The blitz on HMS Illustrious 70 years ago
After months of carrying out raids on Malta since Mussolini’s declaration of war against the Allies on June 10, 1940, the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force, did not manage to bring the island to surrender.
Consequently, the Italians invited the German forces to participate in the Mediterranean war to neutralise Malta and the British Mediterranean Fleet.
The Luftwaffe’s Fliegerkorps X started transferring some of its elements from northern Europe to Sicily. By January 8, 1941, the German Air Corps already had started moving almost 200 bombers and dive-bombers to Sicily.
Rumours of the arrival of German aircraft in Sicily were rife in Malta by that time. In his book Raiders Passed, Charles Grech records:
“Towards the end of 1940, rumours were spreading around that squadrons of the German Luftwaffe had been stationed in Sicily. Some believed these rumours, others did not. However, there is no smoke without fire.”
The arrival of the Luftwaffe in Sicily had no immediate effect on Malta. The new year had started quietly for the island, and in the first week there were no air raids.
Meanwhile, some preparations were made to reinforce and supply the island. A new convoy, Operation Excess (MC 4), was being prepared in Gibraltar. The convoy consisted of four merchant ships, but only one, MV Essex, was destined for Malta. Simultaneously, the Mediterranean Fleet from Alexandria covered more supply ships (convoy MW 5.5) from Alexandria to Malta and then a returning empty convoy (ME 5.5).
The cruisers HMS Gloucester and HMS Southampton disembarked 500 more soldiers and airmen in Malta on January 8, while a major part of the Mediterranean Fleet, including the aircraft-carrier HMS Illustrious, left Alexandria to meet the convoy and assist Force H.
Malta experienced its first air raid of the year on January 9, when late in the morning, 16 Macchi MC200s attacked Luqa airfield, while nine Junkers Ju87 Picchiatelli (dive-bombers) escorted by Fiat CR42s, bombed Kalafrana.
As the convoy was approaching Malta, Hurricanes were sent from Malta to escort the ships. Italian and German aircraft attacked Illustrious even when it was within reach of Malta.
The carrier was seriously damaged after it was hit by six 1,000-kg bombs, and 126 of its officers and crew were killed and 91 wounded.
Illustrious limped into Grand Harbour on January 10 and berthed at Parlatorio Wharf in French Creek, beneath Corradino Heights.
Dockyard workers and medical teams worked tirelessly to save the ship and the wounded. On January 11, air attacks sank the cruiser HMS Southampton while returning to Alexandria with empty ships.
The island prepared for the inevitable attacks on Illustrious. The onslaught was to be met with a concentration of anti-aircraft guns around Grand Harbour, the box barrage. A special unit, the Dockyard Defence Battery, which was formed in 1939, also contributed to the defence of the dockyard. It consisted of dockyard workers, who alternated between manning the guns and doing their jobs.
The lull lasted till January 16 when, early in the afternoon, 17 Junkers Ju88s, escorted by 20 Messerschmitt Bf110s, and 44 Junkers Ju87s, escorted by 10 Macchi Mc200s and 10 Fiat Cr42s, launched their first blitz over Malta, with HMS Illustrious as their target.
Bombs rained down on the dockyard and adjacent areas, but the carrier received only one hit, causing superficial damage. Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua bore the brunt of the attack. Many were killed and hundreds trapped under the rubble of their dwellings.
Members of the Air Raid Precautions and the Special Constabulary were joined by policemen, soldiers, sailors, dockyard workers and other volunteers to search for survivors. A great tragedy occurred at Vittoriosa where 35 people were killed when the crypt of St Lawrence church, where they were sheltering, received a direct hit.
Laurence Mizzi, in his book Dħaħen tal-Gwerra, recalled:
“I remember that it was Thursday, January 16, 1941. At about 2 p.m. an air raid was sounded. We thought that it was a normal air raid, with some firing far away. However, after a while we realised that we were completely wrong. The explosions were heavy and continuous. The continued to grow in intensity.
“Fear grew with the noise of the aircraft flying relatively low. From underground we felt we had never experienced such an attack.
