HMCS PRINCE ROBERT
THE ATLANTIC THEATRE WWII
Extracts from MS of
White Ensign, Black Pit
By Gary McGregor
[Featured here on short-term display]
My father, Martin McGregor (RCNVR, 1940-1945), served as a Telegraphist aboard five ships in WWII: HMCS Caribou, HMCS Murray Stewart, HMCS Grou, HMCS Petrolia, and HMCS Prince Robert, at the liberation of Hong Kong. Since he passed away last February, I have had the great pleasure of making the acquaintance of many naval vets, including some of his old shipmates. Don MacKechnie, editor of the VNVA’s Sea Bag, was Martin's watchmate on HMCS Grou. I joined Don and other VNVA vets at Up Spirits '99, a memorable occasion. I have been invited to, and hope to attend, the September Petrolia reunion, in Petrolia.
Meeting these veterans, and hearing their wartime insights and salty dips, has encouraged me to write a narrative history on Canada's war at sea. While there is no dearth of books on the subject, I feel there may be room on the shelves for one that a new generation of Canadians could find both readable and illuminating. I propose to describe the Battle of the Atlantic to those for whom the story is new, using the personal reminiscences of those for whom the story remains very real.
Included here are a few passages from the MS, which is still in rough form. I welcome any assistance in my research for a book on the Canadians who rode the waves in the navy and merchant marine in the Second World War. I would, of course, give full attribution to the contributors, and mail the MS of any relevant passages for their approval.
I look forward to hearing from anyone, especially veterans of the Battle of the Atlantic, who may wish to pass on their insights. If they have not yet taken the time to record their wartime experiences, on paper or tape, they should be encouraged to do so. They have a remarkable and important story to tell, one that younger generations, as well as their own families, will appreciate hearing.~~Gary McGregor
Gary M. McGregor, LL.B. Phone: (604) 946-9741
Extracts from MS of
White Ensign, Black Pit
By Gary McGregor
More than sixty years--some three generations--have passed since the call went out for young Canadians to go to war for their country.
Like their fathers who went overseas in the first great conflagration of a tortured century, they volunteered to fight a distant war with little idea of what it would entail. The conflict in Europe seemed a world removed from the homes, farms, and factories they were leaving.
The world they entered--a world at war--would change them forever. They went to war in the very flush of youth: mere boys, many of them fresh out of school. Those who came back were made men by stern trial and bitter experience.
This book is about those who went to sea. Their battlefields--the St. Lawrence, the storm-lashed Arctic, the deceptively calm Mediterranean, the grim, grey Atlantic--hold no monuments to their sacrifices. The timeless seas swallowed the dead, like those who went down in galleons and men-o’-war through the ages.
Their warships are all but gone, now. Those that were spared the torpedo, that withstood the onslaught of savage storms, would succumb to the only thing with less remorse than the enemy and the sea: time. Doughty destroyers, corvettes and frigates ended their days in scrap yards as far removed as India. Others suffered what seem crueler demises: scuttling to serve as breakwaters or attractions for scuba divers.
The Battle of the Atlantic raged for five years, on an ocean as pitiless as the enemy. It was desperate and decisive. It turned the tide of the Second World War from imminent defeat to inevitable victory. And the valour of Canadian seamen was central to that triumph.
Winston Churchill, appointed First Lord of the Admiralty at the beginning of the conflict, wrote, years after its end: “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. ...Everything elsewhere depended on its outcome.”
From Naden, in Victoria, to Stadacona, in Halifax, thousands of young volunteers signed up for service.
George Westbrook joined the navy in 1939 as a boy seaman. “They started a train in Ottawa, picking us up in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, and Calgary, where I got aboard. Then out to Naden.
“There were 5 or 6 of us boys in the mess. We had to be in our hammocks at nine o’clock. We were paid 50 cents a day, 25 cents held back until we became OS. We were out of our micks at 0600 and on the parade ground at 0630 for our daily run to Craigflower Bridge and back. On Wednesdays, we did our five-mile run in the morning, shore leave in the afternoon.
“In those days, discipline meant discipline. If we were fooling around at night, on would come the lights and the PO would roust us out of our micks, out to the parade ground. Around and around we would go, on the double. After a half hour of that, we was glad to get back in our micks.
“At other times, if we weren’t doing things right, the old PO would send us doubling with a 60-pound pack on your back or rifles. One time I seen a fella, he couldn’t do it any more, so he fell down. They took his pack off and gave him these iron balls of shot. He had to push them around until we finished running.”
With his pal, Art Fenwick, Martin McGregor applied at Winnipeg’s HMCS Chippawa. “It was on the site of the old Mac’s Theatre Building, on Ellice Avenue. Brothers George and Jack had already volunteered in the Air Force, so mother and dad weren’t too happy with me.
“As part of our initial training, we had route marches down the streets of Winnipeg’s West End. I recall one such march, on the double, when we were wearing just white shorts. One guy reached ahead and pulled down the shorts of the runner in front of him. He had no underwear on. Down he went on the pavement as girls on the sidewalk burst out laughing.”
George Hicks and Frank Aldred, friends since high school in 1935, decided to sign up for the navy. “With 19-year-old wisdom,” remembered Aldred, “we knew there would have to be conscription and we didn’t want to go in the army. Hicker knew someone who had had his name in to join the navy for about a year and hadn’t been called, so we figured we’d put our names in, and when the conscription notices arrived, we’d just say, ‘sorry, our names are down for the navy’. They called us in!
