April 29, 1944: HMCS Athabaskan (the first of three destroyers to have that name) was torpedoed by the German light destroyer T-24 and sunk shortly thereafter. Athabaskan was on a night patrol with her sister, HMCS Haida, supporting the operations of the 10th Minelaying Flotilla in the English Channel. Three nights earlier, they and several other Allied warships had an extremely successful encounter against several German destroyers, sinking and damaging the latter with few casualties of their own. The crews of the two Tribals expected the night of the 29th to be no different.
Unfortunately, it instead would prove to be the Kriegsmarine’s (German Navy) revenge; two of the German destroyers that had escaped the previous encounter now reappeared, and this time with much fairer numbers: two on both sides (as opposed to the three German ships pitted against five RCN/RN ships as occurred on the 26th).
In the predawn hours of the 29th, T-24’s spread of torpedoes found their mark on Athabaskan and forced her to come to a stop. Seeing their prey wounded, the German T-boats focused their fire on Athabaskan; like a protective brother, Haida laid a smoke screen and ran between Athabaskan and the Germans, pursing the latter as they retreated. Some ten minutes later, however, Athabaskan was torn asunder by a huge explosion despite the best damage control efforts of her crew.
Haida, seeing the explosion and having forced the German destroyer T-27 aground, rushed back. Despite the risk to his own ship, Haida’s captain, Commander De Wolf, eased gently into the mass of Athabaskan survivors, whose ship had slipped quietly beneath the waves. Unfortunately, the need to keep her propellers still to prevent them from injuring the survivors combined with the tide meant that she was drifting faster than many of the survivors could swim to her.
Concerned by the threat of German E-boats and their deadly torpedoes, Commander De Wolf made one of the most difficult decisions of his life and ordered Haida away from the scene.
In the end, Haida rescued several dozen Athabaskans, but the majority of survivors were actually saved by the German T-24, whose captain deserves some credit for an act that was completely unnecessary for an enemy. Over the next several weeks, Athabaskan bodies continued to wash up onto the French coast, where French civilians carefully buried them with full honours, often goading their German occupiers to participate as honour guards. A monument was established in their memory at Plouescat in Finistere, France.
To learn more about the first HMCS Athabaskan, as well as the 2nd and 3rd ships holding the same name, check out the Government of Canada website.
Main photo: HMCS Athabaskan (Credit: Imperial War Museum).