Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time 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, April 21, 2021: Let’s Vote on It
Here we see a beautiful original color photo of the Improved Fiji-class (alternatively described as Colony-class, Mauritius-class, or Ceylon-class) cruiser HMCS Quebec (31) in Copenhagen, Denmark, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, 21 April 1954– some 67 years ago today. She battled the Germans, Italians, and Japanese withstood the divine wind and “Fritz X” only to have her reputation mired in undeserved controversy.
A borderline “treaty” cruiser of interwar design, the Fijis amounted to a class that was one short of a dozen with an 8,500-ton standard displacement. In WWII service, this would balloon to a very top-heavy weight of over 11,000. Some 15 percent of the standard displacement was armor. As described by Richard Worth, in his Fleets of World War II, the design was much better off than the previous Leander-class cruisers, and essentially “the Admiralty resolved to squeeze a Town [the immediately preceding 9,100-ton light cruiser class] into 8,000-tons.”
With a fine transom stern, they were able to achieve over 32 knots on a plant that included four Admiralty 3-drum boilers driving four Parsons steam turbines, their main armament amounted to nine 6″/50 (15.2 cm) BL Mark XXIII guns in three triple Mark XXI mountings in the case of our cruiser and her two immediate full sisters (HMS Ceylon and HMS Newfoundland).
Ordered from Vickers-Armstrong’s, Walker in March 1939, just six months before Hitler sent his legions into Poland, Quebec, our subject vessel was originally named HMS Uganda (66) after that African protectorate. A war baby, she commissioned 3 January 1943.
After workups and interception patrols on the lookout for German blockade runners, in May she escorted the RMS Queen Mary (with Churchill aboard) across the Atlantic for a meeting with President Roosevelt at what later became known to history as the Washington Conference.
Transferred to the Mediterranean for service with the 15th Cruiser Squadron, she helped escort convoy WS31/KMF17 on the way before arriving in Malta with Admiral Cunningham aboard on 4 July. Then came the Husky landings in Sicily, where she was very busy covering the landings of the British 1st Airborne Division near Syracuse, rescuing 36 survivors from the hospital ship Talamba, and delivering naval gunfire support.
Then came the Avalanche landings at Salerno in September, where she provided NGFS for the British X Corps. Four days after reaching the beachhead, she was hit by a 3,000-pound German Fritz X precision-guided, armor-piercing bomb at 1440 on 13 September. Passing through seven decks and through her keel, it exploded under her hull, crippling but not quite killing the ship. When the smoke cleared, amazingly just 16 men of Uganda’s complement were dead.
The damage was very similar, albeit much less costly in lives, to the hit that the same-sized treaty cruiser USS Savannah (CL-42) suffered off Salerno two days prior. In the Fritz attack on that Brooklyn-class light cruiser, the early smart bomb hit the top of the ship’s number three 6/47-gun turret and penetrated deep into her hull before its 710-pound amatol warhead exploded. The damage was crippling, blowing out the bottom of the ship’s hull, immediately flooding her magazines– which may have ironically saved the ship as it prevented them from detonating– and killed 197 of her crew. In all, she would spend eight months being rebuilt.
As for Uganda, she was moved to Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina for extensive repairs– just in time to become the most capable warship in another navy.
By 1944, the Royal Canadian Navy could rightfully claim to be about the third strongest in the world when it came to warship tonnage. However, it was almost all in small escorts such as sloops, corvettes, frigates, and destroyers as well as armed yachts, trawlers, and torpedo boats. The RCN did have three armed merchant cruisers– the “Prince” class Canadian National Steamships passenger liners, which, at 6,000 tons, carried a dozen 6-, 4- and 3-inch guns, as well as depth charges and assorted Bofors/Oerlikons– but Ottawa had no proper cruisers on its naval list.
To rectify this, the brand-new light cruiser HMS Minotaur (53), transferred to Royal Canadian Navy in July 1944, and became HMCS Ontario (C53), although she did not finish working up in time to contribute much to the war effort. She was soon joined by Uganda, who kept her name when she was recommissioned 21 October 1944– Trafalgar Day– but replaced HMS with HMCS.
Uganda’s new crew, drawn from throughout the Canadian fleet, was assembled in 80-man teams and shipped out on a range of British 6-inch cruisers to train on their vessel while it was being repaired. These included a team that, while on HMS Sheffield, braved the Murmansk run and the Boxing Day 1943 fight against Scharnhorst. Curiously, and a bone of contention with the crew, she carried an RN duster rather than a Canadian ensign.
The Canadian cruiser would be commanded by Capt. Edmond Rollo Mainguy, who had previously served on several large RN warships including the battleship HMS Barham in the Great War.
