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, August 25, 2021: At Least the Middle Bit is Still There
Here we see the Improved A-class/River-class destroyer, HMCS Saguenay (H01/D79/I79) entering Willemstad Harbor, Netherlands Antilles, during her 1934 cruise. The Royal Canadian Navy’s first “new” warship, she would lose large portions of herself on two different occasions during WWII but prove to be one very tough tin can.
In 1927, the Admiralty ordered nine new A-class (Active, Acasta, Arrow, Ardent, et. al) destroyers from a series of five firms around the UK– spread out those contracts– all laid down within a few months of each other. Powered by two Parsons geared steam turbines, each with their own shaft, using steam provided by three Admiralty water-tube boilers equipped with superheaters, these 1,350-ton (standard) 323-foot greyhounds were extremely fast, able to hit 35 knots. Armed with four QF 4.7″/45cal Mk IX singles and a pair of quadruple 21-inch torpedo tubes, they could hold their own. Able to (kind of) sweep mines, they initially carried little ASW gear as, after all, when they were designed, the Versailles Treaty had barred Germany from making or owning U-boats.
By 1928, Ottawa moved to order a pair of modified A-class destroyers of their own. Dropping the superheaters, they had a slightly longer range while keeping the same speed on an improved hull that was both three feet shorter and better suited to withstand ice– a very Canadian problem. They also had a redesigned superstructure to keep the ships drier, among other minor changes from both the builder (slab-sided funnels) and the Canadians. These two new vessels, Saguenay, and Skeena were named after Canadian river systems and were never “HMS” but rather “HMCS” vessels. As the other A-class ships had “H” pennant numbers originally, Saguenay and Skeena became H01 and H02 on the RCN’s list.
Built at Thornycroft in Hampshire, Saguenay launched on 11 July 1930 and was commissioned on 21 May 1931, with sister Skeena, crafted at the same yard, taken into service three weeks later.
They were the first warships built entirely to Canadian specifications and made a big splash when they arrived “home” for the first time on 3 July.
A Happy Peace
In the winter of 1934, HMCS Skeena, HMCS Saguenay, HMCS Champlain, and HMCS Vancouver took part in Winter exercises off South America.
Two years later, the RCN escorted the pilgrimage to and provided the Royal Guard for King Edward VII at the Vimy memorial unveiling, the first such honor for the service. As it would turn out, that detail was provided entirely by Saguenay’s tars. It should be noted that this detail was the first armed Canadian military contingent in France for the first time since the end of the Great War.
The Naval Historical Section would later emphasize the significance of the decision:
” …here was something more than a ship; here was a symbol – a symbol of Canada’s faith that her future was inexorably bound to her sea-borne trade – of a maturing nation’s acceptance of responsibilities commensurate with her development as a world power – of a people’s belief that peace and prosperity were rooted firmly in pre-paredness and the ability to defend, if necessary, her ocean seaways.
“The Royal Guard represented roughly one-third of the Saguenay’s entire complement and consisted of three officers, three petty officers, and 60 ratings (sailors). The Officer of the Guard was Lieutenant (later Rear-Admiral, OBE) Hugh Francis Pullen, RCN, while Lieutenant Morson Alexander Medland, RCN, served as the Colour Officer (the guard carried a white naval ensign ashore with it) and Gunner (T) Patrick David Budge, RCN, served as the Second Officer of the Guard. The three petty officers were Robert Brownings (who formed the right guide), Charles J. Kelly, and Frederick W. Saunders (who, by 1953, was a chief petty officer honoured with the George Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal). The remainder of the guard incorporated five leading seamen, two leading stokers, 30 able seamen, 11 stokers, 10 ordinary seamen, one signaler, and one telegraphist, all of whom were RCN regulars.”
When Canada entered WWII, Saguenay and Skeena were part of the soon-to-be famed “Barber Pole squadron,” Escort Group (EG) C-3, operating out of St. John’s, Newfoundland, so named due to the red and white band carried on the aft funnel. Both ships had their ASW armament increased considerably.
