Bill Dziadyk, LCdr RCN (Retired), Heritage Director, HMCS Bytown
I became the Heritage Director of HMCS Bytown1 in October 2008. At that time we performed an inventory audit, of our historic heritage items. Often, one does not appreciate the value of a heritage item until it is lost. This was definitely the case when the two Thomas Davidson (1842-1919) paintings (“The Evening before the Battle of Copenhagen” and “Lady Hamilton’s first sight of Lord Nelson”) were stolen out of their frames in the early morning hours of 22 April 1979. One byproduct of our inventory audit was that we gained a much better appreciation of value and the history related to some of the heritage items that we are custodians of. One specific example is the subject painting which many people who viewed it over the years thought that it was just a black and white print. We believe that this Battle of the Atlantic painting is very special to the history of the Royal Canadian Navy ... and we feel compelled to share it.
To mark the upcoming 70th Anniversaries of the commissioning and the loss of the first HMCS Athabaskan, HMCS Bytown Incorporated has arranged for a total of 300 limited edition prints of an historic painting by William McDowell to be produced. HMCS Athabaskan (G07), a Tribal class destroyer, was built at the Vickers Armstrong shipyard and was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy on 3 February 1943. Athabaskan was lost in the English Channel on the night of 29 April 1944. The original painting of that action was painted by McDowell in May 1944 shortly after the loss of the Athabaskan. In his own handwriting, he recorded on the back of his painting:
She had been torpedoed by a German Ebling class destroyer T24. 128 officers and men (including the Commanding Officer: Lieutenant Commander John Stubbs) were lost, 83 were taken prisoner and 44 were rescued by HMCS Haida (G63). The 15 August 1944 London Gazette recorded “For courage, resolution and devotion to duty in HMCS Haida in action with enemy destroyers and in rescuing survivors from HMCS Athabaskan”:
Distinguished Service Medal: Petty Officer George Cyril Moon; Stoker Petty Officer Harold Douglas Richards; and Leading Seaman Robert Edwards White; and
Mention in Dispatches: Lieutenant John Crispo Leckie-Annesley; Lieutenant Phillip George Frewer; Mr. Lloyd Irwin Jones, Gunner (T); Chief Ordinance Artificer Magnus Pedersen; Leading Seaman John Ray Finch; Acting Leading Seaman William McClure; and Stoker First Class William Alfred Cummings.
It is very fitting that this historic painting, is now displayed in the DeWolf Room of the Bytown Wardroom. In the painting we can clearly see Captain Harry DeWolf2 on Haida’s port bridge wing, in charge of the rescue efforts during a lull in the battle. Stoker Bill Cummings, LS Bill McClure and AB Jack Hannam can also be seen rescuing six survivors before they successfully took Haida’s motor cutter3 back to England, with the engine cutting in and out.
Commodore George R. (Gus) Miles was the President of HMCS Bytown Naval Officers’ Mess from 1947 to August 1948. It was during this period that he presented the painting to HMCS Bytown. He had been the first Commanding Officer of HMCS Athabaskan from her commissioning until 22 October 1943. Before Athabaskan, Gus Miles was the commanding officer of HMCS Saguenay (D79) for about a year and a half. His Saguenay escorted the first convoy HX-1 out of Halifax at the beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic. In a later action against the Italian submarine Argo, Saguenay became the first Canadian warship during the war (and in the history of the RCN) to be damaged in enemy action. For his “gallantry and distinguished service before the enemy” Commodore Miles was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Gus Miles commanded Athabaskan during many wartime patrols in the English Channel off the coast of occupied France. On 27 August 1943 during an anti-submarine chase in the Bay of Biscay, Athabaskan was struck by a Henschel Hs 293 radio-controlled glider bomb. She was one of the first allied ships to be damaged by this new German anti-ship weapon (and some would argue: the predecessor of today’s anti-ship missiles). He brought his severely damaged ship safely back to port for repairs and was awarded a “Mention in Dispatches” for his actions. In October 1943, he handed over his command to Lieutenant Commander John Stubbs. Just six months after that change of command, Athabaskan was lost in battle on the night of 29 April 1944. Many of the survivors, who are so dramatically depicted in McDowell’s painting struggling towards Haida in the cold dark sea off the enemy-held coast of France, were close friends and former shipmates of Commodore Gus Miles.
His last appointment was as the Commodore of the RCN Barracks Esquimalt. He died on 19 February 1951 and was buried at sea from HMCS Ontario with full naval honours. At that time, Rear-Admiral Wallace B. Creery4, Flag Officer Pacific Coast stated in a tribute: “It was due to his competence and unruffled calm in the face of the enemy that the two ships he commanded during the war – HMC Ships Saguenay and Athabaskan – were brought safely back to port after being severely damaged by the enemy.”5
William McDowell (1888-1950)6 began his career as a draughtsman at the Vickers Naval Construction Shipyard in Barrow, England. He studied naval architecture and was an associate member of the Institute of Naval Architects. He became a professional marine and war artist whose many works always demonstrated precision and detail, as is effectively demonstrated in the subject painting. He painted his original works quickly and spontaneously on beige colored illustration board using water and Chinese ink. Derived from the fine black coatings formed inside the surfaces of oil lamps, this ink remains one of the best, most archival art mediums ever invented. For the brightest highlights in his work like search lights, flairs and ordnance explosions, McDowell then used small amounts of white and blue gouache -a special opaque artist paint.
The print image has been digitally restored by a professional artist and a former shipmate of mine: Barry Tate. The original painting had poetically suffered some of its own battle scars over the years. Fine scratches and nicks, a few blotches and stains here and there... Through a long process using state-of-the-art photo editing tools, Barry has carefully restored the image used in these limited edition prints to the original May 1944 condition of the artwork.
Framed print #1/300 was recently formally presented to HMCS Athabaskan in recognition of the 70th anniversary of her commissioning. Framed print #2/300, which is on display at the 2 May 2013 Battle of Atlantic Gala Dinner, will be formally presented to HMCS Haida on 30 Aug 2013 in recognition of the 70th anniversary of her commissioning. These limited edition prints, with certificates of authenticity, are now available for sale to the public. The price is $150 plus HST and shipping costs.
1. There are two HMCS Bytown legal entities. (1) HMCS Bytown Naval Officers’ Mess (aka HMCS Bytown Incorporated) which was incorporated under the Ontario Companies Act on 12 May 1943; and (2) NDHQ Naval Officers’ Mess (aka HMCS Bytown Wardroom) which was created in accordance with a 9 April 1986 MOU. HMCS Bytown Incorporated retained title to the Building and Heritage items.
2. In 1943, Harry DeWolf was the founder and first President of the HMCS Bytown Naval Officers’ Mess. In the rank of Commodore, Harry DeWolf returned as President from 1945 until 1946.
3 In 1992, Haida’s motor cutter was restored and is now displayed next to the ship in Hamilton.
4 Captain Wallace Creery was the second President of HMCS Bytown from 1943 to 1945. The Creery Building, which houses the Canadian Fleet Pacific Headquarters, was named in his honour in 2009.
5. Crowsnest, Vol 3, No. 6, April 1951. pp 30-31
6. A sampling of William McDowell’s other works are on BBC site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/william-mcdowell
© Barry Tate images and other content may not be reproduced without express written permission from the artist.