Wednesday, April 04, 2007


HMCS Sackville sailing into her last battle


The Windsor Star
By Victor Suthren
April 04, 2007

The little ship rides quietly alongside the jetties of Canada's East Coast naval dockyard in Halifax, her boxlike, blue-and-white form in quaint contrast to the sleek greyhound lines of the modern destroyers and frigates that surround her. HMCS Sackville is the only remaining example of the more than 120 corvettes built in Canada during the Second World War.

Taken from the design of whale-hunting ships, corvettes were designed as inexpensive submarine hunters that could be quickly built in large numbers for Canada's rapidly growing navy. The corklike little ships -- seamen used to grumble that they would roll in a heavy dew -- became the workhorses of the Royal Canadian Navy's battle with the U-Boat "wolf packs" of Nazi Germany and the symbol of Canada's remarkable transition from a country with a tiny, vestigial navy in 1939 to a nation with the third-largest of the Allied navies.

With the Tribal class destroyer HMCS Haida now a museum ship in Hamilton, Sackville is one of the few remaining icons of Canada's naval coming-of-age during the grim North Atlantic battles and likely more than any other vessel can be considered the navy's, and Canada's, emotional flagship.

Now, the survival of this gallant little ship and all that she means is in peril.

HMCS Sackville was built at Saint John in 1941, and from 1942 to 1944 served in the Atlantic convoy battles as part of the famous Barber Pole Group of escorts distinguished by the red-and-white striped funnel marking that is perpetuated on the ships of Canada's Maritime Command to this day.

In August 1942, Sackville attacked a U-boat with depth charges and scored a likely "kill," and then 90 minutes later used her deck gun to damage severely another surfaced submarine.

Damaged in action in September 1943, Sackville was assigned to training duties, and then was selected for conversion to a Canadian Naval Auxiliary Vessel (CNAV), an action that saved her from the scrapyard fate of Canada's other corvettes.

Sackville sailed for many years as a research vessel until she was again saved by the remarkable volunteer efforts of a group of dedicated Canadians who led her painstaking restoration to her wartime appearance. Now the ship is supported by a non-profit organization, the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, whose declared mission is "to preserve and maintain the ship as Canada's naval memorial to all those who served in the Naval Service, and to operate the ship as a naval museum for the benefit of all Canadians."

During the summer months, Sackville is alongside Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where it is one of the most popular attractions on the waterfront. But even with this popularity and the dedicated work of the trust, the survival of the little ship is increasingly in question.

The cost of keeping the half-century-old hull afloat, the ravages of a winter climate and the many other expenses of maintaining what is in effect both a ship afloat and a working museum, are rapidly outdistancing the capacity of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust and other partners to provide for her.

Canada's navy, beset with its own budgetary and operational demands, quietly helps out where it can, but even this vital support is threatened by the navy's need to use every dollar and pair of hands in keeping our modern fleet at sea and capable. It is likely that, to the great anguish of the men and women of the Memorial Trust, the navy, and every Canadian who understands what the little ship means, it will soon be impossible to keep this central symbol of Canada's naval heritage from the wrecker's hammer.

No Canadian who loves the sea and what we have achieved on it as a nation can remember without regret that the beloved champion schooner Bluenose died an ignominious death as a cut-down tramp cargo boat on a Haitian reef in 1946. To lose Sackville because of a similar lack of concern would be a sad tragedy of almost equal measure.

The Americans have USS Constitution in Boston Harbour to remind them of their proud naval traditions, and Britain retains Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, at Portsmouth.

The dogged little rust-streaked hull of Sackville represents those vital years when Canadians went to sea in numbers for the first time and were bloodied by the ruthless efficiency of the U-boats, but fought back in the icy wastes of the North Atlantic to finally win the Battle of the Atlantic: She is Canada's own emotional flagship.

But there is a new initiative in Halifax that may be the saving of the little ship and her preservation for all Canadians to experience in a setting of dignity and honour, and one that provides for a much wider learning experience.

A consortium of committed Haligonians has proposed a major waterfront redevelopment that would incorporate the existing Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and create a dramatic heritage and marine-based activity complex to be known as the Queen's Landing. A central concept is to place Sackville in an indoor setting, out of water, in a glass-fronted "grand hall" that would be surrounded by a state-of-the-art naval history museum gallery that will incorporate the collections of the Maritime Museum and the navy's own small museum at Halifax.

Sackville, as Canada's Naval Memorial, would be preserved, animated and displayed for generations of Canadians to experience and treasure. Should this Queen's Landing project find the support it needs, the little ship will have won through its last battle for survival, one that began against the U-boats of Nazi Germany so long ago. For all Canadians' sake, this is a battle she should and must win.


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