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.
Built in 1917, the ex-USS Laub was transferred to the RN and commissioned as HMS Burwell in Halifax on October 9 th , 1940. It then sailed for the UK to undergo modifications to suit RN purposes. Following convoy work in the Northwest Approaches, it was transferred to the newly formed Newfoundland Escort Force in June 1941 and served in the North Atlantic until the spring of 1943.
A former signalman with Burwell, Albert E. Owen, joined the ship in November 1942 and remembers her as “a rusty, obsolete and practically useless” vessel that took nine months to get out of Liverpool where “she rested at one time or another in nearly every drydock in the place.” Once out of drydock, she was “assailed by a Navigating Officer whose mishaps would have ruined the insurance company for which he worked in peace time.”
In March 1943, Burwell departed the UK with a convoy destined for Algiers. Mr. Owen recalls the ship being more of a liability than an asset. After offering assistance to a corvette in a U-boat hunt, the corvette responded to Burwell with the message “Can the blind lead the blind?” Burwell limped into Gibraltar after being detached from the convoy due to engineering problems. Her orders were revised and, instead of Algiers, the destination was the Azores. The Portuguese navy was busy picking up survivors from the U-boat activities in the area and, on arrival at the island of Sao Miguel, the ship was met with “a ragged army of survivors” who were keen to see their first British ship in months. The ship’s supply of cigarettes quickly disappeared.
Portugal was officially neutral in WWII and all survivors were to be interned for the duration of hostilities. Unbeknownst to all on board, the ship had 37 stowaways when it sailed from Sao Miguel.
Since they had a second stop in the Azores, at the island of Fayal, to deliver compass equipment to the British merchant ship SS Horarata, the captain was extremely anxious about the situation. To have 37 stowaways on board indicated one of two things: he had no respect for international law regarding internment or he was too inept to maintain proper security in his ship. Neither scenario was good.
While at anchor and delivering parts to Horarata, Burwell was approached by a barge with a Portuguese commodore and his staff on board. Fearing the embarrassment of being caught with stowaways, the captain quickly came up with a plan.
According to Mr. Owen, There was only one remedy available to the skipper in such an emergency – gin and angostura bitters! With due naval dignity, the Portuguese Commodore was piped aboard and wheeled straight down into Burwell’s Wardroom. When he and his Flag Lieutenant re-appeared two hours later, they both had the glazed and happy look all customers wear when leaving the pub at closing time. Supporting each other unsteadily, they fell into their barge and made their way contentedly back to shore for a late dinner.
As soon as the barge departed, both Burwell and Horarata immediately weighed anchor and headed for home. Consistent to the end, Burwell broke down three times during the transit forcing the merchant ship to circle around her while repairs were being made. On arrival in the UK, Horarata sent a signal to Burwell thanking them for their protection. Mr. Owen, being a signalman, was on the bridge and broke out in laughter with that message. The captain did not share his sense of humour and he was given seven days stoppage of leave.
Burwell survived the war and Mr. Owen says it qualified as the “luckiest ship afloat.” He recalls that they only fired its ancient 4” gun once. This was fortunate since, on that one occasion, “every light in the ship went out, the cockroaches went raving mad and we sprang leaks all over the place.” Burwell was reduced to reserve status in the fall of 1943 and later nominated for service as an air target ship. In early 1945, it was reduced again to unmaintained reserve status and laid up at Milford Haven.
Burwell’s gun shield presents an optimistic, perhaps dreamy, image of its prowess on the high seas. The reason for an RN ship to use a large maple leaf on its gun shield is not known. Since RCN pay was higher than RN pay, it may represent the ship’s company’s wishful thinking for enhanced pay along with an enhanced service record.
Notes: 1. “Thank God We Have a Navy”, Albert Edward Owen, contribution to WW2 People’s War, An archive of World War Two memories – written by the public, gathered by the BBC.
Specially built and fully equipped rescue ships were not available in the early days of the war. Instead, ocean-going tugboats, trawlers and coastal passenger transports were modified to serve in that role.
Dedicated rescue vessels permitted the naval escorts to focus on countering any attacks. They also took the burden off merchant ships to stop and pick up survivors, a role for which they were not well-suited since they had neither rescue equipment nor medical aid. Eventually, 30 rescue ships were built or converted for rescue operations. They took part in almost 800 convoys and rescued over 4,000 survivors from more than 100 ships.
Five rescue ships were lost to enemy action while a sixth, St. Sunniva, is considered to have capsized off Newfoundland after icing up. Because they were not hospital ships, rescue vessels were considered a legitimate target by German forces. As a result, they were armed with anti-aircraft guns and high frequency/direction finding equipment (HF/DF also known as “huff duff”).
SS Bury was a passenger and cargo ship built for the Great Central Railway in 1911. It was in Hamburg, Germany at the outbreak of WWI and seized as a war prize. The stewardesses were released a short time later when the American Consul intervened. The remainder of the crew were interned for the duration of hostilities. Bury was used for accommodation of the civilian river pilots working for the Imperial German Navy. In early 1919, it was returned to its British owners. (1) Bury was requisitioned for rescue service in August, 1941. The necessary modifications were made and Bury sailed with Convoy, ON 52, on December 31 st , 1941. It was the first of many convoys for the former coastal trader.
On her fourth convoy in May 1942, Bury was assigned to ONS 92 from the UK to North America. The convoy was attacked by the wolfpack Hecht and her first rescue was 45 survivors from the coal carrier Llanover. Bury then picked up 21 of Empire Dell’s 61 survivors. By the time she rescued all 34 crew members from the merchant ship Tolken, Bury was well above her available accommodation. She was detached from the convoy to land the survivors in St. John’s. She returned to the UK with Convoy SC 85.
By war’s end, Bury had sailed with 48 convoys and had rescued 237 survivors from sunken vessels. In June 1945, Bury was once again returned to her owners. The ship sailed for the last time from Hull in 1958 to Rotterdam for demolition.
Bury is the only rescue ship to be represented n the Crow’s Nest and one of the smallest gun shields in the Club’s collection. It depicts a stickman-style sailor swinging Popeye in a net over to a U-boat with a clear image of a grumpy Hitler on the bow.
Notes: 1. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Historical Society website ( www.historicalrfa.org )
This spike was driven into the deck by LCdr Bert Shadforth on the Crow’s Nest’s opening night in January 1942. LCdr Shadforth was the Commanding Officer of HMCS Spikenard, and the winner of the nail driving contest. The ship was lost a few weeks later. Her captain, all her officers and a good many of her crew were lost with it.
The table holds an embroidered cloth that has the names of many of the Crow’s Nest members in 1971. This table cloth was presented to Lady Outerbridge that year in appreciation of her efforts in making the space available during the war. In her will, Lady Outerbridge left it back to the Club. The embroidery was crafted by Mrs. Hilda Hiscock who ran the catering operation with her husband, Harold Hiscock.
The periscope comes from the U190, the German submarine that surrendered at Bay Bulls at the end of WWII. The German crew were transferred at sea to Canadian ships and taken to Halifax. The U190 was brought into St. John’s by an Allied crew and then taken to Halifax. It was briefly commissioned in the RCN as HMCS U190. It was scuttled in 1947 in the approaches to Halifax Harbour.