There are, and have been, so many special people amongst us, lest we forget. The Canadian Navy has fought in world wars on our behalf and continues to serve us along our shores to this day. The democratic lives we experience today we owe to some of these special people from across our great country. Three special Sackville men were on duty at times of war and are recognized in this issue. Yesterday, November 11th at eleven o’clock, I attended Memorial Day ceremonies at the cenotaph at Memorial Park, Sackville. Hundreds of citizens attended; I was moved by the numbers present and the words spoken by legionnaires that morning. And at three o’clock that afternoon, I attended the opening of a special exhibit at the Boultenhouse Heritage Centre commemorating the contributions of Charles Fawcett, Joe Atkinson and Jim Purdy who had served in the Navy at times of war, along with the corvette HMCS Sackville. The Heritage Centre was packed, just like Memorial Park had been a few hours earlier. No one had forgotten. I was most impressed all day by these special activities about important memorials to the tools of war (a corvette in this case) and the men who fought on our behalf. In this issue, read about these Sackville men who placed themselves in mortal danger for us and country. There are, and have been, so many special people amongst us, lest we forget.
Canada’s Navy celebrated its 100th year in 2010. Last summer the Tantramar Heritage Trust assembled a special exhibit on corvette HMCS Sackville at the Boultenhouse Heritage Centre as our contribution to the naval centennial. On Remembrance Day 2010 the Trust added information to the display to highlight the lives of three Sackville citizens who served on convoy escort warships during WWII. The content of this issue of The White Fence newsletter is entirely dedicated to the Navy and to those lads from Tantramar who served with our naval forces. More than 250 Sackville area citizens enlisted in the forces during WWII, but only 12 of have been identified as serving in the Navy.
There would be a story associated with each of those twelve individuals and unfortunately I have only had time to research and present to you the war service of three of them. They are the stories of an officer, Lt. Charles Fawcett, and two seamen, James Purdy and Joseph Atkinson, all now deceased.
The Royal Canadian Navy played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Atlantic. The corvette HMCS Sackville is an enduring national memorial to the men who bravely fought the enemy and the elements escorting convoys of vital supplies to Great Britain. This issue of our newsletter is dedicated to them.
—Al Smith, November 11, 2010
The Remarkable Life of Lt. Charles Cavour Fawcett, 1910–1942
By Al Smith
A bronze plaque on the base of a large grey granite Fawcett family tombstone in the Sackville Rural Cemetery records simply:
Lt. Charles C. Fawcett 1910–1942 HMCS Spikenard (Torpedoed)
A tiny memorial perhaps to one of the Fawcett family’s most beloved sons and a loss of life that saddened the entire town.Charles Fawcett was born in Sackville, NB, on January 29, 1910, the son of Charles W. and Mary (Chapman) Fawcett and a grandson of the founder of the Fawcett Foundry. His early education was in Sackville public schools, but he later attended Rothesay Collegiate private school and Mount Allison University. He acquired an interest in boats at an early age having spent summers at the family cottage in Cape Tormentine. He designed and built his first yacht when he was 22. By the early 1930s he was becoming a promising naval architect. He is credited with much of the organization and success of the Shediac Bay Yacht Club, which in 1934 had grown to a squadron of 18 boats, including 5 racing boats, four of which had been designed and built by Fawcett. He also designed the flagship for the Yacht Club’s Commodore Weldon. It was a 30-foot auxiliary yacht built in Shelburne, NS, by the Etherington Company and sailed to Shediac in June, 1934, by Charles Fawcett and two friends from Sackville. In 1937 he designed a large racing yacht for Dr. Allanach of Moncton. Fawcett-designed boats were fast, possibly due in part to a collaboration that the young architect had with William Roué — the designer of the famous Bluenose.
Charles Fawcett also had a fascination with aircraft and was flying biplanes when he was just 18. Charles had a reputation within the family of being a bit of a hellion and it was likely no surprise that he quickly got into stunt flying. Charles would often borrow a plane from Moncton Airways and fly over Sackville to thrill his friends with aerial stunts.
