HMS Nabob

HMS Nabob

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HMS Nabob

HMS Nabob was a Ruler class escort carrier that has a short active career in British home waters before being badly damaged by a U-boat during an attack on the Tirpitz in August 1944.

The Nabob was launched on 9 March 1943 as USS Edisto (CVE-41).


No.852 Squadron embarked on the Nabob on 11 February in the US, and crossed the Atlantic on her in March 1944, before disembarking in the UK on 6 April 1944. The squadron returned in May 1944, in preparation for operations off Norway.

On 11 August aircraft from the Nabob and Trumpeter dropped mines in the Harhms and Lepsorev channels, while fighters from the Indefatigable provided fighter cover and attacked the airfield at Gossen.

August 1944 also saw the Nabob allocated to the fleet taking part in Operation Goodwood I to IV, a series of attacks on the Tirpitz. The main force for this series of four attacks on the Tirpitz was provided by the fleet carriers Formidable, Indefatigable and Furious while Nabob and Trumpeter carried out diversionary attacks. The Nabob was operating No.825 Squadron with a mix of Grumman Avengers and Wildcats.

On 22 August the Nabob was torpedoed by U-354, suffering massive damage. Careful management of the heavy flooding and skilful damage control meant that the carrier survived the damage, and escorted by the Trumpeter managed to reach safety at Scapa Flow. After careful examination it was decided that it was not worth repairing her.

The Nabob was paid off unrepaired on 30 September 1944. She spent the rest of the war on a mud bank in the Firth of Forth, before being officially returned to the US Navy on 16 March 1945.


No.852 NAS

No.852 Squadron crossed the Atlantic with its Avengers early in 1944, then embarked again in May with the Avenger and the Wildcat. The squadron remained onboard until the Nabob was badly damaged in August 1944.

No.856 NAS

A detachment of Avengers from No.856 Squadron operated on the Nabob during the summer of 1944, but was gone by 13 September.

Displacement (loaded)

11,400t standard
15,390t deep load

Top Speed



27,500 miles at 11 knots


495ft 3in-496ft 8in oa


18-24 aircraft
Two 5in/38 US Mk 12 in two single mountings
Sixteen 40mm Bofors guns in eight double mountings
Twenty seven to thirty five 20mm cannon

Crew complement



9 March 1943


7 September 1943

Damaged beyond repair

22 August 1944

HMS Nabob (D77)

Alus tilattiin Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation Seattlesta Yhdysvalloista ja sen propulsiojärjestelmän valmisti Allis-Chalmers. Sen köli laskettiin 20. lokakuuta 1942 ja alus laskettiin vesille 9. maaliskuuta 1943 nimellä USS Edisto (runkonumero CVE-41). Alus valmistui ja se luovutettiin 7. syyskuuta Britannian kuninkaalliselle laivastolle nimellä HMS Nabob. [1]

Aluksen muutostyöt aloitettiin 15. lokakuuta ja se saapui Esquimaltiin 24. tammikuuta 1944. Seuraavana päivänä alus ajoi silttiharjanteeseen 17 solmun nopeudella kärsimättä kuitenkaan vaurioita. Alus irroitettiin 28. tammikuuta. [1]

Alus lähti 8. helmikuuta San Franciscon ja Panaman kanavan kautta New Yorkiin, jonne se saapui 19. maaliskuuta. Alukselle siirrettiin Yhdysvaltain laivaston ilmavoimien tukikohdasta Squantumista 852 laivueen Grumman Avengerit kuljetettavaksi Britteinsaarille. Alus lähti 23. maaliskuuta saattueen UT10 mukana Liverpooliin. [1]

Aluksella matkalla havaittujen vikojen korjaamiseksi se siirrettiin 7. huhtikuuta Clydessä telakalle, minkä jälkeen se siirrettiin läntisen reitin (engl. Western Approaches Command ) alaisuuteen. Alus siirrettiin 18. huhtikuuta lisäkorjauksiin Liverpooliin. Telakalta vapauduttuaan alus aloitti 29. kesäkuuta 852 laivueen lentomiehistöjen kouluttamisen Belfastissa. Alus lainattiin 1. elokuuta Kotilaivastolle ja se siirtyi Scapa Flow'hun. [1]

Alus osallistui 10. elokuuta operaatio Offspringiin, jossa aluksen lentokoneet miinoittivat Haarhamsfjordin ja Lepsorevin yhdessä HMS Indefatigablen ja HMS Trumpeterin koneiden kanssa. Operaatio oli suurin sodan aikana Kotilaivaston lentokoneilla toteuttama miinoitus, kun 47 miinaa laskettiin 846 ja 752 laivueiden Avengereilla. Suojanneet hävittäjät upottivat Saksan laivaston miinanraivaaja R89:n sekä tuhosivat radioaseman Vigrassa. Lisäksi operaation aikana tuhottiin kuusi Messerschmitt Bf-110 hävittäjää Gossenin lentokentälle. Tappioina olivat Avenger, Firefly ja kolme Seafireä. [2]

Alus osallistui 22. elokuuta operaatio Goodwoodiin, jossa sen lentokoneet hyökkäsivät Kaafjordissa piilottelevaa taistelulaiva Tirpitziä vastaan. Aluksen perään osui sukellusvene U-354:n laukaisema akustinen torpedo. Pahoin vaurioitunut alus saapui 27. elokuuta Scapa Flow'hun ja se poistettiin 30. syyskuuta palveluksesta. Alus jätettiin korjaamatta ankkuriin Firth of Forthiin. [3]

Alus palautettiin 16. maaliskuuta 1945 Yhdysvaltain laivastolle, mutta sitä ei siirretty mihinkään. Se myytiin maaliskuussa 1947 alankomaalaiselle telakalle. Se saapui 21. syyskuuta Rotterdamiin, jossa se kunnostettiin kauppa-alukseksi. Rakennustyöt saatiin 1952 päätökseen ja se nimettiin Nabobiksi. Alus nimettiin 1968 Gloryksi ja se romutettiin 6. joulukuuta 1977 Taiwanilla. [3]

HMS Nabob (D 77)

HMS Nabob as completed

Transferred to the Royal Navy under lend-lease.
Altough she was Canadian manned she was not commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy.
On 22 August 1944 HMS Nabob (A/Capt. H.N. Lay, OBE, RCN) was torpedoed and damaged in the Arctic off the North Cape in position 71º42'N, 19º11'E by the German submarine U-354. After the badly damaged ship managed to limp to Britain she was judged not worth repairing.
She was towed to Rosyth, beached and abandoned.
Decommissioned on 30 Sepember 1944 she was retained in nominal reserve, but was cannibalized for spare parts for sisterships.
On 16 March 1946, the vessel was returned to the US Navy and stricken.
Sold for scrap in March 1947 in the Netherlands.
However, she was resold to the Norddeutscher Lloyd, converted to the German motor merchant Nabob until 1952 and used as a civilian training vessel for the post war German merchant service.
Renamed Glory in 1968 and registered in Panama.
In December 1977 she was sold for scrap in Taiwan.

Hit by U-boat
A total loss on 22 Aug 1944 by U-354 (Sthamer).

Commands listed for HMS Nabob (D 77)

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1Cdr. Horatio Nelson Lay, OBE, RCN15 Oct 194330 Sep 1944

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Notable events involving Nabob include:

12 Jan 1944
HMS Nabob (A/Capt. H.N. Lay, OBE, RCN) completed a refit at Burrard Dry Dock Co. Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

3 Jul 1944
HMS Upshot (Lt. H.W. Wilkinson, RN) conducted A/S exercises off Larne with aircraft from HMS Nabob (Cdr. H.N. Lay, OBE, RCN) ( 1 )

5 Jul 1944
HMS Upshot (Lt. H.W. Wilkinson, RN) conducted A/S exercises off Larne with aircraft from HMS Nabob (Cdr. H.N. Lay, OBE, RCN) ( 1 )

22 Aug 1944
On 22 August 1944 HMS Nabob (A/Capt. H.N. Lay, OBE, RCN) was torpedoed and damaged in the Arctic off the North Cape in position 71°42'N, 19°11'E by German U-boat U-354.

HMS Nabob down by the stern as a result of the torpedo damage.

ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.


The Bogue class were larger and had a greater aircraft capacity than all the preceding American-built escort carriers. They were also all laid down as escort carriers and not converted merchant ships. [2] The Ruler type vessels were essentially a repeat version of the Attacker class. Based on the Type C3 design, the Ruler class were acquired by the Royal Navy as part of Lend-Lease after delays in the construction of the Casablanca class, which the Royal Navy had intended to acquire. [3] All the vessels in the class had a complement of 646 officers and ratings and an overall length of 492 feet 3 inches (150.0 m), a beam of 69 feet 6 inches (21.2 m) at the waterline and 108 feet 6 inches (33.07 m) total with a mean draught of 25 ft 5 in (7.7 m). The escort carriers had a standard displacement of 11,400 long tons (11,600 t) and a deep load displacement of 15,390 long tons (15,640 t). Propulsion was provided by one shaft turned by an Allis-Chalmers geared steam turbine powered by two Foster Wheeler boilers, rated at 8,500 shaft horsepower (6,338 kW), which could propel the ship at maximum 18 knots (33 km/h). The escort carrier could carry 3,160 long tons (3,210 t) of fuel oil and had a maximum range of 27,500 nautical miles (50,930 km) at 11 knots (20 km/h) or 18,750 nautical miles (34,725 km) at maximum speed. [4] [5]

Aircraft operations were commanded from a small combined bridge–flight control on the starboard side of the ship. The flight deck was 450 feet (137 m) long and 80 feet (24 m) wide. The H4C hydraulic aircraft catapult was capable of launching 16,000-pound (7,257 kg) aircraft at 74 knots (137 km/h). To receive aircraft the ship was equipped with nine arrestor wires capable of taking 19,800-pound (9,000 kg) aircraft at 55 knots (102 km/h), backed up by three aircraft barriers. [5] Two aircraft elevators accessed the hangar, with the forward elevator being 42 feet (12.8 m) long by 34 feet (10.4 m) wide and the aft elevator being 34 feet wide and 42 feet long with both capable of taking 14,000-pound (6,350 kg) aircraft. Aircraft could be housed in the 260-by-62-by-18-foot (79.2 by 18.9 by 5.5 m) hangar below the flight deck. However, the sloping contour of the hangar combined with the elevator arrangement made handling and storage of aircraft difficult and time-consuming. The escort carriers could store 3,600 imperial gallons (16,366 l 4,323 US gal) of avgas. [6] They had a maximum aircraft capacity of twenty-four aircraft which could be a mixture of fighter and anti-submarine (ASW) aircraft, though up to 90 could be ferried. [2] [5]

