Battle of the Atlantic Heroes: Walter Slade

Navy News / September 1, 2020

By Krista Slade
Great-niece of Walter Slade

My great uncle, Walter Slade, grew up in Kingwell, Placentia Bay and joined the Canadian Merchant Navy as a young Newfoundlander in 1939. He knew the danger of the U-Boat-infested North Atlantic as well as anyone as he sailed through those waters in 1940 during the opening phases of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Many merchant seamen would come ashore after the tension filled transatlantic journey to relax frayed nerves. Often they could not heal. My great uncle Walter came ashore to expand his training so that he could more effectively support the cause, knowing the struggle would be long and difficult. After a short time at navigation school, he received his third mate’s certificate, qualifying him as a watchstander and customarily the ship’s safety office and fourth-in-command. Very shortly after completing his training he received orders to embark on the British Steam Ship (SS) Grayburn travelling from Baltimore, Maryland, to Swansea, Wales.

In June 1941, convoy HX 133 left Halifax and was sighted by enemy U-boat 203, which sent the 4,400-ton Norwegian ship Soloy to the bottom of the ocean. Attacks continued unsuccessfully over the next few days, but the enemy was tracking the progress of the crossing. A battle involving Allied corvettes His Majesty’s Ships (HMS) Nasturtium, Celandine and Gladiolus and three German U-boats broke out on June 26. The Dutch ship Massadam and the British ship Malaya II sunk resulting in a large loss of life. The corvettes continued to attack and were successful in sinking U-556.

Through these hectic and frightful days there were reports that the mood upon the SS Grayburn was one of calm. Panic had been held at bay, largely due to the efforts and cool nature of Walter Slade. However, the ship’s luck ran out on June 29 when U-651 fired a salvo of torpedoes into the ship’s ribs. Walter, whose leg had been torn apart by the attack, ensured that the men under his charge were safely secured in the lifeboat and dispatched from the sinking ship. He did not join them.

Once his men had hit the water in the rescue craft, he began a search for a fellow officer who had gone to another part of the ship as part of the evacuation. The Grayburn was starting to disappear under the surface when he abandoned the search and dived into the sea. He swam for over a half hour with his injured leg before being picked up by a passing ship. He was then ferried to Iceland where he died of his injuries.

The only men who survived the attack were the 17 who escaped on Walter Slade’s lifeboat. He received a King’s Commendation for Bravery Conduct posthumously.