My Life Aboard HMCS Sackville

By Patrick Onions A/B R.C.N.V.R. Ret.

In all the accounts I have read about the Sackville, very little if anything, has been written about her time as a "Controlled Loop Layer."

While Air Force cadets, we had heard that the navy was training a crew for the aircraft carrier Magnificent which was slated for the Canadian Navy. Upon learning this, we bugged a navy recruitment officer about joining. In the fall of 1944, at the young age of 16 1/2 with my dad signing special papers, I found myself at district headquarters HMCS Donnacona in Montreal. Needless to say no special training was forthcoming and in November found myself at HMCS Protector in Sydney, Cape Breton doing guard duty at dockside. Because of ships being sunk outside of Sydney Harbour, I was ordered to crew aboard those frightful little boats known as "Fairmiles" to look for German subs. With a green Sub-Lieut. as captain, I was thankful for a couple of petty officers that took charge and got us safely back to port.

January 1945 found me in HMCS Cornwallis, Nova Scotia for basic training where I remained until after V-E Day. Most of us had signed to "Go Pacific" as we were still fighting the war with Japan. Because of this, the navy tried to make marines out of us, marching with a full pack and crawling on our bellies after being discharged from a landing craft at low tide onto smelly, rocky beaches.

After training we were shipped off to the navy base at Shelbourne, Nova Scotia. It was while there and quite ironical that I just missed the draft for a group to go overseas to pick up the Magnificent. On the other hand, a small group of us found ourselves drafted aboard Sackville. To say we were disappointed is an understatement. The ship was showing on her upper decks. We had signed and trained to Go Pacific and as the Japanese war was still on, we were sure that at least we would be shipped to the Pacific Coast. How could this happen?

Now why or exactly when the decision was made to make the Sackville a cable ship is a matter of conjecture. She had ruptured one of her boilers but was otherwise in good mechanical shape having had a complete refit done in Galveston, Texas, in 1944. It was decided to remove the boiler to make storage hold. Her forward gun along with its armour plating was removed and replaced with a steam operated cable winch. To the best of my knowledge, the Sackville never did lay any cable and in 1945 her role had been revised and she became a cable salvage ship.

The reason the little "Loop Layer" was bestowed on her was because miles and miles of cable had been laid in loops. These loops were on mile in length and they were laid in groups of four. Depending on the area to be covered these groups of four could be expanded to four more groups, thus in one area alone you could have up to 64 miles of cable. These groups would then be connected to a junction tower where a cable was run ashore to a main Detection Centre where any submerged metallic object would sound an alarm. Just how effective this was in submarine detection I never heard, but we had our doubts. These miles of loops were reported to be laid off all the main harbours and on the fishing grounds all the way from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Boston, Massachusetts.

There were two reasons to salvage this cable. While some of it was covered with woven steel, most of it was lead covered and the lead was a valuable salvage. The other reason is that the fishermen were getting their down riggers and nets caught in the loops, with reported losses to their gear. It was not unusual for us to pick up a net, most times full of fish. What a mess this would cause. If we could track the owner of the net, he would get compensated for his loss but not the loss of his catch.

For the duration of the time the Sackville was a salvage ship Lt. McKenna was captain and Lt. Schmizer was first officer and navigator. Both had considerable sea time and knew how to run a ship. This could not be said for most junior officers.

At the end of the war the navy was flooded with seamen returning from overseas or relieved from active convoy duty, all awaiting their discharge. As a result, most of the navy ships situated in Halifax and Dartmouth found themselves overloaded with returning seamen, and the Sackville was no exception. When I came aboard the only place I could find to sling my hammock was over a mess table with a light bulb shining at my feet. Complaining about being bumped and banged from below did me no good, as one night someone cut the rope supporting my hammock to let me go crashing to the deck. Although I did have some extended sea time aboard the training destroyer HMCS St. Francis looking for subs that were reported to be in the Bay of Fundy, it did not prepare me for the amount of bullying that went on between some of the old salts and the very junior and green seamen. We seemed to get most of the dirty jobs and did most of the watch keeping. Some of the junior officers who found the senior seamen would take no guff from the men, took their frustrations out on us juniors, thus making life miserable for us.

