The Sinking of HMS Courageous

The Battle of the Atlantic in World War II started with a bang, not to mention the first ever loss of an Aircraft Carrier. It was a gloomy opening for the British, and the dawn of a submariners war.

The most laughable ships in Royal Navy history

HMS Courageous as-built was the namesake and first of a class of three so-called “Large Light Cruisers” built for the Royal Navy during World War I. They were an odd bunch, having elongated poorly armored hulls with a shallow draft but armed with four 15″ guns housed in two turrets (or two 18″ guns in the case of Furious, although she only received the aft turret before her bow was converted to a flight deck).

HMS Courageous shortly after completion

While intended for use as escort-monitor hybrids in Admiral Fisher’s insane “Baltic Project” where British forces would invade Germany via the Baltic, they ended up being employed as fleet units instead, which they were ill suited for. It’s tempting to lump them in with battlecruisers because of the combination of high speed, great firepower, and thin armor, but they weren’t even well armored enough to withstand cruiser-grade naval guns. The ships being too lightly built resulted in heavy blast damage from their own guns and even from rough seas. They were so absurd that the three of them: Courageous, Glorious and Furious earned the nicknames Outrageous, Laborious and Spurious respectively. The only excitement for the Courageous-class in WWI was in the 2nd Battle of Heligoland Bight, where Courageous and Glorious fired 159 shells between them for just a single superficial hit on the German light cruiser Pillau.

Understandably when the chance came in the post-war period all three starting with Furious were converted to aircraft carriers, making them decidedly more useful.

HMS Furious and either HMS Courageous or HMS Glorious off Gibraltar
Interior of HMS Courageous

Courageous was retired from active duty and became a training ship at the end of 1938 when Ark Royal joined the Home Fleet. However as war loomed in spring 1939 over the Danzig question Furious replaced her as a trainer and she went back to the Home Fleet for active service.

The Western Approaches sweep

After war was declared on Germany and the first overseas convoys began, the Admiralty decided it would be a great idea to form hunter-killer groups of carriers to deal with the anticipated U-boat menace. They were right to be worried as the Germans had positioned an entire flotilla of U-boats in the Atlantic before the outbreak of war. This sounds good on paper; submarines back then were more like submersible torpedo boats than what we think of submarines today, spending only a fraction of their time on the surface due to limited electrical power, oxygen and speed whereas on the surface diesel engines could be used and visibility was much greater. The ideal target for a German submariner was a lone merchant vessel that could be sunk with the deck gun as torpedoes were expensive and only a small number could be carried. In addition to increasing the range of air cover for the Atlantic and sinking U-boats, the idea behind these groups was German U-boats at the very least would be forced to submerge, hampering their hunt. In retrospect, considering it was American and British hunter-killer carrier groups that closed the mid-Atlantic air gap and brought Dönitz’ ubootwaffe to its knees in 1943, how could this strategy be so flawed? A number of reasons:

  • The radar and sonar (ASDIC in Britain) available in 1939 was primitive compared to the iterations in 1943.
  • The hunter-killer groups in 1943 were based around escort carriers. An escort carrier is like a miniature version of a fleet carrier, with a different role as the name suggests. Despite being slower and carrying fewer aircraft they are much more maneuverable and a with the shorter hull harder to hit. Escort carriers are cheap and quick to replace, most being converted merchants. Fleet carriers are large and expensive capital ships (keyword: capital. Lots and lots of money dumped on them) and Britain only had seven in service at the beginning of the war, two of which were so small they were practically light carriers by contemporary standards.
  • As the British had already learned in WWI a defensive strategy was the best way of finding U-boats. It was considerably easier to guard convoys and attack assailants as they showed their hand than to perform sweeps over large areas – that might sound like a “no kidding, Sherlock!” moment, yet it took the Royal Navy and British merchant fleet hundreds of sinking’s and thousands of lives lost in 1917 to learn this lesson. Initial fears that more merchants would be lost by grouping them together were proven unfounded in 1918; the huge drop in losses compared to 1917 had shown it was safer for merchants to be grouped in a convoy under protection than caught out in the open alone. The frequency at which U-boats encountered targets diminished forcing the Germans to attack heavily defended sea lanes.

