HMCS Huron’s last surviving crew member recalls his service days

Alex Polowin

World War Two veteran Alex Polowin. Photo Supplied

Peter Mallett 
Staff Writer

One of Alex Polowin’s favourite pastimes is telling school children the story of his military service.

Polowin turned 98 on April 15. He is the last surviving crew member of the Tribal-class destroyer HMCS Huron. He and his crewmates, who served during the Battle of the Atlantic, were in the thick of it during the Second World War. Some of their key contributions to the war effort included protecting convoys of cargo ships, supporting Operation Neptune, and D-Day landings at Normandy, along with the sinking of the mighty German battleship Scharnhorst.

For most of his talks to schools and community organizations, Polowin proudly displays his impressive rack of medals on his service jacket. They include the Atlantic Star, Diamond Jubilee, Arctic Star, Russian Peace Medal, Order of Ushakov, and The French Legion of Honour. There have also been other honours too.

In Sept. 2021, Alex Polowin was given a guided tour of HMCS Haida, now a Government of Canada historic site located in Hamilton, Ont. He says he was treated like royalty.

“Me, a former Able Seaman, they piped me onboard the ship and everyone on board saluted me,” he recalls. “Wow, I thought, if my friends onboard the Huron could see me now.”

The 98-year-old retired Ottawa resident has much to tell about his military days.

The Holocaust

Alex Polowin is a former non-commissioned member, who hails from a family of immigrants. He was born in Lithuania in April 1924 and moved to Ottawa with family when he was three years old.

When not in school, he would often work with his father, who was a door-to-door salesman. He watched in horror how the Holocaust unfolded during the war in Europe.

“I used to watch my mother cry when she would learn her brothers and sisters have been murdered,” he said. “That’s when I started thinking of ways I could help the war effort.”

The decision, Polowin says, was an easy one. He was one of 17,000 Canadian Jews, who chose to enlist in the military. As a 17-year-old, he required his father’s signature to enlist. He then completed his basic training in Halifax.

Polowin worked as a boatswain’s mate, wheelsman and as part of crew manning the ship’s guns. During the war he also served aboard the Flower-class corvette HMCS Pictou, and a River-class frigate HMCS Poundmaker, but most of his days he spent on Huron.

Polowin notes anti-Semitism was present not only in Europe. He shared his experiences of dealing with racism in the Royal Canadian Navy in historian Ellin Bessner’s 2019 book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII.   

Beating the Nazis

On Dec. 26, 1943, Polowin was heading to the Soviet Union on HMCS Huron when Germany’s battleship the Scharnhorst disrupted the convoy.

Huron, along with Royal Norwegian Navy destroyer HNoMS Stord and HMS Scorpion eventually sank Scharnhorst. Although it marked a turning point in Battle of the Atlantic, Polowin says there was little rejoicing after Scharnhorst went down.

“There was no cheer onboard Huron when we received news of her sinking, just happiness it was them rather than us,” says Polowin. “But I realized there were nearly 2,000 crew members onboard, all sailors like us, and only 36 survived. Those killed weren’t only German, there were 300 Polish men on board too.”

He also played an important role in the D-Day Landings. The Huron was to patrol the English Channel and prevent attacks on the Allies landing crew. Polowin says he remains thankful he was not in the first wave of soldiers to land on the beach.

“I often thought of how the first guys who landed on the beaches of Normandy felt,” he says. “Can you imagine the level of fear they must have felt?”

Bringing Peace

Alex Polowin was just 20 when the war ended. He spent most of his post-war life working in sales and insurance. He was married twice and has three children. Polowin is a talented harmonica player and a lifelong fan of the Canadian Football League.

He also likes to get out into the community and tell people about the war. With assistance from Historica Canada’s Memory Project, Polowin has given over 200 talks at schools, community centres and veterans homes. He says he has relished every moment of those talks.

“If we are not around to tell them, how are they going to know, and who is going to tell them?” he says. “I want people to know I am fortunate to be me, to have survived the war and did my little share to bring peace and make Canada and the world a better place.”

Alex Polowin’s honours:

  • In 2021, Polowin received Canada’s Sovereign Medal for volunteerism for his talks to students and others;
  • In 2017 the City of Ottawa named a street after him;
  • In June 2019 he was invited as a VIP to the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings at Juno Beach.
Scharnhorst

The German Scharnhorst.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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