Sackville had become a working ship (her number had been changed from 181 to Z62) and perhaps because many of the crew were old hands, Captain McKenna ran a rather loose ship in as much, discipline was not strictly adhered to. She had also been moved from naval dockside to work out of French Cable Wharf located at the narrows on the Dartmouth side of the harbour. This can still be seen today from the bridge that now spans the narrows between Halifax and Dartmouth. Perhaps the term loose ship is a bit misleading. For example, myself as an underage seaman, was not allowed to draw my tot of rum nor was I permitted to go into wet canteen while ashore, both of which were overlooked and not enforced. The Officer of the day distributed our issue of rum each noon hour. While we were supposed to drink it down in front of the officer, we got very adept at palming a shot glass of Coke which was drank in place of the tot of rum while we snuck off to pour the rum into a bottle. Heaven help you if any of the bullies even suspected you of having rum though. Many a seaman got beat up over the rum, especially down at the dance pavilion that overhung the water in downtown Dartmouth.

The routine of the Sackville commenced by leaving harbour in the early hours of Monday morning in order to be on station by daybreak. We would spend three or four days at sea, grappling for the loops of cable, which were raised on deck, cut in two with each end buoyed off, then dropped back into the sea. In most cases we always seemed to make it back to port for the weekend. The next week was supposed to be spent retrieving the cable that we had buoyed off. The weather played an important part in the retrieval of the cable, and if it was too rough we would go off to grapple for more cable. Retrieving the cable was a nasty, dirty, stinky job. While steam hoses and water were sprayed on the cable before it would enter the winch to be led amidships where it travelled to the storage hold, a lot of seaweed and scum remained on the table. This made the job of coiling the cable in the storage hold a wet and slimy, miserable job. Also, the smell of rotten and decaying seaweed seemed to permeate through the ship. During my time aboard the ship we travelled to St. John, New Brunswick, and up to Sydney, Cape Breton, and major harbours in between to pick up cable. A considerable time was spent around Sable Island giving me a good understanding of how the currents and shifting sands have claimed so many ships around the Island.

As time passed, the crew began to get whittled down to a more workable group, and things started to settle down on board. I earned more pocket money and got some respect as the guy that would darn socks, sew buttons on, and press uniforms.

In addition, a major shift in my duties occurred, as our coxswain (the coxswain was a chief petty officer and was in charge of steering the ship) was noted as somewhat of an alcoholic and was at most times unable to perform his duties to steer the ship. Efforts to replace him with other petty officers or junior officers failed to produce any likely candidates. I don't know how it happened or if we just volunteered to take a trick at the helm, but Dave Patterson and myself, the two youngest crew members, became the regulars to take the ship out and into port.

Leaving dockside was a comedy to behold. The captain would yell down from the bridge above, "Is the coxswain in the wheelhouse?" We would reply, "No Sir." He would order two seamen to go down to retrieve the coxswain only to have them later appear holding up the sodden mess of the chief petty officer. At which time the drunken coxswain would reply "Aye Sir" to the commands of the captain. With myself at the helm and Dave operating the telegraph to the engine room, off we would go. Why the captain requested this ridiculous ritual whenever we left port we will never know. There appeared one day while in port a very neat looking petty officer with a pressed uniform, trimmed beard, and shoes shined. Who would have recognized our own coxswain, completely sober? He had received his discharge, his girlfriend was returning from overseas and they were getting married.

The other duty that I fell into was assistant rigger, where eventually I became main rigger. This job chiefly consisted of splicing wire cables into eyes that were used to buoy the ends of the cable we picked up. With acting coxswain and rigger I got relieved of all ships duty at sea. I was, however, still required to stand my watch while at dockside.

There were four additional episodes that took place which were important to the Sackville and me while I served aboard. As mentioned previously, there were a number of senior ratings. Amongst them was a group of stokers. These four or five stokers were abusive, disruptive, known to molest women, and were constantly picking fights. Not only did this occur aboard ship, but it was reported from civilians and other service personnel while ashore. One night while these stokers were returning from Halifax to Dartmouth via the ferry, they decided to run through the women's side of the boat (during the war, ferries were segregated). As the ferry approached the dock, they snatched several purses and proceeded to jump ashore before the ferry was properly docked, only to land in the arms of the waiting shore patrol. Several days later we, along with another ship's company, were paraded down to see the dishonourable discharge of these stokers. I will always remember as they were marched in hatless, under close guard to have a long list of charges against them read, then to have their collars ripped off and any badges removed from their sleeves.

