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by Lt Cdr Geoffrey B Mason RN (Rtd) (c) 2003

HMS ILLUSTRIOUS - Illustrious-class Fleet Aircraft Carrier
including Convoy Escort Movements 

Edited by Gordon Smith, Naval-History.Net

HMS  Illustrious (Navy  Photos, click to enlarge)

return to Contents List 


ILLUSTRIOUS Class Fleet Aircraft Carrier ordered on 12th January 1937 from Vickers Armstrong at Barrow under the 1936 Programme. The ship was laid down on 27th April that year as Yard No 752 and launched by Lady Henderson, wife of the Controller of the Navy on 5th April 1939. She was the 4th RN ship to carry the name, introduced in  1795 and last used for a 1896 battleship sold in 1920. Build completion was delayed to allow the installation of Radar Type 79 to give warning of the approach of aircraft and first fit of this type of radar in an aircraft carrier. The ship was accepted into service on 24th April 1940 and been adopted by the staff of London Insurance Companies following a successful WARSHIP WEEK National Savings campaign  in March 1942.


B a t t l e   H o n o u r s

GENOA 1795 - BASQUE ROADS 1809 - JAVA 1811 - TARANTO 1940 - MEDITERRANEAN 1940-41 - MALTA CONVOYS 1941 - DIEGO SUAREZ 1942 - SALERNO 1943 - SABANG  1944 - PALEMBANG 1945 - OKINAWA  1945

C r e s t

Badge: On a Field Blue,in front of a trumpe Erect,

two trumpets in  saltire Gold.



D e t a i l s   o f   W a r   S e r v i c e


(for more ship information, go to Naval History Homepage and type name in Site Search



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January                  Completion date delayed to allow fitting of Type 79 radar.




April                       Contractors trials

                20th        During departure from Barrow rammed and sank tug POOLGARTH

                                Passage to Liverpool.


May                        Docking for underwater inspection at Liverpool.

                                (Note: Phosphor Bronze propellers fitted.)

                24th        Final acceptance trials.

                                (Note: Excessive vibration was noted particularly in the Bridge Structure

                                This problem was never completely resolved during subsequent service.)

                26th        Commissioned at Portsmouth for service.


June                        Embarked aircraft and prepared for work-up.

                                Nominated for service in Mediterranean.


July                         Passage to West Indies for work-up.

                                (Note: Intention to carry out trials based at Dakar was changed after fall oi France.)

                                On completion of work-up took passage to UK.

                28th        Arrived in UK.


August                  Short refit at Clydebank before flying exercises with squadrons embarked

                                (Note: External DG Cable replaced by internal wiring.

                                External cable had been damage during Atlantic passage.)

                                Passage to Gibraltar

                30th        Sailed from Gibraltar for transit of Mediterranean in Force F with HM Battleship

                                VALIANT, HM Anti-Aircraft Cruiser CALCUTTA and COVENTRY covered by

                                ships of Force H to reinforce Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria.

                                (Operation HATS).

                                (For details of Mediterranean naval activities in 1940-42 see ENGAGE THE ENEMY

                                MORE CLOSELY by Corelli Barnett, THE BATTLE FOR THE MEDITERRANEAN

                                by D MacIntyre and Naval Staff History).



                2nd         Joined Mediterranean Fleet off Pantalleria with Force F.

                4th          Launched aircraft strike against airfields at Maritza and Callato on Rhodes.

                17th        Air minelay and shipping attacks in Benghazi harbour.

                                Italian destroyer BOREA was sunk.

                                (Operation MD1 - This field later sank Italian destroyer AQUILQNE and two supply ships.

                28th        Escorted HM Cruisers LIVERPOOL and GLOUCESTER taking troops

                                to Malta escorted by HM Battleships WARSPITE and VALIANT.

                                Returned to Alexandria.



                8th          Deployed with HM Aircraft Carrier EAGLE, HM Battleship MALAYA, RAMILLIES,

                                VALIANT, and WARSPITE, HM Cruisers AJAX, GLOUCESTER, LIVERPOOL, ORION,

                                SYDNEY (RAN) and YORK screened by HM Destroyers DAINTY, DECOY, IMPERIAL,

                                JANUS, JERVIS, JUNO, MOHAWK, VAMPIRE (RAN) and STUART (RAN) to provide

                                Distant Cover of Convoys MF3 to Malta and Convoy MF4 from Malta to Egypt.

