DESCRIPTION: The Athabaskan leaves Plymouth to attack the enemy in the English Channel, but there are E-boats lying in wait. Two torpedoes destroy the Athabaskan. Many, including the captain, are killed; some are rescued; many, including the author, are prisoners
EARLIEST DATE: 1979 (Hopkins-SongsFromTheFrontAndRear)
KEYWORDS: navy ship wreck death prisoner
Apr 28, 1944 - Sinking of HMCS Athabaskan
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Hopkins-SongsFromTheFrontAndRear, pp. 128-129, "Athabaskan's Finish" (1 text)
NOTES [1187 words]: Hopkins-SongsFromTheFrontAndRear doesn't really claim this as traditional; it is an account of a survivor of the Athabaskan, although we don't know which one. I strongly doubt it was ever sung; the meter is too inconsistent. Nonetheless it is a good account of one of the many tragedies of World War II.
Canada went into World War II with almost no navy, but they had their ambitions. Most of the craft they built or acquired were small escort craft -- corvettes, frigates, small destroyers. But many in the Canadian navy wanted bigger things -- cruisers, even aircraft carriers (Milner, p. 131). They didn't get those, but in 1942-1943 they did manage to acquire from Britain four large destroyers of the "Tribal" class: Athabaskan, Haida, Huron, and Iroquois; they would build four more after the war (Whitley, p. 28). Unlike ordinary destroyers, these "fleet" destroyers were much larger and more heavily armed; although they had antisubmarine weapons, they were designed primarily to sail with the fleet and engage in combat with enemy surface ships. It wasn't obvious what Canada would do with these ships, but they made the Canadians feel good.
The first two Canadian "Tribals" to go into service were Iroquois and Athabaskan, on December 10, 1942 and February 3, 1943 (Whitley, p. 28); Athabaskan had been delayed when a German bombing raid damaged her (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 6). The "Tribals" were supposed to have eight 4.7" guns, four torpedo tubes, and a top speed of 36 knots (Worth, p. 111); Athabaskan ended up with six 4.7" guns (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 94; I believe this was to give her more anti-aircraft weapons) -- but managed only 30 knots on trials (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 95), implying she still needed work.
Her first captain, George Ralph Miles, was born in 1902, and was that rarest of things in Canada, an experienced naval man(Burrow/Beaudoin,p.13). He was good at getting songs about his ships, too; in 1941, he had commanded a smaller Canadian destroyer, HMCS Saguenay (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 15), which is the subject of "The Saguenay Song."
The two Canadian destroyers operated mostly around the Bay of Biscay and the entrances to Gibraltar; on June 28, 1943, Athabaskan was hit by two glider bombs and badly damaged (Whitley, p. 28; Milner, pp. 131-132; Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 43, say she was saved only because the Germans thought she was bigger than she was and set the fuses incorrectly -- a very helpful mistake, because it meant that pieces of the bomb were left for the Allies to examine). Commander Miles was reassigned at the time and was replaced by 31-year-old Lt. Commander John Hamilton Stubbs, already well-known for his aggressive command of a smaller escort craft (Burrow/Beaudoin, pp. 53-54). Athabaskan was repaired in time to spend late 1943 escorting convoys to Russia (Milner, p. 144; Whitley, p. 28; Burrow/Beaudoin), then was sent to the English Channel in 1944 to clear out German small torpedo boats prior to the Normandy invasion.
Instead, it was the torpedo boats that got Athabaskan. Their squadron had been in battle a few days before, and several ships had been damaged, so it was under-strength, and the men were tired from a long series of night patrols, but out she had to go anyway (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 113). She and three other Allied ships (including Haida, whose skipper Commander de Wolf led the Canadian vessels; Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 117) encountered the German torpedo boats T24, T27, and T29 in a night action. According to Milner, p. 144, Athabascan (alone) was not using flashless powder, making her relatively easy to see. T24 put a torpedo into Athabaskan,. McKee/Darlington, p. 143, says that the ship lost power and steering, and was going down by the stern, after which fires broke out. Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 118, suggest that there was another torpedo hit, though it's not clear who could have fired it. In any case, one of these fires reached the after magazine, which exploded, killing several including the First Lieutenant (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 118). Supposedly the blast could be seen thirty miles away (McKee/Darlington, p. 144). The crew had already been preparing to abandon; after that, there was little to do except get off as fast as possilble.
