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Archive for the ‘WW2’ Category

As a follow-up to the story “John Beer’s Adventure off Peru during WWII“, I recently connected with the daughter of Charles Reginald Boggs, from Halifax, who was also serving on the Prince Henry at that same time in April 1941. Diane came upon my story here, and she recalled her father’s comments about the day of the burning and sinking of the two German ships. In fact, he recorded a bit of the action with his personal movie camera on 16mm film, as the crew and officers captured and took aboard the Germans from their escaping lifeboats.

Diane recalls from viewing the film that the Canadians treated the Germans well as they brought them onboard, handing them blankets, hot drinks and cigarettes. Hopefully, the Canadian Military Archives will soon be converting the reel to digital and putting it online.

Also among Reginald Boggs’ naval memorabilia was a news clipping of Messdeck News, a column in a Halifax newspaper during the war, written by Annie Coade (aka Jessie Coade). She provided the public with her own interesting naval journalism. The clipping from November 8th, 1941, features a photo of a German Shepherd dog and his new master Lieutenant W. Gage. My father also had a photo of a German Shepherd in his collection of photos. Well, we were able to solve the mystery of why this dog was on the ship. Here is an excerpt from the transcribed clipping:

Photo of Peetsa and Lieutenant W. Gage from Messdeck News

Surpassing in news importance the old “man bites dog” tale is the story of a native of Germany who not only had the run of a Canadian ship, but is the special pal of every officer and man on board. The “German” is a police dog call Peetsa who was captured along with the crew of an enemy freighter and the only one of the company to escape internment.

Peetsa was the mascot of the freighter “Hermonthis” out of Hamburg, which with three other ships of her type were lying in the harbour of Callao, seaport of Lima, Peru. A Canadian ship had a veritable “field day” when the enemy ships tried to escape the harbour, and after much excitement, a lifeboat filled with prisoners gave over its crew. Peetsa, a scared little puppy was the last aboard and, at the risk of his life, Able Seaman Ed Suffern managed to get him on board via a garbage pail.

An enemy Captain, bound for an interment camp, asked that his dog be taken care of. A dog of any country is still a dog, so the pup became mascot of the Royal Canadian Navy.

John Beer’s photo of Peetsa

Not long after when the ship was at a Canadian port, she was compared to the famous dog called Rin-tin-tin. An extraordinary chapter in the life of Peetsa brings forth the fact that she was born in Peru and her seven “babies” saw daylight when the ship touched Peru again for the first time since her arrival on board! A twenty-hour stoppage at that.

Peetsa shows her appreciation to the Canadians who adopted her by showing off a clever trick when asked – and by formally taking care of a white kitten that belonged to one of the messes. In the trick, her foster master Lieutenant William Gage places a package of cigarettes high on a shelf in the wardroom.

Peetsa is nonchalantly curled up in her chair. Suddenly Lt. Gage snaps “roust” and, in a flash, Peetsa is up over the obstacles and brings the packet, unharmed, back to her trainer. She has earned her spot on board.

Editor’s Note:

  • Thanks to Diane for connecting with us and adding more richness and insight into this piece of Canadian history. And who doesn’t like a happy story about a dog?!
  • Jessie Coade was the mother of Peter Coade, a retired meteorologist with CBC Radio One.

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The following is the story of HMCS Prince Henry and its WWII Adventure off Callao, Peru. It is also my father’s story. Dad served in the Royal Canadian Navy on Prince Henry for this operation and the photos he captured offer us a first-hand account of the events that took place off Callao. We incorporated some of these photos within the story and the full gallery is featured at the end. I am publishing this article to honour my father on the 100th anniversary of his birth, March 21st, 2017.

Prince Henry retrofitted in Sorel, Quebec – followed an icebreaker to make its way up St. Lawrence River to Halifax, December 1940

Prince Henry was a member of a fleet of warships known as “The Princes”. The other ships were Prince David and Prince Robert. The Princes were originally designed as small luxury liners to compete with CPR’s Princess ships on the West Coast, but when the Depression hit, they were not earning their keep. The Royal Canadian Navy acquired and retrofitted them to become arms merchant cruisers. Prince Henry was overhauled in Sorel, Quebec, and commissioned on December 4th, 1940.

