By Jon Guttman
Among the pivotal consequences of the 1940 Battle of Britain was the island nation’s preservation as a staging base for forces raised throughout the Commonwealth, as well as exiled military personnel from the countries conquered by Nazi Germany, still game to keep up the fight. As the tide of World War II turned, the conflict in Western Europe saw formations go into battle composed of units from various nationalities. A naval case in point was the British 10th Destroyer Flotilla (DF). Formed in Plymouth on January 10, 1944, it consisted of the 19th Division, comprised of the British destroyers Tartar and Ashanti, and the Royal Canadian Navy ships Huron and Haida, as well as the 20th Division, with Polish destroyers Blyskawica and Piorun, and the British Eskimo and Javelin. Led by Commander Basil Jones, flying his pennant from His Majesty’s Ship Tartar, the flotilla was organized specifically for Operation Tunnel, a series of sweeps to interdict German naval activity in the Bay of Biscay in the months leading up to the Allied landings in France. On the night of June 8-9, this mixed bag would have a violent encounter with a German opposite number in what became known as the Battle of Ushant.
His Majesty’s Canadian Ships Huron and Haida, like HMS Tartar, Ashanti and Eskimo, were of the Tribal class, a type of super-destroyer that entered production in 1937, in response to the greater gun armament (six 5-inchers in twin turrets) introduced in Japan’s game-changing Fubuki class in 1929. Besides eight 4.7mm Mark XII quick-firing guns, each of the Tribals had four 21-inch torpedo tubes and 20 depth charges with one rack and two throwers. With a length of 377 feet and a standard displacement of 1,854 tons, the Tribal was propelled by twin-shaft 44,000-shaft horsepower steam turbines at up to 36 knots. Sporting two raked stacks and masts and a clipper bow that gave her excellent sea-keeping qualities, she was a handsome ship, well regarded by her crews. The 16 Tribals built for the Royal Navy had a worldwide variety of ethnic names, while the two Royal Australian Navy vessels to see combat were named Warramunga and Arunta after two of its Aboriginal tribes and Canada’s were christened after First Nations: Iroquois, Athabaskan, Huron, Haida, Micmac, Nootka, Cayuga and a second Athabaskan to replace the first after she was sunk.
The first four Canadian Tribals were produced by Vickers-Armstrong Ltd. at Newcastle upon Tyne, while the rest were home-built at Halifax Shipyards. Laid down on July 15, 1941, launched on July 25, 1942 and commissioned on July 28, 1943, HMCS Huron (G24) under LCmdr Herbert Sharples Rayner participated in convoys to the Soviet arctic port of Murmansk — interrupted by a collision with an oiler that laid her up for a month’s repairs in Leith — until February 1944, when she was reassigned to the 10th DF. Haida (G63) came later, being laid on September 29, 1941, launched on August 25, 1942 and commissioned on August 30, 1943. Skippered by Commander Henry George DeWolf, she too served on the Murmansk run, most dramatically shepherding convoy JW-55B away from danger when word came that the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst was coming out to strike—a venture that ended in Scharnhorst’s being caught and sunk on December 26, 1943. On December 10, Haida was attached to the 10th Flotilla.
The 10th DF spent the next several months training in its role and then began conducting periodic sweeps for enemy vessels in the English Channel. An exceptional case occurred on the moonless night of April 25, when light cruiser HMS Black Prince, leading Haida, Athabaskan, Ashanti and Huron, ran into three German Elbing-class torpedo boats — essentially small destroyers — as they were returning to Saint-Malo after laying mines off Sept-Îles. British radar detected the Germans first and a chase ensued. All three Elbings scattered, but Haida’s and Athabaskan’s gunfire blew up T-29’s after funnel. As its crew abandoned ship, they retired north to allow Ashanti and Huron to administer the coup de grâce. Afterward, “Hard Over Harry” DeWolf carved a notch in the bridge rail to mark the first of an eventual 14 enemy vessels in whose demise Haida would have a hand.
