I Was There! - We Were on 'Courageous' When She Was Hit

The War Illustrated, Volume 1, No. 4, Page 116, October 7, 1939.

The first loss sustained by the Navy in the war was the sinking of the aircraft carrier "Courageous" by a German submarine on Sunday night, September 17. Below are survivors' accounts of the catastrophe reprinted by the courtesy of the "The Daily Telegraph".

Paymaster Sub-Lieut. I. F. Westmacott, the Captain's secretary, was having his supper in the "Courageous" when he heard two explosions which seemed to lift the ship.

"All lights went out and crockery fell over", he continued. "I got out of the wardroom and made my way to the seaplane platform on top of the quarter deck. People waiting there did not seem to realise that the ship would sink so soon. Suddenly an order was given for everyone to get into the water. Some men went to the floats and others got boats out. I stripped and jumped into the water. I was in it about 40 minutes, swimming all the time, until I reached one of the destroyers.

"Everybody behaved with calm, and the men cracked jokes. There was no panic or disorder."

Almost immediately after the attack the "Courageous" began to list to port, and within five minutes the captain gave orders to abandon her.

"Her bows submerged, her stern cocked up into the air, and she foundered within 15 to 20 minutes of being hit.

"Some of the boats on the starboard side were got out, but those on the port side could not be used as she heeled too quickly.

"There were two distinct bangs at an interval of perhaps a second. I believe there were a few minor explosions when she actually foundered. Part of the ship's crew were below decks at the time."

One of the youngest survivors is Bugler R. D. Emerson, of the Royal Marines, aged 15, and only 5 ft. in height. When the ship was struck he went on the flight deck, took off his bugle and tied it to the ship's rail. Then he undressed, clambered down the starboard side and struck out for a raft.

"Our destroyers were dropping depth charges", he said, "and within a few minutes we saw the submarine blown up. There was no doubt about it. The conning tower broke one way and the stern was blown another and oil shot up from the water. We all cheered.

"As we paddled away the men sang, 'Heigh ho, it's off to work we go'. We had not got far when the 'Courageous' went down with 200 men on board."

One of the most dramatic accounts was given by Naval Writer Tom Hughes, 18, of St. Anne's.

When the first explosion occurred, he said, he was in the canteen. He made a rush for the deck, and as he was going up the companion-way there was another explosion and a sheet of flame. He found men were throwing overboard pieces of wood, oars and anything that would float.

As an officer gave the order, "Swim for it", he clambered down a rope and dropped into the sea, which was "so thick with oil that we might have been swimming in treacle". He reached a raft, and was eventually taken aboard a destroyer.

"When we realized we had been torpedoed, "said Naval Writer Hughes, "our men were so infuriated that they threw overboard depth charges in an effort to sink the U-boat.

"I was swimming when I heard a dull roar. Suddenly the submarine lifted clean out of the water and fell back like a stone. There is no doubt she was sunk.

"Hundreds of us who were struggling in the water for our lives raised a cheer. While we were swimming someone shouted, 'Are we downhearted?' and there was a resounding 'No!' in reply."

Hughes said one of his vivid recollections was that as he was in the water he caught a glimpse of the commander of the "Courageous", Capt. Makeig-Jones, standing at the salute on the bridge as the vessel took her final plunge.

"As for myself, I just swam and swam. Those three hours in the water seemed much longer. I must pay tribute to the handling of the destroyer that saved us. She was so navigated that the swell created by her progress helped us to swim towards her.

"As I got fairly near her a fellow swam alongside me and said 'Help me'. I gripped him by the hair and when a man off the destroyer caught me to pull me aboard I was still hanging on. That chap's long absence from the barber's saved his life.

"Another impression which will live in my memory is that of a Royal Marine sergeant who seemed to cover an enormous distance swimming from man to man and making such remarks as 'Keep going, my lad, and you will be all right. Keep your heart and your head up.' There were heroes in plenty, but that sergeant was the greatest I saw."

John Desmond Wells, aged 16, a boy seaman, of Seaton, Devon, said he was reading in his hammock waiting to go on duty when an explosion stunned him.

"After groping about I managed to get to the upper deck", he added. "Many men were running about but there was no panic.

"I slid down a blister [a form of protection on the ship's side] to within six feet of the water and stayed there for 10 minutes. Other men did the same.

"It was apparent that the ship was sinking, her bows being already nearly under water. I jumped clear and swam in the direction of a destroyer which was standing about a mile off. There were also two other destroyers and two merchant vessels."

Wells said that at no time was there any panic, and when the men were in the water they sang "Roll Up the Barrel".

A 17-year-old Exeter survivor said: "I helped to lower a boat which got stuck, and a couple of us climbed down over the side of the ship to push her off.

"About 30 men were in her, but there was a rush of water into her stern as she reached the sea. She sank and the men were forced to swim.

"Meanwhile, I waited on deck and smoked a cigarette. Then I heard a shout, 'Every man for himself', and I went down the ship's side on a rope.

"I reached a float with a number of men on it and they helped me aboard. Everybody was cheerful. Somebody said, 'Let's have a song, boys', and we struck up 'Rolling Home' and 'Show Me the Way To Go Home'. After about 45 minutes a destroyer came alongside, and she was handled so beautifully that she hardly disturbed the float."

Historical context, by the webmaster

The German submarine U-29 which sank the H.M.S. Courageous wasn't sunk at all. She was eventually scuttled on May 4th, 1945.

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