September 17, 1939: List of Aircraft Carriers Sunk by Submarines (HMS Courageous Becomes 1st Aircraft Carrier Sunk by a Submarine)

HMS Courageous

A Brief History

On September 17, 1939, only a couple weeks after World War II in Europe began, the German U-boat, U-29, sunk the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous with 2 of the 3 torpedoes fired striking the unlucky carrier.  Courageous sank with 519 of her crew going down, becoming the first aircraft carrier ever sunk by a submarine.  Here we list all the aircraft carriers ever sunk in combat by submarines, a dangerous prey as carriers are inevitably well protected by escorting ships.  Note that no aircraft carrier has been sunk in combat from any source since the end of World War II.  World War II is the only conflict so far in which aircraft carriers have been sunk in combat.  Only 3 navies lost aircraft carriers to submarine attack during World War II (or ever), although any naval war that breaks out today would almost certainly pose great risk to carriers from large, fast, silent and deadly modern nuclear subs.

Digging Deeper

1.  Royal Navy.

In World War II, just as in World War I, the German Navy had a particularly effective submarine force, and the Royal Navy was well aware of the danger these U-boats posed.  Thus, HMS Courageous (pictured) was escorted by 4 destroyers while patrolling the Western Approaches to the British Isles upon outbreak of war in September 1939.  U-29 carefully stalked the converted (1928) light cruiser and when the Courageous turned into the wind to launch planes, the sub found its target perpendicular to its bow torpedo tubes.  The 786 feet long 27,000 tonne (loaded) carrier went down in 20 minutes, making History the hard way.  Facing tenacious U-boat attacks, 5 of the 8 British carriers lost in combat during World War II were lost to torpedo attacks by submarines.  They include fleet carrier HMS Ark Royal sunk by U-81 in 1941, escort carrier HMS Audacity sunk by U-751 in 1941, escort carrier HMS Avenger sunk by U-151 in 1942, and fleet carrier HMS Eagle sunk by U-73 in 1942.  The only Royal Navy aircraft carrier sunk by the Japanese Imperial Navy was the fleet carrier HMS Hermes, sunk by aerial attack.

2. United States Navy.

The US Navy lost a total of 13 small and large aircraft carriers during World War II of which only 4 were sunk by submarine attack.  The only US aircraft carrier lost to the Germans was the escort carrier USS Block Island (pictured) sunk by U-549 off the Canary Islands in 1944.  Escort carrier USS Liscome Bay was sunk by INJ sub I-175 in 1943, and fleet carrier USS Wasp was sunk by I-19 in 1942.  Fleet carrier USS Yorktown was sunk during the Battle of Midway while being towed to Pearl Harbor for repairs to heavy damage from aerial attack by torpedoes from I-168.  Since 1942, no US fleet (full size) carrier has been sunk in combat.Imperial

3. Imperial Japanese Navy.

The Japanese aircraft carrier fleet took the most losses during World War II, with 20 of their carriers being lost.  Of those lost in combat, 8 were sunk by US submarines, including escort carrier Akitsu Maru (pictured) sunk by USS Queenfish in 1944, escort carrier Chuyo sunk by USS Sailfish in 1943, fleet carrier Shinano sunk by USS Archer-fish in 1944, escort carrier Shinyo sunk by USS Spadefish in 1944, fleet carrier Shokaku sunk by USS Cavalla in 1944, fleet carrier Taiho sunk by USS Albacore in 1944, fleet carrier Unryu sunk by USS Redfish in 1944, and escort carrier Unyo sunk by USS Barb in 1944.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

HMS Courageous 1939 (Eyewitness World War II) (Kindle Edition)


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Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.