HMCS Stettler: a snapshot of an operational history

by John MacFarlane 2016

HMCS Stettler 1945

HMCS Stettler in the St. Lawrence estuary 1945. (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

HMCS Stettler (K–681) was one of a large group of frigates built by Canadian Vickers Ltd. in Montreal QC as part of the Second World War RCN ship building program. She was launched on September 10th, 1943 and commissioned on May 7th, 1944. She joined Escort Group 16 and went on her first operational war patrol on August 17, 1944.

She participated in searches for German U–boats in and around the harbour approaches to Halifax. At 1102 on September 14th, 1944 while sweeping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence she picked up a contact and she went into action. While turning into her run a German acoustic torpedo exploded about 30 metres from her stern in the wake. Poor detecting conditions for the Group resulted in a lost contact.

In 1945, Escort Group 16 proceeded to the United Kingdom and operated in the Irish Sea and in the Dover Strait and as far south as Gibraltar. HMCS Stettler had the highest percentage of her crew volunteering for service in the Pacific. The capitulation of Japan resulted in her being paid off on November 9th, 1945. Declared surplus to naval requirements she was turned over to the War Assets and disposal Corporation on December 21st.

HMCS Stettler 1954

HMCS Stettler under conversion at Victoria Machinery Depot (VMD) Shipyard in 1954. (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

The outbreak of the Cold War HMCS Stettler was recovered from disposal and placed in reserve. In 1952 she was selected for conversion and was commissioned again on February 27, 1954.

HMCS Stettler 1955

HMCS Stettler after conversion to an Anti–Submarine Warfare (ASW) Escort.(Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

Commanding Officers: LCDR D.G. King, RCN (07/05/1944) – 09/11/1945); CDR G.C. Edwards, RCN (27/02/1954 – 02/09/1955); LCDR G.R. MacFarlane, RCN (03/09/1955 – 09/09/1957); LCDR M.H. Cooke, RCN (10/09/1957 – 11/08/1959); LCDR R.A. Evans, RCN (12/08/1959 – 08/03/1961); LCDR H.W. Vondette, RCN (09/03/1961 – 18/10/1962); LCDR R.F. Gladman, RCN (19/10/1962 – 23/08/1964); LCDR T.A. Irvine, RCN (24/08/1964 – 08/05/1966); LT S.C. Gould, RCN (09/05/1966 – 31/08/1966).

HMCS Stettler Ship's Company 1956

HMCS Stettler Ship’s Company 1956 (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

It was rare to have all the ship’s company together, in the same uniform, with a photographer present. This had to be arranged well in advance and was like a ’class picture’, a wonderful memento for the individual members.

HMCS Stettler

Detail of the Bridge of HMCS Stettler 1956. (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

The bridge was the scene of action for entering and leaving harbour. Commands would be shouted to the line handlers, and the Captain, through the officer of the watch, would control the departure or arrival without the aid of tugs or other assists.

HMCS Stettler

(HMCS Stettler 1956. Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

The call sign of the ship (CGLH) would be shown in large signal flags, flown from a signal arm on the main mast, while entering and leaving harbour.

HMCS Stettler sea boat

HMCS Stettler Lowering the Sea Boat (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

The ship carried a motor boat and a whaler (powered by oars or sail). This was a link back to the early days of the navy, with members of the ship’s company trained in the basics of seamanship in small boats.

HMCS Stettler sea baot

LCDR G.R. MacFarlane returns the salute while going ashore from HMCS Stettler 1956. (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

The departure and arrival of the Captain in a small boat would always involve ceremonial salutes from the quarter deck.

HMCS Stettler

HMCS Stettler with Tropical Awnings Rigged While in Hawaii. This helped keep the ship cool, and shield Crew from Punishing Tropical Sun. (Photo from the collection. )

The record of operating HMCS Stettler from 27/02/1954 to 27 February 1956 gives an idea of the utility and complexity of the life of a Canadian warship. She steamed 53,700 miles, visited 31 ports, entered 2,500 navigational fixes in the log, and made 30 passages to Bedwell Harbour. During the same period 460 men served though the period. She undertook 50 large gun shoots firing 407 shells, and 4,019 rounds from the 40mm Bofors guns. The engine room consumed 50,711 barrels of oil and distilled 5,471 tons of water. More than 5,200 light bulbs were consumed. The ship won the Cock of the Walk 4 times at Bedwell Harbour, the Annual Regatta Trophies in five categories for 1955. The ship used 200 scrubbers, 275 brooms, 3,500 gallons of paint and 4,550 pounds of soap.The galley produced 330,690 meals and 34,446 loves of bread. Perhaps most interestingly 46,742 daily tots of rum were issued (valued at $10,620.)

