With World War Two less than a month old, Nottingham sailor Lancelot Sidney Burrell found himself aboard the HMS Courageous, guarding the Western Approaches against German U-boat attacks. Unfortunately for him, his ship was to become the war’s first major naval casualty due to an enormous blunder from the British Admiralty…
Wednesday 9 August 1939 was a special day for Lancelot Sidney Burrell. Not only was it his 33rd birthday, but his ship, the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous, was at Dorset’s Weymouth Bay awaiting a visit from King George VI. The day before, British skies were filled with 1,300 war planes running air defence tests, and a flurry of new recruits were signing up to fight for King and Country. World War II was yet to begin, but preparations were well underway.
Nottingham-born Lancelot Sidney Burrell was an able seaman. He’d joined the Navy exactly fifteen years earlier, on his eighteenth birthday, saying goodbye to his parents, and leaving his job as a messenger.
Standing at 5’5” tall with a fair complexion, grey eyes and light brown hair, Burrell distinguished himself during his naval career, never receiving less than a ‘very good’ remark on his service record. He served aboard HMS Iron Duke, HMS Defiance and HMS Emperor of India, picking up a butterfly tattoo on his forearm before eventually embarking on the Courageous.
Around a month after Burrell’s 33rd birthday, Otto Schuhart – a Hamburg-born Kriegsmarine commander – was celebrating his thirtieth in markedly different circumstances. Having completed ten years in the German Navy, he’d gone from the rank of seekadett – the equivalent of the midshipman – to captaining a German U-boat: U-29.
Three days ago, war had been declared. Schuhart’s birthday would have likely gone unacknowledged amidst the notoriously miserable conditions underwater on a German U-boat. Patrols lasted anything between three weeks and six months, crews were unable to bathe, shave or change their clothes, and privacy was non-existent, with up to fifty crew members expected to share a single toilet.
Meanwhile, Burrell and the HMS Courageous crew were departing from Plymouth, tasked with an anti-submarine patrol in the Western Approaches. The stretch of Atlantic Ocean that lies immediately west of Ireland and Great Britain contained almost all shipping routes to and from the UK, providing the perfect hunting ground for German U-boats looking to disrupt the flow of supplies.
Life aboard the HMS Courageous, while far from being easy, was significantly more comfortable for Burrell. Originally built during the First World War, the ship was converted into an aircraft carrier in the twenties at a cost of just over £2million. She could carry up to 48 aircraft and, as she slipped into the sea on 3 September 1939, the Courageous took with her 811 and 822 Squadrons, each equipped with a dozen Fairey Swordfish planes, and accompanied by an escort of four destroyers.
Over the next two weeks, as the HMS Courageous patrolled treacherous Atlantic waters, Schuhart and the U-29 crew achieved some minor successes, sinking three Merchant Navy vessels. In the dead of night on 8 September, she downed the Recent Tiger, a 10,000-tonne motor tanker. Five days later, after two torpedoes had detonated prematurely, the crew sunk British Steam tug, Neptunia, with gunfire.
The next day, Schuhart fired two shots across the bow of the motor tanker British Influence, forcing the crew to stop and abandon ship before it was sunk with a single torpedo. Miraculously, not a single British crewmember was lost during any of the three incidents.
Less than twenty minutes after being hit, and just two weeks after leaving port, HMS Courageous was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean
On the afternoon of 17 September, Burrell and the Courageous picked up a distress signal from another merchant ship, the Kafirstan. A U-boat had struck her with a coup de grâce, and the surviving crew were in dire need of rescue. Two of the Courageous’ escort destroyers, HMS Inglefield and HMS Intrepid, were immediately detached, and the carrier launched four Swordfish aircraft to ward off any further attacks.
Nearby, Schuhart and his U-29 had surfaced and, while scanning the skies, spotted one of the Courageous’ Swordfish aircraft. Planes that far out at sea meant only one thing: an aircraft carrier, the most valuable and celebrated of all prizes for a U-Boat captain and his crew.
Correctly guessing that the aircraft would be returning to its ship, Schuhart followed its direction, determined not to lose the opportunity. Stalking just below the surface, he must have known that his odds were slim; at that depth, he was only able to achieve a speed of about eight knots, while the Courageous could be sailing away from him at 25 knots. But it was a risk worth taking.
Oblivious to their hunter, the crew of the Courageous went about business as usual. Sailing at a steady speed downwind, they occasionally turned into the wind in order to launch and land aircraft. Unfortunately for them, it meant they were turning directly toward the U-boat. Schuhart, having predicted the maneuver, was able to take up a good firing position 3,000 yards away.
Burrell and his crew continued their evening routine. It was almost 8pm, and those who were free to eat had finished their evening meal. After changing course to accommodate the four aircraft that’d been sent to assist the Kafirstan, those on deck were assisting in landing the last returning planes.
Little over five minutes after the final aircraft had landed, a thunderous, booming explosion rippled through the ship. Two of the U-29’s torpedoes had slammed into the Courageous’ enormous hull, almost immediately causing her to list to one side. The mammoth stern rose high into the air before she sank bow first, the sea swallowing all of her 22,500 tonnes and 24 aircraft without mercy, taking the lives of 518 out of her 1,259 crew with them. Less than twenty minutes after being hit, and just two weeks after leaving port, HMS Courageous was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
The nearby HMS Ivanhoe responded immediately, attacking Schuhart’s U-29 with a relentless flurry of depth charges but, after withstanding the barrage, the U-boat slipped away in the dead of night. The sinking of the HMS Courageous marked the first major Royal Navy loss of the war, and the British Admiralty’s expensively learnt lesson saw them abandon the short-sighted, naïve practice of using aircraft carriers to hunt U-boats.
Otto Schuhart was awarded the Iron Cross for his role in the sinking, surviving the war and starting a family in his native Germany where he lived in peace until his death in 1990.
Lancelot Sidney Burrell would never see his hometown of Nottingham again; the able seaman was among the 518 crew members who lost their lives when the Courageous sank. While his exact cause of death is unknown, several survivors testified that many men were lost to choking on the thick black oil that coated the surface of the sea after the torpedoes struck. After fifteen years in the Navy, his war ended just sixteen days after it had begun.