by Phil Reimer
"The 'Iroquois' did her well. I'm very proud to have been a part of it," says Mr. Hillyard, past president of Whitby's Royal Canadian Legion Branch 112. Both veterans served aboard the Tribal class destroyer HMCS IROQUOIS from 1944 to 1945. Mr. Yule, a stoker, had the job of keeping the ship 'stoked' with fuel to achieve distances and speeds necessary to outmaneuver the enemy. Mr. Hillyard worked in the new field of radar. "We missed D-Day by two days because the IROQUOIS was being refitted in Halifax," says Mr. Yule, but the new equipment the ship took on board in Canada was worth it. "In Halifax, the 'IROQUOIS' received the best radar anywhere," says Mr. Hillyard. "With a range of about 20 miles, it could detect enemy ships close to shore."
While Allied forces continued to liberate France two months after the June 6 Normandy invasion, the Germans still controlled the French seaports along the Bay of Biscay. 'Operation Kinetic', which included IROQUOIS and her sister ship HMCS HAIDA called for the destruction of enemy convoys attempting to leave port. Part of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla, the 355 foot IROQUOIS swooped down from her port in Plymouth, England into the Bay of Biscay. For most of August 1944, the IROQUOIS stalked and destroyed its prey so relentlessly that is became, arguably, one of Canada's most successful warships in the Second World War.
During that time, HMCS IROQUOIS steamed 9,750 miles, attacked six escorted convoys, fired more than 3,850 rounds of heavy ammunition and sank or assisted in sinking 22 ships. One English newspaper, in October 1944, praised the IROQUOIS with the headline, "IROQUOIS sets records for Destroyer Actions," it added "officers at this base (Plymouth) seem to think that never before has a destroyer written up such an action-heavy log in such a short time." Mr. Yule and Mr. Hillyard remember those hectic August days when sleep was scarce and action was frequent. Captain James Hibbard's command to action may have meant making the ship move at full speed to avoid a shore battery's bombardment. For Mr. Hillyard, the call would often mean moving from the radar centre to the ammunition locker and sending shells up by pulley to the big guns. "Sometime the guns were in action three hours steady," says Mr. Hillyard. "We were sometimes closed up at action stations for eight to ten hours."
He remembers the IROQUOIS chasing an enemy ship into treacherous waters: "The water was quite shallow and we had to take soundings," he says. "We were in fear of scraping bottom. We continued the chase while heavier British cruiser stayed behind. When we got back the cruiser was still there and gave us a rousing cheer. Mr. Hillyard says he wasn't so concerned with enemy ships as he was the battering storms. "We survived some fierce storms, but lost some equipment off the top." he says. "We also had the misfortune of losing our 1st Lieutenant when he was seriously injured by a big wave. He died a few days later, the only IROQUOIS casualty during my tour of duty.
Both Whitby veterans served in the guard of honour at the funerals of Commander F.J. Walker, the Royal Navy's most famous escort leader who died in July 1944 of a heart attack. Commander Walker's anti-submarine strategies undoubtedly helped the IROQUOIS when she was assigned to the treacherous Murmansk (northwest Russian port) convoy run in 1945. "It took at least 10 days to get to Murmansk from Scapa Flow, Scotland so the Nazi U-boats were a big fear," says Mr. Hillyard. "We had to drop depth charges continuously." Other highlights of the IROQUOIS storied career include escorting Winston Churchill part of the way to the second Quebec conference in September 1944. HMCS IROQUOIS was the only Canadian ship present in a huge British flotilla to escort Prince Olaf, the exiled crown prince of Norway, back to Oslo to receive the Nazi surrender. Still, the IROQUOIS is best remembered for her heroism in the Battle of Biscay. The reason for the ships successes, explains Mr. Yule: "it had the best radar in the British navy and it the guns used flashless gunpowder."
"I credit our Captain Jimmy Hibbard," adds Mr. Hillyard. "Everyone admired Hibbard for the way he managed the ship during action." In spite of being heavily engaged by gunfire, the IROQUOIS, remarkably suffered no damage or casualties during her battles. "You could get killed on a ship like that," someone once told Mr. Yule upon his posting to the IROQUOIS. "Well you could have got killed on any ship." he reflects on the events more than half a century ago when the Royal Canadian Navy held its own on the world stage.