HMCS Skeena

HMCS Skeena

Happy New Year! This one is a little bit of a throwback. In 2014 I went to Iceland on vacation with my then girlfriend. We took a ferry out to the island of Vi∂ey for a day-trip. Vi∂ey is a small, very green island just outside of the capital city of Reykjavik. It was a very interesting island, with quite a bit of history for being so small. For this post I will be focusing on one landmark and its tragic history, though I will likely come revisit the island with another post or two at some point. These throwback posts are good for when the weather is a bit wintery and less DSLR camera friendly.

The story of the ship that came to be known as “the grand old lady of the Canadian Navy” (Hamilton Spectator, May 16, 1945) begins in Portsmouth, England where she was laid down for construction by the Thornycraft Shipbuilding Yards on October 14, 1929. She was launched almost exactly year later on October 10, 1930 and then commissioned as a vessel of the Royal Canadian Navy on June 10, 1931 (For Posterity’s Sake).

The Skeena and her sister ship Saguenay, both River-class destroyers, were the first vessels to be purpose-built for the RCN as opposed to being the used equipment of the British Navy (Cobourg History).

H.M.C.S. "Saguenay" at Montreal, P.Q., 1934.
H.M.C.S. “Saguenay” at Montreal, P.Q., 1934. (Clifford M. Johnston / Library and Archives Canada / PA-056756)

In January of 1932 the Skeena and her crew found themselves in a peculiar situation. Along with HMCS Vancouver, the Skeena acted as naval backup for British civilians and attaches caught in the midst of a burgeoning revolt in El Salvador. They held fast in the harbour of the capital until a landing party made up of the armed sailors and officers from the Skeena went ashore, not once but twice. Fortunately neither the vessels nor the landing party became involved in armed conflict, and remained until after American reinforcements arrived.  As it turned out, this was to be the the first armed landing of Canadians on foreign territory (Radio Canada International).

Skeena served for Canada in the Second World War as an accomplished naval escort, and submarine killer. On July 31, 1942, HMCS Skeena and HMCS Wetaskiwin were credited with destroying German U-Boat U588 with depth charges while defending the ships of convoy ON 115 ( Skeena also participated in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, and was attacked by U-Boat U-953 on June 8, 1944 but received no damage (For Posterity’s Sake).

As a bit of historical context, in 1940 neutral Iceland was technically invaded by the United Kingdom to thwart any attempts by Hitler to invade Iceland first and possibly use it as a staging point for a possible invasion against Great Britain. In 1941 the United States of America took over occupation of the country.

Skeena was again tasked as part of an anti-submarine patrol off the Southern coast of Iceland, and in a raging “60-knot gale” (Hamilton Spectator, May 16, 1945) storm on October 25, the destroyer was ordered to take refuge and drop anchor between the islands of Engey and Vi∂ey (Cobourg History). Unfortunately, the unstable volcanic ash of the seafloor allowed the anchor to drag, and the Skeena drifted away into the darkness.

HMCS Skeena.
HMCS Skeena, [between 1939 and 1945]. (Credit to Urriðafoss II of
HMCS Skeena was then suddenly pushed onto the rocks of the shore of Vi∂ey, caught between the huge and unrelenting waves of the storm and the jagged volcanic rocks. It was at this point that the order to abandon ship was given, and three simple life rafts known as Carley floats were lowered into the cold water, which was being mixed with the damaged vessel’s leaking fuel oil. The order to abandon ship was quickly rescinded, but the fate of the men adrift on the life boats was sealed. Most of the unfortunate souls would end up either drowning or freezing to death from exposure, with few making it ashore. All told, 15 men would be lost (Cobourg History).

*Edit* Thanks to John Broomer for pointing out that there was never not an order to abandon ship, and that when the order was briefly given, the men aboard were organized and not panicked as previously indicated. 

In the morning, a rescue party led by Icelander Einar Sigurdsson would save the beleaguered sailors and officers still aboard the Skeena. Using a throwline that was fired from the shore, all of the men were brought to the safety of the island. A funeral service was held three days later at the Fossvogur Cemetery in Reykjavik, where the deceased lie today (Cobourg History).

Skeena would be deemed unsalvageable due to inclement weather, and was eventually sold to an Icelandic company in June 1945 to then be broken up for scrap metal (For Posterity’s Sake).

HMCS Skeena aground at Viðey Island
HMCS Skeena aground at Viðey Island, [1944 or 1945]. (Credit to tormentor4555,
Below are the memorial and information plaques telling of the tragedy of the Skeena on Vi∂ey Island, Iceland. The propellor of the Skeena, seen in the featured image at the top of the page, was recovered and used as part of the memorial.

The following two photos show how the area where the Skeena met her tragic fate looked 70 years later.

The cross that marks the graves of HMCS Skenna’s’s dead in Fossaberg Cemetery – Fossaberg, Iceland – December 1945.
(Crow’s Nest newspaper – Aug 1945, For Posterity’s Sake)

Thanks for checking out this post, and stay tuned for more.


Hamilton Spectator. “Reveal Destroyer Skeena Destroyed in Fierce Gale.” May 16, 1945.

“HMCS SKEENA H01 / D59 / I59.” For Posterity’s Sake. (accessed December 29, 2017.)

Lieutenant Chris Barker, CD. “HMCS Skeena.” Cobourg History. (accessed November 5, 2017).

Marc Montgomery. “Canada history: Jan 23, 1932 When our Navy (sort of) invaded tiny El Salvador.” Radio Canada International. (accessed December 29, 2017.)

“ON-115.” (accessed December 29, 2017).

5 comments on “HMCS Skeena

  1. Hi there, I can see my grandfather in the photo of the ships compliment. Is there a way I could get a hi-res copy?

  2. My father survived the wrecking of the Skeena. I’ve also had the opportunity to speak to another survivor. I don’t appreciate your comment about panic resulting in sailors taking it upon themselves to launch the Carley floats. The evacuation of the ship was undertaken under orders of the commanding officer, not some random act. It was only after witnessing the futility of using the floats that they stopped sending men over the side. The survivor that I spoke with told my mother and I that when they stopped, he was only a few spots from the front of the line and otherwise would likely have perished. My father told me that the gale was creating 50’ waves, which to put in perspective, is approximately from the top of the black waterline band on the hull to the top of the forward funnel. This all happening in darkness, as you mention.

    • Sean Post Author

      Hi John, thanks for your comment.

      I totally agree with you. In hindsight, it was probably the wrong move to assume that there would have been panic given the the training of the men. Also, one of the sources that I used seemed to indicate that some of the men had assumed (correctly) that there was an order to abandon ship, but not explicitly stating that they had received it. This led me to write that they took it upon themselves due to the chaotic conditions they were experiencing in that moment. This seemed believable to me at the time, but in hindsight doesn’t seem right at all. Regardless, I’ve made changes to those parts.

      If you have any other comments or interesting information, feel free to share. Cheers!

  3. the photo of four sailors with arms around each other, second from left is William Belling, “Shorty” my grandfather

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