November 7, 2010
At 6:30 AM on April 16, 1945, HMCS Esquimalt was patrolling the eastern approaches to Halifax Harbour while a sister ship, HMCS Sarnia, cruised westward towards Sambro. They were scanning the ocean floor with a primitive sonar known as ASDIC, looking for German submarines.
There was one down there; U-190 lay submerged near Musquodoboit. The ASDIC operator had not actually identified the echo of the submarine among all the various echoes coming back from the shallow bottom – but when U-190′s crew heard the distinctive ping! of the ASDIC signals striking the hull, they assumed they were being hunted. When they raised their periscope and saw Esquimalt heading directly towards them, they fired a torpedo and fled seaward.
The torpedo struck Esquimalt near the stern, where its depth charges were stored, and the aft end of the ship instantly blew off. The skipper ordered the crew to abandon ship. Sailors scrambled for the life-rafts. The last man to leave the ship, in accordance with nautical tradition, was the captain, who stood on the bow as the ship fell away underneath him. The vessel was gone in four minutes.
Two hours later, when HMCS Sarnia reached the rendezvous point, Esquimalt was nowhere to be seen. Sarnia’s skipper radioed the Halifax Dockyard for instructions, but the Dockyard gave no orders. It was three hours before the Dockyard figured out that something must be terribly wrong – three hours during which Esquimalt’s crew clung to life-rafts awash in the icy sea, slowly dying of hypothermia. Near noon, search planes were dispatched at last, and Sarnia picked up the survivors. In the end, 44 men died, and 27 survived.
HMCS Esquimalt was the last Canadian ship to be lost in World War II. A few weeks later, the war was over. Among the survivors was Lt.-Commander Robert Macmillan, the captain, who became the father of the celebrated composer Scott Macmillan. In 2008, 63 years after the sinking, Scott Macmillan lifted his baton in the glorious old church of St. John’s in Lunenburg. An orchestra drawn from the naval band at HMCS Stadacona and from Symphony Nova Scotia delivered the debut performance of a four-part orchestral work called “Within Sight of Shore,” commemorating the event and telling the story in musical terms. The piece was later presented at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
Stephen Pedersen described the composition as “Macmillan’s most impressive and exciting original work since his 1988 masterpiece, Celtic Mass for the Sea.” It was also short-listed for the Lieutenant- Governor’s Masterworks Arts Award. It has not been heard since 2008 – but on November 13, in honour of the centenary of the Canadian navy and to mark the 65th anniversary of the sinking, many of the same musicians will combine to present the piece at the Maritime Museum once again.
“Within Sight of Shore” runs about 40 minutes, and it will occupy the second half of the program. The first half will be the premiere of a 45-minute film, also called “Within Sight of Shore,” by filmmaker Ian Macmillan, the son of Scott Macmillan and Jennyfer Brickenden.
The film covers both the actual sinking and Scott’s quest to capture its essence through music. It includes visits to the spot where the ship went down, and to the city of Esquimalt, BC, which annually holds a memorial service to remember her. The film also provides fascinating insights into the very nature of composition, as Scott sits at his keyboard in the studio, explaining how he derives the themes and melodies that weave together in the work. One poignant touch: Robert Macmillan liked to sing “Beautiful Dreamer,” and phrases from the song represent the skipper’s presence in the musical story.
Ian Macmillan interviews Joe Wilson of Victoria, the only living survivor of the sinking, and Werner Hirschmann, now a Canadian, who was the chief engineer on U-190. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, the Macmillans cast a wreath at the site of the sinking, and Hirschmann casts another in memory of U-190 and its crew, expressing his deep regret that the two crews had to meet as enemies, and not as friends.
That, too, is something to remember, as we honour those who lie at the bottom of the sea.
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