The following stories are taken from the War Illustrated, October 1939 and are personal stories reported to the magazine about the sinking of the Aircraft Carrier “HMS Courageous”.
One of the youngest survivors was Bugler RD Emerson of the Royal Marines, aged 15 and only 5ft in height. When the ship was struck he went on the flight deck, took off his bugle and tied it to the ship’s rails. Then he undressed, clambered down the starbaord 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 as 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 ‘Courageous’ went down with 200 men on board.”
John Desmond Wells, aged 16, a boy seaman from Seaton in 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. 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 every any panic, and when the men were in the water they sang ‘Roll out the barrell’.
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 thirty 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 head a shout ‘Everyman 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 desturbed the float.”
Paymaster Sub-Liuetenant IF Wesmacott, 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. 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. I was in it about 40 minutes swimming all the time, until I reached one of the destroyers.
“Everyone behaved with calm, and the men cracked jokes. There was no panic or disorder. Her bows submerged, her stern cocked up in the 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 of 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 the eactually foundered. Part of the ship’s crew were below decks at the time.”