Debby Piers' war.
As well they might be, for this old sea dog knew every song and shanty that was fit to be sung in public--and many that were not. He had first gone to sea as a boy and his long and illustrious naval career spanned more than three decades.
During World War II, he was present when a Canadian ship fired on the enemy for the first time, then spent 64 months at sea, most of them on the North Atlantic. He was 28, youngest man ever to command a Canadian destroyer, when he took charge of HMCS Restigouche and just 30 when he rode the waves off Normandy on D-Day as captain of HMCS Algonquin, firing salvo after salvo in support of the troops storming Juno Beach.
"If our ship gets hit near the shore, we will run her right up on the beach and keep firing our guns until the last shell is gone," he told his crew with a Nelsonian flourish. In the post-war years, he served as captain of HMCS Quebec, senior Canadian officer afloat (Atlantic), commandant of the Royal Military College, and assistant chief of naval staff. Rear-Admiral Desmond "Debby" Piers, DSC, who passed away on November 1, 2005, in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, was a war hero and a Canadian original.
Desmond William Piers was born on June 12, 1913, into one of Halifax's founding families. His father, called him Desy which soon became Debby, a nickname which stuck with him for life. He never minded, but he did insist on pointing out that it was spelled with a masculine "y" and not the feminine "ie."
"Halifax was a queer town," Debby's wife Janet would recall many years later. "It was very military in one element, and then there was the university crowd, and the Halifax establishment--the old 400 of Halifax, people used to call it. It was all very gracious, a very Victorian kind of life." Their families fit comfortably into that life. Debby's father was a prominent businessman; Janet's father a well-known professor and registrar at Dalhousie University.
Although his mother, a doctor, had wanted him to study medicine or law at Dalhousie, young Debby had other ideas. In 1930, he enrolled at the Royal Military College, Kingston, and became the first cadet to join the almost moribund Royal Canadian Navy. He decided on the navy largely because he was so impressed with the commander in charge of his summer training aboard HMCS Saguenay, another Nova Scotian, Leonard Murray, the future commander-in-chief, Canadian Northwest Atlantic, Canada's only theatre commander in the Second World War. "I thought he was the greatest thing on two feet," Debby later said.
He trained at sea in the Royal Navy, working his way up the ranks--cadet, midshipman, sub-lieutenant--before returning to Canada in 1937 as first lieutenant in the RCN's newly acquired British destroyer HMCS Restigouche, or "Rusty Guts" as she was fondly known.
A few days before Canada declared war on Germany, Ottawa ordered Restigouche, along with two other British Columbia-based destroyers--one half of Canada's fleet--to steam down the west coast to the Panama Canal and then up the eastern seaboard to Halifax. The ships would then be assigned to North Atlantic convoy escort duty, Canada's already agreed-upon role in the coming conflict. But, events in Europe intervened.
Piers experienced his baptism of fire in 1940, not on the North Atlantic, but off the coast of France, when HMCS St. Laurent and Restigouche, under the command of the splendidly-named Horatio Nelson Lay, was ordered to assist in evacuating the British 51st Highland Division from St. Valery, near Dieppe. Lay asked Piers to send someone ashore to get in touch with the Highlanders. Looking in his cabin mirror, he told himself: "Piers, you're the one who's going." After packing binoculars, a signal lamp, chocolate bars and a bottle of whiskey in his golf bag, he reported to Lay, who told him: "Piers, you're a bloody fool. But Ok, find out what's going on and signal it back."
Ashore, Piers found Maj.-Gen. Victor Fortune, who refused to leave as he was holding the flank against the advancing Germans and wanted to buy as much time as he could for the rest of his troops to escape. Piers narrowly escaped accompanying him into captivity as the Germans closed in. Under heavy fire from panzers on the cliffs, Piers made his way back to Restigouche and was hoisted aboard as she returned fire with her 4.7 inch guns. Debby Piers and the RCN were well and truly in the war.
A year later, Piers was captain of Restigouche when she struck an uncharted rock in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, while escorting HMS Prince of Wales, aboard which Churchill and Roosevelt held their Atlantic Charter meeting. Putting into Halifax for repairs, he took the opportunity to marry his beloved Janet.
He spent his honeymoon battling a North Atlantic gale, 90 mile an hour winds and heavy seas sheering off Restigouche's foremast and funnel and flooding the steering compartment and forward magazine. With the ship listing 10 to 15 degrees, Piers called out the crew to form a bucket brigade to keep her afloat. As they bailed, they sang along to "Paper Doll," the new Mills Brothers tune that blasted out into the night from the ship's Sound Reproduction Equipment. The SRE was about the only thing still working on the Restigouche. As she limped into the Clyde, Piers was surprised to hear cheers coming from the crews of the ships they passed. Then he realized that the battered Restigouche must look like she'd been in a sea battle rather than a storm. It felt that way to Piers too.
