Part of my growing up in southern Ontario meant that summer’s end came with an annual trip to Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. A history geek even then, I always insisted on a romp in Haida, the old Canadian naval destroyer docked nearby. It was fun to run and play like we would never let kids do now but it was not until much later that I understood what the old relic really meant.
In 1943, he Royal Canadian Navy’s mission broadened from convoy escorting and submarine hunting and so its fleet grew to include twelve new Tribal-class destroyers. Among them was HMCS Haida and her sister ship HMCS Athabaskan.
Harry DeWolf was placed in command of Haida and her 275-man crew in August 1943. In April 1944, in preparation for D-Day that was originally slated for late May, Haida and Athabaskan were conducting sweeps of the Brittany coast. One dark, moonless night, they encountered three German destroyers. Haida and Athabaskan pursued and sank one but then a torpedo tore into Athabaskan. Already listing, there was a second thundering explosion before she quickly vanished beneath the waves.
Still fighting, Haida ran a German destroyer onto rocks and shelled it until it was engulfed in flames. The third enemy destroyer disappeared into the black night. DeWolf ordered Haida to return to rescue his countrymen. With flames in the dark, oily water amid wounded men in lifeboats or desperately holding anything that would float, Haida’s crew methodically pulled shivering, exhausted survivors aboard. She launched lifeboats, Carley floats, and a cutter. Finally, with dawn breaking but men still screaming for help, DeWolf made the agonizing decision to leave, knowing that daylight would bring Nazi patrols and the possibility of losing everyone. Haida saved 44 men from capture or death. The cutter made its way back to England with another six rescued Athabaskan crew and three Haida crewmen.
By the war’s end, Haida had become the Royal Canadian Navy’s most deadly ship. It had sunk a minesweeper, a submarine, two German destroyers, and 14 other enemy ships. Every sinking was recorded with a notch cut in the ship’s bridge rail. Later promoted to vice-admiral, DeWolf would become Canada’s most decorated Second World War naval officer.
With the onset of the Korean War in June 1950, Haida was refit with new weapons and an improved communication system. She escorted supply and troop ships, patrolled ports, and its big guns set the sky on fire in attacking trains and other enemy shipping. She was fired on twice by shore batteries and both times destroyed her assailants.
Later, Cold War fear of Soviet naval activity along the Canadian and American coasts had Haida serving as a submarine patrol ship. In April 1963, however, her hull was deemed too old and damaged to be repaired and so Haida was towed to a Quebec shipyard and decommissioned.
Peter Ward learned of plans to scrap Haida. He had served nine years in the navy, retiring as a Lieutenant. His father, Leslie, had been among those who had died in the Athabaskan tragedy. In tribute to his father, and with respect for naval tradition, Ward gathered like-minded partners to save Haida. They shared talents and connections, raised money, and convinced the federal government to sell them Haida for only $20,000.
Ward assembled a skeleton 18-man crew to handle Haida while tugs slowly brought her from Sorel, Quebec to Toronto. At one point, fog stopped progress near Brockville. The next morning, small pleasure boats pulled alongside wondering what a world-class destroyer was up to. With no navigation equipment aboard and using only a compass and an old Esso gas station map, Commander Bill Wilson leaned over the rail and asked the curious onlookers where they were.
Haida arrived at Toronto harbour on August 25, 1964. Boats and ships of every description offered a rollicking greeting. The city’s fireboat spewed towering jets of water into the crystal blue sky. Among the crowd watching from shore was Haida’s former commander Vice-Admiral DeWolf.
Haida found a home at the York Street pier and then, in 1970, at Ontario Place, near the CNE grounds. She became a training ship for the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets and a popular tourist attraction; clambered upon by kids, like me, who were just a little younger than the men who had served her so long ago and so well.
In 1984, Haida became a Canadian National Historic Site and, in 2002, was taken over by Parks Canada. After significant repairs to her hull, she was moved to Pier 9 in Hamilton, Ontario. In November 2009, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, officially opened the Motor Cutter Exhibit at HMCS Haida. It displays the cutter that had rescued Athabaskan crewmen back in 1944. Ward was there that day as was Vice-Admiral DeWolf’s son, Jim, standing proudly in the captain’s cabin representing his father.
War is a tragedy. But it is a part of the grand and never-ending story that defines who we are. Haida is part of that story. So are those who saved Haida and the young men who served us by serving her. Today, as we sacrifice for others with masks and staying home, let’s recall Haida and what real sacrifice looks like.
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