A Memory Stirred

HMCS Esquimalt – 16 April 1945

Prepared by Gerry Madigan


The Second World War has left few places in Canada untouched in its wake. That was very easy to see in the numerous casualty lists published in so many newspapers over the war years. There wasn’t a day that went by without at least one story of its trials. The story of the sinking of HMCS Esquimalt, 16 April 1945 was one such example.

HMCS Esquimalt’s loss on 16 April 1945 was felt far and wide across this great country. Perhaps it was the sad realization that Esquimalt’s loss happened so close in the final days of the war. The very promise of peace was felt in the air. But Esquimalt’s tragic loss left many families bereft.

The memory of HMCS Esquimalt was recently stirred by an old news clipping received from Norma Cooke of Isaacs Harbour in “Stories Of Heroism As Minesweeper Is Lost”.

Newspaper clipping - Stories of heroism as minesweeper is lost
From Archives of Norma Cooke, Isaacs Harbour, NS from which this account was drafted

This clipping was written upon the death of Huntley Fanning of Drumhead, NS lost aboard HMCS Esquimalt. It also stirred a long-forgotten memory of my own.

A Memory Stirred

Frederick Percy Mimee, a relative of my family, was one of the lucky handful of survivors left alive on HMCS Esquimalt that day. Fred was the husband of my mother’s cousin Geraldine. The Mimee family of five boys and one girl lived on 5219 Orleans Street in Montreal’s East end, not very far from my family’s home then on 18th Ave Rosemount, only two blocks over.[1]

We remained close all the years we lived in Montreal, sharing the same school, church, and activities. But we drifted apart as our families moved separately, mine to the North Shore of Quebec in 1964. The Mimee family moved out of Rosemount in the 70’s then to Ontario in the 80’s. We then saw less and less of one another because of these moves, and over the years simply lost touch until recently.

My mother Shirley shared this thought in passing one day shortly before we left Montreal… Uncle Fred was a survivor. Fred was one of the few survivors left on HMCS Esquimalt torpedoed just outside of Halifax very near the end of the war.

This lingering memory was stirred by Norma Cooke’s clipping that began what was to be personal journey of discovery. This journey was fueled by a request following my recent story on Halfway Cove “The Place I Remember”. Leslie Ryter who was featured in that story asked me to investigate a submarine attack on a naval vessel near Sydney, NS at some time during the war.

My paternal Uncle Frank served on HMCS Medicine Hat at Sydney, NS during this period. So, I called and interviewed my uncle, Frank Madigan, which not only yielded some interesting insights on his war service, but also an eye witness account to the events preceding HMCS Esquimalt’s loss.

The confluence of these many threads culminated at one common point, HMCS Esquimalt, 16 April 1945, the tragic story of survival and heroism in its final hours.

16 April 1945

April 16, 1945 was purported to have been a very nice, calm day. Smooth sailing was expected off Halifax Harbour. There was nothing to suggest that HMCS Esquimalt was to come to any harm. Yes, there were indeed warnings of U-boats in the area, but the war in Europe was so close to the end. Surely nothing would happen now?

A great sense of optimism hung in the air. The growing optimism for the end led many to believe that the war was already won, a done deal if you will. The promise of a happy future loomed in the minds and hearts of all.

Uncle Frank was a sailor aboard HMCS Dundas tied up in Halifax 15-16 April 1945. His ship was berthed right next to HMCS Esquimalt.[2] Frank was one of Dundas’ signallers.

Photo courtesy of Gerry Madigan, family archives showing Willy and May Madigan (grandparents), Frank Madigan (uncle), and Vincent Madigan (father), dated 1944.
Photo courtesy of Gerry Madigan, family archives showing Willy and May Madigan (grandparents), Frank Madigan (uncle), and Vincent Madigan (father), dated 1944.

Uncle Frank remembered 15 April 1945 as Esquimalt was about to put to sea that day. Esquimalt carried a new crewmember, a fellow signaller from Dundas, cross posted from Dundas to Esquimalt to fill a vacant billet. The memory of the chap’s name now escapes him but he does remember that this signaller came from western Canada. More importantly to his recollection was the fact that the signaller could not swim.[3]

There were six communication specialists aboard HMCS Esquimalt. The trade group included signallers, coders, and telegraphists, when she was torpedoed. This group included:

  • Gregory Joseph Clancy (age 20 – Toronto, ON (deceased)),
  • Byron Ross Downie (age 23 – Vancouver, BC (deceased)),
  • William James Henderson (age 23 – Winnipeg, MB (survived)),
  • Edward John Granahan (age 25 – Toronto, ON (deceased)),
  • John Hamish Stafford (age 24 – Victoria, BC (deceased)), and
  • Edward McGrath (age unknown – St James, MB (survived)).

