HMCS Athabaskan

I was browsing a used bookstore recently and came across a copy of “Unlucky Lady” by Len Barrow and Emile Beaudoin. This is the story of the first HMCS Athabaskan, which had a short service life in World War 2 before it was lost in action. I bought the book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

At the start of WW2, Canada’s navy was tiny – seven “River” class destroyers and a few smaller vessels – but it quickly scaled up with a massive construction effort of corvettes, frigates, minesweepers, and so forth. At the end of WW2 Canada’s navy was either the third or fourth largest in the world (depending on where you read).

In the late 1930s, Canada wanted larger destroyers. Britain was building their Tribal class series, and Canada and Australia both contracted to build their own. At the start of the war, Canada wasn’t capable of building them “in country” so the first 4 Canadian Tribals were built in Britain, and the last four were constructed in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

HMCS Athabaskan was the second Canadian Tribal destroyer, launched on November 18, 1941 from the Vickers shipyard in Newcastle-on-Tyne. After fitting out and sea trials, she was accepted into the Royal Canadian Navy on February 16, 1943.

She had an exciting but unfortunately short career with the RCN. She operated out of Scapa Flow in the North Sea initially, escorting convoys and units of the Royal Navy, then moved to southern England to patrol the Bay of Biscay for U-Boats and enemy naval vessels, often with one or more of her sister ships Iroquois, Huron and Haida.

On August 27, 1943 she was hit by a German HS 293 glider bomb. Fortunately the missile went right through Athabaskan (literally through the Chief Petty Officer’s mess) and out the side, exploding alongside. Several people were seriously injured and the ship was heavily damaged, but she managed to limp to Plymouth. In the same action, HMS Egret was less fortunate and was sunk with the loss of 198 men, the first loss to this missile.

I saw an HS 293 in the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin in late 2021. It’s indicated with the blue arrow. The panel accompanying it said it was 3.82m long and weighed 1,045 kg.

Athabaskan was in two consecutive surface actions in April 1944 as part of Force 26, operating close to the French coast to interdict coastal shipping in preparation for the D-Day invasion. On April 26 she and several other ships (including Huron and Haida) engaged three German Elbing-class torpedo boats and sank T-29.

Three days later, early on April 29, Haida and Athabaskan engaged the two remaining German torpedo boats. T-24 was badly damaged, and T-27 run aground, but Athabaskan was hit by two torpedoes and sank, with the loss of 128 men out of 261. Some survivors were picked up by Haida during the action, a few made it to England aboard Haida‘s launch, and the other survivors were captured by the Germans.

(HMCS Haida is the only remaining Tribal class destroyer in the world, and is on display in Hamilton, Ontario)

The loss of Athabaskan was felt so keenly by Canada that they commissioned an additional Tribal destroyer with the same name. The second Athabaskan was commissioned in 1948 and spent most of its career on the west coast, operating out of Esquimalt. She was placed in reserve in 1964 and paid off in 1966.

HMCS Athabaskan
HMCS Athabaskan in Halifax, 2013

The third Athabaskan was one of the four Iroquois-class destroyers (also called “Tribals”) built in Quebec. These large destroyers were built for antisubmarine warfare and carried a 127mm main gun, Sea Sparrow anti-air missiles, torpedoes, an antisubmarine mortar and a pair of Sea King helicopters. Over their long career they were extensively refurbished.

DDH 282, Athabaskan, was commissioned in 1972 and served with distinction for 45 years. She especially distinguished herself in the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War. USS Princeton encountered an Iraqi minefield and was seriously damaged by two mines. Princeton‘s captain requested Athabaskan‘s assistance, and the Athabaskan used its Sea King helicopters to spot mines as she came to Princeton‘s aid at great peril to herself. There’s a great video here with Vice Admiral “Dusty” Miller, who was the Naval Task Commander aboard Athabaskan at the time, telling the story.

The third Athabaskan was the last of the Tribals to retire, paid off in 2017. The 12 Halifax class frigates are the mainstay of the Canadian Navy now until the new Canadian Surface Combatants are built… eventually.

Naval ships in Halifax Nova Scotia
HMCS Athabaskan, HMCS St. John’s and CNAV Quest in Halifax, 2013

Unlucky Lady” tells the story of the first Athabaskan very well. I really liked how the authors focused much more on the stories of her crew than on the hardware.

Co-author Emile Beaudoin served aboard the Athabaskan as a wireless operator when it was torpedoed and sank. He was a prisoner of war for the remainder of WW2. Len Burrow served in the RCAF, and his brother was lost when Athabaskan was sunk.

The book is packed full of stories and photos of the crew – and the ship, of course – and I think it is a great tribute to a great ship.

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3 thoughts on “HMCS Athabaskan”

  1. Have you had chance to read “Memories of the Moonlight Special and Grand Beach Train Era” yet? It gathers stories from railway workers, cottagers, day trippers, and train travellers (1916-1962) in the heyday of the carousel, dancing pavilion, live bands, boardwalk concessions, shenanigans of youth, and romances which lasted 70 years. The 60 short stories and 60 images make this a must-read. I’d be happy to send you a copy.

    • Hi Barbara, thanks for your comment and for writing your book(s)! I read “Memories of the Moonlight Special” a while ago. It was a little less train-oriented than “Through the Window of a Train” but “Memories” was enjoyable in a different way.

  2. Very interesting Steve. I have visited Haida twice the first time when she was in Toronto (you may remember) The story of these vessels is an all Canadian classic. I browse used book stores all the time and will keep my eyes open for unlucky Lady.

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