Canada

Maritime mystery

Was Canada’s worst wartime naval disaster a result of friendly fire?

Sue Ferguson April 16 2001
Canada

Maritime mystery

Was Canada’s worst wartime naval disaster a result of friendly fire?

Sue Ferguson April 16 2001

Maritime mystery

Canada

History

Was Canada’s worst wartime naval disaster a result of friendly fire?

Sue Ferguson

Ed Stewart still vividly remembers that sunny Sunday morning in April of 1944 as he sat at the breakfast table with his family in Hamilton. They were listening, as most families then did, to the war news on the radio. A sombre voice delivered the devastating bulletin: the Germans had sunk the Canadian destroyer HMCS Athabaskan, and as many as 261 men—including his signal-man brother, Bill—may have perished in the cold waters of the English Channel. “My mother,” recalls Stewart, who was then 15, “threw up her hands and cried, ‘My son is gone!’ ”

A few blocks away, Vi Connolly, whose husband was also a signalman on the Athabaskan, learned of the sinking later that morning. Arriving home from church, the 21-year-old newlywed returned a call from a friend. “Mrs. Connolly,” said the voice on the end of the line, “the ship went down.” Connolly remembers not her own but her mother-in-laws reaction: “She had her arms around me and said, ‘My Bill is OK.’ ” In a bittersweet turn of events, both maternal intuitions proved prophetic.

The heartsick anticipation of those at home, however, pales

beside what the men onboard Athabaskan endured in the early hours of April 29. Canadian naval historian Michael Whitby calls the incident “the saddest moment in Canadian naval history.” It was also, he adds, the navy’s most significant wartime loss. Of the 128 men who died, few were more than 25 years old. The captain, Lt.-Cmdr. John Stubbs from Victoria, was just 31. The tragic tale of those deaths, and nagging suspicions that friendly fire sank the ship, is the subject of a recent documentary, Unlucky Lady: The Life & Death of HMCS Athabaskan, to be broadcast on History Television on April 11 and 15.

To all appearances, HMCS Athabaskan was invulnerable. A Tribal-class destroyer, it boasted state-of-the-art radar equipment and formidable weaponry. It had, in fact, survived a German bombing raid as it was being built in a British shipyard. But Athabaskan’s short life began under a cloud. It was originally to be christened HMCS Iroquois, but the authorities changed its name before it ever left its moorings in February, 1943.

Changing a ship’s name is one of the worst omens in sailor folklore, and that inauspicious beginning, recalls survivor Bill

Veterans suspect the disaster’s real cause has been hidden

Connolly, “really bothered some of the men.”

Now 80, Connolly also remembers well sailing to the English Channel in advance of the June 6,

1944, D-Day invasion. Action in the Channel was intense. The ship was constantly within range of enemy fire from northern France, and on one occasion, it helped to sink a German destroyer. Nevertheless, Connolly’s friend Bill Stewart was optimistic. “Don’t ever think of giving up, Mom,” he wrote that spring. “I will be home, but it rather looks as though they have one more job before granting leave.”

On the evening of April 28, Athabaskan set out with its sister vessel HMCS Haida to protect a Royal Navy mine-laying force. By 3 a.m., the Tribals began pursuing two German destroyers, T-24 andT-27,20 km off the French coast. In range, one hour later, the Canadians opened fire. The Germans responded by launching nine torpedoes: eight missed their mark, but the final one seared through Athabaskan. Connolly, who was manning the secondary signal, was thrown about eight metres through the air. He landed hard on the iron deck, passing out briefly. Stubbs issued an order to prepare to abandon ship but, sadly, the command was superfluous. A second explosion blew the stern off, catapulting the captain, Connolly and about half the crew into the water, Stewart probably among them. Those trapped below deck went down with the ship.

Haida swung into action. While the T-24 escaped, Haida drove a battered T-27 onto the French shore before turning back to pick up 42 Athabaskans from the oily brine. With daylight approaching, however, the rescuers were forced to abandon other possible survivors remaining in the water.

Connolly, held afloat by his life jacket, was just a stone’s throw away from Haida when it turned and slipped off into the night. “That was,” he says softly, “a real sinking feeling.” The next five hours, recalls Connolly, were excruciating. Moving constantly to prevent drifting off to sleep, he watched helplessly as many of his shipmates around him succumbed. “But,” he insists, “I never had a fear that I was going to die.”

His strength of will not only pulled Connolly through those torturous hours, it also sustained him in the months

that followed. Picked up by a German minesweeper, he endured a staged firing squad (as a lesson in the potential consequences of escaping), 61 days in solitary confinement and another 10 months in a German prisoner-of-war camp. A Scottish regiment liberated him on May 5, 1945.

Others were less fortunate. In the days following the sinking, 91 bodies drifted onto Brittany’s shores. Frenchmen in nine different villages buried them. Some still tend those graves today. When Connolly and his wife visited one of the cemeteries for the first time in 1970, they were overcome. “We just fell on our knees and cried like babies,” says Vi.

The same depth of emotion is evident among the 10 survivors who appear in Unlucky Lady. During the filming, producer-director Wayne Abbott discovered another dimension to those feelings: the veterans’ nagging suspicions that the cause of the disaster has been hidden. At issue is the source of the second explosion. A British Royal Navy inquiry held three days after Athabaskan sank determined that the German torpedo hit one of the ship’s diesel generators, unleashing fuel that travelled farther astern. The fuel, according to the inquiry, came into contact with some of the ship’s ammunition, causing the. second massive explosion.

Yet there is another possibility. Lieut. Peter Dixon, site coordinator of Haida (now a floating museum at Ontario Place in Toronto), suggests friendly fire from one of two British motor torpedo boats on the mine-laying expedition caused the second explosion. After the first explosion, Stubbs ordered a round of flares to be fired. The motor torpedo boat, argues Dixon, mistook the flares for enemy fire and in response released a round of small-arms fire, followed by a torpedo.

That British torpedo, claims Dixon, sank Athabaskan. His evidence damning the official line includes eyewitness accounts of the small-arms fire and second torpedo, radar echoes indicating an unexplained vessel in the area and what he says is a mysteriously incomplete torpedo boat log. But historian Whitby and the British navy have examined Dixon’s case and remain unconvinced. “It is totally implausible,” says Whitby, whose master’s thesis focuses on Tribal action in the English Channel. “The real story is simply that Athabaskan sank.”

For the survivors, however, the story is clearly about more than that. Abbott, who spent one week with the veterans in Brittany visiting grave sites, says that Dixon’s claim “was the central bit of conversation. They all believe it was friendly fire.” As the most compelling evidence lies at the bottom of the English Channel, the truth may remain in a watery grave. E3