“We were sworn-in in June in the RCNVR, and we started going down two or three nights a week. Then, in August, we went on active service and went every day, all day. In September it was off to Halifax. We didn’t know they had any ships, and thought Halifax was as far as we’d get.”
Tom Hind was in a train of volunteers that pulled into Halifax. “There were some thirty of us from Calgary, another thirty from Winnipeg. We were green as grass, and didn’t know our arse from our elbow. A fancy-looking uniform stepped out of the Lord Nelson Hotel and we all snapped him a salute. He was the doorman. He saluted back.”
Aldred’s train stopped beside Halifax’s Stadacona barracks. “We went into the barracks block and we were issued hammocks. Not put together, just a mess of ropes, lighter lines, canvas and blankets and mattress. Most of us had never seen a hammock, and it was a very puzzling time, to say the least. It was sometime in the middle of the night, and after staring at the stuff, and asking each other what goes where, most just curled up in a blanket on the floor to wait for morning.”
“The cardinal sin in training was to drop your rifle,” recalled Wilf Fortier. “One hot afternoon in Toronto, I grew sleepy parading around and dropped it. The PO made me do four trips around the grounds with my rifle over my head. I didn’t drop it again.”
The Royal Canadian Navy began the conflict with a meagre force of six destroyers and five minesweepers. It would grow fifty-fold, to more than 400 fighting ships manned by 100,000 officers and crew.
Three luxury liners were bought from CN Steamships and converted to armed merchant cruisers. The 6000-ton Prince Robert, armed with six-inch guns dating from 1896, left her Vancouver shipyard in “in a very unready state,” according to her captain.
Requisitioned fishing boats swept east coastal water for mines, rather than cod. Canadian agents surreptitiously purchased yachts from owners in the still-neutral United States. Once in Canada, the yachts were refitted, armed with .303 machine guns, and assigned to coastal defence.
Ron Head’s first posting was on the West Coast as an asdic operator aboard the converted yacht HMCS Sans Peur. “She was a beautiful ship,” he remembered, “but a just a bathtub to take to sea. In port, she rolled like a cork in the lightest wake of a passing ship.
“One day, we got the call that there was a disabled freighter off Cape Flattery, in the Juan de Fuca Strait. The captain, a RN guy, was chomping at the bit for some action. He volunteered to go out and assist her. We set out from Esquimalt, and soon ran into 90-100 mph winds. The water looked like mountain ranges with their peaks blown flat. Poor Sans Peur was like a duck. The bow ploughed into the sea and a green one swept over the bridge. The asdic cabin sat on top of the bridge, like a little treehouse. It blew all the wood frame windows out of the asdic shack. The only thing that kept iton the bridge was the wiring that went down through the deckhouse! Fortunately, the operator was able to get the hell out of there.
“Eighteen inches of water washed into the galley, sweeping most of the food away. Another wave demolished the motorboat. All that was left was a chunk of transom hanging onto the mooring. The officers’ quarters, below deck, were flooded with two feet of water. They had left the door open for ventilation.
"Fifty miles off Cape Flattery, we were told to turn around. The 10,000-ton vessel we went out to rescue made it okay, but we limped into port looking like a stomped-on tin can.”
Sans Peur and her crew recovered from their beating to undertake A/S patrols off the West Coast. Head: “We were ordered to investigate an attack on the Estevan Point lighthouse by what was suspected to be a Japanese raider. When we arrived, there were only a few fishing boats anchored in the bay for the night. They had probably heard about the attack on Estevan, so they were pretty spooked. We came up doing all of fifteen knots and put a searchlight on them.” A fisherman, no clothes on, jumped on the deck of his seiner, waving a white sheet in our lights.”
By 1941, the burden of Canada’s escort and anti-submarine duties mainly fell on her hastily assembled fleet of corvettes. These “cheap and nasties”, and the ill-trained, inexperienced sailors aboard them, held the line against the U-boat menace until a more effective A/S warship took to the seas.
“They were squat as a duck, but by no means an ugly duckling” in the eyes of John Rowland, who was drafted aboard HMCS Ville de Quebec. “They were tough to ride in, believe me. They rolled and pitched and could climb up forty foot waves and coast down into the troughs when you thought they were not going to make it. My heart sank lots of times, but never my ship.”
Life aboard a corvette meant many things to the men who sailed in them. “It was a real experience,” remembered Murray Anderson, who served in HMCS Drumheller. “About 95 guys, all eating, working and sleeping in such crampt quarters.”
“Often the after decks were awash even in a moderate sea,” Rowland recounted. “Sometimes 300-pound depth charges broke loose in a storm to roll around in the well that was waist deep in salt water. The only way to capture them, without a man getting crushed, was to hem them in with bags of potatoes so a line could secure them.”
Bill Royds was posted to HMCS Nanaimo in February 1942. “She was a Wet Ship, a short foc’sle, short range corvette. At first, our anti-aircraft weaponry was a single, stripped, Lewis-gun on a unipod mount. Wires were placed strategically to prevent our gunner from shooting holes in our funnel. Later, we mounted twin 50-calibre Colt machine guns, one set on either side of the bridge.
