How Sleep the Brave

HMCS Haida

HMCS Haida

How Sleep the Brave

By Kimberley Reeman

This short story honours Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Haida, a Tribal Class destroyer and a veteran of the Second World War, which is presently on display in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

HE WALKED UP THE BROW; in another time and another place, he would have saluted as he came aboard. After the press conference of the previous day, the publicity photos in the bows, the familiar, inane questions, he thought this visit would be unexpected and perhaps unwelcome. He heard the voice run before him, some old guy wanting to see the ship, and controlled his resentment.

But the co-ordinator was waiting for him, emerging from what had been the quartermaster’s lobby with a smile fixed on her face.

“Couldn’t stay away, eh? Your PR girl phoned and said you were coming.”

“I don’t know when I’ll get another chance . . . Is this really all right?”

“Sure. What time’s your plane?”

“Eight o’clock.”

“Great. Are you okay walking around alone? I guess I can trust you not to steal anything.”

I could walk around her in the dark. “I don’t imagine there’s very much left,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say that. They’ve left a lot of junk lying around down there.”

“There’s always been a lot of stuff lying around,” he said, and began to walk slowly, right forward.

She was silent. Silent beneath his feet, where her engines had trembled and thrust, silent in these bows where these painted anchor chains had rattled, silent on her open bridge where all hell had broken loose, and starshell had turned the nights into pitiless day, revealing the glacial sea and the enemy. Silence where orders had been given and received, to helmsmen and gunners, depth-charge handling parties; silence where men had lived and fought and suffered: the silence of death.

She was dead, and her ghosts were gone. The only ghosts were his own.

She had been born in the very heart of war, launched in Newcastle in August 1942, and the fourth Tribal Class destroyer in the Royal Canadian Navy. Like every Tribal she was three hundred and seventy-seven feet long, of one thousand eight hundred and seventy tons displacement; she carried eight 4.7 inch guns, and one hundred and ninety men. Her name and her sisters’, Haida, Athabaskan, Huron, Iroquois, Micmac, syllables in the cold, clean language of her country, took their place among the legends, and in the annals of war.

After a bitter, brutal year, Vice-Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham, Commander-in-Chief Plymouth, wrote to Haida that the Tenth Destroyer Flotilla had “displayed a great fighting spirit and engaged in many fierce and spirited actions in enemy waters… [sinking] thirty-four enemy surface ships, including three destroyers and many armed escorts, with one enemy submarine and seventeen ships, including destroyers, heavily damaged. Of this, you have the lion’s share.”

He stood on the bridge, staring at the lake, his hand resting on the cold steel of the gyro-compass. No shelter here, or protection from the elements, the winter’s fury, the freezing spray, the ferocity of the sea or the enemy, or the deafening roar of the main armament below, or the higher pitch of the Bofors guns. Only frostbite, cracked lips, salt-reddened, staring eyes, the sodden towel around the neck, the waterproof pouch in the duffle coat pocket, and the hope that when it came, it would not be a lingering death.

I don’t know how we did it. We were young, and there was no tomorrow.

April 26th, 1944, off the French coast with Force 26 out of Plymouth: the cruiser Black Prince, the British Tribal Ashanti, and the Canadians Haida, Huron, and Athabaskan. At 0200 Black Prince made radar contact with three enemy destroyers out of St. Malo, accompanied by torpedo and E-boats.

0327: firing starshell in the darkness before dawn, assaulting the morning with her guns. The splinter laying open his forehead; the iron, blinding blood.

“Oh, my God! I can’t see…”

And the signal flag thrust against his eyes and nostrils. Even the bunting smelled of cordite.

“Can you see me?”

And dimly he saw the skipper’s face, the naked courage and the dread.

“Yes . . . .”

“Then you’re not bloody blind, are you?”

At 0340 the enemy was burning. At 0421, they sank her.

And later, the repeated scrape of the match as his fingers refused to obey him. He felt De Wolf’s cold, steadying hand on his wrist and blew out a cloud of smoke before muttering, “Thanks.”