During the same time we also had a very obnoxious officer onboard. When Captain McKenna finally got him transferred to another posting, it was evening when a navy tender came alongside to pick this officer up. I was there along with several other crew members to see him climb down the ladder while someone threw his kit bag to the tender below. While the officer was screaming at the top of his lungs "Don't throw those bags down!", one landed in the tender only to bust open. Out toppled a wicker casket full of navy rum. Further inspection produced a second casket of rum. This along with other stolen articles was revealed. He was later escorted away under guard. Both these incidents had a disturbing effect on me.

The second episode had to do with survival of the ship. I cannot recall why we were that far from home port, only to think we were ordered to pick up cable that was on the Grand Banks. In any event, it was reported a hurricane was approaching the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that we should seek shelter in St. John's, Newfoundland. Not much later it was stated by radio there was no room for us as the harbour in St. John's was already plugged with ships, and that we should head out to sea to get as much sea room as we could. As a result we hit the hurricane dead on. It's impossible to describe the screaming wind, the crashing seas, violent motion of the ship, and the effect it has on people's lives. Perhaps Dave Patterson and myself were already on the helm when the hurricane struck, I don't remember. I do know that we were on the helm for 48 hours while the storm raged and the captain stood on the bridge above yelling orders down the voice pipe. How or why he never got washed off the bridge, is a mystery to me. With the fires out in the galley, no food to eat, the ship threatening to shake itself apart every time the propeller came out of the water, and the ship becoming completely water logged with all the mess decks awash with water, we all feared for our survival. No doubt that the bilge pumps were plugged or at least partially because even above the noise you could occasionally hear them sucking air. While some of the officers tries to keep the crew busy, it was impossible. Others just thought that our fate had been sealed and quietly got drunk in their secret little bottle of rum. At one time we had an officer come into the wheelhouse to scream at us that we didn't know how to keep the ship steady and pushed us aside to grab the wheel. The captain yelled down the voice pipe to ask who was on the helm only to find that we had been removed and responded by telling the officer to put as seamen side of the wheelhouse where he sobbed like a baby. With the ship corkscrewing and rolling her decks under water, it was impossible to hold her steady. We would slide down the back of a giant wave, again to be met by another giant wave that would engulf the ship. How the stokers kept fires in the boiler and the engineers kept the engine running I will never know. To say it was a concern of mine that I thought water would find its way down the funnel and put the fire out in the boiler is an understatement. Without power we were dead in the water. With more water entering the ship, she became sluggish to steer. With the captain still on the bridge and us on the helm, we managed to keep her bow into the winds. With winds finally abating, we were able to get some speed up and head back to homeport to dry out.

The third item on my list also has to do with the survival of the ship. Working through the winter of 1945-46 the buildup of ice on the upper decks was a problem. The captain, for the most part, tried to avoid this problem by working in reasonably calm seas. However, we must have been a good distance from homeport and bucking heavy seas, as spray was flying over the ship with a steady buildup of ice forming on the steel decks and around the bridge. With steam hoses out and every man available to chop away at the ice, (the men were also experiencing ice buildup of their own if they were exposed to the spray) yet the ice continued to get ahead of us. As the ice built up, the ship started to list to starboard. Now the rolling action of a corvette is notorious. The Sackville was even more so, as she rode several inches above her normal water line when they removed her forward gun and all her armour plate. This rolling action became even more precarious as with every roll she dipped even further to Starboard, to the point it seemed the ship would not recover. The chipping of ice became less rigorous as we tired and grew more concerned with hanging on. Falling overboard would have been sure death. Entering port with listing to the point of rolling over, we made it to dockside at French Cable. Even before the ship was properly tied up, a good number of the crew took their life in their hands by jumping several feet from the ship to the dock. As it was, it took a supreme effort, not only from our crew but from another ship, to get enough ice removed before the Sackville could return to even keel.

