Former naval pilot Ted Davis of Toronto, now 95 years old, will never forget the night of March 17, 1945 when his minesweeper HMCS Guysborough was torpedoed twice by a German submarine.
Tony Davis is a former classmate of mine from the Journalism Program at Carleton University in Ottawa. When I learned that his father Ted Davis was still living, I asked Tony to prepare this post for Wartime Wednesdays. Thanks very much, Tony Davis, for sharing your father’s memories and precious photographs.
(Update: Ted Davis passed away peacefully on November 27, 2017 at the Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital in Toronto. Rest in Peace, Edward McKeown Davis.)
The Early Years
Ted Davis is the youngest of five sons who grew up in Oakville, Ontario. His father was a successful, self-made businessman who served as Oakville mayor for several terms. All the boys attended a private boys’ school, Appleby College, where they kept their teachers busy dealing with yet another Davis!
When war broke out, Ted had just started an arts program at the University of Toronto. Becoming a pilot appealed to the teenager, so he drove north to Baker Field, where the Patterson and Hill Aircraft Company was located, and learned to fly Taylor Cub and Aeronca planes.
As Ted explains, patriotism had little to do with it.
“I was keenly interested in aviation, and here was the golden opportunity to join all those others who had left to go on active service,” Ted recalls. “It had nothing to do with patriotism, to fight for King and Country, and the actual conflict was a long way off. It was simply a challenge that a nineteen-year-old couldn’t pass up.”
Ted Joins the Navy
In January 1942, Ted applied to the Royal Navy Selection Board in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, for training as a naval pilot. He became an Ordinary Seaman in the British Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve.
Here is the handsome young lad wearing a hat with the letters HMS standing for His Majesty’s Ship, rather than the HMCS wording found in the Canadian branch, standing for His Majesty’s Canadian Ship.
“Although I’m sure Mother had a pretty shrewd idea of what of what I was up to, I don’t believe Dad had the slightest notion that I would be involved in flying. As far as he was concerned I was joining the navy, just as my older brothers, Jim and Bob, had done. I had no intention of disillusioning or upsetting him.”
Two of Ted’s older brothers, Jim and Bob, had already joined the navy. (Brother Bill joined the infantry instead, the Toronto Scottish Regiment, so he was referred to by his brothers as “the jackass.”)
Here is Ted pictured with his older brother Robert in Halifax, 1942.
Ted Ships Overseas
After training in Moncton, New Brunswick, Ted embarked on the Queen Mary with about 1,000 Canadian and 15,000 American troops headed for Scotland. On their arrival, an Admiralty Selection Board interviewed the Canadian volunteers and assigned them as pilots, observers, or air gunners.
Approved for pilot training, Ted practiced on a Fairey Swordfish, lovingly known by pilots as a “Stringbag.” (To read my previous post about Bud Abbott of Cranbrook, British Columbia, another naval pilot who flew a Stringbag, click here: Bud Abbott Rained Terror on the Tirpitz.)
In early 1942, Ted was promoted to the rank of Acting Leading Seaman. At Elmdon in the British Midlands, he learned to fly a Tiger Moth and the DH82, a de Havilland biplane.
Ted suffered a personal blow in August, when he learned his father had died after a bout of pneumonia. “Fortunately all four of my brothers were in Canada and could get to Oakville to be with Mother at the time, but there was nothing I could do except telephone home.”
Here is Ted on the right, with two of his fellow pilots-in-training in England.
Ted Receives His Wings
Another transfer took Ted back to Canada, to the No. 31 Service Flying Training School in Kingston, Ontario, for a further five months of training – part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
There, with little more than 200 hours logged flying time, usually in a Harvard, Ted received his pilot’s wings.
“There was no official ceremony or parade. We simply selected a pair of naval wings from a cardboard box, having first paid the $1.75, or whatever the cost was, and then sewed them onto the right sleeve of our uniform,” Ted recalls.
Here Ted, wearing his full flying gear, poses in front of his aircraft.
