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Dispatching The Destroyers: Navy, Part 22



Clockwise from top: His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Saguenay off Halifax in the fall of 1940; ratings man an anti-aircraft gun; a 1940 inspection of HMCS Restigouche.

The German landings in Norway in April 1940 were a portend. The Phoney War had ended and with the spring came the long expected German assault on the Low Countries and France. That attack started in earnest on May 10 with German forces pouring through Belgium and quickly crushing resistance in the Netherlands. Allied armies seemed helpless. Senior planners had stretched their forces thin in an attempt to be strong everywhere, and so there was little to stop the German armoured forces when they burst through the Ardennes forests and onto the plains of Flanders.

By May 23 the Canadian government received an urgent request to dispatch all available Royal Canadian Navy destroyers to Europe. As the Canadian High Commissioner to London, Vincent Massey, implored, this was because of the “possibility in (the) near future of (a) sea-borne invasion of (the) United Kingdom.” Nothing like this had happened since 1805, and Napoleon’s aborted plans for invasion. The impact of these momentous developments on the Canadian navy was profound. Indeed, it was the start of a three-year crisis that proved to be the formative experience in Canadian naval history.

When news of the attack on France and the Low Countries broke, the RCN’s strength was little changed from that at the outset of the war in September 1939. When the destroyer Assiniboine joined the fleet in October the plans to purchase a half-flotilla and a flotilla leader were complete. The other vessels called into wartime service–a motley collection of government ships and yachts–did little to augment the combat strength of the fleet. Contracts for Tribal-class destroyers had not yet been let, and the first corvettes and Bangor-class minesweepers were just being laid down–so Canada had little to offer. The destroyers Saguenay, Skeena, Ottawa, Restigouche, St. Laurent and Assiniboine were all operating from Halifax, assigned to local escort duty, but not all were readily available for overseas deployment. Two, Ottawa and Assiniboine, were in refit, and Skeena and St. Laurent had just completed an overhaul and were at least mechanically sound and ready to go. Fraser, operating from Jamaica, had had a brief refit in the fall of 1939 and was in good shape. So, at least five of the seven RCN River-class destroyers were deployable at short notice.

The first Canadian destroyer to respond to the events in Europe was Fraser. In recent weeks she had intercepted and identified some 80 vessels in Caribbean waters, and had been so busy that the RCN released the old RN cruiser Caradoc from British Columbia waters to help her. Fraser and Caradoc were on patrol on May 10 when news of the attack on the Netherlands broke. The destroyer was immediately recalled to Kingston, Jamaica, where she took on 273 British troops and then sailed for Curacao in the Dutch West Indies in company with the cruiser. Upon arrival, the troops were landed to assist local Dutch authorities in maintaining order and, more importantly from the British perspective, to ensure the flow of oil from the vitally important Caribbean oil industry.

Between the time Fraser landed troops in Curacao and the time the Canadian government was requested to send whatever the RCN could spare in defence of Britain, events had moved very quickly in Western Europe. German armoured formations burst through the Ardennes on May 14 , taking the Allies completely by surprise and punching a hole in the middle of their lines. The next day the Netherlands surrendered, and on the 20th the Germans reached the English Channel: they had accomplished in a week what the German army had failed to do in four years of brutal fighting a generation earlier. What remained of the British Expeditionary Force plus several hundred thousand French and Belgians were trapped against the sea around Dunkirk.

It was on May 23, as the net closed around Dunkirk, that Massey telegraphed Ottawa to request the dispatch of whatever the RCN could spare. Uncertainty about what Italy would do, he said, had tied up British naval forces in the Mediterranean, and with the looming isolation of Britain from the continent there was danger that Germany’s U-boats would close for the kill. Then there was the very real possibility of invasion. The Germans had not gained superiority at sea, but their assault on the Netherlands and Belgium had unmasked the power of aerial assault.

The War Committee of the Canadian Cabinet met later in the day to consider Massey’s request. Rear-Admiral Percy Nelles reported that four of the navy’s seven destroyers could steam to the U.K. immediately. Two others were in refit in Halifax, and Fraser was committed to operations in the Caribbean. Cabinet approved sending four, but declined to leave the east coast utterly defenceless, and elected to send three from Halifax, in addition to Fraser. Their decision was eased by word that Winston Churchill, recently installed as British prime minister, had promised the Americans on May 15 that Britain would never surrender. Moreover, if it came to that, the RN would retreat to Canada to continue the war. This news allayed some of Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s fears about leaving Canada bereft of naval defence if, as he confided to his diary on May 24, the “Canadian destroyers never come back.” His anxiety was raised as well by the news that the senior officer of the flotilla being sent was his nephew, Lieutenant-Commander H.N. Lay, captain of Restigouche.