“For the next 18 months it was four hours on and four hours off on a primitive anti-submarine device, the type 128 asdic. And two years of small ship frustration and frequent sea-sickness. The captain, a fine man named Lt. Ernest Usher-Jones, had a day bed on the bridge and we each had our own sea-sickness bucket.”
Anderson, a telegraphist, "lived in the communications mess deck with 4 Tels, 4 Coders, 4 Signal Men, and the ship’s steward. It was the width of the ship, about 25 feet, and extended 20 feet, fore and aft, with about 7 feet of headroom. There was a large rack to store the hammocks, and two tables, one on each side of the ship, bolted to the deck, with benches also bolted to the deck on each side of the table.
“Lockers were located underneath the benches on the hull side of the tables, where we stored our property. There was a cupboard against the bulkhead, where we kept dishes, mugs, and some food, like bread, butter, and coffee.
“When at sea, we slept mostly dressed, with our boots stored in the cords at the foot of our hammock, and life jacket at the head. When the alarm sounded you grabbed a pipe or whatever was near your head and lowered yourself down to the deck, slid on your boots, grabbed your life jacket and any other jacket you would need, and up the steps to your action station. If the crew on watch had dropped a few depth charges that were now exploding, jarring the ship with a loud bang, that gave you a real boost in speed!”
Art Roberts was a Petty Officer aboard HMCS Dundas. “In short foc’sle corvettes, ABs in the forward mess had to go outside and up three or four steps to the galley to fetch their food through a Dutch door. It was bumpy at the best of times. In dirty weather, you made a dash for the messdeck. The fried eggs would blow off your china plate if you didn’t cover it with another plate.”
“We would take our plates to the galley,” wrote Anderson, “where the cooks prepared some kind of stuff for us to eat, which we carried back, walking on a heaving, rolling deck. We sat at the table, with our legs braced so as to stay on the bench. With one hand holding the plate on the table, you ate with the other.”
Tom Hind remembered “a telegraphist who was sick so often he would hold a bucket between his legs at the meal table. He didn’t get better until we were in the Mediterranean. Some of the greener ones were afraid of throwing up in their ’micks, so they slept on deck, huddled at the base of the funnel. We called them Funnel Rangers. We would kid them that they were just afraid of being last off the ship if we got torpedoed.”
“I don’t know what I hated the most,” reflected Rowland, “the numbing cold and dampness of an open bridge, the tumultuous seas for days on end, or the almost perpetual fog of the western part of the North Atlantic.”
Leisure time for Anderson and his mates “was spent sitting around under the occupied hammocks, drinking coffee, telling yarns, or doing your personal chores, like washing clothes or blankets in a milk can. No washing machines on our ship! We took the sopping wet material out to a cat-walk that crossed the top of the ship’s boilers, where it was hung to dry. Even a blanket with a couple gallons of water still in it, would dry in about half an hour. We had no showers on corvettes. You did your washing standing in front of a wash basin.”
“Everyone pitched in aboard the ship,” remembered Herb Brown, an A/A gunnner on HMCS Kincardine. We took turns carrying the food down from the galley and washing up the dishes. And everyone looked out for his mates. If a seaman got drunk ashore, we made sure he got back aboard and safely into his mick. You knew that, if the time came, that guy would be there for you, hauling you out of the sea onto a raft.”
“One day, at the 0400 change of watch,” related Roberts, “we found a seamen up in the crowsnest, passed out from the smoke of the funnel. A big, husky farm boy from New Brunswick.
“Not wanting to report it, we fixed a rope under his arms and started to lower him down in the dead of night. As the ship rolled, he began to swing wider and wider. We kept running him down, praying he wouldn’t slip the rope and fall in the sea.
“We were getting weak from the weight. Finally, when he was low enough, and swinging inboard, we let him go and he landed on some sacks of spuds. We slung him in his hammock, pretty badly lumped and still out like a light.
“When he finally came to and wanted to make his watch, I told him he had been named ‘Sailor of the Month’, and could stay in his ’mick.”
In 1941, HMCS Skeena was escorting a convoy near the coast of Newfoundland when, running short of fuel, she was forced to break away and make for St. John’s. Running into a heavy fog, Skeena received a message that a surfaced U-boat was thought to be in the area.
“The canteen offered a prize to the first guy to sight it,” Frank Aldred remembered. “There were lookouts everywhere. One officer climbed up the mast. Somehow, his wristwatch came off and fell down the funnel. Everyone cheered.”
Shortly after, a small object was detected on radar. Approaching it, the destroyer fired two rounds from her B-gun. In a break in the fog, the anxious sailors spotted a small fishing boat. Skeena abruptly changed course and made for harbour. When Aldred went ashore at Newfyjohn, a girl told him, “I hear you been shootin’ at some of our boys!” Word traveled fast on the Rock.
Ed O’Connor and his shipmates in HMCS Morden had their own run-in with fishermen off Newfoundland. “I was on the radar set during a feavy fog off Newfie when we all but ran down a small fishing boat that hadn’t been picked up on the set. I had a call from the skipper on the bridge saying, ‘I think you’d better come out and get your share of this.’ I did so and got my share of beign cussed out as only a Newfie fisherman could manage. Fists were being shaken and there was a good deal of reference to our ancestry. I went back to the set a little shaken.”
