For Posterity's Sake
A Royal Canadian Navy Historical Project
Wartime Diary of George Devonshire
1942 - 1945
Courtesy of Anne Lofting
Paragraphs in blue are the actual transcripts from the diary of George Devonshire in 1942.
Paragraphs in black are comments George made from memory in November, 1990, when he reviewed his diary which was found tucked away in an obscure place where it had lain for many years.
Green paragraphs are facts provided in December, 1990 and January, 1991 by John K. Burgess of Calgary, who kindly looked over George's draft narration. This additional information is valuable in rounding out the story. Mr. Burgess is the co-author of, with Ken Macpherson, "Ships of Canada's Naval Forces 1910 to 1981". Mr. Burgess specializes in ships' histories and convoy records.
M.V. ASBJORN & HMCS WASKESIU
M.V. ASBJORN - MONTREAL TO MANCHESTER & RETURN, 1942
The diary begins on leaving Halifax in convoy, June 21, 1942, but I will first describe the events leading to the Atlantic crossing of the Asbjorn.
left my home in Toronto in February, 1942 to join the merchant navy in
Montreal. I had just turned 19. I visited the shipping offices on lower McGill
St., Craig St. and Notre Dame St. They all said they would let me know when
the ice cleared from the river. I left my name.
I settled in to wait in Montreal. Too much pride to return home to wait - what would people think of me? I got a job at the Henry Morgan Co., a department store. I worked as a minor clerk in the audit office. I learned to use a manual comptometer, adding sales slips by departments. After the store closed, I sat at a table in the vault and received all the cash bags from the departments. I checked them off a list, put them in a large steel box and closed and locked the massive doors of the vault. It seems odd now that a junior employee handled so much money with no one else present. I suppose that it was considered a Joe-job, because I had to stay later than everyone else.
On an impulse, I joined the Black Watch Reserve army and drilled two nights a week at the Bleury St. Armories. The battalion was gearing up to go on active service.
Fortunately, sometime in April, I received a call from Canadian National Steamships to go to their office. I was offered a job as a galley boy. I accepted on the spot and they gave me the name of the ship and a pass to the docks. I did not ask about wages or any other details.
I returned to my room on Hutchison St., paid the landlady - took my Black Watch uniform back to the armouries on Bleury St - phoned to quit my job and went to Pier 2 at the foot of McGill St.
M.V. Asbjorn was alongside a shed and they were loading 500 lb. aircraft bombs. I went aboard and the steward took me to the cook and I started work right away - 10 hours a day, 7 days a week - and later at sea, I was wakened at 3:30 a.m. to take coffee for the men coming off watch. I thought it was great!
The cook could not speak English, nor I Danish. We got along well. He was a good boss.
Asbjorn was a Danish-owned ship and because Denmark had been occupied by the Germans, the ship was under charter to the Canadian Government.
The officers and crew were mostly all Danes, with one or two Frenchmen and a Swede. There were 3 or. 4 other Canadians aboard too. It was a "DENS" ship (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) with a 5" gun on the stern (pre WW1?) and some kind of machine gun on each wing of the bridge. The gun crew was made up of "Syd", Royal Naval Leading Seaman of about 45 or 50. He had been retired, but called up again. There were 2 Royal Navy gunnery ratings about 18 years old - and 3 Royal Artillery soldiers to complete the gun crew. I did not know it at the time, but it is now obvious that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel to man guns aboard merchant ships.
Asbjorn was a general cargo ship, built in Copenhagen in 1935. She was owned by a Danish Company, but in 1942 she was operated by Canadian National Steamships to haul munitions and war material to the U.K. During my time aboard, we were loaded with 500 lb. aircraft bombs and explosives.
I was very surprised at the depth of the holds when looking down from above. The bombs had lifting rings in the noses and were without tailfins. They were hoisted 4 at-a-time from the dock and dropped through the hatches to 4 stevedores with hand carts who wheeled each bomb into position and set them down on their ends. There was a gang of carpenters who laid plank floors between the many layers of bombs. The planks were laid to pass between the rings, which projected above the floors. As soon as a floor was completed, a new level of bombs would be placed and the whole process of building another floor would begin again. I don't know how many thousands of bombs we had. I seem to recall that it took about two weeks to complete the loading.