                                (Operation MB6).

                12th        Under attack by Italian torpedo craft.

                                (Note: Three enemy craft were sunk - See BATTLE FOR THE MEDITERRANEAN)

                14th        Launched air attacks on Leros with HMS EAGLE.

                                Returned to Alexandria with Fleet units.

                23rd        Carried out air minelay in Tobruk harbour which was unsuccessful due to shoals.



                6th          Deployed with HM Battleships MALAYA, RAMILLIES, VALIANT and WARSPITE,

                                HM Cruisers AJAX, ORION, SYDNEY and YORK screened by HM Destroyers


                                JANUS, JERVIS, JUNO, MOHAWK and NUBIAN to give Distant Cover to passage

                                of Convoy MW3 to Malta (Operation MB8).

                9th          On arrival of convoy in Malta detached with Fleet units to meet HM Battleship

                                BARHAM, HM Cruisers BERWICK and GLASGOW, HM Destroyers GALLANT,

                                GREYHOUND and GRIFFIN which were on passage from Gibraltar covered by

                                ships of Force H to join the Fleet at Alexandria (Operation COAT).

                10th        Detached from Fleet to carry cut air attack on Italian Fleet at Taranto

                11th        Outstandingly successful air attacks during which the battleships LITTORIO, CAIO

                                DUILIO and CONTE DI CAVOUR were crippled (Operation JUDGEMENT).

                                For details see Naval Staff History.

                25th        Deployed with HM Battleships WARSPITE and VALIANT, HM Cruisers AJAX,

                                ORION and SYDNEY screened by nine Fleet destroyers as Force A for escort of

                                convoy to Suda Bay, Crete (Operation MB9).

                27th        Launched air attacks on Rhodes covered by Force A ships.

                29th        Returned to Alexandria covered passage to Alexandria of Convoy ME40 with

                                ships of Mediterranean Fleet (Operation COLLAR - See THE BATTLE FOR THE

                                MEDITERRANEAN and ENGAGE THE ENEMY MORE CLOSELY by C Barnett).)

                                (Note: HM Cruisers MANCHESTER and SOUTHAMPTON joined the Mediterranean

                                Fleet as part of this Operation).



                1st           Arrived at Alexandria with Fleet units.

                16th        Deployed with HM Battleships WARSPITE and VALIANT, HM Cruisers AJAX.

                                GLOUCESTER, ORION, SYDNEY and YORK screened by 11 Fleet destroyers

                                to provide Distant Cover for passage of Convoy MW6 to Malta and transit of HM

                                Battleship MALAYA to return to Gibraltar (Operation MG2 and Operation HIDE.

                                See above references).

                17th        Detached to carry out air strike on airfields in Stampalia and Rhodes.

                21st         Launched air attacks on Italian convoy off Kerkennah bound for Tripoli.

                                Two of the three ships were sunk.

                22nd       Joined Fleet units covering passage of Convoy ME5 from Malta to Egypt.

                24th        Arrived at Alexandria with Fleet units.



1 9 4 1



                3rd          Provided air cover for HM Battleships WARSPITE, BARHAM and VALIANT during

                                Fleet bombardment of Bardia.

                7th          Part of Force A with HMS WARSPITE and VALIANT screened by HM Destroyers

                                DAINTY, GALLANT, GREYHOUND, GRIFFIN, JERVIS, JUNO, MOHAWK and

                                NUBIAN to provide Distant Cover for passage of Malta Convoy MW5 ½

                                (Operation MC4) .

                10th        On arrival south of Malta took passage with Force A to meet military convoy on

                                passage from Gibraltar to Alexandria (Operation EXCESS)

                                Under sustained air attack 60 miles west of Malta by newly arrived German

                                Ju87 dive bombers (See above references).

                                Sustained major damage from direct hits causing many casualties.

                                Escorted by HM Destroyers HASTY and JAGUAR to Malta.

                11th        Taken in hand for temporary repair at Malta.

                16th        Hit by two bombs during air raid on Malta and sustained further damage.

                19th        Further damage caused by near miss during air raid.

                23rd        Sailed for Alexandria at 20 knots escorted by HM Destroyers GREYHOUND), JANUS,

                                JUNO and JERVIS.

