HMS ILLUSTRIOUS Memorial Service 16th October 2017

The lost Sailors of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS are remembered………

(originally written by John Ellis)

At 2200 hours on Sunday 17th October 1948 in gale force winds and rain squalls, the Ship’s liberty boat, a 36ft open motor launch (called a Pinnace) left Weymouth Pier to return to the 29,000 tonne Aircraft Carrier, HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, which was moored within Portland Harbour.  The liberty boat was carrying 50 men; a crew of 5 and 45 liberty men who had enjoyed a few hours relaxation in Weymouth.

The boat headed out across Weymouth Bay, before passing through the northern entrance of the massive breakwater into Portland  Harbour.  Here, the state of the sea became much worse and immediately the liberty boat was in trouble.  As it began to ship water the sailors on board began bailing out the Pinnace with their caps, buckets and anything which came to hand.  Others attempted to keep the sea out by forming a breakwater with their bodies.  Regrettably, all their efforts were in vain and the liberty boat foundered and sank some 50 metres astern of ILLUSTRIOUS.


Rescue boats were immediately launched from ILLUSTRIOUS and other naval ships in the harbour.  The Weymouth Lifeboat also joined the search.  Searchlights were trained on the sea, ropes and buoys were thrown from the Ship’s side and men dived from the gangways to assist those trying to stay afloat.  There was incredible bravery, strength, resolve, courage and character displayed that night.  Despite all their brave efforts and that of the Weymouth Lifeboat, 29 of the 50 on board the liberty boat were lost; their average age was 23.  Some of these men are buried in the Naval Cemetery in Portland; others went to their home towns.  Wherever they lie we will never forget them.

Exactly 62 years later on Sunday 17th October 2010, a beautiful Memorial made locally in Portland of Portland Stone, was unveiled by the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope GCB OBE ADC.  This Memorial, to commemorate those lost in the tragedy, was provided by the efforts of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS Association through the generous donations of Association members and other interested persons.

HM Lord Lieutenant of Dorset; senior Royal Naval Officers; relatives of those lost; four actual survivors of the Disaster; and members of the Association and the general public, attended the truly emotional and moving Unveiling Ceremony.  Also present was a contingent of 29 sailors for the current HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, each representing a life lost.  Those present watched the Royal Marines Band Beating Retreat, also a fly-past by a Seahawk and Swordfish of the Royal Naval Historic Flight.  Additionally, two Royal Navy Lynx helicopters flew over the actual site of the sinking of the Liberty Boat and dropped a memorial wreath.



Each year since the Memorial Unveiling Ceremony in 2010, a service has been held at the Memorial on a Saturday as close to the Anniversary date as possible, to remember these brave sailors.  In addition, we now also remember the founder and instigator of the Memorial, ex-Chairman of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS Association, JOHN ELLIS, who sadly died suddenly in November 2013.  We also remember JACK CRANNY, local Historian, who died in 2016, who did so much to help John Ellis with the Memorial project.

Royal Naval Association Portland Branch Chairman, Dan Sherren said that we would ensure members of our branch and other Associations would continue to support this ceremony each year in the memory of those lost Shipmates.

Maureen Sherren

RNA Portland Branch PRO.