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HMCS Thiepval and the Race Around the World 1924
by Dan Salmon and John M. MacFarlane 2012
HMCS Thiepval Undergoing Maintenance at Yarrows Shipyard, Esquimalt BC (MMBC Photo MMBC_993.017.2105.01)
HMCS Thiepval was commissioned into the RCN in 1917 as a response to threats from German submarines preying on merchant shipping in World War I. She was a battle class trawler of 130 feet with a speed of 10 knots and armed with a single 3 inch 12 pounder bow-mounted deck gun and later sweeping gear and depth charges.
At the end of the war she was transferred to the Department of Marine and Fisheries to serve on the west coast as a patrol vessel transiting via the Panama Canal in 1920. Once on station the ship commenced coastal ‘life–saving’ patrols aiding many vessels and carried out fishery duties as well as discouraging rum–runners. She gave chase to the US vessel Sylph who was caught red-handed loading alcohol in the vicinity of Dundas Island near Prince Rupert. The Americans were brought into port and several cases of contraband were turned over to customs. These patrols would last three weeks at a time and established a presence on the otherwise mostly deserted west coast.
She was returned to naval duties in 1923 and one of her first tasks on her re–commissioning in the RCN was to be the support vessel for a daring and first-ever attempt by the RAF to fly around the world. A sponsor of the undertaking was the Shell Oil company who offered the Canadian Government a large sum of money to haul and stash fuel at pre–designated stops along the North Pacific route. Thiepval was determined to be an appropriate vessel for this task and departed Vancouver in March 1924 stuffed full of aviation fuel and other supplies.
She sailed through the Aleutian Islands and along the Kamchatka Peninsula to arrive in Hakodate Japan to have the distinction of becoming the first Canadian warship to visit both the Soviet Union and Japan. It was not many years past the Russian Revolution so permission to allow the armed warship passage through Russian waters had to be negotiated in advance. There was great suspicion towards the crew of Thiepval and a token armed guard was boarded at Kamchatka and they remained with the vessel until it arrived at Petropavlovsk in Siberia.
Remarkably, two flights around the world were planned for 1924 which turned it into a race for the title of ‘first around the world’. One team was a Royal Air Force undertaking with one aircraft and the other a US Army Air Service assembly of no less than four aircraft flying together. The two teams embarked on their journeys within a week of each other in March 1924 but the British flight headed eastward while the US flight started their adventure to the west.
Two aircraft were used by the RAF – the biplane with callsign G-EBHO was the original plane that departed RAF Seaplane Base Calshott near Southampton England on March 25th 1924. Both aircraft were built by Vickers Aviation Ltd: G–EBHO was a Type 78 Vulture Mk 1 powered by a Napier Lion engine and G–EBGO, the spare aircraft, was a Type 95 Vulture Mk 2. The Mk 2 was originally powered by a Rolls Royce Eagle Mk IX but was replaced with the Napier Lion engine prior to the attempt. Both were descendants of the original Vickers Viking amphibious flying boat built in 1918. The Vultures had a two man cockpit forward of the wings but also had an opening for a rear passenger abaft the spar and a similar sized front bay which was used for mounting a camera on a standard gun ring. The brave crew consisted of Squadron-Leader Archibald Stuart MacLaren RAF, Flying-Officer W.N. Plenderleith RAF and Sergeant W.H. Andrews RAF.
The US team used a purpose-built two seat single engine Douglas aircraft based on the DT Torpedo bomber that the company had in production at the time. It was chosen for its ease of changing the floats and wheels as needed as well as for the ability to handily swap out the engine. After the successful completion of the flight the aircraft became known as the Douglas World Cruiser or ‘DWC’. The first casualty of the flight occurred near Prince Rupert BC. The aircraft named ‘Seattle’ crashed into a mountainside in zero visibility blizzard conditions. For ten days no one knew the fate of the pilots but incredibly they were uninjured and were able to walk to safety.
A very fine model of the Douglas World Cruiser is displayed in the Prince Rupert air terminal on Digby Island BC. The other three planes were ordered to continue and two successfully concluded their amazing trip after 26000 miles and 371 hours of flying to arrive back in the United States. One plane was lost in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland but the crew was recovered safely. For the final leg of the flight over the United States the prototype DWC ‘Boston II’ joined the entourage to a triumphant conclusion in Seattle in September 1924.
The RAF team encountered endless mechanical and weather issues on their trip and suffered delays and illness along the way. But they flew the same aircraft until crashing at Myanmar (formerly Burma). The spare plane G–EBGO, previously shipped to Japan and stowed there, was brought to Myanmar and the ambitious trip was resumed. Arrangements were made for Thiepval to rendezvous with the Vickers Vulture in Petropavlovsk to prepare for the treacherous and dangerous flight over the desolate Russian, Alaskan and north Pacific waters but more bad weather beset them in Russia and it was a full two weeks before an attempt at continuing their trip was made. Unfortunately G–EBGO was forced to ditch after encountering heavy fog and crashed at sea.
The crew of HMCS Thiepval in Petropavlovsk Siberia fraternizing with Red Army soldiers (MMBC Photo MMBC_P3090)
The crew escaped unhurt and managed to beach the aircraft at Nikolskoye on Bering Island. Thiepval rushed to their rescue and was able to recover the men and remains of the aircraft and return them to Vancouver aboard the vessel. Their round the world flight was over. Vickers Aviation salvaged what they could of the downed biplane and the wooden propeller from G-EBGO was kept and displayed in the officer’s mess at Esquimalt.
HMCS Thiepval With Vickers Vulture Emabrked En-route to Esquimalt BC (MMBC Photo MMBC_P2855)
Afterwards, HMCS Theipval continued with patrol duties on the west coast and assisted many vessels and mariners in distress. She assisted her sister ship Armentieres in 1925 when she struck a rock in Barkley Sound and in 1926 pulled the schooner Chapultepec off the rocks at Carmanah Point. In 1930 she found herself a victim of the same treacherous waters of Barkley Sound and it was Armentieres’ chance to provide assistance to her injured sister. The damage was too great, however, and by the following day the ship had foundered in 14 metres of water.
HMCS Thiepval Sinking (MMBC Photo MMBC_P3086)
HMCS Thiepval Sinking (MMBC Photo MMBC_P3086)
The body of water in which she rests between Turtle and Turret Islands was named for her when the Canadian Hydrographic Service resurveyed the Sound in the late 1930’s. The previous chart dated to 1861 when Captain Richards in HMS Hecate made their initial and brief survey. In 1959, the wreck was located by recreational divers and the deck gun was removed and placed on display in the village of Ucluelet. Because of her accessibility she has become a very popular dive site. Her contributions to the war effort and later aiding mariners remain a lively and interesting part of our BC coastal history.
Years after her sinking the deck gun of HMCS Thiepval was recovered and put on display across the street from the Municipal Centre in Ucluelet BC. (Photo MacFarlane collection)
- Canadian Military History (vol 9 number 3 summer 2000 pp69-78) (http://www.wlu.ca) Duncan Mcdowall
- HMCS Thiepval – Wikipedia.org
- Douglas World Cruiser – Wikipedia.org
- www.flightglobal.com – article in the Aero Weekly ‘Flight’ March 27th, 1924
Author’s Note: We are grateful to the Maritime Museum of British Columbia for the use of the images in this article.
To quote from this article please cite:
Salmon, Dan and John M. MacFarlane (2012) HMCS Thiepval and the Race Around the World 1924 Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/G-EBGO_Flying_Boat.php
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