…of the HMS Courageous by U 29
Sunday, 17 September 1939. At about 16.00 hrs southwest of Ireland and during bright sunshine with calm seas only, U 29 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Schuhart sighted a passenger liner, which was heading to the Western Approaches of the English Channel. Otto Schuhart identified the vessel as a passenger vessel of about 10,000 GRT with high speed and proceeding with zig-zag courses. He prepared his boat for attack and tried to reach a favorable attack position. There, he spotted two aircraft circling overhead the liner. Sudden-ly, the vessel turned away and departed with high speed. Schuhart abandoned the chase and continued his patrol submerged at about 40 m.
At about 18.00 hrs, Otto Schuhart took the mandatory control view through the periscope in preparation for surfacing. After a few seconds he discovered a black square fume cloud in the reticule of his lense. Although he raised the periscope further he was not able to really identify what type of vessel he was sighting. However, his blood froze when he eventually realized what was in sight. Now, he had an aircraft carrier before his eyes, who was zig-zagging through the now rougher sea, escorted by destroyers and aircraft in the air for air cover. Immediately, preparations for an underwater torpedo attack started on board U 29.
Yet, the distance was too great. Submerged, the U-boat followed the zig-zagging carrier, who departed from favorable distance more and more. Then suddenly, the carrier turned by at least 70 degrees to south, speed about 15 kn, towards U 29 again, in order to launch some of his 48 “Swordfish” aircraft, as we learned later. Within seconds the situation had changed again in favor of U 29. The muzzle covers of the torpedo tubes were re-opened, however, U 29´s Commanding Officer was able to determine the firing data through estimating only as opposed to exact calculation.
19.50 hrs. Three torpedoes left the tubes, being fired at periscope depth at a distance of about 2.700 meters. Soon after, U 29 had to dive down to about 60 meters since a destroyer of the British “I-Class” came at it fast. One of the three torpedoes hit the engine department right behind the boiler room, immediately followed by a second, severe detonation caused by the hit of torpedo no. 2, with some lighter detonations afterwards. The aircraft carrier had been hit at its portside by two of the three torpedoes fired. The strength of the explosions was so great, that the flight deck did burst at one area like a piece of metal sheet. The carrier re-appeared from the large smoke and water columns, listing extremely. All light broke down on board the Courageous, as the carrier was identified later. Many of the crew rushed to the flight deck, many others did not make it up from the lower decks. At the bridge, the carrier´s Commanding Officer, Captain William Makaig-Jones, eventually ordered to abandon ship.
The men jumped into the sea or were sliding down the slippery flight deck, when the large ship turned slowly sideways more and more. Only two life boats could be lowered to water, one of them was damaged later by the sinking carrier. The sea around the ship was littered with shipwrecked men and debris, there was one raft with 50 men clinging to it. About 20 minutes after being hit by two torpedoes, the 22.500 tons aircraft carrier Courageous finally sank over its stern, engines still running, at position 50°10′ North and 014°15′ West in Kriegsmarine Naval Quadrant BE 3198, about 150 nm WSW of Mizen Head, Irelands most southwesterly point. The Courageous took down to the deep some 518 men, 741 could be rescued, among those 72 officers. Captain Makeig-Jones went down with his ship. According to eye witnesses, the Courageous sank slowly and majestic.
While the carrier already started to sink, the escorting destroyers had detected U 29. Almost 4 hours the U-boat had to endure severe depth charging by more than 100 depth charges ditched, before the destroyers lost contact to the U-boat. Eventually, U 29 returned safely to its base at Wilhelmshaven.
The large rescue operation for the shipwrecked crew was carried out by the American freighter Collingworth, the Dutch passenger lines Veendam and the British freighter Dido, also some of the escorting destroyers.
On 18 September 1939, the BBC spread the news that the British Admiralty regrets to announce the loss of the aircraft carrier Courageous. At this moment, U 29 was still west of Ireland on its return leg to home base. On 19 September 1939, the German Armed Forces High Command announced that the sinking of the aircraft carrier Courageous has been confirmed by the report of the attacking U-boat, as it has been noted in the war diary of the Naval Operations Command:”English broadcast announces the sinking of Courageous by a German U-boat. The news has been confirmed by the English Admiralty at 13.00 hrs, to read: “Admiralty regrets to announce that HMS Courageous has been lost by enemy submarine action”.
The simultaneous news by the English broadcast about the destruction of the German U-boat could be defeated by the message no. FT 1819 from U 29 at the same time: “Courageous has been sunk, returning, U 29“.
The crew of U 29 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Schuhart was awarded the Iron Cross by the Commander-in-Chief Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder. The Commanding Officer received the Iron Cross Second and First Class, the crew the Irons Cross Second Class. The success of U 29 in those early days of WW II was eagerly use by the propaganda machine in Germany and the crew was congratulated by Adolf Hitler himself on the occasion of his visit to Wilhelmshaven on 28 September 1939.
On 16 May 1940 the U-boat captain Otto Schuhart was even awarded the Knights Cross to the Iron Cross for his military achievements, being just the fourth Commanding Officer to have received it at this time. After his command of U 29 in 1941 Otto Schuhart had taken appointments ashore, inter alia as Commander 21st U-boat Flottilla, a combat training flotilla at Pillau, Baltic Sea.
He survived the war and he served again in the new post war Federal German Navy from 1955 to 1967. He died on 26 February 1990, being 81 years of age. U 29 did not see the end of war, since its crew scuttled the boat on 05 May 1945 at the Flensburg Firth.
Text: Hans-Joachim Röll, unofficial translation by Peter Monte.