Of the six, only Henderson and McGrath, both prairie boys, were lucky enough to have survived the coming ordeal.[4]

Frank Madigan’s description narrows down the unknown posted signaler to be most likely either William James Henderson of Winnipeg or Edward McGrath of St James, Manitoba.

Uncle Frank recalled that whoever the incumbent was, whether the young Henderson or McGrath, the draft to the Esquimalt offered a unique opportunity. The Esquimalt was slated to protect a convoy overseas whose terminal point was Scotland. The allure of Scotland was, for either Henderson or McGrath, a matter of special importance. Scotland was the “ancestral home”. It seemed that this was the last remaining opportunity to visit there before the war ended. But the war was far from over at that point.[5]

The Promise

The promise of a posting to Esquimalt heading overseas and to Scotland proved too alluring for one young man. The journey, despite the risks, beckoned one sailor to come forward to fill a vacant signal billet aboard Esquimalt. It was the vacancy and the opportunity, that was the quid pro quo for taking the risk.

Fate played a role too. It could have easily have been my Uncle Frank had not someone stepped forward and volunteered. After all there was a ship to run and war to fight.

A ship, large or small, was a small community. It took many skills to make Esquimalt a combat ready entity. Apart from the obvious need for Captains, XO’s, and combat officers, it took many skills and trades too.

The trades found in small, thriving communities ashore were very much in demand afloat too. They included a broad spectrum; from electricians, mechanics, cooks, waiters, to shop keepers, plumbers, lamp-trimmers, clerks, butchers, sail makers, and postal clerks.[6]

They all were needed. They all were indispensable in their own way! It was the combination necessary toward building a combat team necessary for a fighting unit. It’s what it took to make an efficient ship.[7]

These trades and skills were drawn from across Canada. So, a ship was a diverse melting pot of Canadian culture well before that terminology became seared in our national psyche.

A ship also tied the families, friends and love ones with those serving on it to parts near and far and wide across Canada. After all a ship carried their friends and loved ones. These were the bonds that tied so many Canadian families to their ships and to their ship’s fate!

Photo courtesy of William R. Henderson. Permission to use “For Prosperity’s Sake”.
Photo courtesy of William R. Henderson. Permission to use “For Prosperity’s Sake”.

A fighting ship was a living entity. It had a life and pulse of its own. Apart from the Captain and XO, the person or trade most likely to have a sense of that pulse was the ship’s signaller.

Communications were the ship’s lifeblood.[8] That was to be the young Henderson’s function aboard HMCS Esquimalt. It was a role of great responsibility, and a position of great trust for the young man of twenty-three.

The signal log held the record of the ship’s history so had to be scrupulously accurate and well maintained. The signal log constantly unfolded as it chronicled daily life.

The log detailed and proscribed the lives of its crew; from who was in hospital, to who was released, who was in jail, or who was promoted or posted. Messages were the means of notification detailing who would come and who would go.[9] Communications commanded the ship’s fate, where it would fight and possibly die too.

The signaller was amongst the first to know all of this and how the ship was performing her duty. Young Henderson was a part of the brotherhood in the fabric of his ship that passed along this lifeblood that made a ship “go”!

Whoever took the posting to Esquimalt, Frank Madigan questioned the man before leaving Dundas, “Are you sure?” This posting didn’t seem to be a such good idea to Frank. In reply he remembered, “Yes, I’m sure.”

Frank wished his friend well, and said, “Then be sure to drop me a line when you get there,” and “Good luck!”

My uncle Frank saw Esquimalt slip its moorings the evening of 15 April 1945 as Esquimalt put to sea. Esquimalt moved away out of his sight and left Halifax Harbour in the dark of night. Esquimalt first conducted an anti-submarine patrol in the approaches, and then finally was to rendezvous with its sister ship, HMCS Sarnia later on the sixteenth.[10]

The Esquimalt was torpedoed and sunk a short time later. Young Henderson soon found himself clinging for his life in a Carley float along with 26 others who managed to survive that day.[11]

Sketch of HMCS Esquimalt

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) began the war in 1939 with a mere 13 vessels but grew in strength to nearly 400 vessels with 100,000 uniformed men and women by war’s end. A naval building program helped Canada to build the fourth largest navy in the world.[12]

HMCS Esquimalt was amongst the many class of ships built in Canadian Shipyards during the Second World War. Canada built corvettes, motor torpedo boats, tenders and other vessels in addition to the minesweepers. Esquimalt was a Bangor Class Minesweeper.[13] Each type has its own history to tell.