Courageous, under the command of Captain W.T. Makeig-Jones, departed Plymouth harbor on the evening of September 3rd with four escorting destroyers forming one of these hunter-killer groups for patrol in the Western Approaches (a military designation for the part of the Atlantic Ocean touching Britain and Ireland stretching out some 400 nautical hundred miles from the coast). That same day the first victim of the Battle of the Atlantic was claimed when the passenger-liner Athenia fell victim to U-30 resulting in the death of 117 passengers (28 Americans among them) in an incident condemned as a war crime.

Survivors from the Athenia alongside SS City of Flint

HMS Courageous was one of three fleet carriers conducting anti-submarine operations in the Western Approaches; covering the north was HMS Ark Royal, covering the centre was HMS Hermes, and in the south was Courageous herself. Ark Royal saw serious action on the 14th when she received a distress signal from SS Fanad Head, which was being pursued by the surfaced U-30 several hundred nautical miles away.  Ark Royal launched aircraft to aid Fanad Head, which reached their destination and attacked U-30 which was in the middle of boarding. Quickly recalling her boarding party and torpedoing the Fanad Head, U-30 submerged and escaped. Ark Royal however was attacked by U-39 not long after she launched her aircraft.  Lookouts spotted torpedo tracks and turning towards the torpedoes Ark Royal avoided them, with her escorts quickly attacking U-39 who’s crew surfaced her and abandoned the sinking vessel, the first German submarine to be lost in the war.

The first two weeks of Courageous’ patrol was uneventful, endless sailing of a parameter some 200 nautical miles off the south-west coast of Ireland. Suddenly though in the afternoon of the 17th came a distress signal. It was from the SS Kafiristan which was under attack from a German U-boat. Unfortunately all of Courageous’ aircraft were off the ship conducting sweeps to spot submarines, so Captain Makeig-Jones sent two of his four escorting destroyers to Kafiristan’s rescue for the time being.

SS Kafiristan, a merchant steamer
She had been carrying sugar from Jucaro, Cuba to Liverpool, England when she was attacked.

It was too late for the Kafiristan. After dodging an initial torpedo attack from U-53 she was hit by a second torpedo just thirteen minutes later, crippling her. Thirty minutes after that, U-53 finished her off with a third torpedo. Of her 35 crew 6 were killed, all drowning in a lifeboat launching mishap. The 29 survivors were picked up by the cargo and passenger liner American Farmer. Interestingly, the Daily Telegraph would run a story one week later where the crew of American Farmer claimed U-53 had been sunk immediately afterward by a British bomber, apparently having been close enough to witness the whole ordeal. The story goes it strafed and bombed U-53 while it attempted to submerge until the U-boat slipped under the waves ass first. Armistead Lee of Virginia claimed he even saw the pilot flyover and wave to indicate the job was done. Actually U-53 arrived safely in Kiel on the 30th and apparently without damage, as she was back on patrol just three weeks later. Another odd note is that U-53’s likeness would be used in three different 1950s movies, (“Don’t Panic Chaps“,”I Was Monty’s Double“,and “The Cruel Sea“) but I digress.

While Kafiristan was doomed either way, her distress signal would prove to be fatal for Courageous. Now down half their escorts, Makeig-Jones and his crew waited patiently for the aircraft to return so they could be refueled and sent to help Karfiristan. Unknown to them, they were being stalked. Hours earlier Capt. Otto Schhart, commanding U-29, had spotted one of HMS Couragous‘ Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers patrolling the sky and ordered a dive. Biplanes this far off the coast could only mean one thing – an aircraft carrier was nearby.

Korvettenkapitän Otto Schuhart, skipper of U-29

Schuhart tried to close the gap between him and Courageous. There was only a slim chance he would get to line up a good shot; at periscope depth his submarine could make only 8 knots while Courageous could make 25 knots. For two hours U-29 slowly closed the distance on a rough intercept course, until the aircraft began to return. Courageous slowed to allow the first Swordfish to land on her decks. The supposed hunter-killer group had just become the perfect prey as Schuhart came into torpedo range after the last Swordfish had embarked and prepping began to send the first air group to help Kafiristan, slipping through a large gap in the destroyer screen resulting from just two escorts. Schuhart still waited to line up the perfect shot as the carrier was still on a diagonal course away from him.

Courageous then made a port turn into the wind to launch her aircraft, putting her bow right across the front of U-29 just 300 yards away. This was Schuhart’s chance, and he didn’t hesitate. U-29 fired three torpedoes, two of which struck Courageous on the port side.