Armament comprised two Mark 9 5-inch (127 mm)/51 calibre guns, eight twin-mounted 40 mm Bofors guns, fourteen twin-mounted 20 mm Oerlikon cannon and seven single-mounted 20 mm Oerlikon cannon. Since the escort carriers came as part of Lend-Lease, they retained their American radar systems, with the SG 10-inch (254 mm) surface radar and the SK 1.5 cm (1 in) air search radar. [3] [a]

Willapa was laid down on 21 May 1943 at Seattle, Washington, by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation and reclassified CVE-53 on 10 June 1943. Willapa was launched on 8 November 1943. The ship was completed and transferred under lend-lease to the Royal Navy on 5 February 1944 and commissioned as HMS Puncher with the pennant number D79. On 15 March 1944, Puncher arrived at Vancouver to undergo conversion to Royal Navy standards. [7] [8] The British Admiralty had determined that, post-World War II, the Royal Canadian Navy would have its own aircraft carriers. For this reason, Puncher and Nabob were crewed by Royal Canadian Navy personnel to establish the knowledge base for the future carriers. However, as the Royal Canadian Navy lacked trained air personnel, the aircrew was from the Fleet Air Arm. [9] Puncher remained under British control due to stipulations in the Lend-Lease act that prevented the Royal Navy from transferring Lend-Lease equipment to a third party. [10]

Puncher spent the war in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. In June 1944, the escort carrier transported motor launches from New Orleans to New York. The following month, the ship transported United States Army Air Force aircraft from Norfolk, Virginia, to Casablanca in North Africa, then returned to Norfolk. [7] [8] From there, Puncher made two more ferry trips, taking the Vought Corsairs meant for 1845 Naval Air Squadron to the United Kingdom. Following the ferry trips, Puncher put in for repairs to builder's defects. On 21 November 1944, Puncher embarked 821 Naval Air Squadron for trials in the Clyde area. However, on 22 November, the ship suffered a main gear failure and was forced to return to port for repairs. The gearbox proved too damaged for repair, and her sister ship, Nabob, had been laid up at Firth of Forth due to being torpedoed off Norway in August 1944, so a gearbox was removed from Nabob and installed aboard Puncher. [8]

On 1 February 1945, Puncher joined the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, embarking 881 Naval Air Squadron in Grumman Wildcats and 821 Naval Air Squadron in Fairey Barracudas. Initially serving in a training role, within the year, Puncher was re-tasked to both airstrike and convoy air protection (CAP), as the damaged Nabob had been decommissioned. Puncher ' s CAP service included protection of six different Arctic convoys on the Murmansk/Arkhangelsk route. Operations also included strikes against German occupied Norway, hitting industrial and shipping targets such as the steel works at Narvik. [11] On 11 February, Puncher ' s Wildcats formed part of the fighter escort for a minelaying airstrike along the western coast of Norway. The escort carrier's aircraft then provided fighter cover for a British minesweeping mission clearing German-laid mines along the Norwegian coast. On 24 March, Puncher ' s aircraft took part in an airstrike in the area of Trondheim. A second strike was planned for 3 April but was cancelled due to bad weather. [12] Beginning on 25 June 1945, following the surrender of Germany, Puncher was utilized as a troop transport, carrying Canadian soldiers back to Canada. [7] Her hangar had bunks welded into them and was used in this role until the end of 1945. [7] [11]

Paid off on 16 February 1946 at Norfolk, Virginia and returned to American custody that day, [7] [11] the escort carrier was struck from the Navy Registry on 12 March 1946, having never seen active service with the United States Navy. [13] The vessel was initially sold to William B. St. John, of New York City, on 9 January 1947. The ship was subsequently resold to the British firm J. Chambers & Co on 4 February 1947 and converted for mercantile service. [7] [14] The ship reappeared as Muncaster Castle in 1949 and was renamed Bardic in 1954. The vessel was sold to Ben Line Steamers in 1959 and renamed Ben Nevis (sometimes spelled as Bennevis). [7] [14] The vessel sailed under that name until she was sold for scrap and broken up at Kaoshiung, Taiwan on 11 June 1973 by Swie Horng Steel Enterprise Co. [7] [14] [15]


Die Kiellegung erfolgte 1942 in Tacoma/Seattle mit dem Namen Edisto (CVE-41). Der kleine Träger war einer von 45 Geleitflugzeugträgern der Bogue-Klasse der United States Navy. Das Schiff kam für diese aber nicht in Dienst, sondern wurde im Rahmen des Lend-Lease-Programms an die Royal Navy abgegeben wie 32 ihrer Schwesterschiffe.

Die Nabob (D77) der Bogue-Klasse waren 151,1 Meter lang und 21,2 Meter breit. Die Breite des Flugdecks betrug 24 Meter. Der Träger hatte im Einsatz eine Verdrängung von bis zu 15.400 ts. Wie alle an der Westküste der USA gebauten Geleitträger ging das Schiff erst nach Kanada, um Anpassungen an britische Ausrüstungen zu erhalten. Die Mannschaft des Schiffes wurde von der Royal Canadian Navy gestellt. Die Fliegergruppe war allerdings eine britische. Der Einsatz des Schiffes sollte in Europa erfolgen. [2]

Obwohl die Nabob schon im September 1943 von der Royal Navy übernommen wurde, kam sie erst Anfang April 1944 mit einer Ladung von Avenger- und Corsair-Maschinen in Großbritannien an. [2] [A 1] Die Verzögerung ist wohl auf das Einfahren der kanadischen Besatzung in den Heimatgewässern zurückzuführen.

Im Juni 1944 wurde die FAA-Staffel 852 mit zwölf Grumman Avenger und vier Grumman Wildcat dem Geleitträger als Einsatzstaffel zugeteilt. Am 10. August war die Nabob an einem Vorstoß der Indefatigable und der Trumpeter gegen den deutschen Flugplatz Gossen bei Kristiansand/Nord beteiligt, der von zwei Schweren Kreuzern und acht Zerstörern, darunter die kanadischen Algonquin und Sioux gesichert wurde. Sechs Me 110 wurden zerstört und drei Dampfer beschädigt (Operation Offspring). [3] [2]

Der Träger sollte sich dann an einem Angriff mit Trägerflugzeugen auf die Tirpitz während des Nordmeergeleitzugs JW 59 beteiligen. Die Home Fleet operiert in zwei Gruppen: Die Hauptgruppe mit den Trägern Indefatigable, Formidable und Furious, dem Schlachtschiff Duke of York, zwei Schweren Kreuzern und vierzehn Zerstörern sowie einer zweiten Gruppe mit den Geleitträgern Trumpeter und Nabob, dem Schweren Kreuzer Kent sowie der „5. Escort Group“ unter Commander Donald MacIntyre mit den sechs Geleitzerstörern der Captain-Klasse. Die Avenger-Flugzeuge der beiden Geleitträger sollten Minen gegen die Tirpitz legen und hatten am ersten (erfolglosen) Angriff der Operation Goodwood am Morgen des 22. nicht teilgenommen, da die Wetterbedingungen und die nicht bekannte exakte Position des deutschen Schlachtschiffs einen Einsatz von Minen nicht sinnvoll erscheinen ließ. Am Nachmittag des 22. August 1944 entdeckte U 354 die Geleitträger-Gruppe, die gerade die Versorgung der Geleitzerstörer mit Treibstoff vorbereitete, und torpedierte die Nabob mit einem Torpedo-Fächer. Ein weiterer Torpedo traf die Bickerton, das Schiff des Befehlshabers der Gruppe, der das Heck abgeschossen wurde. Ein zweiter Angriffsversuch gegen die schon stark krängende Nabob wurde durch Avenger-Bomber vereitelt, die auch weiterhin von dem bereits sehr geneigten Flugdeck starteten. Die schwer beschädigte Bickerton wurde aufgegeben und von dem Geleitzerstörer Aylmer mit einem Torpedo versenkt, um sich auf die Rettung des Trägers zu konzentrieren.

Die Nabob war im Heckbereich schwer getroffen, konnte aber noch Flugzeuge einsetzen und trotz verbogener Propellerwelle mit langsamer Fahrt fahren. Während der Rückfahrt der zweiten Gruppe kam es zu einer Bruchlandung einer Maschine nach einer U-Boot-Abwehr-Patrouille, die dabei sieben andere Flugzeuge auf dem Flugdeck der Nabob beschädigte. Die Situation auf dem Träger war während des Rückmarsches zum Teil sehr kritisch, so dass die Algonquin und der Geleitzerstörer Kempthorne große Teile der Besatzung des Trägers übernahmen. [4] [2]

Die Nabob erreichte am 27. August mit eigener Kraft Scapa Flow. Sie wurde dann nach Rosyth geschleppt und dort auf den Strand gesetzt. Am 30. September 1944 wurde sie außer Dienst gestellt und langsam ausgeschlachtet. Eine Reparatur fand bis zum Kriegsende nicht statt. [2] 1946 wurde das Wrack formal den USA zurückgegeben. Ursprünglich sollte sie 1947 schließlich verschrottet werden.

Stattdessen wurde sie in die Niederlande verkauft, das Flugdeck sowie die noch vorhandenen militärischen Einrichtungen entfernt und 1951 an den NDL in Bremen weiterveräußert. Das Schiff wurde bei der AG Weser in Bremen zum Frachter umgebaut und verfügte anschließend als 5-Lukenschiff – plus kleiner Postluke vor dem achteren Deckshaus – mit einer Länge von 150 Metern, einer Breite von 21,2 Metern, über eine Vermessung von 7.900 BRT und eine Tragfähigkeit von 13.000 tdw. Der Antrieb erfolgte durch eine Getriebeturbine mit 6800 PS, die dem Schiff eine Geschwindigkeit von 16 Knoten verlieh. Bis zur Indienststellung der Kombischiffe der Schwabenstein-Klasse 1954 war die Nabob das größte Schiff des Norddeutschen Lloyd. Größere reine Frachtschiffe kamen erst mit der Burgenstein-Klasse 1958 in den Dienst der Bremer Reederei.