Lay’s ship, along with St. Laurent and Skeena, left Halifax on May 24. Their passage was uneventful. However, as they approached the entrance to the English Channel they were diverted to hunt U-101, believed to be off the island of Ushant in the approaches to Brest. The sub was also believed to have recently attacked a British convoy. Every man’s nerves were on edge, and most expected to make quick work of the sub. On the 31st the three ships searched in vain, attacking a number of contacts–all without success. British escorts in the area later claimed a kill. The hunt for U-101 was just the start, and the men of the RCN would soon learn that U-boats were remarkably hard to destroy. Late in the day, when their fuel was running low, the three ships shaped course for Plymouth, and arrived there that evening. Fraser joined them there on June 3. For the first time in its short history, the RCN had deployed combat vessels into an active theatre of war overseas.

The first task of the RCN destroyers was to have their anti-aircraft armament upgraded. By landing one set of torpedo tubes they could fit a three-inch high angle gun, and the largely ineffective two-pounder pom-poms were replaced by a pair of multi-barrelled .5-inch machine-guns. While all this was going on, Operation Dynamo–the evacuation of the Dunkirk pocket–took place: 350,000 British and French troops were saved. It was all over by the time destroyers were ready for service in the dangerous waters off the coast of France.

The RCN’s first operation in European waters started on the night of June 9-10, when St. Laurent and Restigouche joined Operation Cycle: the recovery of the 51st (Highland) Division from Le Havre, France, at the mouth of the Seine. While at sea the naval force learned that the Highlanders had actually retreated to Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, a tiny harbour further north amid the formidable cliffs of Haute, Normandy. Since the harbour was too small for even destroyers to enter, Lay sent Lieut. Desmond Piers and a small party off in Restigouche’s motor cutter into Saint-Valéry to see what could be done.

Meanwhile, St. Laurent, under Lt.-Cdr. Harry DeWolf, steered northeast along the coast and managed to recover about 40 French soldiers using her boats. Just as these were recovered and the destroyer turned back towards Saint-Valéry, St. Laurent was surrounded by shell splashes. “We were such innocent lambs for the slaughter,” then-Lieut. C.P. Nixon recalled many years later, “that we saw these splashes near the ship and it took a while to dawn on us that they were German ….” DeWolf immediately swung St. Laurent around and returned fire at the cliff top. “We felt better,” he said later. Although they never saw what fired on them, it is believed the shells came from German tanks. This brief incident near Saint-Valéry-en-Caux was the first-ever exchange of fire between the RCN and an enemy.

While DeWolf made RCN history up the coast, Piers had no luck ashore in Saint-Valéry. The British refused to be evacuated because they had not been ordered to do so, and Piers had to depart in frustration. Restigouche stood in to meet the motor cutter as it came out, with St. Laurent and the British destroyer Saladin standing by, which was just as well. No sooner had Restigouche’s boat handlers snapped the falls onto their cutter than shells from a German artillery battery began to splash perilously close. Lay ordered the destroyer to full speed and started evasive manoeuvres while his sailors worked feverishly to get the cutter onto her deck, with–as Piers recalled–“shrapnel whizzing through the rigging.” All the destroyers returned fire, again to no effect. With that they headed for Plymouth, leaving the Highlanders to their fate.

While the Canadian destroyers busied themselves over the next 10 days with escorting troop convoys into the U.K. and sweeping for U-boats, France collapsed. On the day of the RCN’s first duel with the enemy, Paris fell, and soon the Germans were pouring across the Loire River into the south.