The surviving torpedo boats, T-24 and T-27, left Saint-Malo for Brest on the night of April 27, only to encounter Haida and Athabaskan again, patrolling off Île Vierge. As the Canadians fired starshells, the Germans made smoke and turned south, T-24 launching three torpedoes as she did so. One struck Athabaskan, causing a secondary explosion in a magazine. T-24 fled eastward while T-27, hit and on fire, made for the southeast, with Haida in pursuit. More shells took their toll until T-27 ran aground and the torpedo boat was burning and abandoned by the time Haida disengaged. Athabaskan (G07) went down off Saint-Brieuc with LCmdr John Hamilton Stubbs and 128 other crewmen, 44 survivors subsequently being rescued by Haida and another 47 by T-24 as she was returning to harbour.
Relentless attrition had reduced German naval units to four, all based too far south in Brittany when the Allies landed in Normandy on June 6. These were the 8th Zerstörer-Flotille (Z-32, Z-24, ZH-1, formerly the Dutch destroyer Gerard Callenburgh, and the “orphaned” T-24); the 5th Torpedoboot-Flotille (T-28, Möwe, Falke and Jaguar); and the 5th and 9th Schnellboot-Flotillen, equipped with motor torpedo boats (called E-boats by the Allies). Defying overwhelming odds, Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Hoffmann sortied with the 5th Torpedoboot-Flotille on the night of June 5-6 and loosed a spread of torpedoes that sank the Norwegian destroyer Svenner. She was the only warship sunk on D-Day, with four more attempts over the next week achieving nothing before Allied aircraft caught the 5th in Le Havre and sank all its ships but T-28, which managed to escape, accompanied by the Schnellboote, eastward through the Channel and back to Germany.
That left only Kapitän-zur-See Theodor von Bechtolsheim’s 8th Zerstörer-Flotille in Brest, with his crews repairing damage from air attacks and bolstering his ships’ anti-aircraft gun defences. On June 8, he was ordered to attack the invasion forces and set out that evening. After rounding Ushant, the four warships turned northeast. At 0123 hours on June 9, shadows were sighted off the port bow, 4,000 to 5,000 metres away.
Approaching the Germans on a southwesterly course was the 10th Destroyer Flotilla, which upon learning of their sortie, had departed Plymouth to intercept. Tartar fired a starshell and the battle was on.
The Allies’ radar had detected the enemy first, between 0116 and 0120 hours, but as they turned to starboard, the Germans spotted their light camouflaged sides in the moonlight. Von Bechtolsheim turned northward, ordering each ship to fire torpedoes. His destroyers did, but T-24 held back, unable to make out a target.
Possessing equipment that could monitor the German shortwave ship-to-ship command net, the Allied destroyermen heard the enemy’s torpedo order and turned to comb the tracks. Although limited to using only their forward turrets, their well-directed gunfire scored damaging hits on Z-32 and ZH-1. A hit in the turbine room, followed by an underwater hit in the No. 1 boiler, brought ZH-1 to a halt with smoke and escaping steam masking her from her primary tormentors, Ashanti and Tartar.
British fire now shifted to Z-24, which took hits to the turret loading room, the wheelhouse and charthouse, killing or wounding all personnel therein. Z-24 made smoke and turned away, but a hit on its second funnel caused a fire that kept her visible. T-24 followed Z-24’s smokescreen and both retreating ships lost contact with ZH-1 and Z-32. Haida and Huron remained hot on their trail until 0150 hours, when DeWolf realized that the Germans were entering QXZ-1330, a defensive minefield that the Allies had laid off the Breton coast. Miraculously the Germans went right through the minefield unscathed, while the Canadian ships wisely altered course to avoid it, consequently falling nine miles behind and losing radar contact. At 0214, DeWolf abandoned the chase and went to rejoin Tartar and Ashanti. Z-24 and T-24 eventually returned to Brest.
