A Fighting Lady Lost

Morrisburg’s connection to the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan

MORRISBURG – At 0300 hours, April 29, 1944, HMCS Athabaskan was on patrol near the mouth of the Morlaix River off German Occupied France.

With her sister ship, the Haida, Athabaskan  had been sent into the Channel to protect a British mine-laying operation, being carried out well into enemy waters.

Suddenly radar stations in Southern England picked up indications of German warships lying off  Ile-de-Batz.

Athabaskan’s captain, Lt. Commander John Stubbs, received new coded orders:  engage the enemy.

Canada’s two Tribal class destroyers immediately headed into the hostile darkness.

The Athabaskan and many of  her 261 man crew now had less than 90 minutes left to live.

Among those 261 crew, sailing that night on Athabaskan, was a 23-year-old boy, Edmund Arthur Jarvis,  the son of J. Harold Jarvis and Nellie Sophia Green of Morrisburg, Ontario.

Harold Jarvis, whose family were United Empire Loyalists,  had served in the 87th Battalion, Canadian Infantry and the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade  during the Great War.

Nellie was a British war bride, who followed her husband back to his home town of Morrisburg.

The Jarvis family was big and boisterous.

By 1940 there were seven brothers and seven sisters, supported by father Harold, who had followed his father into the businesses of funeral director and furniture dealer in the village.

Ed was the second oldest child in the family.

He attended Morrisburg schools: he grew up with lots of friends among the local kids.

Of course, in a busy, large household like his, Ed was expected to “help out”, so he took a job busing tables at a local tourist home, The Sign of the Ship.

Then Hitler invaded Poland, and war began in Europe in 1939.

As in 1914, Canada once again answered the call to arms from Britain against a formidable adversary.

Doug Jarvis, nephew of Edmund Jarvis, and ‘unofficial’ Jarvis family historian, put it this way:

“My grandfather was at Vimy Ridge. He knew the devastation and the loss of warfare. And I don’t think a mom ever gets over the loss of a son or daughter. My grandma carried the loss of her son the rest of her life.”

Nonetheless, when oldest son George signed up with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, and next son, Ed, enlisted in the Canadian navy in 1939, the family stood by the boys’ decisions.

Ed was originally trained as an anti-aircraft gunner, earning commendations from his officers.

His first ship was the HMCS Skeena, a river class destroyer.

In late 1941 the Skeena was caught up in a 66 hour battle in the North Atlantic while on convoy duty.

Ed made it home to Morrisburg on brief leave, and described the sea battle in these words in a January 9, 1942, story in the Leader.

The Skeena had engaged with one of the dreaded German U-Boat Wolf Packs.

“The German subs were as thick as mosquitoes,” the young gunner said. “As soon as we went after one, another one was after us.”

He was still serving on board the Skeena when she was lost in a vicious storm off Reykjavik, Iceland. Fifteen of her crew died in that sinking.

Gunner Ed Jarvis was one of the survivors.

In what now seems a kind of terrible irony, he was reassigned to a brand new Tribal class destroyer, the HMCS Athabaskan, which had only been commissioned on February 3, 1943.

There are historians who call the Athabaskan the “unlucky Lady.”

Just months into her first sea duties, June of 1943, she collided with a boom defense vessel at Scapa Flow.  In August, 1943, she was badly damaged by a Henschel HS 293 glider bomb, a type of  German  guided missile, during a sub chase off Cape Ortegal.

Still, the Lady and her crew had also done plenty of fighting, during anti-submarine patrols in the Bay of Biscay, and with the 10th Destroyer Flotilla out of Plymouth.

On April 26, the Athabaskan helped sink an Elbing-class German torpedo boat, the T-29, in the Channel.

In the midst of his active service, crewman Edmund Jarvis passed naval examinations with honours, earning a Petty Officer’s rating in March of 1944. That rating had not yet been confirmed, but the papers were due to come through within the month.

He had also met and married a young Scotswoman.

May Middlehurst was an operator in the National Fire Service in Edinburgh, Scotland.  She and Ed fell in love, and in the nature of simple wartime weddings, were married at the Church of Scotland Manse on Dalmeny Street in Edinburgh.

He hoped to bring his new bride home to Morrisburg when the war ended.

April 29, 1944, 0300 hours.

In the inky darkness before dawn, the Athabaskan and the Haida engaged at least two German destroyers at a distance of some 7,000 yards. Both the Canadian ships opened up with all guns.

Gunner Jarvis was probably with his crew, manning his weapon.

The enemy ships turned to the East, delivering blistering return fire and setting up a smokescreen.

Minutes after the fight began Haida crew suddenly saw the Athabaskan shudder. She had been hit astern on the starboard side, probably torpedoed by E-Boat T-24.

Haida immediately belched out a screen of chemical smoke, trying to hide her sister ship from the Germans. However, it was Haida’s duty to pursue the enemy and she struck out after the E-Boats, damaging T-27.

But E-Boat T-24 was too fast, and too far away.

Survivors said later that the Athabaskan’s crew fought hard for her life.

But her X and Y guns, where the torpedo had exploded, burst into fire, and the fierce blaze spread everywhere. The ship’s propulsion gear had also  been damaged: she was, for all intents and purposes, already dead in the water.