The corvette HMCS Charlottetown was commissioned in December 1941 and assigned to the Western Local Escort Force. AB Joe Montgomery was a Submarine Detector Operator aboard her: “The top of our run was off the coast of Newfoundland, where we turned over our convoys to the escort group from St. John’s, who escorted them to Londonderry. AB John Garland, who had been celebrating his time ashore, came back during the night with a little dog tucked underneath his arm.” It was dubbed “Screech”, after the local drink, as cheap as it was powerful.
“The dog and the sailor became inseparable,” wrote Montgomery. “They scrounged the dog’s food from the galley and were together 24 hours a day.”
But the demands of a crowded corvette, particularly at Action Stations, precluded the presence of a terrier. Montgomery was detailed by the Senior Leading Seaman to break the news to Garland that Screech would have to go. “Garland didn’t say much but he agreed and the next time we went to Newfoundland he went ashore with Screech. When he came back he was alone.”
“Months later, we were tied up in Halifax, about three ships out from the jetty,” remembered Montgomery. “I was working on the quarterdeck when one of the fellows hollered for us to take a look at what was coming down the jetty. It was Screech. The chap who had spotted Screech made his way over the ships, picked up the dog, brought him aboard and turned him over to Garland. No one ever complained about the dog again.”
In early December 1941, while in Iceland, HMCS Restigouche was ordered to join a convoy bound for Halifax. The crew rejoiced; they would be back in Canada for Christmas.
King Neptune decreed otherwise.
Shortly after they steamed out of Hvalfjord on the 12th, Rustyguts and her accompanying five corvettes ran into the teeth of a vicious snowstorm. Over the following hours the crews held on for life and limb as the storm grew in ferocity...now a gale...now a full-blown hurricane...now a three-day nightmare.
Sixty years fades many wartime memories. Not so the memory of that storm.
Norm Ritchie was a gunner aboard Restigouche. For a full three days, he and his mates paid no heed to the ship’s guns. Their only concern was keeping the battered and tossed destroyer afloat.
“Three days out of Iceland, we hit ’er. The barometer went out of sight. Panic Stations. I was in a shore-up party in the wardroom. Lots of water in there. The tiller flats was flooded. We had a bucket brigade organized because the pumps choked up and quit.
“I never saw bulkheads that would bend so much and not break with the weight of the water. You had clamps, settings on the steel decks of the wardroom, or wherever you were detailed to go. They were hard oak, with steel ends. You had to go underwater to get the pin in the bottom to anchor the shoring deal, then put it up against the bulkhead, then put the pin in the tongs up there. If you were lucky it held.
“There wasn’t a dry piece of clothing aboard. There was nothing to eat. Nobody could cook nothing, because everything was a’tip, pulverized.
“The captain told the crew that we were turning in the trough. He opened the canteen and wished us luck. We each had our tot, and we turned about.
“She had a bellyful of water; but if that ship had been built like your Liberties, with welded seams, she would have broke her back. Kaiser made a fortune with the Liberty ships. Get ’em out there, they broke their backs. Lucky she was built in the UK, with rivets. She gives, she moves, she’ll leak, eventually, but she won’t break. That’s the only reason I’m here today.
“The lifeline started at the break of the foc’sle. It was a steel wire with a hook around the main line, and that was your lifeline to get to the quarterdeck. If you don’t hang on to that, you ain’t gonna make it.
“One casualty: Lt. Moore got a broken leg when a depth charge rolled towards him when they went back to lash them down on the quarterdeck. They bust loose. We were hove-to, loosing our depth charges. Torpedo School wouldn’t admit this, but the d/c’s would explode even when set for safe. They were loosening our rivets.
“Ian was a chief down in the stokehold. He said they wondered what the hell was going on, with all the banging and the smashing. I mean, this thing was built like flypaper. She was light, under 2000 ton, and you’re down there, with 10 feet of keel under you, I mean, what the hell do you think, with patterns of d/c’s going off and the whole nine yards?
“The main mast came down over the number one funnel and cut off our communication. Those guys had to get out there, the sparkers, and re-rig that thing and get the old radio working again. Cut off everything.
“And we never saw the corvettes who were coming back to Canada. We never knew who they were.
“It was a real piss-up, for 72 hours, a little over three days, till we got back into Greenoch again, where we spent Christmas. Lucky to make it.”
“It was a hell of a storm,” agreed George Westbrook, “Damn near lost the ship.” His ship was HMCS Bittersweet, a short-foc'sle corvette. “Coming out of harbour in Iceland, we was bucking the waves. The Old Man kept us going. We dared not turn. He kept saying, ‘Don’t let her broach!’ Don’t let her turn sideways or we had it. If we had let her broach, we would’ve wheeled over, I’m sure of it. There was no turning back. We never saw one of the convoy we were supposed to pick up.
“We lost all our boats, all our carley floats. The funnel was stoved-in, the wheelhouse was all buggered, the upper deck was just wrecked.
“The skipper never seen the bar go so low. After about a day and a half we lost the dome off the asdic. The whole chain locker filled up. The First Lieutenant wanted to pump it out, but Captain Balfrey said, ‘No bloody way!’ Gave us weight up front. He knew what he was doing.
“Three solid days. I seen guys that were hard-rocks, boy, they were on their knees praying. When I was up in the wheelhouse, you would look up and the moon would disappear from a wave coming at you. Terrible.”
