Veterans recall U-Boat attacks

Photo by Peter Mallett, Lookout

Photo by Peter Mallett, Lookout

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

Three Victoria veterans who each survived separate German U-Boat attacks during the Battle of the Atlantic recently shared their experiences over lunch.

Stoker (Retired) Bob Haden, Able Seaman (Retired) Free Seeley and Leading Seaman (Retired) Harold Gollmer are all in their ninth decade of life, and are the last surviving members of the Royal Canadian Naval Association (RCNA) Victoria’s chapter who served in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Even though 73 years have passed since the last torpedoes of the war’s longest battle were fired, each man is still able offer descriptive accounts of their life and death struggles on the North Atlantic 


Gollmer, 96, recalls serving aboard River-Class Destroyer HMCS Skeena and being part of a trans-Atlantic convoy known as SC42 in the fall of 1941. Skeena’s role was to provide protection to the vessels of the convoy from German U-Boats.

During one voyage, while Gollmer was sitting out on the deck of Skeena writing a letter to his family in Broadview, Saskatchewan, he heard a “thunderous” explosion. A U-Boat had torpedoed a tanker ship less than a kilometre away and the explosion lit up the night sky.

“In my letter I was explaining what it was like seeing the Northern Lights and then the tanker was hit,” said Gollmer. “There was a huge flash of light and horrific explosion that lit the tanker up like a Roman candle; it burned for days afterwards.”

He and the crew didn’t have time to think and went to work immediately. They hauled 330 lbs of depth charges up to the deck by rope from three decks below. He said, despite the close proximity of the attack, fear was the furthest thing from his mind and most of his crewmates.

“You just got on with it, stayed busy and did your job as you were trained to do,” said Gollmer.


Haden, 94, shares the same sentiment.  He grew up in Slave Lake, Alberta, and during the war served as a Stoker Mechanic First Class aboard multiple Canadian warships.

Some of the dates and names of vessels he served in during the war years don’t come to him so easily anymore, but he will never forget his brush with a German U-Boat.

It was late in the war, likely sometime in 1945, when Haden recalls being aboard a Canada-bound transport ship steaming towards Halifax.

He remembers the vessel was packed to capacity with soldiers, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service members, and even some war brides. The crowded conditions even forced some to sleep in tents on the upper deck of the ship.

Several hours after departing Newfoundland, bound for Halifax, Haden and several on board noticed one of the ally’s Flower-class Corvettes approaching. The sub-hunter was dropping depth charges in the water and heading directly for Haden’s transport ship.

“We could tell by the way the ship was coming that the submarine was headed straight for us,” said Haden. “Most of the passengers on the ship, and some crew, were terrified and really thought we were going to be sunk.”

The situation became so desperate passengers were ordered to assemble on the decks and stand ready by lifeboats. Meanwhile it was action stations with the ship’s gunners preparing to fire on the enemy.

Thankfully the attack was thwarted with the ‘Flower’ managing to ward off the U-Boat, he says.


Perhaps the most desperate situation was that of 94-year-old Seeley. In the final years of the war, he was working as a young sonar operator aboard HMS Guysborough.

On March 17, 1945, the Bangor-class minesweeper was sailing a risky solo mission from the Azores Islands to Plymouth, England, with 93 crew members plus passengers aboard. The ship was travelling back to Europe from Canada after a refit, and Seeley remembers the decision by the ship’s captain not to wait for an escort to England in the form of an allied convoy.

It jangled the nerves of Seeley and his shipmates who described the decision and its outcome as a complete “fiasco.”

Hours into their sail, Guysborough sank after being fatally torpedoed by U-Boat 868 in an attack that ripped the ship apart.

“We were hit with an acoustic torpedo that blew our stern off, everything from the back of the ship was sitting at the front end,” said Seeley. “I was the last one to get off the ship and had to jump off into that cold water to get to our Carley Float.”

Seeley was just a week shy of his 21st birthday when the attack occurred; he suffered a broken ankle and foot, and a huge laceration above his left eye in the attack. But he would be one of the 40 survivors.

They spent 19 hours floating on the open ocean and clinging to overcrowded life rafts. Rescue eventually came from two small fishing vessels under the service of the Royal Navy.

“The water was cold, only about 46 Fahrenheit and several of the survivors died from hypothermia or from exposure to the elements in the subsequent hours,” said Seeley who spent the duration in soaking wet clothes.

Seeley recovered from his injuries in three separate hospitals, located in Plymouth, London, and Greenock, Scotland; he was on Survivors Leave when the end to the war in Europe was declared.


All three men say they look forward to sharing their stories at their monthly lunches.

The Victoria branch of the RCNA officially disbanded in 2000 and is no longer part of its parent organization, but it continues to hold monthly lunches from September to June.  Group size has dwindled from 100 members to about 20. Other attendees served in the years following the Second World War. 

Chief Petty Officer Second Class (Retired) Ken Lavert helps organize the meetings. He says all sailors truly are a “Band of Brothers” and despite their dwindling numbers those who remain like to stay connected with their RCN family. 

“The camaraderie in the military is second to none and whenever I ask some of the older members if they are still up for the lunch and able to get here the answer is always an overwhelming ‘Yes’,” he says. “All three gentlemen love to wear their uniforms and have people ask them what they did in the war, and are proud to let people know they served their country.”

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