Essays

A Prairie Boy's Tale

Andy Irwin, circa 1943.

By Andy Irwin

I was born in Regina, Saskatchewan on May 28th, 1925. We lived in Yorkton until 1931, when, after my parents separated, my mother moved my sister and me to New Westminster, BC where we lived with my grandmother. I attended Lord Kelvin Elementary School, and then on to Lord Lister Junior High, which in those days included grades 7, 8 and 9.

There were several minor diplomatic crises between Britain and France on one side, and Germany over the latter's aggressive actions in Europe in 1937-38. Consequently, by 1939 Britain became very concerned and, to get Canada on their side, arranged a Royal Tour for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. New Westminster, known as the Royal City, annually held May Day events. On this particular occasion I was asked to lead a Semaphore Flag presentation in their honour. It was an exciting assignment for a fourteen year old.

When World War II broke out in September 1939 I was a newspaper delivery boy for the Vancouver Daily Province. Newspapers were the main source of news in those days; television had not yet entered our lives. On that fateful Sunday, September 3rd I was standing at a Street Car stop yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Britain and France go to war with Germany!” Newspapers sold for 5 cents, of which I received just 2 cents. I was a Boy Scout and enjoyed doing all the activities involved.

Living where I did, on the shores of the Fraser River, I was always going down to the docks watching the foreign vessels unloading products from, to me, unknown countries; and loading lumber from the local mills for their return trip to their homelands.

The Fraser was a major source for the famous Sockeye Salmon and many other species of fish. I would spend hours watching vessels unload their catches, which were then delivered to local canneries for processing. These activities and my attempts to build small boats wetted my appetite for the sea.

In the fall of 1941 a Sea Cadet Force was being formed and I was one of the first to leave 'scouting' and join Sea Cadets. I really enjoyed the training and discipline and in less than a year became a Leading Cadet. I think my Scout training helped.

In February 1943, at the age of 17, I joined the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve as an Ordinary Seaman. I earned the princely sum of $1.30 a day, plus room, board and clothing. My Basic training was done at HMCS Discovery in Stanley Park, Vancouver, just an hour away by electrified train. Following this, we went to HMCS Naden in Esquimalt (Victoria). Every second week I would catch one of the Canadian Pacific Steamers and go home for a few days.

In late September 1943, after two weeks of 'embarkation leave' I boarded the Canadian National passenger train for the trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was to be stationed at the 'Stone Boat' HMCS Stadacona. Shortly after, I was assigned to the (British) Royal Navy Algerian Minesweeper, HMS Lightfoot. We did work-ups (exercises in gunnery, ship maneuvers, etc) out of Halifax. By early December we were deemed ready for convoy escort duties.

In mid-December we departed Halifax bound for St. John's Newfoundland (Newfie John) where we were to pick up an eastbound convoy to Britain. A few hours out of Halifax we hit severe storms for Force 7-8 and had to seek shelter of 24 hours in Argentia, Newfoundland. The convoy we were to join was an SX, meaning slow moving (6 knots) so when the storm subsided we, being able to do 15 knots, picked up our station before the convoy was too far out to sea.

Our convoy consisted of 40 ships in five rows of eight. The escort group was made up of one destroyer, four corvettes and HMS Lightfoot. We spent Christmas at sea, and as we were only covering 170 miles a day, the trip took close to two weeks. We encountered one U-boat, which managed to get inside the convoy lines, and sunk one freighter before being driven off by a depth charge attack.

Finally we docked in Liverpool, the Western Approaches HQ city for Britain's Atlantic operations. After delivering the convoy we left for Rosyth, a journey that took us north along Britain's west coast, across Scotland's north coast and south along the east coast to Rosyth (Edinburgh), where we handed Lightfoot to the Royal Navy.

HMCS Algonquin.

On our first night in Rosyth, Port Watch was given shore leave until midnight. A group of us went into Edinburgh and discovered the Palais de Danse. There were two bands on a revolving stage. We had a great evening dancing with the Scottish lassies. However, when we returned to the ship I discovered that one of those lovely lassies had lifted my wallet! I had no ID and this resulted in me being confined to the ship for seven days. I had to remain on board under an all Royal Navy crew!

