Veteran Stories:
Robert Charles Nelson

Navy

  • Telegraphist Robert C. Nelson. October, 1942.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • Telegraphist graduating class in St. Hyacinthe (Quebec). Chief telegraphist James Dunn (Royal Navy) served as instructor. R. C. Nelson is on rear row, second from right. A friend, Bob Rigby (third row, second from left), was lost at sea in the sinking of HMCS St. Croix on September 22nd, 1943.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • On Christmas Day (1943) the captain exchanges uniform and rank with an ordinary rating. On left is Officer Steward Jack McCauley and on right, Lieutenant Robert Jarvis. HMCS Sherbrooke.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • Robert C. Nelson at his radio station on HMCS Quinte. January, 1944.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • Two officers and crew on stern of HMCS Quinte. Note depth charge canisters. January 1945.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • Bangor-class minesweeper HMCS Quinte in Bay of Fundy. 1944.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • 1943. While on convoy escort, HMCS Sherbrooke spotted an abandoned American Liberty Ship. A rescue team was sent and boarded the ship and came back with no survivor.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • The abandon American Liberty ship at sea. 1943.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • Close view of the abandoned American Liberty ship at sea. 1943.

    Robert C. Nelson
  • HMCS Sherbrooke. 1943.

    Robert C. Nelson
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"I was in my skivvies, my shorts and my undershirt and I ran up on the deck in my boots and it was freezing cold but I went down the deck to my action station and when I was at the action station getting ready to drop depth charges, one of the officers threw a sheep skin coat around my shoulders and around my back to keep me warm."

Transcript

The [Royal] Canadian Navy was so junior that we had, in fact my instructor, Chief [James] Dunn, Chief Petty Officer Dunn, in St. Hyacinthe [Quebec], was a Brit. We brought the experienced senior non-commissioned officers from England into Canada to train us. We were trained by the best that there was on earth. And we might have been green. Our ships were new. They were being manufactured and turned out at Hamilton and down in Montreal and throughout Canada. And sure they weren’t massive battleships like the [HMS] Hood [a British battlecruiser] and the British ships. But they were very, very proficient and very maneuverable and very comfortable if you want to call bobbing around in the North Atlantic in the middle of winter comfort.

But we were very proud and we got to be the fourth largest navy in the world. So we won’t take a backseat to anybody on that. And as far as our training, as we got our training we came back into the inland training bases and trained the young fellows and we were turning out top notch well, prepared young fellows for their tours at sea. As far as the battleships, the Americans, America was not in the war until [December] 1941. And that’s, it was before 1941 that they, that Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to the ships being transferred to Britain [as part of the Lend-Lease program enacted in March 1941 under which the United States supplied the United Kingdom and other Allied nations].

And the Americans had a reason for it because they traded those ships for landing rights in places like Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Bermuda. And Britain agreed to allow them the footing to put their troops and their sailors and so on in those British Islands and Colonies which extended the American growth throughout the world. It started giving the Americans the opportunity to expand, if you see what I mean.

But it was those ships that started that, the fact you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. And thank you for the ships so here’s your rights to open your bases in our communities throughout the world.

The convoys, the basic convoys that we were talking about were the ones that formed up in Halifax were…the ships, the merchant ships would assemble in the Bedford Basin in Halifax, a large bay at the west end of Halifax or the Northwest end of the Halifax harbour. And we would, our commanding officers of our ships that would be tied up at the jetties in Halifax, would get their orders to assemble and meet the skippers of the large merchant ships. And they would decide on the route that the convoy would take and the speed and the four ships, Canadian vessels that would protect the convoy.

A vessel like the [HMCS] St. Croix, we spoke of the St. Croix, would be at the front of the convoy and three other smaller ships including, mostly Corvettes, would be on either flank and one at the rear. And they would go back and forth and up and down the convoys listening for and acting on attacking any submarines that they happened to infringe in within the territory of the convoy.

The convoy, we’ve taken convoys over as many as 105 ships which would stretch 15 miles across the surface of the ocean and about the same width and with ample space in between, of course. But the speed of the convoy would maybe be five knots or six knots because of the size of these vessels and the weight of the armaments they were carrying. And our job was constantly to be on alert because the submarines were there. We knew they were there and if we ever picked them up, then it would be a matter of taking action and which it did.

I’ll give you a quote about one winter night that, November of 1943, when we got our call to underwater action because there’s a difference between underwater action and surface action and aerial attack. We never got aerial attack. Not in our convoys. But all of our attacks were under water. Submarine attacks.

And on a ship, everybody including the cooks, had an action station. Like, no cook is going to be in the galley cooking food when the ship is fighting a submarine. So even the cooks have an action station that when the alarm goes if they’re in bed as I was in my hammock, when I got my action station, I was a radio operator. But on an action station the leading signalman, the telegraphist was the one that went to the radio shack and the other telegraphist had action stations. My action station was on the stern, dropping depth charges off the back or stern of the Corvette.

So I got out of my hammock. I was in my skivvies, my shorts and my undershirt and I ran up on the deck in my boots and it was freezing cold but I went down the deck to my action station and when I was at the action station getting ready to drop depth charges, one of the officers threw a sheep skin coat around my shoulders and around my back to keep me warm. He saw me in my undershirt and shorts and I was freezing and but he took his own coat off and threw it around my shoulders and I appreciated that. I can never recall which officer it was because I didn’t even turn. We were involved in action and I didn’t even turn to thank him to see which one it was and I never found out. But it was a memory that I had.

And just at that time in the middle of the night, one of the vessels went up in a ball of flame and we picked up the echo of the submarine and chased the submarine. We dropped depth charges. We never found out whether we were successful or not. The submarines sank two vessels in the convoy and surprisingly right in the middle of the convoy, they’d snuck through, they had got through and but the convoy continued but we never picked up another echo when we were with them.

But it can happen anytime and anywhere and in that same convoy, we got our instruction from the captain of the leader of the escort that one of our lookouts picked up a single ship miles across the water off our starboard side. And we were given permission to break escort and to go over to find what that vessel was. And we challenged it by flashing a letter of the alphabet with our light to challenge them to, they would normally answer it, but nobody did. The vessel was dark and we approached from the stern and it was a massive merchant vessel. And when we rounded the stern to come up the side of it, the entire bow or the front of the ship was missing. The edge, the front of the bridge and back, the back half of the ship was still floating on the ocean but the front half of the vessel was gone. And we came to conclusion that the force of the wind and the waves, the vessel broke in two and the bow sank and the rest of the vessel floated. The crew had abandoned the vessel and all the boats were gone, the sea boats. But we came upon one a few miles ahead with about eight men in a boat and we went up alongside and took the survivors into the vessel and they stayed with us until we returned to Halifax.

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