V-Admiral Desmond Piers died on Tuesday Nov 1, 2005 at age 92. Here are two obituaries outlining his career in the Royal Canadian Navy and the man himself.
From the Telegraph Group Limited Filed: 15/11/2005
Rear-Admiral "Debby" Piers, who has died aged 92, was a young Canadian officer in charge of a slow convoy to Britain which was severely mauled by U-boats; the episode led to the Royal Navy insisting that the Canadians withdraw from the North Atlantic for further training.
When the 42 ships of Convoy SC 107 set off in October 1942, Piers's destroyer Restigouche was the only ship with high-frequency direction-finding (HF/DF) equipment, which he had scrounged from the US Navy at Londonderry. Four other corvettes in the escort either had new captains or were fitted with unreliable radar and short-range ASDIC. When they were attacked west of Cape Race, Newfoundland, by an estimated 17 U-boats, Piers used his HF/DF to sweep aggressively around the convoy, driving off most of the shadowers.
But eight ships were sunk on the first night, and seven more in the next week. Piers fought fiercely, but when he limped into Liverpool, the Royal Navy's criticism was harsh.
Senior officers claimed that the Royal Canadian Navy had expanded too rapidly, had taken on too many tasks and was poorly trained. Admiral Sir Max Horton's report pointed out that 80 per cent of the convoy's losses had occurred when it was under Canadian command in the western Atlantic. This ignored the difficulties under which the convoy had sailed, and singled out Piers's youth and inexperience. Certainly Piers was young; he was earning less than his ship's doctor. But he had been senior officer on convoys on at least seven occasions without losing a ship; and he had been in the North Atlantic for three years.
The Canadians stuck by Piers, and he left Restigouche in June 1943 with a reputation as a fine seaman and brilliant tactician. He took a keen interest in the welfare of his sailors and, in a hard-hitting report of his own, recommended better equipment, more home leave and regular mail, longer work-up periods, fewer short-term appointments and better individual training. The ensuing reforms greatly improved the RCN's fighting performance.
The citation for his DSC in 1943 declared: "This officer has served continuously in His Majesty's Canadian destroyers since the commencement of hostilities. As Senior Officer of Convoy Escort Groups in the North Atlantic, he has, by his vigorous leadership and aggressive attack, been an inspiration to those under his command."
Desmond William Piers was born on June 12 1913 into one of the founding families of Halifax, Nova Scotia. His father called him Desy, which was transmuted into Debby when he was a baby. In 1932 Piers graduated from the Royal Military College, Kingston, to become the first cadet to join the Royal Canadian Navy. He trained at sea in the Royal Navy and returned to Canada in 1937 as First Lieutenant of "Rusty Guts", as Restigouche was known.
Piers experienced his baptism of fire during the evacuation of France when Restigouche, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Horatio Nelson Lay, was ordered to assist in evacuating the 51st Highland Division's wounded from St Valery, near Dieppe. Lay asked Piers to send someone ashore to get in touch with the Highlanders. Looking in his cabin mirror, Piers told himself: "Piers, you're the one who's going ashore," and replied to himself: "Aye Aye, Sir." After he had packed binoculars, a signal lamp, chocolate bars and a bottle of whisky in his golf bag, he was told by Lay: "Piers, you're a bloody fool. But okay, find out what's going on and signal it back." Ashore, Piers found Major-General Victor Fortune, who was refusing to leave because he wanted to hold the perimeter defences to allow more men to get away, and Piers narrowly avoided accompanying him into captivity. The propeller of his boat was damaged, and he could make only a half knot out to where Lay waited for him inshore.
The following year, Piers was the newly-appointed captain of Restigouche when she struck an uncharted rock in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, while escorting Prince of Wales, on which Churchill and Roosevelt held their Atlantic Charter meeting; when she had to put in for repairs, he returned to Halifax, where he married Janet
In late 1943 Piers became training officer at Halifax, where he made inspirational speeches about the duty of officers in privileged positions toward their fellow men, while insisting upon very high standards in exercises. He also helped to thwart German prisoners of war who had escaped from Bowmanville, Ontario; he controlled theshore side of operations from the lighthouse at Pointe Maisonnette, New Brunswick, though U-536, which had come to pick them up, evaded the trap set.
At the Normandy invasion, Piers commanded the new destroyer Algonquin, which bombarded the shore in support of Canadian and American troops. He also served in Arctic convoys.
In February 1945 he took part in a mock winter Olympics in northern Russia, winning the 100 yards dash; his crew played ice hockey against the locals, which they lost 3-2.
With the return of peace, Piers was second-in-command of the Canadian aircraft carrier Magnificent, and obtained a pilot's licence; but he also had to quell a protest by ratings exasperated by his maintenance of tough wartime discipline. He held influential appointments in headwaters during an intense period of the Cold War,
and was at the centre of decisions concerning the RCN's commitment in Korea as well as about Canada's maritime commitment to Nato. In 1952 he was Assistant Chief for Personnel and Administration to the Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic, then returned to sea as commanding officer of the cruiser Quebec and as commander of the First Canadian Escort Squadron.
Piers returned to the Royal Military College as commandant, and in 1960-62 served as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Plans) at naval headquarters. He was chairman of the Canadian Joint Staff and commander of the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff in Washington.
Piers retired in 1967 to his house, the Quarter Deck, at Chester, Nova Scotia, where he took up community work. But in 1977 he was appointed Agent General of Nova Scotia in London, where he promoted the province's use of tidal energy, publicized the first international gathering of the clans in the province and helped to organize industrial seminars around the country; the following year he was made a Freeman of the City of London.
