First British warship to be sunk in WW 2 - 23 Royal Marines lost
Updated: Sep 30
Unit/ Formation: HM Ships
Location: Atlantic Ocean
Period/ Conflict: World War II
Date/s: 17 September 1939
In the early days of the war, hunter-killer groups were formed around the fleet's aircraft carriers to find and destroy U-boats. On 31 August 1939 she went to her war station at Portland and embarked the two squadrons of Swordfish.
Courageous departed Plymouth on the evening of 3 September 1939 for an anti-submarine patrol in the Western Approaches, escorted by four destroyers. On the evening of 17 September 1939, she was on one such patrol off the coast of Ireland. Two of her four escorting destroyers had been sent to help a merchant ship under attack and all her aircraft had returned from patrols. During this time, Courageous was stalked for over two hours by U-29, commanded by Captain-Lieutenant Otto Schuhart.
The carrier then turned into the wind to launch her aircraft. This put the ship right across the bow of the submarine, which fired three torpedoes. Two of the torpedoes struck the ship on her port side before any aircraft took off, knocking out all electrical power, and she capsized and sank in 20 minutes with the loss of 519 of her crew, including her captain. The survivors were rescued by the Dutch ocean liner Veendam and the British freighter Collingworth.
The two escorting destroyers counterattacked U-29 for four hours, but the submarine escaped. An earlier unsuccessful attack on Ark Royal by U-39 on 14 September, followed by the sinking of Courageous three days later, prompted the Royal Navy to withdraw its carriers from anti-submarine patrols. Courageous was the first British warship to be sunk by German forces.
The commander of the German submarine force, Commodore Karl Dönitz, regarded the sinking of Courageous as "a wonderful success" and it led to widespread jubilation in the Kriegsmarine (German navy). Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, directed that Schuhart be awarded the Iron Cross First Class and that all other members of the crew receive the Iron Cross Second Class.
23 Royal Marines are listed as killed on the Plymouth War Memorial, some 681 ratings and officers did survive the ordeal.
Mrs Hubert Haslam of Union Place, Plymouth whose Marine husband was among the survivors told her story at the time.
“My husband was a wine steward and wardroom attendant,” she said. “The officers were dining when the explosion shook the ship. Everyone went on deck, but he said there was no sign of panic. “The aircraftmen had just landed their planes and he saw none of them. He thinks they went down with the ship. He jumped overboard with an officer and was swimming about for an hour and a half. Then he found a plank to cling to and there he stayed with several other men until he was taken aboard a destroyer.
“He and all the survivors were given hot tots of rum, issued with blankets and brought back.
“I was just frantic with worry until a neighbour came round about three and said she’d just seen my husband wrapped in a blanket inside the railings of the Marine barracks. Very soon after that another Marine came around to tell me he was safe.”