Battle of the Atlantic: honouring HMCS Trentonian

HMCS Trentonian and Battle of the Atlantic

Photo: “Trentonian off Land’s End on 22 February 1945”. The corvette has a slight heel to starboard, giving us a view into the ship; we can see members of the ship’s company closed up at their respective stations throughout the ship. When this photo was taken, it was just a normal day at sea, escorting one of the many convoys. Missing from this photo but included in the article is William Kinsmen, Executive Officer.

Roger Litwiller, Canadian naval historian and author — On the first Sunday in May, Canadians gather across the nation to commemorate the service and sacrifices by our Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) during the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War.

The names of the ships lost will be called aloud and a bell will ring for each ship. During the service, each of us will repeat the promise, We Will Remember Them.

Seldom do we talk about the Canadian sailors that lived, worked, fought, and died in those ships. Over 100,000 Canadians joined the RCN, Royal Canadian Navy Reserve (RCNR), Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS). It is their service at sea and ashore that ultimately provided victory during the Battle of the Atlantic.

We must honour their stories.

One of the RCN ships lost during the war was the Increased Endurance corvette HMCS Trentonian. Built at Kingston, Ont., she was commissioned on Dec. 1, 1943, under the command of Lieutenant William Harrison, RCNR.

Trentonian’s ship’s company was made up of sailors from across Canada. Corvettes were designed for just over 50 sailors to live in, work and fight, but Trentonian, like other Canadian corvettes, carried over 90 or more sailors. Of all these men, only one was Regular Force RCN. The vast majority were RCNVR and prior to enlisting, had never seen the ocean.

This ‘little ship’ worked up in Bermuda before joining the Halifax Escort Force, escorting convoys from Halifax, NS, New York City, and St. John’s, Nfld. It actively hunted U-boats on our Eastern Seaboard and even rescued a crippled Royal Navy submarine off Newfoundland.

Trentonian transferred to the UK in April 1944 and actively participated in the Invasion of Normandy. During the night of June 12, Trentonian was escorting a British cable layer, when the two ships were fired on by an American destroyer. Trentonian suffered several near misses, but unfortunately the cable layer bore the brunt of the attack, killing three and wounding over 20.

Post-invasion operations included escorting many convoys around the UK and the English Channel. Trentonian came under direct attack by the large German railguns at Calais while escorting a convoy through the Straits of Dover.

In January 1945, Lieutenant (Lt) Colin Glassco, RCNVR took over command of Trentonian and shortly after came to the rescue of a burning merchant ship in the Irish Sea.

Trentonian had a distinguished career during its 15 months of service. Ten minutes on Feb. 22 had the greatest impact on the sailors in this historic Canadian corvette.

On this date, Trentonian was escorting a convoy of 14 ships in two columns from Milford Haven and scuttlebutt (rumour) in the ship was that they were going to take the convoy all the way to the recently liberated Port of Antwerp.

According to the Commanding Officer’s report, they had been in heavy fog when the convoy entered the English Channel, which had lifted at about 1030. At 1200, the navigator took his noon fix from the bridge while the hands were called for the issue of the rum ration and lunch.

Suddenly at 1320, the second ship in the port column erupted in a violent explosion. The Alexander Kennedy, a British steam merchant immediately began to sink. In Trentonian, the piercing alarm for Actions Stations sounded as the officer-of-the-watch ordered the helm to port to begin hunting the U-boat on the side of the convoy the attack came from.

A signal was received from the convoy commodore that the sinking merchant ship had been torpedoed on the starboard side, indicating the U-boat was likely on the opposite side of the convoy. Now committed to the port turn, Lt Glassco continued the turn, passing through the columns of ships. The sailors in the corvette now closed up at their Actions Stations and watched the merchant sailors scrambling to abandon Alexander Kennedy, remarking how cold the water would be.

At 1330, there was a violent explosion felt through the entire corvette.

Trentonian had been struck by a single torpedo in the after part of the ship, opening the stern of the ship to the sea. Sailors Moyle Beck, Robert Catherine, Colin Harvey and John Fournier died instantly.

Debris was blown high into the air. Frank Barron and his shipmates on the forward gun had to take cover under the gunshield as jagged pieces of their ship rained down on them.

Francis Hindle, the Engineering Officer, ordered the engine shut down, now racing wildly as the corvettes screw had been blown off, then ordered the engine room evacuated as water was flooding through the damage shaft.

Sydney Coates and the other stokers shut down Trentonian’s boilers and started to blow off the steam as they could hear the water rushing into the engine compartment next to them.

John McCormick was the youngest sailor in Trentonian and had the honour of being the skipper a few weeks earlier on Christmas day. Now he was trapped in the twisted wreckage of his ship.

Jack McIver was in the after gun tub when the concussion of the explosion, below his position blew him into the air.

The order to Abandon Ship was given; the signal officer placed all the code books and ciphers into weighted bags and threw them into the English Channel.

By the time the stokers had released the steam from the boilers and headed up top, the outer hatch for the air lock was under water, trapping stoker Bruce Keir. Eventually his shipmates could equalize the pressure in the air lock and force the hatch open.

Trentonian’s ships company began to abandon ship, their home for the past 15 months. Those wounded were moved to the ship’s whaler. Gordon Gibbins recalls taking off his sea boots and stowing them under one of the ammunition lockers thinking he could retrieve them later, then jumping over the rail into the English Channel.

Trentonian’s bow steadily rose as the corvette’s stern settled lower and lower. By the time Donald Dodds, the Gunnery Officer, had ensured his gun crew was off the ship, the bow of Trentonian was quite high in the air. He walked to the edge of the gun deck and did a perfect swan dive into the water below. From that point on he was known as ‘Swan Dive Dodds’.

Trentonian’s Commanding Officer remained on the bridge as long as possible, making his way to the boat deck to meet with Hindle, the engineer who reported the after part of the ship was clear, and William Kinsmen, the Executive Officer. Hindle then abandoned ship, followed by Kinsmen who took charge of the whaler with the wounded. After one last look to ensure there was no one left aboard that was alive, Glassco waded off his ship, as the boat deck was now submerged.

They all watched as Trentonian’s bow rose out of the water, reaching a near vertical position; afterwards, their corvette began its decent. By 1340, the Trentonian was gone, just 10 minutes after the
torpedo slammed into their ship. After 45 minutes in the water, the 96 survivors, including 14 wounded, were rescued by two Royal Navy Motor Launches.

Other escorts nearby had immediately come to hunt the U-boat, but U-1004 had made its escape.

As they were being raced to Falmouth, Lt Gordon Stephens, an Anti-Submarine Officer with RCNVR who was critically injured by the initial explosion and blown into the water, died of his wounds.

The Trentonian earned the Battle Honours, Atlantic 1944, English Channel 1944-45 and Normandy 1944. With the loss of the corvette also came the distinction of being the last corvette lost in action with the enemy.

During our services of Remembrance, it is not the ships’ names, nor the great battles that were fought that we promise to remember.

It is the names of over 2,000 RCN sailors that sacrificed their tomorrows for our future that we renew our sacred oath each time we speak those powerful words,

Roger Litwiller has conducted extensive archival research on HMCS Trentonian, including interviews with members of the ship’s company for his book, White Ensign Flying.

We will remember them.

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