See editor’s note at the end of this story.
South Surrey resident Cliff Thitchener, 95, served on the HMCS Haida during the Second World War — the very ship that would become known as “Canada’s fightingest ship” due to its extraordinary service record.
The Haida is credited by historians as having sunk more surface ships than any other Royal Canadian Navy warship, and it earned that feat in a relatively short period between 1943 and 1944.
The 2,745-tonne Tribal-class destroyer was staffed with 14 officers and 245 ratings, some of whom were very young.Thitchener, for example, was just 16 years old when he signed up for the war, and had to lie on his registration forms about his age. He didn’t have any trouble with the process — “they just believed me,” he said.
At the time, Thitchener didn’t have any one reason why he signed up, “other than everybody else was.”
Thitchener served on the Haida as a stoker. On ships with coal-fired boilers, a stokers’ job was primarily to move and shovel coal into furnaces. But after the switch to oil-fired boilers, a stoker’s responsibilities read more like those of an engineer — everything from hydraulics to firefighting systems to propulsion systems were under their purview.
Despite the hardships that Thitchener no doubt experienced while serving on the “fightingest” ship in the Canadian navy, he remembers his time in the navy fondly.
“What was life like? It was good,” he said.
What he enjoyed most, he said, was the companionship — serving with a “bunch of guys that thought the way I did.”
The Haida began its service in 1943, escorting convoys from the British naval port in Scapa Flow, Scotland to Murmansk, Russia in the dead of night. It was hoped that the darkness would help shield the Murmansk convoys — considered one of the most dreaded runs of the Second World War — from German vessels and aircraft.
In 1944, the Haida joined the 10th Destroyer Flotilla to serve alongside Canadian, British and Polish ships. They were tasked with clearing the English Channel and French coast of enemy ships ahead of D-Day. It was during this time that the Haida earned its reputation, sinking more enemy ships than any other Canadian warship before her.
One of those missions would spell tragedy for the Haida’s sister ship, the HMCS Athabaskan. In the early hours of April 29, 1944, the Haida and the Athabaskan encountered enemies while patrolling the English Channel in support of Operation Hostile, a minelaying effort off the coast of France. During the engagement, the Athabaskan was torpedoed and sank.
The Haida was able to rescue 44 of the crew, but 128 men were lost, including the commanding officer, who declined a rescue, choosing instead to swim back to help more crew members. A further 83 men were taken prisoner by German minesweepers.
When the Reporter visited Thitchener at his residence in South Surrey, he pointed out a photo tacked to the wall. In it, a man laying in a stretcher is being carried down a ramp.
“That’s a survivor of the Athabaska,” said Thitchener. “We pulled that guy out of the water, and this is taking him to the ambulance.”
The Haida would return to Russian waters to protect supply ships before serving its final mission in the war: D-Day, when the destroyer fought to block German ships from entering the Bay of Biscay.
Thitchener attributes the Haida’s success in the Second World War to its captain, Harry De Wolfe.
“He got us out of trouble. He was marvellous,” he said. “The Haida was the most decorated ship in the Canadian Navy, but it’s all due to the captain.”
Thitchener remembers the homecoming to Canada well. “When we came into the harbour, every ship blew their whistles. It was so thrilling,” he said.
| Cliff Thitchener
Shortly after the war, Thitchener married his hometown sweetheart, Grace, who he had written to throughout the war. Their letters told their love story; Grace would write him every day, and Thitchener proposed in a letter, engagement ring included. The couple would later have two daughters, and moved out to B.C. in 1965.
Meanwhile, the HMCS Haida kept fighting under a new crew. Following the Second World War, the Haida was converted to serve as a destroyer-escort: its new target would be submarines, not warships. The ship served in the Korean War, and undertook training missions during the Cold War.
In 1963, the destroyer was decommissioned. Over 20 years, it travelled 688,534 nautical miles — equivalent to circumnavigating the globe 27 times.
The Haida now rests along the waterfront of Hamilton, Ont., where it is open to visitors as a museum. For its remarkable record in Canadian naval combat, and to honour the fact that the Haida is the only surviving Tribal-class destroyer in the world, the Haida was named as the first ceremonial flagship of the Royal Canadian Navy in 2018.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included two errors. It stated that the HMCS Haida is docked at the Toronto waterfront. In fact, the ship is docked in Hamilton, Ont. Secondly, it included a photo that depicted a man being carried in a stretcher by several navy crew members. The description stated that it was a survivor of the HMCS Athabaskan being carried by HMCS Haida crew members. In fact, the man was a survivor of the HMCS Esquimalt, carried by members of the HMCS Sarnia. We have corrected this information and deeply regret these errors.