On November 9, 1931, Fawcett had rented a gipsy moth biplane to do some advertising for Mount Allison prior to a football game between Mt. A and UNB. After buzzing the stands and doing aerial loops and swirls over the football field he dropped a football with the college colours attached. At that point an engine cowling came loose and began flapping threatening to damage the wing. Fawcett had to make an emergency landing in the marsh below the present day Tim Hortons. With the cowling secured and his load lightened he attempted to once again get airborne but had difficulty getting altitude and quickly realized he could not clear the road and wires ahead (Main Street, by the current highway overpass) he crash landed in the marsh, severely damaging the plane, but he escaped unharmed.
During the summers of 1932-33 he was enrolled in an officers training course at Camp Borden in Ontario were he secured a formal pilot’s license. Back in Sackville in the summer of 1934 he narrowly escaped death in another plane crash. On July 30, while doing aerial stunts over the old Moncton Airport at Leger’s Corner, he failed to come out of a tailspin and crashed nose first into the marsh mud just below the airfield. Fawcett was thrown from aircraft and spent several days in hospital but miraculously escaped serious injury. Earlier that summer Charles had expressed interest in seeking a commission in the either the Royal Canadian Navy or Royal Air Force and undoubtedly this incident was a severe setback.
In 1935 he moved to Montreal after accepting a position with Canadian Vickers Co. in their airplane manufacturing department. With the onset of WWII Charles joined the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) in Montreal and was stationed there when he married Ella Grant in July 1940. Having been an ex-officer of the RCAF at Camp Borden he entered the Navy as a First Lieutenant, initially serving as an instructor then transferring to Saint John, NB, in the spring of 1941 in the examining and signaling service. Later in 1941 he was stationed in Halifax and in January, 1942, transferred to St. John’s, NL, to join the crew of corvette HMCS Spikenard.
HMCS Spikenard (K-198) was a flower class corvette built at Davie Shipbuilding Co. in Lauzon, QC, and commissioned on December 8, 1940. She was one of ten Canadian-built corvettes originally destined for the Royal Navy, but retained and manned by the RCN. British corvettes were named after flowers, whereas Canadian corvettes were named after towns. Those ten corvettes retained their flower names — the only ones in a total eventual fleet of 123 ships. Such was the rush to get these early ships to war that they were commissioned incomplete and sailed on their first escort duty to the UK lacking the main 4-inch gun armament. Crews affixed a dummy wooden “gun” until a proper gun could be installed at a British yard. Spikenard was launched in December and had to break ice all the way down the St. Lawrence River to get to Halifax. In January 1941 she made a North Atlantic crossing escorting convoy HX-104 and went on to South Shields to complete fit-up.
With fitting out and the crew workups completed Spikenard entered active service in May, 1941. She was assigned to the UK-Iceland run escorting North American bound convoys as far as Iceland and incoming convoys back to the UK. She spent much of the latter half of 1941 on that run until early January 1942 when she escorted convoy ON 52 from Iceland back to St. John’s. She was then assigned to the new, more southerly and direct, convoy routing the “Newfie-Derry” run. Lt. Charles Fawcett joined the ship when she arrived in St. John’s from Iceland in early January, 1942. It seems likely that the fun loving and adventure seeking Charles Fawcett fit in well with the crew of HMCS Spikenard. The ship had the reputation of being a happy vessel under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Bert Shadforth, who was very highly regarded by the crew. In late January, 1942, Spikenard did anti-submarine patrols off southeast Newfoundland before putting in to St. John’s for provisions for escort duty on eastbound convoy SC 67. The ship cleared St. John’s harbour on February 1, 1942, to join the convoy headed to Londonderry.