The war came closer to home in 1942. “In July Charlottown was taken off the triangle run to escort ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” wrote Montgomery.
On the dark night of 6 September 1942, U-165, under KL Eberhard Hoffman, sighted Convoy QS-33, eight merchant ships and their escorts, bound for Sydney. At 2110, a Greek freighter, Aeas, was hit by a torpedo and quickly sank. Shortly after midnight, the little armed yacht, HMCS Raccoon was hit “with three-quarters of a ton of explosive, obliterating her in two closely spaced thunderous blasts.” [Canadian Naval Chronicle, p.67]
Weeks later, the body of Slt. Russ McConnell was recovered. The rest of Raccoon’s complement of 37 was never found.
Continued Montgomery: “We had taken a small convoy up the St. Lawrence and dropped it off at Rimouski, Quebec, and were returning to Gaspe. A German submarine hit us on September 11, 1942, at exactly 8 o’clock in the morning.”
The submarine was U-517, under the capable command of KL Paul Hartwig.
“We were hit with two torpedoes containing high explosives and the ship went down in three and a half minutes. Somehow the dog and Garland were separated and Garland went down with the ship. I don’t know how Screech made it to the carley-float, but he was there. We were picked up about three and a half hours later by the minesweeper Clayoquot.
“After we were rescued I was in the hospital and never knew what had happened to the dog. They told me that he had been taken home by two brothers who were stokers on the ship. Later, the dog was sent to Cum-By-Chance to the widow of AB Bowser, a good friend of Garland. Bowser had been killed by our own depth charges. Screech was in Newfoundland to stay.”
The randomness of a crew-assignment, sheer luck, inexplicable chance…any of these would determine whether a sailor survived the war or drowned.
Sidney Pegg was a gunner aboard HMCS Ottawa, one of the original six destroyers with which Canada went to war. Crews of 4 or 5 manned each of her guns. “As the Gun Layer, I adjusted the vertical aim,” Pegg related. “The Gun Trainer, to my left, moved the gun horizontally.
“In July 1942, half way across on a run from Londonderry to Newfoundland, five of us came down with the mumps. I spent the rest of the trip laid up in my ’mick. In St. John’s, they sent us to a civilian hospital, where I spent about a week. Ottawa sailed without us."
On September 13, in mid-Atlantic, a torpedo struck Ottawa under her forward messdeck. The venerable warship came to rest on an even keel. Another escort, adjudging her not to be in mortal danger, peeled away to aid a stricken freighter, her survivors already in the sea.
The mortal blow for Ottawa came minutes later: a second torpedo. It struck amidships, where laden lifeboats had been lowered into the sea. A seaman who had had his appendix removed the previous day was helped from the sickbay into a lifeboat, just before the torpedo obliterated it.
Pegg, who had been assigned to the minesweeper HMCS Malpeque, found out that the man who replaced him on the Ottawa “didn’t make it.”
Neither did LCdr. C. A. Rutherford. He had given his life belt to a rating.
The Flower class corvette HMCS Weyburn was escorting a convoy just off Gibraltar on the morning of 23 February 1943. At about 1017, in calm seas, she struck a mine, and routine was instantly transformed to chaos.
Coder Tom Hind was on watch in the signal office when the explosion rocked the ship. “The next thing I knew I was standing on the upper decks.” Hind had made a practice of leaving the hatch above him open, in the event the door became jammed. The explosion caved in the signal room, and catapulted the sailor through the opening. Stunned and bleeding from back and head wounds, he landed on the shattered deck.
Fred Dixon and William White were thrown over the stern rail. They managed to crab a carley float in the water.
Dazed ratings stumbled up from below decks, through lightless passages and the searing spray of burst steam pipes. Trapped in the flooding engine room, stoker Melvin Morrison never made it topside.
Lt. Pat Milsom and Sub-Lt. Wilfred Bark hit the deck to find LCdr. Thomas Golby unconscious. They revived their badly-injured captain, who gave the order to abandon ship.
Milsom and Hind emptied the life belt lockers. Milsom "found many of the men already had given their own life belts to supplement those of others who were injured or were not strong swimmers. That was just like our men, thinking of the other fellow first.
Stoker Tom Baxter lay on the deck, his foot caught under an oil drum. “Get me a lifebelt, Jack,” he shouted to a mate. “My leg is gone and I can’t move.” Sickberth attendant James McPhail cut away his boot and released his broken leg.
Only one of the boats had survived the explosion. It was quickly loaded with the injured.
Tom Hind “was all set to jump overboard and swim to the rescue ship” when he noticed his friend, Tom Shelley, in the water. “He seemed to be having trouble with his life belt, which was tangled about him. After grappling with it for a few minutes, I finally got it free and the two of us started swimming toward the rescue destroyer, which was some 200 yards off.
“As we swam toward the destroyer, we turned to take a last look at the ship. All of a sudden, the sea seemed to explode and both of us were tossed high into the air by a gush of water.
“Shelley turned into me, sort of shielding me from the blast. He gave a loud groan and at the same time I thought my legs had been blown off. I felt a terrific pain around my stomach. I grabbed at Shelley just as we came down, but that was the last time I saw him.
“I was too weak to swim any more, so I rolled over on my back and floated. I was just about ready to sink from exhaustion and pain when I came across a life belt floating on the surface. The last thing I remember was taking hold of it.
