Warship Wednesday, July 20, 2022: Four Stacker Convoy King

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, July 20, 2022: Four Stacker Convoy King

Above we see the stern of the Clemson-class tin can USS McCook (Destroyer # 252), in her second career as the Royal Canadian Navy’s Town-class HMCS St. Croix (I 81), with her White Duster flapping in the windy North Atlantic, likely while on convoy duty in 1942. Note her Q.F. 12-pdr. (12-cwt.) gun over the stern with ready rounds in the rack and splinter mats rigged for a modicum of protection. While McCook had a quiet life in her stint with the U.S. Navy, St. Croix throughout her work with the RCN would log time with 28 convoys and bust two of Donitz’s U-boats– not bad for a second-hand “four piper.”

One of the massive fleets of 156 Clemson-class flush decker destroyers, like most of her sisters, McCook came too late to help lick the Kaiser. An expansion of the almost identical Wickes-class destroyers with a third more fuel capacity to enable them to escort a convoy across the Atlantic without refueling, the Clemsons were sorely needed to combat the pressing German submarine threat of the Great War.

At 1,200 tons and with a top speed of 35 knots, they were brisk vessels ready for the task.

Inboard and outboard profiles for a U.S. Navy Clemson-class destroyer, in this case, USS Doyen (DD-280)

Carrying a legacy

Our vessel laid down at the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp in Quincy, Massachusetts in September 1918, was the first named in honor of CDR Roderick S. McCook, USN. The Ohio-born McCook was appointed a Mid in 1854 at age 15 and gave 28 years to the Navy, including service on the steam frigate USS Minnesota, the gunboat USS Stars and Stripes, and as XO of the monitor USS Canonicus during the Civil War, distinguishing himself in the latter during the assaults on Fort Fisher to the special thanks of Congress and ADM Porter.

CDR Roderick S. McCook, USN. Promoted to commander on 25 September 1873, McCook died in 1886. NH 47933

U.S. Navy Service

McCook commissioned on 30 April 1919 and, following her shakedown on the East Coast, was folded into the rapidly-shrinking Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet. She soon shipped out for Europe at a time when the U.S. was heavily involved in shaping the post-Great War redrawing of the map of that continent and the ensuing cycles of revolution, civil war, and nationalist uprisings.

USS McCook (Destroyer # 252) Dressed in flags in a European port, circa 1919. Photographed by R.E. Wayne (# J-50). NH 46470.

Wicks-class destroyer USS Gridley (DD-92) and USS McCook (DD-252) in Venice during 1919. From the John Dickey collection, via Navsource.

Once Europe began to quiet down, and the Roaring 20s set in, the Navy found McCook (as well as many other tin cans) surplus to its immediate needs, and she was decommissioned at Philadelphia on 30 June 1922 at laid up.

Her entire active USN service would run 1,157 days– barely enough to get her hull dirty.

View of the Reserve Fleet Basin of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard circa the early 1920s. Visible ships include (left to right): the destroyers USS McCook (DD-252) and USS Benham (DD-49). U.S. Navy photo S-574-M.

Headed to serve the King

With Europe again at war, on 2 September 1940, FDR signed the so-called Destroyers for Bases Agreement that saw a mix of 50 (mostly mothballed) Caldwell (3), Wickes (27), and Clemson (20)-class destroyers transferred to the Royal Navy in exchange for limited basing rights on nine British overseas possessions. Canada would receive seven of these ships including two Clemsons: McCook and her sister USS Bancroft (DD-256).

In respect of Canada’s naming tradition for destroyers, all seven RCN flush deckers were named for Canadian rivers, ideally, those that ran in conjunction with the U.S. border, a nice touch. McCook, therefore, became HCMS St. Croix, so named after the river on the Maine/New Brunswick border, while Bancroft became HMCS St. Francis after the Rivière Saint-François which makes up part of the Maine/Quebec line.

Sailed by scratch USN crews from Philadelphia, McCook was handed over at Halifax on 24 September in a batch of five destroyers.

Transfer of U.S. destroyers to the Royal Navy in Halifax, Sept 1940. Wickes-class destroyers USS Buchanan (DD-131), USS Crowninshield (DD-134), and USS Abel P. Upshur (DD-193) are in the background. The sailors are examining a 4-inch /50 deck gun. Twenty-three Wickes-class destroyers were transferred to the RN, along with four to the RCN, in 1940 under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3199286)

HCMS St. Croix passed through the anti-submarine gates at Halifax, before receiving her camouflage.

