10 January 1941: Luftwaffe Swoops on Convoy – Illustrious an Inferno

10 Jan

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Fulmars on deck 2The convoy of four merchant ships plus escort which has been heading for Malta through the western Mediterranean suffered a series of heavy air attacks today. The supply convoy and escort were within 100 miles of Malta just after 11 this morning when a series of single Italian aircraft attempted to approach the ships.  At first they were driven off by five Fulmars from HMS Illustrious.  Then as the Fulmars returned to the deck to refuel, two Italian torpedo bombers swooped low over the Carrier, forcing her to make an emergency turn but causing no damage. 

At 1230 hrs, just as the Fulmars were declared ready, the Carrier’s radar detected a large group of enemy aircraft approaching from the north. In the time it took for the Fulmars to take off, the raiders reached her.  43 JU 87 dive bombers and 18 HE 111 bombers in four formations, escorted by ten Messerschmitt fighters launched a determined and highly skilled attack on the convoy. 

In a series of strikes by 30 Stuka dive bombers, six direct hits from 500kg armour-piercing bombs and three near misses disabled Illustrious.  The first bomb struck the Carrier at 1238 hrs, passing through the ship’s side before exploding in the water, peppering the hull with shrapnel.  Seconds later another bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded in the paint store.  Then a 250kg anti-personnel bomb burst on the starboard pom-pom gun, killing its crew and four others from a nearby gun. 

One hit and one near miss on Illustrious (c) IWM A4161

One hit and one near miss on Illustrious (c) IWM A4161

At 1240 hrs a 500kg bomb struck a lift midway between the hangar and the flight deck, wiping out a Fulmar and its pilot, destroying gun turrets and setting fire to nine Swordfish and four other Fulmars. Fire crews leapt into action and managed to bring the blaze under control.  Meanwhile at 1242 hrs a 500kg bomb struck the same area, skidded into the hangar and exploded at the very heart of Illustrious, setting off ammunition stores and fuel tanks.  Ten seconds later another 500kg bomb burst open the Carrier’s bow and the fires became an inferno.

“I came off watch from the boiler-room at noon…within minutes, we were hit in the after-lift well.  Shortly after, a 500kg bomb pierced the 4″ armoured flight deck, through the hangar-deck and partially into the wardroom flat and ammunition conveyor, approximately 6 feet from where we were assembled.  I was fortunate to be blown through the bulkhead door, landing about 30 feet away…”  Ronald Lucking, Stoker, HMS Illustrious (2)

As the fourth and final enemy formation approached Illustrious, the Fulmars went on the attack, flying straight for the Stukas as they dived, in a desperate attempt to turn them away.  Five JU 87s were shot down in the counter attack and four others were unable to reach target.  The tenth got through and dropped its 500kg bomb on the centre of the flight deck which collapsed.  The bomb ripped through the hangar and exploded on the deck below.  100 men were trapped by fallen debris.  Within seven minutes of the start of the attack, Illustrious was almost sinking.

Admiral Cunningham later wrote: “There was no doubt we were watching complete experts. We could not but admire the skill and precision of it all. The attacks were pressed home to point-blank range, and as they pulled out of their dives, some of them were seen to fly along the flight deck of Illustrious below the level of her funnel.” Remarkably, the Carrier’s engines were barely damaged. Her Commanding Officer, Captain Denis Boyd, decided to head for Malta.  Within half an hour of the attack, with fires still raging throughout the ship and steering only through engine power, Illustrious was underway, screened by destroyers Hasty and Jaguar heading for Grand Harbour 85 miles away at a steady 18-21 knots.  Working in infernal conditions, her boiler-room crew managed to keep the ship stoked, while fire parties toiled for hours trying to keep the fires under control.

Another near miss (c) IWM A4162

Another near miss (c) IWM A4162

By 1600 hrs Illustrious was within 40 miles of Malta when the Luftwaffe struck again.  15 Stukas and five Messerchmitts dived on the vulnerable Carrier in three waves, only to be met again by determined Fulmar pilots, who despite being outnumbered four to one managed to shoot five Stukas down into the sea.  Only one dive-bomber got through, but he struck with a 500kg bomb which fell near the Carrier’s stern, where a temporary sick bay had been set up.  Between 20 and 30 of the ship’s company died instantly and fires were re-ignited.