“When I came to, I was in a nice warm bed and the doctor was bending over me mumbling something I couldn’t hear. He told me later that Shelley saved my life by taking the full force of the blast.”
The North Atlantic could be a fearsome enemy in its own right. In the winter of 1942-43 nearly a hundred ships went down in monstrous seas. Storms disabled a third of the Allied escorts. In March 1943 a ferocious gale wreaked havoc on two convoys. U-boats feasted on the dispersed vessels, sinking 22 of the 90 merchantmen and one escort.
The lucky ones ploughed on. Sailors stood watch through snow squalls and sub-zero temperatures. They scrambled across rolling, pitching decks, chipping away ice blocks whose accumulated weight could capsize a corvette. They snatched sleep when they could, on hammocks slung in cramped, reeking messdecks.
At times, even the soundest sea legs were no match for raging seas. George Withers recalled a friend, Alec Pastrie. “While he was aboard a destroyer, he was on the foc’sle and he wasn’t hooked up to a lifeline. A wave picked him up and lifted him off the bow and he ended up in the ogin, or the ocean as it’s called. Another wave put him on the quarterdeck on the stern end of that ship. And when he got on the ship he kissed the deck and crossed himself. He had red hair when he got swept off. When he came back, his hair was white as snow. He wasn’t in the water more than a couple of minutes.”
Ed O’Connor was a radar operator on HMCS Morden, a corvette. “Three of us volunteered to go to the engine room for water for a pot of kie for ourselves and the men we were to relieve. We made it safely back to the engine room and got half a farmer’s milk can of water. We tried to come back on the same port side but hardly got halfway before Morden heeled hard over to port and what seemed like half the Atlantic came aboard.
“Just before my head went under I saw the other two go over the side. I was close to blacking out when the ship righted itself. But before I could suck in any air, the next wave hit and I was strung out face down, not able to lift my head for the force of the water. When that wave passed, the water left suddenly and I was dropped to the deck. I struggled to my feet, amazed to see the other two back on board.
“We wasted no time grabbing up the can of water and making it to the messdeck. There we got some strange looks and somebody asked if it was raining out or what. While we toweled ourselves off and changed clothes we told them what had happened. Jack Hughes joked that we should be put on charge for leaving the ship without permission.”
Pounding waves snuffed out galley stoves, forcing crews to subsist for days on corned beef and hard tack. Seasick prairie boys alternately prayed to live and yearned to die.
They were always wet, always cold. And always there was the knife-edge suspense: at any moment, the sighted periscope, the wail of action stations, the white wake of a torpedo across the bow, the fireball and blast of an exploding tanker, the distant cries of survivors in an oil-slicked, burning sea.
Don MacKechnie was a Coder aboard the frigate H.M.C.S. Grou. He remembered “hours of boredom followed by minutes of absolute terror. We could be at action stations for from half an hour to two days. Otherwise, we just tried to keep alert and keep food in our belly.” Up to a hundred men were “living in everybody else’s sweat”.
All that, Bill Royds noted, “for a buck and a quarter a day”.
All of the worst of war at sea--the monotony, the cold, the sleeplesness, the dread anticipation--was often mercifully relieved by lighter moments.
At Up Spirits, each sailor’s tot of rum was mixed with water or coke. If a rating wanted his rum neat, he would have to drink it in front of the officer of the day. This was intended to prevent hoarding of the booze. It also brought out the inventiveness in seamen.
Inside his uniform jumper, Ron Head kept an empty coke bottle with a small funnel. Turning his back to the officer, he slipped his tot down the funnel, rather than his throat. “Before long, I had 106 ounces of rum saved up. I stashed it in the asdic well.”
Two entrepreneurial AB’s on the frigate Grou hit on the idea of offering laundry service to their messmates. For 25 cents, they would wash a seaman’s clothes. They simply trailed the laundry, bundled in netting, aft of the ship during the night, letting sea water and the wake of the ship churn the clothing clean. Sailors, none the wiser, assumed their new laundry service spent their off-duty hours dhobeying. The plan worked to perfection, until the night the trailing rope broke. Their profits, and much of their later pay, were lost by way of reparation.
In 1943 the battle turned in the Allies’ favour. Training and tactics improved. New frigates, with improved detection equipment and weaponry, hunted U-boats in independent Support Groups.
Convoys finally got air cover in the Black Pit. The United States transferred long-range Liberator bombers from the Pacific. The British put makeshift flight decks on merchant ships. Radar-equipped aircraft pounced on U-boats, strafing them before they could dive.
The climactic confrontation came in May, when sixty U-boats converged on convoy ONS5 in mid-Atlantic. Six ships were torpedoed on May 5. The following night, the packs closed in for the kill.
But fog set in, concealing the convoy. A support group raced to the scene. The escorts homed in on the U-boats with radar, destroying five of them by ramming and depth charging. Two subs collided in the fog and sank. The dispirited packs withdrew.
Now Dönitz’s losses had mounted to “an intolerable level”: 41 U-boats in May alone. The admiral’s youngest son, Peter, went down with U-954, sunk by a Liberator.
On 24 February 1944, HMCS Waskesiu was 17 days out on her run from Londonderry, and only 19 days under her new captain. The night was dark, the seas running under a moderate swell.