Dispatched for service with the British Pacific Fleet, which was preparing for the final push against Japan, she stopped in the UK for sensor upgrades on the way, swapping Type 284 and 272 radars for newer Type 274 for fire control and Types 277 and 293 for surface warning and height finding. Nonetheless, the choice of the ship for tropical service, as it at the time lacked both onboard exhaust fans for air circulation and a water distillation plant capable of supporting the crew, was questionable. Belowdecks, when not on duty, many men simply wore “a towel and a pair of shoes.”
Regardless, she was a beautiful ship and her crew, most of whom were Battle of the Atlantic vets, were ready to fight.
She joined the BPF on 9 March, arriving that day in Sydney via the Suez and the Indian Ocean. Joining British TF 57 as part of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Uganda soon became a close escort for the fleet’s carriers, particularly HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable. This included fighting off kamikaze raids, delivering NGFS, and acting as a lifeguard for downed aviators as the fleet pushed past Formosa, through the Philippines, and on to Okinawa.
Life aboard the ship continued to decline for the crew. Compounding the uncomfortable heat aboard– which led to rounds of tropical bacteria, viruses, and fungus infections among the crew– the BPF had logistical issues trying to supply its ships. This led to mechanical issues as spare parts were not available and poor food.
As noted by Bill Rawling’s A Lonely Ambassador: HMCS Uganda and the War in the Pacific, a 25-page article in The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, VIII, No. 1 (January 1998), 39-63, one firsthand report of the time detailed:
In the tropics everything multiplied — of a crew of 900, two men were detailed for spraying cockroach powder through the mess decks to at least try to control them. It was not out of the ordinary to be munching on your de-hydrated peas and carrots to feel a sharp “crunch.” That was another roach being broken up. Flour deteriorated into a life form — a tiny worm with a white body and a little black head. It would be found in the bread which was baked aboard ship. At first, we would pick the worms out, but as we were told, and came to realize, they would not hurt us, we just ate them with the bread and called it our meat ration for the day.
This set the stage for what became known as the “Uganda Episode.”
As explained by the Naval and Marine Museum at CFB Esquimalt:
Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced on 4 April 1945 that the Canadian Government no longer intended to deploy personnel, other than volunteers, to the Pacific Theatre. The “Volunteers Only” policy, as it was called, required that all naval personnel specifically re-volunteer for service in the Pacific Theatre before they would be dispatched to participate in hostilities.
On the eve of the vote, in which it seemed many of Uganda’s crew were on the fence about going home, Capt. Mainguy reportedly gave a tone-deaf speech that went as high as a lead balloon with one crew member’s recalling that he, “Called us four flushers and quitters. Those who were in doubt soon made up their minds at a statement like that.”
The June 22 crew vote found that 556 of Uganda’s men preferred to head home, while just 344 re-volunteered to stay in the Pacific despite the daunting risk of kamikaze attack and a war that, at the time, was expected to drag out at least another year. With the prospect of swapping out so many of the cruiser’s complement while still deployed a non-starter, the plan was to send her back to Esquimalt, update her for continued service, and sail back to the war with a reformed crew in time to join Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyūshū which was slated for November.
Relieved on station by the British cruiser HMS Argonaut on 27 July, ironically the Japanese signaled they were ready to quit the war just two weeks later, making the Uganda vote– which left a bitter pill with the RN– almost a moot subject. Uganda arrived at Esquimalt on 10 August, the day the Japanese officially threw in the towel.
While labels of mutiny and cowardice were unjustly lobbed at her crew by historians, her skipper would go on to become a Vice Admiral.
Postwar, Uganda would spend the next two years in a training role.
Transferred to the reserves in August 1947, her slumber was brief.
Recommissioned as a result of the Korean War on 14 January 1952 as HMCS Quebec (C31), she soon sailed for Halifax to continue her service, notably under a Canadian flag and with belowdecks habitability improvements.
For the next four years, she was a global traveler, heavily involved in NATO exercises.
She also became the first Canadian naval ship to circumnavigate Africa, during her 1955 cruise. In 1946, she had claimed the first such Canadian warship to “Round the Horn” of South America.
With all-gun cruisers that required a 900-man crew increasingly obsolete in the Atomic era, Quebec was paid off 13 June 1956 and laid up in Nova Scotia. Four years later, she was sold for her value in scrap metal to a Japanese concern.
She is remembered in period maritime art, specifically in a piece by official war artist Harold Beament, who was on the RCNVR list and later president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
Today, the RCN remembers Quebec fondly. Narrated by R.H. Thomson, the script in the below tribute video is based on a memoir by LCDR Roland Leduc, RCN (Ret’d) who served on the post-war cruiser.
For a great deep dive into HMS Uganda, especially her 1945 service, check out Bill Rawling’s A Lonely Ambassador: HMCS Uganda and the War in the Pacific, a 25-page article in The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord, VIII, No. 1 (January 1998), 39-63.
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