The fourth and most important item that should be documented and taken special note of is the Sackville's last duty as a WWII naval vessel. Reading some books I have about Canadian naval history during WWII pertaining to the surrender of German subs at the end of the war, there are confusing accounts that failed to mention the Sackville and the role she played in apprehending the infamous German subs U889 and U190. On two accounts in books written by John D. Harbron and James W. Essex, they report these subs, or at least U889, surrendered outside of Shelbourne, Nova Scotia. While Mr. Essex goes to great detail how Frierich Breuecher, commander of U889, surrendered to Captain Colin Donald in Shelbourne, he also states that U190 proceeded to Bay Bulls, Newfoundland, to surrender. However, in Mr. Harbron's book there is a picture of the two subs tied up together and a further picture of German submarine officers standing on a dock in Halifax. I go to this detail because HMCS Sackville was part of a flotilla that proceeded some two to three hundred miles out to sea to capture the German subs U889 and U190, after Coastal Patrol Plane had reported their whereabouts. Why they were running on the surface is only speculation, other than the fact surrender was inevitable when several Canadian naval ships surrounded them. Navy tenders were put over the side and armed boarding parties were sent over to officially take control of the subs. While some German crews were left aboard to operate the subs, most German crews and officers were dispersed amongst our ships. The Sackville took several German officers on board. As a young seaman coming face to face with the enemy, I can only remember the utter disrespect and arrogance they showed towards us, and as we escorted them towards the Ward Room, they spat at our feet.

To prove that these events did in fact take place on the Sackville, I have four pictures taken from my little brownie camera. One shows one of the German subs entering Halifax harbour under her own power. The others and most important, were taken when Mel Seabourn and myself, dressed in civilian clothes, snuck out through a hole in the fence to walk down the railway tracks and through the railway gate to the armament depot where the subs were tied up in Dartmouth. Another picture shows me aboard the sub U889 while the other shows Mel aboard the sub. Looking around for some souvenirs, we could find nothing. For fear of getting caught, we beat a hasty retreat. Copes of these pictures are enclosed. It is too late to change any written account about these German subs, but I would hope some mention of the Sackville's part be included in the archives of the Sackville.

There are other factors that happened during my time aboard the Sackville which I think are worth mentioning. When I arrived in Halifax, it was just after the Halifax riots, which took place on V-E Day. Like most of wartime episodes that are long forgotten, the riots, which consisted mostly of navy personnel, were a disgusting and outrageous display of people gone mad. The downtown area of Halifax was completely ravaged. For a long time after, military personnel were restricted from many areas of Halifax. In addition to this, venereal disease was epidemic with extensive efforts being made to get it under control. It was most embarrassing to have to go for periodic inspection and be instructed on prophylactic kit and then being issued a package of condoms by a navy nurse.

We were also dockside when the Halifax explosion took place during WWII. This explosion was not nearly as devastating as the one in WWII but, nevertheless, it was quite upsetting for all concerned. There was less force on Halifax because the ammunition depot was on the Dartmouth side in Bedford Basin. I cannot recall the extent of the damage but it was substantial. Tucked around the corner from Bedford Basin, we sustained no damage but did feel the effects of the concussion. Later, it was a nervous time as military personnel were required to help clean up the mess. With several other crew members we were ordered to walk through the bush looking for live ammunition. More than a mile from the explosion I tripped over several 20mm live shells only to beat a hasty retreat to report the incident. The nervous time continued for us as well as the citizens of Halifax and Dartmouth, as barge after barge of live ammunition was towed through the harbour to be dumped far out at sea. The threat of further explosions from the barges was ever present.

A happier note was when I helped one of our chief petty officers repair the engine and refurbish the captain's launch, which had lain dormant since I came on board. With no new parts to work with, we carefully took the engine apart, polished it up, put it back together, and away it went. We then cleaned the launch up and gave it a coat of paint. The captain never used the launch or "skimming dish" as it was called in navy terms. Depending on who was the officer of the day, they would let us lower it over the side to let us seamen have a run around the harbour. If we could get enough shipmates to pool what little money we had, we would go into Dartmouth to buy as many cases of beer that we had funds for. We would then go down to Bedford Basin where the merchant ships lay anchor and bootleg the cases of beer to the merchant seamen aboard the ships, almost doubling our money in the process. How we were not caught or reported, I don't know. The end came to our scheme when some of our officers smashed into the stern of the Sackville only to overgear and burn up the engine of the launch.

