Today I remember my father, Lieutenant Commander William Franklin Campbell, the captain, and 37 other officers and sailors of the crew of HMCS Louisburg, K-143, just one of the many Flower class corvettes, who were killed in action at sea on 6 February 1943 while escorting a convoy into Bone, Algeria, when they took a spread of torpedoes dropped by a German squadron and intended for the big, lumbering troopships, filled with US soldiers who were destined to reinforce Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, and then to join Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, that would reopen combat operations on the Western Front.
Louisburg was not an extraordinary ship ~ except, perhaps, for the fact that she was one of the very few not pulled from operations in 1942/43 for refit and retraining, presumably because she had acquitted herself well enough in escort duties in the North Atlantic in 1941/42. Frank Campbell was not an extraordinary man, either ~ expect perhaps that, even at the midway point of the war, senior officers who he trusted and admired were already suggesting to him that he should make a career in the new, post-war, peacetime navy. Both he and his ship were doing their duty, that which, as Nelson suggested, their country expected.
My father knew instantly, as probably only a seasoned sailor could, that Louisburg was doomed, as soon as the first torpedo hit and “broke her back.” His citation for brave conduct noted that he quickly summed up the situation and his prompt order to abandon ship saved many lives. His executive officer, Lieutenant Bob Jarvis, a well known yachtsman from Toronto in peacetime, noted that as soon as the first torpedo struck he gave the order to abandon ship and said something like “Get the men into boats and then over the side with you, Bob.” Then he added, “I’m going below.” There were many wounded men below.
Many years later, his grandson, my son, also Lieutenant Commander Frank Campbell, noted, during the dedication of a memorial, that captains are often, sometimes even affectionately, called the “old man” and that in this case the 39 year old captain could have been a father to many of the 18 year old (and younger) sailors who were dying below decks. He may have reacted as any father would when his sons were in extreme peril. In any event he did what he felt needed to be done, even if some senior officers back in Halifax wished that one of their few experienced captains could have found some way to survive and stay “in the fight.”
Louisburg was, as they say, a “tight ship,” meaning discipline was strict. It was also, as I was told, as “tight ships” often are, a “happy ship,” too. That is, I am given to understand, usually the case. It is, certainly, the case in the army.
(But I read on one naval memorial website a comment by a veteran who complained about the way French Canadians sailors were treated. His comment was on a page devoted to Louisburg but I could not find his name on any of the lists I have; but he was speaking in general terms, about the Navy, and I suspect he was right. I’m about 99.99% sure that my father, Louisburg‘s captain, spoke no French at all. I doubt, given their names and home towns, that any of the other officers or chiefs and petty officers did, either. I suspect that French Canadians had a rather hard time of it if they wanted, for example, to use French, even amongst themselves ~ it remained like that until the 1960s.)
Louisburg’s guns kept firing until the last minute, but more in defiance than as any real threat to the German aircraft. Neither her 4″ main gun nor the twin .50 calibre machine guns were of much use against incoming aircraft. Photos of many of the officers and sailors killed that day can be found on the web. They, too, were ordinary men, not especially brave, not especially “good,” just the sorts of men you might find, today, in your local Saturday morning hockey league, or on the factory floor with you, or finishing their education in your local high school: your sons, your neighbours and your friends. But, “age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.“