Ralph Hennessy’s firefighting heroics helped save HMCS Assiniboine

Ralph Hennessy


Ralph Hennessy at his desk in later years serving with the Royal Canadian Navy.

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.

As fire raged aboard His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Assiniboine, Lieutenant Ralph Hennessy led the fight against the blaze that threatened to sink the destroyer.

Hennessy, just 24 years old, was the Executive Officer of Assiniboine (second in command) in August 1942 when it was assigned to protect a convoy of merchant ships from predatory U-boats in the Atlantic. At the time, one Allied ship was going down every six hours.

During the ocean crossing, Assiniboine engaged German submarine U-210 in a surface battle fought through dense fog. The destroyer was set ablaze when the submarine’s deck guns hit the bridge and riddled it with bullets.

“It was pretty spectacular because the gasoline storage for the two motorboats was stored right below the bridge so that’s what caused the fire,” said Hennessy.

“The fire was so intense that I couldn’t get down either bridge ladder to the upper deck – it was just a sea of fire right through the bridge structure. So I leapt off the back of the bridge onto the mast and shimmied down and got the fire parties organized, then went down into the bowels of the ship to get the shellfire damage repaired.”

“And I was still down there doing that when Johnny (Captain Stubbs) rammed the submarine!”

Hennessy led the crew’s fight against the fire as Stubbs directed the attack against U-210, first with 120 mm shells, then with the ship’s bow. Assiniboine sent the submarine to the bottom of the Atlantic by ramming it twice.

“We found out later we had killed the Captain (of U-210 - Rudolpe Lemcke),” Hennessy said.

“I think the most impressive thing to me was not that Johnny rammed the submarine...but that the submarine bounced back up guns firing. So give them full marks, the Germans.”

Ten prisoners were picked up by Assiniboine and 28 by His Majesty’s Ship Dianthus, six of whom were later transferred to Assiniboine. Among them were the submarine’s Executive Officer and Engineering Officer.

“We put them head to toe in the bunk of the doctor’s cabin, which was burnt out, and with a tough sentry on the door with a loaded gun in his hand. And with orders from me – any problem – fire!”

The other sailors were held in the boiler room and soup was lowered down to them in big bowls with cups.

“We were nice to them,” Hennessy said.

Due to the damage to its bow during the altercation, Assiniboine left the convoy and returned to St. John’s for repairs. It later returned to action.

Hennessy was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross by King George VI for his heroic actions fighting fires during the encounter.

But for Hennessy, this was par for the course at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic.

“Every convoy that we took over was a group of merchant ships,” Hennessy explained. “Normally these convoys would run about 40 or 50 ships and we would have all too few escorts against a German submarine pack if we ran into one. So our main job and the job of our authorities ashore was to route us so that we didn’t run into a German Wolf pack. Well, that didn’t always work. Sometimes we did and then all proverbial hell broke loose.”

Hennessy survived 80 convoy escorts during the war.

Other notable war time actions included participating in the early stages of the chase for the German battleship Bismarck; screening the battleship HMS Prince of Wales with Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked for the historic meeting off Argentia, NL, to draft the Atlantic Charter; and two appointments in command of Assiniboine.

When the war ended in 1945, Hennessy commissioned the destroyer HMCS Micmac as its first Commanding Officer. He then went on to have an illustrious career in the Royal Canadian Navy, eventually becoming Canada’s senior naval officer from 1966 to 1968. He retired as Chief of Personnel of the Canadian Armed Forces in 1971 after 35 years of service.

Hennessy died on June 13, 2014.



Battle of the Atlantic: Assiniboine versus U-210: www.youtube.com/watch?v=11EX9tjgcAs


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