By Kevan Pipe
By the end of the Second World War, Canada possessed the fourth largest navy in the world. From six ships and fewer than 4,000 personnel in 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) expanded exponentially in just six years to 95,000 members and 434 commissioned vessels. These ships ranged from auxiliaries to cruisers and included more than 120 corvettes, which sailed mostly on trans-Atlantic convoy duty. There were also six River-class destroyers, all named after the majestic rivers of Canada.
The tragedy that struck one of those ships, HMCS Ottawa, was one of Canada’s worst-ever naval losses. On September 13, 1942, 80 years ago this month, the destroyer was torpedoed by a German submarine in the North Atlantic with the loss of 114 brave young sailors as well as 20 merchant-marine sailors who had been rescued from the Empire Oil tanker after it was torpedoed just days before. In total, 134 souls were lost on that fateful night, 930 kilometres due east of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Among the casualties: a Glebe resident, 22-year-old Sub-lieutenant Keith Wright; the ship’s commanding officer, 28-year-old C.A (Larry) Rutherford of Halifax; and the ship’s doctor, Surgeon Lt(N) George Hendry of Toronto. Amazingly, 69 fortunate survivors were plucked out of the frigid waters by nearby ships, 65 from the Ottawa and four from the Empire Oil.
HMCS Ottawa was commissioned in May 1932 at the famed dockyards in Portsmouth, England as HMS Crusader of the Royal Navy. Six years later, she and three similar destroyers were sold to the Royal Canadian Navy as the ominous clouds of war gathered on the horizon. The Crescent-class destroyer was 100 meters long with a beam of just over 10 meters. With a range of 5,500 nautical miles (10,200 kms), her cruising speed was 28 km/h with an initial crew of 145 officers and sailors, but she could reach maximum speed of 67 km/hr in battle conditions.
HMS Crusader was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy on June 15, 1938, and re-named HMCS Ottawa as a River-class destroyer, alongside the St. Laurent, Fraser and Restigouche. The Ottawa was dispatched to Canada’s west coast but was ordered back to Halifax when war broke out in September 1939. These River-class ships were the critical backbone of Canada’s destroyer fleet, leading the Mid-Ocean Escort Force throughout the Battle of the Atlantic. The Ottawa escorted convoys of supply ships to England and back for re-supply for six long years, usually crewed now by 10 officers and 171 sailors.
Her first trans-Atlantic crossing was in December 1939 when she escorted the convoy carrying half of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division to England (including Private Arthur Campbell Wilkinson, a Glebe resident). Heavily armed, she carried torpedo tubes, depth charges and various forms of gunnery, including both anti-aircraft and a main 4.7-inch gun. In August 1940, the Ottawa began serving principally in the North Atlantic 10th Escort Group based out of Greenock on the Clyde in Scotland and was involved in multiple rescues of survivors from torpedoed merchant-marine ships. On November 8, 1940, alongside HMS Harvester, she was credited with sinking the Italian submarine Commandante Faa di Bruno, which was attacking a convoy.
The Ottawa was ordered back to Canada in June 1941 as part of the RCN Newfoundland Escort Force, and it escorted six separate convoys to and from Iceland into January 1942. That May, she was transferred to the Mid-Ocean Escort Force Group C 4, escorting convoys to and from Londonderry on the perilous journey between Newfoundland and Northern Ireland. That route including crossing the dangerous “Black Pit” in the mid-Atlantic, an area which was out of range of protective air patrols and where most ships were targeted by enemy submarines.
Convoy ON127 was departing Londonderry on September 5. The newest form of surface radar was to have been installed on the Ottawa prior to departure; however, late arrival of the equipment and the need to depart on time meant the ship sailed without upgraded protection.
With HMCS St. Croix acting as lead escort, the convoy was discovered by a “wolfpack” of 13 German U-boat submarines five days into the dangerous two-week crossing. Two tankers were sunk that afternoon and several more merchant ships were lost that night, with Ottawa rescuing 24 survivors when the Empire Oil was sunk. The convoy fought hard to avoid being scattered and tried to keep the German subs from surfacing as it raced towards the area where air cover from Newfoundland would resume. On September 11 and 12, this ferocious battle continued, and more ships were lost. On the afternoon of September 13, spirits must have risen as the first airplane from Newfoundland arrived briefly, forcing a surfaced U-boat to submerge.
That night, HMCS Ottawa was getting dangerously low on fuel and supplies but had taken the lead position as two new escorts, HMS Witch and HMCS Annapolis, arrived to beef up convoy defences and to relieve Ottawa from duty so she could return immediately to port for refueling along with HMCS St. Croix. Unfortunately, Ottawa’s older radar failed to pick up the low profile of U-91, captained by Heinz Walkerling, which was on the surface – it was a typical strategy to come up after dark because they were faster on the surface. At 23:03, U-91 fired one torpedo which hit the Ottawa two minutes later, effectively destroying her front end, though she remained afloat.
The St. Croix, 4,000 meters away, spotted the attack and immediately raced to assist the Ottawa, stopping along the way to try to pick up survivors. U-91 waited for this and fired another torpedo at the St. Croix at 23:18. Amazingly, the torpedo went under the St. Croix, but hit the Ottawa, breaking her in two, causing her to sink within minutes.
The 69 survivors were rescued by escort ships as the convoy sailed by. Fortunately, they were in the gulf stream, so the water temperature was a relatively warm 15 degrees Celsius; had it been less than 100 kilometres north, the frigid waters of the North Atlantic would have made it difficult to survive more than a few minutes.
As it was, it took more nearly five hours to pluck them all from the water. They were taken aboard the St. Croix as well as HMCS Arvida and HMS Celandine, then transported to St. John’s for medical care and recuperation.
As documented in the inquiry held weeks later, if the upgraded radar had been installed prior to departure, HMCS Ottawa likely would have picked up the surfaced U-boat. As a result, the RCN made it a priority to outfit all ships with this new radar as soon as possible.
The lost souls of HMCS Ottawa and all others lost at sea (2,852 in total, both naval and merchant marine) during the Battle of the Atlantic are remembered at the Halifax Memorial in Point Pleasant Park overlooking the approach to the harbour.
HMCS Ottawa lives on in today’s Royal Canadian Navy. There have now been three more ships named Ottawa. H31, a G-class destroyer was named in April 1943, and DDH 229, a new destroyer, served from 1956 to 1992. The Halifax-class frigate HMCS Ottawa 341, commissioned in 1996 in Cornwall as the 12th and final ship of Canadian Patrol Frigate Project, continues to sail the world, serving Canada proudly. She is assigned to Maritime Forces Pacific with her home port in Esquimalt, B.C.
For additional information, St. Matthew’s Anglican Church has a copy of the 2007 book, Our Gallant Doctor – Enigma and Tragedy: Surgeon Lieutenant George Hendry and HMCS Ottawa, 1942, by James Goodwin. It tells the story of the Ottawa in detail as well as the personal misfortune of Dr. Hendry. It is available for reading.
Kevan Pipe is a Glebe resident and member of St Matthew’s Anglican Church communications committee.