U-136 under command of Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Zimmermann departed the northern German port of Kiel on January 22, 1942, and headed north along the Norwegian coast and into the North Sea heading for the north Atlantic convoy routes south of Iceland. His new U-Boat had been commissioned just five months earlier and Zimmermann was sailing on its first active patrol. On February 5, 300 miles west of Ireland, Zimmermann attacked convoy SC 63 with a spread of three torpedoes, one of which hit and sunk the British escort corvette HMS Arbutus. Following that action he continued his patrol northward. Convoy SC 67 departed Halifax on January 30, 1942, and added additional ships from Sydney, NS, on February 2, meeting its mid-ocean escort fleet of 6 RCN corvettes just off the Grand Banks. The small convoy consisted of 22 merchant vessels aligned in a rectangle of seven columns. HMCS Spikenard was the command ship for the convoy since Lt.Cmdr. Shadworth was the senior officer. Other corvettes screening the convoy were; Chilliwack, Shediac, Louisburg, Dauphin and Lethbridge.
The convoy was 500 miles south of Iceland the evening of February 10, 1942. Fairly heavy seas were running that very dark night as Spikenard was zigzagging ahead of the convoy’s right hand column, her radar inoperable. Just before midnight the convoy was attacked by at least two U-Boats. Zimmermann’s U-136 fired a bow salvo of four torpedoes at the convoy hitting HMCS Spikenard and the Norwegian freighter Heina at almost the same moment. Spikenard was hit between the bridge and the forecastle destroying everything above it including the bridge. It seems likely that ship’s five officers, including Lt. Fawcett, were killed in that initial explosion. The explosion caused such extensive damage that the ship sank within five minutes and was not able to send an emergency signal. A second explosion as she sank caused additional casualties.
Of the 65 officers and men who sailed on Spikenard that fateful crossing only 8 enlisted men survived. The survivors endured a grueling 19 hours crammed into a rescue raft until picked up by the Royal Navy corvette HMS Gentian.
News of the sinking reached Sackville on February 19. The Sackville Tribune reported on February 23: “News of the death of Lt. Charles Fawcett, son of C.W. Fawcett of Sackville, through enemy action in the sinking of the HMCS Spikenard in the North Atlantic, cast a feeling of gloom over this community”.
The ship and men are gone forever, but Spikenard lives on in several communities. In Halifax’s Maritime Command Museum a small model of the ship is displayed. In St. John’s, NL, the Crow’s Nest Officer’s Club proudly displays “Spikenard His Spike”. The club first opened in January, 1942, in a fourth floor warehouse. The night before embarking on escort duties on his first “Newfie-Derry” run Spikenard ‘s captain, Bert Shadforth, challenged officers of four other corvettes to a contest to see who, with the least number of blows, could drive a six-inch spike into the floor which was hard three-inch-thick pine. Shadworth won the contest and shortly afterward he and his ship were lost at sea. The club’s owners had a brass ring with the inscription “Spikenard His Spike” fastened around the spike as a memorial. It still exists to this day.
The Province of British Columbia has named two features after Spikenard victims to honour their native sons killed in action: Shadforth Creek (1990) and Milthorp Point (1956). Possibly the Town of Sackville should consider renaming Fawcett Avenue to Lt. Charles Fawcett Avenue to honour the life of this remarkable man and to further the Town’s association with the corvette that bears its name.
- The Fawcetts of Sackville, Vol. III by Kathryn Fawcett Lewis, 2000
- Corvettes Canada by Mac Johnson; 2008, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 979-0-470-15429-8
- Website: Ready Ayeready.com — The Canadian Navy
- Website: uboat.net
- Website: ubootwaffe.net U-boat operations
- Website: Convoy SC 67 — warsailors.com
- The White Fence – Newsletter of the Tantramar Heritage Trust, Issue #2, May 1997
- Remembering Spikenard: A Corvette Wake by Lt. Pat Jessup, Action Stations Mar./Apr. 2007
“I was a T.O. on the Wet-Ass-Queen” — Seaman Jim Purdy’s Wartime Service
By Al Smith
Interviewed two days before his 85th birthday, Sackville’s Dr. James Purdy recalled his wartime naval experiences to the Trust’s Al Smith.
