Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 4 (1)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

HMCS Niobe, a Canadian base in Scotland during WW2, was named after
the above ship*. Photo credit - Silver Hawk author

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.


Part 4 - Combined Operations Training in the UK

In January, 1942 the first Canadians to volunteer for Combined Operations once again left Canada, this time aboard the Dutch liner Volendam - in a blizzard of blinding snow, not in resounding cheers - to eventually arrive at barracks called HMCS Niobe in Scotland. 

Al Kirby (RCNVR and Combined Ops) writes:

"It was late in January that we re-embarked (aboard Volendam) to arrive in Scotland and learn that we were destined to join Combined Operations, driving landing craft." (Early Days in Combined Ops)

It appears that although lessons aboard landing craft would begin shortly after their arrival, the first drafts of Canadians learned valuable lessons while being transported across the Atlantic Ocean as well.

The Atlantic Crossing and Safe Landing in Scotland

About what my father describes as "an eventful trip", he writes the following:

The convoy consisted of a destroyer H.M.S. Firedrake, armed merchant ship Jervis Bay (sister ship of the famed Burgess Bay who held off a large German man o’ war until the remainder of its convoy could escape, costing her her life and all aboard) and an American four-stacker loaned by the USA to England. 

The Dutch captain lined us all up and assured us we would arrive safely because the Volendam had already taken three torpedoes and lived to sail. This was very heartening news for those of us who had never been to sea except for a few hours in Halifax upon a mine-sweeper. Our first meal was sausage with lots of grease. Naturally, many were sick as it was very rough. 
Late at night I was on watch at our stern and saw a red plume of an explosion on our starboard quarter. In the morning the four-stacker was not to be seen. The next evening I heard cries for help, presumably from a life-raft or life-boat. Although I informed the officer of the watch, we were unable to stop and place ourselves in jeopardy as we only had the Firedrake with ASDIC (sonar) to get us through safely.

After some days we spotted a light on our port stern quarter one night. It was the light of the conning tower of a German submarine. How she failed to detect us, or the Firedrake detect it, I will never know. I was gun layer and nearly fell off the gun (4.7 gauge). I informed the Bridge and the Captain said, “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. It could be one of ours.” But as it quickly submerged we did fire one round to buck up our courage.

Some days later we spotted a friendly flying Sunderland and shortly after sailed up the Firth of Clyde to disembark at the Canadian barracks called Niobe. Before we disembarked, however, we took up a good-sized collection for the crew of the Firedrake for bringing us through. It was soon confirmed that the American four-stacker had taken a fish (torpedo). (from "DAD, WELL DONE", pages 8 - 9)

HMS Firedrake. Photo Credit - Firedrake Assoc.

So, before even setting foot in a classroom or on a beach to practice handling a landing craft, the Canadian sailors learned much concerning the dangers of going to sea during wartime, for example, not everyone would survive, and cries for help would not immediately be answered. 

Lloyd Evans, another early member of RCNVR and Combined Operations adds this to the story re the trip across the Atlantic:

That evening, while on lookout duty on the bridge, I was surprised to see one of the destroyers, HMS Belmont, go full speed ahead followed shortly by two huge explosions. She had been hit by two torpedoes..... For obvious reasons we didn’t slow down to look for survivors but, since we were only a short distance from Halifax, a rescue ship came out to look for them....

The rest of the trip was reasonably quiet with the remaining destroyer (HMS Firedrake) doing double duty. In effect she proceeded at high speed most of the time to cover all the distance normally undertaken by two ships. In appreciation of their great efforts we passed the hat around for the benefit of the crew. About ten days later we sailed up the River Clyde to Gourock in Scotland. The final stage of our journey was by bus to the Canadian Base HMCS Niobe a few miles away in Greenock.
(Memoirs, Lloyd Evans).

About HMCS Niobe one can find the following at The Memory Project:

During the Second World War, HMCS Niobe was a shore establishment near Greenock, Scotland that served as the Royal Canadian Navy’s overseas headquarters and a transit point for personnel for their overseas appointments. (Robert Sutherland

According to my reading material, the men disembarked safely at HMCS Niobe, likely filled with anticipation about what would happen next, but had little time to even look around before they were given orders to board a train destined to take them from the southern shores of the River Clyde to the southern coast of England.

All aboard!

More to follow concerning the Combined Ops training in England and Scotland.

*HMCS Niobe ca. 1898 - 1915, Royal Canadian Navy. HMS Niobe was a ship of the Diadem-class of protected cruiser in the Royal Navy. She served in the Boer War and was then given to Canada as the first ship of the then newly created Royal Canadian Navy as HMCS Niobe. After patrol duties at the beginning of the First World War, she became a depot ship in Halifax. Damaged in the 1917 Halifax Explosion, she was scrapped in the 1920s. Two of HMCS Niobe's 6-inch guns are preserved in the City of Saint John, New Brunswick. (RCN Photo, as found at Silver Hawk author)

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