Navy Time – Gordon R. Belcher L/Smn. RCNR
By Gordon R. Belcher L/Smn. R.C.N.R.
I joined the Navy in Montreal in July, 1940, after I had been sailing on the Great Lakes for three years. They told me to go home for a couple of weeks and they would send for me when my papers had been processed. After about five weeks they told me to report to Montreal and from there I was sent to Halifax. After a few days they gave me a uniform and as I joined as an Able Seaman they assumed I had done my basic training in Montreal. They put me on guard duty but when they saw that I did not know how to slope arms, present arms or about turn, they gave me a five minute course on how to do these things. After a few weeks of this, I became restless. This was not what I joined the Navy for. After telling somebody (I do not remember who) that I was not happy in this role, they put me in a course to learn the operations of a Bren gun and we were to go out as anti-aircraft gunners on Merchant ships. On the day we were to have our final test and become qualified gunners, I was sick with some kind of flu bug. The next opportunity I would have to qualify, would be in two or three months. This was too long to wait, so I made a daily trip to the drafting office until they finally drafted me to the HMCS Assinboine on October 20, 1940.
The Commanding Officer was Commodore L. W. Murray and we had a lot of senior RCN Officers aboard – names like John Stubbs, Ralph Hennessey, Desmond Piers, E. Boak, T. Porter and many others whose names I have now forgotten after almost fifty years. We left Halifax for the United Kingdom on January 15, 1941, and on our arrival, Commodore Murray went to Naval Headquarters in London and Lt.-Cmdr. Stubbs took over as our Commanding Officer. For the next nineteen months we were on convoy duty in the North Atlantic and made many trips from Greenock and Londonderry to Newfoundland.
In August of 1942, we were in combat with a submarine U-210 on the surface, and as our guns could not penetrate its heavy armour plate, we finally rammed and sunk it. While the ship was in for repairs, most of the crew were transferred to other ships.
After my leave and a month in Stadacona, I was drafted to the tug St. Anne. We went from Halifax to St. John's, Newfoundland, and towed the HMCS Saguenay to St. John, New Brunswick. The Saguenay had been hit by a freighter while in a convoy and her depth charges broke loose and blew most of the stern away. On my return to Halifax I was drafted to the St.Laurent on January 16, 1943, and remained there until October, 1943. The Commanding Officer was Cmdr. G. H. Stephen and we were on the North Atlantic convoys. When the St. Laurent went in for repairs, I was drafted ashore for a month and then to the Algonguin, which was being built at John Brown Shipyards on the Clyde. The crew for the Algonguin was sent by train (old Colonial coaches) to Charleston, S.C., to take passage to the United Kingdom on the HMS Arethusa, which had been in the U.S. Navy dockyards for repairs. As she just had a skeleton crew aboard, we were to make up the remainder of the ship's complement. None of us had been on a cruiser before so it was an experience. We left Charleston just after Christmas Day, stopped at the Azores to refuel and proceeded to Portsmouth were we disembarked and went by train to Niobe. We commissioned the Algonguin on February 18, 1944, and after a couple of weeks of trials, we were assigned to the 26th Destroyer Flotilla of the British Home Fleet, operating from Scapa Flow. The Commanding Officer was Lt.-Cmdr. D. W. Piers. Our sister ship, the Sioux, under the command of Lt.-Cmdr. E. G. Boak, joined us a couple of weeks later.
This was a very hard working group. We escorted Aircraft Carriers and Cruisers carrying out raids on the German battleship Tirpitz in Norway. We made several attacks on convoys along the Norwegian coast, bombardment on the Normandy coast on D-Day and remained in the channel doing patrol duty.
Returning to Scapa Flow, we carried out more attacks on German shipping on the Norwegian coast and escorted two convoys JW 63 and RH 63 to and from Murmansk. On August 22, 1944, we took off 203 members of Nabob's ships company when she was torpedoed in the Barents Sea. We returned to Halifax in February, 1945, for refit and I was drafted ashore to Stadacona.
I was in Halifax on V.E. Day and a few weeks later was sent home on leave and then demobilized on the 28th of August, 1945.
During my five years in the Navy, I had a lot of good times and a lot of difficult times and I met a lot of fine people. After forty-five years, I still enjoy the water, still have a motor boat and have always been at sailor at heart!
The St. Who?
"The St. Anne", said the Petty Officer in the drafting office. "I hope she's not one of those four funnel jobs we acquired from the U.S. Navy bone yard," I said. "Oh, No, she only has one funnel. You will pack your gear and report as quickly as possible as you will be sailing tomorrow." He told me where the ship was berthed and I was on my way to pack my gear and get back to sea.
I had just finished doing two years on the HMCS Assiniboine, and had been drafted ashore after we had rammed a Sub and were in for repairs. While I was in Stadacona waiting for another ship, they gave me a gunnery control course and I qualified as a CR II. I had already qualified as a CR III aboard the Assiniboine. I also took a quick course in signals and a bit of parade work and qualified as a Leading Seaman. So there I was with a brand new Leading Seaman's hook and a CR II badge, heading for a new adventure on a new ship. On the way to the jetty I could not recall a ship by that name. I had sailed with most of our destroyers and had heard the names of most of the others but I could not remember the name St. Anne. It could not be a Corvette because they do not require a CR II on Corvettes – just on Destroyers and larger ships. Oh well, I'll see when I get there. Arriving at the jetty, I looked around, but could not see a ship tied up there. Looking out in the harbour, I could not see anything at anchor. As I was about to leave, a nameplate caught my attention and there she was – the St. Anne – a scruffy little tug boat. The Navy really has a way of making your day! Why would they need a CRII on a tug boat? She has no gunnery control system, she does not even have a gun. Parking my gear on the deck, I returned with great haste to the drafting office to find out how such an error could be made. Of course it was now very late in the afternoon, and anybody with any real authority had already left for the week-end. "Sorry but there is nothing we can do."