The Haida went to try to pick up survivors, and managed to bring a few aboard, but German planes were expected as it grew lighter, and no Allied aircraft would be available (Milner, p. 145; Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 166, question this, since no aircraft ever appeared, but that doesn't mean there was no reason for fear!). Supposedly someone in the water cried out to Haida to flee; many (e.g. Lamb, p. 159) claim it was the Athabaskan's captain, Lieutenant Commander John Stubbs (although this can hardly be verified; Burrow/Beaudoin, pp. 124-125 describe so many people talking to Stubbs in the water that I can't help but think some of the stories untrue. We know Stubbs died in the water; his body was identified among those which washed up on the coast of Brittany; Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 144). Whatever the source, the Haida eventually left, leaving the remaining men to the sea and the Germans -- although Haida's captain left his ship's motor launch behind, and reportedly six men used it to return to Britain (Bercuson, p. 203).
Hopkins says that 128 of her crew died, 44 were rescued, and 83 became prisoners; McKee/Darlington, p. 142, agrees that 128 were lost, but says that 86 were captured (the difference may be because several men died after rescue). Ironically, 47 of the captured men were rescued by Captain William Meentzen's T24 (McKee/Darlington, p. 145); others were rescued by minesweepers (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 132. All of the prisoners survived their time as POWs, although they suffered conditions of extreme privation and most lost a great deal of weight and needed a long time to recover (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 145). Some of them, ironically, were guarded by survivors of T27 (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 136).
According to Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 1, she was the "only Canadian warship sunk in the course of a surface action." They report on pp. 165-167 on the court of inquiry after the sinking, and cast strong doubts about its accuracy, but their complaints don't seem very strong to me; they sound like they are scapegoat-hunting (understandable, since both had strong ties to the ship. The book is a labor of love, which does not mean that it is unbiased...).
The action earned Kapitanleutnant Wilhelm Meentzen of T24 the Knight's Cross (Burrow/Beaudoin, p. 137)
There is a photo of Captain Stubbs as a young officer in the photo inset in Milner. Burrow/Beaudoin have many photos of the ship and her crew from launching to sinking, a register of all who were lost and saved on pp. 176-183, a list of other crew members on pp. 183-187, a list of places named after deceased crew on pp. 187-188, and many photos of Stubbs as a boy and young man on pp. 54-55. A picture of the T27 is on p. 82, and one of T24 (which would be sunk on August 24, 1944) on p. 133. A map of Athabaskan's last action, showing also the maneuvers of Haida, is on p. 115. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.2
- Bercuson: David J. Bercuson, Maple Leaf Against the Axis: Canada's Second World War, 1995 (I use the 2004 Red Deer Press edition)
- Burrow/Beaudoin: Len Burrow and Emile Beaudoin, Unlucky Lady: The Life and Death of HMS Athabaskan, McClelland and Stewart, 1982
- Lamb: James B. Lamb, The Corvette Navy, 1979 (I use the 1988 Macmillan Paperbacks edition)
- McKee/Darlington: Fraser McKee and Robert Darlington, The Canadian Naval Chronicle, 1939-1945, Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1996
- Milner: Marc Milner, Canada's Navy: The First Century, University of Toronto Press, 1999
- Whitley: M. J. Whitley, Destroyer of World War II: An International Encyclopedia, Naval Institute Press, 1988
- Worth: Richard Worth, Fleets of World War II, Da Capo, 2001
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