HMCS Skeena and her sister ship, HMCS Saguenay, were the first ships built specifically for the RCN.
They were constructed in the UK and patterned after the RN’s Acasta class destroyers but with modifications for Canadian weather. Among other features, the hull was strengthened for ice and an extra margin of stability was given to counter icing on the upper decks. The two ships were commissioned at Portsmouth on June 10 th , 1931. Skeena, along with Saguenay, arrived in Halifax on July 3 rd , 1931.
When WWII broke out, Skeena did local escort duty in Halifax before being sent to Western Approaches Command in the UK. The ship returned to Canada in March 1941 for a refit and, on completion, joined Newfoundland Command.
Convoy SC 42 (the 42 nd slow convoy to depart Sydney, Nova Scotia for Britain) sailed on August 30, 1941 with protection provided by the WLEF. One week later, at a position just east of the Strait of Belle Isle, the Canadian 24 th Escort Group from the NEF took control for the remainder of the transit to Liverpool.
EG 24 was led by Skeena with LCdr JC “Jimmy” Hibbard as Commanding Officer and Senior Officer Escort (SOE). The three corvettes under Skeena’s direction were Alberni, Kenogami and Orillia.
As SC 42 slowly sailed westward, the wolfpack Markgraf, consisting of 14 U-boats, was deployed on the convoy route. The Allies were able to intercept U-boat communications and effectively re-route other convoys to avoid the threat. When Markgraf didn’t find any ships, it was directed by BdU to expand the patrol line over a wider area. Because of weather and an ice barrier, SC 42 was trapped and detected by U-85.
From September 9 th to 12 th , the 14 U-boats of Markgraf overwhelmed the small escort force. HMC Ships Chambly and Moose Jaw were diverted from training to assist and other reinforcements followed. Of the 65 ships in Convoy SC 42, 16 were sunk and four more were damaged. Two U-boats were sunk.
A letter thanking EG 24 was sent to Hibbard and it was signed by every surviving ship’s master from SC 42. The letter was read by Hibbard to his ship’s company and prompted them to re-direct their own canteen funds to benefit the Allied Merchant Seamen’s Club in Halifax. The letter and the men’s reaction to it were a source of pride to Jimmy Hibbard for the rest of his life. (1) Skeena was anchored in Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1944 when a storm caused her to drag her anchor.
Fifteen crew members were lost as the ship got grounded in 15 metre seas.
Photo caption: Skeena is named after a famous fishing river in British Columbia. The ship’s gun shield depicts a seductive, jumping salmon luring a U-boat while she has a depth charge tucked under her fin. Presumably they are in for a fatal encounter.
Notes: 1. The Sea Is At Our Gates, pp 106-107. 2. Skeena’s pennant number was D59 but was changed to I50 in 1940.