This past Saturday, April 30, marked the launch of one of Dundurn’s most recent and promising titles: Warships of the Bay of Quinte. Accordingly, author Roger Litwiller arrived in Picton, Ontario, to discuss the history of various warships named in honour of the Quinte area. In case you missed the event - or even if you didn’t! – here is some intriguing insight into the inspiration behind the book and what it’s really all about.
Tell us about your book.
Warships of the Bay of Quinte is the story of six of Canada’s warships. The ships are HMCS Belleville, HMCS Hallowell, HMCS Napanee, HMCS Quinte (I), HMCS Quinte (II), and HMCS Trentonian. Each of these ships served in the Royal Canadian Navy and range in size from minesweepers, corvettes, and a frigate. Collectively they represent the history of Canada’s Navy from the dark, early days of WWII to the height of the Cold War, spanning 25 years of service.
On the surface most readers may think this is a book of local interest only, but if you read the stories you will quickly realize the only local connection with the ships is in the names. The Canadian Navy has a history of naming their ships after communities. The stories and the service of the ships are of national interest; the men that served in these ships came from every province in the country.
Each ship has its own chapter, and the story of the ship begins with the construction, support of the community, and the life of the ship while it was in service.
The corvette Napanee took part in one of the worst convoy battles in the Second World War, battling a U-Boat wolf pack that outnumbered the escorts by 4 to 1. She is also credited with sinking two German U-boats.
The corvette Belleville was constructed late in the war and saved a large merchant ship after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. After the war Belleville went on to serve in the Dominican Navy until the 1970s.
The frigate Hallowell was also built late in the war and successfully escorted many convoys across the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of the war she escorted the surrendered German U-boat U-190. After the war Hallowell was sold and eventually became one of the first ships of the Israeli Navy, fighting in the Sinai War.
The Bangor class minesweeper Quinte (I) entered service early in WWII. Built on Canada’s west coast and having served on the east coast, she rescued a grounded British Aircraft carrier in the Caribbean and escorted many convoys. Because of a series of unfortunate events, she was accidentally grounded on a rock off Cape Breton and slowly sank on a beach. She was refloated and brought to the St. Peter’s Canal, where she has the dubious distinction to be the only Canadian warship to sink twice in 10 days, since she then rolled on her side and sank for a second time. Quinte was eventually refloated and repaired, and still finished the war as an active warship.
The second Quinte (II) was also a minesweeper, a Bay class built in the early 1950s. She served during the Cold War and, like the rest of Canada’s east coast fleet, went to active service during the Cuban Missile Crisis, protecting the east coast ports and patrolling the North Atlantic for Russian submarines.
Trentonian, also a corvette, had the shortest career of these ships with only 15 months in service. During this time she rescued a damaged British submarine, escorted convoys, played an active part in the Normandy Invasion and faced a deadly accidental attack by the American Navy. She is the only ship in this book that did not return to Canada as she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, with six of her crew killed.
The stories of these ships are told from the official records as well as personal interviews with the crews. The information has been collected from national and local archives, including newspapers and letters. Also, to give a rich visual history, there are over 130 photographs, maps and charts, allowing the reader to not only read the story but visualize the history as well.
What inspired you to write your first book?
I have always had an interest in history, especially Canadian history. Even in school I noticed a real lack of Canadian history; we would learn a great deal of American history and ancient history, but very little of our own. I always struggled in history class because what we were taught involved a great deal of memorizing dates, times, places, events, etc… Boring!!!! In grade 10, I was fortunate to have a teacher for our history class that was an exception to the norm. He was a Korean Veteran and taught his classes as if it was story time. He told the stories and then the dates, times, places, and events fell into place. He would get us excited about what was happening and we then learned when it happened.
I have realized that most of us know the stories of the ancient Pharaohs, Greeks, and the Romans. We know a great deal of the Middle Ages with King Henry and his wives. The reason is that we tell stories of Hercules, Caesar, Cleopatra, Troy, Spartacus, etc. These stories capture our interest and imaginations and have lived through the ages. We need to tell our own stories the same way. We need to stop lecturing history and start telling our story. This is how I have tried to write.
My interest in Canada’s Navy began on a family trip in 1976. Coming from Kitchener in Southern Ontario, I had no knowledge of our Navy. That summer we passed through Kingston, Ontario, just after the Olympics. The Summer Olympics that year were in Montreal, but the sailing regattas were held in Kingston at the newly constructed Olympic Harbour. Although the Olympics were over, the activities in Kingston were just winding down and we could still see the many fleets of sail boats. Part of the protection and security for the sailing was three of Canada’s destroyers. These three ships were tied up to the jetty at the Kingston Marine Museum and we stopped to look at them. These ships were magnificent, unlike anything I had ever seen. Their sleek, rounded hulls looked fast and the guns and helicopters were intimidating. I wanted to see and know more.
When we returned home, I went to the public library to find books on Canada’s Navy. To my disappointment I found only one: Canada’s Fighting Ships by Ken Macpherson, an excellent book but the only book available to me.
The next year, as soon as I turned 13, I joined the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets in Kitchener, RCSCC Warspite. I spent the next six years with sea cadets and was very fortunate to have many wonderful experiences. At 19 I became an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve. In a lot of ways my time as a sea cadet and a naval officer has helped me grow into the person I am today.
On Remembrance Day and Battle of Atlantic Sundays we would be invited to the Naval Association in Kitchener after the parades, and I would listen to the naval veterans tell their stories. Their stories were always more interesting than the history books. When I would read the history books, I could picture the stories told to me by these men and suddenly the history took on a new perspective, full of color and excitement. History came alive.
