The HMCS Athabaskan went down in April, 1944. (T.W. Paterson collection)

The HMCS Athabaskan went down in April, 1944. (T.W. Paterson collection)

T.W. Paterson column: HMCS Athabaskan’s fiery end came quickly

“…it just seemed like I’d stepped on a detonator to set off the second explosion.”

“When I got over there and stepped on the base of the starboard Oerlikon motor mount, it just seemed like I’d stepped on a detonator to set off the second explosion.”—former seaman Joe Bell.

Lesser known in the epochal story of D-Day is the vital role played by ships of the Royal Canadian Navy in sweeping the English Channel of enemy shipping, before, during and after the initial invasion. Among them was the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan, whose tragic end is yet clouded in mystery and controversy.

Last week we saw how this second destroyer escort of the powerful new Tribal Class to be constructed for the Royal Canadian Navy narrowly escaped destruction on Aug. 27, 1943, when struck by a newly-developed glider bomb known as a “Chase Me Charlie.” Five men were killed and 13 wounded but Athabaskan, commissioned just six months before, lived to fight again.

In 1969 former Athabaskan shipmates held a 25th reunion in Toronto and the Victoria Colonist asked me to interview two local men, Steve Dunnell and Joe Bell. The destroyer’s former chief ordnance artificer, by then retired after 25 years with the Victoria Police Department, Dunnell 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”.

At the time of her loss, seaman and gunner Joe Bell was a member of the ship’s port one Oerlikon crew.

We’ve already seen how, miraculously, despite her engines breaking down three times, her exhausted engineers brought her home to Plymouth. And how, upon being repaired, she returned to sea duty in December under the command of the legendary former Shawnigan Lake School boy Lt. Cdr. John H. Stubbs, DSO.

She returned to active duty in December with sisters Iroquois, Haida and Huron on the famous Murmansk convoy which lured the German battleship Scharnhorst to her death. Attached to the 10th Destroyer Flotilla, she participated in the hectic, months-long sweeping of enemy shipping from the English Channel and Bay of Biscay in preparation for Operation Neptune — D-Day.

By April 1944 a weary Athabaskan had joined in nine vital patrols without engaging the enemy.

On the night of April 25, with sister Tribals, a British destroyer and cruiser, she cleared Plymouth in hopes of intercepting three German destroyers reported to be slipping from St. Malo that morning. The enemy Elbings blundered into the trap on schedule and the flotilla immediately gave chase. When it was over, one Elbing had been sunk but the other two had escaped.

Three days later, Athabaskan and Haida sailed on another Operation Hostile mission, this time screening British mine-layers off the French coast. But a signal from Plymouth sent the destroyers wheeling off at full speed, radar stations on the English coast having detected enemy movements at the entrance to Morlaix River. At 4 a.m., April 29, 1944, Athabaskan and Haida made contact with two Elbings.

A third ‘blip,’ indicating a smaller vessel, had appeared on the Canadians’ radar but was forgotten as both commanders charged to the attack. Illuminating the fleeing enemy with starshell, the destroyers opened fire at 7,300 yards.

Almost instantly, Athabaskan shuddered heavily as a “huge sheet of flame shot up from her after part into the early morning darkness”. She’d been torpedoed by one of the Elbings or by the missing third enemy vessel, now thought to be an E-boat (torpedo boat). Mortally wounded, the destroyer glided to a stop, both propeller shafts severed, her rudder smashed.

“I was on the port one Oerlikon,” recalled Joe Bell. “The headrest on my gun had been ripped out in some other action, and when the explosion happened back aft, I hit the forward end of this seat mounting. I think it stunned me for a while. Then the next thing I recall is my opposite number on starboard Oerlikon hollering over to me to come over and take a look at the fire back aft.”

Leaving his station — “where my loader got to I don’t know” — Bell rushed to starboard. “When I got over there and stepped on the base of the starboard Oerlikon motor mount, it just seemed like I’d stepped on a detonator to set off the second explosion. It just seemed to blow up right in front of me, I…guess I was very fortunate.

“It blew me back between the flag deck locker and the radio room. What happened to my opposite number on the starboard gun, I don’t know. I don’t recall ever seeing him.”

All of Athabaskan’s after guns had been crippled by the first explosion, followed moments later by those forward. Above and below decks, flames roared out of control, devouring the settling stern and midships. Cdr. Stubbs passed the order, “Stand by to abandon,” and the destroyer’s undamaged lifeboats were readied but not lowered.

After the first minutes of pandemonium, order was restored, forward parties wrestled with a 70-ton pump aft as others heroically unlimbered cables in hopes of getting a tow from Haida. The fire party had just coupled the last hoses when, in a horrendous blast that sent flame and greasy smoke hundreds of feet into the night sky, to be seen by ships 30 miles distant, Athabaskan’s magazine exploded.

