Inside the fresh and clear waters of Lake Ontario, rests a legendary warship of the second world war. A sleek construction of the utmost refined steel, a ship with 5 battle honors, and a survivor of strife, now preserved for the masses. This is not an American battleship, nor an American aircraft carrier, but rather a Canadian destroyer. The HMCS Haida is, in fact, the most decorated Canadian warship in history. Resting in the port of Hamilton in pier 9, the HMCS Haida now acts as a museum ship. While the ship may be Canadian, her important efforts for the preparations to make Operation Overlord successful, make her an important ship to Canadians and Americans alike.
Despite serving in the Canadian Navy, the ship was originally built in the English port of Newcastle. Launched in August of 1942 and commissioned in August of 1943, Haida was the first Canadian ship built under the rule of a queen, thus Haida was known as “Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship”. It may seem odd that this Canadian ship was built in England instead of Canada, with Canada having the fourth largest economy of the allies in 1943 (Lingard, 1944). The reason for this is while Canada had a large economy, other nations like the UK and the USA were better prepared for building warships and supplied Canada with a majority of her warships (Blackburn, 2019). As apart of the tribal class destroyers, she was named after the Haida people of the west coast of Canada. Armed with three twin 120mm (4.7 inch) guns, a pair of four-inch (102mm) dual-purpose guns, a quadruple torpedo tube launcher, two depth charge throwers, and a slur of other AA guns; she was a strong destroyer for her time(. Additionally, she had the capabilities of radar and sonar to boost her already impressive warfighting capabilities.
While the purpose and focus of this essay are on the actions of the Haida in relation to Operation Overlord. It is also important to recall the ship’s actions before this prime set of events. The reason for this is that shows a brief capability of the ship before D-day and how the crew of the HMCS Haida was experienced for Operation Overlord. With that being stated, HMCS Haida started off her service by being an escort for liberty ships, which were slow-moving transport ships built by the US. It was the first mission to a mixed group of Canadians when it came to experience. While the crew had a wide range of skill levels. The Captain, Dewolf, was recognized and respected among-st the Canadian Navy. Haida would escort these ships upon the path to Murmansk, there the needed supplies would support the Soviets in fighting the Nazis in the Eastern front. Her events in the Arctic were eventful with attacks from several ju88s (German medium bombers) and was on escort duty when the German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst attacked the trade convoy. Luckily for the Haida, there was a large escort fleet expecting the Scharnhorst and the hostile ship was destroyed. In total, she did two escort missions to Murmansk.
On January 12th, as Haida returned from her last Murmansk escort mission, she did several other errands in the area of Britain, including escorting the Battleship King George V, before being assigned to the 10th Destroyer flotilla on February 9th, stationed in Plymouth. This was a big mission. In preparation for Operation Overlord, the 10th Destroyer flotilla was tasked in scouting the area of northern France through Radar and weakening German naval capabilities in the area. In preparation for this, the Haida along with the other destroyers of the 10th flotilla (Huron, Athabaskan, Tartar, Iroquois, and Ashanti) practiced night operations and proper radar use. This practice time was crucial for future success with the flotilla accidentally mistaking friendly airplanes for enemy destroyers and accidentally shelled a group of islands, mistaking them as hostile forces (Whitby, M. (1989)).
The 10th destroyer flotilla then proceeded to do several scouting runs in the area called “tunnel operations”. These scouting missions for the month of February and March were mostly uneventful and ineffective. There was only one notable account of contact with the enemy at this time, where an unknown German vessel launched torpedoes at the Flotilla, and the Flotilla retreated back to Plymouth, unable to identify the enemy. The month of April, however, was a completely different situation. Both sides were increasing naval activity in the area for future confrontation. On the night of April 24th, while the 10th flotilla and the cruiser Black Prince were guarding a group of American forces preparing for D-day near Cornwall, A pair of German E-boats snuck into their formation. The Germans proceeded to launch torpedoes into the mass of ships killing 800 Americans in the process (Jessup, 2009).