The battle would come in November 1942, when he led Canadian Escort Group C4 out of St. John's to pick up SC 107, a slow-moving 42-ship convoy sailing from Halifax to Liverpool. Restigouche was the only ship with high-frequency (HR/ DF) equipment, which Piers had scrounged from the U.S. Navy at Londonderry. Four of the corvettes under his command either had new captains or were fitted with unreliable radar and short-range ASDIC.
Pier's escorts were ill-equipped to stop the U-boats which began to shadow the convoy almost from the moment it cleared Cape Race. Then, for the next five days, an estimated 17 U-boats attacked relentlessly. Piers used his HF/DF to sweep aggressively around the convoy, but there was little more that he could do. The escorts could only dash to each disaster, snap-shoot at the almost invisible enemy, and take swipes at ASDIC contacts. Eight ships were sunk on the first night, including the ammunition ship Hobbema, which blew up with such force that sailors on other ships were convinced that they had been hit. This was a wolf pack attack par excellence, and it swamped the escort. Before RAF Liberators from Iceland finally reached the battered convoy, 15 ships had gone down.
The British promptly forced most of the Canadian escorts off the North Atlantic. Senior officers claimed that the RCN had expanded too rapidly, had taken on too many tasks and was poorly trained. Admiral Sir Max Horton reported that most of the SC 107's losses had occurred while it was under Canadian command. This ignored the difficulties under which the convoy had sailed and singled out Piers' youth and inexperience. Certainly he was young, but he had been senior officer on convoys on at least seven occasions without losing a ship. The citation to his subsequent DSC reads: "This officer has served continuously in His Majesty's Canadian destroyers since the commencement of hostilities. As Senior Officer of Convoy Escort Groups in the North Atlantic, he has, by his vigorous leadership and aggressive attack, been an inspiration to those under his command."
In a hard-hitting report of his own, Piers demanded better equipment, longer work-up periods, fewer short-term appointments and better individual training. Officers at sea, he complained "had no idea who was running the navy." Noting that Canadian escorts lagged about 18 months behind the British in acquiring improved radar and weapons, he concluded that anti-submarine warfare, which was the most important thing the navy did, "was number seven on the list of jobs to do in Ottawa."
Although it would be 20 years before he received any official feedback, it soon became clear that someone in Ottawa was paying attention. His recommendations were implemented almost immediately, greatly improving the RCN's fighting performance.
In 1943, Piers became training officer at Halifax. He also helped to thwart a German prisoner of war escape from Bowmanville, Ontario and a planned rendezvous with a U-boat in Bale des Chaleurs. In a "Boy's Own Adventure" scenario, he directed the shore side of operations from a lighthouse at Pointe Maisonette and was waiting on the beach for the sole escapee with a portable radio, pistol, and 10 ships ranged across the bay.
At D-Day, he commanded the new destroyer Algonquin, climbing up on the torpedo tubes to tell his crew that "the great day we have all waited so long for is here. We are now undertaking the greatest naval, military and air attack in the history of the world. As you all know, an attack must have a spearhead--well, we're it."
A rating recalled that "this wonderful talk given while surrounded by eager, happy excited men, as well as grinding movie cameras, left us all awe inspired and ready to get on with our great task. The mess decks really buzzed with talk now."
Algonquin later served on the Murmansk run, escorting convoys to Russia. In February 1945, Piers and his crew took part in a mock winter Olympics in Archangel, Debby winning the 100 yards dash. The Restigouche and the Algonquin were both happy, effective ships, and Piers was universally admired by those who served under him. "He wasn't rank conscious," a veteran recalled. "It didn't matter who you were, he was always friendly, very outgoing and always seemed to remember your name."
With the return of peace, Piers was appointed executive officer aboard the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent and earned his pilot's wings. But, he also had to quell a protest by ratings, exasperated by the maintenance of tough wartime discipline.
He held influential positions at headquarters during the most intense period of the Cold War, and was at the centre of decisions concerning the RCN's commitment in Korea as well as to NATO.
Piers retired in 1967 to his house, the Quarter Deck, at Chester, Nova Scotia, where he and his wife took up community work.
"He was a man who loved his family and loved his country and who proved it each and every day by the way he lived his life," his grandson said in a eulogy in this seaside village as more than a thousand mourners packed three small churches to bid Debby Piers goodbye. His ashes were then delivered to HMCS Toronto, which fired a 13-gun salute as it sailed past his family's waterfront home.
On shore, his widow and family and friends raised their glasses in a toast as the frigate headed out to sea and shouted three traditional hip-hip hoorays.