There is little doubt that one of Canada’s most successful sailors is a man small in stature but huge in legend.
Henry “Harry” DeWolf beings life in Bedford, Nova Scotia in June of 1903. He enters the Royal Canadian Navy studying at the Royal Naval College in Halifax, graduating in 1921. Since the RCN is very much in its infancy, he goes to sea, serving aboard ships of the Royal Navy. During the interwar years, DeWolf spends time both at sea and ashore in a variety of positions until he attends the Royal Navy Staff College, which he graduates from in 1937. After war breaks out, he is given command of HMCS St. Laurent.
On July 2, 1940, the SS Andora Star is torpedoed by a German U boat. She is carrying hundreds of German and Italian POWs on their way to internment in Canada. DeWolf is the first on the scene and rescues 859 men, a remarkable achievement considering the regular compliment of the St. Laurent is 181 officers and other ranks.
DeWolf’s time aboard the destroyer also features a little known event that is remarkable to say the least. As he is bringing his ship back to port to turn it over to a new captain, a rating accidentally fires a torpedo. The weapons are stowed in a fore and aft alignment when not in use, and the large projectile is now thrashing around the upper deck, rolling about as the ship moves through the waves.
DeWolf hears the commotion and runs aft down one side of the upper deck while his sailors, who one might argue have more sense, are running forward up the other side, trying to flee the gyrating monster. DeWolf tries to hold it against the rails but the 3,000-pound behemoth will not be stilled.
He straddles it and orders a nearby crewman to fetch the tool that will at last silence the beast. The sailor dashes off leaving his skipper straddling the massive weapon like a small boy would straddle a horse. The situation is finally brought under control and the torpedo secured, but not without a few tense moments of very high drama.
DeWolf is given his most famous command in August 1943. A new Tribal class destroyer awaits and the fruitful union of captain and vessel begins. HMCS Haida and Harry DeWolf become a fighting team unequalled in the annals of Canadian naval history.
After commissioning and works ups, Haida and her skipper join the fight. In April 1944, DeWolf and a destroyer flotilla set upon a group of German Elbing class vessels and, when the shooting stops, Captain DeWolf has cut through a minefield and put an end to an attempted escape by one of the enemy, sending it to the bottom.
Three nights later, Haida and Harry take part in what becomes a brilliant victory, darkened by tragic loss. In another engagement with the Elbings, Haida and Athabaskan swing into action, but shortly after the shooting starts, Athabaskan is sunk by torpedo. DeWolf makes the enemy pay, setting one vessel on fire and driving it onto the rocks of the Normandy coast. Returning to the scene of the sinking, DeWolf stays for 20 minutes in the growing light of dawn recovering as many of Athabaskan’s crew as he can.
He and Haida are not finished with the Kriegsmarine. A few weeks later, the duo tackles a larger, faster Narvik class destroyer in a running fight that turns into a game of cat and mouse, with the enemy breaking off and using his speed advantage to attempt escape. DeWolf plays a hunch and plots an intercept course hoping the big German will head for home. Eleven minutes later, the order to open fire is given and is not rescinded until the enemy vessel is a flaming wreck.
By the time Captain DeWolf is posted ashore later that year, the duo of Haida and Harry have destroyed 11 enemy vessels consisting of destroyers, a submarine, and even a gunnery target.
DeWolf goes on to climb the ranks, taking command of aircraft carriers and serving ashore in positions of growing responsibility. He finally retires a Vice Admiral in 1960 with one of the most enviable resumes ever floated by a Canadian sailor. His insistence on discipline amongst his men and his high standard of performance for himself and his subordinates are a legacy that all of those who follow him are well served by. It is impossible to understate his contribution to the safety and security of this country, both in peacetime and war.
Nick Vandergragt, of CFRA radio and a former Navy seaman, is the author and narrator of Answer the Call.