“There was no escort of any kind at all and we couldn’t make any more than 12 knots, or something like that, and were listing very, very badly, leaving a streak of oil behind us.” —Chief Ordnance Artificer Steve Dunnell.
We’re approaching the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that spelled the beginning of the end of the Second World War. Tens of thousands of Canadians played their part, most of them in the army, many others in the RCAF.
Lesser known is the vital role of sweeping the English Channel of enemy shipping, before, during and after the initial invasion, played by ships of the Royal Canadian Navy. Among them was the destroyer, HMCS Athabaskan whose tragic end is yet clouded in mystery and controversy.
Commissioned Feb. 3, 1943, she was the second destroyer escort of the powerful new Tribal Class to be constructed for the RCN. Upon completion of alterations, workups and sea trials, she began active service in June. Her first operation had been as part of a force sent to relieve the British garrison at Spitzbergen in the Arctic Ocean. She then joined her sister Tribal, HMCS Iroquois at Plymouth.
Shortly after, they sailed with the Polish destroyer Orkan in search of enemy submarines and surface craft in the Bay of Biscay. This five-day patrol was “comparatively uneventful,” the trio simply fighting off one bomber attack, rescuing survivors of two sunken submarines and driving Italian fishing craft, suspected of spying for the Germans, from the bay.
Aug. 27, after a brief rest in Plymouth, Athabaskan was again on duty off Cape Finisterre, in company of the British frigates Jed and Rather, the destroyer Grenville and the sloop Egret. Unlike her earlier sweep, Athabaskan was to find this patrol decidedly eventful — disastrously so.
Two days earlier, 21 German aircraft had attacked three Canadian corvettes and two British frigates with a revolutionary new weapon, the glider bomb — “Chase Me Charlies”. Only the Luftwaffe crews’ inexperience in handling the deadly missile saved the flotilla from serious injury. Another factor contributing to the ships’ salvation had been their “skillful and enthusiastic” evasion tactics. Just how enthusiastic can be judged by the exchange of messages with HMS Nene: in response to the corvette’s assurance that she was making full speed at 15 knots, Nene retorted, “Don’t give us that; we’re doing 18 and can’t shake you!!”
Athabaskan’s turn had come early in the afternoon. Since the attack of the 25th, all ships in the area were on full alert; German reconnaissance planes had been shadowing the group since dawn. At 12:30 p.m., a British aircraft radioed enemy planes were approaching from the north. Minutes later, as the ships readied for action, 20 slender-bodied Dorniers roared into sight.
According to The Far Distant Ships: “Athabaskan opened fire first, but a group of five Dorniers came in at her through a heavy barrage to release their new bombs. The gliders shot downward at the weaving ship and one, controlled by more skillful hands this time, was dead on line all the way. It struck the destroyer with shattering impact, passed clean through the hull below the bridge, and exploded when it was six feet clear of the side.”
In 1969, by then retired after 25 years with the Victoria Police Department, Steve Dunnell remembered the harrowing attack vividly. The former chief ordnance artificer had been assigned to the destroyer while she was still under construction and was with her “right from the time she was commissioned until the time she sank”.
Fortunately for Athabaskan she’d been saved by another miscalculation on the part of the German airmen. This time, although they’d mastered the aiming of their gliders, they’d been misled by the destroyer’s size, apparently thinking she was a cruiser. “It so happened,” Mr. Dunnell told me, “that the bomb didn’t hit the bulkhead on the port side, coming out the starboard side after hitting just two bulkheads, but nothing solid on the way through, so it went right through the ship before it exploded.”
Afterwards, he’d picked up a 12-inch spiral from the twisted deck; “it had a very fast thread and a set of points at the end which obviously, when it hit something, would spin down and make contact. It would be set to explode at a certain depth inside a ship.
“We later intercepted a message from the planes that they’d left a cruiser in flames. So the bomb no doubt had been set for a ship of a larger calibre than we were. Otherwise, if it had exploded inboard…it would have blown the ship all to pieces.’
Athabaskan rolled to a stop, shrouded by the steam and smoke pouring from her wounds. Two more Dorniers screamed to the attack but missed. In her shattered forepart, five men lay dead, 12 wounded, and flames licked hungrily aft. Despite the fact her central control system had been knocked out, she maintained a blistering barrage until the raiders withdrew.
In the meantime, HMS Egret had gone down. Donnell “saw it hit. There was just a big mushroom of smoke and when the smoke cleared, there was just the tip of the bow sticking out of the water, and down she went.
“The Egret had seen one coming in and shot it in the air; it went off with such an explosion it cleared everybody off the upper deck. Killed everybody on the upper deck. So they told us. There were some survivors, strangely enough.”
Athabaskan had troubles enough of her own. Ablaze and dead in the sea, damage control parties battled to extinguish the flames then coaxed her engines back to life. Working slowly up to a speed of 15 knots, Capt. G.R. Miles, OBE, who’d urged the torpedoed HMCS Saguenay to safety three years before, had to decide between limping for nearby Gibraltar or Plymouth. He chose the latter as it offered repair facilities although it meant returning alone as none of his consorts could be spared from patrol as escort.
“There was no escort of any kind at all and we couldn’t make any more than 12 knots, or something like that, and were listing very, very badly, leaving a streak of oil behind us,” recounted the ship’s ordnance chief.
The four-day voyage to Plymouth had seemed an eternity. Enemy destroyers and aircraft still prowled these waters; an encounter with either meant certain destruction.
Miraculously, although her engines broke down three times, her exhausted engineers brought her home. When Athabaskan finally met her ‘escort’ off Land’s End — ”one of those sidewheel tugs” — an indignant Miles had rung for all available speed and the destroyer wheezed into Plymouth at an amazing 17 knots.
Repaired, HMCS Athabaskan lived to fight another day. But not for long. This time, in the lead-up to invasion and again sailing out of Plymouth and commanded by the legendary former Shawnigan Lake School boy Lt. Cdr. John H. Stubbs, DSO, she’d meet total disaster off the French coast.
Again, Steve Dunnell and his friend Joe Bell were in the thick of it; another great story for another day.