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Sister ships take part in evacuations

Canadian destroyer HMCS St. Laurent 
Ken Macpherson / Naval Museum of Alberta
HMCS St. Laurent and HMCS Restigouche fired Canadian warships’ first shots of the Second World War on June 11, 1940, in the final echoes of the six-week Battle of France, during which more than half a million Allied troops and civilians were evacuated from ports in France, under great menace from the invading German army.

The biggest rescue happened May 26-June 4 at Dunkirk, France. British and French armies were trapped and surrounded during the German panzer drive to the English Channel. A Herculean effort by military and merchant ships, cargo boats and pleasure vessels managed to evacuate a third of a million troops.

But there were more troops, troops that had not yet been snared in the German net. On June 5, German attention turned to them.

Allied soldiers immediately began congregating in Le Havre, France, awaiting evacuation. That port was also was quickly surrounded by the Germans. Another rescue, less grand than Dunkirk, was mounted and more than 11,000 troops were evacuated between June 10 and 13. St. Laurent took on 41 French soldiers, despite coming under fire.

Not all the troops in northern France were able to get to Le Havre before the German noose tightened. About 5,000 more were simultaneously rescued at St. Valery-en-Caux; Restigouche came under fire during the action. About 6,000 troops did not make it to safety, and became prisoners of war on June 12.

There were yet more stranded Allied soldiers and civilians, but their rescue is much less well known than Dunkirk survivors. Nearly 192,000 more were evacuated from the northern ports of Cherbourg and St. Malo and French ports on the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.

After the evacuations, Restigouche, fondly called Rusty Guts by her crew, and St. Laurent took up escort duties until D-Day. In July, St. Laurent rescued 860 German and Italian prisoners of war bound for Canada, survivors of the torpedoed liner Arandora Star.

Both destroyers began life in the Royal Navy and were transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy. They both served the entirety of the war. In December 1939, St. Laurent and Restigouche served as local escorts for Canada’s first troop convoy, which carried 7,400 men of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. Both were sent to Europe in May 1940.

During the invasion of Normandy, both destroyers served on anti-submarine patrol. At the end of the war, they transported troops back home.

Both ships were decommissioned after the war; Restigouche was sold for scrap in 1946, St. Laurent was scrapped in 1947.

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