By Terry Hughes
Our picture with this month’s column signifies how Canada’s role during WW2 changed from a defensive posture to acts of an aggressive nature against Germany. Until 1943 the Royal Canadian Navy had been primarily defending convoys from U-boats using Corvettes, a small escort vessel of just over 200 feet long.
The navy in 1944 received the latest type of destroyer from British shipyards that were called the Tribal class. They were named after First Nation bands of Canada. The first four were Huron, Athabaskan, Iroquois and Haida.
Although they could be used as escort ships on convoy duty, these vessels were intended to take the fight to the Germans in an offensive role. They carried four turrrets with the main armament of eight 4.7 guns, four torpedo tubes and an array of anti-aircraft weapons. They could move through the sea at more than forty miles per hour. Later, they would be joined by four other ships of this class from Canadian shipyards.
By 1944 the Tribals would seek out and attack German convoys along the coast of France. Often, these convoys were escorted by German destroyers and needed to be engaged. Using a British cruiser to identify these convoys with star shells, the Canadians aggressively engaged the Germans often sinking or severely damaging their vessels. Unfortunately, during one of these engagements, HMCS Athabaskan was struck by a German torpedo causing an explosion and rapidly sinking her. Some 128 crew members died.
Word of the sinking did not reach Canada immediately but when it did two families from Welland were thinking the worst. Fortunately, Petty Officer Alec Love was on furlough and did not reach the ship before it sailed but the other Wellander had a more interesting encounter.
HMCS Haida had chased the two German destroyers after Athabaskan sunk, sinking one. She returned to the site where Athabaskan had gone down and dropped one of her motorized launches to pick up survivors. Because it was becoming light, Haida did not want to risk being hit by shore gun installations and left the small launch to fend for themselves. A Wellander, Signalman Thomas Eady was one of these people and thankfully, they made it to England.
The photograph (Department of National Defence) shows HMCS Nootka, somewhat “defanged” with smaller armament, knifing through the Atlantic Ocean during NATO exercises being used in an anti-submarine role. The surviving Tribal class ship, Haida, sits in Hamilton Harbour as a national war exhibit. Visit this ship because she has a big story to tell as Canada’s fighting lady!
Next Column: Celebrating Christmas with Family.
(Terry Hughes is a Wellander who is passionate about heritage, history and model railroading. His column, Heritage Lives, appears on the blog once or twice monthly.)