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HMS Illustrious (87)
HMS Illustrious (AWM 302415).jpg
HMS Illustrious c. 1942
Career (United Kingdom)
Name: HMS Illustrious
Ordered: 13 January 1937
1936 Naval Programme
Builder: Vickers-Armstrongs
Laid down: 27 April 1937
Launched: 5 April 1939
Commissioned: 25 May 1940
Decommissioned: End of 1954
Struck: 3 November 1956
Identification: Pennant number: 87
Motto: Vox Non Incerta
("No Uncertain Voice")
Fate: Scrapped at Faslane
General characteristics
Class & type: Illustrious-class aircraft carrier
Displacement: 23,000 tons (standard),
28,661 tons (loaded)
Length: 743.75 ft (226.70 m)
Beam: 95 ft (29 m)
Draught: 28 feet (8.5 m) full load
Propulsion: 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers
3 Parsons geared turbines producing 110,000 shaft horsepower (82,000 kW), driving three shafts
Speed: 30.5 knots (56.5 km/h; 35.1 mph)
Range: 11,000 nautical miles (20,000 km) at 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph)
Complement: peace 1,300
war 1,900
Armament: (1940) as laid down
16 × 4.5-inch gun (8 × 2)
48 x 2-pdr gun (6 × 8)
(1945) post upgrades
16 × 4.5-inch gun (8 × 2)
40 x 2-pdr gun (5 × 8)
3 x 40-mm gun (3 x 1)
52 x 20-mm gun (19 x 2 + 14 x 1)[1]
Aircraft carried: 1940: 15 Fulmar and 18 Swordfish
1942 (May): 20 Martlet, 20 Swordfish and 1 Fulmar
1944 (June) : 42 Corsair and 15 Barracuda II[2]
1944 (Dec): 36 Corsair and 21 Avenger
1947: Vampires

HMS Illustrious, the fourth Illustrious of the Royal Navy, was an aircraft carrier which saw service in World War II, the lead ship of the Illustrious class which also included Victorious, Formidable, and Indomitable.


Illustrious was built by Vickers-Armstrongs at Barrow-in-Furness, launched in 1939, and commissioned on 16 April 1940. She displaced 28,000 tons and carried up to 57 aircraft, including about 33 to 36 in her armoured hangar (depending on type).[3] Illustrious carried fewer aircraft than the preceding Ark Royal and the subsequent Indomitable and Implacable-class carriers. The heavily armoured hangar was smaller than on Ark Royal, but after her flight deck round-downs were removed during refits and she began using a permanent deck park, her aircraft capacity was greatly increased.[4] She was nicknamed "Lusty" by the men who served in her. On 24 May 1940, Illustrious ran her full power trials and recorded 113,700 shp at 234.2 rpm. Her exact speeds were not recorded as she had her paravanes streamed, but it was estimated that she could have made about 31 knots (57 km/h; 36 mph) under full power.[5]

The cost of construction of Illustrious was £3,800,000. The electronic equipment fitted to her cost £13,500, and the naval aircraft embarked on her in 1939 cost £600,000.[6]


Illustrious joined the fleet in August 1940. Her first assignment was in the Mediterranean Sea, where she provided convoy cover, attacked Axis shipping, and raided positions in North Africa.

On 31 August, she launched a strike against airfields at Maritza. On 11 November 1940, she became the first carrier in history to launch a major strike against an enemy fleet in a daring attack against the Italian fleet at Taranto. Twenty-one aircraft from Numbers 813, 815, 819, and 824 Squadrons based on Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet at night. The Italians were caught off-guard, and one battleship was sunk and two were heavily damaged.

damaged bell

On 10 January 1941, while escorting Operation Excess convoys east of Sicily, Illustrious was attacked by Axis Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and Junkers Ju 87 bombers. She was hit by six bombs and suffered extensive damage: her sick bay and ward room were destroyed, and among those killed was the English rugby player W. G. E. Luddington. While under repair in Malta she was bombed again on 16 January and 19 January, which with the previous damage led to some flooding of her outer hull compartments and minor listing, but all her machinery spaces remained intact.[7] On 23 January she sailed to Alexandria, Egypt for temporary repairs, arriving at noon on 25 January.[8]

Illustrious was under repair at Alexandria until 19 March 1941, when she sailed for Durban, South Africa. At Durban she was drydocked for assessment of underwater damage. She then sailed to Virginia for permanent repairs and substantial refitting at the Norfolk Navy Yard, arriving on 12 May.[8]

At Norfolk, the battle damage was repaired, and also some important modifications were made. These included installation of an improved aircraft lift, an additional 50 feet (15 m) of flight deck space, ten more 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, and modification of the catapult for use by US built aircraft. The work was completed in October. Illustrious then underwent trials, which were completed in December. She then sailed for Britain in company with sister carrier Formidable. On 16 December, due to extreme weather conditions, Illustrious collided with Formidable, causing serious damage to both ships.[8]

Illustrious was under repair at Greenock until late February 1942. On 23 March she sailed for the Indian Ocean.[8]

In May 1942, Illustrious and her sister Indomitable provided air cover for Operation Ironclad, the landings at Diego Suarez in Vichy French controlled Madagascar. She was then assigned to the Far Eastern Fleet. From June to August 1942, Illustrious operated with the Far Eastern Fleet against Japanese forces, including Operation Stab in August.[8]

