At 1:20 p.m. on February 22, 1945, as a convoy including ships from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy sailed out of Wales, the second ship in the convoy’s port column erupted in a calamitous explosion.
British-flagged SS Alexander Kennedy had been struck by a torpedo and immediately began to sink.
But the British ship was not the final victim of the attack. Mere minutes later, a disastrous explosion killed five sailors and sunk His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Trentonian.
It took just 10 minutes for the RCN’s last corvette of the Second World War to be lost in action after 15 months of distinguished service.
The Flower-class corvette was escorting a convoy of 14 ships when it was torpedoed by an enemy submarine.
According to a report from Commanding Officer Lieutenant (Lt) Colin Glassco, the convoy was moving through heavy fog when it entered the English Channel.
Aboard Trentonian, the piercing alarm for Action Stations—readying the ship for threat—sounded as the officer-of-the-watch ordered crew to begin hunting the U-boat responsible for the attack.
Lt Glassco turned the ship but the convoy could not escape the second strike, as a torpedo assailed the Trentonian, opening its stern to the sea.
Sailors Moyle Beck, Robert Catherine, Colin Harvey and John Fournier died instantly.
Frank Barron and his shipmates on the forward gun took cover under the gun shield as jagged pieces of their ship rained down on them.
The corvette’s propeller was blown off by the impact and water flooded through the damaged shaft. The ship’s Engineering Officer, Francis Hindle ordered the engines shut down and raced wildly to evacuate the engine room.
Sydney Coates and the other stokers could hear the sea rushing into the engine compartment next to them as they shut down Trentonian’s boilers and started to blow off the steam.
By the time the stokers had released the steam from the boilers, the outer hatch for the air lock was under water, trapping stoker Bruce Keir. Eventually his shipmates were able to equalize the pressure in the air lock and force the hatch open to free him.
The crew was ordered to Abandon Ship and the signal officer placed all the ciphers and code books into weighted bags, launching them into the English Channel.
As Trentonian’s bow steadily rose and the stern sunk lower and lower, Gordon Gibbins recalls taking off his sea boots and stowing them under one of the ammunition lockers thinking he could retrieve them later, then jumping over the rail into the English Channel.
When the Gunnery Officer, Donald Dodds had ensured his gun crew was off the ship, he walked to the edge of the gun deck and did a perfect swan dive into the water below. From that point on he was known as “Swan Dive Dodds.”
Lt Glassco remained on the bridge as long as possible, making his way to the boat deck to meet with the Executive Officer, William Kinsmen and Hindle, the engineer who reported the stern of the ship was clear.
Hindle then abandoned ship, followed by Kinsmen, who took charge of the whaler—a seaboat on the warship—where the wounded had been gathered.
After one last look to ensure no one alive left was left aboard, Lt Glassco waded off the submerged boat deck.
The crew all watched as Trentonian’s bow reached a near vertical position, before it began its decent.
By 1:40 p.m., the Trentonian was gone—just 10 minutes after the torpedo’s strike.
After 45 minutes in the water, the 96 survivors, including 14 wounded, were rescued by two Royal Navy boats.
Other escorts nearby had approached to hunt the U-boat, but U-1004 had made its escape.
As they were being raced to Falmouth, England, Lt Gordon Stephens, an Anti-Submarine Officer with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) who was critically injured by the initial explosion and blown into the water, died of his wounds.
Trentonian was built in Kingston, Ont., and commissioned on Dec. 1, 1943, under the command of Lt William Harrison, RCN Reserve.
Its crew was made up of sailors from across Canada. Corvettes were designed for just over 50 sailors to live in, work and fight, but Trentonian, like other Canadian corvettes, carried over 90 sailors. Of all these men, only one was Regular Force RCN. The vast majority were RCNVR who, prior to enlisting, had never seen the ocean.
This ship trained in Bermuda before joining the Halifax Escort Force, escorting convoys from Halifax, New York City and St. John’s. It actively hunted U-boats on Canada’s Eastern Seaboard and even rescued a crippled Royal Navy submarine off Newfoundland.
Trentonian transferred to the United Kingdom in April 1944 and actively participated in the invasion of Normandy. During the night of June 12, Trentonian was escorting a British cable layer, when an American destroyer fired on the two ships.
Trentonian suffered several near misses, but unfortunately the cable layer bore the brunt of the attack, killing three and wounding over 20.
Post-invasion operations included escorting many convoys around the United Kingdom and the English Channel. Trentonian came under direct attack by the large German rail guns at Calais while escorting a convoy through the Straits of Dover.
Trentonian earned the Battle Honors, Atlantic 1944, English Channel 1944-45 and Normandy 1944.
The loss of the Trentonian also brought the distinction as the last corvette lost in action with the enemy.