June 7, 2019
HMCS Haida, the “fightingest” ship in the Royal Canadian Navy

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The Battle of Ushant | June 8/9, 1944

The Battle of Ushant, also called The Battle of Brittany, was a naval conflict which occurred on the night of June 8-9, 1944, between a destroyer flotilla with units from Britain, Canada and Poland, and a destroyer flotilla from Germany. This battle occurred three days after the landings at Normandy (D-Day).

Allied destroyers firing at German destroyers during the Battle of Ushant, June 9, 1944
Allied destroyers firing at German destroyers during the Battle of Ushant, June 9, 1944

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the German naval flotillas had been reduced through attrition to four, all based in Brittany, well south of the Normandy landings. The units were the 8th Z Flotilla (Z-32, Z-24, ZH-1, and the T-24); the 5th Torpedo-boat Flotilla (T-28, Mowe, Falke and Jaguar); and the 5th and 9th Schnellboot Flotillas, equipped with motor torpedo boats.

Captain Heinrich Hoffmann sortied with the 5th Torpedo-boat Flotilla on the night of June 5-6 and sank the Norwegian destroyer Svenner. Svenner was the only allied warship sunk on D-Day. Allied aircraft finally caught the German 5th Flotilla in Le Havre and sank all the ships except the T-28, which managed to make its way back to Germany.

Only German Captain Theodor von Bechtolsheim’s 8th Z Flotilla of destroyers (Z-32, Z-24, ZH-1 and T-24) remained in Brest. His crews were repairing damage from relentless air attacks. On June 8, von Bechtolsheim was ordered to proceed to Cherbourg, France, to reinforce German positions. Von Bechtolsheim set sail the evening of June 8, 1944, flying his flag aboard the Z-32.

The British were listening, and through Ultra intercepts discovered von Bechtolsheim’s intentions. The British 10th Destroyer Flotilla was ordered to intercept the Germans in the English Channel. The 10th Destroyer Flotilla was under the command of British Captain Basil Jones, who flew his flag aboard the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Tartar. Assigned to Jones was the HMS Ashanti, HMS Eskimo, HMS Javelin, Canadian destroyers HMCS Haida and HMCS Huron, Polish destroyers ORP Piorun and ORP Blyskawica. Jones decided to split his flotilla into two divisions. The Eskimo, Javelin, Piorun and Blyskawica were assigned to Division 19. The Tartar, Ashanti, Huron and Haida were assigned to Division 20.

At 0100 on June 9, 1944, while steaming 30-40 miles northeast of Isle de Batz, the German destroyers were detected by radar. Jones maneuvered Division 20 to intercept the Germans. Within fifteen minutes, a star shell was fired from Tartar and the Battle of Ushant was underway. Gunfire and torpedoes were exchanged between Division 20 and the German destroyers

ZH-1, circa 1942
ZH-1, circa 1942

Tartar and Ashanti were trading salvos with ZH-1 when Ashanti fired torpedoes at point-blank range at ZH-1. ZH-1 took one torpedo, which blew her bow off. At 0240 hours and with ZH-1 crippled, Captain Klaus Barckow gave the order to abandon ship and detonated several depth charges to accelerate her sinking. ZH-1 exploded, killing thirty-six men including Captain Barckow.

During the gun battle with Z-32 and ZH-1, Tartar received a hit to the bridge, killing four sailors.  Tartar’s bridge was damaged, with several fires burning throughout the ship, but the crew was able to put the fires out and save the ship.

Battle-worn ensign aboard HMS Tartar after the Battle of Ushant
Battle-worn ensign aboard HMS Tartar after the Battle of Ushant

While Tartar and Ashanti were sinking ZH-1 and trying to deal with Z-32, Haida and Huron were chasing Z-24 and T-24, forcing them into a British minefield after causing considerable damage to both German destroyers. Haida and Huron wisely maneuvered to avoid the minefield and tried to intercept the two German destroyers on the other side. They lost contact with the Germans at 0214 and decided to turn back to assist the Tartar and Ashanti. Z-24 and T-24, heavily damaged in the battle and realizing they were no longer being chased, somehow made it through the minefield without striking a single mine. Z-24 and T-24 decided to return to Brest, leaving the flagship Z-32 to fend for herself.

On their way back to assist the Tartar and Ashanti, Haida and Huron encountered a ship that took some time to identify. Z-32 had just escaped Division 19, led by Blyskawica, with a torpedo spread that caused confusion, effectively putting Division 19 out of the battle.

Von Bechtolsheim was now looking for a way out of this battle. When Haida and Huron encountered the unidentified ship, there was confusion among all the combatants concerning nationalities. The allies eventually were able to identify the ship as German and immediately fired at her. Z-32 received severe damage during the battle, and at 0515 her starboard engine went dead. Von Bechtolsheim ordered the captain to beach on Isle de Batz. At 0520 the Z-32 was hard aground on Isle de Batz.

The Haida and Huron dished out another ten minutes of gunfire before they retired from the battle. The surviving Germans were rescued by a German flotilla later that morning. That afternoon, British aircraft destroyed the Z-32. The Battle of Ushant was over four and a half hours after it started. The British 10th Destroyer Flotilla had achieved a great victory.

Z-32 wrecked on Isle de Batz after a battle with Haida and Huron on June 9, 1944
Z-32 wrecked on Isle de Batz after a battle with Haida and Huron on June 9, 1944

The Battle of Ushant eliminated the last major German naval threat to the Normandy beachhead. During the Battle of Ushant, one German destroyer (ZH-1) was sunk and a second German destroyer (Z-32) was beached/wrecked. One hundred forty German sailors were rescued by the British and Canadians. Thirty-nine German sailors were killed in action. Twenty-eight sailors escaped into France. No allied destroyers were lost. HMS Tartar and Ashanti took moderate damage. There were four allied sailors killed in action. After two months in hiding, the Z-24 and T-24 were located and sunk near the Gironde River by the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force. On June 27, 1944, three weeks after the Battle of Ushant, HMCS Haida and HMS Eskimo would sink a German U-Boat out on its first wartime patrol — U-971.

During WW2, HMCS Haida would sink more enemy surface tonnage than any other ship in the Royal Canadian Navy (sinking fourteen enemy ships), earning her the title of “fightingest ship in the Royal Canadian Navy”. Haida survived WW2, served two tours in the Korean conflict, and is now a museum ship in Ontario, Canada. HMCS Haida is the last of the Tribal-class destroyers to be on display in the world today and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984.

Commander Henry George “Hard-Over Harry” DeWolf, center
Commander Henry George “Hard-Over Harry” DeWolf, center

Haida’s WW2 Commanding Officer, Commander Henry George “Hard-Over Harry” DeWolf, was awarded both the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in WW2. The United States awarded him the Legion of Merit. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, was honored by France with membership in its Legion of Honor, and received Norway’s Cross of Liberation. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy for a total of forty-two years, retiring as a Vice Admiral. Vice Admiral DeWolf commanded aircraft carriers after the war, served as Canada’s senior military officer in Washington from 1952 to 1956, and was Chief of Naval Staff from 1956 to 1960. He died in 2001 at the age of 91.

ORP Blyskawica also survived WW2 and is a museum ship in Gdynia, Poland.

The island of Ushant is no stranger to naval battles: the French and British fleets battled near the island twice… in 1778 and 1781.

Canada Destroyer WW2