In September 1942, Illustrious returned to Madagascar for Operation Stream, which completed the Allied occupation. She then proceeded to Durban for a brief refit, and rejoined the Far Eastern Fleet in December.[8]

However, she was almost immediately withdrawn, departing for Britain on 5 January 1943. From March to May 1943, Illustrious was refitted at Birkenhead. The flight deck was extended further, new radars were installed, her 20 mm anti-aircraft single mounts were replaced with twin mounts, and two new arrester wires were fitted.[8]

After trials, Illustrious joined the Force A of the Home Fleet in July 1943 for Operation Governor, intended to lure the German battleship Tirpitz and other German heavy cruisers out to battle, by simulating a weak raid on the Southern Norway Coast, with the Battle Fleet just over the horizon. In September, she was transferred to Force H in the Mediterranean, and provided air cover for the landings at Salerno (Operation Avalanche).[8]

Illustrious then returned to Britain for a quick refit, including additional twin 20 mm anti-aircraft mounts and upgrades to the catapult. Illustrious had been designated to rejoin the Far Eastern Fleet; she departed Britain on 30 December 1943, and arrived in Trincomalee, Ceylon, on 31 January.[8]

From February through August 1944 she operated with the Far Eastern Fleet, and participated in numerous raids, including those against the Indonesian islands of Sabang on 19 April 1944 and again on 22 July 1944, and Soerabaya on 17 May 1944. She also raided Port Blair in the Andaman Islands on 22 June 1944 and carried 57 aircraft during this operation. At one point she had 51 of her 57 aircraft in the air, including the 15 Barracudas and 23 Corsairs that participated in the Port Blair strike.[9]

In September and October 1944, Illustrious was refitted at Simon's Town, South Africa.[8] She rejoined the Far Eastern Fleet in November for additional raids. On 16 December Illustrious was assigned to the newly formed British Pacific Fleet, and sailed for Australia. En route, she attacked Palembang on 24 January and 29 January 1945. She arrived in Sydney on 9 February. At Sydney, her centre propeller shaft was removed due to a deteriorating shaft gland, and her maximum speed fell to 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph).[5]

On 4 March, she sailed with the rest of the Pacific Fleet to Manus Island, and from there on 19 March to Ulithi. There Illustrious and her sisters Indomitable and Victorious, as well as Indefatigable joined the US Pacific Fleet, under the designation Task Force 57 (TF 57).[8]

From 26 March to 9 April, TF 57 provided air support for the invasion of Okinawa (Operation Iceberg), winning her last battle honour. On 6 April, Illustrious suffered serious underwater damage from a near miss by a kamikaze. On 9 April, Illustrious was detached for a raid against Formosa, but on 14 April she was replaced by her sister, Formidable, and sent to the Philippines for inspection.[8]

The damage was more serious than suspected and she returned to Sydney and thence to Rosyth for repairs and refit, which were completed in June 1946.[10]

After the war, she was given the role of a training and trials ship, and she continued to be plagued by vibration problems which were partially cured by new propeller designs. In 1946, she had a new five-bladed propeller fitted to the centre shaft.[5] She was refitted and modernised from January to August 1948, and made 29 knots (54 km/h; 33 mph) on trials with 110,600 shp at 227.5 rpm. In 1950, on full power trials, she made 29.2 knots (54.1 km/h; 33.6 mph) with 111,480 shp at 225.1 rpm.[5] In 1953 she took part in the Fleet Review to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.[11] She was decommissioned at the end of 1954, sold on 3 November 1956, and finally, after a successful career, scrapped at Faslane.


Battle honours



  1. Lyon, p.239
  2. HMS Illustrious from the FAA Archive website
  3. Lyon, D.J., Warship Profile 10, HMS Illustrious Aircraft Carrier 1939-1956, Technical History, p232
  4. Brown, David, Warship Profile 11, HMS Illustrious Aircraft Carrier 1939-1956, Operational History, p246
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Lyon, p.235
  6. Hansard, HC Deb 07 March 1960 vol 619, ccc153–4, debate on Navy Estimates for 1960–61, speech by John Rankin.
  7. USN Bureau of Ships, Bomb damage to British Naval vessels, Summary of bomb damage to September 2, 1941, pages b6 - b9.
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 Smith, Gordon (2010-10-14). "HMS ILLUSTRIOUS - Illustrious-class Fleet Aircraft Carrier". Naval-History.Net. Retrieved 23 November 2011. 
  9. Brown, David, Warship Profile 11, HMS Illustrious, p257.
  10. Mason, Geoffrey B (2003). "HMS Illustrious". Service Histories of Royal Navy Warships in World War 2. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
  11. Souvenir Programme, Coronation Review of the Fleet, Spithead, 15th June 1953, HMSO, Gale and Polden


  • Barnett, Correlli. Engage the Enemy More Closely (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1991) ISBN 0-393-02918-2
  • Blackman, V.B., ed. Jane's Fighting Ships 1950-51 (Sampson Low, Marston, & Company, London, 1951)
  • Chesneau, Roger. Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present; An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1984)
  • Collier, Richard. War in the Desert (Caxton Publishing Group, London, 2000) ISBN 0-7835-5721-3
  • Friedman, Norman (1988). British Carrier Aviation: The Evolution of the Ships and Their Aircraft. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-054-8. 
  • Poolman Kenneth. Illustrious (William Kimber, London, 1955)

External links

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