HMCS Esquimalt J272. Source: For Posterity's Sake website, HMCS ESQUIMALT J272, Copyright unknown
HMCS Esquimalt J272.
Source: For Posterity’s Sake website, HMCS ESQUIMALT J272, Copyright unknown

HMCS Esquimalt had five commanding officers over its life. Lt F.J.L. Davis, RCNR was its first commanding officer upon commissioning. He commanded Esquimalt when it first arrived at Halifax on 21 November 1942.[14]

Esquimalt operated primarily as an anti-submarine escort although it was designed as a minesweeper. Esquimalt mounted a capable defence, armed with a 12-pounder gun, a 2-pounder, two 20 millimetre Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, and she carried seventy depth charges.[15] HMCS Esquimalt truly was a formidable weapon of war.

HMCS Esquimalt spent a great deal of time at sea while on active service. Lieut. Gordon Ball, RCNVR, of Toronto recounted some of the ship’s history at a Toronto Bond Rally on 11 May 1945.

(Ball) “I would like to tell you of one little escapade off Newfoundland. We had already had a submarine report, and it was time for me to go off watch. I tried to get some sleep, but at 2 o’clock the action bell rang through the ship, and in 1 minute 30 seconds every man was at his post.

“The fog had closed in as the submarine surfaced 500 yards off our stern, but we could not see a single thing. It was like being trapped in a dark room with a murderer. He can’t see you, and you can’t see him, and neither of you can do a thing. There was a heavy sea running, and after half an hour everyone’s nerves were quite on edge”.[16]

HMCS Esquimalt engaged that submarine. (Ball) “it was presumed sunk as there was no further activity in the area following HMCS Esquimalt’s attack”.

Ball’s observations paints HMCS Esquimalt as a hardworking ship that was dispatched to dangerous areas, areas perhaps where minesweepers should not have been deployed but were deployed out of sheer necessity:

“Another time we were up in the Arctic circle and were blocked in by ice floes for 14 days. We could not move either forward or backward, and had to sit there and stand watch for the entire two weeks. You get to know your shipmates pretty well in that time.”[17]

No matter the punishment, HMCS Esquimalt served her crew well and always brought them home safely. There was a price to pay for all this punishment though.

HMCS Esquimalt was chronically plagued by many mechanical problems. She was constantly under repair for one thing and/or another, undergoing extensive refits, and went into refit in Halifax, March 1943. But she was still beset by continuing problems, and brought back in, spending most of May 1943 under repair.[18]

Once fully repaired, HMCS Esquimalt was re-assigned but this time to the Newfoundland Force. She served there until September 1944 when she was subsequently transferred back to Halifax to serve in its “Local Defence Force”. And before she could do so, HMCS Esquimalt underwent another three-month refit upon reaching Halifax Harbour that September.[19]

Esquimalt’s commanding officer was replaced during this time. Lieut. Robert Cunningham MacMillan, DSC, RCNVR assumed command on 02 February 1945 as part of a routine transfer. MacMillan would be Esquimalt’s last commanding officer.

MacMillan was a very distinguished and an experienced officer. But disaster befell him and Esquimalt on 16 April 1945. MacMillan’s command was torpedoed and sunk beneath him. U-190, Esquimalt’s adversary, lay a mere five miles off Chebucto Head, near Halifax when this happened. Forty-Four of Esquimalt’s crew were doomed to die that day.[20]

The Adversary U-190

There was a new U-boat threat that came with a change of tactics that was very dangerous to Allied vessels in 1945. The U-boat now had a new technical advantage of Schnorchel, which cloaked its operations.

Schnorchel, essentially an air pipe to the surface, allowed U-boats to operate stealthily while running sub-surfaced when charging the boat’s batteries. Schnorchel thus reduced a U-boat’s target profile to the area of the surfaced air pipe. A U-boat with this modification proved very hard and difficult to spot.

Esquimalt’s adversary, U-190, was now commanded by Oblt. Hans-Erwin Reith. U-190 was one of the eighty-seven Type IXC/40 then in service, April 1945.

Courtesy of Wikipedia – U-190 June 1945 [21]
Courtesy of Wikipedia – U-190 June 1945 [21]

Fitted with the Schnorchel underwater-breathing apparatus, U-190 had a range of 13,850 miles while cruising at 10 knots. U-190 too was equipped with a formidable array of 22 torpedoes, four loaded in the bow and two loaded in the stern tubes.[22]

U-190 conducted only six active service patrols. It was employed as a training vessel for most of the war. Its limited successes included one ship of 7015 GRT and a warship of 590 tons. The latter warship was to be, unfortunately, HMCS Esquimalt on 16 April 1945.[23]

In early April 1945, Reith lay somewhere in wait just off Nova Scotia. Reith sighted two merchant ships on April 12th and attacked both with torpedoes. His attacks failed but U-190’s presence from then on was known to all. Reith moved ever closer to Halifax during the night of 15/16 April for better opportunities.[24]

Just as U-190 made its moved towards Halifax, the hands of fate brought HMCS Esquimalt towards U-190’s sights. On the night of 15 April, Frank Madigan bade a shipmate farewell, good luck and god speed on posting to Esquimalt when Esquimalt left Halifax Harbour and made its way towards its final destiny.