After confinement, I was sent to the Canadian Manning Depot HMCS Niobe in Greenock, on the River Clyde near Glasgow. Within a few days I, along with 50 others, was sent to the John Brown's Shipyard (builders of the famous Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth) as the pre-commissioning crew of the HMCS Algonquin.

We were formally commissioned on February 17, 1944 under the command of then 30-year-old Lieutenant Commander Desmond W. Piers, DSO, RCN. 'Debbie' as he was known, was a permanent Navy type and previously served for a short time as the Commanding Officer of HMCS Restigouche (Rusty Guts) when he was 29.

Hits on the Tirpitz, photographed by Harry Wilson of Orillia, ON, flying off HMCS Pursuer.

We undertook workups on the Clyde and in the Irish Sea. In early march we proceeded to Scapa Flow, the British Home Fleet base in the Orkney Isles. We were the junior vessel attached to the 26th Destroyer Flotilla. Here we did some more serious workups, practicing gunnery and anti-submarine exercises, along with torpedo and anti-aircraft shoots.

On March 31 we sailed from Scapa Flow for a major offensive against the German Battleship Tirpitz, holed up in Alta Fjord in Northern Norway. This was known as Operation Tungsten and consisted of the Fleet Carriers HMS Victorious and HMS Furious, the Victory Carriers HMS Searcher, Emperor and Fencer and HMCS Pursuer, carrying 40 barracuda bombers and 40 fighters. The 26th Destroyer Flotilla with eight destroyers, including HMCS Algonquin and our sister ship, HMCS Sioux, formed the escort group.

The Tirpitz was located and 15 direct hits were made doing extensive damage to her upper deck, including destroying her 15-inch 'B' Guns. There were also casualties, 122 of her crew of 2400 were killed and over 300 injured. We were designated to be the rescue vessel for the operation. One of the fighters overshot the carrier deck and we proceeded to pick up the pilot. We put our whaler (an 8 man rowboat) over the side and eventually picked up a cold and soggy pilot. This was a risky business because Algonquin was at a dead stop for 30 minutes and we were an easy U-boat target.

HMCS Algonquin firing a salvo.

We continued operations along the Norwegian coast until May 25, 1944 when our destroyer Flotilla was ordered to Portsmouth on the south coast of England. We actually anchored off Seaview on the Isle of Wight on May 27. I turned 19 the following day.

We could tell that something big was going on because of all the shipping. Speculation was running wild. We carried out several night patrols in the English Channel on June 4. On the afternoon of June 5, we learned that Operation Neptune, the naval component of the invasion of Europe was to commence that evening.

At 1600hrs, we weighed anchor and proceeded to our rendezvous point off Cowes, Isle of Wight where we joined with HMS Hillary the Headquarters ship of Force 'J' (Juno Beach). Enroute we passed HMCS Prince Henry and HMCS Prince David, two former passenger liners from the BC coast. Our initial role was to escort HMS Hillary, which carried Major General Keller, Commanding Officer of the Third Canadian Division, and his staff, to the assault area off the Normandy coast.

HMS Hillary got underway at 1800hrs with HMCS Algonquin astern followed by a flotilla of LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) carrying Royal Marine commandos. As we steamed through the Solent, Clear the Lower Decks was piped and all hands gathered around the CO, Lt. Commander Piers, DSC. The route to the beaches of Normandy was swept of mines and the channel marked with Dan Buoys (Blue Lights). While a surface attack was possible, the biggest danger was drifting mines.

We closed up action stations at midnight and sailed in darkness until 0500 hrs when the sky started to brighten. What a sight! Ships of every size, landing craft and barges as far as the eye could see. It was amazing that there had been no collisions reported during the crossing.

Cleaning the guns in preparation for the D-Day assault.

At 0600 hrs the battleships and cruisers opened fire on the shore batteries and other defense positions. The noise was thunderous. I believe HMS Rodney was outbound on Juno Beach and it was eerie to see her 16-inch shells passing overhead, inbound for the beach.

Around 0630 hrs the sky was thick with Allied aircraft; a huge mass of bombers inbound to blast shore positions followed by aircraft towing gliders loaded with troops. We could see them going in to land under heavy fire. It was unnerving to see some hit and disintegrate.

