Opinion

Faint Footsteps: Hole in one ship, torpedoes in another

By Gord Harrison, Special to the Norwich Gazette

Doug Harrison 'on guard' at Northney I with "a rifle with no ammunition".

Doug Harrison 'on guard' at Northney I with "a rifle with no ammunition".

Editor’s note: The following is a feature special to the Gazette by Gord Harrison, a London writer who was born in Burgessville. Harrison chronicles the life of his father, Doug Harrison, a Norwich resident and former Gazette columnist, and his life during the Second World War.

When Buryl McIntyre and Doug Harrison of Norwich - and about 100 other young men - volunteered for Combined Operations in December 1941, they did not know what their overseas duties would be. They were all soon instructed, however, to throw their kit bags onto trucks bound for a jetty in Halifax and board the Queen of Bermuda, a ship that much impressed the raw recruits, some as young as 17, whose only experience at sea had been a few hours upon a minesweeper.

Surely they were filled with questions (“Where are we headed? Then what?”). So, too, was Lord Louis Mountbatten, their new Commander of Combined Operations, who had been instructed by England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, just two months earlier, to begin a “programme of raids of ever-increasing intensity” which would ultimately lead to “the re-invasion of France.” Mountbatten’s mandate included creating training centres and assault bases, devising successful invasion plans and the machinery of war in co-operation with all arms of the military. His whole attention was to be “concentrated on the offensive.” (Page 88, The Watery Maze)

Early in his command Mountbatten asked where the invasion crafts would come from - 1000s upon 1000s were needed - along with crews to man them. And it is at that time Canada made an initial offer of 50 officers and 300 ratings or sailors, Buryl and my father included, “but this was a drop in the bucket.”

Speaking of buckets. On the same day the Queen left Halifax Harbour, she ran aground at Chebucto Head, having travelled about 25 kilometres. A serious mishap?

Sailors on board recall the event: “There was quite a blizzard coming down... I went forward to take a look (after grinding to a stop). To my astonishment, there was a big cliff no more than 100 feet ahead. About ten o’clock we were... given buckets and marched six decks down. We began to bail, passing the buckets man to man. We could hardly work with all the laughing going on.” (Al Kirby, Woodstock)

“We sailed at noon in a heavy snowstorm, missed the starboard buoy and grounded on a rock. A bucket brigade was organized... and I joined the happy band (bailing) out the Atlantic Ocean with buckets!” (Lloyd Evans, Markham)

My father recalls, “It was like emptying a bucket of sand one grain at a time.”

Arrangements were made to transport the Navy boys overseas from Halifax again, and in mid-to-late January they tossed their kit bags onto the Volendam, a Dutch liner, for an eventful trip overseas.

“Late at night I was on watch at our stern and saw a red plume of an explosion on our starboard quarter,” writes my father. “In the morning the (American) four-stacker was not to be seen. I heard cries for help, from a life-raft or life-boat. Although I informed the officer of the watch, we were unable to stop and place ourselves in jeopardy...”

On perhaps the same evening, Lloyd Evans was surprised to see (destroyer) HMS Belmont go full speed ahead and sacrifice itself by taking two German torpedoes.

He writes, “For obvious reasons we didn’t slow down to look for survivors but... a rescue ship came out to look for them.”

Both Canadian sailors recall arriving safely in Scotland and “passing the hat” to show their gratitude to the crew of their lone remaining escort vessel, HMS Firedrake.

Harsh lessons learned at sea barely had time to sink in, because shortly after the boys disembarked onto dry land they were ordered to embark upon the first of many train rides. Destination unknown.