By Bob Gordon
She earned the title “fightingest” ship in the Royal Canadian Navy. During World War II, the vessel sank greater enemy tonnage than any other RCN warship. Her commanding officer, Commander Henry George “Hard Over Harry” DeWolf, ended the war wearing both the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Service Cross. Substantially refitted, she later served two tours in theatre during the Korean War. Canada’s lone still seaworthy Tribal-class destroyer, she recently returned from a floating dry dock at Heddle Marine Services in Hamilton, Ontario, where she underwent maintenance and upgrading.
HMCS Haida is one of eight Tribal-class destroyers commissioned by the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. Tribals also saw service with the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. Goaded on by the Japanese introduction of the Fubuki-class destroyers, the Tribals were super destroyers. They offered the speed and manoeuvrability of a destroyer paired with armament equivalent to a light cruiser, and on the outbreak of WWII they were the state of the art in naval design. “I want those for my navy,” Admiral P.W. Nelles, Chief of the Canadian Naval Staff, remarked after seeing a photograph of the first Tribal in 1938.
HMCS Haida’s keel was laid down on September 29, 1941 by Vickers-Armstrong at High Walker Yard, Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Two years less a month later she was commissioned into the RCN. Her official compliment was 14 officers and 245 ratings. According to Walt Dermott, Chairman and President of Friends of HMCS Haida, her original weapons suite was comprised of three 4.7-inch/45 Mk.XII twin guns (from the bow, Turrets A, B and Y); one 4-inch/45 Mk.16 twin gun; one quad launcher with Mk.IX torpedoes (4 × 21-inch torpedo tubes); and two Mk.IV depth charge throwers. For anti-aircraft defence, it deployed one quadruple mount 2-pounder gun and six Oerlikon cannons.
Coming into service in the fall of 1943, she initially served on the Murmansk Run while based at Scapa Flow. In this capacity she participated in the destruction of the German battleship Scharnhorst. In January 1944 she was transferred to the 10th Destroyer Flotilla (DF) operating out of Plymouth, England.
The 10th DF was tasked with securing the western approaches to the English Channel. As D-Day approached, the 10th DF aggressively sought out German vessels and Haida was engaged in a string of battles. In April 1944, DeWolf won the DSO when Haida ran German motor torpedo boat T-27 aground (although her sister ship HMCS Athabaskan was lost in the engagement). On June 9, three days after D-Day, along with HMCS Huron, she sank E-boats Z-32 and ZH-1, earning DeWolf a DSC. Less than three weeks later, she shared with HMS Eskimo the sinking of U-971. On her best day, in company of the Polish ship ORP Blyskawica, she sank two submarine chasers, UJ-1420 and UJ-1421, and a merchantman. Two other cargo ships were left ablaze.
When the American forces broke out of Normandy into Brittany, the 10th DF expanded its operations into the Bay of Biscay to isolate German garrisons and destroy U-boats. Haida remained with the 10th DF until September 1944. After a three-month refit in Halifax she returned to the north, ultimately joining the fleet that took custody of German U-boats in Trondheim, Norway. When the war ended Haida had sunk 14 enemy vessels.
Upon the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula she was extensively refitted and updated before relieving HMCS Nootka in November 1952. A decade later, repeated cracking of the hull saw Haida take a farewell tour of the Great Lakes before she was paid off in September of 1963.
Slated to be scrapped the following year, the destroyer was sold to Haida Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring it. Moored at the foot of York Street in downtown Toronto, the ship was opened as an historical attraction in August 1965. When Haida Inc. proved unable to raise the funds to proceed with repairs, the Ontario government became the unwilling owner, berthing the ship adjacent to the new Ontario Place theme park.
By 2000 HMCS Haida was deteriorating, and the province was loath to invest in the needed structural repairs. Sheila Copps, MP for Hamilton East since 1984 and Liberal Minister of Canadian Heritage since June 1997, sensed an opportunity. By e-mail she explains: “The chair of Ontario Place wanted to get rid of the Haida so I had dinner with him and took possession on behalf of Parks Canada for one dollar. Parks Canada assumed responsibility for the refit and the decision to move to Hamilton.” In 2004 HMCS Haida, berthed at Pier 9 in Hamilton Harbour, once again opened to the public. It then spent a decade on the revitalized Hamilton waterfront, bearing witness to Canadian heritage and the proud history of the Royal Canadian Navy.
After a decade on display Haida again required significant refitting. According to Friends of Haida’s Walt Dermott, a wide variety of work was completed by Heddle Marine Services including:
Re-enforcing metal hull plates that have 25 per cent or more material loss or decay;
Removing the stone ballast in the fuel tanks that is currently trapping moisture, and replacing it with metal disks that can be moved from one tank to the other to help balance the ship when she’s back in the water;
Repairing five key areas where the bulkheads attach to the hull to ensure that these areas remain watertight in the case of a major leak;
Installing safety systems such as an alarm system and automated pumps that can start responding to a significant water leak in the hull immediately.
Haida was back alongside Pier 9 before Christmas and will reopen as scheduled on May 19, 2017. With the recent federal budget announcing free admission to all National Historic Sites in 2017 in recognition of Canada’s sesquicentennial, Lisa Curtis, Superintendent of National Historic Sites for Parks Canada in Southwestern Ontario, expects a boon year. “We are absolutely going to plan some special events so people have more opportunities to experience and learn and really celebrate Canada’s 150th.”
HMCS Haida is a priceless heritage resource in a manner a credit card company could never understand. Its ongoing preservation speaks to the level of commitment that is required. It took political will and a substantial injection of cash to get the ship into Parks Canada’s hands in Hamilton. A commitment to ongoing repairs and maintenance at significant cost, as this winter’s $5-million refit demonstrates, is also essential. Finally, it requires community support. Friends of HMCS Haida volunteers contribute directly to maintenance and operation of the ship. According to Dermott, roughly 75 volunteers contribute 5,000 volunteer hours annually, “running the gift shop, onboard tours, opening and closing the ship and ongoing maintenance projects including the re-building of motors, electrical systems, cleaning scuttles, etc.”
Political will, cold hard cash and community support are all essential to preservation of the material culture of Canada’s military past.