I was born in Miramichi, New Brunswick to Ambrose and Cora Stewart. My father was a lumberman and my mother a busy homemaker to seven children, four boys and three girls. In 1942 I left high school and went to work at The Lewis Machine Shop in Stewiacke. I wanted to join the Engine Room Branch of the Navy and I was told that if I had just one year’s experience in a machine shop I could go directly to the Engine Room instead of joining as a Stoker and working my way up.
One morning in August 1943 while walking to work I met my brother and a good friend on their way to the railway station. They were going to Halifax to join the military. I thought that I must have enough machine shop experience so, instead of continuing on to work I went with them to Halifax. My brother was turned down for medical reasons, but my friend and I were accepted. We planned that we would get on the same ship and win the war together. The Navy had other ideas and we never saw each other again until 1945.
After enrolment I was sent with hundreds of other personnel for Basic Training at the new Naval Training Base HMCS CORNWALLIS near Digby, Nova Scotia. At that time Cornwallis was the largest naval training establishment in the British Empire, up to 10,000 men at times. After six weeks Basic Training we were given a three or four-week course in steam engineering, that was supposed to make us qualified engineers.
After Basic Training I was sent to Halifax for one week, when in the Fall of 1943, I was advised I was going to England on loan to the British Navy as they were short of men to man their ships. At that particular time Canada had more men than they had ships for. In England it was just the opposite, they had ships going to sea without a full crew. So a deal was made, they would send us overseas and the British Navy could use us until the Canadian Navy acquired more ships and recalled us to serve. This proved to be a great opportunity to gain valuable experience providing you survived to return.
We left Halifax from Pier 21 sailing on the troop ship ISLE DE FRANCE. We landed in Scotland and from there I went by train to Chatham Naval Base in the south of England. I was assigned to a British ship, HMS FANCY, an Algerine Class minesweeper of the 7th British Minesweeping Flotilla. This was a brand new ship with a great crew. For the next three or four months we did minesweeping and escorted convoys through the Straight of Dover and up to the north of Scotland where they joined up with convoys going to Russia. Later we spent most of our time in the English Channel where we did minesweeping and anti-submarine patrols. We worked with the British and Canadian troops when they practiced invasion landings at night on isolated islands and parts of the English coast.
As D-Day drew closer we spent all our time in the English Channel. On clear days when we sailed through the Strait of Dover the big German guns on the French coast would always shell us. They were not very accurate gunners! We were part of the 7th British Minesweeping Flotilla, eight ships in all.
On D-Day we sailed from Portsmouth England well ahead of the invasion fleets. We swept back and forth in the area the fleet was sailing in until we were nearing the French coast. We were working with the ships of the 6th British Minesweeping Flotilla and swept the Canadian and British troops right in to Juno Beach. There were five invasion beaches with two Sweeper Flotillas for each beach making a total of 80 Minesweepers sweeping in front of the invasion fleet. As soon as the troops started landing we moved back from the beach still sweeping for mines and looking for signs of the enemy. We stayed in that area for approximately two weeks guarding supply vessels as they were being unloaded. Nighttimes were the worst. The enemy was attacking with E-Boats, remote controlled boats, human torpedoes and one-man subs. After the beachhead was established we returned to England for fuel and supplies and some work to be done on the ship. For the next six month we swept along the French and Dutch coasts as the Army advanced, clearing mines from rivers and ports so that supplies could be landed closer to the front.
There were a lot of rough times and few good times. Many sweepers were damaged and some were sunk but the worst day was Sunday, 27 August 1944. The 1st Minesweeping Flotilla was sweeping ahead of the others off Cap d’Antifer on the French coast. Due to a failure in communication with the shore command, a Squadron of 16 RAF Typhoon Fighter-Bombers who mistook the Flotilla for enemy ships attacked the Flotilla. In spite of many recognition flares being fired they continued to attack. In less than 15 minutes two ships were sunk, while the third was drifting helplessly with its stern completely blown off. Some of the other ships were damaged. 117 sailors were killed and 153 wounded. It was one of the worst friendly fire incidents in the 1939-1945 war and was said to be the worst friendly fire incident in British Naval History. Many years later I read in a navy publication I receive from England that the RAF Pilots who sank the ships reported them in the logs as “Enemy Destroyers”.
During my stay on HMS FANCY, I wrote and passed my 4th Class ERA exam. The Engineering Officer who conducted my exam told me I was the youngest 4th Class Engineer serving in the British Navy at that time. In December I received notice that I was being sent back to Canada to serve on the Tribal Class Destroyer HMCS HAIDA. After serving one year with the British Navy I left Scotland on the Queen Elizabeth, landed at New York and was home two days later for a short leave before joining HAIDA in Halifax. I sailed aboard this ship until the war was over. HMCS HAIDA is considered Canada’s most famous warship due to her tremendous wartime record. I received my discharge in 1946.
I never regretted the time I spent with the British Navy. I served on a great ship with an excellent crew and fine Officers. Had I not been sent to the British Navy I most certainly would never have witnessed and taken part in the greatest naval Armada in Naval History.
It’s difficult to describe it and I am very thankful that I was there and returned safely. I expect there is not a Veteran who has not been asked these two questions: Were you ever afraid? And would you do it again? I have always felt that the first question does not require an answer. If you stop and think about it, who could ever go through the hell of war and not be afraid at some time. Would I do it again? When I think of the thousands of people who gave their lives and the thousands who offered their lives for what they believed in, then I look at the terrible mess the world is in today. It makes me wonder. However we still have the best country in the world today and under the same or similar circumstances, yes, I would do it again.
After my discharge from the military I started my own service station business in Stewiacke which I operated for 20 years. I met and married Lillie Woodworth from Lantz and we have two daughters, Wendy and Janie. I was involved with many community organizations throughout my life. My favourite hobby was curling and I served on the Stewiacke Volunteer Fire Department for thirty-six years. Lillie and I now reside in Truro, N.S.