Then the worst occurred:

The flames breached the ship’s magazine.

There was a horrific explosion, and the Athabaskan’s bulkheads collapsed; the ship heaved to an almost perpendicular angle. Men could be seen jumping and sliding off her bow, silhouetted in the flames and burning oil slicks.

The destroyer sank literally in seconds. Sailors were everywhere, dumped into the freezing water,  bobbing in life jackets, clinging to scraps of wreckage.

Captain Harry De Wolf of the Haida sent a terse message to Plymouth: Athabaskan has blown up.

The time was 0428.

Haida rushed back. She began struggling to pick up the men in the water.

But she was a big ship, and a powerful wind was now blowing hard against her. Her propellers had to shut down when her men found some of the helpless survivors were being dragged into the screws. Already, the bitter water, the thick oil and injuries were decimating what was left of Athabaskan’s crew.

But the Haida kept trying, roping some of the men, flinging the ship’s net over the side, desperately fighting to save her brother sailors.

It was  0510.

The sun was already coming up and Plymouth was repeatedly signaling the Haida: disengage. Return at once to port.

Captain De Wolfe ignored the orders, exclaiming from the deck,  “Just five minutes more. Just a little more time.”

It was not until his radar operator reported ships on the horizon steaming out of ports in France, that he finally ordered the Haida to start her propellers. The whole German coast was now alerted: subs as well as E-Boats were zeroing in on the Haida’s position.

Athabaskan’s captain, Lt. Commander John Stubbs, was still in the water. He was located near the Haida and could have been pulled on board.

He refused.

Instead he swam back and forth in the dark, shouting encouragement to his men, telling them to hang on, even, some said, singing to them. He also shouted at the Haida to “get out of here,” when it was clear that she too was in danger.

After a while, Captain Stubbs was not heard or seen again.

The Haida powered up. She steamed away.

Men still clinging to the ship’s net fell away, too weak to hold on. In the water, in disbelief, survivors screamed, cried, cursed as the Haida disappeared into the morning fog.  Alone in freezing water, later some men could be heard whispering “I’ve had it.” “The hell with it.”

They soon disappeared.

At 7:30 a.m. the exhausted survivors were able to make  out three dark objects, coming up fast from the South. A destroyer and two smaller vessels hove into view.

They were all flying the naval ensign of the Third Reich.

The destroyer coming to the rescue, captained by Kapitanleutnant Wilhelm Meentzen, was the T-24.

The Germans immediately lowered launches and dinghies, hauling the frozen, wounded Canadians on board. They also carefully fished out any documents and papers floating on the water.

On Meentzen’s orders, the Germans pulled off the men’s life preservers (throwing them overboard) and helped the Canadians into the showers, getting the oil off them. The crew also gave them food and blankets, and shared cigarettes, although Germans were rationed to only four of those a day.

When he turned the Canadian seamen over to the Wehrmacht (and later the Gestapo) on the docks near Brest, the Kapitanleutnant saluted the surviving crew of the Athabaskan.

In Canada, no one knew what had happened to the Athabaskan, except for a grim announcement that she had been sunk.

On May 5, 1944, the Jarvis family received a cable: The government “deeply regrets to inform you that your son, Edmund Arthur Jarvis, Leading Seaman, Royal Canadian Navy, official number 3330, is missing from HMCS Athabaskan. Letter follows.”

For a few days more, Ed’s parents waited news.

Then came the final cable.

Ed Jarvis was not among the 44 men rescued by the Haida. Nor was he among the 83 men taken prisoner by the Germans.

Some bodies had washed ashore in France and the Bretons recovered them. But most were missing their dog tags. Eventually, with German military honours, 91 of the Athabaskan’s crew were laid to rest in France.

“We never knew that Uncle Ed’s body was found,” Doug Jarvis explained quietly. “He was never specifically identified. If he has a grave at all, it’s known only to God.”
Harold and Nellie Jarvis were devastated.

“But they never really talked of it. By the time I was old enough to take an interest, my grandmother had died. Eventually my wife, Chris, and I did a lot of research and learned about Ed and what had happened to him.”

Yet there is a touching sequel to the story of this young man who died serving his nation.

Ed’s Scottish wife, May, crossed the Atlantic in the winter of 1944, in spite of U-Boats, on a ship called the Aquitania, for the purpose of meeting his family. Ed was still listed as missing, and she felt she needed to be with his people while they awaited word of him.

“Ed’s brother, Hugh, met her at the train station in Morrisburg,” Doug said. “My Grandmother had seen to it that he brought a warm coat and boots for this young Scottish girl. She was with our family in Canada when that final telegram came.”

A few years after the war, May married Hugh Jarvis.

Doug Jarvis is their son.

He keeps the history of his family, and the story of Edmund Jarvis, posthumously rated a petty officer, alive. Petty Officer Jarvis’ name is inscribed, beside a small cross, on the cenotaph in the park in Morrisburg.

“I think of the courage and determination of those men like Ed, manning their stations to the end, fighting for Canada. It is a matter of true pride for our family what he did. The Jarvis family will continue to be well represented at Remembrance Days.”

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