Toughest Carrier of WWII?

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Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Thu Jul 23, 2015 9:03 pm

On January 10, 1941 the German Luftwaffe came as close as they ever would to sinking an Allied aircraft carrier. As part of Force ‘A’, HMS Illustrious was providing air cover for convoys in the central Mediterranean, Operation Excess, when the armoured hangar carrier was attacked by bombers of the newly arrived Luftwaffe Fliegerkorps X and the Italian Regia Aeronautica. Force ‘A’ would be attacked five times that day, by groups of aircraft ranging from two to seventy plus. Two of the attacks would succeed in damaging the Illustrious.
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:
“In January 1941 ILLUSTRIOUS survived what was probably the heaviest damage inflicted on any Allied ship at sea.”
… and
“… 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:
“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.”
… and
“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?

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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Thu Jul 23, 2015 9:43 pm

Illustrious’ eight hits certainly puts her in the running for one of the most heavily damaged allied ships, but the top spot is open to debate.

The first difficulty in assigning this title is trying to quantify the damage. Illustrious’ eight hits included one dud and a “glancing blow”, a bomb which passed through and exploded in the air outside the ship, essentially a near miss. The last hit occurred after a week in dock, after at least some repairs had been made. The size of the bombs is also open to question. They may have been 250 kg SC (high capacity HE) or SD (semi-armour piercing) bombs. It seems probable that the bombs were 500 kg SD bombs, although it is possible that at least one was a 1,000 kg SD “Esau” bomb. Illustrious was not hit by any torpedoes and it is difficult to equate torpedoes to bombs in terms of damage.
Did any other allied ship come close to surviving this level of damage?

First some honorable mentions:
USS Yorktown (CV-5) absorbed and survived three 250 kg bombs in one attack and two aerial torpedo hits in a second attack on 4 June 1942. Yorktown had received a direct hit by a 250 kg bomb, a glancing hit from a 250 kg bomb and a near miss on 8 May 1942. Emergency repairs had been made at Pearl Harbor before the battle. The near miss was in the same area as the two torpedo hits of June 4. All in all I would say Yorktown survived roughly equivalent damage to Illustrious. Yorktown was sunk on 6 June 1942 by two additional torpedoes from a Japanese submarine while being towed back to Pearl Harbor.
USS Hornet (CV-8) was hit by three 250 kg bombs (one was possibly a 50 kg bomb or partial dud) and two torpedoes, as well being crashed by two Val bombers on 26 October 1942. Hornet’s damage was survivable up to this point, with damage approximating that of Illustrious. Hornet was being towed from the battle area and was close to restoring power when a third aerial torpedo struck, reigniting fires and destroying much of the repair work. This third torpedo hit resulted in a decision to scuttle the ship, after which two more bombs hit the ship (one 250 kg and one 100 kg). The botched scuttling included 15 USN destroyer torpedoes (10 hits, possibly four explosions) and 369 rounds of 5” gunfire. The Hornet was ablaze but still afloat when two Japanese destroyers finished her off with four torpedoes (two hits and explosions).

Because both Yorktown and Hornet were ultimately sunk I don’t think it can be claimed they survived damage equal to or greater than that of Illustrious. But I think that there are at least four USN vessels that suffered near the same damage as Illustrious and survived to fight again:

USS San Francisco (CA-38) survived an estimated 45 hits during the 13 November 1942 First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (The Battle of Friday the Thirteenth). Post battle examination credited San Francisco with 2 x 14” hits, 10 x 8” hits, 15 x 6”, 5 x 5.5” and 13 x 5”, with a total weight of nearly 8,000 lb. All in all, especially considering the differences in displacement, it seems that San Francisco canlay a claim to most heavily damaged allied ship to survive.

USS Saratoga (CV-3) was attacked by Japanese aircraft while operating off Iwo Jima on February 21, 1945. Saratoga was struck by at least four 250kg bombs and five kamikaze planes. The damage suffered by the Saratoga was probably close, but less than that suffered by Illustrious.

USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) sustained two kamikaze hits in less than a minute. The bomb from the first kamikaze hit the aft (#3) elevator and exploded on the gallery deck above the hangar. The plane itself crashed into the deck park incinerating many of the 30 aircraft on the flight deck, causing the aft elevator to collapse onto the hangar deck. Eight Helldiver aircraft parked at the aft end were damaged by fire and smoke, but did not catch fire themselves. The second kamikaze crashed nearly vertical close to the base of the island, blowing a large hole in the flight deck. Forty-eight aircraft on the hangar deck, in the process of being armed and fueled, also caught fire and suffered ordnance explosions.