Aboard HMCS Esquimalt and the Encounter with U-190

Esquimalt conducted a routine anti-submarine patrol in consort with HMCS Sarnia the evening of 15/16 April 1945. The plan was simple. Both were to carry out a sweep, then rendezvous off Chebucto Head at Buoy “C” the following morning.[25] HMCS Esquimalt never made that rendezvous.

HMCS Esquimalt’s routine patrol the night of 15-16 April began quietly enough. Towards dawn at 0600 hours, Lieut. John Smart, officer of the watch ordered the depth charge crew to stations. Lieut. Smart did not bring the ship to general action stations at the change of the watch.

Lieut. Smart was simply following routine procedures at the changing of a watch. Nothing untoward was expected or in the offing at that time. It had been a quiet, uneventful night.

The sea was calm and all eyes were directed to the light ship off the Harbour only some three miles way. The depth charge crew was stood down from action stations ten minutes later at 0610 hours. The old watch was finally relieved and the new watch undertaken without incident.[26]

Those aboard Esquimalt were unaware of the looming presence of U-190 or the menace that lay immediately beneath them. But U-190 was very much aware of Esquimalt’s presence. Esquimalt pinged its sonar as it patrolled all about the approaches that night.

Those aboard U-190 listened intently as the Esquimalt appeared to be drawing ever so nearer, circling, and then paused overhead. It must have seemed an eternity. HMCS Esquimalt circled the U-boat for 10 long minutes. No attack followed.

Reith took U-190 up to periscope depth for a quick look around after a while. HMCS Esquimalt was seen off in the distance at a range of 1000-2000 meters, moving away from him. Esquimalt was too close for his comfort. But when the Esquimalt suddenly reversed course, and rapidly made for U-190’s position, Reith must have assumed that he was under attack. Reith launched an acoustic homing torpedo towards the approaching Esquimalt from his stern tube.

All hell summarily broke loose. U-190’s torpedo ripped into the Esquimalt’s hull on its starboard side at approximately 0630 hours. Water flooded in, the ship was settling and rapidly sinking. Esquimalt listed to starboard, then its emergency lights suddenly failed.

MacMillan, HMCS Esquimalt’s commanding officer, emerged from below, his situation was clear. MacMillan had little choice but to give an order to abandon ship. His signalman was stunned by the explosion. No distress signals were sent and, more importantly, no other crew member had the presence of mind to launch any distress flares to draw the nearby light ship’s attention to Esquimalt’s immediate plight.

The ship sunk so rapidly that the lifeboats became trapped in their davits. Only four Carley floats were successfully deployed. The surviving crew plunged into the icy April waters with little clothing on them and made their way in the frigid waters towards the safety of the Carley floats. It was their only hope of survival.[27]

Chaos in the aftermath

Terry Manuel remembered that change of the watch. Terry was 20 years old and the Ship’s writer. He was just released from duty at approximately 0610 hours. He was on the dark-watch and slipped below to his berth in the Chief and PO’s mess for a much-needed rest. Terry stripped off before going to ground and was fixing his lifejacket to use as a pillow.[28]

As soon as Terry’s head hit the pillow, he heard a large crash. He assumed it was just the minesweeping gear shifting about up on deck. But the ship shook violently, listed and began to keel over toward the portside.[29]

Terry immediately jumped from his bunk, and made his way up an emergency hatch. But that way was blocked, the hatch wouldn’t budge. The plates of the ships deck buckled over the hatch sealing Terry and others in. It was a desperate situation.

Terry literally fell back down into the communications mess. He struggled up another escape hatchway towards another companionway. This one was free from obstruction. Finally, there was hope of escape! But once more Terry was thrown back down into his sinking ship.[30]

The situation was total chaos. Men desperately struggled trying to get out. Just as Terry climbed up the hatch almost to the safety of the free companionway, Petty Officer Carl Jacques of Nova Scotia came up and vaulted over his shoulder. The force of Jacques’ vault pushed Terry backwards. He tumbled back down into the mess that now was quickly filling with the sea.

Terry finally managed to escape, but as he did, the ship rolled and sank beneath him.[31] He was thrown violently into the water by the force of the rolling ship. He and another sailor swam for it. They both managed to find a single floating lifejacket. There they clung desperately until it too became so water logged, it began to sink, taking both beneath the waves with it.

