This is the story of the original HMCS Skeena - by Lieutenant (Navy) Chris Barker, CD.
The Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps #116, Skeena - serving Cobourg, Port Hope and Northumberland - is based in Port Hope at the Skeena Building on Mill street.
Presented to The Cobourg & District Historical Society on November 27, 2007
I would like to start off by saying it is an honour to be your guest speaker tonight. Tonight I have the pleasure to speak to you about the Canadian World War II Destroyer, HMCS Skeena. It's a story about a ship that met a tragic end with the loss of 15 lives. Most importantly it is a story that changed that tragic event and turned it into something wonderful. It is that story I am pleased to share with you.
It was in 1929, that the Canadian Government began negotiations for the delivery of two new destroyers. At this time Canada only had two destroyers in her inventory. Up until this time, all Canadian naval vessels had been, or were, "hand me downs" from the British Royal Navy. Although the contract was awarded to Thornycroft-Woolston Works of Southampton England, these two new vessels were built to Canadian specifications, including stronger construction to withstand winter ice conditions in Canada. Although built overseas, these two ships were truly Canadian.
The two destroyers, HMC Ships Saguenay and Skeena were delivered in 1931. These two sister ships, named after Canadian rivers, became to be known accordingly as River Class Destroyers. In later years, additional vessels of the same design were also named after Canadian Rivers.
Skeena's launching on October 10th, 1930 was a memorable occasion. The ship's bow was decorated with maple tree branches complete with leaves, sent specially from Canada. The Prime Minister's sister, Miss Mildred Bennett had the honour of releasing a bottle of Empire wine across the bow. She declared, " I name you Skeena and wish you and all who sail in you the best luck". As soon as Skeena had taken to the water, she was berthed along side her sister, HMCS Saguenay.
HMCS Skeena was commissioned at Portsmouth on June 10, 1931 and under the orders of Saguenay sailed for Canada a few weeks later. It was on 3rd of July that Saguenay and Skeena entered Halifax harbour as steam whistles and air horns from all types of vessels in the harbour burst through the fog announcing their arrival. The editorial section of the Halifax Herald expressed the hope that "this country never will need to send them into action".
Prior to the war, Skeena served as a training ship for Canada's small peacetime navy. In 1937 Skeena and Saguenay represented Canada at the Spithead Naval Review for the Coronation of His Majesty King George VI.
In 1939, three months before the outbreak of war, their Majesties King George and Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to Canada and embarked in Skeena during the maritime portion of their visit. Upon leaving Canada, the Skeena provided local escort as the king and queen returned back to England.
With the outbreak of war on September 10th, 1939, HMCS Skeena was one of only six destroyers that made up the entire Canadian Naval Force. However by war's end Canada had risen to the occasion and was the third largest navy in the world. Skeena and Saguenay were the original workhorses of this new wartime navy.
During the war, HMCS Skeena was credited with the confirmed sinking of U-588. Skeena along with HMCS Wetaskiwin worked as one, and which has been termed "an almost perfect anti-submarine team performance" kept close contact with the submerged enemy. Laying depth charges in near perfect patterns they kept on top of the submerged enemy vessel. During the battle, Skeena and Wetaskiwin are best remembered in Naval Logs for their famous signal between each other. Skeena first signalled "Acts 16 Verse19". As Wetaskiwin thumbed through her bible, she read, " there stood a man...and prayed him saying, come over…and help us". Wetaskiwin replied " Revelations 13, verse 1" which Skeena read "I saw the beast rise up out of the sea…and upon his head the name of blasphemy". For hours, both ships laid patterns of depth charges until a huge explosion was heard underwater. Floating debris, human remains and wreckage were seen on the surface. Skeena, along with Wetaskiwin was credited with a kill.
Besides regular convoy duties, Skeena also participated in Normandy. Operation Neptune sent Skeena into the English Channel a full 24 hours before the invasion of France. Her task was to clear the shipping lanes of enemy U-boats before the main invasion left the ports of England. Operations Dredger and Kinetic also saw Skeena further participate in the English Channel after D-Day, carrying out successful attacks against enemy surface ships along the French Coast.
