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The Accidental Enemy: Navy, Part 41

Ship’s company aboard HMCS Windflower, 1940. [PHOTO:  LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104397]

Ship’s company aboard HMCS Windflower, 1940.

The winter of 1941-42 is usually treated by historians as a quiet one on the North Atlantic Run, but it is doubtful anyone guarding the convoy routes saw it that way. The North Atlantic was its typical vile self, with storm-battered ships and weary men standing to their duty in the face of a constant threat from U-boats. In fact, weather proved to be a major factor in the loss of two Royal Canadian Navy escorts to marine accidents in December 1941. This brought to an end a series of losses to weather and collision dating back to May 1940, when the battleship His Majesty’s Ship Revenge sideswiped and sank the gate vessel His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Ypres in Halifax. The destroyers Fraser and Margaree are also counted in this category. The navy suffered only one loss to marine accident after 1941: a testament, perhaps, to the introduction of effective radar by 1942 and improving seamanship.

The first Canadian escort lost in the North Atlantic in the winter of 1941-42 went down off Newfoundland on Dec. 7. The incident occurred less than a day after a Newfoundland Escort Force group, led by HMCS St. Laurent, had taken over the eastbound convoy SC 58 on the Grand Banks. In addition to the destroyer, the group consisted of six corvettes, including the RCN’s Hepatica, Pictou, Windflower, Moose Jaw and Buctouche and HMS Nasturtium.

On the morning of Dec. 7, SC 58 was steaming through calm seas, but the convoy was shrouded in the thick fog that persists where the cold Labrador Current runs into the warm Gulf Stream. Towards the end of the morning watch, at 7:40 a.m., Windflower’s position was fixed by radar as roughly 4,000 yards on the starboard bow of the leading ship in the convoy’s starboard column. The information was sufficient for the corvettes’ captain (or officer of the watch) to turn to port to try to gain visual contact.

But the radar information was little more than a guesswork of position and range. Early radars for small escorts, like the Canadian designed and built type SW1C fitted to the escort fleet in 1941, operated more like contemporary sonars. Operators pointed the antenna at a suspect target and read the range off a simple “A” scan display (like a modern heart monitor). Nothing was automatic, and in the absence of a “Plan Position Indicator” display screen (a modern radar screen in which the ship is in the centre of the display and the radar sweeps continuously around revealing all contacts within range), the early sets simply told you the bearing and range to a target. The information then had to be plotted on paper or in your head. The situational awareness provided by Windflower’s radar in December 1941 was a vast improvement over anything previously available for navigation in dense fog, but the information was not precise.

HMCS Adversus off Halifax, 1940. [PHOTO:  LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104408]

HMCS Adversus off Halifax, 1940.

The subsequent Board of Enquiry into Windflower’s loss also concluded the ship was mistaken in her assumed position relative to the convoy. She was supposed to be in position “C” of Night Escort screening diagram 7, but appears to have drifted forward into position “C” for daytime screening. All of this meant that when Windflower’s captain, Lieutenant John Price, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, turned his ship to port to try to establish contact with the convoy at roughly 9:15 a.m. he had little clear idea of just where he was. Indeed, survivors and the board later agreed that Price (or the officer of the watch, it is unknown who gave the fateful order) ought to have eased gently to port until they found the convoy. Instead, Windflower turned perpendicular to the convoy’s track and stood-in.

Contact with SC 58 was established at 9:20 a.m. when the fourth ship in the port column, the Dutch steamer Zypenberg, loomed out of the fog barely 400 yards on Windflower’s port side. Horns sounded as both ships took evasive action. Windflower went to full speed and turned to starboard: Zypenberg sounded her horn three times and also went to starboard. She could not, of course, go to port because the rest of the convoy lay in that direction.

There was neither time nor space enough to avoid a collision. Windflower was swinging and nearly clear when Zypenberg struck at a 45 degree angle and sliced off 25 feet of the corvette’s stern.