We then moved upriver towards the Victoria Bridge and tied up at a remote place on the north side for a few days. The sight fixed in my mind's eye is that I could easily see the large Black Horse Ale sign. Our next stop was the Canadian Vickers dry dock in the east end. I don't remember why we were dry docked, but we couldn't use the toilets for a couple of days.
We then sailed to Sorel and anchored in the river, well out from shore. Barges secured alongside and we hoisted aboard 500 tons of TNT and 250 tons of Picrate. These explosives were in small wood boxes and I remember the TNT ones were stenciled "TNT, Grade No. 1, Flaked".
The next stop was at Quebec City where we docked in Lower Town over by the grain elevators. In retrospect, it seems odd that a ship full of explosives would be allowed to dock so close to the city. I can't recall any guards or security in the dock area at all. I suppose a fire aboard and subsequent explosion could have caused enormous damage to the city.
From Quebec, we were part of a convoy going to Sydney, N.S. I learned in later years that escort protection for the Quebec- Sydney convoys was intensified because of a submarine offensive in the St. Lawrence. I think my memory tells me that I saw only Fairmile vessels as escorts. I don't know if it is valid because at the time, I could not have been familiar with the various types of escorts.
We entered Sydney harbour after dark and suffered a collision with another ship which stove in our bow slightly. I was asleep at the time and I only remember my bunk shaking, lots of hollering and the sounds of people running around. I was not called up, so stayed in bed and went back to sleep.
We were at anchor off North Sydney. In the morning, two or three harbour craft (one RCN) came alongside with official-looking visitors with clip boards, who took notes and photo-graphs.
I was surprised and pleased to see Art Cotterel come aboard with the Navy people. He was a friend from Sea Cadet days. Art was envious that I was heading overseas - until I told him about the cargo!
The trip to Halifax was in convoy, but I have no recollection of this part of the journey, except for someone pointing out to me the coast of Prince Edward Island.
We anchored in Bedford Basin (Halifax) for a few days waiting for the assembly of a trans-Atlantic convoy. The basin is very large. There were many ships at anchor.
The diary starts now.
-- 1st day - Sunday, June 21, 1942
very bright and sunny day.
Moved from basin past the town and out to be formed up.
Passed quite close to Navy dockyard. The naval
craft, all decked out in blue, green and light grey paint made a gay sight. At
dock was American four funnel destroyer. Wondered if it
RCN got 6 American four stackers (WW1 destroyers) of the 50 given to Britain, in exchange for several naval bases, which included the base in Argentia, Newfoundland. Denny is my brother-in-law, who served on a four stacker. I think it was the St. Croix.
Burgess: The only 4 stacker destroyer in Halifax on June 21/42 was the "St. Clair". The "St. Croix" had left Halifax June 17 for sea.
Convoy of 70 to 80 ships proceeded under way in very short order. Very efficiently executed.
How would I know? Also, the number of ships is probably wrong. 30 to 40 would be more like it.
You joined Convoy HX-195 for the U.K. It comprised 30 merchant ships. The
convoy was 9 columns wide with 3 - 4
Most of the ships are classed as large. Travelling at about 8½ knots. The sun was shining all day and after spending a few hours in the galley, I lay around on the boat deck. Lovely sunset, with ships appearing twice as large against the sun. Egyptian ship carrying women and children looks quite out of place with orange topsides (read superstructure) and black hull. She is a passenger, unarmed and in the centre of the convoy.
It seems questionable that women and children would be going east on the North Atlantic in 1942! But I guess I wrote what I think I saw, or was told.
Burgess: You had some " interesting neighbours" in the convoy - El Nil (#52) Egyptian passenger liner (built 1916 - 7775 tons). She was leased from Egyptian Gov't by the British M.O.W.T. (Ministry of War Transport) due to critical need for tonnage and was managed by Furness, Withy & Co. She survived the war.
San Ernesto (#72) The ship ahead of you British tanker (1939 - 8078 tons) owned by Eagle Oil. Sunk by Jap. sub. "I-37" in Indian Ocean, June 15/43.
J.L.M. Curry (#74) The ship behind you, U.S. Liberty ship of 7176 tons - only one in convoy. Completed in May/42 and on her maiden voyage. On March 8/43 while in Convoy RA-53 enroute from Mermansk, Russia to Lock Ewe, she encountered heavy seas N.E. of Iceland. The deck, bulwarks and shell plating fractured. Ship broke up & was abandoned. This incident started the rumour that Liberty ships were unsafe in heavy seas in cold weather as the welding wouldn't hold. As you know it was corrected by welding flanges where deck plating joints met the hull.