Outraged by the aggressive German act, the 10th flotilla headed out the next night to engage a German channel dash. As luck would have it, the Germans were radar-ed by first a land Radar system and later the radar systems of the 10th Flotilla. At 0227 on the morning of April 26th, the Black Prince fired illumination rounds into the air to spot the hostile force for the friendly destroyers, Haida and Athabaskan (Whitby, M. (1989).). Upon being spotted, the Germans were Identified as three Elbing class destroyers. The T-24, T-27, and the T-29. The Allied forces significantly outgunned the Germans, with the Elbings class having less firepower than a Tribal class destroyer. With the Haida, 4 other Tribal class destroyers, and the Black Prince; the Germans immediately tried to run for it. A prolonged chase began as the Allied forces pursued the retreating Germans.
The T-27 was the first to take damage in the contact, receiving several rounds from the Haida. The T-27, however, was lucky enough to sneak off from the battle and launch an unsuccessful torpedo salvo against the Allies as it did so. While the torpedoes found no mark, they did force the Black Prince to retreat. The Hungry pack of Allied destroyers allowed the T-24 to escape as well to focus on the now encircled T-29. Despite the T-29 being surrounded, the ship under intense shelling from close range from the Haida and Athabaskan stayed afloat up until 0422, with Haida receiving credit for the kill. The 10th Flotilla celebrated their success over the Germans but it was costly to them. The HMS Tartar sustained damage and the HMCS Huron and HMS Ashanti collided in the heat of the conflict and needed repairs (Dixon, 2012).
While the Haida and the other destroyers delivered a blow to the Germans, they were not out of France yet. Once again, German E-boats managed to sneak into the proximity of more troops preparing for D-day. This time killing 197 sailors and 441 soldiers (Dixon, 2012). Clearly more action needed to be done.
On the night of April 28/29, Haida along with sister ship Athabaskan set out again to patrol waters of the channel and to cover mine-laying operations (Jessup, 2009). However, at 0238, the Athabaskan picked up two ships on radar. Additionally, Plymouth radar-ed them as well and ordered them to intercept. The Haida firing illumination rounds at the enemies at 0412 from 7km away were able to identify the hostile forces. It was the T-24 and T-27 from a few nights before! The Haida and the Athabaskan immediately opened on the German destroyers. The Germans were completely off guard by this interaction and proceeded to launch their torpedoes in a panic. The T27 actually almost hit the T24 in the panic! The crew of the T-24 was smart enough to actually fire at the Canadians. Because the Haida was using flashless cordite powder while the Athabaskan was not, all the torpedoes went towards the Athabaskan. The results were devastating, the HMCS Athabaskan was struck by one of the hostile torpedoes. Captain Dewolf could hear the captain of the Athabaskan, Captain Stubbs, cry out “I’m hit and losing power.” While the ship was still afloat, the ship was dead in the water and taking water. Captain Stubbs ordered his crew to stand by to abandon the ship (Whitby, M. (1989).).
As Athabaskan struggled to stay afloat, Haida unloaded upon the enemy destroyers. The T-24 once again was lucky enough to sneak away into his own smoke and retreat. The T-27 would find no such luck. As the Haida pummeled her with salvo after salvo, the ship caught fire and accidentally crashed into the shore. There the Haida proceeded to shell the ship even more as the crew fled off the burning wreck.
The situation, however, grew worse and worse on the Athabaskan as a fire started from torpedo and spread throughout the ship. At 0427, A second explosion rocked the ship and caused her to start to sink rapidly. The cause of the second explosion is disputed, with the explosion either coming from another torpedo hit, the 4-inch ammo rack detonating, or from friendly fire. The records, however, state it was from the 4-inch ammo rack detonating. Either way, the explosion was immense. Lieutenant Hayward (Athabaskan) remembered the horrific event “a terrific explosion throwing half of the boiler rooms into the air. A blanket of oil followed the debris of red-hot shrapnel falling everywhere and put out all the fires except for a small one on the midship Oerlikon gun deck. The after half of the ship sank immediately while the forward half-rolled slowly over to port….”(Dixon, 2012).