HMCS Skeena won battle honours for her duty in the North Atlantic, her actions against the enemy in the English Channel and for her role during the landings in Normandy. However she is seldom recognized for her battle honours or for her confirmed kill of enemy U-boat, and is usually remembered for how she met a tragic end.
On October 24, 1944, HMCS Skeena was employed with Escort Group 11, an anti-submarine patrol south of the island of Iceland. During the day an extremely strong gale developed and very high seas was the result. Due to the worsening conditions, the following ships, the Quappelle, St Laurent, and the Skeena were ordered to proceed to Reykjavik Harbour Iceland, and proceeded to the lee side of Engey Island and anchor between Engey and Videy Islands. It was around 2230 hours Skeena completed her anchorage, however due to the volcanic ash sea bottom, the holding ground was adverse.
Just before midnight the jarring motion of the ship woke officers and men who had already retired to their bunks. This fierce North Atlantic storm caused Skeena to drag her anchor and she was blown and smashed on the shores of Videy Island, in Reykjavik Harbour, Iceland. The ship yawed to the great swell and lifted in amongst the off-shore rocks stern first. The huge waves caught Skeena and swung her broadside onto a reef some ninety yards from the shores of Videy Island. Extensive flooding had set in, and the ship was pounding heavily. The 15-foot high seas mixed with escaping fuel oil were coming over the entire ship. The forward part of the ship was being held firmly as the stern of the ship moved about. The men and officers were in grave danger as the ship was beginning to break up. Fearful that the ship was going to roll over, explode, or break up amongst the rocks, men believing that they were to abandon the ship, left the ship with the use of Carley Floats. Waves mixed with fuel oil, crashing over the entire ship caused the Carley Floats to become adrift.
It is most likely the Skeena still visible 6 months after the tragedy.
This photo was not part of the presentation by Chris Barker.
Videy Island in Reykjavik Harbour
Two floats drifted away carrying men into the darkness, and a third overturned sending men into the cold icy water. It was no more than five minutes later that the order to Abandon Ship was cancelled and all remaining hands were ordered to stay aboard. The captain realizing that further attempts to abandon the ship would result in further loss of life decided to accept the risk and keep the remaining crew members aboard the stranded ship.
The hours between midnight and daylight were a period of extreme danger. All night the ship twisted and turned, grinding on the rocks that made the shores of Videy Island. In attempts to reach the island, that was less than 100 yards away, men either drowned or died from exposure in the wet and freezing conditions.
In the morning a line was secured ashore, and with the assistance of Einar Sigurdsson and his Icelandic rescue party, men were pulled from the ship and dragged onto the shores of Videy Island.
The result: 15 members of the ship were either missing or dead, another 35 men found themselves recovering in a US military hospital suffering from shock and immersion.
The funeral for the Skeena dead was carried out on October 28th, 1944, 3 days after loss of the ship. The men were buried with full naval honours in the war section of the Fossvogur Cemetery in Reykjavik.
The US Army provided wooden coffins to the Canadians, however the British Naval Authorities refused their use. Wood was a scarce commodity in Iceland and was not going to be wasted.
The bodies were wrapped in the naval white ensign and carried to the graveside by members of the Skeena crew. The oldest among the dead was 30, the youngest 19. Most of the men were in their twenties.
Over 500 personnel, made up of men from the St Laurent, Quappelle and other Canadian ships in Reykjavik, attended the service. Services were read and a firing party discharged their salute. Last post and reveille were sounded. It has been written that this was the most impressive funeral ever seen in Iceland.
My personal connection with HMCS Skeena began when I was first posted to the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps Skeena, the local Northumberland Sea Cadet, created in 1941 and named in honour of this ship.
And this is where my story begins.
In 1956 a new destroyer was launched (below). In post war naval shipbuilding, it was customary to name the new vessels after vessels that fought in the Second World War. This second Skeena served Canada well, however by 1993 age and technology had caught up to her and she was decommissioned in November of that year. In 1994 I held a remembrance service on the fiftieth anniversary of the loss of the first ship. With recent decommissioning of the second ship to bear the name Skeena, and now with the fact that the cadet unit was the only ship's company in Canada to bear the name Skeena, I believed it was their duty to remember the loss of the ship and her crew.