Texas (#63) Ship on your left, American, built 1940 - 8108 tons. Built as a
railroad freight car carrier for the Havana-Gulf ports - New York Service of
Seatrain Lines Inc. Requisitioned by U.S.W.S.A. and became a U.S. army
transport, used principally as a tank transport to North African & Italian
ports. Survived the war.
Lechistan (#83) Ship on your right. Polish freighter, one of few. Built 1929 - 1937 tons. Survived the war.
-- Monday, June 22, 1942
Up at the usual time and weather just the same. All ships in same position. Convoy opened up with AA practice at 11:00 a.m. What a racket!!
I don't remember this - could be exaggerated. Maybe a few ships were trying out some machine guns.
Very large ship known as "invasion ship" made more noise. She is very well armed for a merchantman. Syd, the gunlayer was in his glory operating a twin Hotchkiss as if a million aircraft were in the sky.
This too, is probably exaggeration. Besides the M.G.'s on the bridge were probably Brownings.
Can't see much of the escorts because they are always so far away.
-- Tuesday, June 23, 1942
Usual weather. Sewed up wallet, watch and birth certificate in life belt.
I don't think I really did that. My life jacket was a mess, with holes and the kapok hanging out. However, I remember that I had an oilskin pouch in which I kept my personal stuff handy.
Have decided to save as much money as possible on the other side. (If I can.) Art is still as crazy as ever.
Art Williams, cabin steward - well-to-do Montreal family - black sheep type - fun-loving. I liked him.
I am able to put on life belt and strap on life boat suit. I don't see what good it would do because of the cargo. 4th Engineer scared silly. He only sleeps in the daytime and stays up all night worrying his fool head off.
I think the reference to lifeboat suit was pure fantasy...maybe I thought this was what my family would like to read. I had no lifeboat suit (whatever that is) - only a beat-up blue life jacket. No light, no whistle. Nothing else.
Washed all my khaki trousers - what a job.
My only clothing, as I recall, consisted of 3 or 4 work pants, underwear, a windbreaker & shirts - including one red flannel shirt, which elicited a comment about being a Communist.
-- Wednesday, June 24, 1942
Fine weather A.M. Took half the boards out of Ken's bunk.
Ken Sullivan - messman - Montreal.
He was surprised when he climbed in. Ran into beautiful fog about noon. Could hardly see the other ships the rest of the day. Heard one depth charge about 4:00 a.m. Feeling tough after dinner. Slept from 3 to 5 p.m. Sea is still exceptionally quiet.
-- Thursday, June 25, 1942
Very cold and damp. Have slight cold. Am beginning to realize why sailors become very fed up. Food not as good as in port. Eggs only 4 times a week and fresh fruit running out.
It is incredible that I should think this was a hard time!
Quite a heavy sea running, but not as bad as coming down to Sydney. Gunners are very cheerful and their favourite song is "Rolling Home to Dear Old England". I will be singing "Rolling Home to Dear Old Toronto" and very heartily, on my way hack. Turned clocks ahead one hour again. That means one hour less sleep.
-- Friday, June 26, 1942
No change in weather. Cold and damp. Comparatively calm sea. Stopping work at 7:00 p.m. instead of 8:00. One screw broke during the night. Blade broke off. Has not decreased speed any.
Someone was pulling my leg on this one!
Have decided along with others, that Blakey is a little touched. I am wondering if the folks are all o.k. at home as usual.
Homesickness creeping in?
-- Saturday, June 27, 1942
Up as usual. Still cold and damp. We must be north a bit as it doesn't get dark until very late at night. Expect to be in England about Friday or Saturday. Lifeboat drill at 8:30 a.m. What a farce. Raining like heck. Found out exactly how much high explosives we are carrying. 500 tons of TNT and 250 tons of Picrate. What nice stuff to be living on. It doesn't really get dark all night.
-- Sunday, June 28, 1942
Cold and heavy sea. Chicken for dinner. It doesn't become dark ALL night - as bright as a cloudy day.
-- Monday, June 29, 1942
Phyl's birthday. I wonder what I gave her?
My sister, Phyllis. I think I used to leave money with my mother to get family birthday presents. It must have been a bother to her. What kind of present could she get for a couple of dollars?