USS Franklin (CV-13) was conducting air strikes against targets on the Japanese Islands of Kyushu and Honshu on 19 March 1945, when she was struck by two [250 kg] bombs which detonated in the hangar. This attack occurred at a most inopportune time inasmuch as a strike was being launched and 31 planes were still on the flight deck, fully gassed and armed with bombs and rockets and 22 planes were parked in the hangar, some of which were gassed and armed with rockets. Direct damage resulting from detonation of the enemy bombs was extensive, but appears minor compared with the immense damage caused by subsequent fires, explosions of bombs and rockets, and water used in firefighting. The planes on deck, in addition to being fully fueled carried 66 500 lb bombs, 10 250 lb bombs and 12 “Tiny Tim” rockets (500 lb bombs attached to rockets containing 150 lb of TNT). Sixteen of the 22 planes in the hangar were fueled and five were armed with “Tiny Tim” rockets.

The cases of Bunker Hill and Franklin are difficult to compare to Illustrious as most of the damage was caused by the ordnance and fuel of their own aircraft. Nonetheless, the damage was real and extensive and both ships survived damage seemingly equal to or surpassing that of Illustrious.

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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Thu Jul 23, 2015 9:58 pm

Did no other carrier take anything like the punishment suffered by Illustrious and survive?

In addition to the three USN carriers covered above, you would have to add HIJMS Shokaku. Shokaku took six 1,000 lb AP bombs from USN dive bombers at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 26 October 1942 (in a rare case of under-reporting the USN pilots only claimed four hits). Her flight and hangar decks were ruined, but unlike so many other Japanese carriers Shokaku avoided death by fire. She would be sunk by four submarine torpedoes at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944.

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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Thu Jul 23, 2015 11:03 pm

Did American and Japanese ships succumb to “apparently insignificant” damage?

This question needs to be split into American and Japanese categories. First the American, to which the answer is no.

Among USN fleet carriers only the USS Lexington (CV-2) comes anywhere near meeting this claim. Lexington was hit by two 250 kg bombs and two torpedoes at the Battle of the Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. The fires were out and the Lexington was conducting flight operations and all seemed well when she was suddenly wracked by massive explosions. Gasoline vapors, from tanks damaged by the torpedo hits, had seeped into the ship and were ignited by a spark from a generator. Despite the fact that Lexington had seemed to shake off the damage just before the catastrophe, I don't think two bomb hits and two torpedo hits can be classified as insignificant damage.

The light carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) was hit by a single bomb (250 kg) on 24 October 1944. The bomb exploded below the hangar and set fire to five fueled torpedo bombers on the and severed an aviation fuel line as well. Fire had likely destroyed the electrical circuitry that controlled the firefighting equipment in the hangar, and the fires quickly got out of control. Bomb and torpedo storage finally exploded and the Princeton was ordered to be abandoned and scuttled. Princeton did succumb to what should have been survivable damage, but it is the only American example I can find, certainly not too long a list. Even when expanding the list to include all warships bigger than a destroyer, I found no other probable candidates.

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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Fri Jul 24, 2015 12:40 am

The Japanese record of ships (carriers) succumbing to insignificant damage does not seem to be that clear either:

Akagi (CV) had to be scuttled after one direct 1,000 lb hit among fueled and armed aircraft on her hangar deck led to uncontrollable fires. Two very near misses also played a role in her sinking, one knocking out her steering and one possibly damaging the hull allowing flooding and possibly knocking out damage control systems. (2)

Taiho (CV) sank after one torpedo hit (and very poor damage control) (4)

Soryu (CV) was scuttled after three direct 1,000 lb bomb hits among fueled and armed aircraft on the hangar deck, leading to uncontrollable fires. (6)

Kaga (CV) was scuttled after two 1,000 and two 500 lb bomb hits among fueled and armed aircraft on the hangar deck, leading to uncontrollable fires. (6)

Zuiho (CVL), three 500 lb bombs and one torpedo (7)

Hiyo (CV) was lost after two bomb hits (1,000 lb?) and one torpedo hit. (8)

Hiryu (CV) sank after four 1,000 lb bomb hits. (8)

Unryu, (CV) two submarine torpedoes (8)