It was a very simple service; no more than 15 minutes long. We laid fifteen poppies in front of a picture of the ship, recited the naval prayer and rang our ship's bell 15 times. At that point I though it was the end of the story. I was proud of myself and of the cadets; hopefully the memory of the ship and of these men would not be forgotten. At least I was doing something, small but hopefully meaningful and something the cadets could do each year. That's how it started almost 15 years ago.
It was here that my involvement with the ship, has lead me to three visits to the island of Iceland. Twice I have had the honour to be the naval escort officer to groups of Canadian Naval Veterans and leading them back to Iceland. I have been asked to tell about my experience and my relationship with the ship, I never thought my simple service would ever amount to this.
However my experience is not about what I have done, but learning something about that fatal night, over 60 years ago, and knowing that is it more than just a single paragraph in a history book.
From the beginning of my first remembrance service and each year after, more and more people were coming out to attend it. Naval Veterans, family members, and Skeena survivors all started to attend, more and more each year. From what was just a simple service was now annual event, getting bigger and bigger each year. On the 60th anniversary of the cadet unit, we held a HMCS Skeena reunion at our home unit in Port Hope. This was the result of our annual remembrance service gaining popularity each year.
Up until this time, many of the crew members were still very private about the night their ship sank and were not willing to share their thoughts with me. It was at this reunion that I started to ask these elderly veterans what it was like being so young attending a funeral service for their "buddies". To my surprise, not one of the 2 dozen men that I talked to could remember the service. Even they were amazed, as they all knew they were there, not one could remember. I could these men struggle with their thoughts all weekend, starting to recall different events that fatal night, however still struggling with the loss of memory of the funeral service. I happened to then meet the reverend that buried the Skeena dead. Surly he would remember, and it was what he told me that also affected me.
Chris he told me, " I was stationed in Iceland with the air force for the most part of the war. All through the war I buried allied sailors and airmen. I oversaw the service of many men, but it is the Skeena crew that I remember the most. I cannot get it out of my mind. I can not get over the size of the hole in the ground for so many men". For you see the Skeena dead were buried in a mass grave. Although they were laid side by side, a single grave was dug. Here was a man of faith, a person that we would all turn to help when we are in despair; 60 years later still affected by the size of the hole in the ground for so many men.
Now imagine, you are 18-20 years old, may be attending your very first funeral service, and they you are looking down at the bodies of your buddies side by side in a mass grave. I for the first time realized how this tragic event could affect one's mind. It was for the first time that I realized that the story of HMCS Skeena was more than just a small paragraph in a history book.
It was at that time I decided I was going to travel to Iceland for the 60th anniversary of the loss of the crew and the ship. When I first mentioned my idea, everyone thought I was crazy. Even the veterans had doubts, "why in the world would we want to go back, there's nothing there", "I was there 60 years ago, so why would I want to go back" were the common responses. However I had decided that if there was no interest, I would go by myself.
But in the fall 2004, after 3 years of frustrating planning, I escorted 22 Canadians, made up of veterans, family members of the deceased, cadets, and fellow naval officers back to Iceland. We all gathered from as far as way as British Columbia, Winnipeg, Montreal, New Brunswick and the state of Florida. We all gathered in Boston and flew from Boston International Airport, as there were no flights to Iceland from Canada at that time, and landed at Keflavik Airport, Iceland's International Airport.
When we first got onto the bus at the airport, I remember the bus driver asking me what this Skeena was all about. After telling him why we were in country, he said not to worry he would take care of us. Take care of us is an understatement; the country treated us like royalty. A bigger bus was provided for us, so veterans would be more comfortable, Canadian flags were flown at the hotel and at different places we went to, and the local bus excursion company treated us to an exclusve tour of the Icelandic country side.
Later I had the honour to officiate the remembrance service at the gravesite of the Skeena crew members. Thinking it was only going to be attended by our group, I was shocked as over 200 people gathered in the cemetery, Canadians and Icelanders coming together in remembrance of this ship.
