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A good ship: Battle of the Atlantic dieppe D-day Hong Kong liberation of Holland Scheldt estuary Juno beach buzz beurling sicily Italy Rhine crossing devil's brigade convoy SC-42 Ortona caen bomber command corvettes Hampton gray VC dambusters Raymond Collishaw.

IN SEPTEMBER 1942, First Lieutenant Tommy Pullen was a bored and unhappy young man. He had been at sea for almost a year now, since his appointment to the New-foundland Escort Force and HMCS Ottawa as gunnery officer the previous summer. "I don't know how many convoys we did back and forth from Newfie to Derry," he recalled. "Many. We were never attacked and I re member commenting on how dull life was." He would soon regret that comment.

The only excitement in his life was provided by Ottawa's new captain, Lieutenant-Commander Larry Rutherford. At the age of 25, Rutherford was capable, and everything else that Pullen considered a destroyer captain should be. "We worked hard and played hard," he said, "but I realized I was going to have to work really hard to meet his standard."

Not that Pullen didn't have standards of his own. A cadet at the Royal Naval College of Canada in Halifax, he had first gone to sea in Canadian Pacific steamships when the College closed in 1922. Two years later, he rejoined the RCN and was sent to Britain for training as a midshipman, where, aboard HMS Thunder, he won the Admiralty Dirk as "Best All Around Cadet." During the navy's lean years in the 1930s, he served aboard HMCS Saguenay and Skeena, the RCN's first modern destroyers, built according to Canadian specifications. Dubbed the "Rolls Royce destroyers" by British dockyard workers, they boasted reinforced hulls, improved heating and ventilation for cold weather conditions, and larger bridges. In 1938, he joined HMCS Ottawa, commissioned into the RCN at Chatham a few weeks after Hitler annexed Austria.

Although not "Canadianized" like Saguenay and Skeena, at 1,300 tons, Ottawa, the former HMS Crusader, was slightly larger and faster and had greater endurance. Another significant improvement was that she was fitted with asdic, the Royal Navy's revolutionary new submarine detection device. She would put it to good use on November 6, 1940, when, while serving with the Clyde Escort Force, she and HMS Harvester sank the Italian submarine Faa di Bruno with depth charges. This was the first time since 1918, and HMCS Hochelaga's infamous flight from U-156 in the Cabot Strait, that an RCN warship came in contact with the enemy at sea. Faa di Bruno was also the first enemy warship destroyed in action by the RCN.

It was the Germans, in the end, who carried the burden of the war in the Atlantic. They set the pace and proved to be the RCN's most implacable enemy for the next five years.

By 1942, the Germans had enough submarines on station in the Atlantic to form two patrol lines to cover the shipping lanes. Just what this meant was brought home with a vengeance during the battle for Convoy ON 127, which sailed out of Lough Foyle in Ireland bound for Halifax in the first week of September. Its mid-ocean escort was C-4 Group consisting of HMCS Ottawa, the River Class destroyer St. Croix, the corvettes Amherst, Arvida, Sherbrooke, and HMS Celandine.

The first five days at sea were uneventful, and Tommy Pullen was once again complaining about the tediousness of it all. Then, on September 10, as the convoy sailed through rainsqualls, it ran head on into "Gruppe Vorwarts"--13 U-boats that had been tracking its movements since dawn.

For the next three days, under constant attack, ON 127 lost 10 merchantmen, seven sunk and three so badly damaged that they had to drop out. The senior escort officer, Lieutenant Commander A.H. Dobson, aboard the St. Croix, tried desperately to protect his charges. St. Croix drove off one U-boat, Arvida another, and both Amherst and Ottawa attacked Asdic contacts. The situation was not helped by the fact that, although ON 127 was nominally a fast convoy, the ships were empty and thus travelling light against the prevailing headwinds, so they were forced to reduce their speed which allowed the U-boats to maintain contact.

The worst seemed to be over on September 13, when the first aircraft from Newfoundland appeared to drive off most of the U-boats. As darkness fell, the convoy received additional escorts, the destroyers HMCS Annapolis and HMS Witch, and the crews relaxed. Aboard HMCS Ottawa, Tommy Pullen finished his watch and went below to catch some much-needed sleep.

"I was turned in aft and at 11:20 I heard the propellers increase speed rapidly; a sure sign that something has happened," Pullen recalled. "I got to the upper deck--calm, no moon. Over the sound-powered telephone I heard a voice say, 'Port 15.' After a few seconds there was a shattering explosion. They sky momentarily lit up. Then absolute silence. Then a rain of bits and pieces were falling into the sea around us. 'Good God!' I shouted. 'We've been hit!'"