Minutes before, Mr. Bell had returned to his station. “I heard somebody hollering to break out the port Carley float just ahead of my gun. I couldn’t. I didn’t seem to have any action in my hands. [He hadn’t mentioned that, in the first blast, he’d been severely burned on the hands, face and inside his mouth.] But we finally got the Carley float loose. Then this same voice hollered down and wanted to know who I was and told me to get over the side.”

In sudden anger, the young gunner had sworn at the voice from above. “I wasn’t going to have any part of this; I’d rather be a little warm when I was going than cold. But he came down off the bridge and gave me a shove. The next thing I knew, I was in the water, alongside a Carley float. Somebody said: ‘Look!’ and when I looked back the old ship had come over to her port side and was just in the process of righting herself. Then…that was it.”

Moments later, Athabaskan was gone. Only the bobbing lights of her survivors’ life jackets were to be seen.

Ordnance Chief Donnell’s action station was in the centre of the ship, in her transmitting station. “We’d been shooting for some time and then we got quite a jolt and I knew we’d been hit. Then the captain called down over the phone to say we’d been hit and to notify everybody to stand by to abandon ship but not to abandon.”

Donnell had hurried forward to inform seamen passing ammunition, as the intercom system had been knocked out, then looked out through the break in the forecastle to see “the whole stern of the ship was a mass of flames… I heard afterwards that the X gun had landed in the captain’s cabin…and everything had gone to pieces back there.”

It was at this precise instant that the magazine had exploded, hurtling the chief armourer skyward. “I landed on the deck, and everything was on fire, just a roaring mass of flames and oil. And then it went like fog. I don’t know…my impression was — it’s just my impression, of course — that one of the boilers had exploded and it was steam that had put the fire out. Something had put the fire out.

“Anyway, the fire was gone and I couldn’t see anything — I was all smothered in oil. I felt around the deck and I felt one of the bollards, recognized where it was, and then eventually I got my eyes clear enough that I could see, and the ship’s whaler had been slung over the side. I’d seen them swing it over just before we were hit; it was splintered, had fallen in the water and was useless.”

Realizing the ship was sinking, he “jumped out and grabbed the falls that were tied to the whaler to slide down into the water. Well, they were smothered with oil and I might just as well have jumped straight in — I went down with a horrible crash. Then somebody else landed on top of me.”

Badly burned about the face, shrapnel in his back, Dunnell drifted in his lifebelt. He could hear Haida firing at the enemy, unaware that she’d driven one Elbing ashore while the second escaped. She then returned to the scene. Haida was just five miles from the French coast, within range of shore batteries, dawn was breaking and she could expect attack from the air at any time.

But she coasted to a stop, lowered all boats and floats, and slung scramblenets over the side. For 15 incredible minutes her crew dragged numb, burned, bleeding and frightened survivors from the sea as her motor cutter, commanded by L/Seaman W.A. MacLure and two volunteers, swept the water for more.

Thirty-eight men were hauled to safety. Then it was dawn and she had to leave. “The water began to boil back along the destroyer’s side,” continues the account in The Far Distant Ships, “as she moved past clusters of men who raised an occasional faint cheer. “Hands clutching at her scramblenets lost their grip. Two of her own crew who had gone down the nets were washed off by the backrush and remained in the water with the survivors they had not been able to reach.”

Then she was gone and the survivors were alone but for MacLure and crew who continued cruising about the debris-littered seas in search of others. By now it was daylight and three German minesweepers were rapidly approaching. Balky engine spitting, the cutter turned reluctantly for the English coast.

Joe Bell and Steve Dunnell were among those left.

Dunnell had heard Haida return; in fact he “had to swim out of her way. I was a very short distance away from her and I heard her motorboat hit the water, and I figured, ‘Oh, they’re going to pick us up.’

“But my mind was sort of shaken up. I wasn’t thinking clearly, otherwise I’d have swum over to her side and climbed up the scramblenet. I never thought of it.” It meant a year in a German prison camp.

Forty-four of Athabaskan’s crew had been rescued by the Haida and her cutter, 93 were taken prisoner by the minesweepers. One-hundred-twenty-three, including L/Cdr. Stubbs, were missing.

Mr. Bell spent six weeks in a military hospital before internment in a POW camp and was released shortly before V-E Day. Besides a spell in hospital, chief armourer Dunnell had experienced several weeks in interrogation as German intelligence officers vainly tried to elicit information concerning the destroyer’s radar and armaments. Then it was prison camp until liberation by the famous Desert Rats, the 11th Armoured Division.

At the time I wrote this article for the Colonist at least eight other Athabaskan survivors were known to reside in Greater Victoria. Three-quarters of a century after, some strongly believe that the hapless Athabaskan was accidentally hit by a British not a German torpedo. Another story for another time.