With the enemy destroyers dealt with, the situation was still not safe in the area. The Canadian destroyers were drifting dangerously close to a minefield and the morning would mean shelling from the coastal batteries on the French side. Captain Dewolf (Haida) however weighed the risks, “I’ll wait 15 minutes”. The Haida approached the burning wreck of the destroyer attempting to bring their dazed comrades onboard. This was however made difficult by the thick amount of oil and debris in the area. The slick oil of the boilers stuck to those in the water, making it a slippery process to bring them aboard. The minutes ticked by quicker and quicker. Those in the smaller rafts from the Haida went out to save their comrades saying “come on, boys, this is Haida!” (The War Illustrated, Volume 8, Issues 181-205, 1944). As they approached the survivors, they could hear the screaming from the captain of the Athabaskan. “Get Away Haida!” yelled Captain Stubbs, “Get Clear!” While the crew of the Athabaskan was in peril, Captain Stubbs did not want the crew of the Haida to bear a similar fate (Jessup, 2009).
When the Haida had stayed there for 18 minutes, the ship finally started to head out of the combat zone. Courageously though, seaman Seaman Jack Hannam, Stoker William Cummings, and Leading Seaman William McClure denied orders to return to the ship, in order to rescue even more people (Moarse, 2019). Racing off in their Motor Cutter, they left out to get more crew as the Haida sailed away. The HMCS Haida would return to Plymouth with 47 rescued men from the wreckage. Even more surprising, those that left off in the motor cutter returned the next day with an additional group of six survivors. Sadly 128 crew members of the Athabaskan died in its destruction, with captain Stubbs last seen trying to raise the morale of his fellow sailors (Jessup, 2009). Despite the many losses that the Canadians suffered, the HMCS and RCN were now respected, thanks to the heroic works of the Haida.
The HMCS Haida would continue to see a lot more action through the war. The day after the successful landings of D-Day, the Germans attempted to joust out the allies but were thwarted again by the Haida and her allies. Haida would, in fact, sink the German destroyer Z-32 during this battle (6, B., Normandy, G. and battle, U. (2019)). This was the last major fleet naval action done by the Germans during the war, with submarines once again doing most of the work for the Germans. Yet the Haida would also continue to sink a submarine later in the war as well. But this is a different story.
The HMCS Haida would continue to see an extreme amount of action during her time in the military. She saw action in Korea destroying trains, saved the crew of a B-29 bomber, and would eventually tour the great lakes. She would sink the most tonnage of any Canadian vessel earning her the title of “Fightingest Ship in the Royal Canadian Navy”. Additionally, her 5 battle honors include the Arctic (1943-1945), English Channel (1944), Normandy (1944), Bisacy (1944), and Korea (1952-1954) (Navy, R. (2019)). The Haida people themselves for the first time in 2018, visited the museum ship and presented her with their flag saying “Haida, you have made our people and our country proud. Well done Haida, well done!” ( Pc.gc.ca. (2019).). Funny enough, the people of the crashed B-29 she rescued, was comprised of a fair amount of people from the Lone Star State. Therefore, the crew members of the Haida were given the privilege of being “Honorary Texans”, go figure (Blackburn, 2019).
So what does all of this mean to an American, who might possibly look at this old ship lying in the port of Hamilton? Well, first, that “old ship” may be Canadian, but it has done more for the sake of liberty than you could possibly comprehend. Second, the origin of all Americans is from other lands. And third, if you think you have any quarrels, take it up with the Haida. It has definitely enough fight to handle anything you could throw at it.
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- Lingard, C. (1944). Canada’s Stake in the War and the Peace. Pacific Affairs, 17(2), p.156.
- The War Illustrated, Volume 8, Issues 181-205. (1944). Amalgamated Press, p.Page 25.
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