"On all the oceans where whitecaps flow,
There are no crosses, row on row;
But those who sleep beneath the sea,
sleep in peace...your country is free".
I have chosen to begin, with an image of a darkened ship steaming through the cold waters of the English Channel, on the 29th of April, 1944
The original HMCS Athabaskan G07, her sister ship HMCS Haida and others, were searching for the enemy in the pre-dawn darkness north of Ile de Bas off the coast of France. Their new, but relatively primitive Radar had picked up echo’s of German warships approaching, but the enemy had also found them.
At 4:27 AM the first of two torpedoes from the T-24, a German Ebling class destroyer, slammed into the ship just behind her aft funnel and less than two minutes later, the second struck her portside Gearing Room which was situated right beside her 4.7” shell storage compartment.
In the very few minutes it took for her to sink, her Captain managed to send off a couple of short messages, the last one being; “It looks quite serious settling aft.” The largest Canadian warship to sink in WW2 was gone and she took her Captain, John Stubbs and 128 men with her.
A short time ago I received an email message from Ottawa, asking if I had any interest in spending a few days aboard the present HMCS Athabaskan. This intriguing invitation read in part:
“The Atlantic Fleet will be conducting a large-scale exercise off Nova Scotia as well as further south off the Virginia coast from 08 to 26 November 2004. This will be a large-scale event, including the participation of 5 Canadian major warships, 4 coastal defense vessels as well as 6-8 ships of NATO's Standing Naval Force Atlantic (SNFL, in which NCSM VILLE DE QUÉBEC is the current Canadian participant) and a number of other American units. This large, multi-national fleet will depart Halifax on or about 08 November 2004, proceed south to operate with USN ships and aircraft as well as conduct a port visit to Norfolk VA (tentatively scheduled for 19 – 22 November) prior to returning to Halifax no later 26 November.
This will present repeated opportunities to observe ships, aircraft and submarine(s) conducting the full range of naval operations, ranging from coastal patrols in support of Canada's sovereignty and security to multi-national operations with units from the United States and various European nations in the context of a fictitious scenario. The Atlantic Fleet staff, under Commodore Tyrone Pile…”
Invitations to visit a warship at sea are rare due to onboard space limitations, but an invitation to be part of a “large scale NATO exercise...” was so compelling that my reply was immediate and positive.
I was off to Norfolk VA to join the ship along with a reporter form the National Post, Richard Foot and a Professor of History, Mike Bechthold from Laurier University. All three of us wanted to understand more about our Navy and Atlantic Fleet in particular and how relevant it was in this uncertain age.
To get somewhat prepared for the trip, the Athatbaskan’s own web site provided a brief description of the ship and some of her recent postings.
The balance of this article will be posted shortly.