It was here that I first meet the family of the late Einar Sigurdsson. I had read that Einar rescued many of the stranded sailors, bringing them safely ashore; even today this rescue in numbers is the largest in Icelandic Marine History. Einar's family greeted us with the warmth that is usually reserved for family and friends. They treated us to a great reception, attended by all members of their family and the Canadian Ambassador to Iceland. Traditional Icelandic food was served and we had the opportunity to try over 14 different kinds of Icelandic fish dishes. Our visit was a special event for our new Icelandic friends as the loss of the Skeena is part of their family history. Throughout the offices of their family fishing business, were pictures of our ship the Skeena. Also proudly displayed was Einar's medal and his citation from King George VI. For his efforts Einar was awarded The Order of the British Empire for his bravery, however because of the war and the need for secrecy, was told to keep his efforts private. Later in his life, although his grand children pressed him for information about his medal he always said it really was for nothing.
It was also during this first trip that the Einar's family put us aboard their two fishing trawlers, both named Adalbjorg after Einar's original trawler that was used to ferry many of the survivors back and forth from the stranded ship. They sailed us to the shores off Videy, the exact location where the Skeena was lost. It was here that the veterans were able to cast into the waters, a wreath made by the cadets, adorned with 15 poppies, both ships using their horns saluting the memory of the Skeena. The ships name Adalbjorg I have been told is an Icelandic women's name, but I have been told that if translated into English, it means "the main rescue". What an appropriate name for a ship that saved many a life from the Skeena.
We were also treated to a reception and tour of the headquarters of the Icelandic Coast Guard. It was here that one of the veterans told a story about removing the pistol charges from the depth chargers; this small detonator was removed to prevent a charge from exploding in the event of a sinking. Standard practice was to throw this small blasting cap overboard before abandoning ship. In miscommunication between English and Icelandic the Icelandic Coast Guard thought the entire depth charge was thrown overboard. After we returned back to Canada, they sent divers down looking for hazardous material, found none, but to everyones surprise, located and raised the ship's propeller. This was a rare find, as the hull of the ship was raised and sold for scrap metal at the end of the war. Finding the propeller, which had been ripped from the ship as she was blown against the rocks was a total shock to everyone, including our new Icelandic friends. It was at this point we decided that we would raise funds and erect a monument in memory of the lost crew using the propeller as the main feature of the monument.
In the summer of 2005 I traveled back again to Iceland with my daughter to see this propeller first hand and assist with the selection of a proper spot to build the monument. It is hard to explain the feeling, seeing this huge relic setting in the shipyard, all covered in seaweed and mud, knowing that it is the only surviving part of the ship. Being the first Canadians, my daughter and I, to see such a site was quite the sensation.
I borrowed a scraper and wire brush from one of the shipyard workers, cleaning part of the hub off trying to reveal some sort of builder's markings or stamp on the hub. To our surprise, we uncovered the letters HMCS. We frantically kept working hoping to see the first letter in the word Skeena, and there it was, the "S". Both my daughter and I working together, hands covered in mud, scraping away, only for her to announce, "Dad, it does not say Skeena", I looked down and to my amazement she was right, it said HMCS Saguenay.
Earlier I told you that the Saguenay is the sister ship to the Skeena. So how in the world did the propeller from the Saguenay end up on the bottom of the ocean floor in Iceland, when the Saguenay was never in Iceland. She was taken out of service in 1942 after a collision with another vessel and spent part of the war as a training vessel in St. John.
My daughter and I, immediately went to the Canadian Embassy to use their phone, a couple of phone calls back to Canada to discover that the Skeena went into refit around 1943 and in the efforts to repair the Skeena, spare parts from the Saguenay were used to repair the Skeena, thus it was at this time the propeller was replaced.
In August 2006, once again I traveled back to Iceland for a third time. This time being in attendance with the Canadian Ambassador, military reps from Canada, the United States, Italy and Norway, veterans from the ship, Einar's family, members of the Videy Island Association and Ministers of the Icelandic Government, we unveiled the newly cleaned up propeller as a monument in memory of our ship, in memory of the men who lost their lives and in memory to a special man who is remembered for saving so many lives. The propeller, now a monument, sits on a very large flat rock, in a field were the men of the Skeena had to walk through to be rescued. A short walk away, on a wooden boardwalk that was built, is the cove were the men came ashore and died. Alongside the propeller is a bronze plaque, inscribed with the history of the ship, the story of the rescue mission, and the names of all 15 crew members who perished that fatal night.