Washed galley. Water so strong with soda that it shrivelled the skin on my hands. So sore, can hardly bend them. However, that is to be expected in this kind of life. Poor gunners. Started aircraft watch. Sit in gun posts for 12 hours and only relieved for meals. Iceland convoy breaks up at 24°W long. and aircraft watch starts at 30°W long.
I was obviously told this.
Cook is a swell guy when you get to know him. One good thing about sleeping in your clothes is that I don't have to make up my bunk every day, since I sleep with only a blanket. Got dirty washing galley, so took a bath, including hair, from bucket of water. It is quite a trick. Hear we have only 900 miles to go to get in. It doesn't sound bad when you say it quickly.
-- Tuesday, June 30, 1942
Cloudy again. Submarine warning last night. Went to sleep instead of worrying.
Sounds good, but I was probably too tired to stay awake anyway.
Gunners expect to see Hun reconnaissance aircraft within the next two days. Depth charge pattern at 7:00 p.m. Destroyer moving around in circles.
It is interesting that I had already picked up some awareness of anti-submarine talk. i.e. "Pattern" - a number of depth charges exploding in a short time.
-- Wednesday, July 1, 1942
Cool and very calm sea. Unidentified aircraft sighted. Gunners "fetched up" early as a result. Much swearing because of 16 hours watch yesterday. I heard that we expect to be in Holyhead on Friday to unload TNT. Be glad to get rid of that stuff. Wow! 11:00 a.m. can see small bits of mountains very faintly on the horizon. My first sight of land in 11 days. About
5:00 p.m. I could see both the Scottish and Irish coasts. Sea just like glass.
-- Thursday, July 2, 1942
Lovely sunny day. Coast quite hilly. Can see beautiful farm lands, divided by hedges. Moved into Holyhead at 10:00 a.m.
Holyhead is on the Isle of Angelsey, North Wales. We were anchored well off the town.
Just as I had imagined Old England. We have an aircraft balloon over our ship and 4 trawlers are tied up along-side to take off explosives.
Actually, they were wood barges brought out by a tug. I was immensely impressed by the foul language which passed between the tug's skipper and his young son, the deck hand. There was a torrent of abusive obscenities shouted back and forth as they maneuvered to secure alongside. To them, it was only banter and they seemed to enjoy it. To me, it was an introduction to the constant use of the "F" word in England.
All I can see of the town are houses and a thousand chimney pots. Stevedores are typical English working class type. They look half starved and hang around the galley like flies.
What a snob I was! I had to supply them with boiling water for their blue billy tins. I think they had lots of breaks for tea, but the unloading continued day and night.
-- Friday, July 3
Rainy weather. this certainly is an interesting place. Air raid in some nearby city. As usual I was dead to the world, but many of the boys heard the bombs and the aircraft.
Could be that someone was telling me a story in the morning.
The buzz went around that we will be going to Manchester instead of Liverpool.
-- Saturday, July 4, 1942
Left Holyhead at 9:30 a.m.
It now seems incredible that the ship was unloaded in 2 days, according to the diary. But it is quite clear in my memory that the explosives and the bombs were hoisted into the lighters by the ship's cranes at Holyhead. they worked around the clock.
Glad to get rid of the explosives. Now, if we are hit, we at least have a chance. Sea just like glass. Raining. Picked up pilot at pilot station about 6 miles from Liverpool at 3:00 p.m. Our top mast will have to come down to go up the Manchester Ship Canal. Moved into Liverpool at 5:00 p.m. What a sight. George V battleship there and half the RN.
No recollection of this. We did not dock.
Burgess: The battleship you saw at Liverpool was the King George V. She was refitting at Vickers-Armstrong Ltd., Barrow.
Went up to MSC and had our mast down and by nightfall found us at a lovely little town on the Mersey.
Probably a suburb of Birkinhead - or near Widness, further up the canal.
Was good to see cattle, sheep and even rabbits running along the canal bank and everything was so green. What a sight for sore eyes. Even the sun came out for our trip up the canal. It's nice to look out a porthole and see green banks and lovely countryside instead of the very boring sea. Anti-aircraft balloons dot the countryside and also many pillboxes line the river and canal. Have seen evidence of bombing; quite a bit at Liverpool docks. there are quite a few wrecks - about 20 in the outside channel and harbour, due to heavy blitz in May, 1941. Jerry dropped many mines in the Mersey during the Blitz and they floated down the river and played hell with the ships, even outside the harbour.