Despite heroic efforts to control the blaze, by late afternoon the fires aft of the ship were dangerously out of control. Then the sheer weight of water poured onto the flames caused the ship to list heavily.  As the sun set, Illustrious was within 15 miles of Malta.  A radio message came through from Malta: enemy torpedo planes had been spotted heading for the Carrier.  Six Italian aircraft reached her five miles off the Island but were driven off by heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Carrier and her destroyer escort.  Finally, Illustrious limped into Grand Harbour, mooring at Parlatorio Wharf at 1015 hrs to the sound of cheers and rousing songs from the dockyard.  It took another five hours for her fires to be finally extinguished.  She had lost 126 dead and 91 wounded. (3)



The supply convoy which left Alexandria three days ago arrived safely in Grand Harbour this morning after an uneventful passage through the eastern Mediterranean. The fast transport ship Breconshire and freighter Clan Macaulay docked at 0800hrs, having been escorted on their passage by anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta and two destroyers, Defender and Diamond.

Once the supply ships had docked, Convoy ME 5½ made up of two empty freighters, Lanarkshire and Waiwera were escorted out of Malta by Calcutta and Diamond to join Operation Excess for onward passage to Alexandria.  A third convoy ME 6 comprising freighters Devis, Hoegh Hood, Rodi, Trocas and Volo, and the tankers Plumleaf and Pontfield also sailed from Malta today, escorted by three corvettes.

Late this evening the Malta freighter Essex arrived escorted by the destroyer Hero.  The freighter’s cargo included 4000 tons of ammunition, 12 cased Hurricane fighters and 3000 tons of seed potatoes for the island.  Also disembarked: 190 Heavy Ack Ack Battery RA officers 53, other ranks 3; Special Service Battalion officers 4, other ranks 59; RAOC officers 3 other ranks 75; 161 Field Ambulance RAMC officers 2 other ranks 19.


Weather  Cold.

0845-0855 hrs  Air raid alert for one Italian Breda 20 aircraft which approaches from the north, circles to the west, then flies over Valletta at 25000 feet, probably on reconnaissance. Six Hurricanes are scrambled; no raid materialises.

1145-1210 hrs  Air raid alert for a formation of enemy aircraft which approaches the Island from the north east but withdrew without making an attack. Six Hurricanes are scrambled; no interception.  As the Hurricanes head back to base some guns on the ground open fire before the aircraft are identified; no damage is done.    

1438-1445 hrs  Air raid alert for an approaching formation of six JU 87 dive bombers with fighter escort.   Six Hurricanes are scrambled; one engages the enemy but no result is observed.  The raiders turn north without making an attack.

1620 hrs  Heavy guns are heard firing out to sea to the west of the Island. One aircraft carrier and destroyers are engaging enemy aircraft to the south west.

1815-1825 hrs  Air raid alert for an approaching enemy formation spotted 17 miles west of Malta. One Hurricane is airborne and machine guns open fire from Zonqor Point.  Flashes are reported in the direction of Marsascala bay; four vessels are observed three miles to the east.

1900-1020 hrs  Air raid alert. Three Swordfish land at Hal Far.  No enemy aircraft are seen near the Island.


AIR HQ  0745-1200 hrs Glen Martin photoreconnaissance Palermo prior to evening attack by 830 Squadron Fleet Air Arm. On return journey sighted two JU 87s east of Pantelleria. 0835-1325 hrs Maryland photoreconnaissance Naples and Messina. Considerable interference by enemy fighters; chased by Macchi fighter over Naples and took evasive action. 0845-1350 hrs Maryland photoreconnaissance Taranto and Syracuse.  0550-1320 hrs  Sunderland recce western part of Ionian patrol.

ROYAL NAVY  The fleet was attacked by German dive-bombers and Illustrious suffered damage. Illustrious arrived at Malta after dark with the steering gear out of action, and was towed into berth at Parlatorio Wharf. HT Essex and convoy MW 5½ (comprising HT Clan Macaulay and HMS Breconshire) arrived safely.  Operations overnight by Swordfish of 830 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm against Palermo.

LUQA  431 Flight: 1 Maryland reconnaissance Palermo; 1 Maryland reconnaissance Naples and Messina encountered enemy fighters; 1 Maryland reconnaissance Taranto and Syracuse. 148 Squadron: 7 Wellingtons bombing raid on Messina.

FORTRESS ROYAL ENGINEERS No1 Works Coy completed additional accommodation for 1st Bn Dorset Regt at Hompesch. Bomb Disposal UXB reported 1; dealt with 1 (Ack Ack shell case).

(1) Massey Anderson, Reuter’s Correspondent aboard Illustrious, from Malta Diary of a War, Michael Galea, PEG Ltd, 1992

(2) Malta: Blitzed but not Beaten, Philip Vella, Progress Press 1985

(3) Red Duster, White Ensign, Ian Cameron, First Future Publications 1975


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Posted by on January 10, 2021 in 1941, January 1941


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