Shortly after 0200, Waskesiu’s asdic operator reported a sub contact. LCdr. Fraser ordered a Hedgehog attack on the target. The projectiles having missed the submerged U-boat, there was no detonation. A flare was dropped off her stern as the frigate steamed ‘over the plot’. By now, asdic contact had been lost. Turning about, Waskesiu increased speed to 15 knots and dropped a depth charge to rattle the unseen U-boat.
U-257, under Kapitänleutnant Heinz Rahe, had been submerged since 2300, when her radar picked up the presence of Waskesiu. The first charge, albeit close, caused no damage. Rahe ordered his boat to descend.
A few minutes later, Waskesiu regained contact. At 0226, Fraser ordered a full pattern depth charge attack. It rocked the unseen quarry.
Patiently, methodically, Waskesiu prowled the area, ears in the asdic hut awaiting contact echoes, eyes on the bridge and decks trained on the sea, still eerily illuminated by the flare.
Bruce Menzies and Andy Kaija were on the asdic. “Blood and fear was running through your body at the same time,” wrote Menzies. Then you got down to working out the route. Orders were coming fast.”
Waskesiu’s Chief Engineer was Lt. Fred “Popeye” Rennie. The 48-year-old had bolted from his bunk at the first sound of Action Stations. Upon ascertaining that the engine room was in good order, Rennie made his way to the wardroom. As the deadly cat-and-mouse game proceeded over the following hours, Rennie settled into his own game of solitaire.
Hurrying to join the hunt was HMS Nene. Cdr. John O. Bush, RNR, SO, ordered Fraser to delay further attacks until Nene had contact.
At 0410, while cruising at 5 knots, Waskesiu regained contact. The sub was running deep. Shortly after, Nene had contact as well, but classified it as “non-sub”. Cdr. Bush, deciding to abandon the apparently fruitless chase, ordered Waskesiu to rejoin the convoy.
Fraser, reluctant to concede Waskesiu’s efforts wasted, requested permission for one more attack. It was granted. His intuition trusted his asdic team, which was convinced it had a good contact. Running at 10 knots, the frigate took her last shot: a ten-charge pattern.
To George Devonshire, “it must have been pure hell down there.” To U-257’s 3rd watch officer, Ltz.S. Waldemar Nickel, it very nearly was. “A lot of water entered through several leaks and the rudders were blocked.” The game was up. Rahe surfaced his crippled boat.
At 0550, the frigate’s surface radar made a contact. AB William Booth was on the No. 1 Oerlikon gun. “Someone hollered there was an object on the surface, off the port bow.”
“It surfaced at a good rate of speed about 1800 yards away,” reported Fraser. “We illuminated it with star shells and searchlights.”
To Nene, Fraser signalled: “HEARSE PARKED”.
“Then we opened up on it with everything we had. Our 4-inch guns made four hits on the conning tower.”
Inside U-257, the sounds of impacting rounds nearly drowned out the shouts of command. Nickel was in the control room “to arrange the order ‘all people out of the boat’. Even there I could smell the powder-smoke of detonations. Fortunately, there was no panic among the crew when they climbed out of the boat.”
“It was wonderful gunnery,” the soft-spoken Fraser observed. “Our No. 1 Oerlikon never wasted a cartridge.”
Stephenson downplayed his marksmanship: “I couldn’t miss at that range. She was a sitting duck, really.”
For AB Clifford Adams, “the action period seemed long, but otherwise routine. Then, when the sub surfaced and Stevenson was shooting at the Germans as they exited the tower, I knew it was for real.”
The blasts from the No. 1 gun also jolted Rennie from the routine. “Depth charges were being dropped, but they didn’t bother me. Then I heard the forward gun firing and I knew we were in for trouble. I made for the deck as fast as I could go.”
U-257 slowly crossed the frigate’s bow to her port side. Only 100 yards away, Fraser couldn’t alter course in time to ram her. But he could hammer her with the No. 2 Oerlikon: “It, too, banged right on the conning tower. The Germans couldn’t reach their guns to answer back.”
AB William Knox was on the No. 2 gun crew: “The Germans were coming out the conning tower, and we knocked about four right into the water.”
“During the action, the starboard searchlight failed,” remembered AB Walter Ritchie. “Gerry Leahy and Gord Taylor were repairing it when ricochet bullets from some ship passed over their heads. They ducked down behind the canvas dodger. When it was over, we all had a great laugh, thinking what protection they would get from a piece of canvas.”
AB Arthur Wall, a Gunlayer on No. 2 gun aft, remembers vividly the battle’s close: “The instant I pulled the trigger on the last shell we fired, the searchlight on the bridge illuminated the conning tower of U-257. A figure I assume was her CO became the cross in the crosswire of my gunsight. He was waving his arms and I’m sure was trying to signal their surrender.”
The gesture was foregone. Fifteen minutes after surfacing, still under withering fire, her crewmen tumbling into the sea, U-257 had had enough. Her bow sank down, her stern reared up to nearly vertical, and she slipped under the roiling black waters.
Survivors of the sub later stated that KL Rahe, deciding to go down with his boat, threw his lifejacket and one-man dinghy to men in the water.
The Waskesiu had become the first Canadian frigate to sink a U-boat. From HMS Nene came the signal: “A grand effort and all alone you did it. My warmest congratulations to all on board for your fine achievement.”
“Sunk the damn thing,” wrote Gordon Arnold. “We’re as happy as hell and twice as excited."
