Article about Saguenay and the Royal Canadian Navy.William Lake
William Lake, 2010.Historica Canada
"The gale, those winds are over 100 miles an hour. The waves are breaking right over our ship. It’s snowing; you can’t see 20 feet off the bow."
I guess I joined the navy because my brother, who was my idol, [laughs] joined the navy. Actually, two of my best chums also joined up about the same time I did. One joined the army, Chuck Cornwell, and the other, Bob Little, who had moved to Ottawa at this time (his dad was with the income tax people), and he joined the air force. And I joined the navy. Unfortunately, Chuck was killed on the landings on D-Day and Bob lost his life over in France before D-Day. So of the three boyhood chums, only one survived.
By this time, the Channel Brest had been taken and the ports in the English Channel had been closed off to the Germans. So they were bringing their submarines down from Norway and coming out between that would be west of the British Isles and everything in France, and coming down to the Atlantic off Iceland. So we were sent up there to close off that gap. This was in early October or, I say, more like the middle of October.
And we were at sea and I got a message decoded; and it says that we were expecting to run into a storm, gale force winds. The winds would be off the Beaufort Scale, which means that it was going to be a hurricane or something. Anyway, the senior officer was still Capell, at this time. He got a message saying, we could return to port, to Reykjavik, the harbour if we so wished. Well, Capell said, we’ll go to harbour. So we sent a message to them saying we want to remain at sea. And they said, no, you’ve got to go to harbour with us. And we said, well, send a message saying we only got a single capsule, we can only work one anchor; and we will not feel safe anywhere near Iceland because Iceland is a volcanic island, and the harbour and the sea bed around it is just nothing but lava rock; and we feel that we can’t hold anchor at that time. Our navigating officer, Lieutenant Chance, tells the captain, I want to be relieved of my command because I cannot guarantee a safe anchorage. But no, he’s told to get back there.
Well, we get in there, the anchor didn’t abeam an island at the entrance, Videy Island. Well, we put down our one anchor, that’s all we could use, set up anchor watches and everything else, but the gale, those winds are over 100 miles an hour. The waves are breaking right over our ship. It’s snowing; you can’t see 20 feet off the bow. And we got some running lights on, I guess. One of the ships, [HMCS] St. Laurent I think it was, sent a message saying we think you’re dragging your anchor. Well, our anchor watch they didn’t, they should have known that, I guess.
But Lieutenant Kidd, who’s the executive officer on the bridge, he says, I’m trying to get a bearing, but he couldn’t see. And the next thing we know is that we’re up on a reef. We’d lost both our propellers, so we’ve got now power. And we’re up on this reef. The captain ordered abandoned ship. Now, there’s some argument as to whether he said prepare to abandon ship or abandon ship. But I know it was abandon ship because I was right there. And I said to him, I asked permission to talk to him, and one of the officers kind of said no and I said, well, you can’t refuse my wanting to approach the captain. So he was just up on the forecastle ahead of me because, just in the meantime, we’d got everybody up with their lifejackets on and everything; got our Carley floats [liferafts] overboard, which were supposed to be tied on, not loose.
Anyway, I went up to him and said, sir, we’re hard aground and he said, yeah. And I said, we’re whole. And he said, yes. And I said, we’re fast on the reef, and he said, yes. I said, well, with the tide going out the way it is there, it’s just suicide to abandon ship. And he looked at me and said, belay that last order; and he announced it and we yelled it and he said, get those men back. Well, I went out where I was supposed to be and we started to haul back some Carley floats. But some of them had gone loose and they were just swept out to sea. Some of them landed on this island, Videy Island. And the Icelandic farmers from that island, they could hear all the noise of venting steam and alarms going off. So they started to patrol the island. And they did find some of the people that had made it the island, took them into their homes and looked after them. But 15 people that night died from exposure. They were buried in Iceland in the Forsberg cemetery. The Icelanders, to this day, look after the graves and everything, put flowers on them and just recently, they found one of the anchors off our ship and they’ve mounted it on Videy Island and they have built a memorial to the [HMCS] Skeena.