Mit einer Besatzung von 68 Mann und Einrichtungen für Kadetten und acht Passagieren wurde die Nabob bei der NDL-Tochtergesellschaft Roland-Linie Schiffahrts-GmbH (bis 1959) als Ausbildungsschiff eingesetzt. Die erste Reise erfolgte 1953 nach Kanada und danach wurde die Nabob im Nordamerika-Dienst eingesetzt. Bis 1967 fand die Nabob anschließend Verwendung in verschiedenen Fahrtgebieten. In diesem Jahr erfolgte der Verkauf und die Nabob fuhr bis zur Verschrottung im Jahr 1978 als Glory unter Panama-Flagge.

The Royal Canadian Navy and Overseas Operations (1939-1945)

The Royal Canadian Navy’s greatest contribution in the Second World War was the role it played in the Battle of the Atlantic, the grim and unrelenting struggle against the German U-boats, which is the subject of the next chapter. What is often over-looked, however, is that the RCN also manned a variety of warships, from light cruisers to landing craft, which carried out many different tasks in European and Pacific waters. The RCN’s participation in surface warfare in these theatres was primarily driven by the ambition of Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa to build up a “balanced fleet” or “blue water navy” that would be the foundation of a post-war service so strong that never again would it face possible dissolution as it had in the 1920s.

When war broke out in September 1939, NSHQ viewed the most dangerous threat as being large surface raiders, not submarines, and to counter this threat it wished to obtain powerful fleet destroyers of the Tribal class. In the winter of 1939-40 an arrangement was made with the Admiralty in London for Canada to produce escort vessels for the Royal Navy in return for British construction of four Tribal-class vessels in the United Kingdom. Until these ships were completed, NSHQ arranged for the conversion of three large passenger ships—Prince David, Prince Henry, and Prince Robert—as auxiliary cruisers, and while the seven destroyers of the pre-war fleet were employed on convoy duty in the Atlantic the “Prince” ships mainly operated on the Pacific coast. When the fall of France in June 1940 brought the U-boats to the Atlantic littoral, the RCN became increasingly involved with the North Atlantic but NSHQ never entirely relinquished its ambition to man larger warships.

As the first of the Tribals would not commission until late 1942, this ambition could not be realized in the short term. During the early part the war, however, many Canadian naval officers and seamen gained valuable experience by serving with the Royal Navy. The full story of their activities has never been properly told, but it should be emphasized that Canadian sailors served at sea in every theatre of war in appointments ranging from the conventional to the extreme.

Donald Connolly, Finale, picturing the action in Onagawa Bay, Japan, 9 August 1945, from which Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, was posthumously awarded the RCN’s only Victoria Cross.

To provide just a few examples, Midshipman L.B Jenson, RCN, was in the battlecruiser HMS Renown when it engaged the German capital ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off Norway in April 1940. Lieutenant R.W. Timbrell, RCN, received a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for his service at Dunkirk in June 1940 while Sub-Lieutenant G.H. Hayes, RCNVR, survived being sunk in the same evacuation. Sub-Lieutenant G. Strathey, RCNVR, was a radar officer on the cruiser HMS Ajax when it sank three Italian destroyers in the Mediterranean in October 1940. Lieutenant S.E. Paddon, RCNVR, was a radar officer in the battleship HMS Prince of Wales when it fought the Bismarck in the spring of 1941 and survived his ship’s sinking off Malaya seven months later. Five Canadian officers were lost in the cruiser HMS Bonaventure when it was sunk off Crete in March 1941 and Lieutenant C. Bonnell, DSC, RCNVR, died in a Chariot “human torpedo” during a raid on Sardinia in December 1941. Surgeon-Lieutenant W.J. Winthrope, RCNVR, was killed in the daring commando attack on Saint-Nazaire in March 1942. Lieutenant J.H. O’Brien, RCN, witnessed the massive Allied amphibious landings in Sicily and Italy in 1943. Sixty Canadian ratings were serving in HMS Belfast when it participated in the sinking of the Scharnhorst in the Barents Sea in December 1943. Lieutenant R.H. Lane, RCNVR, served in the British heavy cruiser HMS Glasgow, Lieutenant-Commander F.H. Sherwood, RCNVR, was captain of the submarine HMS Spiteful operating in the Indian Ocean in 1945, while Captain H.T.W. Grant, RCN, commanded the cruiser HMS Enterprise in 1943-44. Lieutenant F.R. Paxton, RCNVR, was radar officer in the destroyer HMS Venus in May 1945 when it detected the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro at the extreme range of 55 kilometres, a contact that ended with the enemy’s destruction. Perhaps one of the most unusual wartime jobs was that of Lieutenant-Commander B.S. Wright, RCNVR, as commander of a special operations detachment in central Burma in 1945 whose job was to swim across the Irawaddy River at night to raid the enemy.

Two branches of the Royal Navy in which Canadians formed a substantial presence were coastal forces and naval aviation—largely because NSHQ permitted Britain to recruit in Canada for these specialties. By 1943 more than 100 RCN officers were serving in coastal forces, commanding small but heavily-armed fast attack craft in the Channel and the Mediterranean. Their exploits were remarkable. Lieutenant-Commander T.G. Fuller, RCNVR, was awarded the DSO and two bars for operating against enemy warships in the Adriatic, while Lieutenant R. Campbell, RCNVR, participated in commando raids on Rommel’s troops in North Africa. Four young RCNVR officers, Lieutenants J. Davies, W. Johnston, R. MacMillan, and J.M. Ruttan, became responsible for mine clearance in Tobruk during the siege of 1941-42, while Lieutenant-Commanders G. Stead and N.J. Alexander, RCNVR, each commanded British coastal forces flotillas in the Mediterranean. One of the most outstanding feats accomplished by a Canadian was the action fought in May 1943 between MGB 657, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander J.D. Maitland, RCNVR, and a surfaced German U-boat—not only did Maitland beat off the enemy’s attack but so distracted the submarine’s bridge crew that it accidentally rammed another U-boat, sinking both vessels. Lieutenant A.G. Law, RCNVR, took part in an attack on the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau when they made the “Channel Dash” in February 1942. As Law attempted to avoid the attentions of German E-boats and destroyers that were determined to sink his fragile motor torpedo boat (MTB) before he got within torpedo range, his coxswain drew his attention to the sky: “Sir, aircraft with two wings—they must be British!” 1 And they were, for overhead were five Swordfish torpedo planes flying in to make their own effort against the enemy battle cruisers. All five were shot down (and the German battlecruisers made it through).

Lieutenant-Commander G.C. Edwards, RCNVR, flew one of the antiquated aircraft that made this attack but survived to eventually command a squadron of Swordfish in the Fleet Air Arm. Edwards not only survived crashing a “Stringbag” (as these biplanes were termed) in the Mediterranean, he was one of the few pilots to survive a ditching in the frigid Arctic Ocean when his carrier escorted a Murmansk convoy. Lieutenant-Commander D.R.B. Cosh, RCNVR, commanded a squadron of the more modern Wildcat fighters in the escort carrier HMS Pursuer that participated in a strike against the German battleship Tirpitz in April 1944. Lieutenant-Commander R.E. Jess, RCNVR, commanded a Fleet Air Arm squadron of Avengers operating with the British Pacific Fleet against Japanese targets in 1945. There were a number of Canadian naval fighter pilots in the Pacific. Lieutenants D.J. Sheppard, RCNVR, and W.H.I. Atkinson both scored five kills in this theatre, and three of Atkinson’s victories were difficult night interceptions. Lieutenant D.M. Mcleod, RCNVR, survived miraculously almost unscratched when the engine of his Corsair failed on take-off, with the result that it cartwheeled several times—nose over wing over tail—on the water. Lieutenant A. Sutton, RCNVR, was posted missing in his Corsair during a raid on Sumatra in 1945. Lieutenant R.H. Gray, RCNVR, also flew Corsairs and his courageous attack on a Japanese destroyer in August 1945 brought a posthumous award of the only Victoria Cross earned by the RCN during the war. One of Gray’s squadron mates, Lieutenant G. Anderson, RCNVR, was killed in the same attack when his badly-damaged Corsair crashed while landing on their carrier, HMS Formidable. Anderson was the last member of the Canadian Navy to die in the Second World War.

The RCN also made a substantial contribution to the Combined Operations service, the organization created to carry out raids on occupied Europe and develop the specialized techniques required to conduct the large amphibious landings that marked the latter years of the war. In early 1942, 50 officers and 300 ratings proceeded to Britain to form two flotillas of landing craft. On 19 August 1942, 15 officers and 55 ratings from this group were with British landing craft flotillas that participated in Operation Jubilee, the ill-fated raid on Dieppe that cost the Canadian army nearly 3,000 casualties, or about 65 percent of the troops that took part. In a letter home written shortly afterward, Sub-Lieutenant D. Ramsay, RCNVR, provided a dramatic kaleidoscope of the images he had witnessed that terrible day, including:

a German armed trawler blown clear out of the water by one of our destroyers a five-inch shell right through from one side to the other on the boat next to me without exploding the boat officer, Skipper Jones, RNR (ex-Trawlerman as you can guess) screaming invectives at the Jerry and coming out once in a while with the famous Jonesian saying, “get stuffed” a large houseful of Jerry machine gunners pasting hell out of anybody who dared come near the beach a Ju 88 whose wing was cut in half by AB [Able-Bodied Seaman] Mitchinson of Ontario in the boat astern a plane swooping down low behind a destroyer and letting go a 2000 lb. bomb, which ricocheted over the mast and burst about 10 yards on the starboard bow peeking over the cox’ns box and looking into the smoking cannon of an Me 109. I’m here to state that that was close. 2

Organized as four distinctly RCN flotillas, Canadian Combined Operations personnel then took part in Operations Torch (the landing in North Africa in November 1942), Husky (the Sicily landing in July 1943) and Baytown (the Italy landing that September). The achievements of the Canadian flotillas were almost unknown in Canada, much to the chagrin of NSHQ, which became determined that the same case would not apply with the RCN’s Tribal-class destroyers when they entered service.