Terry estimated that it was just a mere four short minutes before the lifejacket gave out. Terry clung to his companion. Carl Jacques saw their imminent peril. Jacques dove into the water, dragged them and placed them aboard the Carley float.[32] Carl Jacques saved Terry’s life that day.

Terry’s Carley float carried 18 other survivors. It was going to be a long day. Sadly 10 minutes later, Carl Jacques succumbed to the cold of the frigid waters. Jacques’ self-sacrifice and bravery saved Terry.[33]

Terry remembered “There were 18 of us in and around the float in terribly cold water. It didn’t take long for the water chilled by the ice currents that came down from the Artic, to take its toll. One by one, men around me died and floated off. Carl Jacques was one of them.”[34]

Terry recalled two overflights of passing RCAF aircraft. The first overflight occurred only an hour after Esquimalt sunk at around 0700 hours. Esquimalt’s surviving men waved frantically for help. The overflying aircraft ignored the desperate men. The aircrew assumed the waving men to be simply fisherman who routinely waved as they flew by while on patrol.[35]

Ventura Bomber – type flown at Dartmouth NS Venturas from 145 BR Squadron flew Harbour Entrance Patrols off the Halifax harbour [36] DND Historic photograph, Lockheed Ventura
Ventura Bomber – type flown at Dartmouth NS
Venturas from 145 BR Squadron flew Harbour Entrance Patrols off the Halifax Harbour.[36]
DND Historic photograph, Lockheed Ventura
Rescue appeared to be at hand once more at approximately 0800 hours. The group sighted a minesweeper off in the distance. It came close and was almost within shouting distance. Once again, the men tried vainly, in utter desperation, to attract the attention of this passing ship. But the ship and the hope of their rescue, simply turned away, not spotting the now desperate men.[37]

More died while waiting. Finally, seven hours later, Esquimalt was spotted by a second plane. HMCS Sarnia arrived on the scene soon after and began the grim task of picking up the dead and Esquimalt’s remaining 27 survivors.[38]

It was an agonizing day, a living hell. Much suffering occurred, men died slowly and in agony. Rescue was often seen and then lost. It was frustrating, rescue was always so close by!

HMCS Sarnia was only just a few miles way patrolling and prowling about the East Halifax lightship. But the Sarnia was unaware of Esquimalt’s plight. How could Sarnia know? No distress signal had been sent, nor was any flare raised by the Esquimalt in the aftermath of its torpedoing.[39]

The authorities knew that something was amiss though. No one ashore informed Sarnia of the fact that Esquimalt had not been heard from, that she was unaccounted for, and that she was likely missing as one reporting deadline passed after another.[40]

In the six to seven hours of this misery, a few survivors sensed their lives ebbing away. Some left messages of farewell with comrades for family or a sweetheart. Remembered amongst those who left such messages were Seaman Don White of Peterborough, Ontario and Huntly Fanning of Drumhead, Nova Scotia.[41]

The pain of the cold waters proved to be too excruciating. Delirium drove others into the sea. A tenacious few grimly clung to life, and did so for as long as their hearts could hold out. These were the few finally rescued by the Sarnia, where it was said, “the dead outnumbered the living”.[42]

HMCS Sarnia’s Story

HMCS Sarnia and Esquimalt were sister ships. Fittingly, Sarnia came to the rescue of Esquimalt on 16 April 1945. Both had been assigned to conduct a radar sweep ahead of a convoy leaving from Halifax later that day.[43]

The two ships were scheduled to rendezvous at sea at 8 a.m. once the sweep was done. Both ships were aware that there were at least two German submarines lurking in the area.[44]

HMCS Esquimalt failed to rendezvous as scheduled. Sarnia became concerned and vainly tried to reach Esquimalt by radio. But Esquimalt had already been sunk by 6:30 am.

Failing radio contact, Sarnia initiated a search on its own but those efforts were twice delayed. Sarnia detected the presence of U-boats. Sarnia pursued those contacts as its first duty. It attacked the contacts with depth charges but to no avail.[45]

This may explain why the Esquimalt’s survivors twice saw a ship seemingly turning away. By now Esquimalt’s survivors had been in the water for over six hours. Sixteen men succumbed to hypothermia and exposure during this time.[46]

At long last Esquimalt’s survivors were finally spotted. Sarnia approached and came to a full stop leaving Sarnia completely defenseless and exposed to submarine attack. Sarnia rescued twenty-seven Canadian sailors and reclaimed some bodies floating there in the sea.[47]

John Stokes, a stoker petty officer aboard Sarnia, remembered the plan to rendezvous and the events leading to the rescue. Sarnia was to meet with Esquimalt at a certain time and area on the ocean just outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sarnia was in position at the assigned time and location but the Esquimalt had failed to show up.[48]

Sarnia patrolled around for a while longer, then its captain decided to take a wider berth to see if Esquimalt could be located. Sarnia was not very far away from the Halifax [East] Light Vessel at the time.[49]

HMCS Sarnia J309 - With permission "For Posterity's Sake".
HMCS Sarnia J309 –
With permission “For Posterity’s Sake”.

