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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015




HMCS Fergus escorted Atlantic convoys in WWII

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

 

The battle for control of the North Atlantic was a key for the Allied victory in the Second World War.

In the early years of the war German U-boats took a frightful toll on vital shipments of arms and supplies to Great Britain. Over time, the Allies developed better methods for defending convoys. An important part of the strategy was the deployment of corvettes.

The corvette, a small, quick and manoeuvrable vessel, was constructed in large numbers specifically for North Atlantic escort duty. The Canadian government followed a policy of naming the vessels after cities and towns, and encouraging the municipalities to “adopt” their corvette.

This was a morale-building policy, and a very effective one. It gave individual communities a particular and tangible stake in the war effort, and it provided the crews, which came from all over the country, with a common link to a group of civilians.

Most of the corvettes were named for larger places, such as the H.M.C.S. Guelph and H.M.C.S. Brantford. The government included some smaller places on the list, and among them was Fergus.

R.W. Gladstone, M.P. advised Fergus Reeve Joe Woods in March 1944 that Fergus was to have a corvette named for the town. Construction of the vessel had already begun at the Collingwood Shipyards. Gladstone encouraged the reeve to adopt the ship. This meant that Fergus people would supply luxury and recreational items for members of the crew.

Reeve Woods and Fergus council backed the idea enthusiastically. In early June 1944 they appointed a committee to look after the project. The group included Mrs. J.M. Imlah, Mrs. J. Flannery, Bill Moulton, Fred Pearse, J.J. Rutherford, and Hugh Templin. As editor of the News Record, Templin played a key role in building enthusiasm for the project. He ran stories virtually every week for the rest of 1944.

At the time it was expected that the vessel would be completed by September. The committee became active at once. Council started the pot with a $300 donation, and by the end of June more than $700 had been raised, plus a number of gifts such as cribbage boards, books, and records.

The committee supplied wool to those willing to knit mitts and stockings. Most of the local service clubs supported the committee by holding fundraising events. Beatty Bros. employees raised $385, and that amount was matched by the company. The Beatty firm also supplied a special washing machine for the ship. On seeing it, the government decided to equip all future vessels with similar machines.

Ultimately, the committee raised some $3,000 (equal to about $50,000 in 2017), plus numerous gifts of merchandise. This was a considerable achievement for Fergus, with a population at the time of 2,800, and the competition of a Victory Bond drive for money.

Labour shortages delayed completion of the H.M.C.S. Fergus until November 1944. On the 14th of that month a delegation from Fergus, consisting of Reeve Woods, councillors J.M. Milligan and A.O. Hutchinson, with photographer Bill Golightly and editor Templin, went to Collingwood for the first trial runs of the ship on Georgian Bay.

By this time the government had eased security precautions considerably, and these civilians were given the freedom to examine everything on the ship, including some new developments in armaments. According to Templin, the ship equalled or bettered all specifications.

The Fergus group met the seven officers of the ship, under the command of Lt. H.F. Farncomb of London. By coincidence, one Fergus man was among them: Lt. Lorne Simpson. The rest of the crew, some 89 men, were not yet assigned.

Lt. Farncomb visited Fergus and committee members the following Saturday to make arrangements for the dedication and commissioning of the ship, which was scheduled for a week later (Nov. 25) at Toronto.

During the next few days Fergus pride reached a peak. Dozens of people made plans to attend the ceremony. The committee arranged for extra coaches on Canadian National’s morning train to Toronto, and loaded up the various gifts and donations in a truck. Others made arrangements to go by car pool, and a special bus was chartered as well.

More than 300 Fergus natives attended the brief but dignified ceremony, held on the deck of the ship. Some of these were living in Toronto at the time, but even so about 10% of the town’s population made the trip.

The band of the M.M.C.S. York provided music. Padre W.A. Young led a prayer, and Father V.N. Shea of Elora blessed the ship and crew. Reeve Woods offered the best wishes of the people of Fergus, and Lt. Farncomb thanked the people of Fergus for their generous gifts. The crew then offered tours of the ship, and the officers spread out a lunch for their visitors.

There were other dedication ceremonies taking place at the same time, but none  attracted as large a crowd as the H.M.C.S. Fergus. Even the Toronto papers were impressed: all three of them ran photographs and stories about the Fergus delegation and the “adoption” of their ship.

Following the ceremony, the H.M.C.S. Fergus spent a couple of days conducting gun trials on Lake Ontario, with several Fergus visitors on board. The Fergus then headed for salt water. Next were some trial runs between Halifax and Bermuda. Lt. Farncomb cabled Christmas greetings to Fergus before the ship entered convoy service.

During the first five months of 1945 the H.M.C.S. Fergus escorted three convoys across the Atlantic. The first went by a northern route to the Irish Sea and Scottish ports. The second went by a southern route to the Azores and the English Channel, and the third followed a similar route, though not as far south.

The ship was in mid-Atlantic returning to Canada when the war in Europe ended. There was no more submarine threat on the Atlantic, so its convoy career was over. Naval commanders assigned a few corvettes to the Pacific, but did not consider their range sufficient for duty there in large numbers. The people of Fergus were astonished to learn in June 1945 that the H.M.C.S. Fergus was to be scrapped.

As events had turned out, the Fergus was the last corvette built at Collingwood, and had the most modern equipment. It therefore seemed a likely candidate to be part of Canada’s peacetime naval force. Nevertheless, the government proceeded with its plans. The vessel was decommissioned at Quebec City in July 1945, not quite eight months after going into service.

By the end of the month it was lined up at the Sorel shipyards with 58 other corvettes and 49 Fairmile motor launches awaiting scrapping. During its service life the ship had travelled only 27,000 miles. It’s cost, reportedly, had been $800,000 (about $11,000,000 in 2017). It never sank a submarine, but had been in a convoy that was attacked.

Even though its eventual fate is a lesson in the cost and wastefulness of war, the H.M.C.S. Fergus was a necessary component in assuring the safe transport of wartime goods across the Atlantic. The vessel focussed the civilian war effort in Fergus, and the vessel still holds an important place in the collective memory of the town.

The “adoption” of the H.M.C.S. Fergus has been continued by the Fergus Legion. The Branch has a number of artifacts relating to the ship, including a scrapbook, the dedication plaque, and the ship’s bell.

The collection is growing. E.J. Graham of Napanee donated the ship’s bible in 1992, and two years later Brian Sells of Iroquois Falls donated one of the ship’s flags, which had been stolen by a comrade in Halifax in 1945.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Nov. 8, 1995.

 

Vol 50 Issue 34

 
 

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