Von Bechtolsheim, unaware that he was alone, directed Z-32 north and then northeast until he sighted enemy ships off the port bow at 7,000 metres. This was the 20th Division, led by Komandor Podporucznik Conrad F. Namiesniowski aboard Blyskawica. Z-32, another formidable product of the super-destroyer trend, boasted five of the same 5.9-inch guns carried by German light cruisers, but took the worst of the gun duel, receiving 16 to 20 hits before firing four torpedoes, laying smoke and zig-zagging away. The torpedoes caused confusion as Blyskawica turned to avoid them, while Piorun, Eskimo and Javelin temporarily lost contact with their leader, then followed her in what they mistook to be a torpedo run for 15 minutes. Inexperience throughout the division effectively put it out of the fight.
Having thus shaken off its assailants, Z-32 turned west, only to run into Tartar and Ashanti at 0138 hours. In its third gunfight of the night, Z-32 scored four 5.9-inch hits on Tartar’s bridge and radar, killing four men and wounding 12, including Commander Jones. Ashanti was also hit and slowed to fight fires, but Z-32 also took three hits, one of which penetrated a magazine compartment, necessitating flooding. Z-32 turned away to reload its torpedo tubes and bring up fresh ammunition.
As Ashanti turned to re-engage, her crew spotted ZH-1 emerging from the smoke, virtually dead in the water. While the still-burning Tartar engaged the enemy ship with her after guns, Ashanti launched torpedoes, one of which blew off her bow. ZH-1’s forward gun kept firing and she launched her four remaining torpedoes — in vain — before Korvettenkapitän Klaus Barkow gave the order to set scuttling charges and abandon ship. At 0240 hours ZH-1 exploded. Of her crew, 36, including Barkow, perished; a lifeboat with 28 others reached the French coast and 140 survivors were later rescued by Commander R.A. Currie’s 14th Escort Group.
On Z-32, von Bechtolsheim was doubting the feasibility of a breakthrough to the east when his ship was spotted by Haida and Huron, en route to rejoin the 10th DF. Steaming away at 31 knots, the Zerstörer passed through another British minefield while Haida circumvented it, losing radar contact, but regaining the enemy vessel 20 minutes later. At 0420 hours von Bechtolsheim ordered Z-24 and T-24 to make for Brest — which they were already doing by then — but he was still striving to pass Z-32 between Jersey and Guernsey, with the Canadians eight miles behind and the rest of the flotilla another 12 miles behind them. At 0430, however, von Bechtolsheim turned southwest, abandoning Cherbourg in favour of making Saint-Malo. Fifteen minutes later he reported encountering “two cruisers with high superstructures” firing starshells to starboard. Haida and Huron then opened fire in earnest as Z-32 turned due south.
At 0500 hours the Canadians’ steady fire began striking home, with a shell hit in the after turbine room slowing Z-32 down and three hits disabling the forward turret. Only its No. 3 turret fired back and its last two torpedoes missed. At 0515 the starboard engine failed and von Bechtolsheim ordered Z-32’s captain, Korvettenkapitän Georg Ritter von Berger, to run her ashore on Île de Batz. After doing so at 0520, the big destroyer was subjected to another 10 minutes of punishment before the two Canadians withdrew. The surviving Germans were picked up by the 2nd Vorpostenboot-Flotille later that morning.
The Battle of Ushant eliminated the last major German naval threat to the Normandy beachhead. After two months of hiding and evading, Z-24 and T-24 were located and sunk south of the Gironde River by Bristol Beaufighters of Nos. 404 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force and No. 236 Squadron, Royal Air Force. The 8th Zerstörer-Flotille was formally dissolved the next day.
Meanwhile, the 10th DF remained on station. On June 24, U-971 was on her first wartime sortie when she came under depth charge attack south of Land’s End from Haida, Eskimo (which DeWolf claimed did most of the work) and a Czechoslovakian-crewed Consolidated Liberator from No. 311 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command. One German was killed and the remaining 51 captured as U-971 went down for the last time.
Huron and Haida survived the Second World War and served in the Korean War, both being decommissioned in 1963. Huron’s “X” Turret was saved from her scrapping to represent her at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. Thanks to a number of individuals and agencies, Haida, considered “the fightingest ship in the RCN” during the Second World War, has been restored and preserved in Hamilton, Ontario. W