Then there were the girls. If we were in the harbour on a Sunday evening, we younger ratings would go to the youth group meetings at the church at the top of the hill. It was nice to have some home-baked cake or cookies, but it was also a good place to meet some girls. However, under the watchful eye of the minister and other local ladies it was seldom that we could walk any of the girls home. I did meet a girl at the dance hall in Dartmouth. She was a good dancer and we liked to jitterbug together. We used to just meet at the dance hall but eventually she took me home to meet her mother. Her mother was good to me as she did my washing and although she had a large family, there was always a place at the dinner table for me when I could arrange to be there. I never did meet her father as he was a merchant seaman and had been away for several months. As for her daughter, we were friends and never went any place other than the dance hall. I don't really know for what reason, other than the fact I drove her mother and her daughter down to Liverpool in a borrowed car to spend the weekend with her mother's brother. When it became clear my time aboard the Sackville was coming to an end, her mother asked me one day if I was going to marry her daughter. Speechless, I left the house never to see them again.

As a sidelight we would bring a gift with us to show our gratitude for the hospitality we received, most times this was taken from the food and meat lockers in the form of staples, sausages, or bacon, all of which was still in short supply ashore. To do this we spent large amounts of time filing keys to break into the food lockers. One day we got highly reprimanded by out easy going captain for this practice. However, he did not take any enforcement steps as it was noted the captain always had a package under his arm when he went home for the weekend.

By April 1946, the navy was in disarray. The Sackville did not have enough crew to run the ship. She lay in her berth at French Cable, sadly needing paint and some TLC. With only one or two officers, hardly a person you could call a cook, and the captain home most of the time, no one seemed to know if we could leave the ship or not. The discharge base, HMCS Peragrin at naval dockside in Halifax was closed and there seemed to be a delay in getting discharge clearance. During this time Captain McKenna came aboard with orders for me to report to navy's sea-going tug HMCS Glenside. This was not a surprise as the navy tugs were busy and also lacked adequate crew. Captain McKenna said that he felt this was silly because my discharge papers should be on the way anytime now, so he arranged for me to stay on the Sackville.

By May we were down to less than a dozen seamen on the Sackville. One day a navy tug came alongside the Sackville and towed her down to the commercial dock in downtown Dartmouth. With no officers, petty officers, cook, or money we were left to fend for ourselves. Later, navy personnel came aboard and took down her flag (which some how I commandeered) and left with whatever papers were onboard. Yet they had no orders for my fellow remaining crew and me. We were on the boat for a week or more, during which time representatives from two different companies came by saying they were interested in buying the Sackville and wished to hire us in order to continue operation as a salvage ship. Although the offered pay was good, we all refused.

RCMP officers also came aboard on more than one occasion to try to recruit us as crew for their patrol boats. The smuggling of stolen war goods going offshore was in high gear and they were in desperate need of crew for their patrol boats. Looking back, this is one offer I regret I did not take. Lounging around the decommissioned Sackville we seemed to be the forgotten crew. I don't exactly remember, but I think two of our group took it upon themselves to go over to Stadacona, the permanent navy shore base in Halifax, to see what they could find out. In any event, we did receive orders to report to the quartermaster at HMCS Stadacona. There they allotted us rooms and there we were. In packing my gear I had an extra kit bag that I filled with all the wire splicing tools and other tools that I thought would be useful. I also took some trivial artifacts from ship such as a knife, fork, spoon, a seamen's sheath knife, and some decorative items. I am sorry to say that the kit bag was stolen during my stay at Stadacona. We were in Stadacona for several days, most of which time was spent trying to collect our meager back pay. We still had no official orders regarding our discharge papers. Eventually I was given my back pay along with a train ticket to Toronto and directions to report to HMCS York naval base in Toronto (this was good news to me as my parents had returned to Toronto from Montreal). It took me another week after my arrival in Toronto before I was officially demobilized. I should note although I spent no time on the Glenside. My discharge papers show that I did.

Do I regret my time in the Navy? Not one bit. I was, however, disappointed to learn that to finish high school I would have to wait 1 1/2 years to get into any school within the Toronto area due to the backlog of returning military personnel filling the schools to complete their education. I never did finish high school.

As a side note, perhaps the kit bag was stolen because someone thought that the flag was in it. I had however, taken care to hide it with my clothes. On a trip for a naval reunion in Digby and Cornwallis in 2001, my wife and I took the time to visit the Sackville and return the flag to the ship.

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