Made ready for local patrol, she joined her first convoy, the Halifax-to-Liverpool HX 080, on 12 October– just 18 days after she was handed over. The seas were not kind to the small destroyer.

A battered HCMS St. Croix enters Halifax Harbor on 18 Dec 1940 after enduring a powerful North Atlantic storm. This photograph shows some of the damage inflicted on the ship, including guardrails hanging over the ship’s side (center) and broken windows on the ship’s bridge (top center). Less visible but more serious storm damage included bent steel plating on the bridge and below-deck flooding caused by massive waves. The photograph also emphasizes the ship’s narrow hull, which contributed to its instability in heavy seas and to poor handling. George Metcalf Archival Collection CWM 19900085-1040

As part of the handover, some systems and armament were changed out, after all, McCook had been laid up since 1922 and was all-Yank. Ultimately, three of her four triple-packed torpedo turnstiles were landed as was the aft 4-inch gun, the latter replaced by a British 12-pounder. She also eventually picked up a couple light AAA guns, depth charge racks, British radar (Type 273), medium-frequency direction finders (MF/DF), ASDIC, and depth charge throwers. At least one boiler was removed to increase fuel capacity.

Unidentified personnel manning a four-inch gun aboard HCMS St. Croix at sea, March 1941. LAC 3567312

Manning a .50-caliber water-cooled AAA mount aboard HCMS St. Croix at sea, March 1941. LAC 3571062.

Once modified and updated, she was sent for work with convoys between St Johns and Iceland by April 1941, joining troopship Convoy TC 10.

In October 1941, while part of ON 019A, St. Croix picked up 34 survivors from the Dutch merchant Tuva that was torpedoed and sunk the previous day by the German U-boat U-575 southwest of Iceland.

HCMS St. Croix (Canadian destroyer, 1940) taken circa 1941, at Reykjavik, Iceland. Note camouflage. NH 49941

HMCS St Croix (ex-USS McCook, DD-252) underway circa 1942 via Navsource

On 24 July 1942, while part of the outbound ON 113 convoy from Liverpool to Halifax, St. Croix, under command of 40-year-old LCDR Andrew Hedley Dobson, RCNR, she depth-charged U-90 (Kptlt. Hans-Jürgen Oldörp) to the bottom east of Newfoundland after the boat had attacked her convoy the day before. The U-boat took all 44 of her crew with her on her final dive, now 80 years ago this week.

Commodore L.W. Murray congratulated the Ship’s Company of HCMS St. Croix for sinking the German submarine U-90 on 24 July. St. John’s, Newfoundland, 29 July 1942. LAC 3231215

St. Croix’s crew gathered around her sole remaining set of torpedo tubes during the pier side celebration after sinking the U-90. Note the depth charges to the right. LAC 3231215

Dobson would earn the Distinguished Service Cross on 25 November 1942 for the U-90 sinking. He was still in command when she shared a second submarine kill with the Flower-class corvette HMCS Shediac (K100), against U-87 (Kptlt. Joachim Berger) off the Iberian coast on 4 March 1943 as part of Convoy KMS 10. A killer, U-87 had accounted for 5 Allied merchant ships (38,014 tons) before Shediac/St. Croix would end her budding career.

Speaking of endings, in the spirit of living and dying by the sword in epic proportions, St. Croix would come under the sights of Kptlt. Rudolf Bahr’s U-305 while escorting convoy ON-202 southwest of Iceland on the night of 20 September 1943. One of the first victims of the newly developed Gnat acoustic torpedo, she took three hits from the weapon and sank in the freezing waters in six minutes.

In all, she had served the RN/RCN for just 1,091 days, two months shy of her USN career.

After surviving 13 hours afloat, some five officers and 76 men who had survived St. Croix’s loss were picked up by the River-class frigate HMS Itchen (K 227) the next morning only to have that ship sunk by a Gnat fired from U-666 on 23 September. A single member of St. Croix’s crew, Stoker William Fisher, survived his second sinking in 72 hours. He was rescued by a Polish merchant ship, the Wisla, along with two men of the Itchen.

As noted by the Canadian War Museum, “St. Croix’s loss was felt nationwide because the crew, as on many Canadian ships, was drawn from across the country.”

