The Wreck of HMCS Galiano October 1918

by Stephen Rybak 2012

HMCS Galiano

HMCS Galiano in Her Final Hours October 1918 (Painting courtesy of the artist, Captain Malcolm Armstrong)

"Holds full of water send help." This terse, desperate message came out of the gale–savaged Queen Charlotte Sound at 3 am on the morning of October 30, 1918. It was the last anyone heard of HMCS Galiano and her crew of 39 and one female passenger. Galiano and her crew of Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reservists was the only Canadian Naval vessel lost during the First World War – only 12 days before the armistice to end the "war to end all wars". And the Galiano wasn’t even supposed to be in the "worst piece of water on the Pacific Coast" manned by a ‘green’ crew and overdue for a refit.

The Galiano was a relatively modern vessel, built in 1913 for the Canadian Government Fisheries Service. The 162 foot, steel–hulled 393 gross ton vessel was built by the Dublin Dockyard Company and arrived for service in Victoria in February 1914. Under the command of Robert Pope, Galiano rounded Cape Horn in heavy storms without any problems. In Victoria, she joined a sister ship, Malaspina, to re–supply lighthouses and wireless stations on the West Coast and to carry out other fisheries protection and examination duties.

In September 1917, the Galiano and her sister ship the Malaspina were requisitioned for war service with the Royal Canadian Navy, joining numerous other Canadian Government vessels converted from strictly civilian occupations. Her Fisheries Protection Service crew became members of the RNCVR, with Pope commissioned as a Commander. Galiano was fitted with gear to carry out minesweeping and was armed with a 6 pound gun on the forward deck to carry out her new duties. Until her last voyage, Galiano had an uneventful career as a naval vessel. She had just completed a re–supply mission to light stations in the Queen Charlotte Islands and was scheduled for needed boiler repairs and to correct a problem with the main bearing on the tail shaft of her single screw once she reached Victoria. Fate intervened.

HMCS Galiano Memorial

HMCS Galiano Memorial in St. Paul's Anglican Church Esquimalt BC (Photo from the John MacFarlane Collection.)

Malaspina was scheduled to make an emergency re–supply mission to Triangle Island radio and light station as their remote site’s gasoline reserves, used to power the wireless station, were running perilously low. Triangle Island is situated 45 miles WNW off Cape Scott at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The site was established in 1910 to take advantage of the 700 foot high plateau overlooking the gale–swept seascape. A 200–foot radio mast permitted radio communication with vessels over 1500 miles out to sea. But the light was useless atop the rock, nearly always obscured by fog and cloud when needed the most by mariners. It was the loneliest lighthouse on the coast.

However, while preparing for her mission, Malaspina had a hard landing, damaging her bow. The crumpled bow damage was sufficiently severe enough to send her into Yarrows Shipyard. Galiano received orders to take supplies and stores from Malaspina and proceed north. Her own boiler work and repairs were to be done in Prince Rupert once the re–supply of Triangle Island and the Ikeda wireless station in the Southern Queen Charlottes were completed.

While coaling at Ladysmith, the crew of the Galiano were hit with the Spanish Influenza, which was sweeping Canada’s west coast. Eight or ten of her crew had to leave the ship in Victoria. Galiano topped up her crew with four men from Malaspina and replacements from HMCS Rainbow and other Esquimalt dockyard postings.

With her "green" crew, Galiano left Victoria to head into the storm of the century on October 27th. Hurricane–force winds and violent snow storms had struck the northern coast causing the worst maritime disaster on the Pacific Coast. Able Seaman James Aird, who was suffering from the flu but decided to stay aboard Galiano for fear that he might be considered to be shirking his duty, wrote in a letter day or so before his last voyage:

"We are running into very stormy weather since leaving Vancouver. I don’t think we will be home until the end of November. The CPR boat Sophia got into difficulties in a storm. I dread the Triangle. I am not worrying for myself, but I hate taking chances with a green crew, but its all in the day’s work who go down to the sea in ships."

James Reeves, a cook, sent a note to his wife:

"This is going to be an awful trip; but don’t worry. We’ll all come home." Galiano arrived in Triangle Island’s eastern anchorage October 29 without incident. Sheltered from the raging South West gale she off–loaded the much needed stores by boat to the beach at the foot of the tram–way that serviced the station high above her. Just before 5 pm, the crew "dumped the rest of the supplies on the beach, pushed Miss Brunton into the workboat and headed out to the waiting Galiano."

Miss Emily Brunton had been hired by the six bachelors staffing the radio station as a housekeeper. The 35 year–old Miss Brunton arrived on Triangle Island in 1916 and had introduced a little civility and good cooking to the station. It was to be her first trip off the wind-swept and treeless rock in 18 months.