So I was told, but I don't recall seeing that many shipwrecks.
Burgess: You may have seen close to 20 wrecks in Liverpool. the city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe from May 3 to May 8 (inclusive) 1941. the number of ships sunk or damaged were:
Many of the ships classified as "damaged" were physically sunk, but later salvaged.
-- Sunday, July 5, 1942
Arrived in Manchester and berthed at Salford docks. Customs turned us and our cabin inside out. Also passed through immigration without any trouble.
No passport. I was questioned a lot before being allowed ashore.
Went ashore at evening, but came aboard early.
Here, there is a gap in the diary until the start of the return journey on July 22. We loaded general cargo which included porcelain goods (sinks etc.) and I recall that a double decker bus was placed on deck - an odd item to be taking to Canada.
My times ashore were adventurous, as first time experiences are.I enjoyed the friendly people, the working class district around the docks, the dances at the Labour temple, the pubs (including one memorable pub brawl I saw), walk-along fish and chips in the blackout and a visit uptown to a posh pub where we met a Canadian army sergeant who later hung around the ship scrounging meals and who turned out to be a deserter. I met a couple of girls in Salford - nothing serious and certainly nothing "dangerous".
RETURN (to Canada)
-- Wednesday, July 22, 1942
Left Manchester. Raining much. Very glad to go.
-- Thursday, July 23, 1942
Air raid could be heard during the night. Don't know where. Many bombers taking off all morning from airdromes along the canal.
Probably an exaggeration.
Mast being put on at 10:00 a.m. Arrived at Liverpool at 6:00 p.m.
No record of where we stopped overnight.
Lovely day, bright and sunny. Moved past Pool and anchored off Southport.
-- Friday, July 24, 1942
Moved from anchorage at 7:30 p.m. and moved out the channel in line.
To form up for convoy.
-- Saturday, July 25, 1942
Glorious day. Joined 2 other convoys. Passed along Scottish coast. Very rough towards afternoon. Poor Ken quite sick. I feel fine.
-- Sunday, July 26, 1942
Still very good weather. Sea is a little calmer. Sub picked up at 11:30 a.m. Destroyer gave it a belting and convoy went into general routine.
Whatever that is!
-- Monday, July 27, 1942
Feeling ill all morning, but better towards evening. Early morning aircraft overhead, but turned out to be ours. Lovely weather, but rolling a lot.
-- Tuesday, July 28, 1942
Same weather. Nothing out of the ordinary all day. Feeling fine. Will be darn glad to get home.
-- Wednesday, July 29, 1942
A little cloudy, but fine weather. Can't get on with Art at all.
-- Thursday, July 30, 1942
Submarine alarm last night. Convoy scattered all over the place in early morning. Destroyer poking its nose around the merchant ships. A little cloudy all day and calm sea.
Nothing written for Jul 31, or Aug 01
-- Sunday, August 2, 1942
Past 2 days rainy weather and very rough. Sub alarms on and off and depth bombs heard quite frequently. Yesterday had lifeboat drill. Today, we hear from reliable source that escort actually sighted 2 subs on the surface. Escorts attacked and subs submerged. Was probably during the time I was having tea in the gunners quarters, because we heard a number of charges banging against the hull.
-- Monday, August 3, 1942
Last night (Aug.2) was hell let loose. I turned in about 8:00 p.m. only to be wakened at about 10:00 p.m. and told to dress for lifeboats. When I stepped out on deck I was amazed at the sight. It looked like a real expensive 24th of May exhibition. Snowflake and star shells littered the sky. The convoy was already under attack. It was an eerie sight to see the black forms of ships when there was a rocket in the sky and quite impressive to see the gunners scurry past you in the dark, going about their job calmly and efficiently. Our part of the convoy was still organized, although there is a rumour that the Commodore's ship was hit.
Burgess: The Commodore ship was not touched. She was the "Pacific Grove" — 1928 — 7,117 tons — British (Furness Line). She was sunk in convoy HX232 by "U—563" on Apr. 12/43.
Gunfire could be heard on both the port and star- board horizon and depth charges kept up their infernal booming on our hull. The "lifeboat ready" sounded about 10:30 p.m., but we all stayed down on deck. The Chief Steward was worrying about all the cigarette and beer money that was owing to him. It is hard to describe ones feelings at a time like that. You are too excited to be frightened. The only thing that troubled me is that I would have liked to have been doing something to help. Things quietened down about 12:00 a.m. so I turned in again, sleeping in a life-belt. However, it was hard to sleep due to the excitement and also every half hour or so a pattern of charges would play hell. It was very foggy in the morning. I couldn't see more than 20 feet outboard. However, we are still holding some sort of convoy judging from the signal whistles of the ships. There are 12 ships not in the convoy.