Sarnia received finally notification of Esquimalt’s plight and its precise location. Sarnia immediately went to the rescue, finding the Carley floats with Esquimalt’s survivors on it.

Sarnia’s lifeboat crews were dispatched and approached the Carley floats independently from the ship. John Stokes remained aboard the Sarnia and observed two Carley floats tied together with a group of survivors.[50]

Story and/or images courtesy of John Stokes. The Memory Project. Historica Canada
Story and/or images courtesy of John Stokes. The Memory Project. Historica Canada

Sarnia pulled alongside and lowered its scramble nets over the side. Stokes and another sailor went down and grabbed a hold of the tied Carley floats.[51]

Stokes saw “There were some dead laying in the bottom of the Carley float, some were alive.” He was both shocked and surprised for there amongst the living was his childhood friend, Fred Mimee.

Stokes: “I recognized him right away and, of course, he would be the first one I passed up on deck.”[52]

John Stokes turned to Fred and said “What the hell. Fine time to go swimming, at a time like this… can’t you pick a better day?” Fred started to laugh. It was a sure sign that Fred was alive and going to live.[53]

John Stokes and the crew of Sarnia brought Fred and other survivors up off the Carley floats to the waiting deck and the welcomed sanctuary of HMCS Sarnia. The need for their immediate care was obvious. “There wasn’t time to count the living from the dead, you don’t start counting who were there and who was not there.”[54]

Sarnia was soon underway taking Esquimalt’s survivors to the safety of Halifax Harbour. They were met there by ambulances. Esquimalt’s survivors were taken off the ship and moved quickly to hospital.

Esquimalt’s survivors were confined to a separate ward, far away from prying eyes and public view. No visitors were allowed. The surviving crew was now held incommunicado for reasons unknown.[55] But this effort failed.

Stokes went up to the hospital the following day to see Fred. Esquimalt’s survivor had lost everything. Stokes wanted to bring his old friend Fred some creature comforts from Sarnia’s canteen to brighten his day.

At first, Stokes was barred from visiting. The head nurse said, “No one was allowed in.” But John Stokes persisted. He finally told her the facts “Fred and I went to school together. In fact, we grew up as kids, joined the navy together!” So, she finally relented and let John in.[56]

As John sat there talking to Fred, naval photographers quite suddenly arrived. They questioned Stokes how he got in and if he had permission to be there. The cat was now out of the bag when they found out the full extent of John and Fred’s story.

It proved irresistible. The naval photographers found their story was pure gold! They simply took a picture of John and Fred sitting on the bed. The story of their incredible tale and adventure was published in the press, and so, the Esquimalt’s loss was brought to the public’s attention.[57]

Story and/or images courtesy of John Stokes. The Memory Project. Historica Canada
Story and/or images courtesy of John Stokes. The Memory Project. Historica Canada

Heroic deeds

A little over three weeks later, Lieut. Gordon Ball, RCNVR delivered a speech at noon to an audience at Toronto City Hall. Lieut. Ball was one of Esquimalt’s surviving officers. The war in Europe was finally over. Ball delivered a rousing speech at a bond rally in the hope of raising $20 million for the continued prosecution of the war still raging against Japan.

The events of the Esquimalt were still very fresh and raw in his and the public’s mind. Lieut. Ball’s speech recalled the heroism, terror and loss in the sinking of HMCS Esquimalt.

Lieut. Ball told the audience “There were Bill Stevens and Herb Knight. Herb was married last fall to a girl from Leamington. He dove off the ship, and swam to a Carley float. He noticed that the bottom had been blown off, so he dived off and swam over to another float, and dragged it back, securing both floats together.

Herb then climbed back on one of the Carley floats, but died about five minutes later from exposure and over exhaustion. He saved the lives of some of his shipmates before he died. Those two floats kept them alive.”[58]

Lieut. Ball’s speech recounted the growing and mounting losses that day.[59] “Johnnie Monahan left one of Toronto’s East End high schools two years ago, He will never come back.

“Skipper Bellezzi married, and had three children in a small French village in (Varennes) Quebec. He will never come back. Jimmie Roberts of Victoria, B.C., came back into this war in his 40’s, and had been in since the beginning. He will never be back.”[60]

“Johnnie Smart married a Toronto girl. He will never be back. Johnnie Parker was from Vancouver, and one of the best sportsmen on the west coast. He will never be back.”[61]

Huntley Allison Fanning, Drum Head, Guys Co. “He will never be back”

Amongst Esquimalt’s dead was Huntley Allison Fanning. Huntley had a lot to look forward to in 1945. The son of Leonard and Theresa Fanning of Drum Head, NS, Huntley was then newly promoted as Chief Electrical Artificer on the Esquimalt. He was soon to be married. Huntley Fanning looked forward to war’s end and his pending nuptials.

