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

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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.  Note that the U-boats had no success against carriers after 1942, implying that the Royal Navy had learned their lesson and took great pains to protect their aircraft carriers from the U-boat menace.

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 Imperial Japanese Navy (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 due to heavy damage from aerial attack.  The tough ship was finished by torpedoes from I-168.  Since 1942, no US fleet (full size) carrier has been sunk in combat.

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.

Question for students (and subscribers): How have aircraft carriers and their role in warfare changed over the course of military history?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

James, Leonard.  HMS Courageous 1939 (Eyewitness World War II).  Bretwalda Books, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of the Courageous Class fleet aircraft carrier HMS COURAGEOUS taken by a Royal Navy official photographer circa 1935, is photograph Q 65692 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4510-02).  This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:

  1. It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
  2. It was published prior to 1968; or
  3. It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1968.

HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply)
More information.

See also Copyright and Crown copyright artistic works.


About Author

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.