In March 1943, as a commissioned officer, Ted went back to the HMS Daedalus and was sent to an Advanced Flying Unit where he learned to fly a Barracuda. The “Barra” had become the Royal Navy’s go-to plane, after the Swordfish and the Albacore.
In April Ted met with his brothers Jim and Bob in London. “At least I was an officer, but still junior in rank to the other two!”
Ted Joins the HMS Illustrious
In September 1943, Ted finally learned how to land on aircraft carriers, a very precarious procedure. Now he was ready for the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, flying Barracudas and Corsairs. The Illustrious left for active duty in December, with Ted belonging to the 847 Squadron.
The carrier sailed through the Suez Canal and on to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, as part of the Eastern Fleet. Then the fleet left for Australia, joining up with the world’s largest carrier, the USS Saratoga, and other ships.
Their initial target was a Japanese base located at Sabang, on the northern tip of Sumatra. The base was a Japanese launching area for Burma and India, and included supply ships and a large oil depot.
This photo shows the Illustrious steaming out to sea.
Ted Flies Against the Enemy
Ted flew a Barracuda in the number two position on the port wing of the wing leader, armed with 250-pound and 300-pound bombs. Corsairs flew ahead to attack anti-aircraft positions that were firing at the attacking force.
All his training was finally brought to bear on Ted’s performance in the air. Here he describes his technique.
“With dive-brakes open so that the Barra’s speed doesn’t go above 250 knots, I keep the nose of the aircraft on a group of ships alongside one of the jetties below.
“The altimeter quickly unwinds and, as the needle sweeps past 3,000 feet, raise the nose slightly and then push the bomb release button. There’s no time to see where they fell. Start easing out of the dive, retract the brakes and get out of there quickly!
“Then away sharply from the town and harbour, right on down to treetop level, hoping that we don’t fly over some heavily defended position.
“Finally, through the palms there’s a flash of sandy beach ahead, and then we’re out over the water, heading west to the rendezvous ten miles at sea.”
This photo shows a Fairey Barracuda like the one flown by Ted, landing safely on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Ted Transfers to the Royal Canadian Navy
In January 1944 Ted transferred from the British Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve into the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. “Immediately my rate of pay doubled. It seemed somewhat unfair at the time that I should be getting twice the amount of money as my contemporaries for doing exactly the same work. But then the moment passed, and I didn’t give it a second thought!”
In June Ted joined the ship’s company on the flight deck of the Illustrious to be addressed by the Supreme Allied Commander for South East Asia, Lord Louis Mountbatten, where he briefed them on the progress of the war.
August brought the Illustrious to South Africa for a refit. A month later Ted earned his second stripe, promoted to a Lieutenant RCNVR.
“At the end of 1944 I had qualified as a Barracuda pilot and shortly thereafter our squadron set off to join the Eastern Fleet operating out of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known at this time.
“Suffice it to say that the Barra and its Merlin 32 couldn’t cope with the heat and humidity. Aircraft were placed in storage in southern India and personnel ferried back to England, at which time I returned to Canada on foreign service leave.”
Ted Assigned to the HMCS Guysborough
Ted spent two months at home, waiting for orders. Finally he was instructed to return to Halifax and report aboard HMCS Guysborough, shown in the photo below, a minesweeper with a complement of 91 officers and men, which had just completed a refit and was due to return to Plymouth for sweeping operations in the English channel.
For Ted, the minesweeper was simply a mode of transport, carrying him back to England so he could resume his flying duties. The manifesto lists him as one of the only two passengers aboard.
The ship left Halifax around March 7, 1945, to refuel in the Azores before heading to Plymouth. The trip was expected to take twelve days.
But that little ship never did get as far as the shores of England.
On March 17, 1945, HMCS Guysborough was torpedoed and sunk in the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France by the German submarine U868.
Ted recalls the fateful night when he very nearly lost his life.
“At 1800 I was washing up before going to the wardroom for dinner when the first torpedo struck, and I was flung violently into the air as the entire ship reverberated under the impact.