Ironically Fanning’s promotion came on the evening of 15 April. His skills and trade would have served him well in civilian life. But his plans and like the plans of many others were torn asunder 16 April. His final thoughts were recorded by a AB Frank Smith of Edmonton.[62]

With permission – from the archives of Norma Cooke
With permission – from the archives of Norma Cooke

Huntley was amongst 13 on a Carley float.[63] Frank Smith recounted the horrors about him and sadly, Huntley’s last moments;

“Most stirring of all, perhaps were the last moments of Huntley Fanning of Drum Head, Guysborough Co. As he (Fanning) lay with his head huddled my shoulder with his body numbed beyond all further suffering he spoke of his fiancée Dorothy back in Toronto, ‘it looks as if we are not going to make it. I guess we won’t be able to make it this time.’”[64]

Fanning was dying. A few moments later as he gazed into Smith’s eyes “So long fellows; keep plugging.” His body stilled peacefully into death with his last breath remembering his love for Dorothy. He planned to marry Dorothy on his next leave home.[65]

Seven of the 13 initial survivors aboard Smith’s Carley float eventually succumbed and died too. Some also passed along their messages of love and wishes in hope a survivor would tell their loved ones.

Others, in desperation, acted. Smith observed “One fellow was so determined to live he got up and said, ‘There is no future in this’ and the jumped overboard and started swimming.” He succumbed a few minutes later while trying to get back onto the Carley float.[66]

Huntley Allison Fanning’s name is inscribed on the Halifax Memorial, erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to commemorate the men and women of the forces of the Commonwealth who died in both world wars that have no known grave.[67]

Fanning’s body was lost to the deeps with no known place for his family to come or to mourn the loss of their beloved son. Lieut. Gordon Ball’s lament holds true for Huntley Allison Fanning, “He will never be back.”

Concluding Remarks

Joseph B. Lamb wrote in “On the Triangle Run” about the deep anger felt throughout the East Coast naval establishment following HMCS Esquimalt’s loss. “It seemed so stupid, so unnecessary; with Germany’s surrender, obviously only hours away and with everyone at sea anxious just to survive, the wiping out of fourty-four young lives in the very moment of final victory was almost too cruel to bear.”[68]

Fred Mimee’s attitude was different. He was one of the 27 that survived. Fred’s son, Brian speaking on behalf of his family recounts, “My Dad’s attitude after surviving such an ordeal, of having known the loss of all his friends, was no matter what happens in life, nothing could be worse.”

“The best thing is never complain (which he never did)”. In Fred’s words “You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on, ’cause that’s what you do in life.”

Fred lived by those words. Brian said of his father’s life, “He didn’t speak to us about that tragic day because there was really nothing to say. He was one of the lucky ones. It happened and as all good Canadians, you move on.

“My Dad was our hero and we were lead to believe that he was also one the last of the survivors to pass away.”[69]

Sadly, a life well lived was not meant for the 44 who died that day. The war in April 1945 was only in its final days. Victory was neither hours away, nor was it ever assured.

There was yet much more fighting and dying to come following 16 April 1945.

A final reckoning had yet to be presented, put paid as “FINAL” if you will. The war at that point was very much an open account.

Surrender and victory in Europe finally came three weeks later. Until then, both Esquimalt and U-190 were fair game. It was all a question who would be left standing and accounted amongst the living and the dead at the war’s end.

Esquimalt’s tragic loss was truly felt throughout Canada. Esquimalt’s story was not just about tragedy, but it was also one of boundless courage, willingness to sacrifice, devotion to friends and of valour too.

This coming 16th of April 2017 marks the 72nd anniversary of HMCS Esquimalt’s loss. It was the last RCN vessel lost to enemy action during the Second World War. Now some 72 years later, it is time to remember HMCS Esquimalt and those who served on her.

[1] Telephone Conversation Brian Mimee/ Gerry Madigan, 17 January 2017.

[2] Telephone Interview Frank Madigan, Uncle with GD Madigan, 4 Jan 2017.