There was no other course but to follow orders. The real reason I was given this draft was that I was RCNR and they wanted ex-Merchant sailors on this tug boat.
Finally, I arrived back on board and reported to the Coxswain, who was a Leading Seaman. He had been a Chief Petty Officer at one time but had been reduced in rank for reasons unknown to me. There were others there under similar circumstances. The remainder of the seamen were sailors who had joined from the Merchant Service. Most of them looked like they had sailed on dirty old tramp steamers and the Navy did not want to put them on any of our respectable looking ships. The cook was a young clean-cut fellow and a good cook. The Signalmen and Wireless Operators came aboard after I did. They were both regular fellows and they brought their portable equipment with them. The Chief Skipper and his Mate were both ex-Merchant sailors who had sailed the St. Lawrence River and the coastal waters for a number of years. They were good sailors and knew the waters in that area really well. When I met the skipper, he said to me "Oh, you are a gunner, good. You will be in charge of the gun". He then took me to the wheelhouse and handed me a Bren gun, telling me that if we were attacked by a submarine, I was to use this gun to protect our ship. The next morning we were on our way to Sydney, and then to St. John's, Newfoundland. The trip was uneventful with one exception, we were called to action stations one afternoon when one of the crew spotted what he thought was a periscope. Luckily it was not and I did not get a chance to use the Bren gun. We stayed in St. John's about a week or more and the day after Christmas, we sailed for Halifax with the HMCS Saguenay in tow, as she had been badly damaged in a collision. We had a Corvette escort with us which made us feel more confident. When we arrived back in Halifax on January 8, 1943, my gear was all packed and I left the St. Anne. A week later I was drafted to the destroyer HMCS St. Laurent. This was my type of ship, and now I could carry out the duties for which I had been trained.
But I often wonder what happened to the St. Anne. I cannot find any record of it in The Ships of Canada's Naval Forces 1910-1981, which contains pictures and statistics of all our naval ships, even the converted yachts and fishing trawlers. Perhaps, the Navy has forgotten she ever existed. She was only a tug boat, but when called upon, she carried out her duties efficiently and proudly.
May 21, 1941, I was aboard the HMCS Assiniboine and we had just returned to Liverpool after escorting a convoy across the North Atlantic. We expected to be there a few days to have a few minor repairs done to the ship, but after just a few hours, we received orders to sail. We were to escort a cruiser which was heading in the direction of Scapa Flow, and at full speed. The following day we met the rest of the ships we were to join. What an impressive sight – it looked like half the British Navy was there. Battleships, light Cruisers, heavy Cruisers, an Aircraft Carrier and dozens of Destroyers were heading in a westerly direction at full speed. It was then we were informed that the HMS Hood had been sunk by the German battleship Bismark and the Home Fleet had only one thing on their mind at this time – to sink the Bismark. After steaming at full speed for the next three days, some of the destroyers were running low on fuel so we went into Iceland to refuel; then proceeded to rejoin the fleet. The Bismark had been sighted and the ships were moving in, ready for battle. When we were about six hours sailing time from joining in the action, we received word that the Bismark had been sunk. Were we disappointed? Well, yes, a bit – but we almost were there for the final blow!
The Icelantic Escapade
Whenever sailors went ashore, they usually had a few drinks too many, and ended up in trouble with the law, and it was usually the seamen or stokers who were at the root of all evil. Not always! It happened aboard the Assiniboine, late in the summer of 1941. We had gone into Reykjavik, Iceland, to refuel, and take on supplies, before joining our next convoy. We had shore leave in the afternoon, but there was not much to do there, so most of the crew stayed aboard ship that night. Some of the Officers had been ashore in the afternoon and when passing the German Embassy, noticed a bronze eagle on a tripod in front of the building. One of the Officers thought it would make a great trophy for the wardroom and after a few more gin and tonics, they all agreed. The Engineer supplied the hack-saws and they were away. Each man had his job to do, lookouts were posted, others were detailed to do the sawing and everything was proceeding according to plan. Suddenly, a policeman appeared and the lookouts sounded the alarm. They had not completed their task but there was no way they could do it now. They scattered and ran in all directions as fast as their legs would take them. All our Officers made it back to the ship without being caught – with one exception. We had a Navy photographer with us for that trip to take some official photos. This photographer was a bit older, a bit shorter and a bit heavier than our young Officers and he could not run as fast as our Officers or the Icelandic policeman – so he was caught and landed in jail. The next morning our Commanding Officer, Lt.-Cmdr. John Stubbs, had to go ashore and bail him out. At the same time, we were requested to leave as soon as possible and "Please do not return to this port. " They never did get another opportunity to get that eagle.
One of the stokers wrote a poem about this escapade, but it has been misplaced and I just cannot find it anywhere.
I wonder if that eagle is still sitting on that tripod with some deep hack-saw cuts in it.
Gordon R. Belcher, L/Smn.R.C.N.R.
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