She was part of the very first Halifax convoy, HX001, sailing 17 September 1939, just over a fortnight after the war started.
Taking a break from her convoy work, Saguenay, working with the cruisers HMS Orion and Caradoc, intercepted the German tanker Emmy Friederich in the Yucatan Straight on 23 October. Formerly the Clyde-built tanker Borderer, Friederich was sailing from Tampico loaded with cargo to keep the pocket battleship Graf Spee in the surface raiding biz but scuttled herself at the sight of the Allied warships. As remembered by every naval history nerd, it was Graf Spee’s lack of fuel that forced her endgame in the South Atlantic seven weeks later.
Returning to Halifax to resume local escort duty, over the next 25 months, Saguenay would ride shotgun on a whopping 84 Atlantic convoys, mostly to and from Halifax and Liverpool but also Sydney, Nova Scotia (SC) convoys, as well as Halifax-to-St. John coastwise runs (HJ).
You can’t walk on glass that long and not get cut.
Sailing from Axis-occupied Bordeaux, the Italian submarine Argo was part of the Italian BETASOM group, the submarine was a member of spaghetti wolfpack “Giuliani,” along with the Giuliani, Tarantini, and Torelli, assigned interdiction duty off the coast of Ireland.
On 1 December 1940, while some 300 miles from the Irish coast during escort of HX47, Argo sighted our little destroyer and hit her with a torpedo, removing 20-25 feet of her bow structure and killing 21 of her crew. Remarkably, good damage control allowed the ship to withdraw from her escort duties and proceed to Barrow in Furness under her own power with HMS Highlander in escort. She would spend the next five months in extensive repair and reconstruction.
At 04.49 on December 1st, Captain Crepas sighted a silhouette very low on the horizon. Concerned that it could be another Italian submarine, Captain Crepas sent a message with the on-board light. Once the ARGO was close enough, the unit was recognized as a two-stack destroyer and the attack commenced immediately. A single torpedo (the Italians tended to use only one weapon and this was often not sufficient in sinking the enemy vessel) was launched and it hit the target squarely. A second torpedo was also launched later on, giving the impression that the target was destroyed. Once back to the surface, the crew of the ARGO picked up numerous debris indicating the vessel in question as H.M.C.S. Sagueney (D79). Only 10 days later, the German submarine command (B.d.U.) received information that H.M.C.S. Saguenay, despite having been seriously damaged, had been towed back to England. After the war, the Royal Navy added that the destroyer was part of the escort for convoy HG.47 and that it had reached Barrow in Furness on December 5th (five days after the attack), confirming this information.
Four days after hitting Saguenay, Argo sank the British freighter Silverpine (5,066 tons) while on the same patrol, her only “kill” of the war. She was scuttled in September 1943 after Italy left the war and the Germans arrived at Monfalcone.
Back to work
Returning to Atlantic convoy work, in August 1941 Saguenay was part of the escort for the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, carrying Churchill to Newfoundland to meet with FDR.
In January 1942, while on Convoy OS52, she suffered more damage at the hands of Neptune, taking heavy wave hits to her superstructure which required another four-month stint in crowded, overworked repair yards. (The fact that the Atlantic itself was a combatant against all sides in the Battle of the Atlantic was not to be overlooked. Sadly, Saguenay’s closest sister Skeena was storm wrecked in Iceland in 1944.)
Saguenay returned to service with Convoy HX191 in May.
Her last convoy duty was with HJ018, during which on 15 November 1942 she was accidentally rammed by the American freighter SS Azra (the requisitioned 1,700-ton Danish cargoship Marna) 50 miles Southeast of Cape Spare, Newfoundland. In that collision, Saguenay lost her stern when her depth charges exploded but, in a weird twist of fate, took her assaulter with her, as two of the fused charges exploded under the hull of Azra, sending the freighter to the bottom. The reeling Canuck in turn took Azra’s waterlogged crew members onboard.