[3] Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax Herald, Tuesday – May 8, 1945, List of Casualties In Esquimalt Sinking are Announced by Navy, Ottawa – May 7, Archiver > NOVEMBERA-SCOTIA > 2002-10 > 1034422759, Accessed: 3 Jan 2017

[4] An Ancestry.com community, Roots web, NOVEMBERA-SCOTIA-L Archives, Archiver > NOVEMBERA-SCOTIA > 2002-10 > 1034422759, Halifax Herald, List of Casualties In Esquimalt Sinking are Announced by Navy Ottawa – May 7, 8 May 1945, Accessed: 10 Jan 2017

[5] Hal Lawrence, A Bloody War – One Man’s Memories of the Canadian Navy 1939-45, MacMillan of Canada, Toronto, 1979, Pg. 186

[6] Ibid Lawrence, 1979, pg. 189

[7] Ibid Lawrence, 1979, pg. 188-189

[8] Ibid Lawrence, 1979, pg. 189

[9] Ibid Lawrence, 1979, pg. 189

[10] The Canadian Encyclopedia, Sinking of HMCS Esquimalt, Accessed: 9 Jan 2017

[11] Ibid, An Ancestry.com community, Halifax Herald, Dyan Matheson, Esquimalt Casualties, 8 May 1945

[12] Canada, Royal Canadian Navy, History of the Battle of the Atlantic, 2015-06-01.

[13] A Royal Canadian Navy Historical Project, For Posterity’s Sake, Ship Index, 2002-2016, Accessed: 10 Jan 2017

[14] Ibid For Posterity’s Sake, HMCS ESQUIMALT J272

[15] Ibid Fisher, 1997

[16] Anon. Esquimalt Officer tells of Heroism when vessel sunk, Globe and Mail, 12 May 1945; Canada, Canadian War Museum Archives, 149, War, European, 1939, Canada, Navy, Minesweeper, Esquimalt, Accessed: 11 Jan 2017

[17] Ibid, Esquimalt Officer tells of Heroism when vessel sunk, 12 May 1945

[18] Ibid For Posterity’s Sake, HMCS ESQUIMALT J272

[19] Ibid For Posterity’s Sake, HMCS ESQUIMALT J272

[20] Ibid For Posterity’s Sake, HMCS ESQUIMALT J272

[21] Wikipedia, U-190 June 1945, Accessed: 17 Jan 2017

[22] Ibid U-boat.net

[23] Ibid U-boat.net

[24] Ibid Fisher, 1997

[25] Ibid Fisher, 1997

[26] Ibid Fisher, 1997

[27] Ibid Fisher, 1997

[28] Nathan M. Greenfield, The Battle of the St Lawrence – The Second World War in Canada, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, 2004, pg. 238-239

[29] Ibid Greenfield, Pg. 238-239

[30] Ibid Greenfield, Pg. 238-239

[31] Ibid Greenfield, Pg. 238-239

[32] Ibid Greenfield, Pg. 238-239

[33] Ibid Greenfield, Pg. 238-239

[34] Ibid Greenfield, Pg. 238-239

[35] Ibid Greenfield, Pg.239

[36] Shearwater Aviation Museum webpage, Aircraft History, Lockheed Ventura, Accessed: 16 Jan 2017

[37] Ibid Greenfield, Pg.239

[38] Ibid Greenfield, Pg.239

[39] James B. Lamb, On the Triangle Run, MacMillan Of Canada, 1986, Pg. 221

[40] The Sarnia Journal, Phil Egan, Sister ships in peril on a cold, gray sea, 11 April 2016, Accessed: 15 Jan 2015

[41] Ibid Lamb, pg. 222

[42] Ibid Lamb, pg. 222

[43] Ibid Phil Egan,11 April 2016

[44] Ibid Phil Egan,11 April 2016

[45] Ibid Phil Egan,11 April 2016

[46] Ibid Phil Egan,11 April 2016

[47] Ibid Phil Egan,11 April 2016

[48] Story and/or images courtesy of John Stokes. The Memory Project. Historica Canada, 2017

[49] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[50] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[51] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[52] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[53] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[54] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[55] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[56] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[57] Ibid John Stokes, 2017

[58] Ibid, Esquimalt Officer tells of Heroism when vessel sunk, 12 May 1945

[59] Ibid Globe and Mail, 12 May 1945

[60] Ibid Globe and Mail, 12 May 1945

[61] Ibid Globe and Mail, 12 May 1945

[62] Eric Dennis, Staff Writer, The Halifax Herald, Stories of Heroism as Minesweeper is Lost, undated April 1945

[63] Ibid, Eric Dennis, undated April 1945

[64] Telecon Norma Cooke/Gerry Madigan 21 Jan 2017, last name unknown, found from local source who remembered her first name and place of residence.

[65] Ibid, Eric Dennis, undated April 1945

[66] Ibid, Eric Dennis, undated April 1945

[67] Commonwealth Graves Commission, Halifax Memorial, Accessed: 12 Jan 2017

[68] Ibid Lamb, pg. 221

[69] Brian Mimee to Gerry Madigan, e-mail, dated 1 February 2017