Naval museum honours tragic HMCS Esquimalt (Part 1 of 2)

Although she served her brief career entirely in the Atlantic, the minesweeper had enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Victorians.

Although she served her brief career entirely in the North Atlantic, the minesweeper had enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Victorians.

The officers and men of the U-190 cheered as their torpedo shattered HMCS Esquimalt thin-skinned starboard flank. Peering through his periscope, Oberleutnant zur See Hans-Erwin Reith watched the minesweeper begin to settle in the approaches to Halifax Harbour.

Three minutes later, at 9:31 a.m., April 16, 1945, 71 years ago, the last Canadian naval ship to be lost in the Second World War—lost within five miles of the Nova Scotian coast and only three weeks before V-E Day—was gone.

In February 1965 former crewmember William S. Baker of Peterborough, Ont. suggested that Victoria observe the 20th anniversary of the Bangor Class minesweeper’s sinking. Reeve (and former naval officer) A.C. Wurtele immediately agreed to present the request to Esquimalt Council.

Fortunately for Mr. Baker he wasn’t aboard the Esquimalt when she was lost but his shipmates were less fortunate. The fact that, because of wartime censorship, news of her sinking and loss of life were witheld for three weeks, resulted in a heartrending juxtaposition of newspaper headlines.

The Colonist issue of May 7th proclaimed in its largest type, PEACE IN EUROPE; GERMANY SURRENDERS! And, next day, VICTORY WILL BE PROCLAIMED TODAY. Victorians joined the rest of the western world in rejoicing that, after six years of bitter fighting and millions of deaths, there was peace in Europe once more.

For many of the families and friends of those who served on board HMCS Esquimalt there was no celebrating, they having been informed of their loss. For the public at large, further down the front page of the same May 8th issue of the Colonist, in smaller type, was the brief article, Esquimalt Sunk Off East Coast; Five Officers and 20 Ratings Missing.

Although she served her brief career entirely in the North Atlantic, never even visiting her namesake, the minesweeper had enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Victorians. Many Victorians followed her activities with interest and sent parcels to her crew. This vicarious bond, and the fact that several B.C. husbands and sons were among the 44 lost with her, dampened whatever joy there was in victory being proclaimed.

For RCN officials the war wasn’t quite over; it may have ended in Europe but the U-190 and sister long-range U-boats were known to be still cruising in Canadian waters. It was this ongoing state of emergency that had led to Esquimalt being torpedoed after the Admiralty estimated that, of Germany’s remaining 220 submarines, at least 72 were believed to be still at sea.

It was this threat that had sent Esquimalt to assist in anti-submarine patrol outside Halifax Harbour…

There was a light offshore breeze that spring morning of April 16, 1945 and Esquimalt rode the swells easily as she maintained a precise speed of 10 knots. On her bridge, Lieut. Robert C. MacMillan, DSC, RCNVR, scanned the empty horizon with his binoculars. It remains a mystery that he didn’t have his ship zigzag as was standard procedure during patrols. This regrettable omission made the ‘sweeper an easy target and, compounding the tragedy, Esquimalt’s Asdic failed to detect the lurking U-190 even as she moved in to attack.

At exactly 9:27 a.m. O/L Reith’s acoustic torpedo ripped into Esquimalt’s starboard quarter with a shattering blast, knocking out all power and stopping her dead in the water. Her decks were already awash when Lieut. MacMillan ordered Abandon Ship and officers and men leapt from her rising bow then swam for the four Carley floats which had been launched. As they frantically paddled away, their ship went under, taking with her the only lifeboat still secured in its davits.

For many of the 44 of Esquimalt’s crew not killed outright the final nail in their coffins was the fact that she sank too quickly to allow her to radio for help or to fire distress signals. Most of those survivors were now crowded onto the overloaded rafts while others struggled to remain afloat in the chill water.

(To be continued)