HMCS Fraser was the ‘Last of the Cadillacs’

Upon being declared surplus, she was given to the Artificial Reef Society of Nova Scotia in 1998.

Last week I told you of Canada’s ‘Cadillac’ navy of the 1950s and ’60s which began with the building of the seven innovative St. Laurent-class destroyer escorts (DDEs).

The sixth of this class, HMCS Fraser, and each of her sisters were descended from illustrious predecessors and namesakes. The first Fraser, a C-class destroyer built in Britain, was one of two destroyers acquired from the British Admiralty to replace two over-age destroyers, the Vancouver and the Champlain. The Fraser had an extended gestation, her commissioning in February 1937 coming more than six years after her launching.

Named for B.C’s great river, which her official legend describes as “a fighting river,” with the motto “Je suis pret” (“I am ready”) her career with the Royal Canadian Navy got off to a busy start. With the possibility of war becoming ever more likely, the emphasis on Canada’s small navy was training, much of it off the west coast of South America and in waters of the West Indies.

There was a change of pace in 1937 when Fraser embarked Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, during his visit to B.C. She also participated in escorting President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his visit to the province later the same year. And, in May 1939, Fraser and three other destroyers escorted HRH King George V and Queen Elizabeth from Vancouver to Victoria.

Then it was September 1939 and war. Aug. 31st found the Fraser, Ottawa, St. Laurent and Restigouche at Coal Harbour, preparing to participate in Vancouver’s annual exhibition. That changed instantly: “The same day, a message was received from Naval Service Headquarters at Ottawa ordering the Fraser and St. Laurent to Halifax.

“The ships were swiftly prepared. One hour and 49 minutes after orders had been received, the destroyers were steaming at high speed for the Panama Canal and the East Coast.” Fraser made it there first, the St. Laurent arriving a day after. But Fraser’s active wartime service would be tragically brief.

She was assigned to convoy duty in the Atlantic until March 1940 then to the Caribbean where Allied warships had bottled up German merchant shipping caught in that area by the war. Late in May 1940 the Fraser was “one of the Canadian destroyers sent overseas to assist in the defence of Britain against threatened invasion”.

Those duties mainly involved escorting convoys, some of which were carrying Canadian troops to the U.K. On June 21, 1940, Fraser was dispatched to assist in the evacuation of St. Jean de Lux, a small town on the Bay of Biscay coast near the French-Spanish border that was one of the last portals for refugees fleeing the continent.

After several days of anti-submarine patrols and a special assignment delivering top secret orders to the British ambassador to France, she returned to assist in the evacuation of an estimated 4,000 refugees. While she, sister destroyer HMCS Restigouche and the British cruiser HMS Calcutta were forming into line off Bordeaux in rough seas and poor visibility, Cdr. and future rear-admiral W.B. Creery, Fraser’s captain since September 1938, ordered a turn to port in order to bring his ship behind HMS Calcutta.

Instead, the destroyer and the cruiser collided, the larger Calcutta slicing Fraser into three pieces and killing 45 Canadian and 19 British seamen. Ironically, many of the Fraser’s survivors were transferred to sister ship HMCS Margaree—also destined to be a victim of collision with greater loss of life just four months later.

HMCS Fraser was Canada’s first naval loss of the Second World War.

In February 1953, the new destroyer escort HMCS Fraser, DDE 233, built at Burrard Drydock, was commissioned, the sixth of the RCN’s new Cadillacs. She was commissioned again, in June 1957, as the second of the new destroyer escorts to join the Pacific fleet.

She was the last of her class to be converted to a destroyer helicopter escort (DDH), in 1965 and, in 1969, she represented Canada during the Spithead Review. Placed in reserve in May 1973, she was refitted and returned to service in 1974. During the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, she performed security duties.

Modernized again in 1982, she became a “testbed for the Experimental Towed Array Sonar System” and was the first to test the NIXIE torpedo decoy system. In 1988 she became the first RCN destroyer to test a Sea King helicopter equipped with passive array sonar. Other duties included two deployments in Haitian waters to enforce UN sanctions, during the second of which she suffered an engine room fire that injured four crewmembers.

In July 1994, she intercepted and seized two American fishing vessels caught fishing illegally on the Grand Banks.

That was her last hurrah; less than three months later she was decommissioned and placed in reserve at Halifax to serve as a floating classroom. By the late ’90s she was the laster survivor of the famous St. Laurent class. Upon being declared surplus she was given to the Artificial Reef Society of Nova Scotia in 1998.

But the ARSNS had no intention of sinking her; they wanted her as a museum ship in Bridgewater and anchored her in the Lehave River. There she lay, deteriorating for want of sufficient funds, for 12 years. But not even being declared a National Historic Site could save her.

In a rare move, the Department of National Defence bought her back for $1.00 and sold her for scrap in 2010.

www.twpaterson.com

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