagascar in November 1942.  In July of 1942 she took part in the Malta resupply mission Operation Pedestal where she was heavily damaged by two 500 kg bombs which penetrated her flight deck. She was withdrawn to the United States for repairs which lasted until February 1943 when she returned to the Mediterranean.  She took a torpedo hit from a German Ju-88 bomber on 15 June 1943 during the build up to the invasion of Sicily and again returned to the United States for repairs which were completed in February 1944. She then took part in operations with the Far East Fleet in the Indian Ocean before joining the British Pacific Fleet in 1945. She received minor damage from a Kamikaze hit on 4 May 1945 while operating near Okinawa. She finished the war in good shape compared to Illustrious and Formidable but was damaged by an internal fire and explosion in 1947 the damage from which was never repaired. She remained in service until she was placed in unmaintained reserve in 1953 and scrapped in 1955.

HMS Victorious

HMS Victorious: The Victorious was probably the most celebrated aircraft carrier in the history of the Royal Navy. Her World War Two service was remarkable by any standard and she was the only ship of her class to be modernized to carry jet aircraft following the war being refitted in much the same way as the American Essex Class ships were in the 1950s with an angled flight deck.  She was laid down in May 1937, launched in September 1939 and commissioned on 14 May 1941. Within 10 days of her commissioning she was taking part in the Hunt for the Bismarck and her Swordfish torpedo bombers scored one torpedo hit on that ship.  She saw much action in the North Atlantic and Arctic escorting convoys and deterring forays of German raiders into the Atlantic. She served in the Mediterranean during some Malta operations including Operation Pedestal and the Operation Torch landings in North Africa.  Due to the shortage of U.S. Carriers from heavy combat in the South Pacific in 1942 Victorious was “loaned” to the U.S. Navy deployed to operate with the U.S. Pacific Fleet following refits to operate U.S. built aircraft. She operated in the South Pacific from March to September of 1943 with the USS Saratoga in operations against the Japanese to include the New Georgia landings. She returned home and took part in raids against the Tirpitz which put that ship out of action for several months. She deployed to the Far East in 1944 and support operations in the Indian Ocean before being transferred to the British Pacific Fleet.

Victorious on Fire off Okinawa

She was involved in extensive Pacific operations including Okinawa and the raids on mainland Japan. She was stuck on a number of occasions by Kamikazes but remained in action.  After the war she was modernized and remained in service until 1969 when the Royal Navy decided that it was going to end its fixed wing operations and decommission its remaining attack aircraft carriers. She was broken up at Faslane beginning in 1969.

The modernized HMS Victorious

The Illustrious Class ships were great ships which performed admirable work in the Second World War. They and their brave crews continued the proud tradition of the Royal Navy. It is my hope that at least the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers will be renamed for a ship of this class, preferably Victorious.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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5 Comments

Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

5 responses to “Four of a Kind: The Illustrious Class Aircraft Carriers

  1. John Erickson

    Another reason for the armoured flight deck and heavier side armour was the Royal Navy’s expectation to fight in the North Sea or the Med, where there was a significantly higher chance for the carriers to run afoul of traditional ship-to-ship combat. Also, with the traditional shipping lanes to protect, the RN would have fewer escorts available to provide anti-air and anti-surface support to the carriers, so they were made more rugged as partial compensation. As you so ably point out, the unexpected benefit was their ability to shrug off kamikaze attacks that put US carriers out of action. (No critique of your post intended, Padre, just passing on some of my huge accumulation of useless knowledge! :) )

  2. padresteve

    John
    You are right about the reasons for the different defensive design and doctrine of the RN vice the USN when building carriers. These were good ships and often survived damage that would have sunk many Japanese of USN carriers.

    They had their deficiencies as well particularly in regard to the aircraft that the RN supplied them with as well as the number of aircraft that they were designed to carry. This takes nothing away from the heroism and sacrifice of their crews or their designers and builders.

    Blessings

    Steve+

    • John Erickson

      It wasn’t just the smaller air complement of the British carriers. A huge problem was the British Fleet Air Arm’s decision that no single-pilot fighter could function over water! Every carrier fighter, until early 1944 (if I recall correctly) was forced to include a navigator, resulting in less-efficient designs compared to the Japanese and Americans. Imagine what a dog of an aircraft the F6F or F4U would’ve been with a second seat! Not until the Fleet Air Arm started accepting Spitfires for carrier duty (called Seafires) did the British get a single-seat high-performance fighter. Between this, and the use of the WW1-style (canvas-and-wood biplane construction) Firefly torpedo planes, it is absolutely amazing the British carrier forces accomplished as much as they did! (I won’t even go into the courage required for the pilots who were shot off merchant ships’ bows in Hurricanes with nowhere to land!)

    • John Erickson

      Sorry, Padre, the clumsy way I worded that post made it sound like I had posited the concept of inferior aircraft. I only meant to support the point YOU had made in your reply. Boy, my brain is REALLY off-line tonight! Apologies, Padre. (I think I’ll save any further posts for tomorrow, when the brain’s rebooted from a night’s sleep!)

  3. A lovely article padre, incidentally the USN carriers that followed the Essex class CVN Midway/Coral Sea although being much bigger ships were inspired by the armoured deck design being armoured in a similar way but offsetting the aircraft capacity by being much larger ships than both the RN and previous Essex class, I think the first Sea Hurricanes and Spitfires came into carrier use in 1942 the first of the Wildcat/Martlets started delivery to Royal Navy under lend lease also in 1942, the Corsair was actually first used on aircraft carriers by the Royal Navy as the USN had orginaly considered the corsair as not suitable for CVN use ,the Corsair started delivery to the RN in November 1943 and were pretty much immediately (after some modifications) pressed into service.

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