USS Bass

Mock combat exercises with the USS Bass (SS-K-2) were carried out off of Hawaii. This enabled the crew to hone their skills in detecting undersea contacts (submarines) and practicing attack scenarios. (Official US Navy photograph. )

Unlike today which has sophisticated real–time situation displays generated by computers amalgamating multiple sources of data detection, the operations room used an analog display that involved plotting on a large sheet of paper with coloured pencils and calculations made by hand were recorded. A range of symbols and abbreviations had to be memorized by the crew members manning the combat operations centre.

HMCS Stettler

Record of a successful attack by HMCS Stettleron the USS Bass during ASW exercises in Hawaii November 7–11, 1955. (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

The US Navy provided live targets to exercise with the RCN. This gave both sides practice in engaging and avoiding targets in real time conditions. The cat–and–mouse tactics of submarines and ASW ships required constant practice to maintain efficiency and skills.

HMCS Stettler

Hair Cutting in the Mortar Well (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

Routine functions such as cutting hair most be accommodated when a ship is at sea for prolonged periods (no opportunity to get these services ashore). Some crew members with specialized skills such as tailoring or hair cutting would operate small businesses providing service to fellow crew members. IN HMCS Stettler the barber operated from the mortar well equipped with waiting chairs and magazines to be read while waiting for a free chair!

HMCS Stettler

Recording a 4 Inch Gun Shoot Against Target Towed by a Naval Auxiliary Tug in Juan de Fuca Strait (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

The picture is out of focus because the shock wave was so violent, and the bridge so close, that the crew were impacted to an extent that even a camera of the time could not capture the scene without movement. The Captain’s cabin, directly below the gun mount, would be directly impacted. Light bulbs would break, the toilet in the head would cease operating, paint would peel from the deck head, and personal possessions would be flung out on the deck. Even with earplugs hearing would be impacted – my ears rang for days afterwards.

HMCS Stettler

Gun Shoot By a Bofors 40mm Anti–Aircraft Gun (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

Anti–Aircraft shooting practice involved launching a rocket (like a big firework) which produced a red parachute and a weight that served as a target for this exorcise. As it drifted slowly down into the sea the gun crews would fire rounds that exploded in air as close to the target as they could. This was complicated by having to set the fuse in the shell to explode at a calculated altitude. Ammunition was packed into huge clips that were fed into the guns which fired automatically as long at the trigger was kept engaged.

HMCS Stettler

Map of Route of Five Month Deployment into the Far East (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

HMCS Stettler

Crossing the Line Certificate (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

HMCS Stettler

Heavy Weather (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

In the Pacific sea conditions can make for a rough passage. Keeping up with a big cruiser such as HMCS Ontario means coping at times with some harsh conditions. Image taken from HMCS Ontario of HMCS Stettler.

HMCS Stettler

Heavy Weather (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

Image taken from HMCS Ontario of HMCS Stettler taking heavy seas. She has pulled right up into the lee of the bigger ship and taking advantage of the calm wake.

HMCS Stettler

Heavy Weather (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

Taking waves over the bow, some of them hitting the bridge windows. Such conditions could cause railings and deck fittings to be torn away. In those cases leaks would develop in the deck head, and water ingress below decks could occur. This was potentially dangerous to the stability of the ship.

HMCS Stettler

Ship’s Officers 1956. (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

Note the blue caps worn by these officers. Before the uniform reforms at the end of the decade the white cap (which is now standard) was created using a cap cover. There was also a khaki coloured version.

HMCS Stettler

John MacFarlane Going Ashore in Cowichan Bay in the Whaler (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection. )

When I as eight years old I spent part of my summer vacation as a member of the crew of HMCS Stettler. Admiral Pullen gave permission for me to join the ship which was almost immeduiately sent on a mission to track a Soviet submarine which had been spotted by commercial fishermen on the surface well within Canadian coastal waters. This was very exciting, and we poked into every cove and bay along the coast, working day and night. Later we carried on in the waters around the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) including a foray into Tasu Sound. Admiral Pullen surmised that such a boyhood experience would motivate me later to join the navy. He was correct - and years later I was an Officer Cadet RCN(R) serving in the same waters with the UNTD. This ship has special significance for me, with a double connection from our family to its history.

HMCS Stettler

HMCS Stettler ship’ badge (Photo from unknown source. )

The ship’s badge of HMCS Stettler acknowledges Stettler Alberta, founded in 1906 and named in honour of Carl Stettler, who founded the town and an immigrant from Berne Switzerland. It shows the white cross on a red field representing Switzerland. The heraldic red rose is the floral emblem of Alberta. The four wheat sheaves refer to the wheat field common in the region.

In 1967 HMCS Stettler was sold to Capital Iron & Scrap Metals Ltd., Victoria BC for scrapping.

Author’s Note: The photographs, maps and other memorabilia come from material collected by my late father, Commander George R. Macfarlane RCN, who served as commanding officer of this ship (03/09/1955 – 09/09/1957). Obviously, without this material I could not have prepared this article.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) HMCS Stettler: a snapshot of an operational history. 2016.

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