However my true experience is learning something about each of them and being able to share it with others so that it will never be forgotten.
Norm, touching and seeing his brother's grave for the first time, crying and hugging me, thanking me for taking him to Iceland. He shares with me a story; the last time he saw his brother was standing in the doorway in his new naval uniform, going off to war. Norm was only 8 years at the time, proud of having a big brother navy, but now crying seeing his brother's grave for the first time.
A veteran by the name Swede, hugging me, then saluting me, thanking me for getting him to Iceland. He then curses me, as this had been first time in 60 years that he shed a tear. He also smiles, nods his head, and says "well done".
Norm, who tells me how he entered a life raft and at the last moment gets out. Jumping back on board he turns and watches the raft washing away, still today questioning why he got out, and so many of his friends did not. Norm was a survivor; today his friends are buried in Iceland.
Gordie, who fought through the huge waves, swimming for his life to reach shore, spending the entire night, huddled among the rocks, in the dark cold freezing conditions. Today he still cannot understand why he survived, but the fellow who he was with, being much larger and stronger would not wake up in the morning. Gordie survived but his shipmate died during the night from exposure.
Ted, who tells me of his travels across the island in the dark, being wet, freezing in the cold wind, snow being blown all around him, the sound of the wind and the surf as the waves crashed on shore behind him, not understanding why he survived nor how he made his way across the island.
Leighton, who shared his personal war diary with me, twice I have spent the entire night with him as we read his diary about each and every day he was a member of the ship's crew. He shares with me, memories of enemy attacks, and stories regarding Skeena's role during the landings at Normandy.
Gord; presents me with a pyjama top that he wore in the hospital. At first it appears to be an old stained piece of clothing. But as he turns it around, for you see that he had each and every survivor sign it back in 1944.
Lou; another veteran and another survivor. His son contacts me after I got back from Iceland the first time. Lou is close to death and he can't remember what happened so long ago in Iceland. For all he can remember is being on the shores of Videy Island. He wants to tell his story to his son, but can remember any details. I present the pyjama top to Lou, hoping that he may remember one of his shipmates. He studies each and every name, and stops at one name. At this very moment he remembers what had happened so long ago, for he found his own name on that old pyjama top. Before he dies he is able to share his story with his son.
Isaac, shares with me the story of his brother, the officials had a hard time identifying one of the last bodies before the funeral. His brother's body was almost unidentifiable because of the bruising, and broken bones as his brother's body was smashed repeatedly against the rocks. This body was only identified after the others were identified first, no scientific methods here, only a series of elimination.
I was also with Einar's family as letter is read that we here in Canada received from a veteran in England, who writes to us describing how an Icelandic man, chest deep in ice cold water, pulled guys out of the water, hour after hour, wishing that I may be able to find out who this man was, and if I did, I would pass his thanks to his family for saving his life. I read this in the presence of three granddaughters, who for the first time hear about their grandfather's bravery.
The story of the family at Mogilsa, across the bay from Videy Island, who awoke in the morning to find, confused way there were so many men of "colour", as she describes it, washed up on their beach. She describes that the colour of their skin did not matter; they brought these me into their home hoping to revive them. Using bedding and linens to clean them up, now realizing that these men were from the stranded ship Skeena. The kitchen floor in their home was ruined from the oil and salt water. After the fact the British government wish to compensate the family for their financial losses, but all the family asked for was a new battery operated radio for their home.
Finally Olivia, widow of Ed; on the first trip to Iceland, Ed became sick and I spent the entire night in the hospital with him. Before leaving for Iceland, Ed was only a stranger to me, however as he laid in the hospital, we laughed and we cried all night long as he shared his life with me, telling me stories about the navy and what life was like being on the ship Skeena. Ed never really recovered and passed on shortly after getting back to Canada. On my third trip back to Iceland, his widow Olivia also came, as on his deathbed, Ed said that if Chris ever went back to Iceland, she was to go with him. At the time of the unveiling of the monument, Olivia whispered in my ear that Ed was here with us. Being polite, I said it was a beautiful day, and of course Ed was with us in sprit for the entire trip. She said no, as Ed was in her purse, for she had brought Ed's ashes back to Iceland, and as part of Ed's wishes I spread Ed among the rocks where he and his buddies came ashore so many years ago. Olivia and I shared a giggle together at dinner that night, for you see it was very windy that day, and I think I had more Ed on me than what was scattered amongst the rocks.