The war the navy expected: recruits at HMCS York, February 1942, doing close order drills in front of a full-size mock-up of a King George V-class battleship.

The first of these warships, HMCS Iroquois, was commissioned in November 1942 and was followed, over an eight-month period, by HMC Ships Athabaskan, Haida, and Huron. Armed with six 4.7-inch guns, two four-inch high-angle guns, four 21-inch torpedo tubes, and a variety of smaller anti-aircraft weapons, these big, graceful and powerful destroyers were intended not only to be the RCN’s striking force overseas, but also the nucleus of a post-war fleet. As it was, NSHQ narrowly stickhandled around a proposal by Prime Minister Wiliam Lyon McKenzie King that the Tribals be either employed on the North Atlantic convoys or for the defence of the Pacific Coast. “The Tribal is essentially a fighting Destroyer,” advised Commander H.G. DeWolf, Director of Plans, and would be wasted in any task other than that for which it had been designed. It was his opinion that the best course was to put the Tribals “under British operational control” where they could “contribute to the general cause.” 3 Fortunately, this logic won the day and the four ships spent their wartime career with the RN’s Home Fleet where they carved out an impressive fighting record.

After working up and overcoming technical and personnel problems, Athabaskan and Iroquois saw their first action in the Bay of Biscay. The “Biscay Offensive” of the summer of 1943 was intended to catch and destroy U-boats transiting from their French bases to the North Atlantic but it enjoyed mixed success, particularly as Allied warships were within range of German shore-based aircraft. On 27 August, Athabaskan was operating in company with the destroyer HMS Grenville and the sloop HMS Egret when it was attacked by a new weapon—a radio-controlled “glider bomb,” actually a missile launched and guided by aircraft. As Athabaskan’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander G.R. Miles, RCN, reported, 19 Dornier 217 bombers approached and,

the three leading aircraft dropped their rocket bombs almost simultaneously two were failures and the third, never deviating from its course for an instant, came straight for Athabaskan’s bridge. It was a magnificent shot and no dodging it. Striking the port side at the junction of B gun deck and the wheelhouse, it passed through the chief petty officers’ mess and out the starboard side where it exploded when twenty to thirty feet clear of the ship. 4

Another bomber targeted Egret, which was hit and sunk. Suffering heavy damage but mercifully few casualties, Athabaskan was able to limp back to Plymouth to spend a lengthy period in drydock before being again fit for service.

The powerful Tribal-class destroyers Haida and Athabaskan steam in formation in the English Channel, spring 1944.

In November 1943 the three operational Tribals were ordered north to Scapa Flow, the barren and isolated Home Fleet base in the Orkneys, to work the “Murmansk Run,” escorting and screening convoys from Britain to Russia. From their inception in August 1941 to the end of the war, these convoys were the most dangerous operations carried out by the Allied navies, and losses in both merchant and warships were heavy as they took place within easy range of German bases in Norway. The Arctic convoys faced not only U-boats and aircraft, but also major fleet units—including the battleship Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck—as well as terrible weather, rough seas, and extreme cold. Although the Murmansk Run was vital to the Russian war effort, it was not a popular service and Lieutenant P.D. Budge, RCN, of Huron explains why:

It seemed that gales were forever sweeping over the dark, clouded sea. The dim red ball of the sun barely reaching the horizon as the ship pitched and tossed, the musty smell of damp clothes in which we lived, the bitter cold, the long, frequent watches that seemed to last forever. This on a diet of stale bread, powdered eggs and red lead [stewed tomatoes] and bacon. The relief to get below for some sleep into that blessed haven—the comforting embrace of a well-slung hammock. There was no respite on watch for gun, torpedo or depth-charge crews as every fifteen minutes would come the cry “For exercise all guns train and elevate through full limits”—this to keep them free of ice.….The watch below would be called on deck to clear the ship of ice—the only time the engine room staff were envied. Each trip out and back seemed to last an eternity with nothing to look forward to at either end except that perhaps mail would be awaiting us at Scapa Flow. 5

In late December 1943, Haida, Huron, and Iroquois formed part of the covering force for Convoy JW 55B, which was attacked by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst. The Canadian vessels were not directly involved in the action but were long-distance witnesses by radio of the destruction of the Scharnhorst on Boxing Day 1943.When they anchored in the approaches to Murmansk two days later, their ships’ companies held a belated Christmas celebration, and in Haida one of its officers remembered, “the whole mess deck was draped with signal flags a bottle of beer at each man’s plate the candles throwing a pleasant light and practically everyone drunk.” 6

As the Tribals began operations during 1943, NSHQ made impressive strides toward achieving its plan of creating a balanced fleet that would survive inevitable post-war defence cutbacks. The RCN’s progress toward this bright, shining goal was accelerated by four factors. First, 1943 saw the climax of the Battle of the Atlantic and Allied dominance over the U-boats, allowing the RCN for the first time since 1940 to “draw breath” and contemplate the future. Second, recruiting for the Canadian Navy had reached the stage where there was a surplus of personnel, many waiting to man new escort vessel construction not yet completed. Third, in contrast, the RN was experiencing a severe personnel shortage and had more ships than it could man. Fourth, and most important, the time was approaching when the Western allies would have to undertake a major cross-Channel invasion, an operation that would require not just hundreds but thousands of ships and smaller craft.

These factors became apparent at the Quadrant conference attended by the leaders of Britain, the United States, and Canada at Quebec City in September 1943. In meetings with Admiral Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord of the RN, and Vice-Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the head of combined operations, Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles, the Canadian chief of the naval staff, confessed his concern that the Canadian Navy “did not finish the war as a small ship navy entirely.” 7 Far from that, he informed his British counterparts, his intention was to create a post-war fleet of five cruisers, two light fleet aircraft carriers, and three flotillas of fleet destroyers. Nelles asked for British assistance in achieving this ambitious objective and he got it. With the help of Britain’s Winston Churchill in some very adroit manoeuvring around Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who was ever suspicious of defence expenditures, Nelles came away with happy results. It was agreed that the RCN would take over and man two escort carriers, two light cruisers, two fleet destroyers, three flotillas of LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry), and also contribute a beach commando—an amphibious traffic control unit—for the forthcoming invasion.

HMCS Prince Robert, one of three Canadian National Steamship liners converted into armed merchant cruisers by the RCN as a stopgap in 1940, is pictured here, in a British drydock in January 1944, after later conversion as an anti-aircraft cruiser.

Other initiatives undertaken in 1943 and early 1944 increased the RCN’s presence in European waters. The three Prince ships, no longer required as auxiliary cruisers, were taken in hand throughout the year and rebuilt: Prince David and Prince Henry were converted into landing ships, each of which would carry a landing craft flotilla, while Prince Robert was rebuilt as an anti-aircraft defence ship. The strong Canadian presence in Coastal Forces led to a British proposal that the RCN man two MTB flotillas for the invasion and the first personnel were on their way overseas by October 1943. In early 1944, a British request for minesweepers was met by the dispatch of 16 Bangor-class vessels. In all, the Canadian contribution to Operation Neptune, the naval component of the planned Normandy landing, would be 126 vessels of all types and no less than 10,000 officers and seamen. Apart from the boost this would give the Allied cause, NSHQ firmly believed that participation in the most crucial operation of the war would enhance the RCN’s prestige and increase its profile among the Canadian people. Neptune would be the culmination of the wartime growth of Canada’s navy and it would involve the cream of that service.

In January 1944, much to the satisfaction of their ships’ companies, the four RCN Tribals were transferred from Scapa to Plymouth. Here they formed, along with RN Tribals, the 10th Destroyer Flotilla, which had the task of carrying out “Tunnel” operations to reduce the strength of major German surface units in the Channel. Commencing in late February, the 10th Flotilla patrolled at night, searching for enemy destroyers and torpedo boats (actually small destroyers) based in Le Havre and Cherbourg. This work continued through March and into April, without any contact, causing the crews to term the Tunnel patrols as “FAFC,” an acronym that can be rendered most tactfully as “Fooling Around the French Coast.” Things changed on the night of th 25 - 26 of April 1944 when Athabaskan, Haida, and Huron, along with British vessels, encountered three large German torpedo boats, T-24, T-27, and T-29, and began a gun and torpedo battle that evolved into a long chase as the enemy tried to escape. T-27 and T-24 got away—although the former was badly damaged by accurate Canadian gunnery—but T-29 was not as fortunate. The Canadian destroyers circled it at close range hitting it with every weapon they could bring to bear until it was scuttled by its crew, becoming the largest warship to be sunk by the RCN up to that time in the war.

Two nights later, guided by radar, Athabaskan and Haida again caught up with T-24 and T-27 and damaged the latter vessel so severely that its commanding officer ran it aground. Unfortunately, Athabaskan was hit by a torpedo fired by one of the German vessels causing a magazine to explode, igniting fuel oil that set it on fire and quickly sank it. The disaster unfolded very fast. Leading Seaman B.R. Burrows, manning the destroyer’s gunnery radar, ran out on the starboard side of the stricken vessel and later recalled:

I just got blown over the side. Instinct told me, “Get the hell out of here, fast!” so I swam as fast as I could. Diesel fuel is very volatile and I got showered with diesel fumes [oil]—they burnt me from stem to stern. I didn’t know it at the time—it hit me so fast that I just kept on swimming. Also, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was swimming through Bunker C fuel, the black sticky stuff used in the ship’s boilers to drive the main engines. I got covered in it. 8

Most of the Athabaskan’s crew were able to get off the destroyer before it went down, but the explosions had destroyed almost all its boats and floats. DeWolf in Haida, seeing his comrades’ plight, brought his ship near the men swimming in the water and proceeded to pick up survivors, thus placing his own destroyer in peril. Seeing this, Lieutenant- Commander Stubbs, the captain of Athabaskan, in the water with his men, shouted “get away, Haida, get clear!” 9 and DeWolf regretfully had to leave the scene after picking up only 42 men, although he left his own boats and floats for their succour. Of Athabaskan’s ship’s company of 261 officers and men, 128 did not survive its sinking, among them Lieutenant-Commander Stubbs. The loss of Athabaskan was not in vain—by the end of April 1944, as the Allies began the final preparations for the invasion, German destroyer strength in the Channel had been reduced to just five vessels.