The corvette’s after bulkhead remained intact and it looked for a while that the ship might be saved. Depth charges were set to safe, the boiler fires drawn, and excess steam vented, while efforts were made to get her boats, stowed on either side of the funnel, into the water. When the after bulkhead suddenly collapsed cold sea water struck the after boiler and it exploded. As Fraser McKee and Robert Darlington concluded in their book, The Canadian Naval Chronicle, 1939-1945, “the majority of casualties were caused by this explosion.” It hurled one of Windflower’s boats overboard along with the crew trying to launch it. The other boat was successfully lowered, but one of the falls jammed and the boat capsized. At 9:50 Windflower finally sank, leaving the sea littered with wreckage, one capsized boat and scores of men struggling to survive.

By the time Zypenberg stopped to help she had disappeared back into the fog. As she backed up to the scene of the collision, she sounded her horn so the men in the water would know where she was. Other ships needed to know, too. The next ship in the fourth column, SS Baltara, plowed past Zypenberg by the narrowest of margins—and on into the murk—as the Dutch ship put its boats in the water. It was fortunate that Zypenberg acted promptly. Although the sea was calm, the air temperature was frigid and the water temperature barely 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Windflower’s survivors would not have lasted long. Within 45 minutes, 47 men were rescued, three of whom died before they reached St. John’s, Nfld. In all, 23 men perished, including Price who was last seen leaping from the bridge.

Windflower was not the only victim of the incident. When Nasturtium heard the corvette’s boiler blow her crew assumed Windflower had been torpedoed and raced to the scene. Once there the British corvette gained a sonar contact and attacked it with depth charges. The target proved to be the sinking wreck of Windflower. One of Nasturtium’s charges detonated prematurely, and others countermined depth charges on Windflower, resulting in a rending explosion. This brought down Nasturtium’s aerials, smashed her sonar and caused oil leaks throughout the ship: she accompanied Zypenberg into St. John’s. Windflower was the only corvette lost by the RCN during the war to marine accident: a remarkable accomplishment in view of the work they did.

Attempts to save HMCS Chedabucto fail, October 1943. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA]

Attempts to save HMCS Chedabucto fail, October 1943.

But Windflower was not the only RCN vessel lost to marine accident in December 1941. As McKee and Darlington observed, “the loss of the small patrol ship HMCS Adversus has received scant mention in any records.” She was indeed one of the navy’s small vessels, taken up from the RCMP in 1939 along with her sister, Alachasse. Although not strong enough to carry much armament, Adversus was a “good sea boat,” having made at least one passage to the west coast and back via Panama. Her lack of armament relegated her to harbour duties and by the fall of 1941 she was both guard-ship and examination-vessel for the port of Shelburne, N.S., with a secondary duty to patrol the southern coast of Nova Scotia.

On Dec. 20, 1941, Adversus was doing examination duty off Shelburne in a full gale and blizzard when the tug Ocean Eagle arrived from Saint John, N.B. Adversus’s captain Skipper William R. Chandler, RCNR, decided to accompany the tug up the harbour, and stood by her when she briefly went aground off McNutts Island. Once the tug was clear, Adversus herself went aground and remained, while Ocean Eagle steamed away into the harbour. There is some evidence that Chandler tried to avoid the grounding by a sharp turn, only to have his small ship driven ashore stern-first—fortuitously onto the only sandy beach on the island.

News of her grounding reached the naval staff officer at Shelburne within 15 minutes, and he immediately set off in the armed yacht Lynx to investigate. By the time Lynx arrived, Adversus was ashore, stern first, with her bow submerged in the sea. By then Chandler had safely landed all his crew and they were marching overland to an army barracks when they were met by a group of soldiers sent to rescue them.

