It only took 73 years for the Canadian government to recognize Margaret Brooke of Victoria as a hero. Fortunately, she lived long enough to receive the honour, even if she did have to wait until her 100th year!
The British government hadn’t been nearly so tardy in awarding her an OBE (membership in the Order of the British Empire), the only nursing sister to be so honoured.
Belated or no, Margaret Brooke’s Canadian recognition comes not in the form of a medal or an exalted membership but in the real-life form of an Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship, HMCS Margaret Brooke, which was to begin construction this fall.
“It is…a privilege for our country that Margaret Brooke will lend her name to one of our naval ships, as her courage and self-sacrifice have inspired, and will continue to inspire, generations of Canadian naval personnel for years to come,” said Defence Minister Jason Kenney after speaking to her by telephone in April.
The next day, her centennial, Commodore Bob Auchterlonie, commander of Canadian Fleet Pacific, called on her to personally congratulate her — and to wish her a happy birthday. “I am just overwhelmed,” Brooke, whose last contact with the navy had been when she left the service 53 years before, told the Times-Colonist.
“The navy just doesn’t name ships after people. It’s quite surprising.”
A Canadian Nursing Sister as navy nurses were known then, the Saskatchewan-born Brooke’s moment of glory came on Oct. 14, 1942, when she and navy sister Agnes Wilkie took passage aboard the ferry Caribou which plied the Cabot Strait off Newfoundland.
Struck by a torpedo from the German submarine U-69 in the early morning hours despite having a minesweeper escort, the ferry foundered in just five minutes. Of the 237 people on board, 137 men, women and children were lost.
Rescue operations were severely hindered by the fact that the escort vessel, HMCS Grandmere, had to first attempt to find and destroy the U-boat; hence it was 90 minutes before Capt. Cuthbert gave up the chase (unaware that the U-69 was resting comfortably, at 140 metres, until the coast cleared) and turned back to assist those still in the water.
Among them were Margaret Brooke and her navy sister Agnes Wilkie. After the Caribou plunged, Brooke managed to grasp the ropes of an overturned lifeboat with one hand and, with her other hand, to hold onto Wilkie. They had been in the freezing sea two hours by the time they were picked up; too late for Wilkie who’d succumbed to hypothermia.
Her death earned her the dubious distinction of being the only Canadian nurse killed due to enemy action in the Second World War.
She’s been remembered, too, as a letter writer pointed out in response to the T-C article on the christening of HMCS Margaret Brooke: “The nurses’ residence at HMCS Stadacona in Halifax was named in honour of the nursing sister Brooke tried so valiantly to save,” noted Ken McKenzie of Salt Spring Island.
Brooke’s vain attempt to save Wilkie earned her the OBE — the only nursing sister to receive this honour.
As it happened, Wilkie’s wasn’t the only death of a female in uniform: also lost in the Caribou sinking was Bride Fitzpatrick of the Newfoundland Merchant Navy. Fitzpatrick, too, was the only woman in her respective service to be killed during the Second World War.
No fewer than 23 Canadian and Allied merchant and naval ships were sunk in the Battle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence — “the only time since the War of 1812 that enemy ships killed Canadians in their own inland waters,” according to the CBC.
Of those 23 ships (with the loss of 340 lives) the sinking of the Caribou came at the end of the Gulf incursions by U-boats, the German Admiralty having decided that the risks weren’t worth what they considered to be negligible returns.