From the black night came cries of “Hello, Kamerad! Hello, Kamerad!” Lifejacket whistles shrilled. Whalers from the Waskesiu and the Nene were lowered into the heaving swells.
Arthur Wall would reflect: “You had to feel sympathy for men in those cold, stormy conditions.”
On “a pitch dark new-moon-night”, Nickel was in the water three-quarters of an hour before Nene picked him up. By 0852, Nene had rescued 15 U-boatmen. Only four Germans managed to make it to Waskesiu.
Devonshire later wrote: “Presumably, the survivors were the ones who stayed below until after we checked fire, and those who were lucky enough to leave the submarine just before she sank.”
The frigates pulled away to rejoin their convoy. “We did not stay long in the area,” remembered Devonshire. “Some were still alive as we pulled away. We could not see them in the dark, but I could hear them calling out as we got underway.”
“After helping them aboard,” Menzies recalled, “we put them in the shower and gave them dry clothing. Seeing them later that day, having a smoke and talking with their mates, they seemed to be like us.”
Fraser observed that the German survivors were “young men with fantastic beliefs” about the destruction their Luftwaffe had inflicted on Britain and her air force. One survivor, an ardent Nazi, kept repeating “England kaput!”
Over the next few days the crew sized up the four prisoners. A couple of the ratings collected their signatures. The sailors showed them the guns and charges that had destroyed their U-boat. The Germans were later permitted to join some of the sailors in their mess deck, to listen to the radio.
They arrived in Londonderry on the 28th. “The army lads were there to take prisoners,” wrote AB Gordon Arnold. “They didn’t want to leave us. We said goodbye to them all. We had grown to like them and we believe they liked us. However, we haven’t forgotten the Tweed, or that it may have been us.”
On the eve of Christmas 1944, HMCS Grou oiled up at Milford Haven and put out to sea. The upper deck watches “were muffled like pandas against the biting wind and the damp, cold snow”, remembered Don MacKechnie.
The dejected crew soon learned they would still be out on patrol for New Year’s Eve. Captain Howard Dupont promised his men a combined party they would not soon forget.
“Cooks who had spent weeks fighting the pitch and roll of a ship at sea to turn out three reasonably decent meals a day, now used tender, loving care to produce a meal worthy of the celebration. It was all there: the turkey, the dressing, the cranberry sauce, the pudding, plus two bottles of beer for every man aboard, courtesy of the ship’s officers.
“After the beer was gone, various crew members began digging into personal lockers and ditty bags, and long-concealed hoards of a variety of happy water appeared.
“I don’t remember who started singing. Someone, almost certainly influenced by both the rum and the tree, began it softly... ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’. The final words of the song came out as “in nineteen forty-five.”
Someone noted that there was a piano aboard the ship tied up alongside. “It took a moment to sink in. In the next quarter hour, minor miracles were wrought, and a growing band of rum-fueled carolers surrounded the ‘borrowed’ piano!”
By evening, burly Stoker Danny Greenfield had the piano all to himself. “He played beautifully,” recalled MacKechnie. “We were a well-knit, competent crew, most of whom had been aboard for over a year. But on this one day, we were a family.”
The corvette HMCS Lachute was in mid-Atlantic in 1945 when Lt. Ray Hatrick asked a 21-year-old gunnery officer to give Easter Sunday service. The sea was “calm as a millpond,” Ray McColl remembered, as, “humbled and exhilarated”, he gave his first sermon to sixty of the crew. “Most of them had gone to Sunday school. They knew the hymns.”
His calling found, the big, affable McColl spent four years after the war on the missionary boat Thomas Crosby. In villages along B.C.’s northern coast, his stentorian sermons boomed like the guns of his old warship.
Reverend McColl has officiated five Battle of the Atlantic services. Among the names on the Sailors’ Memorial in North Vancouver are two of his friends, lost with 99 others on the Spikenard and the Esquimalt.
Canada’s navy lost 2,210 sailors and 24 warships in the Battle of the Atlantic. The RCAF lost 752 airmen. One of every eight (1,629) Canadian merchant sailors died.
The Germans paid dearly, too: seven out of every ten U-boatmen perished in their “iron coffins”.
A half century later, reflecting on the enemy, Waskesiu veteran Andy Kaija wrote, “U-boats were our greatest danger, and the enemy at that time was to be destroyed. As for the U-boatsmen, their hardship was great.”
U-257 survivor Waldemar Nickel remembered what an officer aboard the Nene told him as he was about to disembark in Londonderry: "I hope that you felt happy aboard the Nene in these circumstances. As long as your submarine swam, we were enemies. When your boat sank, you were shipwrecked people for us, and sailors all over the world will always understand."
By war’s end, almost 26,000 merchant ship voyages crossed the Atlantic. They bore the 181 million tons of food and material that kept Britain going, and the armies that liberated Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Canada’s sailors saw many of them across a grim, grey battlefield.
"Next to one’s own ship," wrote Bill Royds, "we all had a sense of pride in our mates, our officers, and our ability to withstand the foul weather, the terrible food, the sudden alarms, the incessant training, and the cramped quarters. In another life, we might not have been close friends, but on a ship of war there is no room for pettiness. One’s life depended on the other man, and he in turn depended on you to do your job.”
It was a job well done.
Copyright 2000 ~ G.M. McGregor
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