                25th        Arrived at Alexandria,


February                Under repair.

                                Permanent repair arranged in USA.


March                    Repair in continuation.

                19th        Took passage to Durban for docking to assess full extent of underwater and other

                                structural damage.


April                       Passage to Norfolk, Virginia.



                12th        Taken in hand for refit and permanent repairs at US Navy Yard.


June                        Under repair.

to                            (Note: Other work carried out included installation of another aircraft lift after with

July                         structural modification to provide additional 50 ft of flight deck space, fit

                                of ten 20mm Oerlikon guns to improve close range AA defence and

                                modification of catapult to enable use by US built aircraft.


August                  New Captain (Lord Louis Mountbatten) took command but later relieved to become

                                Chief of Combined Operations.


September             Under repair.


October                  Post refit trials.



                28th        Passage to Jamaica to embark 12 SWORDFISH aircraft and carry out flying trials.


December              Took joint passage to UK with HM Aircraft Carrier FORMIDABLE.

                16th        In collision with FORMIDABLE whilst on passage. (see Addendum)


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January                  Under repair in Liverpool.

                                (Note: Radar Type 79 was replaced by Type 281 during this period.

                                (See The Development and use of Radar Equipment for the RN (Ed FA Kingsley

                                and RADAR AT SEA by D Howse).


February                Under repair.

                                Nominated for service with Eastern Fleet in Indian Ocean.



March                    On completion embarked squadrons at Scapa Flow and carried out flying trials.

                23rd        Joined military convoy WS17 in Clyde with HM Destroyers INCONSTANT, JAVELIN

                                and PAKENHAM as Ocean Escort during passage to Freetown.

                31st         Detached from WS17 on arrival at Freetown and took passage with same destroyers to join

                                Force F for planned landings in Madagascar.

                                (Note: Damage caused by fire in hangar was repaired at Freetown.)


April                       Passage from Freetown to Durban.

                                Nominated for participation in planned landings at Diego Suarez.

                28th        Escorted Convoy Z to Madagascar with HM Battleship RAMILLIES, HM Cruiser

                                HERMIONE and screen of 6 Fleet destroyers


May                        Deployed east of Madagascar.

                5th          Provided air cover during assault with HMS INDOMITABLE.

                7th          Aircraft sank Vichy French submarine LE HEROS.

                20th        On release from IRONCLAD sailed to Join Eastern Fleet at Mombasa.

                                (Note: 309 sorties were flown by the two carriers for a loss of four aircraft

                                by enemy action).

                29th        Sailed from Kilindini with HM Battleship WARSPITE, HMS FORMIDABLE and HM Cruiser

                                HERMIONE for Ceylon.


June                        Deployed in Indian Ocean with ships of Eastern Fleet for interception patrol and convoy



July                         Carried out interception patrols in Indian Ocean with Eastern Fleet.

                                US Navy suggestion that ship be loaned for service in Pacific not agreed.

                                Eastern Fleet deployment in continuation.

                                Aircraft used to test air defences of Ceylon


August                  Deployed with Eastern Fleet for offensive sweep in Indian Ocean at request of US

                                Navy as a diversion during landings on Guadalcanal (Operation STAB).



                10th        Deployed with HM Battleship WARSPITE, HM Seaplane Carrier ALBATROSS screened

                                by HM Destroyers HOTSPUR, EXPRESS, FORTUNE, INCONSTANT and NESTOR to

                                provide air cover during military operation to complete allied occupation of Madagascar.

                                (Operation STREAM).


October                  On release from STREAM took passage to Durban.

                                Taken in hand for short refit


 November             Under refit.


 December             On completion rejoined Eastern Fleet in Ceylon.


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                5th          Withdrawn from Eastern Fleet.

                                To be relieved by HM Escort Carrier BATTLER in October.


February                Passage to Birkenhead for refit including extension to Flight Deck

                                Taken in hand on arrival.


March                    Under refit.

to                            (Notes: Major changes to radar fit were made.

May                        Aircraft warning radars Type 79B and 281B fitted to provide an improved

                                cover for all altitudes - See above references.

                                Surface warning 10cm Radar Type 272 fitted.

                                Fire-control radars Type 282 and 285 fitted for Anti-Aircraft use.

                                See above references.

