Skeena alongside the CPR’s Vancouver pier C in 1934. (W.J. Moore/City of Vancouver Archives)

Remembrance Day: HMCS Skeena was the RCN’s ‘grand old lady of the sea’

Lost during the Second World War, she was doomed not by torpedo, but by shipwreck.

Lost during the Second World War, she was doomed not by torpedo, not by aerial bombing, but by shipwreck.

I’ve always had a soft spot for HMCS Skeena. I’m referring to the first destroyer of this name to serve the Royal Canadian Navy. She was my father’s first posting to a destroyer, and a welcomed step up from his initial and previous ship, the small, homely and uncomfortable armed trawler HMCS Armentieres.

Having enlisted as a 16-year-old boy seaman in 1929, William Paterson was part of Canada’s Pacific Command which, through the 1920s and into the Great Depression of the 1930s, didn’t amount to much. It took the threat of a second world war to move Ottawa to belated attempts to bolster its naval forces, and Skeena was one of the six British-built destroyers that were the result.

Because Prime Minister R.B. Bennett was unable to attend her Oct. 10, 1930 launching, his sister, Miss Mildred Bennett, did the honours with a bottle of ‘Empire’ wine rather than champagne at Thornycroft’s Woolston Works, Southampton. Upon sliding down the ways Skeena was berthed alongside her newly-launched sister, Saguenay.

Six months later, in March 1931, the 1,320-ton, 322-foot-long destroyer armed with four 4.7-inch guns, two 2-pounder pom-poms, five machine guns and eight torpedo tubes, and capable of 36 knots, completed her sea trials. Commissioning followed at Portsmouth on June 10 and, two weeks later, she and Saguenay sailed for Halifax.

Immediately assigned to the west coast, Skeena began service as a training ship. Two highlights of this increasingly uneasy period were the newly-coronated King George VI’s Spithead Review, in May 1937, and, in June 1939, transporting Their Majesties King George and Queen Elizabeth from Cape Tormentine, N.B., to Charlottetown and Pictou, N.S. during their visit to Canada.

Previously, the Halifax Herald had expressed the sentiments of many Canadians when it wrote that it hoped the country “never will need to send them (Skeena and Saguenay) into action”.

That, we now know, was wishful thinking although there would be eight years of increasing international tensions. These resulted, first in the Munich Accord with its broken promise of “peace in our time,” then, upon Germany’s invasion of Poland, Great Britain’s declaration of war. And as went Britain so went Canada, precisely a week later.

This delay on Ottawa’s part was intentional. HMC Ships Fraser, Ottawa, St. Laurent and Restigouche had to transit the Panama Canal which was administered by the United States. Under the rules of international law, the U.S. would have impounded ships of belligerent nations in its territorial waters.

Based in Halifax, Skeena quickly assumed her wartime duties: anti-submarine sweeps, trans-Atlantic convoy duty between Halifax and the Grand Banks, southeast of Newfoundland, and rescuing survivors of torpedoed merchant ships. Limited fuel capacity restricted her effective range to about 1,000 miles return, much of this at the reduced speed of 12 knots to cover the approaches to the head and the rear of a lumbering convoy. The initial patrols usually lasted three to four days followed by refuelling in Halifax which allowed the crew several hours’ sleep before again heading out into the stormy North Atlantic.

In the book Skeena Aground, written and published by Isaac Unger of Winnipeg in loving memory of his brother Abe Unger, Skeena’s former navigating officer, Lt. Peter G. Chance, recalled RCN ships as being ill-prepared to fight the growing U-boat menace — overcrowded, uncomfortable, no radar, poor ASDIC (submarine detection capability), just depth charges and optical rangefinders for the 4.7-inch guns. Enforced radio silence added to the navigational challenges although the ships did have excellent Admiralty charts and there were a few shore-based direction finding bases.

The worst convoy of this period was the Britain-bound SC-42, which, in September 1941, was comprised of 64 slow ships in 12 columns. Extended over several square miles of ocean, it was escorted by just six Canadian warships. Five were corvettes; only Skeena, whose captain, Lt.-Cdr. J.C. Hibbard, doubled as senior officer, was a destroyer.

For a week the convoy plodded eastward in heavy seas and fog, Skeena watch-dogging from three miles ahead as U-boat radio traffic steadily increased. The wolf pack found them, mid-morning of Sept. 9, and sank a straggler with the loss of all on board. Come night time, the attack resumed with another sinking with all hands. For two days and nights the beleaguered warships sought to hold off their attackers, during which time they made one failed attack on a surfaced U-boat.

But the submarines were persistent and, infiltrating the convoy, attacked from within. For an hour, Skeena twisted and turned in pursuit, ever in danger of colliding with one of the merchantmen she was protecting. But pursue them she did, with all her lights on to warn off the merchant mariners as she tore after one U-boat which only escaped being rammed by crash-diving.

For all this, eight ships had been sunk, another damaged, and the attacks went on. Eight more ships were hit and the reduced convoy re-consolidated into 11 columns from 12. Only the arrival of air support, two more corvettes and heavy fog saved them from further casualties. The final tally of SC-42: two U-boats sunk vs. the loss of 16 freighters and tankers and their vitally needed war material and oil. If this toll sounds heavy, as indeed it was, it remains a marvel that, for three days, Skeena and three corvettes fought off 17 U-boats.