By this time, the various Canadian naval units that would participate in Operation Neptune had begun to assemble in southern British ports. The 16 Bangor-class minesweepers arrived in April to commence training in sweeping, a new activity for their ships’ companies. They did not impress their British instructors, who commented on the Canadians’ nonchalant attitude that minesweeping was “child’s play.” That attitude was quickly knocked out of them during six weeks of intense work-ups lasting until late May when they were judged by the RN as being “efficient, keen and competent.” 10 Eight of the Bangors formed the 31st RCN Minesweeping Flotilla under Commander A.G. Storrs, RCN, the remainder being divided up among British flotillas.

Crew of the V-class destroyer Algonquin sponging out their 4.7-inch (12-centimetre) gun after bombarding German shore defences in the Normandy beachhead.

The two Canadian MTB flotillas, and the landing ship and landing craft flotillas, had fewer problems as they possessed a nucleus of veteran officers and warrant officers who knew their business. Prince David, Prince Henry, and the 260th, 262nd, and 264th LCI(L) Flotillas participated in the major amphibious exercises held in April and May, although to its dismay Beach Commando W learned that it would not be part of the assault forces but would come ashore at a much later date. The 29th RCN MTB Flotilla under Lieutenant- Commander A.G. Law, RCNVR, manning 20-metre“Short” boats armed with a two-pounder (40 mm) gun and 18-inch torpedoes, and the 65th RCN MTB Flotilla under Lieutenant- Commander J.R.H. Kirkpatrick, RCNVR, manning the larger and more heavily-armed Fairmile D Type “Dog Boat” craft worked up at Holyhead throughout April and May. Law was horrified when the 29th Flotilla’s torpedo tubes were removed and replaced with small depth charges. “Mere words,” he later commented, “cannot explain the effect on the Flotilla’s morale: the bottom dropped out of everything, and our faces were long as we watched our main armament and striking power being taken away.” 11 Law lobbied hard to get the torpedoes back but it would take two months before they returned.

In late May, two of the fleet destroyers acquired from the RN after the Quadrant discussions of the previous September, HMCS Algonquin and HMCS Sioux, arrived in Portsmouth. Although given Tribal names, the newcomers were from the more modern “V” class and, although somewhat smaller and less heavily armed (only four 4.7-inch guns as opposed to six 4.7-inch and two four-inFch guns in the Tribals), they were sturdy ships with longer range. After commissioning and work ups both destroyers had been sent to Scapa Flow in April where they served as screening vessels in two carrier air strikes against the Tirpitz. They acquitted themselves well but the ships’ companies were happy to be ordered south to provide shore bombardment for the Normandy landing. They did not have long to wait. At 1500 hours on 5 June 1944, Lieutenant-Commander D.W. Piers, RCN, Algonquin’s commanding officer, assembled his officers and men on the destroyer’s quarter-deck to inform them that the invasion would take place on the following day and that Algonquin had “been chosen to be in the spearhead.” As Leading Seaman K. Garrett remembered,

Everyone there gave a low moan about being in the spearhead of the invasion, but Debbie [Piers] had more to say, which stunned everyone there. He mentioned that also we had been chosen to be the point on the end of the spear. I said to my fellow shipmates, “A spear sometimes gets blunted.” Then the Captain had more to say. He said, “If our ship gets hit near the shore, we will run the ship right upon the shore and keep firing our guns, until the last shell is gone.”
I was scared no longer. With a spirit like this, we couldn’t lose. I felt right then and there, “We will succeed.” 12

Three hours later, HMCS Algonquin sailed for France.

The armada assembled for Operation Neptune consisted of 6,900 vessels, ranging from battleships to merchant ships, including 63 Canadian warships, and no fewer than 4,100 landing ships or craft, of which 46 were manned by the RCN. The first Canadian sailors to see action in the operation were the 16 Bangor-class minesweepers, which had the crucial task of clearing corridors through the German defensive mine belt so that landing craft could reach the beaches. The 31st Flotilla commenced its work in the early evening of June 5, sweeping and marking a channel to the American landing site dubbed “Omaha Beach,” and completed it by dawn on June 6. As the sweepers turned out to sea, they could see hundreds of landing craft approaching the coast under the cover of a heavy shore bombardment carried out by battleships, cruisers, and destroyers to neutralize the German shore defences. Algonquin and Sioux participated in this bombardment. Their initial task was to fire at shore batteries located on the eastern side of Juno Beach and both destroyers commenced shooting shortly after 0700. Sioux engaged a shore battery for 40 minutes before ceasing fire as the first landing craft approached the beach. Lieutenant L.B. Jenson, RCN, the executive officer of Algonquin, recalled that the destroyer hoisted its White Ensign before opening fire at a shore battery near the village of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. Forty-five minutes later, when Algonquin checked fire, the “sea was getting a little choppy and the hundreds of landing craft going in looked rather uncomfortable.”

no shells or bombs had come our way and we had the privilege of a grandstand view of British and Canadian forces in this incomparable assault. Fires were burning on shore and some landing craft also appeared to be on fire, while soldiers were clambering out of other landing craft and moving ashore without noticeable opposition. 13

The two destroyers stood off the coast until the assault troops had secured the beaches, after which they provided fire support on call from forward observation officers who landed with the infantry. At 1051 Algonquin destroyed two German self-propelled guns with its third salvo.

The Canadian LCI flotillas and the two LCA (Landing Craft, Assault) flotillas carried by Prince David and Prince Henry had a less happy time. The 529th Flotilla from Prince David transported troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division into Juno Beach, but a 10-minute delay in landing meant that a rising tide covered many of the beach obstacles and seven of the eight LCAs in this flotilla were lost either from mines or German fire. The 528th Flotilla operating from Prince Henry suffered not only from shore fire but also explosive charges attached to obstacles and lost one LCA when the craft hit a mine. The 260th LCI Flotilla encountered similar perils when its seven craft landed later in the morning, as well as a German aircraft, which dive-bombed LSI 285 without effect. All of this flotilla’s craft managed to get off the beach, but the 262nd LCI Flotilla was forced to leave five of its 12 craft on the beach after they suffered mine damage. The 10 LCIs of the 264th Flotilla transported British troops to Gold Beach and, as the captain of each craft was anxious to win the £10 in the flotilla pool for the LCI that touched on shore first, they “jammed” their craft “full- ahead” with the result that some hit the beach at such speed that they could not get off again. 14 Otherwise this flotilla had a rather quiet time.

Neptune was a complete success and when darkness came on 6 June 1944 just over 150,000 Allied troops were in France—at a cost of 9,000 casualties, of which 1,081 were from the Canadian Army and Navy. Having got the initial wave ashore, the Allied navies’ task was to guard their vulnerable seaborne lines of communication. Toward this end, the 29th MTB Flotilla was the first Canadian naval unit to see action. On the night of June 6, Lieutenant-Commander Law and four of his boats engaged German fast attack craft attempting to lay mines on the eastern flank of the beachhead. A swift and hard-fought little action followed in which the 29th Flotilla, along with British MTBs, sank one of the German craft and damaged others. On the following two nights, Law’s boats encountered and engaged several small German destroyers prowling around the beachhead. Although seriously over- matched and cursing the fact that their torpedoes had been removed, the Canadian MTBs engaged the enemy vessels with their two-pounder guns and managed to scare them off before they did any serious damage.

The 29th Motor Torpedo Boat flotilla races across the Channel.

The Kriegsmarine, however, was just getting started. On the night of the 8 - 9 of June, a powerful German surface force consisting of three destroyers (Zh-1, Z-24, Z-32) and a torpedo boat (T-24) attempted to attack shipping in the western side of the beachhead. Fortunately, the German movement was betrayed by signals intelligence, which permitted the 10th Destroyer Flotilla of eight vessels, including the Haida and Huron, to make an interception. Contact was made in the early hours of June 9 and a ferocious night-time engagement with guns and torpedoes ensued. Dodging a German torpedo attack, Haida, Huron, and their British consorts opened fire with their main armament, inflicting serious damage on the enemy. In just over an hour, ZH-1 was sunk and the three surviving German warships broke off contact and made for Brest, unwittingly steaming through a minefield, which hampered pursuit. Regaining contact with Z-32, Haida and Huron fired at the hapless destroyer, which had become separated from the other two enemy ships, with accurate radar-controlled gun fire until its captain deliberately ran it aground. This highly successful action, which saw the Canadian Tribals achieve the destruction of their third large German warship in two months, completely fulfilled NSHQ’s hopes that RCN surface warships would garner positive publicity.

Throughout the summer of 1944, Canadian ships continued to watch the seaward flank, as the Allied armies gradually expanded their bridgehead. The two MTB flotillas saw the most consistent action. Lieutenant-Commander Kirkpatrick’s 65th Flotilla arrived in Normandy on 11 June to operate on the western side of the beachhead, and for the next two weeks the flotilla’s Fairmile “Dog boats” fought a number of actions against German coastal convoys, sinking several small escort vessels. Perhaps the high point came on the night of the 3 - 4 of July when Kirkpatrick took his command into the port of Saint-Malo and shot up two German patrol boats before withdrawing unscathed under heavy fire. Thereafter things settled down on the western flank and the 65th Flotilla enjoyed a relatively quiet summer until it was withdrawn to Britain in early September.

Matters were more hectic on the eastern side. The 29th Flotilla rejoiced when it was re-armed with torpedoes in mid-June as they now had an effective weapon against the German “Night Train” operations that saw enemy surface ships, including destroyers, torpedo boats, E-boats, and small minesweepers attempting to break into the beachhead area. During the latter part of June and well into July, the 29th Flotilla fought several nighttime actions including a particularly dangerous one against nine German E-boats attempting to sortie from Le Havre on the night of the 4 - 5 July that encountered three of Law’s MTBs off Cap D’Antifer. As he remembered:

Simpson, the radar operator, soon picked up echoes at 2,000 yards dead ahead, and Footsie signalled the frigate that we had picked up the enemy. Sure enough, nine E-Boats, hugging the coast, were moving toward our position, and I grimly imagined their surprise when they found the opposition so well established in their hideaway.