                                Twin Oerlikon mountings fitted to replace single type to further improve close

                                AA defence.)

                                Two additional arrester wires fitted to improve aircraft safety on landing.)


June                        On completion of post refit trials embarked aircraft and carried out training of

                                aircrews in Clyde area.


July                         Joined Home Fleet and took part in offensive sweep off Norway with HM Aircraft

                                carrier UNICORN. Three German reconnaissance aircraft were shot down.

                                (Operation CAMERA)


August                  Home Fleet deployment in continuation.

                6th          Deployed with HMS UNICORN for anti-submarine patrols in NW Approaches for

                                convoy defence. Destroyers of 17th Flotilla provided screen.

                14th        Deployed with ships Home Fleet for escort of rms QUEEN MARY carrying the

                                Prime Minister on return from QUADRANT conference with US President at Quebec.


September             Detached with ships of Home Fleet for service in Mediterranean with Force H.

                9th          Deployed with HM Battleships NELSON, RODNEY, WARSPITE and VALIANT,

                                HM Aircraft Carrier FORMIDABLE as Covering Force during allied landings at


                                (Operation AVALANCHE - These ships were intended to prevent any interference to

                                allied assault landings by Italian surface warships. A screen of 21 destroyers

                                including French, Polish and Greek warships was provided. See ENGAGE THE

                                ENEMY MORE CLOSELY and the Naval Staff History).

                                Attack by torpedo bombers on Covering Force was unsuccessful.


October                  Returned to UK with Home Fleet ships on release from detached duty.

                                Nominated for service with Eastern Fleet.

                24th        Prepared for foreign service at Birkenhead.

                                (Note: Work included fit of additional twin Oerlikon mountings, modification of

                                flight deck and improvement to catapult for use with fully loaded

                                BARRACUDA aircraft.)



                26th        Took passage to Clyde area to carry out flying training.


December              Deployed in NW Approaches.

                30th        Sailed to join Eastern Fleet with HM Battleships QUEEN ELIZABETH and VALIANT,

                                HM Battlecruiser RENOWN and HM Light Fleet Carrier UNICORN.


1 9 4 4


January                  Passage to Trincomalee via Mediterranean and Red Sea.

                31st         Joined Fleet at Trincomalee.

                                (Note: Complement over 2,000)


February                Deployed with Eastern Fleet in Indian Ocean.


March                    Deployed with HM Cruisers GAMBIA and SUSSEX, HM Destroyer ROTHERHAM

                                and the Dutch destroyer TJERK HIDDES in search for blockade runners SW of

                                Cocos Islands. (Operation SLEUTH).

                21st         Deployed with HM Battleships QUEEN ELIZABETH and VALIANT, HM Battlecruiser

                                RENOWN, HM Cruisers LONDON, GAMBIA (RNZN), CEYLON and CUMBERLAND

                                screened by HM Destroyers QUILLIAM, QUALITY, QUEENBOROUGH, PATHFINDER,

                                NAPIER, NORMAN, NEPAL, QUIBERON, Dutch destroyers VAN GALEN and TJERK

                                HIDDES to meet US aircraft carrier SARATOGA joining Eastern Fleet with three

                                destroyers Operation DIPLOMAT).

                27th        Met USS SARATOGA and destroyer escort SW Cocos Islands.

                                (Note: US ships were being loaned to Eastern Fleet for future operations).



                2nd         Returned to Trincomalee with RN/USN ships.

                                Exchange deck landing trials with USS SARATOGA in preparation for operations.

                19th        Launched Air strikes on Sabang with USS SARATOGA, escorted by Eastern Fleet

                                major units HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, HMS VALIANT, French RICHELIEU and

                                HMS RENOWN as TF 70 (Operation COCKPIT).



                6th          Deployed with USS SARATOGA, HM Cruisers CEYLON and GAMBIA and a screen

                                comprising HM Destroyers QUILLIAM, QUADRANT, QUEENBOROUGH, US

                                destroyers USS FANNING, CUMMINGS and DUNLOP as Task Force 65.

                                (Note: BARRACUDA aircraft replaced by AVENGERS before this operation)

                15th        Refuelled in Exmouth Bay, Western Australia.

                17th        Launched air strikes with aircraft from USS SARATOGA on harbour and refineries

                                at Soerabaya, Java (Operation TRANSOM).

