When Burlingtonians gather at the cenotaph on Nov. 11 to remember their war dead, they’ll also be thankful for the lives saved by the crew of a ship that bore the city’s name.
HMCS Burlington, a Bangor class minesweeper, was dedicated on Sept. 10, 1941. The dedication at the waterfront of Lakeside Park (now Spencer Smith Park) took place just one day before U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, wearing a black arm band, accused the Germans of firing on the American destroyer Greer in one of his famous Fireside Chat radio broadcasts. It was the first time a U.S. ship had been fired at since the war began in 1939.
Although the United States was still officially a neutral country, Roosevelt unofficially declared war on anyone who further attacked American vessels in the North Atlantic. Less than three months later, the U.S. joined the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
Ironically, the dedication also occurred 60 years to the day of the eve of the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, a stern reminder that the world is not yet rid of political aggression.
Speaking during a dinner at The Estaminet restaurant later that night in 1941 Angus MacDonald, Minister of National Defence and Naval Affairs, noted Sept 10 also was the second anniversary of Canada’s entry into the war.
MacDonald, accompanied by Burlington MP Hughes Cleaver, had traveled to Burlington from Toronto aboard the brand new minesweeper. Cleaver himself had served in the First Canadian Tank Battalion during the First World War.
Burlington was just a town of 3,800 at the time. Citizens of Burlington adopted the vessel, at the same time other municipalities adopted ships in the Canadian Navy.
Led by the Burlington Band, school children paraded down Brant Street to the waterfront, where a host of local dignitaries including Mayor Gordon Blair and Councillor John Wilkinson, who organized the day’s events, took a motor launch out to the ship to meet Lieutenant-Commander W.J. Fricker and bring him into shore.
While 1,500 children sang O Canada, Norm Marshall reported from the waterfront for listeners of radio station CHML.
A young girl presented a white silk ensign to Lieutenant Commander Fricker. It was a gift from the women of the town.
Children of the town presented radio receiving sets to officers of the ship. All of those who attended received yellow ribbons with the date of the ceremony and name of the ship printed in blue.
The ship bore the coat of arms of the town, which had been designed by Ariel Cleaver, the wife of Burlington MP Hughes Cleaver.
Afterwards, sailors and townspeople enjoyed a night of dancing and bingo on Brant Street.
The Burlington Gazette of the day reported that Spencer Smith and his crew had the park which would one day bear his name in tip-top shape.
Joseph P. Kearney’s book ‘HMCS Burlington: Story of the Ship’ records that The Burlington assisted the merchant ship SS Cyclops, which had been hit by two torpedoes in January of 1942 and was sinking south of Halifax. With the help of her sister ship, HMCS Red Deer, the crew of the Burlington were able to rescue 93 of the 181 people aboard Cyclops.
Carrying a cargo of 9,000 tons of high test gasoline, the Dutch tanker Ocana was torpedoed in March of 1942 just off the coast of Shelburne Nova Scotia. The Burlington prevented further attack from U-boats in the area and even tried to tow the damaged tanker.
During the spring and summer of 1942 the Burlington patrolled the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River, where the number of sinkings was making the waters increasingly dangerous.
Placing themselves in great danger, the Burlington’s crew took the British Navy trawler Campobello in tow and brought her safely into port at Chandler, Quebec. The Burlington had been damaged when it collided with Campobello while the crew tried to put a line aboard it.
While most Canadians were enjoying dinner and exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve of 1944, the Burlington and corvette HMCS Fennel left Halifax escorting a convoy when crew noticed an explosion at the stern of the Bangor class minesweeper, Clayoquot, which had been struck by an acoustic torpedo.
Under orders from the Fennel, the Burlington then quickly escorted a passenger ship SS Lady Rodney safely back into the harbor at Halifax before more lives were lost.
Written by: Denis Gibbons