Over 60 years have past since the loss of the ship, and with each passing year there are less veterans from the ship around to tell the stories, however the memory of the ship is alive very much alive. My new friend Ottar in Iceland has just completed and released a book in Iceland. Although it is in Icelandic it tells the story of HMCS Skeena and the men who sailed her. Another friend in Iceland, Sievenn is an independent filmmaker. He has filmed all of the events, and is hopeful that one day a documentary film may be produced. Even in Port Hope, we are now in possession of other artifacts that many of the men saved from the stranded ship. One sailor returned to the stranded ship and cut off the helm in the wheelhouse. It now hangs on the wall in our hall. Another sailor took all of the banners in the flag locker when he returned back to the ship. These flags now hang on the walls of our building. Another survivor presented to us the white battle ensign of the Royal Canadian Navy that flow on the stern of the Skeena. All pieces of the ship that we thought were lost now are proudly displayed in the current ship Skeena.
On behalf of all veterans that I have escorted back, they would like to say thanks to people of Iceland for their warm hospitality that was shown to them during every part of their journey.
It has been a journey where naval sailors have been able to share stories with Icelandic fisherman, a journey were veterans who are now grandfathers can tell the story to the granddaughters of the man who saved them. It was a journey that started with friendly handshakes and smiles and ended with sincere embraces and tears, and for that we are grateful to the people of Iceland, for what was done 60 years ago and what is done today.
Since my 3 trips to Canada, my journey with the ship has not diminished. Last fall I was the guest of the Icelandic Government, and was received by the Icelandic Ambassador to Canada in our nations capital. I spoke about my experience at an event hosted by the Ambassador and that evening my wife Tracey and I were dinner guests of the Ambassador at the Embassy. Also in attendance were the wife and Mayor of Reykjavik, and also the wife and the President of the Icelandic League.
Recently I have obtained papers from Ottawa, detailing the investigation into the events what happened that night the Skeena went aground. The commanding officer and members of his staff were court marshaled and were found guilty of hazarding the ship. Believe it or not, but the court proceedings did not make one mention of the men who lost their lives. Not one mention of the daring rescue mission that saved so many lives. Surprisingly I discovered a letter, where senior naval personnel were fearful that if the truth was released, family members of the deceased could hold the officers of the ship personally responsible and their lives would be ruined forever.
And just last week a movie producer from the History/Discovery Channel contacted me. Wishing to interview me about my story and relationship with HMCS Skeena
People ask me why I have the spent so time and money on this project? What is my passion, what drives me to keep doing this? In short I say I never started this looking for any type of fame, nor did I ever imagine that my simple act of laying 15 poppies in front of a picture would ever end up like this.
But what I do is for my dear friend Norm Perkins, a Skeena survivor.
I also do this in memory of my dear friends the late Ed Parsons, the late Leighton Steinhoff, and the late Ted Maidman. All survivors of the Skeena, who I have escorted to Iceland, and who have now passed on. All friends that have shared their stories with me.
I also do this in memory of those still in Iceland:
- JOSEPH BLAIS,
- ARCHIE APOSTOLOS
- DESMOND COOK
- GORD DAVIDSON
- MELVIN ELLIS,
- LLOYD GABOUREL
- RALPH HANCOCK
- JOSEPH JANOS
- JOSEPH JOHNSTON
- ED PRESSNER
- RITCHIE SEATH
- JIM SILK
- KEN STEWART
- AB UNGER
- LEO WATSON
In closing I would like to quote the words of Isaac, brother of Ab Unger. Isaac has been with me twice in Iceland and his brother Ab is buried in Reykjavik Cemetery.
They died, not in battle but in the tempest shock,
In the midnight in the snow.
As heroically as men in armed conflict die, at sea or in the air
Or on some distant shore.
Hail to the brave! The brave that are no more.
To Isaac's quote, I would like to add,
I will remember them.
Lt(N) Chris Barker, CD