At the heart … of the action – Léon-Paul Fortin

[N.D.L.R. The text extracts are taken from an interview that Mr. Léon-Paul Fortin granted in September 1998 to Julie Fournier of the Naval Museum of Quebec.]

HMCS Charlottetown was sunk on September 11, 1942, at 8:30 a.m., near Cap-Chat. During its torpedoing, HMCS Charlottetown was assigned to escort Quebec-Sydney convoys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence sector. Returning from the escort of convoy SQ-35, the corvette returned to its home base in Gaspé. The corvette was advancing slowly, not making the required zigzag movements. As it was the shift change, there was a lot of activity on the ship.

HMCS Charlottetown was hit by two torpedoes and sank in approximately four minutes. Léon-Paul Fortin, survivor of the HMCS Charlottetown torpedo, tells us how he experienced this enemy attack.

“[…] I was in the water for four hours with an arm and a broken leg. I was there, surely there. It’s because my time hadn’t arrived because I had a blow that could have been fatal to me. Because the torpedo hit just below where I was. So I flew through the air, I did a pirouette and I fell back on the part of the boat that was left. […] I went on my abandon ship station there. […] And I was going on the boat on the left side. […] But the boat, we were not able to put it in the water because the boat had been hit on the right side and it was tilting like that. […] But the more we lifted it to push it outside, the more it came inside. When the water was returned to us, the captain said, “The hell with it, everybody in the water. ”

“[…] I was in the water at least two and a half hours, three hours in the mist and in the oil because the boat had been hit in the oil tanks. […] At one point the fog rose, but there was a boat which they had managed to put in the water; it was the boat on the right side. They managed to put it in the water. But there were already 29 of them. […] When they saw me, they tried to come towards me, but I swam towards them. There they said, “Stand after the edge. “I stood after the edge a little, but not long because I was at the end. When I got to the end of it, I said to them: “If you don’t let me board, I let myself go. “So I have two friends, I don’t know which ones there, who sacrificed themselves because they had had nothing. […] They took me in and they laid me down in the bottom of the boat. I haven’t lost consciousness […]. I didn’t want to know anything anymore. “

Attacked: Minesweepers

  • HMCS Chedabucto
  • HMCS Clayoquot
  • HMCS Esquimalt

HMCS Chedabucto

21 octobre 1943
Au large de Saint-Simon
Collision avec le Lord Kelvin

Pertes humaines : 1 mort

At around 6 a.m., SS Lord Kelvin and HMCS Chedabucto went to a meeting point from which the Chedabucto was to escort the merchant ship. However, they collide violently. This accident is due to human error. The inexperience and lack of navigation skills of some officers resulted in piloting errors and, inevitably, the death of a member of the crew.

HMCS Clayoquot

December 24, 1944
Off Cape Breton
Torpedoed by U-806

Human casualties: 4 officers and 4 sailors

On December 22, a ship was damaged by what appears to be a German mine. On Christmas Eve morning, the minesweeper HMCS Clayoquot, as well as the ships Kirkland and Transconia, set off on a mission. They must secure the waters taken by several convoys off Cape Breton. In the middle of the morning, the Clayoquot received a German torpedo and sank very quickly. This torpedoing killed 8 of the 84 crew members.

HMCS Esquimalt

Human casualties: 5 officers and 39 sailors

Shortly before the news of the end of the war, this minesweeper went on a reconnaissance mission. He doesn’t spot the U-190 chasing him. The submarine launched a torpedo which directly hit the ship and sank it through the bow. Cold-frozen, the survivors were drafted by HMCS Sarnia, but after 6 long hours at sea. Only 27 of the 71 sailors survived this attack. HMCS Esquimalt is the last ship lost during the Battle of the St. Lawrence.

German submarine U-69 tally of successes

Torpedo attack on SS Carolus

October 9, 1942
Offshore from Métis-sur-Mer
The SS Carolus is torpedoed while in Convoy LN9, en route towards Goose Bay. This torpedoing took place barely 300 km from Quebec City.

Torpedo attack on SS Caribou

Night of October 13 to 14, 1942
In Cabot Strait
The torpedo attack on this ferry that connected Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland is one of the greatest tragedies of the Battle of the St. Lawrence. The loss of the SS Caribou brought home to the Canadian population its vulnerability to attacks along its shores and made it understand the war’s proximity even further.

German submarine U-1223 tally of successes

  • HMCS Magog
  • SS Fort Thompson

The HMCS Magog is torpedoed and declared a total loss upon her arrival at the pier.

October 14, 1944
Offshore Pointe-des-Monts
Hit at the stern, HMCS Magog manages to maintain buoyancy while waiting to be hauled to Quebec City. However, upon arrival there, she is declared a total loss.

The SS Fort Thompson is torpedoed and sustains heavy damage

The Fairmile Bs of the Royal Canadian Navy

8 May 1945: VE-Day

Hostilities ceased with the capitulation of Germany.

