Six years ago, it was almost front-page news: how a decorated naval officer’s Second World War medals were about to go on the block in an English auction.
There were seven medals in total, including L/Cdr. Edward Theodore (Ted) Simmons’ Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, as well as 16 black and white photos, a commissioning document, a folio of type original naval message sheets marked, ‘V-R Day Signals HMCS Beacon Hill 8th May 1945’ – and a poster for the wartime movie starring American actor Randolph Scott, Corvette K-225.
This was based upon Simmons’ reallife exploits in command of HMCS Port Arthur. It’s no surprise that Hollywood saw ticket potential in a film based on the RCN officer who played an active role in the first Canadian U-boat kill of the Second World War.
During the night of Sept. 10, 1941, off the southern coast of Greenland, a 61-ship convoy came under attack by a pack of Uboats which sank 18 of them. When the U-551 was mortally wounded and abandoned by her crew after an attack by depth charges and ramming by HMCS Moose Jaw, Simmons led a boarding party through heavy seas from HMCS Chambly. Forcing two German crewmen to accompany him through the conning tower at the point of his .45, he was after the sub’s code book or cipher machine. Ignoring the fact that she was rapidly sinking stem-first, he plunged below with a flashlight only to realize that there was no time for a search. In fact, he "barely escaped through the hatch above…" as the sub, her sea-cocks opened wide, began her death plunge, according to the citation for his DSC.
In October 2008, coincidentally within two weeks of Remembrance Day, it was reported that his medals and memorabilia were up for sale in England after Ted Simmons’ son, John, set up a website to solicit donations from Canadians to repatriate the medals. "We feel these items should be returned and exhibited at the CFB Esquimalt
Naval and Military Museum, which has kindly offered to display them in the event that we win the bid," said John. "To lose something of this value that is part of the fabric of Canada’s military history would indeed be a tragedy."
The administrative assistant with the CFB Museum, Clare Sagrue, agreed: "It would be sad to see them go somewhere other than Canada… Just to see them come back to Canada would be something of a victory."
She particularly wanted the items to return to Victoria where L/Cdr. Simmons, born in Vernon in 1910, had gone to school, then worked as a civil servant in the Dept. of Education and as a salesman for a furniture company. He was 30 years old and training to be an interior decorator when the war broke out. He joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1939 and after training in Kingston, Ont., was posted to newly-commissioned HMCS Chambly
(Corvette K-116) as executive officer in December 1940. Based in Newfoundland, Chambly was assigned to North Atlantic convoy escort duty, the famous Newfy-Derry run.
Within nine months Simmons was a lieutenant-commander, the holder of the DSC and in command of his own ship, HMCS Port Arthur (Corvette K-223). While on escort duty in the Mediterranean, he attacked the Italian submarine Tritone "in a classic engagement" with depth charges, forcing it to the surface where it met a blistering fire from the guns of Port Arthur and HMS Antelope. The Tritone’s first engagement was its last.
Ergo, Simmons’ DSO "for courage, gallantry and skill in action with submarines," and a virtual role as a movie star.
He renewed his association with Victoria upon taking command of the new frigate HMCS Beacon Hill which served in escort duty in the Irish Sea and English Channel. By war’s end, as one of two RCNVR officers who commanded escort groups, Simmons and his "all-Canadian striking force," EG-26, had escorted no fewer than 79 convoys. Such was the remarkable naval officer who retired from the navy in 1945 to work for a leading Canadian distillery and eventually become its president before retiring to England in 1965. Upon his death in 1988, Mrs. Simmons brought his ashes to CFB Esquimalt and a shipboard burial service from HMCS Huron. The news accounts of 2008 didn’t explain how his medals and other items found their way into an auction lot, with an estimated value of $30-40,000, in Lewes.
In the opinion of retired naval commodore and historian Jan Drent, Simmons "personifies the achievements of civilians who joined the navy and formed the bulk of its strength in officers and men".
"This Victoria resident had the right moxie, the right stuff," he told the Times-Colonist. "The significance of these artifacts being auctioned off is that they are a visual link to a Canadian who rose to the challenge of war."
To put all this in context, Cdr. Simmons was the highest decorated Canadian Volunteer Reservist of the Battle of the Atlantic, one of only two Canadian VCs to command escort groups and he was the only RCN Volunteer Reservist to be awarded the DSO during the war.
His medals aren’t the only priceless memorabilia of veterans to come up for sale to private collectors in recent years. But, sometimes, they do go to the right homes. In April 2007, the Boer War and First World War medals, a "death penny," a wartime photograph and a scroll that had belonged to L/Cpl. Duncan Currie Patterson, 43, the first member of the 16th Bn. (Canadian Scottish) to be killed during WW1, Mar. 14, 1915, were presented to a regimental museum. "While blazing away, Patterson was hit," one of his comrades related. "The bullet struck his rifle as he was firing, between the stock and barrel, and glanced off into his neck and body. We tried to staunch the blood but Mowat, the stretcher-bearer, made signs ‘no good’ and whispered, ‘jugular.’ He was dead in a few minutes.
"We could see him die as he was the first man killed. We were covered with his blood; we got quite a turn."
L/Cpl. Patterson is buried in France and his story, even to family members, remained something of a mystery until granddaughter Joan Logan began researching his career in the 1970s. She learned that he’d been born in 1872 in Scotland where he served with the militia with the Argyle and Sutherlands Regt. and he served in the Boer War while in his 20s, for which he earned the Victoria Medal. By then a sergeant, he married Mary Conchie and he later emigrated to Canada in the hopes of finding a better future for Mary and their six children. But his wages as a stone cutter in Winnipeg were so low that it took him two years to save enough to buy ship’s passage for his family. This, alas, coincided with war in Europe and Patterson, a veteran of the South African campaign and a serving member of Winnipeg’s 79th Cameron Highlanders Militia, immediately answered the call of King and Country.
The 16th Bn. sailed for England before Mary and the children could join him in Canada – their ships passing each other so closely in the St. Lawrence River that, with the aid of the ships’ captains, Duncan and Mary Patterson were able to address each other. Their conversation was brief. He, calling from the railing: "Mary!" She: "Duncan, is that you?" He: "Yes."
Exactly five months later, L/Cpl. Patterson was killed in action.
But his medals live on, so to speak, thanks to the family’s having donated them to the Canadian Scottish Regimental Museum in Victoria’s Bay Street Armouries. As he was the regiment’s first casualty, his memorabilia have great significance, according to Museum Director John Wigmore.
For the occasion, Duncan Currie Patterson III dressed in Scottish garb. "I’m very proud to be presenting these medals and artifacts to the museum. They are in their final resting place," he said.