I presume I was told that, as I would have no way of knowing.
-- Tuesday, August 4, 1942
Lovely weather. Spent all day yesterday afternoon going around in circles.
This morning 2 or 3 ships rejoined the convoy, which proved that at least they were afloat. We have a much heavier escort now — 3 destroyers and 2 corvettes.
Again a presumption, but I probably saw them. Other escorts were probably out of sight.
-- Wednesday, August 5, 1942
Perfectly grand weather. Very hot sun and strong, warm breeze. Yesterday night rumour from bridge that we are heading for New York and paying off there, orto wait for a convoy to Halifax - but today I heard we are going to Halifax.
Travelling about due north. We went quite far south in those few days we were playing tag with the subs. Catalina flying around all day, so at least they know where we are. Did a pile of dhobying which dried in about 10 minutes. Got a little burnt on deck.
-- Thursday, August 6, 1942
Lovely weather. Sighted land about 5:00 p.m. and reached Halifax about midnight.
-- Friday, August 7, 1942
Still fine weather. Left Halifax at 2:00 p.m. in small convoy to Sydney. Very slow.
-- Saturday, August 8, 1942
Grand day. Long swell. Going so slow that we have to travel on 1 engine only, turning at its minimum revs.
Sighted whale which broke water near ship.
-- Sunday, August 9, 1942
Reached Sydney at 6:00 a.m. Anchored this time by the town.
I have no mind's eye picture of this.
I'm getting tired of saying "fine weather". Art Cottrell came aboard again and I talked with him for a while. Gave him a few fags. Got fresh stores aboard.
-- Monday, August 10, 1942
Cloudy day. Passing along New Brunswick coast. Nothing out of the ordinary.
-- Tuesday, August 11, 1942
Cloudy, rain. Expect to be in Quebec Thursday. Did all my washing.
-- Wednesday, August 12, 1942
Cloudy day and fog. Everybody happy, especially me.
-- Thursday, August 13, 1942
Left convoy at 10:30 a.m. Going full speed. It won't be long now. Arrived Quebec at 9:30 p.m. and docked and started to unload right away. Ashore at 11:00 p.m. No Canadian money.
-- Friday, August 14, 1942
Left Quebec 2:30 p.m. travelling all out for Montreal.
-- Saturday, August 15, 1942
Four hours from Montreal, caught by freak fog. Had to lay over all night until 10:30 a.m. Reached Montreal about 3:00 p.m
Whoopee _______________ (End of diary)
My comments in the diary describing the attack on convoy ON-115 as seen from my minor perspective, is enlarged upon in the book "North Atlantic Run" pages 130 to 139, with page 135 chart attached. The author is Marc Milner, historian in the Directorate of History, National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa.
The convoy was defended by an experienced Canadian escort group C3, which included the destroyers Saguenay and Skeena and the corvettes Galt, Sackville and Wetaskewin. Aggassiz and Louisburg were newcomers to the group.
The two destroyers made many extended sweeps away from the convoy to keep the shadowing subs down. The destroyers, consequently ran short of fuel and had to leave the convoy while it was still more than 500 miles from Newfoundland. At one time there were only three corvettes around the convoy - the others were following up sightings, or lost in the fog. the RN destroyer Witch and HMCS Hamilton joined as reinforcements on August 2.
There were only three merchant ships torpedoed (two of which sank). One submarine was sunk and two damaged. It was considered an "acceptable rate of exchange", as commented by Marc Milner in his book.
Sequel to MV Asbjorn - Feb 1992
The following narrative was triggered by a review of a diary kept by the writer, George Devonshire, aboard HMCS Waskesiu in 1943 and '44. Much of the story is from memory, but the important events are supported by the diary notes made at sea.
Obviously, not all events dredged up from memory are included because it would add too much insignificant detail. Just the same, there are plenty of memories of times ashore in St. Johns, Londonderry, Plymouth, Portsmouth and London, which I can think about today with some nostalgia.