Pullen was alone on the quarterdeck--the lifebuoy sentry had disappeared somewhere--and he stood for a moment in a state of shock before rushing below to his cabin to grab his lifebelt, morphine syrettes, a flashlight, and a Luger pistol he had bought while on leave in London. He returned to the bridge to report to the captain that he would be below, inspecting the damage.

"There was nothing left," he recalled. "The bow had gone right back to B gun. It was a shambles in the passageway: broken glass, wreckage, dark. I went down to what was left of the stoker's mess--abaft the seamen's fore lower mess where the Asdic is. It was a scene of carnage and chaos--not a pretty sight--and the wreckage of the mess deck had piled against the door of the Asdic hut. It's a door that opens outward and so the Asdic ratings inside were trapped. The ship was open to the sea. There were voices. There were people seriously injured. It was hard to know what to do."

At first there was some hope that Ottawa could be kept afloat, but a second torpedo smashed into her boiler room and she began to break up. Pullen scrambled back up to the bridge as she started to roll. He and Captain Rutherford were horrified to hear "pitiable entreaties emanating from the voice pipe" from the two young sailors trapped in the asdic hut, entreaties "which became unbearable as we were unable to do anything for them. What could, what should one do other than offer words of encouragement that help was coming when such was manifestly out of the question? What happened at the end is hard to contemplate for the imprisoned pair, as that pitch black, watertight, sound-proofed box rolled first 90 degrees onto its back before sliding into the depths and oblivion."

Pullen and the captain--the last two men on the bridge--walked down the ship's side to the bilge keel and jumped. "I had my seaboots on and went straight down," Pullen said. "I kicked them off and popped up again. We drifted off and I never saw Larry Rutherford again."

Swimming through fuel oil to a carley float, crowded with unrecognizable, oil-soaked crewmates, Pullen hung on as Ottawa's stern stood straight up on end. "I noticed the after canopy and X gun deck slide off and plunge into the sea," he recalled. "And, to my horror, about 125 depth charges broke loose from stowage. I waited for the explosion as it would just take one to countermine the others ... I found out later that Torpedo Gunner Lloyd Jones had set them to safe before he jumped over the side."

Nearly 200 men were now in the water, clustered around life rafts and carley floats as the convoy sailed through them. It was now a question of hanging on. It was a beautiful night, clear, no moon, but stars, and the sea was calm. However, Pullen was struck by how many men simply gave up.

"They couldn't cope with it," he said. "I think they were physically able to hang on, but they just let go and drifted away. It was more than they could handle. Some were injured, of course. I'm sure some gave up because of the pain. There was one stoker, I remember, his name was Skilhen, he was down in one of the boiler rooms when the second torpedo hit. You can imagine the chaos--super-heated steam escaping, the flooding. He had the wit to get down into the bilge while the live steam was spouting and he floated up. As the water rose in the boiler room he went up with it. If he had not done that he would have been scalded to death. He was badly injured but he survived."

Lieutenant "Yogi" Jenson, one of Pullen's Gunnery and RDF officers, swam to a spar buoy when Ottawa went down. The hours went by and it became colder and colder and jelly brushed against his hands and arms like touches of cold fire. "My spar was gradually drifting in towards one of the floats," he recalled. It had lost most of the original crowd, the centre part was empty and now the sides were crammed with men hanging on. When my spar drifted closer in, one of the men grabbed me and held me between him and the float. He could hardly have had much more strength than I at this stage ... Years later I asked this gentleman, who was by then a lieutenant, why he was so kind and good to me. When I was on the Newfie Bullet travelling to join Ottawa, his wife and a shipmate's wife had also been on the train going to St. John's to be closer to their husbands. Evidently I had taken them to dinner and been pleasant and helpful to them. I had no recollection of this other than meeting two nice ladies, but my reward was great."

When HMS Celandine arrived next morning to pick up survivors only 69 men were left, gamely singing to keep up their spirits, HMCS Ottawa's captain was not among them.

"She was a good ship, Ottawa. I remember that's the last thing Larry Rutherford said to me as we stood on the bilge keel, just as we jumped in," Tommy Pullen recalled. "She was a good ship."

He was later told that while in the water, Rutherford had given his lifejacket to one of his sailors, then disappeared in the darkness ... along with his ship.

TOP INSET: The development of radar during WWII proved one of the most useful weapons, both in air and at sea, and was fully exploited by the Allies. The electronic eye of the asdic allowed a seaman to determine the distance and beating of an object at sea. When used in conjunction with other ships, it was possible to vector in on enemy ships with more precision. The operator is looking into a large disc called a PPI (Plan Position Indicator) scope. (DND)
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Title Annotation:SECOND WORLD WAR
Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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