459 moved off, steadily increasing speed, followed closely astern by Bobby and Bish. The enemy were now 1,500 yards from us, and both sides were closing dead ahead. It was exactly at midnight when our three boats opened fire at 1,400 yards, and at 1,200 yards all guns were blazing away at the leading E-Boat. We then switched targets to the third E-Boat in line, and under our concentrated volley it burst into flames and was left in a sinking condition. His comrades quickly made smoke, obscuring our view, but we could still see the glow of the fire through the haze, and I very much doubt if the craft could have made Le Havre. 15

Darkness hours were often livened by attacks from the Luftwaffe, which rarely managed to hit anything but interfered with everyone’s sleep. Some of these aircraft, however, dropped “Oyster” pressure mines, which were virtually unsweepable. HMCS Algonquin, which, along with Sioux, had continued to engage shore targets at the request of the army in the weeks following D-Day, had a close call on June 24 when it came to anchor off the beachhead. Lieutenant L.B. Jenson, RCN, officer of the watch, spotted a floating mine and was granted permission to sink it with gunfire. As he recalled:

I decided to do it personally, using my Sten gun. Looking back, we were a bit too close and this was an unusually stupid thing to do. I did not stop to reflect that mines can blow up and shower you with shrapnel. God was with me. The mine with all its horns intact quietly sank.

[The British destroyer, HMS] Swift snootily signalled us, “While you play around, may I anchor in your billet and you anchor in mine?” I signalled, “Yes, please,” and she steamed ahead to what had been our spot. I watched in my binoculars as she let go her anchor and was immediately enveloped in a cloud of white spray. There was a second explosion, her back was broken and she started to sink. 16

Fifty-seven British sailors died in this incident, but that did not stop the hard-bitten “Algonquins” from sending boats over to the wreck to salvage useful items of equipment, including a quantity of rum stored in the petty officers’ mess. Shortly thereafter, their bombardment tasks completed, the two “V”-class destroyers withdrew to Britain.

The cross-Channel invasion having been accomplished, the RCN’s participation in combined operations began to wind down. The three LCI flotillas were paid off in July just as Beach Commando W landed in Normandy where it remained for two months handling waterborne and vehicle traffic on Juno Beach before it too was paid off. Prince David and Prince Henry, with their attached LCA flotillas, left Normandy in late July and headed for the Mediterranean where they formed part of the Allied naval force assembled for Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. This was successfully carried out on August 16 and the two ships were then employed in the eastern Mediterranean, ferrying troops and supplies to Allied forces operating in Yugoslavia and Greece until the end of the year.

The Canadian Tribals with the 10th Flotilla continued to be active in the Normandy area throughout the summer. On the 27 - 28 of June, Huron sank a heavily-armed German minesweeper and several patrol boats with gunfire before leaving for Canada for a refit. In the late summer Iroquois and Haida began to carry out offensive sweeps in the Bay of Biscay to clear out German coastal traffic. On the night of the 5 - 6 of August, the two destroyers engaged an enemy convoy of eight ships south of Saint-Nazaire, sinking two escorting minesweepers before starting to shell the remaining vessels. Haida had just started on this work when a round prematurely detonated in a gun of its “Y” turret, killing and wounding several members of the gun crew. Able Seaman M.R. Kerwin, though blinded and dazed by the explosion and wounded by splinters, went into the blazing turret and succeeded in dragging a gun crew member to safety, which brought him the award of a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. This accident forced Haida to withdraw for repairs leaving Iroquois as Canada’s representative in the Biscay.

In the early hours of August 16, Iroquois, in company with the cruiser HMS Mauritius and the destroyer HMS Ursa, encountered a large convoy near the mouth of the Gironde River. The enemy escort, consisting of the old adversary, T-24, an aircraft tender, and several minesweepers, put up a stiff fight. After dodging torpedoes launched by T-24, Iroquois responded with a torpedo attack of its own, but Force 27 had to withdraw to seaward after coming under fire from heavy German coast batteries. It later returned, and Ursa and Iroquois between them sank or drove aground three minesweepers and two other vessels. The enigmatic T-24 escaped but was later sunk by British and Canadian aircraft. The commanding officers of both Mauritius and Ursa had high praise for Iroquois’ gunnery, the captain of Ursa reporting that the action reflected the greatest credit on its commanding officer, Commander James Hibbard, RCN. Iroquois remained with Force 27 until early September when it was withdrawn, as by this time German naval forces in France had nearly ceased to exist, either sunk at sea or destroyed in port by air bombardment.

The 16 Canadian minesweepers continued with their undramatic but important work in the Channel. It was not until early 1945 that they were returned to escort duties, but the end of the war saw them return to minesweeping when an international effort was made to clear European waters of the deadly items. The Canadian Bangors only ceased this task in September 1945, but mine clearance continued for many years after the shooting had ended.

After the Allied armies broke out of Normandy in mid-August to liberate Paris and the Low Countries, Canadian naval units continued to protect their seaward flank. Throughout the autumn, the 29th and 65th MTB Flotillas, based in southeast England, interdicted E-boat raids and harassed German coastal traffic. For the Canadian MTBs, the high point of this period was the amphibious landing on Walcheren Island in the Scheldt Estuary, which was carried out in early November. Shortly thereafter Lieutenant-Commander Law’s 29th Flotilla had the misfortune to run into the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a force of four German flak trawlers armed with deadly 88 mm guns that enjoyed legendary status in Coastal Forces. As Law recalled,

Although I had not come in contact with these uncouth gentlemen since 1943 when I had been working off the Dutch coast, I knew that these bullies were far from gentle….We spent the remainder of the night playing a game with each other which consisted mainly of batting shells back and forth. No one was getting hurt, but it was a frighteningly dangerous game. As soon as we had manoeuvred into a possible torpedo position and were ready to pull the lever, what would happen?

The Four Horsemen would alter course toward us, and just to keep the game lively they would slam out a few more 88 mms…. .The game went on and at the end of the period there was still no score. 17

In December, the 29th Flotilla was glad when it was transferred to the liberated port of Ostend as it meant less transit time in the Channel. On Valentine’s Day 1945, however, Law’s command met an untimely end when an accident in the crowded harbour led to the destruction by fire of 12 MTBs and the deaths of 64 officers and sailors, including 29 Canadians. As only four, very worn, Canadian MTBs survived the disaster, it was decided to disband the 29th Flotilla. It was replaced at Ostend by the 65th Flotilla, which served there until the end of the war.

The two Canadian “V”-class destroyers, meanwhile, returned to northern waters. To reduce the German naval threat to the Murmansk convoys, a series of operations were undertaken to sink the remaining German capital ships based in Norway. Algonquin and Sioux joined a Home Fleet destroyer flotilla based at unlovable Scapa Flow and participated in Operation Mascot on July 17, screening carriers that flew off aircraft in an unsuccessful attempt to sink the dreaded Tirpitz. Subsequent strikes on the German battleship proved no more profitable, and it remained a threat until November when Royal Air Force (RAF) Lancaster bombers destroyed it with 5,450 kilogram “

The safe return to Scapa Flow of the Canadian-operated aircraft carrier HMS Nabob, after being torpedoed by a U-boat on 22 August 1944, was an amazing feat of seamanship.

Before that, in August, Algonquin and Sioux were joined by HMS Nabob, the Canadian- manned escort carrier. Carrying 13 Grumman Avenger torpedo-bombers and eight Wildcat fighters, Nabob saw its first action in Operation Offspring, an aerial minelaying operation in Norwegian coastal waters on August 9 and performed well. Then came Operation Good- wood, a planned air attack on the Tirpitz carried out by the fleet carriers, HM Ships Formidable, Furious, and Indefatigable, combined with a minelaying strike by Nabob and another escort carrier in the waters of the Altenfjord, the German battleship’s lair. Bad weather hampered Goodwood and most of the air strikes and minelaying attacks were cancelled. Unfortunately for Nabob, late in the afternoon of August 22 it was hit by torpedo fired by a U-boat that blasted a hole that measured 10 by 15 metres in its starboard side. As his ship began to settle by the stern, the commanding officer, Captain H.N. Lay, RCN, commenced damage control efforts and evacuated all non-essential personnel to waiting destroyers, including Algonquin. Within four hours, however, the flooding was brought under control and Nabob was able to raise steam and get under way, although down by the stern. Over the next five days, the wounded carrier slowly limped the 1,600 kilometres to safety at Scapa, even flying two Avengers off its sloping flight deck to harass a U-boat that was trailing it. For Nabob’s largely Canadian crew it was an impressive piece of seamanship, but the vessel’s fighting days were over—its company was paid off and the carrier was cannibalized for spare parts.

In September and October, Algonquin and Sioux resumed escort duty on the Murmansk Run. It was, as one officer recalled, a return to the “most hazardous and horrible place for naval operations” to take place, which had to be carried out in the face of not only pack ice, ferocious storms, “perpetual night in winter, perpetual day in summer,” but also German submarines and aircraft. 18 In November, Algonquin got some relief from this onerous duty when it participated in Operation Counterblast, an attempt to interrupt enemy coastal traffic, transporting vital iron ore from Norway to Germany. In company with British cruisers and destroyers, Algonquin intercepted a large convoy off Stavanger on the 12th of November and, as its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander D.W. Piers, RCN, reported:

Many targets were plainly visible and quickly engaged. ALGONQUIN opened fire on an escort vessel at an initial range of 5400 [yards or 4937 metres] at 2314 and obtained a hit with the first salvo. This target was also being engaged by other ships ahead it burst into flames within a minute. Fire was shifted at 2317 to a merchant ship at an initial range of 8000 yards [7315 metres]. Using No. 2 gun (B) for starshell illumination and the remainder of the armament firing S.A.P [Semi-Armour-Piercing round] this second target was also reduced to flames by the first few salvoes. 19

The result of Counterblast was that two of four German merchant ships and five of the six escorts were sunk. Unfortunately, however, similar operations carried out over the winter garnered minimal results.