I left Asbjorn in Montreal and returned to Toronto. There, I joined the RCNVR in November "42 and went on active service in January '43. I was immediately sent to Quebec City for basic training at HMCS Montcalm, which was located in the posh Quebec Winter Club on Laurier Ave. overlooking the Plains of Abraham. This "barracks" was not set up with food service or sleeping accommodation, so we lived in very nice rooming houses on Grande Allee and took our meals in local restaurants. I thought the Navy was pretty neat - or "good-oh", as we said in those days.
It was especially good-oh when four or five of us were invited for Sunday dinners at the home of Mrs. James Kinnear. Of course there was the inevitable daughter, Phyllis. It was love at first sight. We were married after the war and 44 years later, we can look back on a happy, busy and eventful life - three daughters, our own business and still Phyl had time and the capacity to assist in our business, to become a gourmet cook and an accomplished artist.
My ideal situation in Quebec was rudely "adjusted" at the next training base in Deep Brook, N.S. - later to be named HMCS Cornwallis. The base was still under construction and in wet weather it was a sea of mud. I recall that at times we did our squad and rifle drills sloshing around in rubber boots.
After the wet purgatory at Deep Brook, I was sent to Torpedo School at HMCS Stadacona in Halifax where we were supposed to learn all about anti-submarine weapons and electrical systems in naval ships. (That's another story!
I graduated at the top of my class as a Seaman torpedoman. After a short leave in Toronto, I was placed in the Emergency Manning Depot in the Halifax dockyard. After sitting there for two or three days with my kit packed, I and Cliff Adams, another torpedoman from New Westminster, B.C., were suddenly taken by a harbour launch to HMCS Waskesiu. She was already under way and heading out the harbour for overseas. Cliff and I have remained good friends and we have kept in touch over the years.
My job as a Seaman torpedoman was, at first, on the depth charges. In preparation for an attack, I set the hydrostatic pistols to explode the depth charges at various depths as ordered from the bridge. When we ran over the target at high speed, I pulled a lever in response to a series of firing buzzes, which released the depth charges over the stern.
Generally, 10 depth charges would be fired in one attack - 3 from each of the two stern rails and one each from four mortars which threw the depth charges outboard from each side of the ship. I was on the port stern rails. Cliff Adams was on the starboard rails.
After an attack, new depth charges had to be put into firing position and made ready for another run at the target. Also, replacement depth charges were hoisted from the magazine and man-handled into the ready-use racks on deck - a tricky job in darkness and especially in rough weather.
I liked the job because it was exciting to be actually making the underwater booming noises, instead of just listening, as was the case in Asbjorn the previous year.
I was later moved forward as No. 1 on the Hedgehog, which was mounted on the foc'sle. the Hedgehog was a spigot mortar containing 24 projectiles which were fired together ahead of the ship to enter the water in a wide pattern. the target was approached at low speeds and unless there was a hit, the water was not disturbed (as in the case of depth charges) and hopefully asdic (sonar) contact with the submarine could be maintained for another run.
Waskesiu was the first RCN frigate to enter service and was part of Escort Group 6 (EG-6). We were on the Newfoundland - Londonderry run (Newfie-Derry) for a while and then served in U.K. waters as a support group for convoys bound for Gibraltar and Sierra Leone.
On one trip in late '43 and early '44 (32 days at sea!) EC-6 consisted of two British ships: Nene and Tweed. Waskesiu was the third and junior ship. We were on blockade-runner patrol northwest of Spain. HMS Tweed was torpedoed on Jan. 6th.
I happened to be looking at Tweed at the exact time the torpedo struck. She sunk in a few minutes. There was no warning and we were not at action stations. A little later, the submarine periscope was briefly sighted. Nene started to rescue survivors while we screened the area and continued the asdic sweep. We gained contact and carried out two depth charge attacks. The bad part was that one of our attacks was fairly near the survivors, many of whom were floating in their life jackets. It took me a while to get over that scene. I remember anguishing over why we always seemed to lose. Were we losing the war too?
A little later, HMS Nene left for refit (late to be commissioned as HMCS) and three new Canadian frigates, Cape Breton, Grou and Outremont joined EG-6. Waskesiu was now senior ship.
With this larger group, we made one round trip to Vaenga, on the Kola Inlet in North Russia. Our northbound voyage was with a large British group which included many RN destroyers, a cruiser, a couple of aircraft carriers and the heavy cruiser USS Milwaukee, which was turned over to the Russians under the Lend Lease programme.
