Illustrious under attack by German Bombers.
The first Luftwaffe elements had arrived in Italy in January 1941 to support the Wehrmacht’s incipient invasion of Greece. The primary targets for German aircraft would always be Malta and the pesky enemy convoys and fleets that were keeping the stubborn little island alive. Supplying Rommel’s growing Afrika Korps from a few crowded Italian ports and even more unsatisfactory North African receiving wharfs would be extraordinarily difficult. The problem was compounded both by Hitler’s decision that this front, like all others, should be marked by movement and action, not defense, and by Rommel’s own dashing style of generalship that demanded frequent offensives with consequently heavy drawdowns on limited fuel stocks. Malta sat firmly astride the Italian–North African supply route. Planes, surface ships, and submarines operating from the island could not be allowed to cut that route, thus disrupting the always fragile but highly promising German offensives against Egypt and Suez. Malta had to be neutralized.
But at least one source states that the German boys were told that their first objective was Illustrious. Knock that pest out of the war, and the whole British naval offensive in the narrow seas and eastern basin would be brought to a halt. The flyers hit upon a master plan. On January 10 several Italian torpedo planes and no fewer than three squadrons of Stukas caught Cunningham’s fleet northwest of Malta escorting yet another convoy to the island. Its radar detecting two incoming Italian torpedo planes, Illustrious promptly flew off all the Fairey Fulmar fighters ready for combat, and the attacks were brushed off. Unfortunately, the fighter director aboard the carrier allowed his Fulmars to chase the Italians for twenty miles before he realized that another and far more deadly attack was gathering directly above. The Germans were about to do deliberately what the Americans would accomplish inadvertently at Midway little more than a year later. The Fulmars raced back, desperately clawing for altitude, but they failed to reach attack height before the German dive-bombers came screaming down. Illustrious was plastered with no fewer than six 1,000-pound bombs in about six minutes as the daring Stukas of Fliegerkorps X flattened out of their dives directly over the carrier’s flight deck at funnel height and sped away. Only the 23,000-ton ship’s stout construction kept it afloat. It limped into Malta where it was subjected to further determined bombing attacks, one of which blasted in some of its bottom plating from near misses in the shallow water of the harbor. Fortunately, at least one enemy attack was foiled by clouds of smoke and dust from ancillary raids. Cunningham realized that he had to get the ship away or it would be lost; the Admiralty concurred. Illustrious slipped out on the twelfth and eventually passed through the Suez Canal on its way to the big American shipyard at Norfolk where it remained under repair for the better part of a year. Taranto had been partially avenged, and the people of Malta would always recall January 1941 as “the Illustrious Blitz.” Meanwhile, the remainder of Cunningham’s force, now bereft of air cover, was attacked unmercifully by enemy dive-bombers. Cruiser Gloucester was slightly damaged, while its sister, Southhampton, was struck in the engine room and had to be abandoned. Taranto had proved that used imaginatively and stealthily, carriers could kill battleships and thus win control of the high seas for their navy. But the fate of Illustrious suggested that the strategic role of carriers as both power projectors ashore and fleet-defense vessels was sharply circumscribed whenever confronted by land-based airpower. Carriers were apparently incapable of protecting either themselves or the ships around them from determined dive-bombing attacks.
Fortunately for Cunningham, Illustrious’s newest sister, Formidable, was available for service and arrived at Alexandria in March at just the moment when the eastern Mediterranean Fleet was about to undergo its first real ordeal. The admiral was by this time fully cognizant of the terrifying capabilities of airpower. Even with two carriers (Eagle and Formidable), a few RAF squadrons scattered around North Africa and Greece, and Ark Royal occasionally on call from Gibraltar, British aircraft could not be everywhere. As the Eighth Army tried to clear Rommel and the Afrika Korps out of Tobruk in early 1941, the German and Italian air forces pummeled supporting British warships unmercifully. Cruiser Terror and destroyer Dainty went down together with several smaller ships. It was a foretaste of horrors to come.
But there was to be one last moment of glory for the Royal Navy, and carrier airpower would play a role here as earlier. As Formidable reached Alexandria, Hitler was clearly about to move into the Balkans to help his bumbling ally, Mussolini, retrieving the Grecian disaster of the previous autumn. Churchill scraped together fifty-eight thousand men (including an armored division) from the garrison in Egypt to stiffen the small British force already in Greece waiting to confront the looming Nazi offensive. Cunningham sent the reinforcements off to the Greek port of Piraeus in several convoys under light naval escort. Hanson Baldwin is properly despairing: “At this juncture, with the direct route through the Mediterranean at best a maritime Via Dolorosa for the British, with shortages of all save courage, and the entire British Empire at bay, the gesture was politically and morally sublime—and militarily ridiculous. Like the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, the British expedition to Greece was magnificent, but it was not war.”