The Royal Canadian Navy, which had a fleet of about ten ships when the conflict began, found itself in 1945 with over 400 ships in service which were now useless. The War Assets Corporation was mandated in 1944 to manage the whole process of disposal of war surplus, including the fleet of ships. Shortly after VE-Day, Sydney, Nova Scotia was selected as the port for disarming the larger ships (such as destroyers and frigates), while the Fairmiles were disarmed at the Bassin Louise in Québec. After this operation, the Fairmiles were sent to Sorel, where they were moored in a designated place and transferred to the War Assets Corporation with all the equipment remaining on board. Thus on 8 June 1945, eight flotillas comprising 59 Fairmiles were successively withdrawn from service and, accompanied by their commanders, sent to Sorel, to remain there until they were sold. At the end of 1945, only four Fairmiles were still in service: three on the East Coast (Q 106, Q 116 and Q 121) and one on the West Coast (Q 124), but only for two more years at the outside.

Q 055, Q 056 and Q 053 being towed to Sorel.
Origin unknown

The Fairmiles, because of their robust wooden construction (mahogany and teak) and elegant hull lines, were by far the most popular of all warships among future purchasers. Many of them were sold in Canada and United States for use as private yachts, cruise vessels or coastal cargo ships.

An order was established to the effect that federal and provincial departments and agencies and public organisms would have priority in obtaining the vessels.

Accordingly, on 15 September 1945, three Fairmiles (Q 104, Q 105 and Q 107) were towed by the ships Glencove and Glenora to Rimouski for the Arts and Trades School.

Four more were transferred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for use as coastal patrol craft in the Gulf and St. Lawrence River, namely the Fort Walsh (ex Q 112), Fort Selkirk (ex Q 114), Fort Steele (ex Q 117) and Fort Pitt (ex Q 119).

Seven other Fairmiles remained in service as power training craft (PTCs): six on the Great Lakes and one at Esquimalt, British Columbia:

  • HMCS Cougar, ex PTC 704, ex Q 104, Ontario
  • HMCS Beaver, ex PTC 706, ex Q 106, Ontario
  • HMCS Moose, ex PTC 711, ex Q 111, Ontario
  • HMCS Reindeer, ex PTC 716, ex Q 116, Ontario
  • HMCS Wolf, ex PTC 762, ex Q 062, Ontario
  • HMCS Racoon, ex PTC 779, ex Q 079, Ontario
  • HMCS Elk, ex PTC 724, ex Q 124, British Columbia

Many other sales were made to private purchasers over the months and years, e.g.:

NUMBER

PURCHASER

USE

Q 051 National Research Council, Ottawa, Ontario Radar vessel
(RADEL II)
Q 056, Q 061, Q 078, Q 081 Creole Petroleum, Caracas, Venezuela Shuttles: Esso Ayacucho, Esso Concordia,
Esso Cardonal and
Esso Taparita
Q 088 Peter Lepage Ltd., Ontario Cruise vessel
(Penetang 88)
Q 098 Marine School, Rimouski, Quebec Training vessel
(St-Barnabé)
Q 105 J.S Langlois, Québec Cruise vessel
(MV Duc D’Orléans)
Q 113 CTMA, Magdalen Islands, Quebec Coastal trading vessel
(Lavernière)

Q 105, commissioned in September 1943
Photo: Department of National Defence

Closer to home, in Québec itself, many will remember the MV Duc D’Orléans, which sailed the St. Lawrence as a cruise vessel for 30 years (1948-1978).

On 12 January 1948, Mr J. Séverin Langlois, a St. Lawrence pilot residing in Québec, acquired the former Fairmile Q 105 from the Rimouski School of Arts and Trades. The idea was to convert the vessel for cruising on the St. Lawrence River. The plans were approved in the spring of 1948, and the conversion work was done at the shipyard in Saint-Laurent, on the Île d’Orléans.

The vessel, when acquired, had its original wartime appearance, with a low pilotage cabin on the main deck, surmounted by an exterior cabin. Major changes were made: one involved replacing the two original gasoline engines (Hall-Scott Defender type, V12, 630 HP) with two 160-HP Detroit diesels. The whole deck was rearranged in order to accommodate passengers safely both inside and outside. The interior of the stern of the vessel, originally used as officers’ quarters, was converted into a restaurant.

Duc d’Orléans passing in front of Montmorency Falls
Marc-André Morin Collection

In 1952, Mr Jean-Claude Morin, of Sillery, took over the business and operated it successfully until 1972. The loading dock was in a prominent location near the Québec-Lévis ferries, just below the Château Frontenac. Because of the quality of the cruises offered, the MV Duc D’Orléans became a well-known and greatly appreciated tourist attraction among visitors and the people of the Québec region.

In 1978, the vessel made its last cruise, from Québec to Sarnia, Ontario, where it had been built by Mac-Craft Ltd. in 1943. It is still operating in Corunna, Ontario, as an excursion vessel on the St. Clair River between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

After all these years, Noel Macklin, the Fairmile’s designer, would be very proud of the longevity of his creation.