Wednesday, April 30, 2014

HMCS Chicoutimi--Preparing For Action

Royal Canadian Navy submarine personnel must be breathing a sigh of relief as HMCS Chicoutimi completed a camber dive. (RCN photo at left via the Ottawa Citizen.)

The camber dive, which took place recently at Ogden Point in Victoria, is a major step toward getting the boat to operational condition.
It has been a long process. Originally built as one of the last Royal Navy conventional diesel-electric submarines, Chicoutimi started out life as HMS Upholder, the name vessel of the class.

Britain's Ministry of Defence had other plans, however, and tied up the Upholders in favour of going to an all-nuclear submarine force. After years of dithering, the Canadian government purchased the four boats of the class. Only one of them, HMCS Victoria, is currently operational.

In my next blog I'll look at Chicoutimi's hard-luck timeline.

And speaking of timelines, five months from now my cold war submarine thriller, Terror on the Alert, will hit the stands.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Brigadier Seely and Lieutenant--Captain? Gordon Flowerdew

Some time ago I posted the following:

Gordon Flowerdew, VC, and the Mystery of his Headstone

Gordon Flowerdew, of Norfolk, England; Duck Lake, Saskatchewan; and Wallachin, BC, lies buried at Namps-au-Val British Cemetary, the Somme, France. Flowerdew has passed into history as the man that led "C" Squadron, Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) in their ill-fated charge against German rifles, machine guns, and artillery at Moreuil Wood in March, 1918.
Flowerdew died of his wounds the day after the battle. His marker, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, lists his rank as "captain". I am informed by a member of his family that he was promoted to captain by the Canadian Cavalry Brigade's commander, Brigadier Seely, on the day he died; although his military records refer to him as "lieutenant" throughout. At least one author has referred to Flowerdew being promoted the same day he died, but (so far) I am not aware of any documentation in that regard--except for the headstone itself.

 It's interesting to speculate with hindsight what Brigadier-general Seely's motivation would have been in promoting his badly wounded subaltern. To make his convalescence easier to bear? To encourage other officers to follow Flowerdew's bold example at Moreuil Wood?
Perhaps Seely knew Flowerdew's days--no, hours--were numbered, and wished to give him some comfort. Some bit of solace for his large family, perhaps. Whatever the motivation, it speaks to Seely's concern for the Canadian cavalrymen, of whom he was so proud.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Trade

Yesterday’s entry dealt with William Guy Carr’s title for his book By Guess and By God. In his book he makes constant reference to “the Trade.” Here is his explanation, taken from his introductory note:

“Throughout this book, the Submarine Service is referred to as “the Trade.” Before the war a term of opprobrium coined by the pukka navy to describe officers who looked more like plumbers’ assistants than spic-and-span naval officers, the name took on a different significance during the war, and was accepted throughout the under-water branch of the service with a certain affectionate regard.”

When I first attended the Submarine Officers Training Course in HMS Dolphin in 1966, the somewhat shambolic state of dress practised by RN officers serving in boats was very apparent to my surface-navy eye. Once on board operational boats, however, we Canadians quickly adopted the Trade's outward characteristics.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

By Guess and By God

In the introductory note to his account of British submarine actions in World War I, William Guy Carr explained the title as follows: 

““By Guess and By God” was a phrase coined during the war by navigating officers of British submarines to describe the manner of their navigating. A surface ship in peace time proceeding on her way without celestial or other aids to navigation goes “by dead reckoning.” A submarine in war time, with all artificial aids to navigation removed, with no chance to take a sight for days on end, harassed by the enemy, with compasses often acting queerly, went “by guess and by God.” Blind as bats, we guessed and prayed inwardly that we guessed right: the rest was in the hands of Providence.”

During my own time in submarines, fifty years after the events described by Carr, there were many occasions when I “prayed inwardly.” Needless to say, a predicted landfall or confirming change in the depth of the ocean below us allowed us to breathe a little easier.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A-boats Were Early Cold War Workhorses

Here is a photo of HMS Alderney, the British A-class diesel-electric boat I served in during 1966-67. Those were the last years of Alderney's life, as she paid off for the last time after a couple of very enjoyable cruises. Bremerhaven, Faslane, Naples, Gibraltar, Malta...

