Illustrious-class aircraft carrier

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

HMS Illustrious (ca. 1954) (20921205028).jpg
Class overview
BuildersVickers-Armstrongs (3), Harland & Wolff (1)
Operators Royal Navy
Preceded byHMS Ark Royal
Succeeded byImplacable class
SubclassesHMS Indomitable
In commission1940–1968
General characteristics (Illustrious, as built)
TypeAircraft carrier
Displacement23,000 long tons (23,000 t) (standard)
Beam95 ft 9 in (29.2 m)
Draught28 ft 10 in (8.8 m) (deep load)
Installed power
Propulsion3 shafts; 3 geared steam turbines
Speed30.5 knots (56.5 km/h; 35.1 mph)
Range10,700 nmi (19,800 km; 12,300 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Sensors and
processing systems
1 × Type 79 early-warning radar
Aircraft carried36–57
Aviation facilities1 catapult

The Illustrious class was a class of aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy that included some of the most important British warships in the Second World War. They were laid down in the late 1930s as part of the rearmament of British forces in response to the emerging threats of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

The Illustrious class comprised four vessels: HM Ships Illustrious, Formidable, Victorious and Indomitable. The last of these was built to a modified design with a second, half-length, hangar deck below the main hangar deck. Each of these ships played a prominent part in the battles of the Second World War. Victorious took part in the pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck, Illustrious and Formidable played prominent parts in the battles in the Mediterranean during 1940 and 1941 and all three took part in the large actions of the British Pacific Fleet in 1945.

The later two ships of the Implacable class were also built to modified designs to carry larger air wings. Implacable and Indefatigable both had two hangar levels, albeit with a limited 14-foot (4.3 m) head room.

Design and concept[edit]

The Illustrious class was designed within the restrictions of the Second London Naval Treaty, which limited carrier size to an upper limit of 23,000 tons. They were different in conception to the Royal Navy's only modern carrier at the time, their predecessor HMS Ark Royal, and what may be described as their nearest American contemporaries, the Yorktown and Essex class carriers. The Illustrious class followed the Yorktown but preceded the Essex, the latter being designed after the US abandonment of the Second London Naval Treaty and its tonnage limitations.

Where other designs emphasised large air groups as the primary means of defence, the Illustrious class relied on their anti-aircraft armament and the passive defence provided by an armoured flight deck for survival, resulting in a reduced aircraft complement. Other carriers had armour carried on lower decks (e.g. the hangar deck or main deck); the unprotected flight deck and the hangar below it formed part of the superstructure, and were unprotected against even small bombs. However, the hangar could be made larger and thus more aircraft could be carried, but the differences in aircraft capacity between these carriers and their United States Navy (USN) counterparts is largely due to the some 100-foot-longer overall length of the US designs, and the USN's operational doctrine, which allowed for a permanent deck park of aircraft to augment their hangar capacity.[1][2] Illustrious's hangar was 82%[3] as large as USS Enterprise's, but Enterprise typically carried 30% of her aircraft capacity in her deck park. Indomitable's two hangars were actually larger than Enterprise's, but she carried fewer aircraft because she did not have a large permanent deck park. In 1944/45 RN carriers began to carry a permanent deck park of similar size to their USN counterparts, and this increased their aircraft complement from 36 to an eventual 57 aircraft in the single-hangar carriers, and from 48 up to 81 in the double-hangar, 23,400-ton Implacable design, compared to 90–110 for the 27,500-ton US Essex class.[4][5]

In the Illustrious class, armour was carried at the flight deck level—which became the strength deck—and formed an armoured box-like hangar that was an integral part of the ship's structure. However, to make this possible without increasing the displacement it was necessary to reduce the overhead height of the hangars to 16 ft (4.9 m) in the Illustrious class hangars and 14 ft (4.3 m) in the upper hangar of the Indomitable and 16 ft (4.9 m) in her lower hangar; these compared unfavourably to the 17 feet 3 inches (5.26 m) of the Essex class, 17 ft 6 in (5.33 m) in Enterprise and 20 ft (6.1 m) in Saratoga.[6] This restricted operations with larger aircraft designs, particularly post-war.

This armour scheme was designed to withstand 1,000 pound bombs (and heavier bombs which struck at an angle); in the Home and Mediterranean theatres it was likely that the carriers would operate within the range of shore-based aircraft, which could carry heavier bombs than their carrier-based equivalents. The flight deck had an armoured thickness of 3 inches, closed by 4.5-inch sides and bulkheads. There were 3-inch strakes on either side extending from the box sides to the top edge of the main side belt, which was of 4.5 inches. The main belt protected the machinery, petrol storage, magazines and aerial weapon stores. The lifts were placed outside the hangar, at either end, with access through sliding armoured doors in the end bulkheads.

Later in the war it was found that bombs which penetrated and detonated inside the armoured hangar could cause structural deformation, as the latter was an integral part of the ship's structure.