Skeena’s duel with the U-boats had only begun. But this time she and HMCS Wetaskiwin turned the tables by sinking the U-588 off Greenland in July 1942. This coup earned DSO’s for both destroyers’ captains.

There were further convoys, time-outs for refit (including installation of the wondrous new radar) until,

April 1944 brought new duties — assisting in the invasion of France. D-Day (Operation Neptune) would require that the English Channel be kept free of enemy submarines and, 24 hours before the invasion fleets sailed, Skeena and sister destroyers were on the job. In a single two-day period Skeena dodged eight torpedoes!

Follow-up consisted of attacking enemy surface vessels shirking along the French coastline at night. Four German anti-aircraft vessels were sunk or damaged; but, this time, near Brest, not without casualty. Skeena, one of four Canadian destroyers involved, suffered 14 wounded, three of them seriously. Shortly afterward, Skeena and Restigouche escaped unscathed from a determined attack by Nazi aircraft. This wasn’t the case, just over two weeks later, when, during an attack on five enemy vessels, the damaged Skeena and Qu’Appelle had to withdraw after colliding with each other.

Soon repaired, Skeena returned to Atlantic convoy duty and, while serving with EG-11, endured a 66-hour firefight with another wolf pack. October 1944 found her, with Qu’Appelle as senior officer, Assiniboine, St. Laurent and Chaudiere on anti-submarine patrol south of Iceland. Oct. 23, 1944 was even stormier than usual and Skeena, now commanded by Lt.-Cdr. P.F.X. Russell, was ordered to seek anchorage between Videy and Engey islands, near the capital city of Reykjavik, an area well known for its soft bottom of rock and volcanic ash.

After dropping her starboard anchor in 12.5 fathoms, ordering that steam be kept up, and that a full anchor watch be kept because of the continuing wind and weak moorage, Capt. Russell turned in. Two holding cables had been strung out, both operated from a single central capstan and the ship appeared to be holding.

This, as it turned out, was not the case. Shortly before midnight of Oct. 24, only an hour and a half after anchoring, Skeena’s own watch, perhaps because of snow flurries, failed to notice that she was dragging anchor; it was a warning from the St. Laurent, which could see her shifting, that roused the alarm. Half-steam was ordered, then “half-ahead,” then “full-ahead,” and the second anchor was dropped, but already it was too late; there was a loud grinding of steel and rock as Skeena’s bows touched Videy Island.

HMCS Skeena, the “grand old lady of the Navy,” was doomed; not the victim of a torpedo, not the victim of aerial bombing, but of shipwreck.

As the seas poured into the engine room and threatened to break her in two, watertight doors and hatches were closed, the motor cutter, whaler and Carley floats readied for use and the crew ordered to prepare to abandon ship. All the while, the gale continued to pound the hemorrhaging ship from without.

Despite these threats, the Skeena seemed to stabilize herself and Capt. Russell cancelled the order to abandon ship. At the subsequent inquiry a deck officer would testify that he believed that, “in the noise, darkness, wet slush and slippery upper decks,” the order to not abandon ship was mistaken for abandon ship.

The result was nothing short of disastrous. While attempting to make it to the beach, only 100 yards distant, the whaler and the motor cutter were capsized, and the occupants of a float thrown into the raging surf. Fifteen seamen drowned or died of exposure. Those who made it to shore but survived suffered severely from the cold and wet. Three bodies remained unaccounted for; two were later recovered but the fourth remains missing.

A small rescue fleet was already on its way; after landing on the leeward side of Videy Island and hiking overland, rescuers managed to fire a line aboard the stricken ship, which had lost both its propellers and was “twisting and grinding on the rocks”. Shortly after 8 a.m., HMCS Skeena’s last radioed message demonstrated the confusion that yet reigned: “One float adrift with personnel…”

With that, the last survivor went ashore and the dying destroyer was left until the sea calmed enough to allow a determination of salvage. But the weather continued to be grim for weeks and the prolonged battering opened up more and more of Skeena’s innards: both boiler rooms, her engine room, her magazines. By then some bulkheads had buckled, she listed heavily to starboard and there were signs of buckling in her hull. From her bow back, she was open for more than 200 feet.

HMCS Skeena was doomed. Declared a structural loss she was sold at war’s end to local salvagers for the equivalent of $4,375 Canadian. While being towed to Britain to be scrapped, she sank at the end of her towline in the North Atlantic.

Five hundred naval personnel of the Canadian, British and U.S. navies, and members of the Royal Marines and the Royal and Royal Canadian Air Forces attended the funeral in Iceland’s Fossvogur Cemetery. Mr. Unger poignantly notes that the oldest victim was 30, the youngest 19, most were in their early 20s. Among them was his brother, Able Bodied Seaman Abe Unger.

Briefly put, the official investigation into Skeena’s grounding faulted the manner in which she was anchored in a soft bottom when so close to shore and her captain’s turning in almost immediately. The board of inquiry also thought that an “unhurried evacuation” would have prevented the tragedy that resulted from an order to abandon ship even though it was immediately cancelled. Both her captain and her officer of the watch were reprimanded. Also recommended for court martial were the three seamen who broke into the ship’s spirit-room after the ship grounded.

It’s interesting to note that the RCN withheld details of Skeena’s loss until a week after V-E Day, a delay of almost seven months. My father wasn’t serving on HMCS Skeena when she was lost. In our discussions about his navy career over the years, he always spoke of her with fondness and pride. She was a special ship to him, his first destroyer, and she’s special to me —TW.

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