An act of heroism: Harry DeWolf

The night DeWolf rescued 42 sailors from HMCS Athabaskan

Cdr Harry DeWolf

Cdr Harry DeWolf poses for a colour photo onboard HMCS Haida, circa 1944.

The Royal Canadian Navy is launching a new series called Canadian Naval Heroes to honour the brave and courageous actions of heroes from our past and their contributions to the RCN’s history, victories, lives saved and the peace and security we enjoy today as Canadians. A new story will be posted every month.

Harry DeWolf is a Canadian naval hero.

In the face of extreme danger and in the dead of night on April 29, 1944, DeWolf and His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Haida’s crew rescued 42 sailors from HMCS Athabaskan after it had been torpedoed.

DeWolf was Captain of HMCS Haida, patrolling with Athabaskan in the English Channel when they received orders to intercept German warships.

At 0359 hours they made contact with enemy ships.

From the historical Report of Action, written by DeWolf:

6. Radar contact was obtained by Athabaskan at 0359½ bearing 133o, 14 miles and confirmed by Haida at 0402 when an enemy report was made.

At 0411 hours Athabaskan reported echoes from three enemy ships. They closed distance from 11.8 km (13,000 yards) to 6.7 km (7,300 yards) before opening fire with star shell to illuminate the enemy ships in the dark.

DeWolf’s report continues…

8. At 0412 I gave the order “engage the enemy” and opened fire with star shell, the range being then 7300 yards. At 0414 two destroyers were in sight, bearing 115o and were identified as Elbings. 9. The enemy laid smoke and turned away to the Southward. At 0417 course was altered 30o to port, still keeping “A” arcs open

When the enemy torpedo boats were seen to turn away, Haida and Athabaskan altered course towards the torpedoes but limited their turn to 30 degrees.

The manoeuvre was meant to “comb” torpedoes (a standard avoidance tactic where ships turned towards torpedoes to present smaller targets) while still “allowing the rear four-inch turret to illuminate the targets while the forward 4.7-inch guns fired high explosive and semi-armoured piercing shells.” But before Athabaskan could complete her turn…

and at this moment Athabaskan was hit aft and a large fire started. She was observed to slow down and turned to port. The first hit on the enemy was obtained at 0418.

“Flames forty to fifty feet high. Pompom ammunition explodes in all directions,” said Stuart Kettles, one survivor of Athabaskan, who was later taken prisoner.

In the confusion, unsure of what had caused the initial explosion, DeWolf thought it could have been an underwater mine.

“All Stubbs said to me was ‘I’m stopped’,” DeWolf remembered Lieutenant-Commander John Stubbs, Captain of Athabaskan, saying.

A torpedo had struck Athabaskan, starting a fire and igniting the four-inch ammunition magazines, which caused a second devastating explosion and many casualties due to the crew being at abandon ship stations.

Athabaskan began to sink.

Telling Athabaskan “they’d be back for them”, DeWolf orderd Haida to drop smoke to cover Athabaskan and continued the chase, driving one enemy destroyer hard on shore, and chasing off the other.

Then it returned to where Athabaskan had been, finding around 100 survivors in the water.

DeWolf ordered all of Haida’s boats and floats lowered in an effort to rescue as many of Athabaskan’s crew as possible. Heavy scrambling nets were hung over the sides and Haida seamen began to pull exhausted and oil-soaked sailors aboard.

But DeWolf knew he could not stay long.

HMCS Haida's motor cutter, which was used to rescue survivors of the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan on 29 April 1944.

“I was scared to death of mines,” DeWolf said. “Here we were drifting sideways and I thought any minute we can strike a mine, and then we’ve lost two ships, not one.”

He also knew he would soon put his own ship at risk as dawn was fast approaching and Haida would lose cover of darkness.

“What we were afraid of, and taught to be afraid of, was air attack in daylight,” DeWolf said later in an interview. “We had no protection against dive bombers.”

He delayed as long as he could to pick up as many survivors as possible.

As the day dawned and DeWolf’s self-imposed deadline had passed, three Haida seamen stayed behind in a motor cutter to pick up more Athabaskan sailors from the water. One of them was Able Seaman Jack Hannam.

“When I was on the gun they were calling for volunteers to give a hand on the upper deck...to get the survivors on board,” Hannam recalled later.

“So I went from my gun down below and when I got down to the port side where the motor cutter was the officer of the deck at that time was asking for a volunteer to go down and let her go. So I climbed in the motorboat and went down with her.”

In the end, when Haida slowly began to gather speed and turn away from Athabaskan, it had 42 shipmates on board. When the ship sailed into Plymouth, England, it was to the cheers of the entire fleet and DeWolf was awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) on the spot.

The six surviving members of the first HMCS Athabaskan (G07) pose onboard HMCS Athabaskan (282) in 2002.

This is just one story from a long list of DeWolf’s accomplishments as a skilled strategist in naval combat.

During his 14 months in command of Haida, which included Arctic convoys and destroyer actions in the English Channel, Haida participated in the sinking of more than a dozen enemy vessels.

As a result, along with the DSO, DeWolf was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for courage and skill in action against German destroyers, and was twice the subject of a Mention in Dispatches for bravery, courage and determination in the face of the enemy.

His exceptional wartime service was recognized with an appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and as an Officer of the U.S. Legion of Merit.

The Royal Canadian Navy recognized DeWolf’s heroism by naming its first Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) after him. The AOPVs will be known as the Harry DeWolf Class, with HMCS Harry DeWolf as the lead ship.

Resources:

         Harry DeWolf’s biography

Sources:

         https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/on/haida/decouvrir-discover/hist1

         http://www.donnaward.net/hmcs-haida-and-the-sinking-of-the-athabaskan

         Michael J. Whitby, “‘Fooling’ around the French coast”: RCN Tribal-class destroyers in action - April 1944

         “Seasoned Sailors” - an interview with Harry DeWolf – 1995

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