At the tender age of 17 Purdy joined the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR). Living in Truro at the time and attending the Nova Scotia Agricultural College Jim traveled down to Halifax in March, 1943, to join the Navy’s war effort. Why the Navy? “Because I’ve always liked the ocean… Seventeen was too young for full service, but you were allowed to sign up as a boy seaman and when you were 18 you became a sailor.” Jim turned 18 on August 10, 1943. Basic training was completed in Toronto then back east to the training base HMCS Cornwallis in the valley for advanced new entry training. Since Jim was a college student his superiors encouraged him to join the officer’s corps, however, he wanted to complete his training as seaman. He chose communications as his specialty training and was sent to St. Hyacinthe, QC, for training as a wireless (Telegraph Operator or “T.O.”).
With wireless training completed he shipped off to Halifax in May, 1944, and was immediately assigned to the corvette HMCS Wetaskiwin (K-175), a sister ship to HMCS Sackville. “Yep I was a T.O. on the Wet-Ass-Queen,” quipped Jim. HMCS Wetaskiwin, affectionately know by the sailors as Wet-Ass-Queen, was named after an Alberta town south of Edmonton. She was a Flower Class Corvette, built by Burrard Dry Dock Co. in Vancouver, BC, in 1940 and commissioned on December 17, 1940. She was the first corvette built on the west coast.
Crammed into the tiny wireless shack behind the bridge, Able Seaman Purdy got his first taste of sea sickness when K-175 encountered the Atlantic swells off Halifax Harbour as the Corvette headed to St. John’s, NL, to join the escort fleet. HMCS Wetaskiwin was assigned to the “Newfie-Derry” run where escorts picked up their convoy off the Grand Banks and escorted them across the North Atlantic to Londonderry. The late spring 1944 run to “Derry” was filled with times of horrible weather and numerous encounters with U-boats which at night “would routinely fire on the convoy at a distance to try to lure the escorts away from the convoyî. But the convoy made it “across the pond” and HMCS Wetaskiwin steamed up Loch Foyle into Londonderry just before the D-day landings in early June. The ship’s crew got shore leave in “Derry” where Jim met up with two of his buddies from wireless training in Quebec.
From Londonderry the ship sailed to Greenock, Scotland, to await orders, and shortly after, the Corvette joined an escort group to shepherd a large convoy of merchantmen in ballast back to “Newfiejohn” (St. John’s). The convoy included two hospital ships loaded with wounded from the D-day landings and the escorts were kept busy fending off U-boat advances that tried to penetrate the escort screen on many occasions to target the hospital ships. The convoy was especially vulnerable in mid-ocean where there was a “dead area” in communications and no air cover. However, Jim says that “he never missed a message for his ship”. One day reports were received of a sub on the surface some distance from the convoy and the Convoy Commander sent up two Swordfish aircraft to check it out. The sub did not respond to code signals so the aircraft was ordered to fire across its bows and the sub returned fire on the aircraft, so the commander ordered depth charges to be dropped. The sub was sunk and Wetaskiwin was sent to retrieve survivors. Only one sailor was retrieved from the water who reported that they had just sunk a Free French Submarine, not German. Navy brass ordered silence on the sinking.
Back in Halifax the crew was given leave and when he returned for duty he discovered that his ship had departed. Purdy was then assigned to HMCS Border Cities, an Algerine Class Minesweeper built by Port Arthur Shipbuilding and launched in May, 1943. Canadian-operated Algerines were mainly used as convoy escort vessels and never fitted with mine sweeping gear. The Mine-sweeper was larger than the Corvettes and most often were used as the command ship for the convoy’s escort fleet. The ship was assigned to the “Triangle Run” collecting convoy ships in New York or Boston, then in to Halifax to form up the full convoy in Bedford Basin. The convoy would then depart Halifax and rendezvous with the mid-ocean escort group 300 miles off Newfoundland. Triangle Run escorts would then proceed to St. John’s for refueling and provisioning and wait for a westbound convoy to be escorted to New York or Boston and then bring the a convoy up to Halifax.
