A legend’s name lives on

Harry DeWolf. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Canada’s most accomplished naval officer, commander “Hard Over Harry” DeWolf, ended the Second World wearing both the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Service Cross. His final combat command, HMCS Haida, earned the title, “fightingest ship in the Royal Canadian Navy.”

Henry George DeWolf’s path began in Bedford on June 26, 1903. He was a scion of the DeWolf family of ships’ brokers and shipping agents, established in Nova Scotia in 1761 when family patriarch Nathan DeWolf arrived from Connecticut.

In 1921, Henry DeWolf graduated from the Royal Naval College of Canada in Esquimalt, B.C. Upon graduation, he served on the British battleship HMS Resolution and took a six-month course at the Britannia Royal Naval College in the U.K. Returning to Canada in the summer of 1925, he was posted to HMCS Patriot. During the 1930s, he served a stint at National Defence Headquarters as Assistant Director of Intelligence and Plans, studied further at RNC and completed a second exchange with the British navy.

When war broke out in September 1939, Lieutenant-Commander DeWolf was the captain of HMCS St. Laurent, a C-class destroyer, formerly HMS Cygnet. Posted to convoy duty, it was drawn into Operation Dynamo, the desperate Dunkirk evacuation, in June 1940.

On June 11, St. Laurent engaged a German artillery battery near Saint-Valery-en-Caux, reportedly firing the Canadian navy’s first shots of the war. A month later, the ship participated in the rescue operation after U-47 torpedoed the SS Arandora Star, which was carrying hundreds of Axis prisoners of war, to Canada. Twice, St. Laurent was mentioned in dispatches under DeWolf’s command.

During this time, DeWolf also had one of the hairiest incidents of his career. “The mechanism of a live, armed torpedo was being painted by a sailor, who first lifted the safety catch to paint underneath it, and then lifted the firing handle to paint under that,” he later recalled. “The torpedo fired, naturally, and ran wild on deck … Since we thought we were all going up any second, Petty Officer Ridge and myself decided to try and tame the torpedo. We got astride it. It was as slippery as a greased pig, and we thought its propeller might cut our feet off. We rode and guided it over the rail and stuck one leg over the rail to hold it steady. The propeller was making a tremendous racket on the iron deck. We finally managed to release the air cock.”

Today, HMCS Haida is preserved in Hamilton, On. as a National Historic Site.

In August 1943, DeWolf took command of newly commissioned HMCS Haida. HMCS Haida was one of eight Tribal-class destroyers commissioned by the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. Goaded on by superior Japanese ships, the Tribals were super destroyers. They offered the speed and manoeuvrability of a destroyer paired with armament equivalent to a light cruiser, and on the outbreak of the war they were the state of the art in naval design.

“I want those for my navy,” Admiral P.W. Nelles, Chief of the Canadian Naval Staff, remarked after seeing a photograph of the first Tribal in 1938.

HMCS Haida came into service in the fall of 1943, initially serving on the Murmansk Run while based at Scapa Flow. In this capacity, it participated in the destruction of the German battleship Scharnhorst. In January 1944 Haida transferred to the 10th Destroyer Flotilla operating out of Plymouth, England.

The flotilla was tasked with securing the western approaches to the English Channel and aggressively sought enemy vessels as D-Day approached. Haida engaged in a string of battles, and it was in these restricted waters DeWolf earned the nickname “Hard Over Harry.”

In April 1944, DeWolf won the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) when Haida ran the German torpedo boat T27 aground, although sister ship HMCS Athabaskan was lost in the engagement. Despite strict orders to disengage, DeWolf refused to abandon Athabaskan, recovering 42 survivors before dawn forced him to break off the search.

On June 9, three days after D-Day, along with HMCS Huron, Haida sank the destoyers Z32 and ZH1, earning DeWolf a Distinguished Service Cross in the Battle of Ushant. Less than three weeks later, it joined HMS Eskimo to sink U-971. On Haida’s best day, in company of the Polish ship ORP Blyskawica, it sank two auxiliary submarine chasers, UJ-1420 and UJ-1421, and a merchantman. It left two other cargo ships ablaze.

When Allied forces broke out of Normandy into Brittany, the flotilla expanded its operations into the Bay of Biscay to isolate German garrisons and destroy U-boats. Haida remained with the 10th Destroyer Flotilla until September 1944. After a three-month refit in Halifax, it returned to the north, ultimately joining the fleet that took custody of German U-boats in Trondheim, Norway. By war’s end, Haida had sunk 14 enemy vessels.

In September 1944, DeWolf took a new post, assigned to Ottawa as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff. During the postwar years, DeWolf briefly commanded the aircraft carriers HMCS Warrior and Magnificent, and spent two years as Flag Officer Pacific Coast at Esquimalt from 1948 to 1950. Returning to Ottawa, he served as Vice Chief of Naval Staff from 1950 to 1952, moving on to Washington, D.C. as principal military advisor to the Canadian ambassador, Hume Wrong and then A.D.P. Heeney, from 1952 to 1956. In January 1956, appointed Chief of the Naval Staff, he returned to Ottawa.

Retiring in 1960, he spent his summers in Ottawa and the remainder of the year in Somerset, Bermuda, his wife Gwendolen Gilbert’s hometown. He died in Ottawa in December 2000 at the age of 97 and was buried at sea from the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Ville de Québec.

In Halifax, Admiral Harry DeWolf Park keeps his memory alive, as does the commissioning of HMCS Harry DeWolf, Canada’s newest Offshore Patrol Vessel. The new craft will carry his name to all three of Canada’s oceans. In August, it will embark on a circumnavigation of North America, returning to Halifax in time for Christmas, carrying the Canadian navy into the high Arctic for the first time since 1957. Hard Over Harry, a wheat beer from Dartmouth’s Brightwood Brewing, is named in tribute to DeWolf.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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