British Aircraft Carrier Escapes After Grueling Attack From Nazis

Story by Larry Allen

Dive Bombers Rain Explosives on Illustrious For Seven Hours; Eyewitness Tells Of Attack
(Editor's Note: Larry Allen Associated Press correspondent aboard the British aircraft cruiser Illustrious
Jan. 10 when Nazi dive bombers attacked her has been an eye-witness of most of the actions fought by the British fleet in the Mediterranean.)

Aboard Aircraft Carrier Illustrious With British Mediterranean Fleet

Jan. 16- Battered but still able to move under her own power, the aircraft carrier Illustrious has reached the comparative safety of a Mediterranean port after weathering one of the most punishing attacks a British warship has undergone in this war. For seven hours on Jan. 10, German dive bombers rained explosives on her in an attempt to send her to the bottom as she plowed through the central Mediterranean with other Fleet units escorting a big eastbound convoy.

Between 40 and 50 Nazi planes participated in the attack, diving low to release 1,000-pound bombs whose concussion shook the 23,000-ton vessel as a cat shakes a rat. In all, 100,000 pounds of high explosive bombs were aimed at her flight deck and many torpedoes at her sides.

I witnessed the first part of the attack from the bridge, where part of the time I was flat on my face, my hands folded across my head, while splinters of steel swept the carrier's decks and the "thump, thump" of anti-craft guns mingled with the spine-chilling scream of the dive bombers and the crash of bursting bombs. The second time the Germans came over, a low-flying Stuka dropped a bomb which exploded near the starboard side of the ship. The blast threw a column of water over the bridge and hurled me down a hatchway to aviation intelligence quarters one deck below. A sheet of fire burned my face.

Throughout the assault the carrier's guns kept up a continuous blast, putting up a wall of fire through which the Nazis dived head-on. A flight of British planes which succeeded in taking off from the Illustrious before the Germans struck also made the Nazis pay. The final score in German planes shot down was 12. (DNB, the German official news agency, said the Illustrious suffered extensive damage to her port side and claimed it would be a long time before she could be put into service again.) The attack on the Illustrious came after a British cruiser attached to the convoy sank one of Italy 's newest destroyers, the 842-ton Vega, and damaged another.

I had a ringside seat for this engagement, during which the British cruiser also engaged Italian shore batteries (presumably on the Sicilian Coast). The cruiser opened the battle when she sighted the two destroyers. A shell from the British vessel set one of the destroyers afire and she moved off at top speed as the cruiser engaged her mate. The latter, the Vega, exchanged shell for shell with the cruiser until her magazine suffered a direct hit I saw a great mass of flame shoot up and the Vega slipped swiftly beneath the waves with her entire crew of 94 men.

British naval units continued to fire at the Italian shore batteries, which fell silent after the Vega sank. A British plane dropped bombs on the other fleeing destroyer and the British expressed a belief possibly she sank or was beached. I was in the wardroom of the Illustrious, just sitting down to lunch, when a marine bugler sounded warning of the plane attack and the loudspeakers boomed: "All hands to action stations."

I had barely reached the bridge when a big bomb struck the ship with a shattering blast, and a moment later another 1,000-pounder crashed alongside. A blinding flash seemed to envelop the whole ship. Another bomb tore holes in the carrier's sides. Still another burst close alongside, the fragments striking members of an anti-aircraft gun crew.

The din was hellish, as every gun on the Illustrious roared, but the Germans continued to come, raking the decks with machine-gun fire even as they loosed their bombs. Several torpedoes narrowly missed the carrier. Battleships, cruisers and destroyers were being attacked simultaneously. Great spouts of water sometimes hid the other vessels from sight. Officers and men of the Illustrious risked machine-gun fire to rescue wounded comrades.

The few fighter planes which the carrier was able to get into action before the first bombs struck drove the Germans off temporarily, until darkness fell. Less than an hour after the first assault the Nazis returned, and once more hell broke loose. Bombs fell all about the ship, rocking her so that at times it appeared she was about to turn over. Between 2 and 7:30 p.m. there never were more than a few minutes at a time free of the crash of bursting bombs and the thunder of gunfire. Throughout the afternoon Rear Admiral A. L. St. George Lyster stood on the bridge with bomb splinters and machine gun bullets splattering a round him, giving orders to his aides.

So low did some of the big German bombers come that every detail of their markings was clearly visible. One officer said later: "It was the most tremendous, terrifying thing I have ever seen. It seemed like all the fires of hell had been kindled. The blast of a 1,000-pound bomb is so crushing, so incredible, there are no words to describe it."

When the Illustrious finally reached port 12 hours after the last German, attack was over, fire squads rushed aboard and quickly extinguished a small fire in her interior. Shipwrights set to work at once plugging bomb holes and getting her ready to go to sea again. The dead were taken out to sea for burial in the waters on which they had fought, and the wounded were taken ashore to hospitals.

Reprinted with the permission of Associated Press
© 1941 Associated Press all rights reserved


Page published Mar. 9, 2008