On our return journey with a convoy of merchant ships (RA-59) we were attacked by submarines, which got through the outer screen (us). They were heavily engaged by the more numerous RN destroyers closer to the convoy. In retrospect, I consider that we were very lucky. We had attacked a firm asdic contact by Hedgehog and shortly after, there was a loud explosion. A column of water shot straight upward astern of us.
I had at first thought that we got a hit with the Hedgehog, but, in fact it was an acoustic torpedo which exploded in our CAT gear and had been fired by a nearby submarine. the CAT gear was a noise-making device which we towed astern. Without it, we would likely have had to swim in the freezing water.
When we returned, all the escort ships received the following signal from the Admiralty.
"Enemy has been trying for more than three days to follow up success and has been using over a dozen U-boats. That he has entirely failed is due to your efforts and he has not escaped without damage. I congratulate you all, especially the carriers who have flown practically non-stop night and day"
I recall that we had five or six US Navy crewmen from USS Milwaukee as passengers for the return voyage. They were pleasantly surprised on first learning that they each would receive the traditional tot of rum with the rest of our crew.
US Naval ships are dry. When "Up Spirits" was piped at 11:00 every morning, the Yankees always seemed to be the first in line with their mugs "at the ready".
The highlight of my time on the Hedgehog was that it provided me with a ringside seat when we destroyed U-257 on the night of Feb. 24, 1944 in mid-Atlantic.
The submarine which was earlier reported on the surface, was trying to get into position to attack convoy no. SC-153. We gained Asdic contact after she submerged. We attacked with Hedgehog first, with no result and then made two attacks with depth charges. The submarine was damaged and she finally broke surface ahead of us, moving from left to right at a fairly close range.
illuminated the target with star shells and searchlights and commenced firing
from the 20mm and 4" guns. the submarine crew
struggled to get out of the conning tower and from the deck hatches. Most of
these were killed by our fire. Presumably, the survivors were the ones who
stayed below until after we checked fire and those who were lucky enough to
leave the submarine just before she sank. We saved four of them by helping
them up the scramble nets which were hanging over the side, off the
quarterdeck. A little later, HMS Nene appeared on
the scene. She rescued 8 or 10 who were afloat in their life jackets.
So, out of 50 or 60 submarine crew members, 12 to 14 survived. The rest died
by our gun fire, drowning or exposure. We did not stay long in the area. Some
were still alive as we pulled away. We could not see them in the dark, but I
could hear them calling out as we got underway.
For the invasion of Normandy, our group, with other anti-submarine groups were positioned at the western approaches to the English Channel to block entry by submarines. It was an easy job. We enjoyed the fine weather. We were not attacked by aircraft as might be expected. The only aircraft I saw were ours. We carried out many Hedgehog and depth charge attacks on any kind of contact, whether it was classed as a sub or not. We killed thousands of fish rather than take a chance.
Our two or three months work in the Channel, included a night trip eastward around Dover with a small convoy. It was at the height of the German V-1 "Buzz Bombs" (Flying bombs) offensive against London. I noted in my diary that we counted 16 bombs which flew over us in one hour. The AA barrage sent up as the V-1's crossed the coastline was truly spectacular.
Waskesiu had left EG6 for this trip. For reasons never explained, we proceeded up the Thames to the East India docks in London. We stayed there from Aug. 17th to 24th. I don't recall any work being done in the ship. There was plenty of buzz bomb activity. It seems silly in retrospect that we sat doing nothing in London. At least, we had some great times ashore - despite the bombs.
We rejoined our group at Plymouth and did a few more minor escort jobs in the Channel. Finally, we again left EG-6 and joined C-3 on its way with a convoy westbound to Halifax. We arrived in Halifax, via Sydney on Sept. 17, 1944. I stayed with the ship for a few weeks more as part of a skeleton crew, which sailed Waskesiu to Shelburne, N.S. for a much-needed refit.
That was the end of my sea time in the Navy. After a 60 day leave, I returned to the torpedo School in Halifax for more training. I also attended the Seamanship School in the dockyard and passed for Leading Seaman. May 8th, 1945, VE-Day, occurred while I was in classes. The school closed for the day and the gangway was declared open. Sailors poured into the city. The liquor stores, bars and many restaurants were closed. The infamous Halifax riots were the result. What a shameful way to end a war
glad that it was all over. I looked forward to finding out what the real life
on Civvy Street was all about.