Saguenay, disabled but amazingly suffering no casualties, was taken in tow to St John for repair. After a survey, the battered destroyer was declared beyond economic repair and her structure was sealed to allow the vessel to be towed to Halifax.
Still, most of her equipment was intact and, although not able to steam, was useful as a training hulk, a mission she spent the rest of the war accomplishing at to HMCS Cornwallis at Digby, Nova Scotia. There, she was used in the shoreside schooling of new ratings in seamanship and gunnery from October 1943 until July 1945 when she was paid off, meaning thousands of Canadian tars cycled through her compartments on the way to the fleet.
Further, her first two skippers, Percy W. Nelles and Leonard W. Murray, both served as admirals during the Battle of the Atlantic, with the former rising to Chief of the RCN Naval Staff during the conflict.
The Canadian role in the Battle of the Atlantic is often overlooked but was key to the overall Allied victory in WWII. As noted by the Veterans Affairs Canada:
More than 25,000 merchant ships safely made it to their destination under Canadian escort, delivering approximately 165 million tons of supplies to Europe. The Royal Canadian Navy helped sink more than 30 enemy submarines but at a steep price. They lost approximately 2,000 sailors during the war. The Royal Canadian Air Force was also hit hard, losing more than 750 personnel over the Atlantic. More than 1,600 merchant mariners from Canada and Newfoundland were killed during the battle. Civilians were not spared either. On October 14, 1942, 136 people died when the ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed as it crossed from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland.
After the war, Saguenay was sold for breaking up by International Iron and Metal at Hamilton, Ontario, and was towed there in early 1946.
Of the 11 A- and Improved A-class destroyers, besides Skeena, six were lost during WWII to include two, Acasta and Ardent, sunk in a surface action with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off Narvik; Achates lost in the Barents in a one-sided fight with the German cruiser Admiral Hipper; Acheron lost to a mine, Arrow wrecked in an explosion in Algiers, and Codrington sunk by German bombers off Dover during the Battle of Britain. Of the remaining three “As” — Active, Antelope, and Anthony— obsolete for postwar work, they were soon paid off and scrapped by 1948.
Saguenay has an extensive entry maintained at For Posterity’s Sake, a Royal Canadian Navy Historical Project.
Relics of Saguenay exist today, such as her bell, which is on public display in Halifax.
In celebration of her history and status as Canada’s first warship that wasn’t a hand-me-down, Royal Mint Canada earlier this year announced a special $C50 silver coin in her honor, designed by artist Glen Green.
The old “Barber Pole” badge of Saguenay’s St. John’s-based squadron was retained with pride by the postwar Canadian Navy and is still in use by Atlantic units.
In 1956, the Royal Canadian Navy commissioned a new Halifax-built St-Laurent-class destroyer HMCS Saguenay (DD/DDH 206). Like her WWII namesake, she specialized in ASW and, in a funny coincidence, while on a 1986 NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea, she collided with the West German Type 206A coastal submarine U-17 (S196). Gratefully, there were no fatalities on either side and both warships went on to serve several more years.
Displacement: 1,337 long tons (1,358 t)
Length: 321 ft 3 in o/a, 309 ft. p/p
Beam: 32 ft 9 in
Draft: 10 ft
Speed: 35 knots (as built), 31 knots by 1943
Radar: None originally, Type 286 search and Type 271 range finding by 1943
4 x QF 4.7″/45cal Mk IX guns (A, B, X, Y mounts)
2 x 4 tubes for 21-inch torpedoes
2 x QF 2-pounder 40 mm pom-pom guns
2 x QF 4.7″/45cal Mk IX guns (B, X mounts)
1 x QF 3-inch 20 cwt 12-pounder AAA gun (in place of aft torpedo tube turn stall)
1 x 4 tubes for 21-inch torpedoes
6 x 1 20 mm Oerlikon AAA guns
Hedgehog anti-submarine mortar (in former A mount)
Depth charges (70) and Y-guns
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