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The Destruction of the HMCS Fraser 

Robert Wigmore of Digby, N.S. was only a teenager when he joined the Royal Canadian Navy at the start of the Second World War, but in the early months of his duty as Ordinary Seaman on the HMCS Restigouche he was involved in the rescue of fellow Canadians from the ill fated HMCS Fraser which was destroyed following a collision with the HMS Calcutta off the mouth of the Gironde River, near Bordeaux, France on June 25, 1940.

On September 1, 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy was placed on active service, with its main duty during the early months of the war being to protect and escort convoys across the Atlantic.

Bob Wigmore (left) chats with Commander Vilnus Auns of the HMCS Fraser II during a visit to Digby

On May 24, 1940, Wigmore was onboard the Restigouche which had been slated to go to the West Indies to relieve the HMCS Fraser which had been dispatched for local defense in Bermuda. After they pulled out to sea, they received new orders leading them to Europe to assist in the defense of the United Kingdom, for the German Blitzkrieg had struck in France on May 23, 1940. The HMC Ships Restigouche, St. Laurant and Skeena were then rerouted towards England, while the HMCS Fraser was dispatched from the West Indies, and also routed towards England.

The destroyers pulled anti-invasion patrol along the channel. The Restigouche was sent to St. Valery-en-Caux to evacuate the 51st Division of the British Army which was surrounded by the enemy.

The Restigouche was moving closely along the shore in an attempt to rescue the British division when the German onshore battery opened fire on them. Wigmore said the German 88 Artillery straddled the Restigouche with the very first shot. Restigouche Commander, Horatio Nelson, returned the enemy fire and worried that the Restigouche was well within range. But they never reached the 51st Division.  

The HMCS Fraser was dispatched to St. Jean de Luz near the Spanish border in an attempt to pick up refugees trying to escape France in the face of the swiftly advancing German forces.

Orders were then received for the HMCS Fraser and Restigouche as well as the HMS Calcutta to head to Bordeaux up the Gironde River to rescue more refugees.

They never made it.

On this dark night of June 25, 1940, Wigmore said the three vessels were proceeding along their course without the use of lighting which might have given away their presence to the enemy. The Fraser’s position was approximately a mile and one half in front of the Calcutta and slightly off to the starboard (right) bow. The Restigouche followed behind and off to the port (left) side of the Calcutta.

The commander of the HMCS Fraser ordered a turn to port with his intention being to bring the ship around passing along the Calcutta’s starboard side and take its station at the stern.

Observing the Fraser’s initial turn, the Calcutta assumed the destroyer was intending to cross her bows and pass down the cruiser’s port side and therefore maneuvered a starboard turn, placing the cruiser on a collision course with the intended path of the HMCS Fraser. The poor visibility allowed only for very limited reaction time to the impending collision.

Ordinary Seaman Wigmore was on watch duty aboard the Restigouche on the quarter deck at the depth charge rails when suddenly out of the blackness of the night came what he described as a loud, rending noise.

At 2220 hours the bow of the Calcutta sliced through the Fraser’s forward deck.

On board the Restigouche the crew received word that the Fraser had been rammed, cutting its deck in two sections dumping some of the men into the heavy seas. Action was immediate from the Restigouche as the destroyer’s whalers and carley floats were launched to the rescue of her sister ship.

Ordinary Seaman Wigmore was one of the six crew on the first whaler which set out in search of the Fraser’s survivors in the swollen seas slicked with oil from the ruptured Fraser.

With a Lieutenant Groos in charge of the whaler, they made their way closer to the scene of the disaster, rowers working two on one side and three on the other. Wigmore said there was very little panic during the rescue operation. He said he could hear survivors aboard the still floating part of the Fraser singing and the whalers approached.

There were between 40 and 50 men from the Fraser pitched into the sea, when bow capsized, but the rear section of the Fraser stayed a float. Many of these crew members were able to jump to their rescuers.

In the meantime, the first whaler had managed to pluck 25 survivors from the rough seas and returned to the Restigouche with the boat's capacity of 27 overloaded by survivors.

However as they approached the Restigouche with the survivors, the whaler was suddenly swamped as the ship’s propeller pulled the whaler into its wake and all in it were again pitched into the inky blackness of the swollen sea.

A number of these were drowned including Wigmore’s fellow crewmember, Able Seaman, George “Scotty” Burnfield of Victoria , B.C. who had only moments before been seated next to him, Wigmore remembered in horror.

All during the rescue, all of the vessel's lights were kept on, including the search lights. They fully expected to be attacked at any moment by enemy submarines or aircraft, but not one light was dimmed. The lights not only helped the rescuers ascertain the position of survivors, but gave courage to those who waited in the inky waters to be rescued.

Forty five members of the HMCS Fraser died that night but another 118 were saved due to the efforts of the crew of the HMCS Restigouche. The remnants of the Fraser were then scuttled after important papers and salvageable equipment were removed.

Unfortunately, many of the survivors of the HMCS Fraser who had been transferred aboard Fraser’s replacement HMCS Margaree were lost in October of 1940 when it collided with the freighter Port Fairy.

Ordinary Seaman Wigmore was among those honoured for his efforts in the rescue of the survivors. Wigmore served a total of 24 years in the navy eventually becoming an RCN Chief Diver.

The recently commissioned HMCS Fraser on May 12, 1937 on the Fraser River, British Columbia.

Photo courtesy of Allan Blair
Curatorial Assistant
Irving House Historic Centre and New Westminster Museum Archives,
New Westminster, British Columbia

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