                                (Note: Later assessment was that Attacks were not very satisfactory).

                18th        USS SARATOGA and US Navy destroyers detached.

                27th        Arrived at Trincomalee after refuelling in Exmouth Bay.



                10th        Launched air attacks on Sabang covered by ships of Eastern Fleet as a diversion

                                during US landings on Marianas (Operation FORAGER).

                19th        On return passage launched air attacks on Port Blair harbour and airfield.

                                (Operation PEDAL).


July                         Carried out Flying training with HM Aircraft Carriers VICTORIOUS and INDOMITABLE

                                off Ceylon in preparation for future joint operations.

                22nd       Deployed with HMS VICTORIOUS, HM Cruiser PHOEBE, HM Destroyers ROEBUCK

                                and RAIDER to carry cut air attacks on airfields near Sabang (Operation CRIMSON).

                25th        Launched air strikes.

                                CORSAIR fighters Intercepted Japanese air retaliation and shot down 7 of the ten

                                planes for loss of two aircraft.

                                (Note: Eastern Fleet units carried bombardments concurrently).



                24th        Deployed with HMS VICTORIOUS and HMS INDOMITABLE to provide an Air-Sea

                                Rescue facility during US Army air raids on Sumatra (Operation BOOMERANG).

                                (Note: Cover provided by ships of Eastern Fleet).

                                On completion carried cut air attacks on Padang, SW Sumatra (Operation BANQUET).


September             Took passage to Simonstown for refit prior to service in Pacific.

                                Taken in for refit by HM Dockyard.

                                (Note: Work done included re-tubing of boilers and fit of US aircraft Homing Beacon (Type YE)

                                to provide radio signals for assistance of returning aircraft.)

                                Facilities for re-fuelling escorts in company during ocean passages were also provided.)


October                  Under refit.

                                Additional Close Range AA armament fitted.

                                On completion of post refit trials took passage to Trincomalee.



                1st           Rejoined Eastern Fleet at Trincomalee.

                17th        Deployed with HMS INDOMITABLE, HM Cruisers NEWCASTLE, ARGONAUT and

                                BLACK PRINCE screened by HM Destroyers KEMPENFELT, WHIRLWIND,

                                WRANGLER, WESSEX and WAKEFUL to carry cut air attacks on Pangkalan Brandan,

                                NW Sumatra,

                20th        Diverted from planned air attacks by weather and target changed to refineries at

                                Belawan Deli. Subsequent raids made on airfields near Sabang.

                                (Operation OUTFLANK).

                22nd       Transferred to British Pacific Fleet on formation.

                23rd        Returned to Trincomalee.


December              Deployed with HMS INDOMITABLE, HMS BLACK PRINCE, HMS NEWCASTLE and

                                ARGONAUT with a destroyer screen.

                17th        Launched air attacks on Belawan Deli (Operation ROBS0N).


1 9 4 5



                16th        Took passage for Australia with HM Aircraft Carriers VICTORIOUS, INDOMITABLE and

                                INDEFATIGABLE, HM Battleship KING GEORGE V, HM Cruisers ARGONAUT, BLACK

                                PRINCE and EURYALUS, screened by HM Destroyers GRENVILLE, UNDINE, URSA

                                UNDAUNTED, WAGER, KEMPENFELT, WAKEFUL, WHIRLWIND and WHELP as Task

                                Force 63.

                20th        Refuelled from Task Force 69.

                24th        After delay due to weather launched air attacks with the other carriers on oil refinery at

                                Pladjoe, Sumatra (Operation MERIDIAN I). Small Japanese air attacks repulsed. 7 RN aircraft

                                lost during attacks and 25 by crashes on landing.

                26th        Refuelled

                29th        With same ships launched raids on Soengi Gerong oil refineries near Palembang.

                                During retaliatory KAMIKAZE attacks on Fleet whilst aircraft were landing hit by

                                two shells from HMS EURYALUS anti-aircraft fire (Operation MERIDIAN TWO).

                                (Note: 11 killed and 22 other casualties - See OPERATION PACIFIC).



                9th          Arrived at Sydney and prepared for air operations in support of US landings in

                                Okinawa (Operation ICEBERG).

                                Under repair. Centre shaft removed. Speed reduced to 24 Knots.