The Board of Enquiry found Chandler at fault for not accurately fixing his position prior to the grounding. There were, however, extenuating circumstances, such as poor visibility and the inability of anyone to hear the fog horn at Cape Roseway. As a result, Chandler received the mildest rebuke possible for losing his vessel, “the displeasure of the Department.” Although later promoted to skipper lieutenant, Chandler never commanded an RCN vessel again. The navy’s real displeasure was focused on the tug which left Adversus and her crew to their fate. In defence, the tug’s captain explained that his crew was green and that his “rescue gun wouldn’t work.” This seemed lame and, as the board observed, was “not in keeping with the traditions of the sea.”

The RCN lost only one more ship during the war to marine accident, and it is worth telling her story as well. It happened in the St. Lawrence River in October 1943 when HMCS Chedabucto was run down by the cable ship Lord Kelvin, a British ship on lease to Western Union Telegraph.

The Lord Kelvin was southwest of Anticosti Island doing cable work for the RCN when Chedabucto was ordered to escort her as far as Rimouski, Que. After that Chedabucto patrolled in the river while waiting for her assignment, which was to escort the fire tug Citadella to join convoy QS-68A. In the early hours of Oct. 21, 1943, Chedabucto rounded Bic Island with Sub-Lieutenant J.R. Morrison, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, on duty as officer of the watch. Morrison was not yet a qualified watch keeper and despite the captain’s protests that Chedabucto was short of qualified officers, no replacement was provided. It was Morrison who held the 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. watch on that fateful morning. The ship’s 1st lieutenant and navigating officer checked on him at 5:20 and found things well under control. Several ships were nearby and the radar was tracking them. Visibility was good, at six miles, and at 5:40 Morrsion reported by voice pipe to the captain, Lieutenant J.H.B. Davies, RCNR, that all was well. Fifteen minutes later, the Lord Kelvin slammed into Chedabucto’s side, near the wardroom.

What happened in those 15 minutes is not entirely clear. Chedabucto was running in blackout state, and the captain of Lord Kelvin later testified that no one saw her until the very last moment. But lookouts as well as Morrison reported a series of lights from ships around them. Radar confirmed vessels on both port and starboard sides at ranges of 2,200 to 2,500 yards. All of that put the onus for avoidance on the minesweeper. As Morrison moved to the port bridge wing to check on things at 5:40 a.m., the Lord Kelvin sudden emerged from the darkness on a collision course.

Alarms sounded and reaction was swift, but by the time Davies arrived on the bridge the Lord Kelvin’s bow was deeply embedded in Chedabucto’s side. Davies’ call to the larger ship to stay where she was, in order to keep the gash in his ship’s side closed as much as possible, went unheard. As Lord Kelvin backed away she opened up a 20-foot-long hole to the sea in the minesweeper’s side. The after section of Chedabucto quickly flooded and the ship listed 10 degrees. Her own collision mat and some canvas sent over from the Lord Kelvin all proved too small to fill the hole, and the ship’s pumps had lost suction due to broken lines. Davies transferred most of his crew to the Lord Kelvin and had Chedabucto’s boilers blown-down to reduce the risk of explosion from cold sea water. Eventually the United States Coast Guard armed light house tender Buttonwood took Chedabucto in tow and headed for Rimouski, 20 miles away.

Initially, the tow went well. One boiler was relit to provide power to pumps. But the flooding could not be controlled and as Chedabucto settled in the water and increased her list, course was altered to put her aground on Bic Island. When her stern struck bottom a mile and a half from shore efforts at salvage were abandoned: Chedabucto soon turned over and sank. The only casualty was Sub-Lt. (Engineer) D.W. Tuke, RCNVR, killed in the initial collision.

The Board of Enquiry censured Davies and his 1st lieutenant for negligence, primarily in leaving Morrison on the bridge without qualified supervision: Morrison, it was observed, did the best he could. The findings of the board were protested by Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa, which wanted a court martial. Admiral L.W. Murray in Halifax refused, being content with the “severe displeasure” of the department recorded in Davies file. Meanwhile, lawyers for Western Union Telegraph sent a bill to the RCN for the time she spent out of service repairing her hull. As McKee and Darlington concluded, the whole thing “was a sad and unsatisfactory affair.”

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