When Algonquin left for refit in Canada in January 1945, Sioux continued serving on with the Murmansk Run. If anything, things got worse when the Luftwaffe deployed a large force of torpedo bombers to northern Norway—air attacks now became frequent and, inevitably, losses became heavier. On February 10, Sioux was with Convoy JW-64 outward bound to Murmansk when it came under heavy air attack. As its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander E. Boak, RCN, reported, the Luftwaffe pressed its attacks home:

a JU 188 appeared from a bearing of Green 90 …, about 50 feet off the water and 3000 yards [2743 metres] away, flying directly towards the ship. At about 1500 yards [1371 metres] the plane dropped a torpedo and banked away to starboard, flying-up between HMCS SIOUX and HMS LARK. [My] Ship went “Full ahead together, hard-a-port,” and steadied up on a course 060, Starboard [20 mm] Oerlikons opened up on the plane just before the torpedo was dropped and followed him out of range, and also one round from “B” gun was fired at him but was short. Enemy’s port engine was seen to be smoking heavily before he disappeared into a snow flurry. 20

The return convoy, RA-64, encountered terrible weather. One of Sioux’s officers recalled that “abused engines broke down, cargoes shifted, decks split, steering gear went wonky, ice- chipped propellers thrashed,” while the seas “continued at awful heights, spindrift streaming from boiling crests.” 21 The weather did not stop the Germans: not only was RA-64 attacked by torpedo bombers but also by a large force of U-boats that managed to sink two of the escorts while losing one of their own. On the 19th of February, the Luftwaffe appeared overhead and, at one point:

One of the planes closed to torpedo [merchant ship] number 103. Fire was opened and aircraft released torpedo which eventually exploded at end of run between 9th and 10th columns [of merchant ships].The plane went down the port side being heavily engaged with close range weapons. At the same time a plane coming in from the starboard quarter was also engaged and driven away. 22

Throughout these two convoys, Sioux was almost in constant action and the efforts of its commanding officer and ship’s company were marked by the award of a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) to Lieutenant-Commander Boak. Shortly thereafter it departed for Canada for a well-deserved and needed refit.

Sioux was replaced by Haida, Huron, and Iroquois, returning from their own refits, as well as the second Canadian-manned escort carrier, HMS Puncher. This ship enjoyed better luck than Nabob and participated in four operations in February, March, and April against Norwegian targets, flying off its Wildcat fighters to provide air cover for shipping strikes and minelaying operations, before withdrawing for boiler cleaning. During these last few months of the war—although Iroquois participated in one coastal convoy attack, sinking a tanker—the major activity for the Tribals was the seemingly interminable Arctic convoys and perhaps no sailors in the RCN were happier when the surrender of Germany in May 1945 brought an end to the war in Europe and relieved them of this burdensome task.

One enemy remained. From 1943 onward, when it became clear that the Battle of the Atlantic and the war in Europe were moving toward a favourable conclusion, NSHQ had turned its attention to planning for the Pacific. The intent was to demonstrate that the RCN was more than an ASW escort force and affirm the objective NSHQ had doggedly pursued since 1939—to make a major contribution in terms of surface ships to act as the foundation for the balanced blue water post-war fleet. The Navy’s ambitious plans were thwarted only in part by Mackenzie King, who not only kept a careful eye on costs but was ever suspicious of getting Canada entangled in British colonial problems. After much discussion and a considerable amount of political manoeuvring between the government, NSHQ and the RN, it was ultimately agreed that the RCN would man two light fleet carriers with four Canadian air squadrons on board, two light cruisers, four Tribal-class destroyers, two “V”-class destroyers, eight new Crescent-class destroyers, the anti-aircraft ship Prince Robert, and no less than 44 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) vessels. In terms of personnel, this commitment would total about 37,000 officers and seamen, serving both afloat and ashore—nearly half the RCN’s strength in late 1944.

The RCN took greatest pride in the two light cruisers provided to Canada by Britain as a free gift. Armed with nine six-inch guns, eight four-inch high angle guns and many smaller 20 and 40 mm guns, these ships were intended to bolster the anti-aircraft defences of the British Pacific Fleet in which they would serve. HMCS Uganda, the first cruiser to enter service, was commissioned in Charleston, South Carolina, on Trafalgar Day (21 October) 1944. An impressive array of American, British, and Canadian dignitaries and senior officers attended the ceremony and the British ambassador reported that Canadian naval officers were “all labouring happily under a feeling of excitement and anticipation caused by the acquisition of what they called in their official leaflet ‘the first Canadian cruiser….’ It was as though,” he continued, “the Canadian Navy was reaching manhood and that, through its Navy, Canada herself was stepping forward and upward.” 23 In early February 1945, following work ups, Uganda sailed for the Pacific, while the second cruiser, HMCS Ontario, commissioned in April and immediately sailed to join it.

In May Uganda participated in the shore bombardment of the Sakashima Islands, part of the invasion of Okinawa, but its normal role with the British Pacific Fleet was to act as an anti- aircraft guard, a duty it performed in June and July during a number of airstrikes on the Japanese home islands. In July, however, Uganda’s war and NSHQ’s plans for a major Pacific force came to a somewhat ignominious end, because of the federal government’s policy that only volunteers would serve in the Pacific and that all service personnel who volunteered would receive 30 days clear leave in Canada before being sent to that theatre. This meant that, if Uganda’s ship’s company did not volunteer en masse, the ship would have to return to Canada to re-commission with an all-volunteer crew. On 28 July 1945 the vote was held in Uganda and 80 percent of its officers and seamen opted not to volunteer. This being the case, Uganda departed for Esquimalt and arrived there shortly before the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to the Pacific conflict. Consequently, no Canadian warship was present in Tokyo Bay when representatives of the Japanese government unconditionally surrendered to the allied powers on board the American battleship USS Missouri.

The Canadian Navy’s role in surface warfare during the Second World War has been overshadowed by its major contribution to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. During the long years of that seemingly interminable struggle, however, the RCN achieved an outstanding record of success in conventional naval operations in Europe and the Pacific, operations that would prove a very useful foundation for the post-war service.

1 C.A. Law, White Plumes Astern (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 1989), 11.

2 Quoted in W.A.B. Douglas, Roger Sarty, Michael Whitby, A Blue Water Navy (St. Catharines, ON: Vanwell Publishing, 2007), 111.

3 LAC, RG 24,Vol. 6797, Captain H.G. De Wolfe, “Employment of Tribal Destroyers,” 7 December 1942.

4 United Kingdom National Archives [UKNA], ADM 199/1406, Report of Proceedings, HMCS Athabaskan, 30 August 1943.

5 DHH, BIOG file, Address by Rear-Admiral P.D. Budge, 19 September 1981.

6 R.D. Butcher, I Remember Haida (Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1985), 36-37.

7 UKNA, ADM 205/31, Minutes of Meeting, Quebec, 11 August 1943.

8 P.R. Burrows, “Prisoners of War,” Salty Dips, Vol. 3 (Ottawa: Naval Officers’ Association of Canada, 1988), 171.

9 Len Burrow and Emile Beaudoin, Unlucky Lady: The Life and Death of HMCS Athabaskan (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982), 125.

10 DHH, Commander, Fleet Minesweeping Office, Devonport, to Captain, Minesweeping Command, 22 April 1944.

11 Law, White Plumes Astern, 37.

12 Quoted in L.B. Jenson, Tin Hats, Oilskins and Seaboots (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000), 222.

14 J.M. Ruttan,“Race to Shore,” Salty Dips, Vol. 1 (Ottawa, 1985), 193.

19 LAC, RG 24, DDE 224, Report of Proceedings, HMCS Algonquin, 13 November 1944.

20 LAC, RG 24, DDE 225, Narrative of Air Attack, HMCS Sioux, 10 February 1945.

21 Hal Lawrence, A Bloody War (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1979), 168-69.

22 LAC, RG 24, DDE 225, Report of Air Attack, HMCS Sioux, 20 February 1945.

23 UKNA, ADM 1/18371, Sir Gerald Campbell to Director of Operations, 30 October 1944.

Here is HMS Nabob again – Nabob, the son of Paybob included – click the link read

And it came to pass that there was a great deficit of a**e in the land and Nabob, son of Paybob, travelled the road from Pompey to Guzz and as he passed through Fareham he was set upon by bandits. But these were not just any old bandits, they were a**e bandits, and they ragged, bagged and s*****d him and sent him on his way rejoicing and he was gasping for a tickler and they drew lots for his Burberry.
The first traveller to pass him was a Farasee. He was niether a tall man, nor a short man. He was niether a fat man, nor a thin man, but he was a f*****g great big Jossman, who spat upon him, kicked him in the b******s, and passed by on the other side of the road.
The next traveller was a Jenny, who came upon him saying, “What does thou sayest?” And Nabob, in the true style of the S&S branch, snivelled, whinged, and whined and cried, saying, “I an Nabob, son of Paybob, and I was travelling from Pompey to Guzz, taking well earned shekels to hairy a***d matelots, when I was set upon by bandits, and not just ordinary bandits, but a**e bandits, and they ragged me, bagged me and s*****d me and sent me on my way rejoicing. I was gasping for a tickler. Then they drew lots for my Burberry, now I shall be deprived of my customary 15% of the takings.”
Jenny, though being of the Samaritan tribe, she was not one to pass on the main chance, and sayeth, “Cometh, dwelleth with me.”
And so Nabob did dwelleth. Well, being the scrounging, snivelling git that he was, he would, wouldn’t he.
There then followed forty days and forty nights of sin and dwelling with the Samaritans at Haslar. Then in the month of the Great Spring Tides, Sister Jenny sayeth unto Nabob, son of Paybob, “Nabob, I am great with child, let us not delay. Let us go before the Sin Bosun. Wilt thou take me unto a state of nautical wedlock, so that I might partake of your allowances of marriage, together with your nutty ration? Let us dwell forever amongst the Houses and the Quarters of Wedlock, where I may rejoice with the other Naval Wives and drink goffers at Stand Easy.”
And Nabob, white with fear, trembling at the knees and urinating down his doeskin, fearing for his Pusser’s ‘ard, Blue Liners, tins of tickler and the greatest of all these benifits, his Tot, Nabob said, “F*****G HELL!!” and disappeared unto the wilderness beyond the Hill of Portsdown.
It hath since been rumoured that sightings hath been made deep in the dark cellars of a place nam-ed Dryad. He was once heard to wail amongst the battlements of Castle Purbrook. But Wing-ed Wrens, have “known him” deep in the Morse of St Peter’s Field.
Here endeth the first lesson.

A Scandinavian 'Nabob' of the British Empire: The Discovery of a New Colonial Archive

Joseph Stephens’ life history forces us to rethink our understanding of India’s railway development, the wider distribution of colonial wealth in the Western world, and the transnational nature of British imperialism.

