Convoys kept Great Britain and her allies in working order in the Second World War. The trans-Atlantic freighters brought many things to England: food, lorries, ammunition, bandages, medicine, torches, fuel, steel, rubber, and anything else that Germany and Italy sought to consume. But it was a risky endeavor. U-boats were butchering chunks of the oceangoing lifeline. The best defense between freighters and certain destruction was the destroyer.
The Canadian Navy possessed a limited naval force at the start of World War II. Yet because so much of convoy operations passed through their front yard, their involvement in an escort role was considerable. Destroyers searched for U-boats along convoy routes, picked up the survivors of sunken vessels, and pounced upon any submarine in range. Destroyers are like the SUVs of any navy: fast, multipurpose platforms with a great deal of work to accomplish.
The Canadian destroyer Saguenay was an important player in the convoy scene. Her crew was kept busy on 1 December 1940, some three hundred miles off the Irish coast, when a U-boat fired a flare to illuminate a small passing convoy. As Saguenay closed within visual range of the U-boat, a torpedo exploded on the forward port side of the destroyer. Saguenay‘s “B” gun opened fire on the raider almost simultaneously, and the sub vanished underwater by the second shot. By then, the crew had their hands full with damage control.
The seamen’s mess decks where the torpedo had struck were so fiercely ablaze that the entire fore part of the ship had to be cleared. Soon smoke and flame funnelling up through the bridge structure compelled evacuation of the bridge itself. Inflammable materials in the paint shop forward of the mess decks added to the flames. Salt water, pouring through the jagged gash in the ship’s side, ignited calcium flares which fed their choking fumes into the general inferno.¹
The forward magazine was flooded as a precaution while firefighters moved closer to the blaze. Abruptly, the entire bow forward of the bridge superstructure ripped off the hull and sank into the Atlantic. Its crippled bow removed, Saguenay leveled off in the water. But that was not the end of her problems.
The British destroyer HMS Highlander soon arrived to take on the majority of the crew. A skeleton crew remained on the Canadian ship to put out the fires. One of Saguenay‘s propeller shafts had bent in the explosion, allowing a maximum speed of six knots.
Saguenay headed to Barrow-in-Furness for repairs. On 2 December the fires were out and primary steering was restored. But as the destroyer limped away, she struck an enemy mine. Seawater contaminated the fuel supply and Saguenay was taken under tow for the remainder of her trip. Twenty-one crew members had lost their lives at the end of this ordeal.
Sometimes the most fabled vessels have the hardest histories. After repairs, HMCS Saguenay saw further action with numerous trans-Atlantic convoys. She survived two collisions, one with the Panamanian freighter Azra that set off Saguenay‘s depth charges and blew off the bow. The destroyer was used for training after the war and broken up in 1946. The plight of Saguenay reminds me of a fictional warship, USS Pharris, which also lost its bow to a submarine in Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. In real life, the endurance of sailors and the proud history of the Canadian Navy is demonstrated with such iconic ships.
¹ Far Distant Ships: An Official Account of Canadian Naval Operations in World War II. Schull, Joseph. Stoddart, 1950. (Editor’s note: this is a must-read for naval history buffs and those interested in Canadian involvement in the war!)
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