Daily Archives: 14 September, 2009

HMS Illustrious

I managed to grab some pictures today of HMS Illustrious leaving the Harbour.

HMS Illustrious leaving Portsmouth Harbour

HMS Illustrious leaving Portsmouth Harbour

The second ship in the Invincible Class of light aircraft carrier, Illustrious was commissioned in 1982. Her completion was brought forward during the Falklands War to provide cover for HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. Weighing in at 22,000 tons, with a full crew of over 1,000 men and a top speed of 30 knots, Illustrious and her sister ship were the biggest ships in the Royal Navy until the completion of the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean.

They can operate as either fixed wing aircraft carriers, or helicopter carriers should HMS Ocean be unavailable. They have a ski jump, which enables the Harrier vertical or short take off jets to take off with a slightly higher weapon payload. They can also carry Sea King Helicopters in the anti-submarine role.

Interestingly, in the years before they were ordered, the Navy announced that its receding commitments meant that it would no longer need aircraft carriers. However, it rapidly became clear that naval air cover would be necessary, so a new class of smaller carriers was designed. However, to avoid political embarassment, they were dubbed ‘through deck cruisers’. My Dad, a former Dockyard electrical fitter, can remember working on Invincibles underwater sonar in dry dock when she first came into Portsmouth.

I’ve been on Illustrious – affectionately known as Lusty – a couple of times, at Navy Days was back in 1994 and last year at the Meet the Navy event. For once the Navy got the names of their ships spot on with the Invincible Class – Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal are all historic, inspiring names. The Invincible Class have all been based in Portsmouth throughout their service, and have been a common sight steaming in and out of the harbour. Even though they look a bit tired nowadays, they look pretty smart in their overall appearance.

They’re getting on a bit now, and the first ship in the class – Invincible – was decommissioned in 2005, probably to provide spares for the other two ships until their replacements – the much bigger Queen Elizabeth Class carriers – are ready halfway through the next decade.

HMS Illustrious steaming out of Portsmouth

HMS Illustrious steaming out of Portsmouth

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Filed under Falklands War, Local History, Navy, out and about, Uncategorized

65 years ago today – the Red Devils

1st British Airborne Division

1st British Airborne Division

Before we catch up with events from the 17th of September 1944 onwards, lets take a look at the opposing sides that would be fighting the battle.

Sadly, while the Airborne Division were amongst the finest troops that the British Army could put into battle in 1944, the perception that they were all battle hardened, experienced and well trained is somewhat wide of the mark. As historian William Buckingham has shown, many of the men had never been in battle before, and even the older Battalions that had fought in North Africa and Italy had to take in a lot of replacements. Their training during the period leading up to Market Garden was inadequate too – the Division only trained as a whole once, when it provided the ‘enemy’ for the 6th Airborne Division before it took off for Normandy. This was woefully inadequate. Most of the time seems to have been spent in small unit training, physical training, refresher parachute training and firing exercises.

Neither was morale as high as it could have been. After being inactive while the Normandy battles raged, one operation after another was cancelled during the summer. Fights became common in the garrison towns, with each other, Americans, and Military Police. The men began to refer to themselves as the ‘stillborn division’. This no doubt wore away at their battle-readiness.

Having said this, volunteering to jump out of a plane into battle, or to career into the fight in a glider, takes a certain sort of courage and character. As was shown later in the battle, the red devils were indeed men apart. But as so often happens, they were let down by those who trained them, and the planners above them.

Neither were all of the commanders as experienced as might have been hoped. Major-General Urquhart, the commander of the 1st Airborne Division, was a stranger to Airborne operations, although he had seen much service in North Africa and Sicily. If he had been more experienced in airborne warfare, he almost certainly would have opposed the plan that was forced upon him. His counterpart, the highly experienced Richard Gale, confessed that he would have rather resigned than accept it.

In hindsight, the division was being sent into a battle that the British Army was wholly unsuited to, by equipment, ethos and doctrine. With a chronic shortage of manpower, the Army’s priority was to conserve men, as very few replacements were available. This meant that time and time again units called on the excellent artillery and air support that was at their disposal. But this kind of support would be very sparse at Arnhem, and it would be down to the rifle and the bayonet, a style of fighting that would be sure to cause heavy casualties.

As the German’s often commented themselves, whilst the British soldier was redoutable and tenacious in defence, in attack it was often a different matter. This contrasted firmly with the Wehrmacht and the SS, who had been fighting a savage battle on the Eastern Front for almost 3 years.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Remembrance, World War Two