We commenced our bombardment at 0700 hrs. Our initial target was a battery of two 88mm guns. When they were silenced, we targeted other houses and building along the shoreline. We ceased fire at around 0745 hrs in preparation for H hour (landing time) for the infantry. They had been proceeding past us in landing craft during our bombardment and were due to hit the beaches at 0800 hrs.

At 0900 hrs, as we were slowly moving up and down the landing area, an LCI came along side and asked us to take off casualties. A mortar had landed in their craft killing one and injuring five. They were taken to sickbay and treated by 'Doc' Dickson. Two later died of their wounds.

The landings were well underway but at 1100 hrs we received a call from our Artillery Officer spotter on shore to take out three 88mm German guns that were holding up our advancing troops three miles inland. Our first 4.7 guns put the first salvo short; the next was a bit long, then 13 on target to demolish the position. I later learned that we had helped Le Regiment de la Chaudiere.

On the 55th Anniversary of D-Day, I met Sgt. Jean Minville, one of the Chaudiere's we helped!

General H.D.G. Crerar, Commander of the First Canadian Army.

On Sunday, June 18th, we escorted the battleship HMS Rodney from Portsmouth back to Normandy. On board with us was General H.D.G. Crerar, C.B. JXS.O Commander of the First Canadian Army, and his staff of 22 officers. This was a proud moment for HMCS Algonquin as it was the first time a Canadian Army Commander, flying his Canadian Army Standard from our starboard yardarm, had gone into battle in a Canadian Warship.

On June 19 (D+13), we were called to bombard the eastern flank at Gonnerville where commandos were to make a dawn attack. We later received this signal: “The Commanding officer and all ranks of the 45th Royal Marine commando wish to record their appreciation of the excellent support received during our operation. Its success was largely due to your co-operation.”

On one of our last Normandy patrols, we were returning to base after dodging parachute mines, when we witnessed our patrol partner, HMS Swift, hit a mine and sink within minutes.

On June 28, 1944 we departed Operation Neptune to return to Scapa Flow. We again commenced operations with the fleet to attack shipping along the Norwegian coast. In August, a Victory Class carrier, HMS Nabob, with an all-Canadian crew, was assigned to Operational Group. She was commanded by Captain Horatio Nelson Lay, RCN!

Late on August 16, 1944 we departed for Operation Goodwood 1 and 2 against Tirpitz. Our attack group consisted of the Battleship HMS Duke of York, three cruisers, three fleet carriers, two escort carriers and the 26th Destroyer Flotilla. The aircraft attacked in the morning and afternoon of August 22.

Torpedo damage to HMS Nabob.

As we were withdrawing for the night, HMS Nabob was torpedoed and eight minutes later, HMS Bickerton was also torpedoed. We picked up over 200 survivors of Nabob, which was still able to limp back to Scapa. The operations against Tirpitz carried on until August 29.

After a convoy to Murmansk in Northern Russia, we joined an attack group that targeted enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast. The group included two cruisers and four destroyers. Operation Counterblast was a success. We attacked an enemy convoy and destroyed eleven of its ships and left one aground and burning.

In November we learned that Tirpitz had finally been sunk with the loss of 1204 killed and 806 survivors. The RAF had sent a force of 32 Lancaster bombers on Operation Catechism. One bomb had a direct hit on a magazine (ammunition), which spelled the end.

For the balance of the war we continued action in Norwegian waters and, during the Christmas and New Year of 1944/45 also with convoy runs back to Murmansk. On the Murmansk run we were in the worst storm we'd ever experienced. We could not keep the convoy together in a storm with Force 8-9 winds.

February 15, 1945 we arrived back in Canada. We were in Halifax for a refit, leave and all the good things of home. I passed my Officers Board before Captain 'D' in Halifax and after 30 days leave returned to HMCS Cornwallis for Officers training.

May 8th, 1945 saw the end of hostilities in Europe. I was invited to 'sign Pacific' for more combat duty. I declined, took my discharge and returned home to attend the University of British Columbia.

Andrew A. Irwin