In one attack Illustrious was hit six times by German Stuka dive bombers, including one dud and one bomb which passed through the deck and exploded beyond the hull and at least one damaging near miss. She may also have been damaged by wreckage from a destroyed German plane and one of her own Fulmar fighters was destroyed on the aft lift. Three of the bombs (possibly of 250 kg size, probably 500 kg size) hit on or around the aft lift, resulting in the destruction of both lifts, igniting fires in the hangar (with fueled and armed Swordfish and Fulmars) and temporarily knocking out her steering. Only one bomb, of possibly 1,000 kg size, penetrated the armoured (3” thick steel) portion of the flight deck (the rest of the flight deck was 1.5” thick steel).
Another attack later in the day, probably by Italian manned Stukas, added a seventh hit, again in the aft lift area, and once again knocked out the steering. Illustrious, steering by engines, made it to Malta for emergency repairs with fires still burning on her hangar deck.
Despite having an immobile target in their sights for nearly two weeks, the Axis partners were able to add only one more direct hit, although near misses added to the damage. With fires out, holes patched and, most critically, steering repaired, Illustrious went on an odyssey of her own to find a safe haven to complete repairs. First to Alexandria for additional repairs, then on to Durban for a dry-dock session and finally to Norfolk Virginia, U.S.A. for permanent repairs and refit. Adding insult to injury, Illustrious scored a kind of own goal when she collided with sister ship HMS Formidable (also returning from repairs at Norfolk) on the way back to the U.K., requiring an additional two month of repairs and refit. HMS Illustrious finally returned to active service in February 1942, over a year after the first attack.
HMS Illustrious survived due to combination of factors: the bravery and skill of her crew, the soundness of her construction and design and possibly a bit of luck.
The survival of Illustrious (and her sisters) led former Royal Navy aviation person J.D. Brown to state:
… and“In January 1941 ILLUSTRIOUS survived what was probably the heaviest damage inflicted on any Allied ship at sea.”
“… there is no doubt that the armoured deck saved her [HMS Illustrious] from destruction: no other carrier took anything like the punishment and survived. “
Brown goes even further to state:
… and“The list of American and Japanese ships lost to bombing and torpedo attack, after far fewer hits and apparently insignificant damage, is too long to be covered here, but suffice to say that the lack of an armoured deck and sealed hangar system gave them less chance of survival.”
“The American ESSEX-class carriers, rather larger and with a greater aircraft complement (100 plus) generally required months in a dockyard following bomb or kamikaze damage”
[Carrier Operations in World War II, Vol. 1: The Royal Navy, by J.D. Brown]
While Brown’s pride of nation, service and ship is understandable, there seems to be some hyperbole in his conclusions.
• Was Illustrious the most heavily damaged allied ship to survive?
• Did no other carrier take anything like the punishment and survive?
• Did American and Japanese ships succumb to “apparently insignificant” damage?
• Was her armoured deck the key to her survival?
• Did the kamikazes [generally] send the Essex carriers to the dockyard for months?