While thoughtful and considerate of his people, Piers set high standards for himself, and expected the same of others.
At a dinner to commemorate the Battle of the Atlantic two years ago, he played a harmonica and delighted his friends by dancing to the tunes of his own shanties.
He gave 12 acres of land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada in order to ensure public access to one of the last wild headlands of Canada.
"Debby" Piers, who died on November 1, married Janet Macneill, the former wife of Peter Aitken, second son of Lord Beaverbrook, in 1941: he had been smitten since first seeing her on stage at Halifax when, aged six, she played a fairy in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
From the Halifax Chronicle Herald, November 3, 2005
Naval hero Desmond Piers dead at 92
Rear admiral remembered for courage, humour
By KRISTEN LIPSCOMBE Staff Reporter
At the Battle of the Atlantic dinner aboard HMCS Sackville in 2003, an 89-year-old Second World War veteran jumped to his feet, pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and joyfully began playing it and dancing.
"It was the most amazing thing I think I've ever seen," Michael Whitby, senior naval historian with the Defence Department, remembered Wednesday about the late rear admiral Desmond William (Debby) Piers, one of Canada's most distinguished war heroes.
"After a wonderful supper, Debby Piers got up and all these guys sang naval songs . . . and he led them all," Mr. Whitby said. "It was just delightful and the whole crowd was just enamoured by this."Mr. Piers, who picked up the nickname Debby in childhood, died peacefully Tuesday at South Shore Regional Hospital in Bridgewater at age 92.
Vice-Admiral Bruce Mac-Lean, chief of Maritime staff and commander of the Canadian navy, said in a news release Wednesday that Mr. Piers's death marks the end of an era for the navy. "He was a heroic man whose contributions to the navy are unparalleled," Vice-Admiral MacLean said. "He will forever be remembered as one of our finest." Mr. Piers is renowned for more than just his considerable skills as a navalcommander.
"This magnetism that this man had, this charm . . . he had a wonderful sense of humour," Mr. Whitby said. Not only is Mr. Piers remembered as "an incredible, charming gentleman" with a cheerful zest for life and a love for sports such as golf and tennis, but he was also "a very inspiring leader," Mr. Whitby said of the Second World
War naval legend. "It's this can-do attitude. It goes back to him in the Battle of the Atlantic. He was a very inexperienced officer but he had pretty good professional training."
Mr. Piers sort of came of age the same way the navy did, Mr. Whitby said. "He just got the job done. He found a way to get it done and the navy's very much like that today." The retired rear admiral received France's highest honour for bravery in military action and service - L'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur - in June 2004 for his courageous actions as commanding officer of HMCS Algonquin.
He was only 28 when he commanded HMCS Restigouche and just 30 in 1944 when he led HMCS Algonquin and "directly participated in the invasion in France where he guided his ship and her crew through the conflagration of D-Day," the navy news release said.
The presentation of the prestigious five-point medal with red ribbon and a certificate indicating his membership in the Legion of Honour were presented to him in Halifax last year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Mr. Piers also received the Distinguished Service Cross "for his vigorous and invaluable service at sea during the Battle of the Atlantic," the navy release said. Mr. Piers led numerous other Canadian warships and was involved in many other historic events throughout the war.
He remained active in the navy after the war, serving in key positions such as commander of HMCS Quebec, senior Canadian officer afloat (Atlantic) and assistant chief of naval staff. He was agent general for Nova Scotia in the United Kingdom and Europe from 1977 to 1979 and continued to actively volunteer during his retirement.
Mr. Piers was born in Halifax on June 12, 1913. He entered the Royal Canadian Navy in September 1932 as a cadet through the Royal Military College of Canada.
The South Shore Naval Association changed its name to the Admiral Desmond Piers Naval Association in 2004 as a tribute to his service and dedication to the navy and his country. Mr. Whitby said Mr. Piers understood "how to bring about good morale" on the ships he ran.
He said the Restigouche and the Algonquin "were both very, very happy, effective ships, and happy ships are where there is great respect amongst the entire crew, up and down the chain of command." Mr. Piers was universally respected and admired, particularly by his fellow veterans. "He wasn't rank-conscious," Mr.Whitby said. "It didn't matter who you were, he was always friendly, very outgoing and always seemed to remember your name."
Navy spokeswoman Lieut. Pat Jessup said the family is keeping funeral details private for now but will be forthcoming in the near future. His obituary says donations may be made to the Royal Military College, the Heart
and Stroke Foundation or a charity of choice. Condolences can be sent to the David Funeral Home in Chester.
Wednesday night's concert at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax, called 'Till We Meet Again, commemorates Remembrance Week and was dedicated to the memory of Mr. Piers, she said.
Mr. Piers is survived by his wife Janet (Macneill), his companion of 64 years, daughter Anne Baker, three grandsons, six great grand-children, brother Walter Harrington Piers and many nieces, nephews and cousins, his
obituary says. He was predeceased by his sister, Virginia Finces-Noyes.
Lieut. Jessup said Mr. and Mrs. Piers were truly a team, even building a rink in their hometown of Chester to give children a chance to learn how to skate. "They've always been very strong supporters of the Stadacona band and they would have been here tonight," Lieut. Jessup said of the sold-out concert.
"He had a very full life and lived it very well. He died on Nov. 1, which is All Saints Day. I think he's taken his place." She said he "was more than a hero. . . . He was such an outstanding man. He had this tremendous sense of community.
"The navy was very dear to his heart and we hold him in such high regard."
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