“In that brief instant, my head hit something unyielding in the confined space and I collapsed in a heap. Momentarily stunned, I picked myself up and stumbled out onto the weather decks to take stock of the situation.
“It was obvious at first glance that the ship was badly damaged. Deck plates were torn off, debris littered the upper deck, and whaler and motor boat were holed by the shattering explosion. Back aft I could see that the plating on the quarterdeck was curled up and over like a partially opened sardine tin.
“Below decks, the sea poured in through a gaping hole in the stern and slowly the ship began to settle.
“Although the bulkheads were shored up, all possible patching done, and pumps kept working at top speed, it couldn’t stem the steady flow of water that continued to flow into the after sections. It was now only a matter of time before the ship would have to be abandoned.
“Wading through a foot of water down below, I retrieved my Mae West and flight jacket from the cabin and then returned to the upper deck. Without that fleece-lined jacket, I don’t think I would have survived the ordeal that followed.
“On deck there was a controlled flurry of activity and some groups cleared away and jettisoned the debris, while others were busy bringing equipment aft to help the damage control party in its effort to keep the ship afloat.
“Then, without warning, a second torpedo struck the ship amidships. Now any further effort to keep her afloat would be of no avail.”
“At that moment, the order “Abandon Ship” was given.
“Since both boats were out of commission, our survival now depended on the five Carley floats, each of which was capable of supporting twenty men. (A Carley float was a large inflatable liferaft).
“Like others, I was reluctant to jump from the deck, but this was no time for indecision. Making sure I wouldn’t land on top of someone, I leaped out into thin air before I could change my mind.
“It was a shock hitting that icy water, and I wasted little time in swimming over to the nearest Carley float and clambering aboard. Within minutes everyone had left the ship and was either in, or hanging onto, one of the floats which had been loosely tied together.
‘Twenty minutes after being abandoned, Guysborough sank.”
Ted recalls a particularly poignant moment. “As her bow disappeared beneath the surface, three cheers for the ship rang out across the now empty sea.”
Surviving the Icy Ordeal
Now began the hard work of staying alive while waiting for rescue.
“I don’t know if this was true of the other floats, but on ours everyone sat up on the tubing and not down on the platform below, so that only our legs were in the water rather than being immersed up to the waist.
“Even at that, the sea constantly slopped over the tubing, and there was the added problem of staying put and not toppling over backward whenever the float lurched as a wave passed by.
“But then again, perhaps all this clutching and grabbing at one another as we swayed back and forth helped to keep us awake, and reduced the chances of slipping into unconsciousness. And this became more and more likely to happen as the hours went by.
“The initial excitement, the keyed-up feeling and alertness, soon gave way to boredom and then apathy. The frigid water also took its toll. The cold, the darkness, the apparent futility of it all, was an ever-increasing drain on our resources, both physical and mental. It was a test of will and endurance as the night wore on.
“On more than one occasion I dozed off and on, and it was daylight when I finally awoke to the sound of cheering from the other floats. But I comprehended little of what is going on, and shut out the world around me.
“The scrambling net lowered over the ship’s side was within easy reach and I clutched at it with both hands. I tried to pull myself up into a standing position, but it was no use, and I sank back onto my knees in the bottom of the float.
“The next thing I remember is lying in a bunk with a weight of coarse, grey blankets on top of me, but I couldn’t stop shivering. Then there was a sharp pinprick in my arm, a feeling of euphoria, and finally a deep, deep sleep.”
During the 20 hours during which the survivors had clung to the Carley floats, more than half of the men on board had died, mostly due to exposure.
Fifty-four men lost their lives that night.
The remaining 37 men were now safely aboard HMS Inglis, one of two British frigates dispatched to the scene, heading back to Plymouth.
Ted’s Brother Jim Anxiously Awaits News
Meanwhile, 700 miles to the north, all the signals regarding Guysborough were being received and monitored by another frigate.