HMS Courageous listing after being hit

The explosions knocked out all electrical power, leaving the men on the lower decks in pitch black darkness. One sailor would later tell a Western Morning News reporter he had been saved from the torpedo hits by the desire for a smoke, walking up to the deck to light one he was “blown up [the stairs] the rest of the way”. Listing heavily to port within minutes, Captain Makeig-Jones gave the order to abandon ship. The officers had been dining at the time of the attack, and in an orderly fashion made their way to the flight deck to board the life boats along with streams of other men. Surprisingly there was no sign of panic, but there was good reason to: the ship was sinking fast.

Sinking of HMS Courageous

The two destroyers providing escort began to attack the intruder, but while they would make depth charge runs on U-29 for 4 hours it would slip away to safety.

It took just 20 minutes for Courageous to slip under the waves. The situation for the survivors was chaotic, many choking to death on the oil covered water courtesy of their dying ship. Men were packed in the water together like a school of mackerel.

“The sea was full of bobbing heads around me. I was fully clothed and although in my young days I was a pretty strong swimmer the weight of my clothes began to tell. There was nothing for it but to undress completely in the water. I can recall now unlacing my boots. I was nearly in my birthday suit when I was picked up.”

survivor Paul Weston

Courageous was the first Royal Navy warship to be lost to enemy action in the war. Of her complement of 1259 officers and men, 518 were killed, Captain Makeig-Jones among them. The 741 survivors were picked up by the the British freighter Collingworth and Dutch ocean liner Veendam.

Relieved family members of the surviving crew were re-united with their fathers, husbands and sons in Plymouth.

Interviews with Courageous survivors, one believes the submarine was sunk (it wasn’t)
Front page of the Daily Express from January 20th, 1940
the first publicly released photos of the sinking

The sinking of Courageous along with the close-call of Ark Royal days earlier convinced the Admiralty to rescind it’s hunter-killer group strategy for dealing with submarines.

The Navy’s Time to Shine

This was the first big success for the Kriegsmarine during the war, and Dönitz understood the significance of bloodying an overseas enemy so soon into the war, let alone a ship this important, and their was great celebration in the Navy. It doesn’t seem to have gotten the level attention of German media to the degree that events in Scapa Flow would a month later, when Günther Prien sank the Battleship HMS Royal Oak at anchor. I suspect this might have something to do with the Germans not possessing any carriers themselves (though they would try with the Graf Zeppelin) so they had a battleship/battlecruiser-centric measure of success. This might also have to do with the entire crew receiving the Iron Cross Second Class, with Schuhart also receiving the First Class, but Schuhart not receiving the Knights Cross until after his sixth patrol. Normally sinking of a warship of this magnitude would be an automatic shoe-in for a Knights Cross, not to mention the first enemy warship to be sunk in the war let alone on his first patrol. Then again, German media would triumphantly claim on several occasions of the war that the Ark Royal had been sunk when it was safe and sound, so maybe the aircraft carrier just needed to be especially famous.

German newspaper: “They have sunk Courageous”

Still this was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Navy, and the crew would be congratulated by the head of the submarine arm Karl Dönitz, Grand Admiral of the navy Erich Raeder, and the Führer himself. With all the fighting the army and air force were doing in Poland, the navy too now had a visible part to play.

Capt. Schuhart meeting with Grand-Admiral Raeder
Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder and Adolf Hitler meeting the captain and crew of U-29
Wilhelmshaven, Germany

After several more sorties Schuhart would leave active service to become an instructor most likely saving his life given the grim chances of survival for German submariners, later being promoted to commander of a training flotilla. Post-war he would join the Bundesmarine in 1955 where he would serve for 12 years before retiring at the rank of Kapitän zur See. Schuhart died in Stuttgart in 1990.

Sources – :

  • Carrier Wars: Naval Aviation from World War II to the Persian Gulf,   Edwin Palmer Hoyt 
  • Sunderland at War 1939-45, Craig Armstrong
  • Battle of the Atlantic 1939–41: RAF Coastal Command’s Hardest Fight Against the U-boats, Mark Lardas,  Edouard A Groult
  • Power at Sea: The breaking storm 1919-1945,  Lisle A. Rose

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