HMS Illustrious (87), the fourth Illustrious of the British Royal Navy, was an aircraft carrier which saw service in World War II, the lead ship of the Illustrious class of carriers which also included HMS Victorious (R38), HMS Formidable (R67), and HMS Indomitable (R92).
Illustrious was built by Vickers-Armstrongs at Barrow-in-Furness, launched in 1939, and commissioned in May 1940. She displaced 23,000 tonnes and had the capability to carry up to 36 aircraft, a number greatly reduced by her armoured deck. She was nicknamed "Lusty" by the men who served on her.
Illustrious joined the fleet in August 1940. Her first assignment was in the Mediterranean, where she was used to provide convoy cover, perform anti-shipping strikes, and raid positions in North Africa.
On 31 August, she was used to launch a strike against airfields at Maritza. On 11 November 1940, she became the first carrier in history to launch a major strike against an enemy fleet in a daring attack against the Italian fleet at Taranto. Twenty-one aircraft from Numbers 813, 815, 819, and 824 Squadrons based on Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet at night. The Italians were caught off-guard, and one battleship was sunk and 2 were heavily damaged.
On 10 January 1941 Illustrious was attacked while escorting a convoy east of Sicily by Axis Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and Ju-87 "Stuka" dive-bombers, being hit by 8 bombs and suffering extensive damage, destroying her sick bay and ward room, and killing amongst others the England rugby player W. G. E. Luddington. While in Malta receiving repairs for her battle damage she was again bombed, flooding her boiler room. On 23 January she sailed to Alexandria, Egypt for temporary repairs, arriving at noon on 25 January, and then sailed to Virginia for permanent repairs at the safer Norfolk Navy Yard. One propeller shaft had to be cut away and her speed fell to 23 knots.
She returned to service in May 1942, and was immediately dispatched to the Indian Ocean. Later in May, Illustrious and her sister ship Indomitable participated in Operation Ironclad, covering the landings at Diego Suarez in Vichy French controlled Madagascar. In 1943, she returned to the Mediterranean, for operations with Force H, based at the British territory of Gibraltar. She was used to help cover the Allied landings in Sicily in September 1943.
In 1944, she joined the Eastern Fleet, where she participated in raids on the Indonesian islands of Sabang on 22 July 1944 and Palembang on 24 January and 29 January 1945. After this, Illustrious put into Fremantle, Australia, for rest and re-supply. She then sailed with the rest of the British Pacific Fleet on 4 March to Manus, and from there sailed on 19 March to Ulithi. Later in 1945, as part of the British Pacific Fleet, designated Task Force 57 by Admiral Nimitz she supported the landings at Okinawa with her sister ships HMS Indomitable, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Victorious, where she won her last Battle Honour. While in the Pacific, she was hit by two kamikaze aircraft. Her armoured flight deck absorbed the brunt of some hits and enabled to stay in action. A kamikaze near miss on 6 April, however, caused serious structural damage below the waterline and, after operations against Formosa, she was replaced by HMS Formidable on 14th April and sailed to the Philippines for inspection. The damage was more serious than suspected and she returned to Sydney and thence to Rosyth for repairs and refit, which were completed in June 1946.
After the war she was given the role of training and trials ship, with a speed limited to 22 knots due to accumulated wartime damage. She was refitted and modernized from January through August 1948, decommissioned at the end of 1954, sold on 3 November 1956, and finally scrapped, after a successful career, at Faslane. Formidable and Indomitable were also scrapped in the 1950s; Victorious, the last of the class, was scrapped in 1969.