On this day when we remember so many men and women who gave their lives, I wanted to share a story from my grandfather. I’m particularly interested in capturing this story here because as we commemorate this 69th anniversary of the end of WWII, there are fewer and fewer veterans who can share their first-hand accounts. I cannot possibly imagine the sacrifices so many made for our freedom.
My grandfather passed away in 2012 at the age of 94 and lived a long, wonderful life with experiences that almost sound like they come for a Jonas Jonasson novel. In his retirement years, he set about chronicling many of his travels and life experiences and created somewhat of a family biography. This particular story comes from his personal book entitled “For King and Country” which provides his own account of his time in the Canadian Navy stationed in Halifax and London, UK during WWII.
As a 21-year old, very ‘green’ cipher clerk stationed at Halifax Harbour in November 1939:
“Our greatest ‘boob’ was a signal coming from the HMS Furious saying she would arrive “Point of Arrival” (in Halifax) 08:00 that day, Nov 20, 1939. We were on the 00:00 – 04:00 shift. The signal was addressed to Naval Service Headquarters, Ottawa, copy to Commanding Officer Atlantic Coast (us). We misinterpreted this to be a destroyer group taking over the escort of a convoy on its way to Britain. The Operations Duty Officer in the adjoining office was having what appeared to be some much needed sleep. The signal was left on Lt. Cdr. Gauvreau’s desk. We went home and to bed.
Now what actually happened was that at 08:00 HMS Furious, an old cruiser/aircraft carrier, accompanied by two cruisers, HMS Revenge and HMS Repulse, entered Chebucto Bay and headed for Halifax. Across the mouth of the harbour was an anti-submarine net, fitted with a gate controlled by two ‘gate vessels’ who opened and closed the gate as required. The harbour is protected by “Sandwich Battery” which had a few 9.2 inch guns. Nobody told “Sandwich” that British war ships were expected so when Sandwich lookout reported ships, it was assumed they were German. Sandwich Battery went to Action Stations – PANIC!! The RCAF were notified but their planes were open-topped two-seaters which might be able to drop hand grenades. By God’s kindness one of the officers manning the gate vessel was ex-Royal Navy and he immediately recognized the HMS Furious and her escorts. On his command, Sandwich withheld its fire. He opened the gate and let the naval force enter. They had been approaching at some 25 knots.
Commodore R. Reid, Commanding Officer Atlantic Coast lived in the dockyard. He looked out his window at a little past 08:00 and lo and behold sees what looks like half the British Fleet steaming up ‘his’ harbour and nobody had even told him that these ships were in waters under his direct command. HE WAS NOT AMUSED.
When Grant and I reported for duty at 16:00 we were told to see Lt. Cdr Gauvreau immediately. When he deemed to speak to us, he inferred that we should be shot. After a long silence, he told us that due to our inexperience, the Commodore will not punish us. I guess the truth of the matter was that it was up to Ottawa to inform their Commanding Officer and the trouble was at Naval Service Headquarters. The great secrecy was due to the fact that HMS Furious was loaded with British Treasury gold headed for the vaults of the Sun Life Company in Montreal for safe keeping.”
I’m kinda glad Lt. Cdr Gauvreau didn’t shoot my grandfather… Stories like this don’t appear in the history books or in any documentary, but these are the stories we need to remember. The imperfect stories as seen through the eyes of those who lived it. My grandfather overcame his inexperience and went on to become an officer in the Canadian Navy and served until 1950 before beginning a lengthy and successful career as an Electrical Engineer.
Lest we forget.