Remembrance Day: Navy’s gallant ship Nabob wouldn’t sink

“We have a good chance of saving the ship and we are going to have a ruddy good try.”—Capt. Lay.

“We have a good chance of saving the ship and we are going to have a ruddy good try.”—Capt. Lay.

 

It was a ghost from the past that inspired the reunion of 40 former officers and men of the Royal Canadian Navy, 52 years ago. Many of them hadn’t seen each other since they’d served on the aircraft carrier HMS Nabob during the Second World War when she’d been torpedoed and almost sunk by a German U-boat. But, 20 years later, she was not only still afloat but still at sea — a freighter flying the West German flag.

In fact, it was her German owners, the North German Lloyd Line, who hosted the anniversary party aboard ship in August 1964. For those attending, no doubt, it was a wonderful opportunity to meet with old shipmates, to talk over old times and to reflect upon their close call with disaster in northern seas. And to take renewed pride in having helped to save their ship by sailing her 1,100 miles through U-boat-infested and stormy seas to safety. The fact that, here she was, large as life some 20 years after being written off as being beyond repair and sold for scrap, can only have added to their sense of achievement.

HMS Nabob was, almost, one-of-a-kind. Although commanded and manned by Canadians, she belonged to the Royal Navy under the “intricacies of the Lend-Lease program” by which Great Britain acquired escort carriers, so-called “baby flat-tops”. Canada also wished to purchase carriers from the U.S. but couldn’t because she wasn’t a partner to Lend-Lease. So it was agreed that Britain would buy the ships Nabob and Puncher (whose bell is in possession of the B.C. Maritime Museum), then under construction as freighters on the American west coast, and the RCN would man them.

Commissioned by a care and maintenance crew on Sept. 7, 1943, 15,000-ton HMS Nabob steamed from Tacoma to Burrard Dry Dock, Vancouver, for conversion to an escort carrier. There, Capt. Horatio Nelson Lay (later Rear Admiral, Vice Chief of Naval Staff and nephew of Prime Minister Mackenzie King) assumed command of the largest ship then operated by the RCN.

 

However, Nabob got off to a rocky start when, undergoing sea trials in the Strait of Georgia, she ran aground on the sand heads at the mouth of the Fraser River, fortunately sustaining little damage.

Because the RCN hadn’t yet “entered the field of naval aviation, aircrew and aircraft maintenance personnel were provided by the Royal Navy and Nabob’s final complement consisted of 501 RCN and 335 RCN personnel. Upon completion, she bade farewell to Vancouver, a port she wouldn’t see again for 20 years, flying the ensign of her former enemy.

Passing through the Panama Canal, Nabob proceeded to Norfolk and New York. After loading RAF aircraft manufactured in the U.S., she was off to England. The next months of her naval career were spent in “working up” her 20 Avenger and Wildcat aircraft to peak performance and, Aug. 1, 1944, she commenced duties with the Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow. Ironically, her war career would be violently short — 21 days.

Her first mission, with a task force of Canadian and British warships, was “intended to disrupt enemy shipping in the coastal channels above Bergen, Norway”. The second was an air strike against the mighty German battleship Tirpitz, sheltering in a Norwegian fjord.

While off Tromso, Norway, as she prepared to escort ships joining an Allied convoy bound for Murmansk, a torpedo shattered her starboard side, ripping a 40-foot by 50-foot gash in her belly. Almost a third of her complement below decks, 21 men, died and six were wounded in the explosion that stopped her dead in the Arctic seas.

One of those caught below decks was Victoria Petty Officer Thomas Jefferson who was sitting beside his bunk, off-duty with almost 60 shipmates, when the torpedo plunged the mess into darkness. Jefferson “could feel cold oil rising in the mess and tried to plug the hole it was pouring from with a wooden peg, but couldn’t succeed in blocking it”. By the time he reached the gangway, after fighting his way through lockers that had been torn loose, splintered bunks and other wreckage, the oil was waist-deep.

As he scrambled upward his greased foot slipped on the metal steps, plunging him backward into the oily lake. He almost drowned before effecting a miraculous escape.

“The action alarm gong sounded almost simultaneously with the torpedo burst,” reads an official news release not made public until a year later, “and the flight deck was soon black with ratings in all stage of dress and undress. Scores had been tossed from their hammocks and bunks and none had waited to collect their gear.”

Nearby, the destroyer HMS Kempthorne was torpedoed and sank soon afterward.

Filling rapidly, Nabob’s stern began to settle. Her electrical system short-circuited, her engines wheezed to a stop and, with her stern down 17 feet, waves poured over the quarterdeck. Nabob, so new to the violence of war, was sinking. What worried her men most was the highly volatile 200,000 gallons of aviation gas in her forward tanks.

When Capt. Lay gave the order to prepare to abandon ship, seamen scurried about her sloping decks, lowering lifeboats and dropping rubber rafts overside. Seven minutes after the torpedo blast, a second explosion shook the ship. But this one, also meant for her, caught instead the destroyer escort HMS Bickerton, half a mile distant. Then Nabob’s sonar detected a third torpedo, but it, too, sped by, this time without claiming a victim.

Below, almost frantic in the near-darkness, seamen closed hatches and doors, sealed off compartments and did “a magnificent job. Bulkheads were shored, emergency electrical power supplied, ventilating fans started and personnel were able to return to the engine room…” They even jettisoned her guns as, in the blackened canteen, the wounded were laid out on stretchers.

