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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

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. The 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

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Newspaper Clipping from My Mother’s Scrapbook: Argyle Shore residents were awakened from a sleepy winter 76 years ago this week when a plane force landed in the quiet community on Tuesday, February 18th, 1941. This article was submitted to The Charlottetown Guardian and published March 4th, but the author is not identified. We do, however, have a first-hand account from Linda (Inman) MacDonald who was walking home from school along with her sister on the day the plane came down. Her account follows the story.

A Forced Landing at Argyle Shore

(RCAF photo)

(RCAF photo – Harvard)

In some lives the knock of fate is forever sounding. This time it sounded on mine, in a high pitch one, concerning an R.C.A.F. “Harvard” plane which made a forced landing near the Straits on Tuesday afternoon, February 18th, 1941.

Flying blind in a snow squall, Pilot Lee of “Summerside Air Training School” saw it was useless to regain altitude, after he had come dangerously earthward, there he cleverly grounded his plane in Mr. James Ferguson’s field, suffering a broken propeller when the heavy wheels broke through the snow, thrusting the plane on its nose.

The training school was immediately notified of the misfortune and sent out a helper plane which was found of no value being unable to land without damage. Pilot Lee then made connection with the Bombing and Gunnery School at West Royalty, explaining his plight 18 miles west of Charlottetown on the south coast of PEI.

Flying Officer Lewis and four mechanics then set out for Argyle Shore, and after a thrilling and adventurous sleigh drive under the guidance of Mr. Mathewson, all arrived safely on 3:30 a.m. Wednesday.

It is to be understood sleigh driving is a new and interesting exploit for English airmen; so for PEI Islanders, we can hardly catch the spirit of the adventure.

As nothing definite could be accomplished until daylight, Lewis stationed the men on half-hour watches to guard the ship, while the remainder partook of the cordial hospitality of Mr. Fred MacPhail, Mr. James Ferguson and Mrs. John MacPhail.

Wednesday brought new developments. Mr. Fred MacPhail retraced Mathewson’s 18 mile journey to Charlottetown for a new propeller; the old one was damaged beyond repair. During his absence, Mr. Earl Cook, under the direction of the aircraft men, forwarded eight “Shore” residents in attempting to move the plane out on the “broad-ice” of the Northumberland Strait.

J.A. McDougall, Murchison Sellar, Neil MacPhail and Waldron Sellar then began the strenuous work of rolling the plane to a suitable takeoff position. A considerable amount of snow was evacuated, wooden rollers were used on the forepart of the plane, whilst Mr. Sellar employed a wood sleigh as a means of sliding the tail portion.

In the interim, Fred McPhail had stayed Wednesday night at this brothers in Cornwall, on his return with the propeller. He was accompanied by Flying Officer Norton. The cargo arrived Thursday (2:30) where repair work was begun immediately.

Some time passed during which I have learned, began the battle between snow and plane. When nearing completion on Friday afternoon (3:30) Flying Officer Webster arrived by plane from Summerside for the purpose of flying the Harvard back to school not knowing this mission was apportioned to Flying Officer Norton.

The brother plan brought a large gathering, who witnessed with some regret the take-off of the newly arrived plane and the crippled ship (Friday 4:10).

This last act practically points the end, yet I must not overlook the fictitious. The airmen are all that is left and now that they have fulfilled their mission they await depot transportation.

In the meantime plans were running high concerning a party to be held at a nearby district that (Friday) night; when like a bolt from the blue shot a winged bird (which spelled disaster to their party) in the form of a plane piloted by Mr. Carl Burke, whose mission was to convey the remaining airmen back to the school. This being so unexpected, the airmen left with secret regret and the residents of the “Shore” considerably disappointed over their sudden departure.

At 5:30 p.m., Mr. Burke glided over the peaceful landscape. Scarcely had the hum of the motor died on the evening air; when, like an aftermath, we saw Mr. Mathewson arriving by sleigh with another Flying Officer whose intention it was to drive the crippled plane which long since had departed.

During the week of “Plane-thinking,” Argyle Shore learned a great deal about aeronautics and served their country with “John Milton’s” patriotism: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Linda MacDonald’s first-hand account:

My sister and I were walking home from school that day when we saw a plane flying low and landing to our left over Jim Ferguson’s field, between the school and the Argyle Shore Cemetery. We hardly ever walked home from school, but we did for some reason on that particular day. I was 11 years old and my sister, 7 years old. My sister was crying, and, as her bigger sister, I was trying to be calm, but I was terribly frightened as well. I could hear other kids coming from school also crying in the distance. You see, the war was on and we didn’t get much news about the war, only a bit in the newspaper or on the evening radio broadcast. So we thought for sure the Germans were landing. Up until that day, when we thought of the war in Britain and Germany, we considered it to be very far away. I recall the pilot staying at Jim Ferguson’s, Fred MacPhail going to town to get a part for the plane and Carl Burke flying out to the shore, but my strongest memory was how frightened my sister and I were when that plane came down and the prospect of what could be happening to our lives on that walk home from school. It was a big event for Argyle Shore.

Editor’s Notes:

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