For what it is worth, U-666, the slayer of HMS Itchen, the event that also claimed 80 of St. Croix’s waterlogged and traumatized crew, would meet her end in 1944 at the hands of 842 Sqn Swordfish of the British escort carrier HMS Fencer, with all hands lost. The Battle of the Atlantic was unforgiving no matter the flag.

Epilogue

All 2,852 Canadian and Newfoundland sailors and soldiers lost at sea in WWII were added to the Great War’s Halifax Memorial at Point Pleasant Park in 1966. RCN vessels and visiting warships render honors when passing the memorial in daylight.

Halifax Memorial

St. Croix’s lost crew is chronicled in a page at For Posterity’s Sake. 

As for her sisters, seven Clemsons were lost at the disaster at Honda Point in 1923, and 18 (including six used by the British) were lost in WWII including one, USS Stewart (DD-224), which was famously raised by the Japanese and used in their Navy only to be recaptured by the USN and given a watery grave after the war. Notably, the other Clemson-class RCN Four-Stacker, HMCS St. Francis (ex-USS Bancroft) who sailed as escort to 20 convoys and engaged the enemy on five occasions somehow managed to survive the conflict.

Those remaining Clemsons not sold off in the 1930s or otherwise sent to Davy Jones were scrapped wholesale in the months immediately after WWII. Sister USS Hatfield was decommissioned on 13 December 1946 and was sold for scrap on 9 May 1947 to NASSCO, the last of her kind in the U.S. Navy.

The final Clemson afloat, USS Aulick (DD-258), joined the Royal Navy as HMS Burnham (H82) in 1940 as part of the “Destroyers for Bases” deal. Laid up in 1944, she was allocated for scrapping on 3 December 1948, the end of an era.

None are preserved and only the scattered wrecks in the Western Pacific, Honda Point, the Med and Atlantic endure.

Few elements of the first USS McCook— or the first HMCS St. Croix— remain today other than engineering documents in the National Archives.

St. Croix is remembered in maritime art.

“HMCS St. Croix and U-Boat in North Atlantic” by Ronald Weyman. Canadian War Museum Beaverbrook Collection of War Art CWM 19710261-5628. Weyman served aboard the St. Croix as a naval gunnery officer and only narrowly missed being on the ship when she was sunk and later went on to become an award-winning film and television director and producer after the war. His artwork likely depicts the moment U-90 was sunk on July 24, 1942.

A well-done scale model of HMCS St. Croix is on display at The Military Museums in Calgary along with photos of her service.

(Credit: Naval Museum Assoc. of Alberta via The Military Museums).

Meanwhile, the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum has an exhibit that includes letters from Stoker Fisher, St. Croix’s sole survivor.

The U.S. Navy quickly reused the McCook name in WWII, christening in April 1942 the Gleaves-class destroyer DD-496 (later DMS-46), sponsored by Mrs. Reed Knox, granddaughter of CDR McCook.

Commissioned on 15 March 1943, McCook received three battle stars for World War Il service, all in the ETO. Sent to the Pacific post-war, she was laid up in 1949 at San Diego then at Bremerton before being sent to the breakers in 1973. She was the last USS McCook.

The Canadians likewise commissioned a second St. Croix, a Restigouche-class destroyer (DDE 256) built in the 1950s in Quebec. The Cold Warrior was a big part of the RCN’s ASW plans until paid off early in 1974 due to constrained defense budgets as part of that grinning fool Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal/socialist policies.

The beautiful HMCS St. Croix (DDE 256). She was laid up in 1974, just 18 years after joining the fleet, and was sold in 1991 for scrapping. CFB Esquimalt Museum photo.

Perhaps the RCN could do with a third St. Croix.

Specs:

HMCS St. Croix plan and elevation by LB Jenson

Displacement:
1,215 tons (normal)
1,308 tons (full load)
Length: 314 ft. 4.5 in
Beam: 30 ft. 11.5 in
Draft: 9 ft. 4 in
Propulsion:
4 × boilers, 300 psi (2,100 kPa) saturated steam
2 geared steam turbines
27,600 hp (20,600 kW)
2 shafts
Speed: 35.5 knots
Range: 4,900 nmi (9,100 km) @ 15 knots
Crew: (USN as commissioned)
8 officers
8 chief petty officers
106 enlisted
Armament:

(1920)
4 x 4″/51 cal guns
1 x 3″/23 cal AAA
12 × 21-inch torpedo tubes (4 × 3) (533 mm)


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