Leading the repair crews was Cdr. (later Capt.) Cecil Irving Hinchcliffe, another Victorian. It was his joyful duty, later, to inform Capt. Lay that there was “no immediate danger of the ship going down”. Twenty years after, he recalled: “We were hit in the one place we could take it. For the first two or three minutes we didn’t know if she was going to keep on going down. We just carried on. There was a certain amount of confusion, but there was definitely no panic.”

In the meantime, aircrews of 842 Squadron had secured their planes on the flight deck, and three RN destroyers had been detailed to screen Nabob. When, 40 long minutes after she was hit, Capt. Lay announced over the loudspeaker, “We have a good chance of saving this ship and we are going to have a ruddy good try to do so,” a loud cheer arose from the flight deck.

As the Canadian destroyer Algonquin and HMS Vigilant joined the tight ring of protection around Nabob and Bickerton, the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet ordered that, unless they could raise steam, both were to be sunk. For the Bickerton there was no hope and Vigilant delivered the death blow by torpedo.

Four hours after being hit, Nabob still floated and was actually making headway — at all of three knots — with Scotland 1,100 miles distant. That night, as her crew struggled to keep her afloat and underway, two Avenger aircraft were launched to search for the hovering U-boats, their aerial surveillance allowing Nabob and her consorts to change course and, eventually, lose their pursuers.

Almost as incredibly, the pilots returned to the carrier’s warped and sloping deck in fog “so dense the stern of the ship could not be seen from the bridge”. One plane was damaged in landing but its pilot was uninjured. Only then was Algonquin able to come alongside and remove 203 “non-essential” ratings.

During the next two days Nabob’s weakened hull was strengthened and her wounded stern was lightened by jettisoning her five-inch guns, bombs and mines. On the third day, when a 33-knot southwest gale caught her on her port bow, she “groaned under the punishment she was taking. There were fears that the 75 dinghies, removed from aircraft and lashed on deck, might be swept away, removing almost the only hope of rescue if a bulkhead collapsed and the ship sank.”

But Nabob had survived the torpedo and she survived nature’s fury.

Five long, nerve-wracking days later, she limped into Scapa Flow.

There, her heroic flight to shelter was done — as was, it turned out, her naval career.

Still trapped in the after ’tween-decks were the bodies of her 21 dead, including those of three B.C. men.

A July 1945 editorial of a Victoria newspaper commented: “Although it is nearly a year ago since HMS Nabob, the Canadian-manned aircraft carrier, sustained her all but mortal wound off North Cape, Norway, yesterday’s release of the item struck a responsive chord in Victoria hearts as citizens learned of one more story of gallantry in action of their sons. It was another epic of seamanship — the return of the damaged vessel through gales to safe anchorage in a British port.

“Tributes have already been extended to Capt. H.N. Lay, OBE, RCN, the commanding officer whose friends in this city are legion. And with those tributes have gone warm commendation to the Victoria men who played their traditional part in this heroic journey…”

An article in a 1956 issue of The Crowsnest, official RCN magazine, also paid tribute to the Nabob: “If sentiment had prevailed, the wounded Nabob, which had stoutly survived a 1,100-mile journey through stormy seas, would have been restored to service. But the torpedo damage was too great and economy demanded that she be withdrawn from service. With the paying-off of the Nabob thoughts turned to replacement and Canada was offered the light fleet aircraft carriers Warrior and Magnificent, then [being built]. Had hostilities continued, the intention was that both would be commissioned as ships of the RCN at the same time rather than successively, as was the eventual outcome.”

The gutted hulk of the Nabob was cannibalized of her serviceable armaments and equipment and sold, in March 1947, to a Netherlands firm. With her went three damaged frigates. Upon arrival in Rotterdam Nabob lost her flight deck to the cutting torches but she didn’t accompany the frigates to the melting furnaces, it having been decided that the her hull (damaged but only four years old) was worth saving. Three years later, North German Lloyd Line bought her and rebuilt her as a dry cargo ship bearing her original and honourable name. Appropriately, her first voyage was to Canada with a cargo of grain. In August 1964, having begun regular service between Europe and the west coast, the first reunion of former crew members was held in the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess, Naden. It had been her first visit to Vancouver that prompted the reunion after she was spotted by her former navigator, City Coroner and sea captain Glen McDonald, who’d been aboard her when she was torpedoed. The Province reported that McDonald hadn’t been able to believe his eyes when he saw her berthed at Ballantyne Pier.

“I thought she was made into razor blades long ago,” he said. “But that’s her, all right. There’s the dent in her bows where we hit the gate vessel in the Firth of Forth.”

Coincidentally, at the same time he made his discovery, Nabob’s sister ship, then the Dutch SS Raiki, was docked but 100 yards away. Built in the same Tacoma shipyard, Raiki originally served as the aircraft carrier HMS Begum, having been converted for this role in Burrard Dry Dock as had been Nabob.

Another coincidence awaited her two years later, during September’s reunion of her wartime crew, when it was disclosed that her current master, Capt. Karl Kuhlig, was serving in a German warship (the catapult vessel Friesenland) just 50 miles away from the site of her torpedoing that late August afternoon of 20 years before.

Among her merchantman’s duties in the 1960s was as a training ship for the company’s cadet officers. The unsinkable Nabob’s remarkable career finally ended in a Taiwan shipbreaking yard after she was retired by her Panamanian owners in 1977.

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