“Okay, Ross?”

“Yeah. It hurts like hell.”

“Thought you’d bought it back there for a minute.”

They returned to Plymouth, battle ensigns flying.

Do your books glorify war?

Three nights later on the same killing ground, off Île de Bas, they ran to earth the two German destroyers they had mauled on the 26th. The Canadians attacked, and the enemy responded with torpedoes. Athabaskan, mortally wounded, lay at the mercy of the sea, the Kriegsmarine, and the Luftwaffe. Haida, avenging her, hounded her attackers, T24 and T27, severely damaged one and pursued the other as she fled for the haven of the French coast, and left her burning on a reef off Pontusval.

She returned to her stricken sister, leaking the oil that was her life’s blood and surrounded by the flotsam of disaster, floats, rafts, the faint red lights of lifejackets, her men, dead and alive, drifting on an uneasy swell. One by one they got them aboard, choking and gasping, shuddering convulsively with cold, some injured, some burned, some too numbed with shock to speak. Some gave a thumbs-up, or whispered thanks; some simply bowed their heads and wept.

They saved forty-two lives before dawn, obeying only at the last Athabaskan’s captain’s plea that they get clear before daylight found them. Later that morning a German minesweeper rescued eighty-five more. The rest, and their captain, died with Athabaskan.

If they glorify anything, it’s the splendour and compassion of the human spirit under extraordinary circumstances.

How many deaths was Haida responsible for?

I don’t know. Probably hundreds.

How do you justify the killing of so many of your fellow human beings?

I’m not here to justify it. It was war.

Did you ever pick up German survivors?

We picked up fifty-three out of a company of fifty-four submariners when U971 went down.

First you try to kill them, and then you pick them up?

Yes. It was something you did. You hauled them aboard and you wrapped them in blankets and you gave them a cigarette and a cup of tea. And if they were covered in oil you tried to clean them up. You did what you could to keep them alive, and if they died you buried them with decency. And you hoped they’d do the same for you.
. . . . We sank five enemy ships in convoy on August 6th in the Bay of Biscay. They sent her home then, heavy with glory, a Canadian ship going for the first time to a Canadian port, her captain with two DSCs and four mentions-in-dispatches, her navigator with a mention and a scarred forehead and a taste for alcohol which time has not diminished. The skipper left us in September, and we went back to war, to lay mines in the icy waters off Norway and escort the Russian sub-chasers to Murmansk.

She was alive then. Not this cold, inanimate steel rusting in her dreams, but a destroyer, fast, powerful, beautiful. A weapon of war.

And she was our home.

Our time was then, and is not now. This is not our world. All they see is the date of birth. All they see is the metal fatigue. Time’s evil alchemy cannot touch the spirit; it cannot unmake what was.

The co-ordinator was waiting for him, looking surreptitiously at her watch.

“I can’t even offer you a cup of coffee. They’ve disconnected all the facilities.”

“It’s quite all right,” he said.

“So, are you going to come and see us in Hamilton?”

I’ll probably be dead by then. He said instead, “I’d probably hate it.”

“Oh, come on. She’ll look great. We’re talking a serious investment here.”

“If they couldn’t take her to Halifax I think she should have stayed here, where she means something. I’d rather she’d gone down in the cold Atlantic with all her guns blazing than become a theme park for Mom and Dad and the kids on the weekend.”

“She’ll be a living memorial to all you guys, once she’s fixed up.”

He said, “Some of us aren’t dead yet.”

It was time. The sun was declining, the lake shark-blue, the wind freshening, scattering the sails of some regatta toward the Humber.

He paused, fighting an odd, painful desire to salute her, in recognition of this last meeting. For him the Air Canada lounge, the Scotch, and Heathrow in the morning; for her the acetylene torch. As it was in the beginning ...

He laid his hand on the rail and imagined that she moved: some restless current stirred her.

“Good-bye, old girl. Dream of battles.”

He did not look back.