Veteran Stories:
Patrick Nixon

Navy

  • The Memory Project, Historica Canada
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"We used to, when we were at sea, we’d say, “For God’s sake, let’s get into harbour so we can get some sleep.” And there would be so many parties in harbour we said, “For God’s sake, let’s get to sea again so we can get some sleep.”"

Transcript

I went right through World War II unscathed and I saw a lot of ships sunk, but the ships were sunk by myself.  But my only wound was a small scar on my forehead from World War I when I was lying in my crib at Halifax dockyard and plaster fell of the ceiling onto my face [during the Halifax Explosion].  But fortunately a door fell across me first and saved me, got in the way of most of the plaster.  My mother and elder brother, sister and in those days, servants, they were at breakfast… [T]hey got outside the house and said, “Well, whatever happened we all survived.”  And as the story goes, as a bit of an afterthought, somebody said, “Where’s the baby?”  That was me upstairs.  They prevailed upon a sailor that was passing by to walk up the wall of the house, which was leaning over so far, that he could walk up it and he fished me out.  So it was only reasonable that, I myself join the Navy.

Since there was no Naval College in Canada, all my contemporaries for a period of 20 years or so, we did all our training in the Royal Navy.  There was nowhere else to train… we spent the first year at sea in a training cruiser called the FROBISHER and we lived more or less as sailors during the day and scrubbed the decks and that sort of thing, when we weren’t in classes… after four years, I finally joined the Canadian ship[1939].  The destroyer HMCS ST LAURENT, which was at Comox in northern Vancouver Island and did some training…at very short notice, two of the destroyers, my ship and the HMCS FRASER were ordered to Halifax at full speed.  [We] arrived in Halifax just in time to refuel and go to sea again and escort the first Canadian convoy to England.

We were out with a convoy and were ordered back into Halifax to refuel and embark maximum ammunition. There were three [other] destroyers, HMCS ST LAURENT, HMCS SKEENA and HMCS RESTIGOUCHE… we were given orders to go to the United Kingdom …on the way over, the Germans…invaded France…I remember my Captain, Lieutenant-Commander Harry DeWolf…saying in this matter of fact way, “Now, we got a war on our hands.” …After getting some quick conversion, our anti-aircraft armament was improved and the Dunkirk crisis arrived as we were in the Channel.

And while we were just up the coast of Dunkirk, St Valery or Cowes, we were to try to help evacuate [British Soldiers]…I was sent ashore with our three boats, to see what we could do in the way of evacuating military people.  The only soldiers were some exhausted, demoralized people of the French Army…I gathered about 50 French soldiers and we got them back to the ship. Then the German field guns appeared on the cliffs of St Valery and opened fire at us.  And we, of course, fired back. …The first action [of] the Royal Canadian Navy was when we exchanged fire with the German field guns. Not many people know today that there were four Canadian destroyers…in the English Channel during that terrible time of the retreat from France.

...In late 1940… we stumbled on a convoy.  Which was unusual for those slow convoys, it was ahead of schedule... And we arrived.  Just one lone destroyer and this convoy had no escort other than ourselves.  And about the same time, about six U-Boats arrived and had a field day and we spent the night pulling the people out of the drink because the ships were sunk one after the other.  But at dawn, we sighted a U-Boat on the surface and, of course, went after it...by this time, a British destroyer, the VISCOUNT had appeared from somewhere.  And the two of us, naturally, attacked the U-Boat, which immediately submerged needless to say, and we were credited with probably sinking it.  But, in fact, it was found out later that the U-Boat got away and got back to base.  It must have got some damage, but at least we drove it off the convoy so it couldn’t do any more.

Knowing we were going to spend Christmas in Scapa Flow, I had got some cases of beer for the sailors onboard in preparation.  On Christmas Eve we had got a signal from the senior officer of the fleet… saying, “No alcohol liquor was to be served,”... So, I naturally I turned a blind eye to the orders and they ignored us and the men had a wonderful time.  My officers were concerned that they had too good a time and things got a bit out of hand and the British authorities were a bit suspicious when we asked to land a lot of the sailors for a route march the next day to get it out of their systems.

We had been to the Azores and we went from one convoy to another through what was considered the worst U Boats cell to reinforce the escort and one of the ships picked up a sonar contact.  [We] lost it a few times temporarily, but managed to get on it again.  It was one sided actually, because we had five or six ships versus one U Boat... the trouble was that the U Boat was very deep.   So we dropped 26 depth charges, a full maximum battery of depth charges, set deep.  And that’s what damaged the ship as far as we could find out.  …30 hours later [we] brought the U Boat to the surface,…[it was] damaged but mainly [it] had to come up for air … and we sent boarding parties. …Another ship on the other side sent a boarding…  So when they approached the U Boat at one side and the other and they met on the hull of the U Boat, and they did a sort of “Dr. Livingston, I presume.  Fancy seeing you here in the middle of the North Atlantic.”

It affected me more than I realized.  It affected me quite a lot looking back on it, but I didn’t realize it at the time.  Except I sometimes had nightmares.  I would wake up.  The nightmares were in action, say, “Open Fire, you fool!” or something like that and because you were so tense for so long.  I was in command of destroyers for over three years, which was really too long. I was very fortunate to have survived.  We were in action after action and could easily have become a cropper.

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