Sixty-nine years ago tonight, Mom and I went to Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre to celebrate dad’s safe arrival overseas. It was a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, with the two of them leaping from lily pad to lily pad. Suddenly Mom tensed up and shuddered. We’ve to go home, she said. Something terrible has happened.
Lieutenant Leslie Ward
Allowing for time differences that was the exact moment that Athabaskan was hit. We had no idea he was on board. We’d received a cablegram that morning saying he had arrived safely. Dad crossed the Atlantic on a corvette in a convoy, landed in Londonderry, immediately took a ferry across the Irish Sea, then the train to London. We found out later he had been told he was to take over Canadian Naval Information in London while the senior man, Commander Peter McRichie, went off to cover D-Day.
Dad pleaded for the chance to see some action before then. McRichie told him that Haida and Athabaskan were sailing that evening from Plymouth at 2200, and if he could make it, he could go. He made the ship in a scramble, with five minutes to spare.
One of the few benefits of losing your father when you’re 13 is that he stays perfect for ever. When you’re 18 or 20, you start to think, perhaps, that the old man isn’t with it all the way.
Loss of HMCS Athabaskan affected the families of each of those 128 who died early that morning off the coast of France, just as the war affected the families of all who were killed and the families of many that survived. I’d like to offer a brief catalogue of how the Athabaskan’s loss affected us.
Losing dad was terrible for our small family. Mom was left with me, and a four year old brother, and of course we didn’t know what had happened to Dad. He was missing, presumed dead. We moved back to Toronto but we could not get into our old house in the Beach, because we’d swapped for the duration of the war with an Ottawa family. I kept wishing I was old enough to join the navy, but I had to settle for sea cadets. In 1945 I got a bursary to go to Lakefield College near Peterboro. They had a Navy cadet corps, which reinforced my pro Navy feelings.
I remember in 1950 as an RCNR cadet when I was serving in HMCS Antigonish, there was a Chief on board named Charlie Burgess, who I discovered was probably the only man to get off the stern of the Athabaskan alive. He told me the first hit, was right below the after flag deck, it had blown him into the water, and that he thought my dad was on the after flag deck during the action.
I badly wanted to be a naval officer. Turned out I was red/green colour blind and the navy didn’t want me, so I wound up as a reporter for the old Toronto Telegram, eventually covering military affairs.
In 1962 Haida came to the Great Lakes on a farewell tour. Because of Haida’s connection with the Athabaskan, I was keen to visit the ship. I got a ride in Haida and that’s where I met Neil Bruce, an Air Canada pilot who also felt strongly about the Navy, tribal class destroyers in particular. There were a couple of other guys around, too — former naval officer Norm Simpson, enthusiast Dave Kidd, and Allan Howard, who was head of the Ontario maritime Museum. I became involved because of Haida’s connection to Athabaskan.
With Neil’s prodding, we formed Haida Inc, an organization intended to save Haida from the scrap yards. Norm Simpson did our legal work pro bono, Dave Kidd was a superb money raiser, and Allan Howard had all manner of Toronto contacts, because of military writing I had contacts in the defence department. Neil Bruce was our driving force.
In the event, Paul Hellyer, who was defence minister at the time, agreed to sell Haida to us for $20,000 to paid over ten years with the first payment deferred a year. We were to pick up the ship in Sorel. It was our responsibility to have Haida towed from Sorel to Toronto. We took out loans, with our houses as security. I’ll never forget my wife’s face when I told her I’d just mortgaged the house for one fifth ownership in a destroyer.
I was an information officer at HMCS York while all this was going on. We cobbled together about 18 guys to crew Haida through the seaway under tow to Toronto, and we went to Sorel with half a dozen Coleman stoves, some rations, and a 120 volt generator, which we persuaded the railway conductor was hand baggage.
Jack MacQuarrie was one of the York officers on that trip. After I signed for the ship in Sorel, Jack strung the emergency wiring, and we lashed down the generator behind B gun mounting. We bought 120 volt light bulbs from a local store, and voila, we had the ship powered and lit.
We were being towed by two tugs, hired from MacAllister Towing in Montreal. We had a remarkably trouble free passage through the St. Lawrence locks, and figure we’d get to Toronto in record time.
Instead, at one stage we were stopped by fog near Brockville, tethered to a tug which also anchored. We didn’t have the faintest idea where we were, and small motor boats kept appearing out of the fog, much surprised to find a destroyer tethered in their river. Imagine if you can, our CO, Commander Bill Wilson, leaning over the rail with an Esso road map to hand, asking the motor boats where are we?
Eventually we arrived safely in Toronto to be met with a huge armada of boats, including Toronto’s fire boat shooting jets of water everywhere, and sirens wailing. On the jetty to meet us was Admiral Harry Dewolfe, who commanded Haida in her prime days.
