Reservists of HMCS Esquimalt tragedy honoured

HMCS Esquimalt

Base Commander Captain (Navy) Jeffrey Hutchinson and Base Chief Petty Officer, Chief Petty Officer Al Darragh salute after laying a wreath at the Esquimalt Cenotaph on April 16, 2023. Photo: Corporal Tristan Walach, Canadian Armed Forces.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer — The crew of HMCS Esquimalt and their family are in the thoughts and prayers of Victoria’s military community.

A memorial service in the ship’s namesake city on Apr. 16 at Memorial Park paid tribute to the last Canadian warship lost in the Second World War and the 39 crew who died in the attack, 78 years to the day of the tragedy.

“That HMCS Esquimalt went down within the view of Halifax reminds us the Second World War did not just happen over there,” said LCdr (ret’d) Gerry Pash. “Of the 24 Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) ships lost during the Second World War, 11 went down in went down in Canadian and Newfoundland waters and some in the St. Lawrence River, only a few hours’ drive from Quebec City.”

Many of those serving on board the diesel-powered Bangor-class minesweeper were members of the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), emphasized Pash, the ceremony’s emcee.

Esquimalt was on anti-submarine patrol, five miles off Chebucto Head on the morning of Apr. 16, 1945. The ship was struck by a torpedo fired from German Submarine U-190. The attack occurred just three weeks before the end of the war in Europe.

‘Many died of exposure’

An article on the website of the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum entitled Within Sight of Shore by historian Robert C. Fisher gives a gripping blow-by-blow account of the attack. The author recalls how “poor sonar conditions off Halifax made the detection of submerged or bottomed U-Boats difficult at the best of times.”

Only 27 of the minesweeper’s 71 crew survived. 

Lieutenant (Lt) Robert MacMillan of the RCNVR, Esquimalt’s Commanding Officer, had orders to carry out their patrol and then rendezvous with HMCS Sarnia off Chebucto Head. Naval intelligence reports showed that a U-boat lurked in the approaches to Halifax, but had said the same for months without any definite sign of the enemy.

The torpedo hit the Esquimalt at 6:30 a.m. ripping a hole in the ship’s starboard quarter. The crew scrambled into four deployed lifeboats, crowding in with as many as 15 to a raft. While Esquimalt sank in just four minutes, survivors of the attack endured six hours in the frigid water before rescue arrived notes Fisher.

An aircraft flew overhead of the wreckage just ten minutes following the attack but spotters had mistaken the Carley floats for fishing boats. An attempt by the Post War Signal Station to reach Esquimalt by radio had failed and initially did not raise alarm bells until a second failed attempt at 9:30 a.m., writes Fisher. The survivors were eventually rescued by HMCS Sarnia and a light ship nearly three hours later.

Sixteen crew died from exposure while desperately clinging to lifeboats or holding on to its side and treading water.

Honouring the RCNVR

This year’s memorial ceremony included the playing of the national anthem by the Naden Band, and performances of the Last Post, Rouse, and God Save the King. An Act of Remembrance and Commitment to Remember was also done with the placing of wreaths at the park’s Cenotaph.

Pash, a former Citizenship Judge and Public Affairs Officer of the Royal Canadian Navy helped organize this annual event. Dignitaries attending this year’s ceremony included Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, Base Commander, CFB Esquimalt Capt(N) J. Jeffrey Hutchinson and Chief Petty Officer First Class (CPO1) Al Darragh, Base Chief.

Pash noted how 2023 marks the 100th Anniversary of Canada’s Naval Reserve and how many members of Esquimalt were members of the RCNVR.

“These are the stories of ports of call, shipmates, the boredom of shipboard life, the storms of the North Atlantic, of living and serving together in damp small ships with the constant threat of enemy submarines, of how ordinary men did extraordinary things in a time of national crisis,” said Pash. “No other warship has carried the name of HMCS Esquimalt since, so it is with grateful hearts that we must never forget the sacrifice of those who gave their today for our tomorrow.”

For more information about HMCS Esquimalt visit the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum webpage at


A picture of the His Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS) Esquimalt Cenotpah after the memorial service with the wreaths laid next to it, on April 16th, 2023.
Please credit: Corporal Tristan Walach, Canadian Armed Forces Photo

A picture of the His Majesty’s Canadian Ship ESQUIMALT Cenotaph after the memorial service with the wreaths laid next to it, on April 16, 2023. Photo: Corporal Tristan Walach, Canadian Armed Forces

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