It wasn't all calm seas and blue skies, as the photo demonstrates.

At times, nerves were on edge, and not just because of the sea state. One of my commanding officers once remarked that if things got nasty with the Soviets, we could expect to find ourselves "somewhere north of Cape Wrath," and he didn't expect we'd come back!

My feeling was he was being a bit pessimistic, given a couple of brushes with Soviet submarines when they apparently didn't know that one of Her Majesty's submersibles was in the area.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

"Hunter Killers" and the Canadian Submarine Service

HMS Astute
On March 27th I wrote a brief item about Hunter Killers, Iain Ballantyne's book subtitled "The Dramatic Untold Story of the Royal Navy's Most Secret Service". Ballantyne devotes a section of the book to the A-class diesel-electric submarines of the 1950-60's. Those included HMS Alderney, Astute, Ambush and others who spent time with the Sixth Submarine Squadron (SM6) based in Halifax.

Of note were the activities of Alderney and Astute during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The two RN boats remained under Canadian operational control as they waited to detect Soviet submarines bound for aggressive locations off the American eastern seaboard. And Canadian admiral Ken Dyer sent his antisubmarine fleet to sea, in spite of a lack of direction from the "dithering" Canadian government.

The deal between the Canadian and British governments that kept SM6 in Halifax also involved 200 Canadian officers and men who would train and serve in the Royal Navy--a group that would later prove their value in a new Canadian submarine service.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tools of The Trade (2)

 This Tool of The Trade is of course a pair of dividers, always to be found on or near the chart table in a submarine's control room. This handsome example is a replica of the style used by the Ships Master on board HMS Association, which was wrecked off the Scilly Isles on October 22nd, 1707.

The dividers in this photo are resting on a battered chart of the North Pacific,used during a cruise to Hawaii in 1980. The ketch Wise Eye made a safe but prolonged passage, but that's a longer story for another time.
Below, the dividers are used to measure the distance between two point on the chart; one minute of latitude equals one nautical mile.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tools of the Trade (1)

 This rather odd-looking item is a wheelspanner. Ships' engineers and all submariners will be familiar with wheelspanners, as they are extremely useful for turning stubborn or jammed valve control wheels. (Think oversized garden faucet outlets.)
This particular one is somewhat unique. It is chromed--most were workaday hard steel tools. Also, the non-spanner end is shaped into a coarse screwdriver, perfect for screwing down deck fittings on an O-class submarine.

Each of the officers in the commissioning crew of HMC Submarine Okanagan was presented with one of these handy keepsakes by Her Majesty's Dockyard Chatham in 1968. Mine is on a shelf in front of me as I write, a constant reminder of those long-gone days.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Canadian Cavalry Takes On Secret Service

 Last week I published three blogs describing the scene around Moreuil, France, on March 28-30, 1918. At a luncheon in honour of Moreuil Day earlier in March this year I chatted to David Sproule, a retired Royal Canadian Dragoon. He recounted the following:

"When I was in the RCD Reconnaissance Squadron (1961-63) my Officer Commanding, Major Spike Malone, a former cavalry soldier in the Dragoons prewar, was based in St. Jean Barracks south of Montreal.
"Spike was a legend in the corps and used to tell the story about the visit of President Franklin Roosevelt's visit to Quebec City in July 1936. The RCD provided a mounted Vice - Regal escort for Roosevelt's cavalcade. Captain Churchill Mann was the escort commander.
"Apparently one of the Secret Service "G" men tried to insert himself between the mounted escort and the President's sedan, an action which one of the escort NCOs objected to. He lowered his lance and ran the G man through the shoulder. Apparently there was no disciplinary action."

So, in the movie, which part goes to Clint Eastwood?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Early Cold War A-class Submarine "Alliance"

Much as memory and imagination can transport me back to my time in HMS Alderney, there is nothing quite like actual photographs and authentic comments from one who was there. A recent article in the Daily Mail has both. For former hands in boats, and anybody interested, have a look here. As a former navigator, I got a special kick out of the dividers and parallel rule on the chart table. (Both of which come in handy in my upcoming submarine thriller set in an A-boat.)