Jim spent the remainder of his sea time on HMCS Border Cities escorting convoys on the Triangle Run and encountered numerous U-boat contacts. As the war was winding down he was given shore service and assigned to a communications base at HMCS Shelburne, spending two months there before being discharged from service in October, 1945.
Note: Jim passed away September 21, 2010, following a lengthy battle with kidney disease.
- Interview with Dr. Jim Purdy August 9, 2010
- Corvettes Canada, by Mac Johnson; 2008, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 979-0-470-15429-8
- Website: Ready Ayeready.com — The Canadian Navy
“A Stint in the Navy” — Signalman Joseph Austin Atkinson
By Al Smith
Graduating from Sackville High School in the spring of 1943, Joe Atkinson decided he wanted to join the war effort and sign up with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR). Enlisting on November 22, 1943, at HMCS Brunswicker in Saint John, he trained as a reservist until January 17, 1944, when he was assigned on active service with the rank of Ordinary Seaman.
Formal training began on January 21, 1944, at HMCS Montcalm in Quebec City for six weeks of basic training, then back east to HMCS Cornwallis. After two months of advanced new-entry training he was sent back to Quebec — to St. Hyacinthe for specialty training as a signalman. Training at St. Hyacinthe was intensive as signalmen had to learn Morse code, semaphore, flag-hoist signaling, use of Aldis signaling lamps, and were responsible for encoding, transmitting, receiving, decoding and distributing messages through visual communications with other ships. After five months training Signalman Atkinson shipped east to Halifax and on October 21, 1944, was assigned to a brand new river class Frigate HMCS Prestonian (K 662).
HMCS Prestonian was built by Davie Shipbuilding in Lauzon, QC, and launched on June 22, 1944. She was commissioned on September 13, 1944, just a month before Signalman Joseph Atkinson joined her crew. Joe sailed with Prestonian until August 17, 1945, and was discharged from naval service on September 26, 1945.
Canada built and manned 123 Corvettes during the war. Those 205-foot ships, originally designed for coastal patrol, were quickly pressed into service as convoy escort vessels. Lacking speed and space to carry sufficient anti-submarine weaponry it was not a particularly effective U-boat hunter so naval planners quickly looked for an improved design and the frigate was born. At 301 feet in length the frigates were a much more stable platform from which to launch weapons and had a much longer range before refueling. Their twin engines gave them 4 knots more speed than the corvettes while carrying twice the depth charge load and newer anti-submarine weaponry. They were also a much more livable warship for the crew than the notoriously wet and rolling corvettes. Canada built 60 frigates that saw war service from 1943 to 1945.
HMCS Prestonian was Halifax based and among other duties saw service on the “Triangle Run” escorting ships from New York or Boston to Halifax then on to the North Atlantic handing them off to the mid ocean escort group. Joe Atkinson recalled being into Bermuda on one occasion but never made it “across the pond”.
Joe’s wife Pauline recalled him telling her of off-duty times lying in his hammock in the forward seaman’s mess watching his messmates playing bridge for hours on end. He could not understand how they could waste so much time on such a game. Later in life Joe became a very avid bridge player. Joe Atkinson became a skilled navy signalman — a communicator at the tender age of 18 years. Communications was an endearing life long attribute of this gentle and highly respected man. His weekly words of wisdom at meetings of the Sackville Rotary Club were a feature for many, many years. Sadly Joe passed away suddenly on May 1, 2010.
- Military Service Records of Joe Atkinson — provided by son Logan Atkinson
- Obituary of Joseph A. Atkinson 1925–2010, Jones Funeral Home Website: Ready Ayeready.com — The Canadian Navy
- HMCS Swansea — The Life and Times of a Frigate by Fraser M. McKee