Years later I became a cadet officer for the Navy League of Canada with a new cadet corps in Trenton, Ontario. The corps was named after one of our corvettes named for the city, HMCS Trentonian. Eventually I became the commanding officer of the corps and I wanted to find a veteran of the ship to come and speak to the cadets so they could learn the history of their namesake. This took several years as so many of our veterans have passed away. When I did find one, Bruce Kier from Scarborough, Ontario, he passed onto me several stories of the ship that were not in the history books.
I decided the story of Trentonian was much more than could be covered in just a few pages to teach cadets and was considerably more than was told in the few paragraphs recorded in the history books. So, my quest began. After several years of research and trying to get the interest of publishers, I realized that as an unpublished author, to walk into a publisher’s office with a large manuscript and introduce myself, and ask them to publish my work without any background or experience in writing of my own, was proving to be an impossible task. I had several newspaper articles published already, so I started to write freelance articles for magazines and started writing a smaller book.
This smaller book, Warships of the Bay of Quinte, will be a stepping stone to allow me to write more of Canada’s naval history.
How did you research your book?
To write Warships of the Bay of Quinte, I decided I did not want to tell the same dreary, fact-ridden story of the standard history book. I wanted to tell the story of the ships and the men with the same enthusiasm of the veterans who served in these ships.
The history of each ship is there, accurate as the official records in the Library and Archives Canada and the Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Heritage can make it. I then spent time researching the local archives of the communities that the ships were named for, gathering newspaper clippings, pictures, stories, letters, and interviews. I also researched the companies and communities where the ships were built.
Together all this research has provided a historically accurate history of the ship, combined with the life of each ship.
What was your first publication? Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.
One of the first articles I had published was a freelance article in the local newspaper in Trenton, Ontario. It was printed just before the Battle of Atlantic Remembrance Sunday in May. I gave an overview of why it is important to honour the men and women who served our country at sea and the accomplishments and sacrifices that our Navy made during the longest battle in the history of man.
The newspaper is released at 2 pm on Fridays and within 15 minutes my phone was ringing. When I answered, an obviously older voice asked for me, and when I replied this gentleman’s next statement was, “You don’t know what the @#&! you’re talking about!” Following my surprise, I asked him to explain the problem. He informed me my article was completely wrong and that I should not write unless I was going to get it right. My article listed that the first convoy to leave Canada took place in September 1939 when the first convoy actually left in December, and he knows this for a fact because he was in that December convoy. I then asked him if he was talking about the first troop convoy to leave Canada and if he had served in the Army. He replied that he served in the Army and the first convoy to leave Halifax was in December. I explained to him that we were both correct: the first troop convoy left in December, but the first convoy of merchant ships left Halifax within days of war being declared in September. His only reply was, “Fine then,” and he hung up.
This gentleman never introduced himself and I have no idea who I was talking to, but I learned a very valuable lesson: be absolutely sure of your facts and ensure that when you tell a story, to make sure it is correct, because ultimately you will have to answer to someone who was there.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
As Commanding Officer of the Navy League Corps, I had met Mac Johnson, author of Corvettes Canada and editor of the Legion Magazine, and invited him to be the guest of honour at our annual naval mess dinner. A few years later, when I was trying to build a writing portfolio with the intent of writing a book, I contacted him again looking for advice to break into magazines. I sent him a draft of an article I had written concerning a friendly fire incident that took place just after D-Day with one of our corvettes and an American destroyer. Mac’s critique was very honest and constructive. He advised that the story does not need to be dressed up to create the interest. The interest is already there, just tell the story!
I rewrote the article, and soon after it was published in Esprit de Corps Magazine, word for word.
What is your next project?
My next project is actually my first. My intent has been to tell the story of HMCS Trentonian. What started as a project to teach cadets has turned into an amazing quest. The history books simply state this ship was built in Kingston, Ontario, took part in the Normandy Invasion, was attacked by an American ship by mistake, and was sunk by a German submarine. Three to four paragraphs in the more detailed books.
In my research I have found that this ship was the last corvette of all the corvettes serving in all navies to be lost. She rescued a Royal Navy submarine when it was damaged in the Atlantic and saved a merchant ship on fire in the Irish Sea. She was the escort of the very first convoy to leave harbour, spearheading the timetable for the Normandy Invasion. Her invasion duties included building the Mulberry harbours for the invasion. When she was attacked by the American destroyer, Trentonian was on a secret mission that could have helped to shorten the war. Her last convoy, when she was torpedoed, was determined by a toss of a coin.
These are just a few of the stories that make Trentonian so unique. I have scoured the national and local archives to get the official history of the ship. I have made contact with almost thirty of the men who served on her and they have told their stories of their life on the ship with trips to Montreal, Quebec, Halifax, St. John’s, Bermuda, England, and France. They describe life at sea, in port, shore leave, convoys, hunting the enemy, the Invasion, and their greatest story: the death of their ship and six of their shipmates.
These men have given to me their pictures of their time on Trentonian, and they show the fun times and the hardships, laughter and destruction. I have collected almost 400 photographs of the ship and her crew. I know of no other ship to have such a visual record.
The story of Trentonian will allow future generations of Canadians to know, understand, and appreciate the experiences and sacrifices made by one of Canada’s greatest generations.
Marta is the Publicity Assistant at Dundurn. Aside from blogging and pitching media, she likes ice skating, tacos, and David Bowie.