HMCS Amherst pictured during WWII. Photo 05778 from the museum collection.

 

The “Flower” Class corvette, HMCS AMHERST, pennant number K-148, was the first of three ships of the same class completed by the Saint John Drydock and Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. 1 Laid down on 25 May 1940, she was launched on 4 December the same year, Mrs. Frederick F. Mathers, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, sponsoring the ship. 2

HMCS AMHERST may be justly called a “fighting ship.” Built quickly in a time of emergency, when ships were scare and the need great, she lived fully in a time of war and, with the coming of peace, vanished. Hers was a lifetime of fire and peril when, it can be quite truthfully said, she did not know for months on end when the torpedoes which ended the lives of the merchant ships she shepherded and sometimes those of her mates, would come out of the dark night and destroy her too.

Endurance trials for the corvette were held in July 1941 and acceptance trials on the 4th of the following month. On 5 August 1941, HMCS AMHERST was commissioned with Lieutenant-Commander A. K. Young, RCNR, as her first Commanding Officer. 3

The ship was named after Amherst, the shire town of Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. Earlier, this town had been called Les Planches by the French, but was given its present name in 1759 in honour of General Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the forces in North America and, a year later, Governor-General of British North America.

Even before she was commissioned, AMHERST became a special charge of the War Workers of the Toronto Evening Telegram. Throughout her career, these kindly folk sent gifts about three times a year and never forgot Christmas. The town of Amherst also took particular care of the ship. The local chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and other service organizations supplied an electric washer, toasters, percolators, electric irons and other equipment. 4 Such appliances were not essential to the fighting efficiency of the ship and therefore were not supplied by the Navy. But it will be readily recognized just how much they were appreciated by the ship’s company.

On 2 April 1942, a picture “typical of the corvette, HMCS AMHERST” was sent to the Mayor, Mr. Martin J. Kaufman. It was suggested that he and the Town Council might care to hang it in the Council Chamber or in some other place they deemed suitable. 5

Like many another corvette, AMHERST sported a war-time badge, painted on the gun shield by a member of the ship’s company. It depicted Pluto, the dog belonging to the Mickey Mouse of the comic strip, pouncing on a surface submarine which looked up at its attacker with a terrified eye painted on its bow. 6

AMHERST wasted no time in getting into the worldwide struggle for which she had been built. On 21 August 1941, she left Saint John and arrived in Halifax the next day. Leaving the latter port on the 27th, she proceeded to Pictou, N.S., where she carried out two days of anti-submarine practices in company with several destroyers and corvettes. Three more days of similar exercises occupied her outside this port from 3 to 6 September. 7

During this month, HMC Corvette BADDECK escorted the troopship, SS Lady Drake, from the St. Lawrence River to the Caribbean Sea. The corvette having engine trouble, the troopship was accompanied back from Jamaica by HM Cruiser Caradoc.

On the 18th, AMHERST was ordered out to the Halifax approaches to relieve the cruiser. Taking over escort duties from Caradoc, she sailed to Quebec City where she and Lady Drake arrived on the 21st. From here, she and the troopship returned down the river to steam to Botwood, Newfoundland, via the Straits of Belle Isle. The two ships then went back to Quebec City, where AMHERST left Lady Drake and proceeded alone to Halifax to arrive on 4 October 1941.

Having made her start, AMHERST was ready for sterner duties. Allocated as a mid-ocean escort, she underwent a short refit, which was intended to prepare her for the work ahead. Leaving Halifax, she arrived on 12 October 1941 in St. John’s Newfoundland, a port she was to get to know very well in the years ahead. 8

St. John’s, originally planned as a base for Canadian local defence forces only, was by this date fast becoming, under the administration of Canadian naval authorities, one of the principal allied bases from which the all-important Battle of the Atlantic was being waged. The first corvettes had arrived there in May and their number had risen to forty by August. 9 These small, gallant ships, along with destroyers, sailed with the convoys to Iceland where they turned over their charges to Royal Navy escorts, picked up west-bound convoys brought in by the latter, and returned along the stormy routes of the North Atlantic to Newfoundland. By the end of September 1941, the escorting of the slower ocean convoys had become the responsibility of the RCN, US Naval escort forces having taken over the protection of the faster convoys. In practice, however, the performance of the USN was less than originally indicated, that of the RCN more. 10

AMHERST left St. John’s on 13 October 1941 to join a group of seven other corvettes led by the destroyer, HMCS ST. FRANCIS. Their convoy was the 38-ship SC-49. A strong south-westerly gale delayed the convoy, but there was no opposition from the enemy. Arrival in Iceland was made on the 24th. 11

The weather during the month of November 1941 was almost continuously bad. Convoys were slowed down, which meant less time in harbour for the escorts and more time at sea. The corvettes with their unresisting buoyancy bore the heavy seas without incurring too much weather damage; the destroyers; however, suffered greatly, six only of the thirteen being capable of sea duty during the month. 12

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HMCS AMHERST history PDF