Ryujo, (CVL) three 1,000 lb bombs and one torpedo. (10)

Chiyoda, (CVL) crippled by four bombs and finished off by USN cruiser guns. (10+)

Chitose, (CVL) three aerial torpedo hits (or very near bomb misses) (12)

Shinano, (CV) sunk by four submarine torpedoes (16)

Shokaku, (CV) sunk by four submarine torpedo hits (16)

Zuikaku, (CV) seven torpedoes and nine bombs (37+)

Shoho, (CVL) seven torpedoes and thirteen bombs (41+)

Amagi (CV), multiple bomb hits from air attacks while in harbor

Four IJN escort carriers were sunk by USN submarines (with 2-4 hits each), and one by multiple bomb hits while in harbor.
Last edited by canambridge on Fri Jul 24, 2015 2:01 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Fri Jul 24, 2015 12:57 am

Was Illustrious' armoured [flight] deck the key to her survival? Note: I believe it is clear that Brown is referring to the flight deck in this reference.

I would say not, as only one bomb hit (and penetrated) the 3" armoured flight deck. The lifts and flight deck forward and aft of them, were not considered armoured. The lift steel and the thinner (1.5") steel aft of the lift was penetrated, resulting in heavy damage and fire on the hangar deck. The armour on the decks below the flight deck may have prevented the damage from reaching and damaging essential machinery, allowing Illustrious to maintain speed and pressure in her fire fighting systems. Compartmentalization of the hangar deck probably did more to save her than the armoured flight deck.

Poor machinery arrangement (all the boilers and engines were grouped together) was the Achilles's heel of the Yorktown class. The torpedo hits knocked out the power on both Yorktown and Hornet. The bomb hits, like those on sister Enterprise, were not likely to be fatal. Torpedoes were the real ship killers, only a handful of major (larger than destroyer) USN vessels were lost without being hit by at least one Japanese torpedo. (Arizona, heavy cruiser Astoria (estimated 65 gunfire hits) and Princeton are all I can find).

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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Fri Jul 24, 2015 1:54 am

Did the kamikazes [generally] send the Essex carriers to the dockyard for months?

Out of the 14 kamikaze attacks on USN fleet carriers causing damage that I could find, eight resulted in the carrier being out of action (not just repair time) for more than 60 days. Repair time was 60 or more days in five cases. Transit from the combat area to repair at Pearl Harbor or the west coast of the US could easily take more than a week one way, even longer to the east coast repair yards as in the case of the Bunker Hill and Franklin.
The US Fleet carriers could also have used some brooms, in seven of the fourteen attacks flight operations resumed in hours or less.

Illustrious was out of action for ten months (January 1941 - November 1941) following the 10 January 1941 attack (Operation Excess).
Formidable was out of action for eight months (June 1941 - January 1942) following two 500 kg bomb hits on 26 May 1941 (off Crete).
Indomitable was out of action for eight months (August 1942 - March 1943) following 2 500 kg bomb hits on 12 August 1942 (Operation Pedestal).
Indomitable was out of action for nine months (July 1943 - April 1944) following an aerial torpedo hit on 16 July 1943 off Sicily (Operation Husky). [This was the only torpedo hit on an armoured carrier].

So this statement is about half true, but the armoured box carriers seemed to need considerable repair time following conventional attacks.

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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby Ricky » Fri Jul 24, 2015 7:59 am

"Study the past, if you would divine the future"
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"I am pedantic, I'm just being overshadowed by Ricky so it isn't as noticable as it would else have been"
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Re: Toughest Carrier of WWII?

Postby canambridge » Thu Jul 30, 2015 3:05 am

Well it took a little while to go through all 129 pages (and the linked discussions at NAVWEAPS et al) but I now see that the USN should ditch the CVNs carrying 70 F/A 18's and start building Illustrious class carriers with 12 Fulmars and 18 Swordfish instead ;)

Actually I was hoping to avoid the armoured box hangar debate, although given the subject matter I suppose it is unavoidable. What I really wanted to highlight was Brown's claims regarding the armoured carriers versus USN carriers. As a naval aviator Brown should and could have known that his claims were not supported by the facts. In some cases, such as the "too numerous to list" line, it makes me wonder if it wasn't done deliberately. Brown's book is quite good when he sticks to the facts, it's his conclusions that are hard to take. These conclusions have been spread around as fact, and quoted in some of those endless debates.


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