Wind of the Great North

We’ve covered the Wind-class “battle icebreakers” several times on Warship Wednesday including USS Atka (AGB-3)/USCGC Southwind (WAG-280) (then became the Soviet Kaptian Bouleve then later Admiral Makarov) and USCGC Northwind (WAG/WAGB-282).

USCGC Northwind in Antarctic waters, 16 December 1956. K-21429.

In all, an impressive eight Wind-class ships were built. Equipped with 5″/38 DP mounts and with the ability to carry floatplanes (later helicopters as soon as 1945), they fought the Germans in the “Weather War” while on Greenland Patrol in WWII, were the coldest boats of the frozen front lines of the Cold War where they helped establish the DEW Line and made sure Thule AB could exist in the Arctic and McMurdo in the Antarctic. Operations Deep Freeze, Nanook, Blue Nose, High Jump (aka “The Battle of Antarctica”), and more. They also proved to have long lives, with several still clocking in for hard work crunching ice in the late 1980s.

However, one of the Winds that got little love from the history books was a special one-off sister HMCS Labrador (AW50), the Royal Canadian Navy’s only polar icebreaker. She was almost amazingly advanced for the “old school” Tars of the RCN, being the first fully diesel-electric vessel in the Royal Canadian Navy as well as the first to have central heating and ventilation, air conditioning, and bunks instead of hammocks.

Built domestically under license by Marine Industries Limited in Sorel, Quebec (Yard No. 187), she was laid down on 18 November 1949, making her all-Canadian. Her seven American sisters were all built at San Pedro while her unarmed freshwater half-sister USCGC Mackinaw (WAGB-83) was built for Great Lakes service at Toledo.

Speaking of unarmed, the 6,500-ton HMCS Labrador was completed with a much-reduced fixed armament, mounting two 40mm Bofors and a single 3″/50 gun platform on the forecastle– though the latter was never mounted.

Note her forward gun platform is empty

As noted in her 141-page operational history:

The ship was by no means an exact copy of the American icebreakers, for advantage was taken of USN experience to incorporate many improvements. The stem of the Canadian ship, for instance, was given a knife-edge instead of the U shape of the American vessels, and the bow propeller fitted in the original Wind Class was omitted. The flight deck was made about half as big again as those fitted in the American ships and could accommodate three helicopters. Another major deviation from the US design was the fitting of retractable Denny-Brown stabilizing fins in an attempt to cut down the excessive roll of the Wind Class ships in rough weather. A great many changes involving accommodation of personnel were also made in order to provide better quarters and more recreational space for the ship’s company. Further modifications were necessitated by the fact that the RCN communications and radar requirements were about twice as great as those of the American ships. The ship’s first Commanding Officer, Captain O.C.S. Robertson, GM, RD, RCN, was responsible for many of the improvements made to the ship. He spent several months working with USN icebreakers, and his fertile mind conceived improvements and modifications at a rate that almost had the Naval Constructor in Chief wishing the ship had been assigned a less efficient and enthusiastic CO.

Commissioned 8 July 1954– some 68 years ago this week, later that November Labrador became the first warship to circumnavigate North America in a single voyage, sailing North from Halifax, crossing the Northwest Passage, sailing down the Pacific Coast, and back up to Halifax via the Panama Canal.

She could carry three helicopters including two Bell HTL-4 and a HUP II. Along with the 36-foot (11 m) all-aluminum hydrographic sounding craft Pogo. 2

She was Canada’s first heavy icebreaker and the Royal Canadian Navy’s first vessel capable of reliably operating in the waters of the Arctic, in essence, the country’s first Arctic patrol ship. She was the first warship as well as the first deep-draught ship of any type to transit the Northwest Passage and only the second vessel ever to accomplish the feat in one season.

USCGC Eastwind W279 coming alongside HMCS Labrador in the Arctic Ice

However, scandalously cash-strapped (a heritage the service continues to carry to this day), Labrador decommissioned on 22 November 1957 and transferred to civilian control in 1958 after just four years of RCN service.

Operating with the Department of Transport as the Canadian Government Ship (CGS) Labrador and then after 1962 with the newly-formed Canadian Coast Guard as CCGS Labrador, she endured until 1988 and was sent to the breakers. Today, the RCN hopes to field six new new “ice-capable” patrol ships, this time armed– the Harry DeWolf-class offshore patrol vessels– which are, at 6,600 tons, actually bigger than Labrador. It seems sending armed ships to the Arctic has finally become popular in Canada.

For more on Labrador, see her page on For Posterity’s Sake, a Royal Canadian Navy Historical Project.

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