Pre-war doctrine held that the ship's own firepower, rather than its aircraft, were to be relied upon for protection, since in the absence of radar, fighters were unlikely to intercept incoming attackers before they could release their weapons. Accordingly, the Illustrious class was given an extremely heavy Anti-Aircraft armament. The armament was similar to Ark Royal with twin 4.5 inch turrets (in a new "between-decks" or countersunk design) arranged on the points of a quadrant. The guns were mounted sufficiently high so that they could fire across the decks; de-fuelled aircraft would be stowed in the hangar for protection during aerial attack. The Illustrious Class were fitted with four HACS controlled High Angle Director Towers, for fire control of her 4.5" guns. Illustrious pioneered the use of Radar to vector carrier borne fighters onto attacking or shadowing aircraft, and a Fairey Fulmar fighter from Illustrious achieved the first radar directed kill on 2 September 1940.[7]

Ships in class[edit]

Construction data
Name Pennant Builder Ordered Laid down Launched Commissioned Fate
Illustrious 87 Vickers-Armstrongs, Barrow-in-Furness 13 April 1937 27 April 1937 5 April 1939 25 May 1940 Broken up at Gare Loch, 1957
Formidable 67 Harland & Wolff, Belfast 19 March 1937 17 June 1937 17 August 1939 24 November 1940 Broken up at Inverkeithing, 1953
Victorious 38 Vickers-Armstrongs, Wallsend 13 January 1937 4 May 1937 14 September 1939 14 May 1941 Broken up at Faslane, 1969
Indomitable 92 Vickers-Armstrongs, Barrow-in-Furness 6 July 1937 10 November 1937 26 March 1940 10 October 1941 Broken up at Faslane, 1955

Fate of the class[edit]

Victorious in 1959

All four early ships were hard worked during the Second World War, with Illustrious and Formidable suffering and surviving heavy damage. Like their contemporary USS Enterprise they fought a long and consuming war and despite significant overhauls and repair of battle damage, were worn out by 1946 and were scrapped in the mid-1950s. Due to a variety of factors including Britain's dire post-war finances, and the consequent reductions in the size of the Royal Navy post-war modernization was limited to just the last of the class; Victorious, which was given a massive eight-year-long reconstruction between 1950 and 1957 (to enable her to operate Cold War-era jet aircraft), was retired in 1968 after a minor fire. Indomitable was given an extensive refit, including new boilers, from 1948 to 1950, then served as flagship of the Home Fleet and also saw service in the Mediterranean. She suffered a hangar deck petrol explosion and fire in early 1953. She was placed in reserve after Queen Elizabeth II's October 1953 Coronation Review and was then scrapped in 1955.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Friedman 1988, pp. 18–19
  2. ^ Hone, Friedman, Mandeles, British and American Carrier Development, 1919–1941, p. 125: "The 1931 edition of "Progress in Tactics" included a section on foreign tactics, including operating practices. The U.S. portion mentioned that "the number of aircraft in carriers is proportionately much higher than in our Navy, largely due to the practice of storing some aircraft permanently on deck."
  3. ^ Friedman, in his works on RN (1988, p. 154) and USN (1983, p. 392), aircraft carriers states that Enterprise's hangar measured 546 feet × 63 feet versus 456 × 62 feet for the Illustrious class, therefore Illustrious's hangar had 82% of Enterprise's hangar capacity.
  4. ^ Friedman 1988, p. 145
  5. ^ USS Bennington, Action Report, OPERATIONS IN SUPPORT OF THE OCCUPATION OF OKINAWA INCLUDING STRIKE AGAINST KANOYA AIRFIELD, KYUSHU. 28 May to 10 June 1945, p. 18. On 5 June 1945, USS Bennington reported that her maximum hangar capacity was 51 aircraft, 15 SB2Cs and 36 F4Us, and that 52 were carried as a deck park. At that time she carried 15 TBMs, 15 SB2Cs, and the rest were a mix of F6Fs and F4Us. She was prompted to utilize, and report on, her maximum hangar storage due to a typhoon.
  6. ^ Friedman 1988
  7. ^ Thomas, Andrew, Royal Navy Aces of World War Two, p. 24
  8. ^ Friedman, p. 153


  • Brown, David (1977). WWII Fact Files: Aircraft Carriers. New York: Arco Publishing. ISBN 0-668-04164-1.
  • Brown, David K. (1998). "Re: Armor from Czechoslovakia". Warship International. XXXV (1): 9–10.
  • Campbell, John (1985). Naval Weapons of World War II. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-459-4.
  • Campbell, N. J. M. (1980). "Great Britain". In Chesneau, Roger (ed.). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1922–1946. New York: Mayflower Books. pp. 2–85. ISBN 0-8317-0303-2.
  • Chesneau, Roger (1995). Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (New, Revised ed.). Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-902-2.
  • Friedman, Norman (1988). British Carrier Aviation: The Evolution of the Ships and Their Aircraft. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-054-8.
  • Friedman, Norman (1983). U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-739-9.
  • Hobbs, David (2013). British Aircraft Carriers: Design, Development and Service Histories. Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84832-138-0.
  • McCart, Neil (2000). The Illustrious & Implacable Classes of Aircraft Carrier 1940–1969. Cheltenham, UK: Fan Publications. ISBN 1-901225-04-6.
  • Preston, Antony (1995). "United Kingdom". In Chumbley, Stephen (ed.). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947-1995. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. pp. 479–543. ISBN 1-55750-132-7.
  • Rohwer, Jürgen (2005). Chronology of the War at Sea 1939–1945: The Naval History of World War Two (Third Rev ed.). Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-119-2.

External links[edit]