Thursday, 18 August 2016

Week 33: 72 Years Ago

I remember one particular summer my mom had taken all of us kids to the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto.  This was an annual event but this one year I learned something new and very strange.  This year they had a large ship, HMCS HAIDA, in the harbour that was open to the public.  My mom dragged us on the ship.  I was possibly 10 years of age and did not want to go on some old ship – I wanted to go on the rides!

However once on the ship my mom had said something to a steward that caught my interest.  Her brother was on a similar type ship during the war and it sunk.  She asked if we could go down below to see where he might have worked and we all were led down to the bottom of the ship to see the boiler room. It seemed like forever to get there and it was small and dark and smelly.  My mom said that only reason that her brother survived was he was jettisoned to the surface in an air bubble as the ship sunk.  The steward looked at her in disbelief and I must confess, I could not picture that happening.  I never forgot that story and had always wondered if there was any truth to it or was it just a “tall tale”. 

 The ALBERNI was one of the Flower Class types after the British tradition of naming them after flowers. The Canadian ships were named after cities in Canada - the ALBERNI was named for Alberni. BC (now known as Port Alberni) on Vancouver Island (and thus after Captain Don Pedro Alberni who commanded the Spanish Soldiers sent to occupy Nootka in 1790) and was one of the first Corvettes to go into action.

Built at the Yarrows Ltd. shipyard in Esquimalt, British Columbia, she was commissioned on February 4, 1941 and arrived at Halifax on April 13 in company with HMCS AGASSIZ.  On May 23, 1941, the two ships departed for St. John's to join the recently formed Newfoundland Escort Force.  ALBERNI left the following month with a convoy for Iceland, and served as a mid-ocean escort until May 1942 when she was taken out of service to have a new boiler installed.  in September 1942, she had taken part in the defence of Convoy SC.42, which lost 18 ships to as many U-boats, fifteen merchantmen were sunk and U-501 was destroyed by CHAMBLY and MOOSE JAW.

Assigned to duties in connection with the invasion of North Africa, she sailed for the U.K. in October with Convoy HX.212, and until February 1942, escorted convoys between the U.K. and the Mediterranean.  She returned to Halifax in March 1943 and served briefly with WEEF before transferring to Quebec Force in May.  For the next five months she escorted Quebec-Labrador convoys, leaving Gaspe on November 6 to undergo repairs at Liverpool, N.S.  With repairs completed early in February, she proceeded to Bermuda to work up, and on her return to Halifax joined EG W-4.  On April 24 she sailed for the U.K. for duties connected with the coming invasion. ALBERNI was then based on Londonderry, and made a name for herself during 1942 by rescuing over 145 torpedoed merchant seamen on two occasions. She was assigned to escorting convoys in support of North African landings between Britain, Gibraltar and North African Ports. She was present with the Mediterranean convoys when VILLE DE QUEBEC and REGINA obtained their submarine kills but, as with U 501, did not have the chance for direct participation and credit. Reports did give ALBERNI a "Probably damaged" verdict after an attack in 1941. Returning to Canada in March 1943, she served in the Western Local and in the Gulf Escort Force in the St. Lawrence. Time was taken for a modest and partial refit. In April 1944 she was one of seventeen RCN corvettes sent to the UK in support of Operation Neptune, the landings at Normandy.

In June and July she escorted a miscellaneous collection of landing craft and ships, barges, tugs and floating piers for Mulberry and merchant ships between Southampton Water and the Beaches.

On July 26, 1944 she shot down a German Junkers 88 that had attacked her at almost sea level. ALBERNI opened fire with her starboard Oerlikons and the after pom-pom as the plane tore toward her. The Junkers climbed and banked to clear ALBERNI and her port Oerlikons scored direct hits at close range. The enemy burst into flames and exploded in the sea 100 yards off ALBERNI'S port bow with no survivors. On 28 July she narrowly missed an aircraft-laid mine, then a depth charge laid over an asdic contact set off another mine 200 yards off ALBERNI'S starboard beam without significant damage. It was an exciting time.

On July 28, 1944 Corvette HMCS Alberni was narrowly missed an aircraft-laid mine when
a depth charge laid over an asdic contact set off another mine 200 yards off  Alberni's starboard beam without significant damage.

After brief maintenance at Southampton, ALBERNI was ordered to relieve HMCS DRUMHELLER on patrol for u-boats to the eastward of the swept channel leading to the Normandy beaches.  At 11:45 on August 21 1944 she was steaming south at fourteen knots in fair weather with a NNE wind of five knots but State Four seas for the rendezvous, sweeping by asdic eighty-degrees on either bow, radar operating.  "Hands to Dinner" had just been piped.  Four minutes later, with no asdic warning whatsoever, she was hit by a torpedo fired from U-480 on her port side just aft of the engine room.  In less than 10 seconds she was awash from the funnel aft, listing to port and sinking fast.  In another twenty seconds she was gone, sinking stern first.  Most of the off-watch hands were trapped in their mess decks, and only one stoker escaped from the engine and boiler rooms.

That stoker was my late uncle, William Thomas Stapleford Palin.  The only way he could have got to the surface of the water in 20 seconds was to be jettisoned up in an air bubble! So then the story was true!

For forty-five minutes the dazed survivors struggled to keep from drowning or giving up in heavy seas.  Providentially HM motor Torpedo boats 469 and 470, returning from duties off Normandy and having seen an explosion and the startling disappearance of the corvette on their horizon, altered course to investigate.  They came across the survivors and rescued three officers and twenty-eight men of the ship's company of ninety.  They were taken to Portsmouth, where two moderately injured were admitted to hospital.

No comments:

Post a Comment