We ran Haida as a museum for almost 10 years in Toronto. It was risky during that first winter because of all the ship’s openings to the outside water, so necessary for an operating ship, but extremely dangerous in ship without engines in fresh water. If the openings freeze, they crack open and the ship would be flooded. We had to keep a trickle of water running through each opening, and have pumps working 24-7 to keep Haida afloat. Eventually we had her towed to Port Weller, where the openings were all welded shot.
In 1971 we turned Haida over to the Ontario provincial government to be moored at Ontario Place. Government changed, the new provincial rulers didn’t keep up the ship. She was in grave danger when Sheila Copps, the minister for Parks Canada, said Parks Canada would take her over, and foot a bill for major repairs, provided the ship would be moved to Hamilton.
I can’t look at Haida without thinking of Athabaskan.
For me the Athabaskan story came full circle 10 years ago. A French underwater explorer, Jacques Ouchecoff, discovered Athabaskan’s wreckage about six miles northeast of the small port of Aberwrach. Toronto film maker Wayne Abbott had already made one film on the Athabaskan. Now he intended to do another, with divers visiting the wreckage.
I went to France with the film crew, and my younger son Mark, an experience diver, was to be one of those to visit the sunken ship,in almost 300 feet of water. Now that’s a serious dive, even without the massive tidal currents that sweep around Ushant into the Channel. At the wreck site, spring tides can run at up to 10 knots, which explains why so many Athabaskan bodies wound up 30 miles down the coast.
With us were two Athabaskan survivors Herm Sulkers and Wilf Hendrickon. Both went out with the dive boats, and stayed on the surface.
Our dive crew stayed in a rented Breton house near Ile de Verge. The walls of the main room downstairs were covered with huge schematic blueprints of Athabaskan, detailing all her features. There were five divers in the crew, two from France, my son Mark, a British dive expert, and the man who trained Mark for the dive, ex US Navy Seal Terrence Tysall.
For this dive, the men would all be on mixed gas, required because of the extreme depth. They would carry helium, nitrogen, and oxygen, and breathe specific gases at specific depths. Each dove with an impressive array of tanks strapped to his back.
It was such a thrill on our first dive day, to see the wreckage of the Athabaskan show up on our sonar. We buoyed the spot for divers, who went down with video cameras to film the wreck. All told, the divers were down almost an hour and a half with only 10-15 minutes of that time on the wreck. It took each man more than an hour to come up, gradually decompressing with a stop every 10 feet or so.
Back at dive headquarters, the divers, Wayne Abbot, with Herm and Wilf, reviewed the film taken of the hull. Sometimes they’d go to a schematic on the wall to point out a particular feature. One thing showed strongly. The Port side of the ship was intact, and she was lying on her starboard side, quite severely smashed around. The stern has nowhere to be seen.
Next day was Marks time to dive. The Canadian Navy had prepared a brass memorial plaque for ship, and Mark was to leave this memento on the ship where is grandfather had died. He actually placed the plaque on the bilge keel of the Port side, just about at the break of the foc’sle.
The ship was badly knocked about, perhaps because RN ships had orders to depth charge any wrecks in the Channel, because German U Boats were using them as camouflage.
It was quite an experience waiting on the surface while my son was deep down, exploring the ship where dad died. Time went fairly quickly, because the Breton captain of the dive boat shared a bottle of local wine with me. I can’t tell you how glad I was to see Mark surface. Mark wanted to be here today, but he’s currently finishing up a job in Mexico.
Mark and I visited grave sites of Athabaskans at three places, including Plouescat, were most those lost are buried. The entire dive crew held a small service there, and expressed our gratitude to the people of Plouescat, who maintain those Athabaskan graves so well.
That’s a bit of the story of the way the sinking of the Athabaskan and the loss of my father affected me. It’s true that each of the 128 men lost on that night 69 years ago left families and loved ones behind, and those families led lives deeply affected by their loss. Just as in our family, the consequences of loss influenced generations which were unborn 69 years ago. You can think of those consequences of wartime loss as ripples of war in lives ripples that perhaps grow fainter generation after generation. If the lives of the relatives of those lost on Athabaskan were affected, so were the countless families or all who were killed or badly wounded during that war, the Korean War, peacekeeping missions, and of course, Afghanistan.
I’m grateful for my association with G-O7 society, and for the friendships created. I’m grateful, too, for the regular newsletter those of us in the G-07 association receive regularly from today’s Athabaskan, third RCN ship to carry that name.
I’d like to close by thanking those who served in this wonderful destroyer, and for all Canadians who serve and have served their country.
Contributed by Peter Ward
Someone sent me a personal message about Charles Burgess wanting to know more.
We will try to do just that.
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