CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum
Lieutenant-Commander John Stubbs
By Michael Whitby, historian, Directorate of History and Heritage, Ottawa
Lieutenant-Commander John Stubbs
Growing up in the small BC mining town of Kaslo, BC, John Hamilton Stubbs had ambitions to be a sailor, and became a naval cadet at age ten. When his father, an electrical engineer, moved the family to Victoria, Stubbs was that much closer to the sea and to achieving his dream of a seagoing life.
When he applied to join the Royal Canadian Navy in 1930, the examining board concluded that Stubbs would make “a very good naval officer”. It was an assessment the quietly impressive Stubbs would more than live up.
Stubbs did his early training with the Royal Navy in Britain. When he returned to the RCN in the fall of 1935, he was appointed navigator of the destroyer Skeena, whose Commanding Officer was so impressed with Stubbs that he selected him for specialist navigational training at HMS Dryad in England. The skills he learned there contributed to Stubbs’s renown as a superb ship-handler and tactician.
In January 1941, Stubbs, who was just 28, received command of HMCS Assiniboine, and for the next two years he commanded the ship on the treacherous North Atlantic run. This was harsh, demanding work that placed tremendous physical and mental stress on Stubbs, but he didn’t show the strain. Indeed, his grace under pressure was one of his most respected qualities.
Stubbs was an outstanding seaman, and a more than capable escort commander. In June 1941, Stubbs was Senior Officer of an escort group for convoy ONS-100 when it was attacked by six U-boats. In “North Atlantic Run”, author and historian Marc Milner describes how Stubbs relied upon sound tactics to escape with the loss of only four merchant ships.
His best known success came in August that year when Assiniboine caught U-210 on the surface in the Atlantic fog.
Naval historian G. N. Tucker, who witnessed the action from the destroyer’s bridge, considered it “a masterpiece of tactical skill”. Tucker observed that although Assiniboine’s bridge “was deluged with machine gun bullets”, Stubbs “never took his eye off the U-boat, and gave his orders as though he were talking to a friend at a garden party…”.Finally, Assiniboine, on fire amidships and riddled with shell holes, rammed U-210 twice and finished her off with depth charges.
Stubbs was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Now promoted to Lieutenant-Commander, Stubbs left Assiniboine in October 1942. After a year of shore duty, he was appointed Commanding Officer of HMCS Athabaskan, a Tribal class vessel with a reputation as an unhappy ship. Stubbs is remembered as the quiet, laid-back man with a strong sense of humour who quickly restored morale, and ran an efficient yet relaxed ship.
Athabaskan was assigned to Plymouth Command to conduct offensive sweeps off the French coast. Stubbs’s skills proved well-suited to the fast-paced night surface actions and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his role in a battle in which Athabaskan and her sister-ship HMCS Haida played crucial roles in sinking the German destroyer T-29 on April 26, 1944.
Three nights later, Athabaskan and Haida, under Commander Harry De Wolf, were on patrol in mid-Channel when they were ordered to intercept two German destroyers (survivors of the earlier battle) heading westward along the French coast. Athabaskan’s radar soon detected the enemy ships; minutes later, the Tribal’s opened fire, then altered course towards the enemy to ‘comb’ possible torpedoes (that is, turn parallel to incoming torpedoes). In spite of this maneuver, a torpedo found Athabaskan.
The hit caused such devastation that Stubbs ordered the crew to stand by in readiness to abandon ship. In the early hours of morning, her decks crowded with men, Athabaskan’s 4-inch magazine erupted in a massive blast. Most of those on the port side were killed, and many others were burned by searing oil that rained down on the upper deck. Survivors took to the cold waters of the English Channel as their ship began to sink beneath them.
Stubbs is said to have sung to his men while they waited in the freezing water, stanzas from a tune about naval volunteers called “The Wavy Navy” They were in the water for 30 minutes before Haida, having finished off one of the German destroyers, returned to rescue survivors.
Although it was near dawn and the enemy coast was only five miles away, Haida lay stopped for 18 minutes. According to some witnesses, Stubbs shouted a warning to DeWolf to the effect “get away Haida, get clear”.
DeWolf did not hear Stubbs, but knew he had lingered long enough; after dropping all boats and floats, Haida headed back to Plymouth with 42 survivors. Six more of Athabaskan’s company made it safely to England in Haida’s cutter, while another 85 were picked up by German warships.
John Stubbs, badly burned and last seen clinging to a life-raft, was among the 128 who perished. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) after his death.
The quiet heroism and dedication to duty demonstrated by John Stubbs have become a rightful part of the rich traditions of the Royal Canadian Navy.
This man found Commander Stubbs body on the beach
Lest we forget