British attempts to evacuate troops from Saint-Nazaire ended in catastrophe on the 17th when the Cunard liner Lancastrian was bombed and sunk with as many as 11,500 people aboard: only 2,500 were saved. It was the single largest maritime disaster in British history. By then, Fraser and Restigouche were operating near the French-Spanish border, as part of a larger force bringing away as many people as possible. There, on June 21, Fraser happened upon a small sardine boat beating her way through heavy seas and rain. Aboard were the British ambassador, the South African minister to France and Georges P. Vanier, the Canadian minister to France. They were soon transferred to the cruiser Galatea, which immediately departed for England. Restigouche, too, soon left, escorting the liner Arandora Star to Plymouth before returning to join Fraser, the cruiser Calcutta and a flotilla of steamers off Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

The situation had got worse by the time Restigouche returned. On June 22, France signed an armistice and then formally surrendered on the 24th. A new collaborationist government under Marshall Pétain was quickly established. By midday on the 25th, as the two Canadian destroyers and a clutter of other vessels continued to load personnel in the small harbour, the French placed an artillery piece on a nearby hill and trained it on the ships. Taking this as a signal that local French officials were prepared to enforce the conditions of their surrender, the Anglo-Canadian flotilla beat a retreat. Thus ended attempts to remove those who wanted to get away.

The steamships carrying evacuees headed for England under escort, while Calcutta, Fraser and Restigouche swept north along the French coast to intercept a damaged French vessel and save it from capture. By nightfall they were off the Gironde River, with Fraser 1½ miles off the cruiser’s starboard bow and slightly ahead, and Restigouche in a similar position on Calcutta’s portbow. D.M. Lees, RN, Calcutta’s captain, felt uneasy about having the smaller ships manoeuvring ahead of him on a dark, moonless night and ordered both to take station astern. Lt.-Cdr. Wallace Creery, aboard Fraser, elected to turn inward–to port–towards the cruiser and pass down her starboard side, and allowed his officer of the watch Lieut. H.V.W. Groos to conduct the turn. In the event, the helm instruction resulted in too broad a turn and when Creery saw the danger in front of Calcutta, he ordered an increase in speed and decided to pass down the other side–the portside–of the cruiser. These manoeuvres were dimly discerned from the bridge of Calcutta, where Lees took action to avoid Fraser by turning to starboard–just as Creery swung his ship to starboard to clear the cruiser’s apparent course and get on her other side. The net result was that Calcutta struck Fraser square-on at high speed.

Calcutta’s bow sliced through Fraser abreast of B gun, just forward of the bridge. The collision shattered Fraser into three parts. The bow broke away and drifted off into the night, while the stern of the ship lay near at hand. The third part, the whole forward superstructure, including the bridge, came to rest on Calcutta’s forecastle. Creery, his 1st lieutenant, Groos and three ratings simply stepped down onto the deck of the cruiser, then Creery returned promptly to pull Able Seaman Todeus from the wrecked wheelhouse. Lees dropped one of his whalers and ordered Lay, commander of Restigouche, to rescue survivors. He then carried on to England with Fraser’s bridge firmly fixed on her forward deck.

Lay had no idea what had happened. After a short search he found Fraser’s after section, and put Restigouche alongside: fifty-nine men were transferred directly, including Fraser’s doctor and most of her medical supplies. Once that task was done, Lay lowered his whaler under command of Lieut. D.W. Groos, the brother of Fraser’s officer of the watch, to pick up men in the water. Eleven officers and 96 men who had escaped the forward portion of Fraser, where the messdecks were located, were saved. Forty-seven RCN personnel, including one from Restigouche, who was lost when the whaler was struck and capsized by one of her screws, and 19 RN evacuees from France, died in the accident. With all the living recovered, Lay was ordered to sink the stern of Fraser, which he did by putting men aboard to set scuttling charges. With that Restigouche set course for Plymouth just as dawn was breaking.

The subsequent Board of Enquiry laid the blame for the collision on Creery, who accepted his responsibility. In his defence, Fraser’s captain noted that he had not slept more than a few hours since leaving the Carribean on May 26, a month earlier, and that Calcutta was partially at fault for altering towards Fraser. Creery never commanded at sea again. Calcutta was lost in the Mediterranean a year later.

An air of tense anticipation settled in over the English Channel as June gave way to July. The seemingly unstoppable German army now lay just a few miles from England, and the equally unstoppable Luftwaffe poured into bases from Norway to Britanny. In every other war that narrow belt of sea had proven an insurmountable barrier to continental armies. But none of them had arrived with such haste and such drama, and none previously could claim the air as their own–to make operations in the Channel untenable for Britain’s navy and to carry their own army to the other side. By the high summer of 1940, everything had changed.

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