Leading Cook Thomas McIntyre of Victoria “clung to the side [of the raft] about half an hour then said goodbye, waved and winked feebly, and drifted off to his death.”
Half an hour after HMCS Esquimalt vanished beneath the waves, victim of a torpedo, several aircraft passed overhead, prompting survivors to yell frantically and wave shreds of uniform to attract the pilots’ attention. But the planes passed on.
Already the frigid Atlantic had thinned their ranks, relentlessly dragging down one exhausted sailor after another, some willingly crawling or slipping off the floats to end their torment.
It was a full, killing six hours after the minesweeper sank before another ‘sweeper, HMCS Sarnia, chanced upon the scene when returning from an anti-submarine attack. By then, for more than half of Esquimalt’s crew, it was too late.
A hero of the sinking was 25-year-old McIntyre.
He was praised for having laughed and joked with his shivering, near-naked and oil-covered crewmates as they huddled on a raft after he’d helped several of them aboard with an encouraging grin. “He promised us all T-bone steaks as the boys were getting on,” related shipmate Terence Manuel. “Later he fell off, or perhaps slipped off so someone else would have room on the crowded raft. McIntyre clung to the side about half an hour then said goodbye, waved and winked feebly, and drifted off to his death.”
His body was eventually recovered and shipped home for burial.
McIntyre, who’d enlisted with the Fishermen’s Reserve then served three years with the RCNVR, wasn’t the first of his family to be lost.
A brother, Hugh, had joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and was declared missing after the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Yet another brother, Chief P/O Angus McIntyre, had a ship sunk under him in the Mediterranean in 1943.
He, however, had been rescued and at the time of the Esquimalt’s sinking was serving out of England.
Another Victoria man, P/O John C. Knowles, was among the missing of HMCS Esquimalt. He’d enlisted in the RCN in 1940 when 17 years old and served in ‘sweepers and corvettes in convoy duty in the North Atlantic. A brother, William Knowles, was with the 1st Btn., Canadian Scottish Regt.
Also reported missing were Victorians Leading Coder John H. Stafford, Warrant Engineer James Elder Roberts, and Leading Seaman Richard Partington. Two other local men were lucky: Kenneth Bexrud, Stoker First Class, and Edward Dempster, Able Seaman, were rescued.
Built at Sorel, Que., HMCS Esquimalt was commissioned on Oct. 26, 1942.
Her torpedoing was not the first time in the closing months of the war that U-boats had penetrated to “practically within gunshot range” of Halifax, Canadian headquarters for the North Atlantic sea war. Previously, HMCS Clayoquot was sunk off the Nova Scotian coast and several merchantmen were also attacked. Of Canada’s five minesweepers lost in almost six years of fighting, three of them in quick succession, Clayoquot, Esquimalt and Guysborough went down near the end of hostilities.
With V-E Day the hunt for those U-boats which hadn’t surrendered went on, an RCN despatch reporting, “While the war against Germany has ended, patrols will be continued for an indefinite period… An untold number of U-boats still are lurking in the North Atlantic and fanatical commanders may strike one last blow before their fuel and food are gone.”
Two days later, a navy spokesman said, “In view of the fact that German submarines are known to have been operating off the east coast of Canada, there is a possibility some of them will return to east coast Canadian ports to surrender…” The Colonist reported that high-ranking naval officers had been ordered to Shelbourne and Lunenburg, N.S. “in case U-boats turn up”.
After sinking the Esquimalt, Oberleutnant Reith had been forced to lie submerged for a frustrating week as Canadian surface craft attacked him with depth charges. It wasn’t until April 30 that he was able to slip away and begin running for home.
On May 11, 1945, three days after the war ended in Europe, Reith received word from the German High Command of the nation’s unconditional surrender and he was ordered to give up his ship. Surfacing, he radioed his position to the Cape Race radio station. That night he was boarded by parties from HMC Ships Victoriaville and Thorlock about 350 miles southeast of Cape Race.
This had been the U-190’s sixth war cruise since she was commissioned at Bremen in September 1942 and Esquimalt was her second victim.
Given a “roving commission,” Reith had stalked the approaches to Halifax Harbour and made several unsuccessful attacks on shipping before chancing upon the minesweeper.
In June 1945 the submarine was commissioned in the RCN as HMCS U-190 and sailed for Halifax.
Upon arrival she was carefully examined by specialists and underwent repairs before embarking on an exhibition cruise which took her to Montreal, Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Gaspe, Pictou and Sydney, under the escort of HMCS Thetford Mines.
Upon return to Halifax she spent the next two years being studied by naval experts and she was used to demonstrate the lethal acoustic torpedoes. Paid off in July 1947, the U-190 was sunk in Operation Scuppered off Nova Scotia.
The same waters which held the remains of HMCS Esquimalt and her 44 men.