HMS Illustrious 1944 : Wiki Commons
A 15-strong team from the carrier crossed the Grand Harbour and headed for the Capuccini Naval Cemetery during the ship’s high-profile visit to the Mediterranean island.
The graveyard on the edge of the village of Kalkara is the last resting place of more than 1,000 Commonwealth war dead, plus 137 other nationalities, and nearly 1,450 non-war dead; roughly one-third of the wartime casualties date from the 1914-1918 conflagration, the remainder from the Second World War.
The sailors joined staff from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in ripping out weeds and tidying up the cemetery’s grounds.
Following the hard work, the ship’s padre, Father David Conroy, led a short commemoration service and laid wreaths at the graves of two Illustrious crew members laid to rest there in 1941.The previous Illustrious was subjected to a furious attack from Italian and German dive bombers on 10 January 1941 as she escorted a series of supply convoys sent to Malta, known as Operation EXCESS.
Over five hours of attacks – during which her cumbersome Fulmar fighters and anti-aircraft gunners fought valiantly to hold off the Axis onslaught, downing seven enemy aircraft – she was hit by at least five bombs, while a near miss damaged her steering.
When Illustrious arrived in Malta that night to effect emergency repairs, there were more than 125 dead and 90 wounded aboard.
Over the next 13 days the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica made repeated attempts to compound the damage to the ship – a period known by the Maltese as the ‘Illustrious Blitz’ – while her crew and dockyard workers worked ceaselessly to repair her.
Illustrious eventually sailed for Alexandria on 23 January and from there was ultimately sent for repairs in the USA; she was out of action for more than 12 months.
Among the dead of the 10 January attacks was 27-year-old Leading Stoker Trevor Jones from Carmarthenshire, who was buried at Capuccini, while a few plots away is the grave of Lieutenant William Barnes from Dorset who died in Malta two months later aged 24.
Lieutenant Kieran Lewis, who led the clean-up team, said:
“This was an enjoyable yet poignant day which allowed personnel from the current HMS Illustrious a chance to reflect and remember those that have sacrificed their lives while serving in the Royal Navy in Malta.”
The clean-up at the naval cemetery was just one event of many crammed into the visit to Malta, including a royal reception with guests of honour the Duke and Duchess of Wessex and an open day allowing local people to look around the carrier.
Illustrious has now completed her duties with the UK’s Response Force Task Group in the Mediterranean.