John Beer and fellow seaman in Bermuda – February 1941

Prince Henry left Halifax on January 12th, 1941 for Bermuda. A stormy three-day passage introduced the crew to the ship’s quick rolling action and forced them to find their sea legs in a hurry. They arrived in Hamilton, Bermuda, for five intensive weeks of workups, exercises designed to prepare the crew for any possible emergency. Training included gunnery practices, a challenge due to Prince Henry‘s rolling tendency, making it increasingly difficult to hit targets in rough seas.

After receiving orders to support forces on the Eastern Pacific, Prince Henry left Bermuda on February 19th, arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, four days later. They replenished supplies, completed more training exercises and proceeded through the Panama Canal on February 26th.

The Allies were keen to protect the coveted Panama Canal territory from the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, hence their interest in moving Latin America away from its Axis ties. Peru, in a long dispute with Columbia over territory between Peru and Ecuador, saw the war as an opportunity to use their military forces to occupy the disputed region. The United States, which was gearing up for entry into the war, wanted an end to further conflicts in Latin America by forming alliances with new President Manuel Prado Ugarteche and the Peruvian Navy. Peru was the first country to be persuaded to break away from the Axis powers and create a firm alliance with Allies, specifically the US.

British Cruiser Diomede stationed off Callao, Peru, needed assistance to disrupt German merchant ships from leaving the port at Callao. Four German merchant ships, stranded there for over a year, were closely watched by Peruvian and Allied vessels. German seamen were desperate to return home. Japan was Germany’s Ally in the Pacific, so their most likely destination.

Peruvian General visiting Prince Henry while in port at Callao

Visiting Peruvian General onboard Prince Henry while in port at Callao, March 24, 1941

Prince Henry arrived in Callao on March 1st. On March 16th, Diomede was called away, so Prince Henry took over. For awhile they anchored close by the German ships in the Callao port while arranging courtesy calls with Peruvian officials. This opportunity gave them a chance to take a closer look. The German ships were fully fueled and recently wired to fire and destroy themselves in the event of being captured. The Germans didn’t want their large cargoes to fall into Peruvian hands.

German ships (München, Leipzig, Monserrate and Hermonthis) waiting for their escape off Callao, Peru, March 24, 1941.

After leaving port and waiting and watching a few miles offshore, Captain R.I. Agnew of Prince Henry decided to move out to sea to make the German captains believe they had given up. Ten days later, at 1915, on March 31st, Prince Henry‘s Captain received a message that the Hermonthis and München had requested permission to leave Callao port. Prince Henry was 70 miles south of Callao. It would take Prince Henry three hours at full speed to get back. They knew the German ships were slower, so the Canadian crew determined their exact course and speed to intercept them.

HMCS Prince Henry intercepts two German ships:

After eight hours, Prince Henry discovered München north of Callao within 15 miles. The crew of the München sighted Prince Henry and altered their course northward and then to the west. Prince Henry went in pursuit. At 0700 on April 1st, a critical strategic maneuver orchestrated by Prince Henry’s Captain Agnew moved them within 6 miles of the German ship. They flashed the international signal, “Stop instantly or I will open fire.” München ignored the warning. Prince Henry fired a warning shot. The Germans scuttled the München. Within moments, the ship was in a cloud of smoke and the crew could be seen lowering the life boats. By the time Prince Henry reached the ship, it was in flames and not salvageable.

German ship sighted, but it was already scuttled

German ship sighted, but it was already scuttled

With the German crew safe in their small boats and heading towards Peru, Prince Henry proceeded full speed southward in search of the other ship, Hermonthis. Four hours later, they saw German ship on the horizon to the southeast. The ship was already on fire and the crew was lowering boats to escape. Prince Henry drew alongside and lowered her cutter to round up one of the German boats.

It looked as though the ship could be saved. They ordered the Germans back on the ship to fight the blaze. Prince Henry secured herself to the side of the German ship. The Canadian crew attempted to extinguish the fire. The heat was intense.

After four hours, they succumbed to the realization that they were losing the battle. The sea was rough. The ships were smashing and grinding against each other and the hoses were breaking. Hermonthis could not be saved. The Prince Henry along with the first group of German prisoners went in search of the Germans in the other two life boats.