“And we were right, since it was the first German attack on Malta, which, with such ferocity, started attacking the aircraft carrier Illustrious. The attack lasted a few days before she succeeded to reach the dockyard for repairs, since it was badly damaged before reaching Malta.
“Although the attacks on the ship were intense, the Luftwaffe failed to sink her; however, they wrought havoc in the Three Cities. Obviously we from Gudja couldn’t imagine what had really happened that day although we were aware something serious had happened since we had never experienced such an intense attack.
“Two hours after the attack, my father’s uncle-in-law , who came to live with us at Gudja, gave us the news.
“When the air raid was sounded, some passers-by took refuge in the church of St Lawrence since shelters were not to be found everywhere. When the explosions became more frequent, my grandfather left and went to the ditch in the rock-hewn shelters, which served as temporary accommodation for a number of families who did not want to be far from their homes.
“This saved my grandfather’s life, for after he had walked for a while, the crypt of St Lawrence’s church was hit by bombs and was totally demolished; no one survived. I remember bursting into tears while listening to this story of destruction and death.”
Grech, who at that time was living in Sliema, recounts his first exper- ience of German bombing: “I remember it was Thursday, January 16, 1941. We had just finished classes and were reciting prayers. At about 1.45 p.m., the sirens sounded.
“Mr Debono, our school teacher, who was also a special constable, told us to hurry home. However, two of my schoolmates and I decided to go near St Julian’s Tower, where some Irish Fusiliers were posted to guard the coast.
“We walked down Sir Adrian Dingli Street, and on arriving at the bottom, near the tower, four shots from the 4.5-inch anti-aircraft guns of Fort Spinola frightened us out of our wits. We had not heard such gunfire for some time. Spinola Battery was armed with larger calibre guns than other batteries.
“On looking at the sky in the direction where the guns were pointing, we heard some shouting. We looked back and saw Manuel, the school janitor, wearing his air-raid warden’s helmet, yelling at us to get home as quickly as we could because there were many German aeroplanes coming in very low.”
Meanwhile, during the evening of January 11, the merchant ship Essex, loaded with 4,000 tons of ammunition, 3,000 tons of potato seed, and 12 crated Hurricanes as deck-cargo, had berthed in Somerset Wharf, near No. 3 dock.
The Luftwaffe reappeared on January 18, when 51 Junkers Ju87s, escorted by 17 Messerschmitt Bf110s and nine Macchi Mc200, attacked Luqa and Ħal Far airfields, causing considerable damage.
The next day the major raids were carried by Junkers Ju87s and Junkers Ju88s escorted by Messerschmitt Bf110s, Macchi Mc200s and Fiat CR42s. HMS Illustrious was subjected to another onslaught, but the attacks were again repulsed.
Once again, the dockyard area was hit and entire streets of buildings were razed to the ground. Rescue workers, who were still searching for victims of the January 16 raid, had to shift tons of rubble by hand to reach those trapped under the debris. The Basilica of Our Lady of Victories in Senglea, whose belfry clock-hands still marked ten minutes to two, when the church was first hit on January 16, was completely destroyed three days later.
The Dominicans’ Annunciation church in Vittoriosa was also severely damaged on the same day.
Following the heavy raids, on January 21, 1941, Governor William Dobbie received this message from Prime Minister Winston Churchill:
“I send you, on behalf of the War Cabinet, our heartfelt congratulations upon the magnificent and ever-memorable defence which your heroic garrison and citizens, aided by the Navy and above all, the Royal Air Force, are making against the Italian and German attacks.
“The eyes of all Britain and the whole British Empire, are watching Malta in her struggle, day by day, and we are sure that success as well as glory will reward your efforts.”
Governor Dobbie replied: “Your telegram greatly appreciated by the garrison and people of Malta. By God’s help, Malta will not weaken. We are glad to make a contribution to the victory which we know is sure and certain.”
While air raids continued, repairs on HMS Illustrious went on because it was important for the aircraft-carrier leave Malta as soon as possible. At dusk on January 23, she slipped out of Grand Harbour for Alexandria, from where she went on to the US for major repairs.
Mr Debono is the curator of the National War Museum in Valletta, where relevant artefacts and more information on this subject can be found.