Early on in WW2 the Royal Navy determined that the most potent weapon to help fight the Kriegsmarine U-Boats was Airpower. To this end it was determined that Aircraft Carriers were needed to conduct patrols far out to sea.
However at the start of the war the numbers of Carriers the RN had was limited.
Hermes and Eagle and Argus didn't quite have the speed or the Airgroup needed to conduct operations effectively, leaving the big four fleet carriers, Ark Royal, Glorious, Furious and Courageous as the only real viable naval assets able to conduct operations.
To that end Courageous sailed from Plymouth on September 16th with the destroyers Inglefield, Intrepid, Ivanhoe and Impulsive.
On September 17th Courageous had been conducting Anti-Subamrine patrols with her aircraft being launched around 1615 to attack a U-Boats that had been reported as shelling the merchantman SS Kafiristan.
At the same time Inglefield and Intrepid were detached to conduct asdic sweeps and a depth charge attack. Ivanhoe was stationed on Courageous' port bow, and Impulsive was off the Starboard bow.
At 1920 Courageous turned to the South East into the wind and reduced speed to allow the strike force to take off.
Meanwhile on U-29 Otto Schuhart had been patrolling with U-53 under the command of Ernst-Gunther Heinicke. U-53 sighted a Steam ship and proceeded to attack it.
Meanwhile to the east, Schuhart in U-29 was still searching for the convoy. While running submerged, he spotted a Swordfish biplane instead. A Swordfish 300 miles out in the open sea could only mean one thing – that an aircraft carrier had to be close by. Keeping a sharp watch, at 1800 hours a puff of smoke was spotted on the horizon. It was the carrier Courageous. Schuhart sent his crew to battle stations and adjusted for an interception course.
But he could not mount an attack. Planes were circling over the carrier and the two remaining destroyer escorts were clearly visible. He later wrote in his log “At that time it looked like a hopeless operation. Because of the aircraft, I could not surface and my underwater speed was less than 8 knots while the carrier could do 26. But we were told during our training to always stay close and that is exactly what I did, following him submerged”.
Schuhart trailed on for another one and a half hours, all the while losing distance with the carrier. Then suddenly at 1930 hours, the carrier turned into the wind to launch aircraft, inadvertently placing the ship in perfect position for a torpedo attack. By 1940 hours, U-29 was in position and Schuhart fired all three forward torpedoes from less than 3,000 yards. Schuhart logged “the vast size of the target upset all normal calculations and in any case, I was looking straight into the sun”.
Just 500 yards away, while the torpedoes were still making its run, Schuhart observed through his periscope lens as one of the destroyers sailed by, still unaware of the impending attack. To evade, he dived deep – to a depth of 180 feet, the deepest he had ever dived. Then, in the creaking silence of U-boat’s pressure hull, the crew heard two resounding explosions. Two torpedoes had it the target and exploded with such force that Schuhart thought he had been attacked. The crew cheered, although they all knew what was to follow next – an impending depth charge attack.
They braced themselves for the attack and minutes later, one of the destroyers picked up the U-29 on sonar. The second destroyer rushed to the location to join the hunt and both attacked with such fury and ferocity that during the pounding, Schuhart thought he had lost the U-29. The boat reeled and creaked under the force of the explosion which lasted for hours. Then at 2340 hours, the last depth charge exploded. Both destroyers had expended all depth charges and were now weaponless in attacking the enemy down below.
At 1955 two heavy explosions rocked Courageous. All the lights went out, and the ship almost immediately the ship took on a heavy list to port.
From statements of her surviving crew, the first torpedo hit the Portside approximately abreast the Petty Officers Flat. The second hit appears to have hit at the aft end of B Boiler Room, killing all electrical power. The Quartermaster reported that the ship would not respond to the helm. The Captain ordered the ships position to be given by W/T.
After about 10 minutes from the hit, some bulkheads inside the ship were heard to collapse, and the ship increased its list to 35°. Around this time the Captain ordered The two destroyers to Stand By Me, and said any and all who wanted to leave could do so.
Captain W.T. Mekeing-Jones and 518 crew ended up going down with their ship. The destroyers picked up Survivors.
Silently easing away, Schuhart in the U-29 made good his escape. As soon as he surfaced, he radioed to Donitz, “Courageous destroyed. U-29 homebound”.
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