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“I Will Never Forget the Sound of those Engines Going Away”: A Re-Examination of the Sinking of HMCS Athabaskan, 29 April 1944
On the morning of 29 April 1944 the Canadian Tribal Class Destroyer HMCS Athabaskan was sunk in the English Channel after an engagement with the German Elbing Class Destroyers T-24 and T-27. The official explanation from the “inquiry into the Loss of HMCS Athabaskan” claimed that Athabaskan sank because of two explosions, the first at 0417 hours, and the second at 0427 hours. The first explosion was attributed to a torpedo from T-24. The second explosion was believed to have occurred when fuel fires, caused by the first explosion, ignited the 4-inch magazine. While this may seem simple and complete, an examination of the source material reveals that there is much confusion as to the actual chain of events. This confusion is focused on the cause of the second explosion. Eyewitness accounts have Athabaskan being torpedoed twice on the port side. This explanation seems to have been discounted by the Board. Then there are Athabaskan and Haida’s reports of “three echoes” being seen on the radar and Commander DeWolf’s assertion that German E-boats were involved. This assertion became the basis for Len Burrow and Emile Beaudoin’s book Unlucky Lady: The Life and Death of HMCS Athabaskan. Yet this book raises more questions than it answers. The E-boat mystery has been put to rest by Michael Whitby, in his article “‘Fooling Around The French Coast’: RCN Tribal Class Destroyers in Action, April 1944.” He cites the German record of the action and states that the only German vessels involved were T-24 and T-27. This has resulted in the British inquiry being deemed officially correct, with credit for the sinking being attributed to T-24. Yet this confusion is compounded by the statement in the inquiry’s report that the members of the board: “did not consider [whether] any other ships were present.” This is a curious statement. It is quite likely that another ship was indeed present. Unfortunately, it may have been the British Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) 677 (commanded by Lieutenant A. Clayton, RNVR).
All reconstructions of the action on 29 April 1944 have centred on the movements of Haida and Athabaskan beginning at 0400 hours. Yet the actions of all of the other participants must be reviewed to fully understand the situation. The movements of the other forces have, to date, been ignored. When the positions of the Tribals, the minelayers and the MTB’s are plotted together, the inferences become astounding.
Dixon, Peter A. "“I Will Never Forget the Sound of those Engines Going Away”: A Re-Examination of the Sinking of HMCS Athabaskan, 29 April 1944." Canadian Military History 5, 1 (1996)