One of the bachelor radio men, Syd Elliot was to be transferred to the Ikeda radio station. While the on the beach for waiting for the supplies to be brought ashore from Galiano, a message was received cancelling Elliot’s transfer. Galiano headed out into the gathering darkness and the raging gale of Queen Charlotte Sound. A week of 110 knot winds and 45 foot seas had subsided to 70 knot winds and seas of only 30 feet. The crew of the steamer Prince Albert later reported the "largest seas and highest winds that any of the crew had ever seen in the area."

Ten hours later, the stark, chilling message was sent by Galiano’s wireless operator, Michael John Neary. It was picked up by the wireless station at Bamfield and on Triangle Island, where his brother W.C. ‘Jack’ Neary was a wireless operator. Jack was off duty and his mates let him sleep rather than bring him the desperate message. A rescue was mounted at daylight with half a dozen vessels responding. The Victoria Colonist reported:

"Naval authorities today received word regarding the Dominion steamer Galiano, which give rise to apprehension for her safety. The Galiano is in the lighthouse service enroute from Triangle Island to Ikeda, Queen Charlotte Islands. Last night a message calling for help was picked up from the Galiano by government wireless. The message said that the vessel was taking water into her hold rapidly. No further word has been received from her. The Galiano has a crew of 30 men."

The search focused on an area about 30 miles off Cape St. James, where the Galiano’s crew would have been able to see the beam of light from the lighthouse. The Colonist reported on November First, that the body of Able Seaman Wilfred Ebbs and an engine room skylight had been recovered near Cape St James in thick and dirty weather. The next day, the Naval Service officially announced the Galiano lost. Two more bodies were reported found the next day – those of Aird and Stoker George Musty (originally identified as stoker Harold Stirrup), 15 miles east of Danger Rocks on the east side of the Queen Charlottes. They were the last of the crew to be found. Galiano’s port side lifeboat and forward hatch skylight were later recovered.

On November 7th, the Daily Colonist reported the remarks of the Captain of the steam trawler G.E. Foster upon her arrival in Prince Rupert. She had recovered the body of Ebbs.

"There seems to be no doubt to me that the vessel foundered in the heavy seas. The whole of Hecate Strait is just one mass of white foam and it is blowing a living gale with a tremendous sea running. It is possible that one of those unlucky seas was shipped by the Galiano and with the weight of the water rolling around inside her, her hull would soon give way, causing her to roll the more and ship other seas."

"The man we picked up had on a lifebelt, which had evidently been fastened in a hurry, as it was not done correctly, and his clothes bore the appearance of having been hurriedly put on, as if he had just tumbled out of his bunk before rushing on deck. There is every probability that as the ship filled, air in her cabins blew off the skylight, which we picked up."

Hanging on to that skylight was a ditty bag belonging to George Musty – it contained a few articles of clothing. The brevity and singleness of her final radio message led to speculation that with the wind and seas on her quarter, Galiano might have easily gotten a wave over her stern that could break into and flood the engine room. Galiano’s radio, which was supplied by a powerful set of dynamos in the engine room, would have been put out of commission immediately.

Forty persons were on board that fateful night. Their sacrifice is marked by a memorial to the ship’s company in Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Musty was the only crew member of Galiano interred at the site while Aird was laid to rest in the Esquimalt Veterans Cemetery and Ebbs in Nelson, BC. Galiano’s four Nanaimo crewmen who gave their lives in the service of Canada are also remembered in the Honour Roll at the Nanaimo Cenotaph. One of them, Neil Maclean, is also honoured in his native Leurbost, on the Isle of Lewis.

A total of 422 men of the Canadian naval forces died on active service in First World War. Only one vessel was lost – HMCS Galiano, crewed by Volunteer Reservists. In addition to manning the variety of Canadian coastal ships, the two submarines and shore establishments, Canadian Reservists crewed trawlers and drifters in British home waters, Gibraltar and West Africa.

HMCS Galiano Memorial

HMCS Galiano Memorial in Ross Bay Cemetery Victoria BC (Photo from Murray Polson collection)

The Galiano is remembered today by the Royal Canadian Navy in an annual day long, competition held at the CFB Esquimalt Damage Control School. Navy ship’s crews prove their expertise in fire fighting, rescue and flood control skills. Triangle Island did not survive long after the tragic loss of the Galiano. The light station was decommissioned less than a year later and the wireless station was closed in 1921. The island is now a bird sanctuary.

HMCS Galiano Memorial

HMCS Galiano Memorial in Ross Bay Cemetery Victoria BC (Photo from Murray Polson collection)

The Victoria Daily Colonists noted, on November 03, 1918:

"The men of Galiano died in the performance of duty. They have ventured into rough places and taken their chance many a time before. They did it without a flourish of trumpets. This time they took a chance and lost."

Further information on HMCS Galiano can be found at the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum web site (including photos and a complete list of the crew); Victoria Times Colonist columns by Jim Hume; and other sites can be found by ‘Googling’ HMCS Galiano.


To quote from this article please cite:

Rybak, Stephen (2012) The Wreck of HMCS Galiano 1918. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Rybak_Galiano_Wreck.php

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