                                (Note: Vibration problems were still being experienced - see May 1940 entry

                                Machinery defect rate increase possible due to extensive service.)

                28th        Took passage to Manus with ships of British Pacific Fleet as Task Force 113



                7th          Arrived at Manus.

                                BPF ships departure for operations delayed by US Navy pending approval

                                in Washington for their deployment with US Navy.

                18th        Attachment of British Pacific Fleet to US 5th Fleet as Task Force 57 approved.

                                Sailed to Ulithi with Task Force 57 for Joint air operations (Operation ICEBERG)

                26th        Launched attacks on airfields in Sakishima-Gunto Group with HM Aircraft Carriers

                                INDOMITABLE, INDEFATIGABLE and VICTORIOUS covered by major units of BPF and with

                                screen of Fleet destroyers.

                                Joint operations with US Task Group in continuation with breaks for refuelling

                                from British Fleet Train.


April                       Sakishima-Gunto joint operations with US carriers in continuation.

                6th          Sustained slight above water slight damage when KAMIKAZE aircraft crashed alongside.

                                Major underwater damage caused when weapon detonated near ship.

                                Retained in BPF despite effect of structural damage.)

                9th          Diverted from ICEBERG operations to carry out air attacks on Formosa

                12th        Launched attacks on chemical plant and airfields in poor weather conditions.

                13th        Passage to rejoin operations off Sakishima Gunto.

                                (Note: Ship becoming an increasing liability.)

                14th        Relieved in Task Force 57 by m Aircraft Carrier FORMIDABLE.

                                (Statistics: 505 sorties flown; 3,549 tons fuel embarked; 88,363 Gallons of AVGAS embarked.

                15th        Passage to Philippines for underwater examination. Damage found to be much more

                                extensive than realised.


May                        Withdrawn from operations and took passage to Sydney.

                24th        Sailed to UK from Sydney at reduced speed of 19 knots.



                27th        Arrived at Rosyth for repair and four month refit.


July                         Under repair

to August


P o s t   W a r   N o t e s


HMS ILLUSTRIOUS remained under refit after VJ Day in order to up-date her equipment fit and did not resume service until June 1946. The ship was then used for deck-landing trials until reduce to Reserve status in 1947. Recommissioned in 1948 the ship had refitted for further trials and training duties during which she carried troops to Cyprus in 1951 and attended the Coronation Review at Spithead in June 1953  but never deployed with the operational Fleet. Placed in Reserve and laid up in the Gareloch this ship went on the Disposal List during 1956 and sold to BISCO for breaking-up at Faslane where she arrived in tow on  3rd November for demolition.







Convoy Escort Movements of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS

by Don Kindell


These convoy lists have not been cross-checked with the text above






Date convoy sailed

Joined convoy as escort

Convoy No.

Left convoy

Date convoy arrived








WS 017








(Note on Convoys)



Collision in December 1941

by Mark Horan

(Answering a query from Rebecca Hill , whose grandfather served on sister-ship  HMS Indomitable from 1940-46. We had Indomitable involved in this collision)


HMS Illustrious was bombed and very badly damaged on 7 January 1941 in the Eastern Mediterranean off Malta. She made Malta that evening, and remained there making emergency repairs (and under attack) until 23 January when she was finally able to sortie for Egypt, making Alexandria the next day. She remained in Alexandria under repair until 10 March, when she sailed for Port Said to pass through the Suez Canal and points South and West, ultimately arriving in Norfolk, Va, USA for permanent repairs on 12 May. Repairs were completed in November, and on the 25th she sailed for trials. These were completed on the 27th and she then sailed for Jamaica. She stayed at Kingston conducting flying trials for a week, and then returned to Norfolk. She stayed there until the 12th (five days after Pearl Harbor) when she sailed for the UK in company with HMS Formidable.

The two were sailing in the Atlantic in extremely rough seas and low visibility on 16 December when Illustrious ran her bow into the stern of Formidable, doing extensive damage to both ships. Formidable arrived at Belfast on 21 December and was under repair until 3 February 1942 before she sailed for trials and then Greenock where she prepared for duty in the Far East, leaving on 17 February to join the Eastern Fleet. Meanwhile, Illustrious sailed straight for Greenock, arriving on 21 December and was under repair there until late February and then followed her sister for the Far East in early March 1942.


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