After the remaining German crew were brought onboard Prince Henry, they shot gunfire at the Hermonthis to sink her. They returned to the site of München to destroy her, but it had already been destroyed by a Peruvian cruiser that had also recovered the German crew.

German prisoner

German prisoner

In retaliation for the Germans scuttling their ships, the Peruvian government seized two Deutsche Lufthansa planes and property, an airline 100% German owned and operating in Peru. Consequently, Pan-American Grace Airlines (Panagra), which was closely collaborating with the US, increased flight services within Peru, driving out German air operations.

Intercepting two German ships in the Callao operation was considered Prince Henry‘s outstanding achievement. Their success was attributed not to luck but to solid strategy and the ability and skill to carry it out.

Return to British Columbia

Prince Henry patrolled for three more weeks off Peru before heading to Esquimalt, B.C. on April 29th to transfer her prisoners and replenish supplies. She was to join up with Prince David on duty but that ship was due for a retrofit. In September, 1941, Prince Henry was assigned duty of depot ship for Newfoundland Escort Force.

Back in PEI

John was back in PEI to spend Christmas with his family and girlfriend Hazel MacLean before beginning his assignment to Newfoundland. The year 1941 was an eventful one within the Pacific theatre of war for a farm boy from Bannockburn Road.

John Beer’s photo collection: Click on photos to enlarge and proceed through gallery. John’s service record and editor’s notes follow below gallery.

John Eugene Beer, R.C.N.V.R. – V1340, Able Seaman, service record:

  • John enlisted with the Royal Canadian Navy in August 1940 at the Queen Charlotte Armouries in Charlottetown.
  • Three days after enlisting he was sent to HMCS Stadacona Naval Base in Halifax for basic training.
  • Drafted to Montreal to pick up the HMCS Prince Henry destined for the Pacific Ocean by way of the Panama Canal. Her mission was to capture German ships off the coast of Callao, Peru.
  • Drafted to HMCS Naden, Esquimalt, British Columbia and then to HMCS Stadacona, Halifax. He was drafted to Greenock, Scotland, crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth I which transported over 15,000 troops per trip. He was stationed in Newcastle, England, where he participated in gunnery classes.
  • Drafted to the Tribal Class destroyer HMCS Athabaskan on loan to the Royal Navy. For several months, he served on the Athabaskan, working out of Scapa Flow in the North Sea. This vessel was on striking force naval duties around Iceland, Norway and the Bay of Biscay.
  • Left the Athabaskan in Plymouth, England, returning to HMCS Niobe, a naval base in Greenock, Scotland. On a later trip to sea, the HMCS Athabaskan was torpedoed and sunk in the Bay of Biscay where 128 sailors perished, and 85 were taken prisoner of war.
  • While in Scotland, John was drafted to the destroyer HMCS Qu’Appelle on convoy duties to Newfoundland. He was drafted off this ship at St. John’s, Newfoundland, for gate vessel duties and shore patrol. He was then drafted for further gate vessel duty to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
  • John received his discharge in October 1945 while in Esquimalt, British Columbia. He returned to Clyde River, Prince Edward Island, to his family and childhood sweetheart, Hazel MacLean. There were married on November 14th, 1945. He had purchased her diamond ring in St. John’s.

Editor’s notes:

There were four German ships in total at the port in Callao, Peru. Prince Henry intercepted München (location of capture here) and Hermonthis (location of capture here). A Peruvian warship prevented Leipzig and Monserrate from leaving port and they also scuttled their own ships.

Prince Henry stats: Pendant – F70; Armed Merchant Cruiser, Displacement – 5736 tonnes; length – 385 ft.; width – 57 ft; draught – 21 ft.; speed – 22 kts; compliment – 31 officers and 386 crew; arms – 4-4″ gns. (2×11), 2-2 pars, 8-20mm.

Materials referenced:

Photos: John Beer’s photos should not be copied without permission – please contact Vivian Beer – vivian@eastlink.ca

Reprinted: This story was also featured on the website For Posterity Sake, a Royal Canadian Navy Historical Project – story here and photos here.

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