Ted’s older brother James Davis, in command of the HMCS Royalmount, was escorting a convoy westbound and had left Londonderry, Northern Ireland, bound for St. John’s, Newfoundland, when the torpedoing occurred.
As Ted recalls: “Despite his concern over whether I was among the survivors, there was little Jim could do at the time as W/T (wireless transmission) silence couldn’t be broken.
“It wasn’t until the convoy split up at Newfoundland that he was able to find out that I was one of those picked up.”
Imagine Jim’s relief when he learned that his younger brother was among the survivors! Here is a rather impressive photo of Jim, looking every inch the naval officer with a full beard.
Ted did not escape his ordeal unscathed. He had received a deep cut on his forehead which was treated in hospital at Plymouth.
After three weeks he was moved to a Canadian military hospital in Taplow, Berkshire, where he spent the next three months recuperating from surgery on his thigh.
This photo shows Ted in his hospital bed in Plymouth, wearing a bandage on his head but looking very happy to be alive!
Victory in Europe!
Ted was still in hospital when the war in Europe ended. “When word was received of Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, the hospital wards emptied as if by magic!
“Virtually all patients, dressed only in pajamas and dressing gowns, set off towards the local pub about half a mile away, despite attempts by the matron and one or two nurses to halt the mass exodus.
“Like many of those on the ground floor, I escaped through one of the windows, and on crutches hastened along the country road in company with others on crutches, in wheelchairs, or hobbling along with the aid of a cane.
“It was a grand and glorious afternoon, but finally the revelry was over and the trek back to the hospital began. Pajama-clad bodies lurched drunkenly along the road, or, laughing hysterically, attempted to right the occasional overturned wheelchair and get it and its occupant out of the ditch.
“There were those who fell by the wayside, but eventually were coaxed by others to keep moving. By evening all had returned to the wards, some in the company of orderlies sent out to round up the stragglers!”
In June Ted was sent on to the Roman Way Convalescent Hospital at Colchester in Essex for more physiotherapy. He was still recuperating in August when the war in the Pacific came to an end.
After the War
Ted’s overseas service in the navy continued to January 1947 when he transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy. In June of that year he took up a staff appointment in Ottawa, investigating flying incidents.
He flew at the Canadian National Exhibition shows in Toronto in the early 1950s, piloting a Firefly and an Avenger.
Ted married Yahne (pronounced Yawn) Featherstonhaugh of Ottawa in 1951. In March 1954 Ted went to Key West, Florida, as the Royal Canadian Navy’s Liaison Officer to the U.S. Navy’s Air Development Squadron One.
Here’s a photo of Ted and Yahne at the Forces Day Ball in Pensacola, Florida in November 1954.
They also became the proud parents of two children: Tony, born in 1952; and Lynne, born in 1954.
Ted’s naval piloting days came to an end in June 1957, when he became the Executive Officer for the HMCS Iroquois, a tribal class destroyer.
In the 1960s Ted left his military career, taking a teaching role at Appleby College, a private school in Oakville which he and his brothers had attended, and later worked as a photographer for an educational audiovisual firm.
He continued his friendships with former naval colleagues. Here he is at a 1993 naval reunion in Toronto, on the HMCS York. From left to right: Ted Davis, David Abrahams, Nibe Cobden, and Mike Levett.
There was no early retirement for Ted as he became a volunteer driver for the Canadian Red Cross in Oakville, driving patients throughout the Greater Toronto Area until age 89.
He currently resides at the Sunnybrook Hospital’s Veteran’s facility in Toronto. This photo taken on Remembrance Day 2016 shows that Ted Davis still has a commanding presence.
Three of his four grandchildren joined him for his ninety-fifth birthday lunch there on December 28, 2016. From left: Tony’s daughter Janine; Lynne’s son Timothy, and Tony’s son Ryan. Missing is Lynne’s son Peter.
Thank you, Ted Davis, for your long service to your family, community and country! Your contribution will never be forgotten.