Halifax’s last war tragedy
Nautical lore has long held that it is ill-omened to begin a voyage on a Friday. Perhaps workers sealed HMCS Esquimalt’s fate when they laid down its keel at a Quebec shipyard on Friday, December 20, 1940. The ship’s short and troubled life ended in tragedy off Chebucto Head; it was the last Canadian warship the enemy sunk in the Second World War.
The Bangor-class minesweepers were cheap and quick to build, with little else to recommend them. Esquimalt had a top speed of just 16 knots and was armed with a single quick-firing 12-pounder cannon mounted forward, two 20-mm cannons on the bridge wings, two antiaircraft guns, and two depth-charge launchers. It had a complement of seven officers and 64 sailors.
It was a diesel-powered variant, harder to handle than the slow-speed reciprocating-engine versions. Other problems magnified in the diesel version. Lacking a boiler, it was 6 metres shorter than steam-powered models, magnifying the tendency to bury the bow when operating in a head sea. Shallow draft increased instability.
Esquimalt launched in the summer of 1941. Problems plagued the vessel; it was another 14 months before it was ready for service. Commissioned in October 1942, almost two years after construction began, it finally arrived in Halifax in November 1942.
Upon arrival, it needed to lay up for further repairs and only became operational on March 27, 1943. Again, May was spent in repairs. Finally, Esquimalt was assigned to Newfoundland Force, but that service was short lived.
By September it was back in Halifax for more repairs and out of service until the New Year. In January 1945, it joined Halifax Local Defense Force. On the evening of April 15, 1945 Esquimalt sailed on a routine anti-submarine patrol of the approaches to Halifax.
It was scheduled to rendezvous the next day with HMCS Sarnia off Chebucto Head. At 6:10 a.m., depth-charge crews stood down. Daybreak revealed a long, low swell with good visibility as the watch changed. An experienced officer, Lt. Robert Cunningham MacMillan, was in command, but Esquimalt made no efforts to protect itself. It was equipped with special gear to distract acoustic torpedoes, but didn’t deploy it. Nor was it following a zigzag course, a rudimentary measure to avoid submarine attack. This serious neglect of orders endangered the ship. A naval inquiry petered out in peacetime without explaining these failures.
At around 6:30 a.m., it crossed paths with the German submarine U-190. On its sixth patrol, it had left Norway in February and attacked a merchant ship in early April without success. But in the early hours of April 16, commander Lieutenant Hans-Edwin Reith brought U-190 up to periscope depth and sighted HMCS Esquimalt. Reith immediately fired a single torpedo from a stern tube and dove for the bottom. The torpedo ripped into Esquimalt’s starboard quarter. U-190 finally scored its first hit.
Esquimalt’s bad luck continued. The explosion knocked out the ship’s electrical system before the wireless operator could send an SOS. Only three minutes earlier Esquimalt had reported in to the Port War Signal Station, so no one would miss the ship for hours. With the signalers injured and the ship listing severely to port, none of the crew fired flares. The list also prevented launching the ship’s sole life boat. Instead, the crew launched flimsy liferafts. Four minutes after the torpedo hit, Esquimalt sank by the stern. The few, freezing, soaked survivors could see the lights of Halifax, but no one there knew what had happened.
At 8 a.m., Esquimalt failed to rendezvous with Sarnia, but no one reported that until 9:50 a.m. Finally, a search began. At 12:50 p.m., more than six hours after the sinking, Sarnia sighted the survivors. Only 27 remained; almost two-thirds of the ship’s complement was dead. The casualty list was published on VE-Day, lost amidst coverage of the infamous riots.
U-190 spent an anxious week lying on the seabed silently outwaiting a sustained search. The war ended before U-190 made it to port. On May 14, it surrendered at Bay Bulls, Newfoundland. The submarine was later commissioned into the Canadian navy; in October 1947, naval aircraft used it for target practice, destroying it on the spot where it sank Esquimalt.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.