The Huseby Estate, Småland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It happens once in a while that a significant archive of a colonial businessmen gets discovered in an attic. The caretakers of a manor house – the Huseby Bruk – in the Småland region of South Sweden discovered boxes full of papers and objects, lying silently in an upper story dark hall. These were the India papers of Mr Joseph Stephens. Stephens, in India, was a railway contractor of one of the earliest railway companies in the colonies: the Great India Peninsular Railway Company (GIPR).

Railways, cotton and Empire

Established in the 1850s, the GIPR built railways and its infrastructure in the emerging global metropolis, Bombay, and the surrounding countryside. British colonial officials’ attempts to penetrate the interiors of Khandesh and Berar region were motivated by the political-economic logic of integrating the region into the colonial economy.

This was the cotton belt of India. Cotton – because of its role as a raw material of the British industrial revolution – was the most sought imperial commodity along with tea and sugar. British textile mills had been flourishing on the cotton balls produced by enslaved Africans in South and South-Western USA. But the American Civil War (1861-65) disrupted the supply of slave-produced cotton, giving a chance for the cotton belt of India to serve its mother country. Stephens helped in building an infrastructure of conveyance to bring this commodity from the peasant fields to the Bombay cotton market. In the cotton belt, he constructed stations, station houses, cotton guard houses, railway fencing for the GIPR and ginning factories for industrialists where cotton was pressed.

Once cultivated, cotton was pressed at ginning presses, picked up by Indian and European merchants, stored at warehouses near railway lines, and then travelled to Bombay via rail from where it was traded to various local and global markets. Stephens was a small pawn in this large commercial imperialism that connected India, Britain, the US and Deccan fields. Railways were a powerful institution of British colonialism that facilitated the economic exploitation of colonies and a smooth control over its people.

Stephens and the archive

Material in the archive, now kept at the Linnaeus University and the Huseby Estate, offers to historians a nuanced micro-history of the global processes and connections, the internal working and expansion of the colonial state into mofussil areas, railway infrastructure, application of science and technology in the everyday, and labour and capital relationship. It is a conventional personal archive in the sense of its collection of Stephens’ correspondence with his father, sister and brother-in-law and his diaries. From this material, you get to know the role of family values and familial links in the making of a 19th-century businessmen and the everyday world of an imperial family.

However, there are two things which are very unique in the archive: first, his business correspondence with the local administration and the GIPR, and second, his contracts with artisans and headmen of workers. Both these types of materials had been missing in South Asian socio-economic history. This material opens up new lines of inquiry with regard to the contractual making of Indian railways, Scandinavian participation in British imperialism, and colonies as lands of opportunity.

The colony as a land of opportunity, and the making of a railway contractor

When Stephens, the son of a Copenhagen University professor George Stephens, arrived in India in December 1859, he was merely 19 years old. His father took a loan to finance Stephens’ journey to the colony. Full of energy and enthusiasm for making money and a career in the colony like many other British sons from the lower and middle classes, Stephens apprenticed under his brother-in-law (John Abbott) to learn the tools, theories and methods of civil engineering. The personal and professional were not disentangled in his times. After finishing his apprenticeship in three years, he, under Abbott’s patronage, began to subcontract work from major British construction firms such as Lee & Watson.

By 1865, he was a full-grown contractor, sending tenders to the district offices and the GIPR head office in Bombay. To do so, one needed the ability to speculate the cost of railway and building construction in a mofussil area, engineering and social skills, offer cheaper and best tenders, command the will of thousands of workers, and have a European supervisory staff. Stephens’ papers narrate his story of not only fortune making but also how one built a career in the colony, navigated its dangers, and acquired prestige. Subordinating ‘natives’ was as much an imperial project as much it was a personal project of identity formation.

Having had a Danish and Swedish upbringing within a migrant English family, Stephens first learned English and Hindustani language, the art of letter-writing, and arithmetic. He also narrates his story of becoming a colonial master: hunting wild animals of India, studying nature, learning the colonial sport cricket and dressing up as a colonial master. ‘You now compose as good English as myself. Two exception: that your spelling is not yet quite perfect, and that you do not put a full stop at the end of a sentence. When the sense and action end, the sentence also should come to a close,’ wrote his father from Copenhagen.

In January 1861, he accepted the post of an assistant (inspector, surveyor, accountant) to a small contractor named E.W. Winton and moved to work on viaducts in the north-east region of Nashik. While Joseph aspired for a career inside the company and was disappointed with a lower position that he had got, there were not yet rivalries between contractors and engineers based on their educational difference. In the absence of engineering colleges, the only route to become a contractor or an engineer was to finish an apprenticeship contract under an established engineer/contractor. The Royal Indian Engineering College in England became operational only in 1872.

Because of similar training and work, boundaries between the identities of an engineer and a contractor were very fluid. Obituary biographical records of the past members of the Civil Engineering Institute in London suggest that engineers became contractors and vice versa. To give an example, Henry Fowler, who in collaboration with W.F. Faviel took the first contract of the GIPR, was a successful resident railway engineer in England. Like contractors, the employment of engineers both as a government official or as an engineer of the GIPR could be contractual. Nevertheless, Stephens remained a contractor throughout his ten years of career in India. The separation between the two identities became sharper only after he left India in 1869 when engineering colleges and associations professionalised the engineering occupation.

The making of the Indian Railways

Stephens’ archive suggests that small level contractors were important in the railway building of modern India. The ruling East India Company contracted the work to the GIPR and other railway companies, the GIPR then contracted the work to big construction companies who then further subcontracted to small contractors. While the major GIPR lines were only open for big contractors with a large capital, the mofussil lines were open for smaller players who built their careers in India and were not always a product of the metropole experience. Historian Ian J. Kerr found that the GIPR also produced a successful Indian Parsi contractor, Jamsetjee Dorabjee, who undertook five major contracts in the 1850s and 󈨀s. The circulation of higher scientific and technical knowledge was not always a metropole-colony urban phenomenon, but was also produced in the interiors and involved non-British citizens.

Other than providing an interesting history of small-scale private accumulation in the emerging imperial capitalist world, Stephens’ archive is unique in many ways because of its detailed nature. Take the example of detailed contracts between Stephens and workers. They are rare evidence as such documents have not been found in any other South Asian archive, and historians until now studied the legal relationship between workers and masters through laws. Detailed contracts with carpenters, masons, stone dressers and headmen of workers tell the history of how employers tied workers in an unequal relationship. If a worker failed to provide services in the stipulated time and agreed manner, they were liable to be fined and jailed. The same was not the case when an employer defaulted.

Terms and conditions of the contract tells a larger history of capitalists’ distrust of labour. Workers were assumed to be dishonest, careless, and selfish. Contracts gave power to employers to control this wayward behaviour of manual labourers. They were and are tool to discipline labour, produce work time, and control labour. India’s foremost labour historian Prabhu Mohapatra suggests that contracts in the modern period did not emerge to replace unfree labour (slavery, bondage, unpaid labour) with free labour between two equal parties with individual rights. Rather, they produced unfree and violent labour relationships by criminalising the ‘free’ exit of workers, and unfree labour relations continued to remain a hallmark of capitalism.

Sweden and the British Empire

By 1866, Stephens had emerged as a powerful contractor who took direct contracts from the GIPR. He had made a huge fortune which enabled him to buy a 600 acre forest-cum-industrial estate, Huseby, in Samåland in 1867. He told his father that he had two options: one to take up an engineering/construction job in England and live like a bourgeoise, and the other to buy a huge estate with a manor house in Sweden and live like a landed gentry. The latter was the path of the British East India Company officials who after making huge fortunes in India returned to England to live a landed gentry life and buy a seat in the British parliament. Notoriously knows as Nabobs, these individuals were direct beneficiaries of colonial exploitation and British imperialism. Stephens chose to be an English Nabob but in Sweden with his limited fortune. He married a woman of ‘class’ and sat in the Swedish parliament.

But Stephens was an entrepreneur at heart – a self-made person – and he saw an opportunity to turn this poor Swedish estate into well-connected refurbished ironwork and timber estate. Småland, going through famines and outward migration to the US in the middle of the 19th century, was livened up by the colonial money Stephens had made in India. He developed the forest and iron workshop of the estate, sold products to Swedish, Danish and English markets, and hired a significant local population.

As an owner of a huge estate, Stephens family was susceptible to rumours that the money from the colony to buy the Huseby estate was achieved through wrong means. Local newspapers articles, written with the help of Stephens’ daughter, Florence Stephens, countered the myths of any slave-trading links of Stephens in the 1950s. The image of Stephens was portrayed as one of a civil engineer – a noble bourgeoise profession. The colonial links were rarely evoked.

To understand this, we have to dig deeper into Sweden’s official nationalist history writing. Linnaeus University-based historian Gunlög Fur suggests that Swedish historians constructed a humanised international image of Sweden that had no place for Sweden’s colonial past. Sweden was portrayed as a country that did not engage in slavery, colonialism, exploitation of the third world countries and their resources. In the post-Second World War context, Sweden constructed an image of itself that was benevolent, democratic and moralised. We need to see the newspaper cuttings (dating 1953) – buried in the basement archive of the Lund University – which brought up Stephens’ colonial past in a larger context of the nation making project.

It was true that empires were built on the regimes of slavery, forced and involuntary labour. Stephens had directly benefitted from the patronage of his English brother-in-law. Stephens, though born in Stockholm, was an immigrant to Småland. When he arrived at the Huseby Bruk, he was more English than Swedish and could hardly read and write Swedish. He continued to do his business in English and Swedish for a while and attempted to sell his estate timber to the Indian railways.

The colony, though left behind, remained a key influencer to his business regime in Sweden as he sought new connections in imperial England and governed wage labourers and artisans at his estate through contractual relationships. The Stephens’ archive weave together India (the colony), England (the coloniser), and Sweden (a Western nation state) in one thread which, otherwise, may appear totally disconnected in the mid-nineteenth century. Stephens’ life history forces us to rethink our understanding of India’s railway development, the wider distribution of colonial wealth in the Western world, and the transnational nature of British imperialism.

Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor of British Imperial and Colonial History at Nottingham University. He writes on the socio-economic history of modern India, particularly the histories of the labouring poor and castes. He tweets at historian_arun.


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