Although half a world away from his peaceful garden on the Saanich Peninsula, the coast of northern France is clearly remembered by retired Cmdr. Peter Godwin Chance.
For many, June 6, 1944, signifies a single explosive day of grit and sacrifice, a peak crested after the slog and bloody destruction of four years of war. But a mountain of preparation supported the efforts of the infantrymen who waded ashore that day determined to effect Europe’s liberation.
Chance was the navigation officer on the destroyer HMCS Skeena during D-Day and, for the ship’s crew, it was more a period of weeks than a single climactic day, preparing for the invasion and then shielding the area afterwards.
The Skeena was part of Escort Group 12 and patrolled the seas around northwestern France, off Brest. On D-Day, the brief was to block enemy submarines from entering the landing zones and mauling any of the 250 ships Chance witnessed gathering on the eve of the invasion. Afterwards, they were to continue their sweeps and destroy any submarines sent to claw back any initiative.
“Our operations were intense, varied, often very exciting, and challenging, to put it mildly,” Chance wrote in his memoir, A Sailor’s Life 1920–2001.
“Our constant vigilance was a decisive factor in keeping the enemy from reaching the Overlord operations, in the Channel, before the Normandy beachhead.”
The biggest dangers the ships faced were pressure mines, acoustic torpedoes [that homed in on the sound of ships’ engines] and dreaded radio-controlled glider bombs from the air.
In the days that followed D-Day, the Skeena narrowly dodged torpedoes and attacked submarines and their flak trawler escorts. As they worked to block the Germans from entering the English Channel, Chance’s recollection of a Heinkel bomber attack stands out.
“He launched his 1,000-pound radio-controlled glider bomb. With mounting anxiety, we all watched as the bomb with its glowing tail headed directly toward us.”
Fortunately, the bomb missed only with “remarkably good luck” but the explosion and tower of water caused the ship to heel over, and showered the vessel with shrapnel.
“It was sufficient to find a piece for every member of the ship’s company,” remembers Chance.
Six years ago, to show France’s enduring gratitude for his efforts during the conflict, Chance was awarded the prestigious Légion d’honneur. However, despite doing his duty, Chance says he never hated the Germans.
“It was a we/they situation, us or them. Nobody ever felt enmity to the opposition. The sea was our enemy.”
D-Day is remembered throughout Greater Victoria and the Peninsula. The 443 Squadron, which operated spitfires during Operation Overlord is based in Patricia Bay. In Sidney, a mural depicting D-Day sits near an M4 Sherman tank, and at Ashton Armoury, visitors can see an array of contemporary vehicles, uniforms and weaponry, including Mk. 4 Lee Enfield rifles, a Bren machine gun and Sten submachine gun, while learning from knowledgeable guides.
From D-Day, Europe was recaptured and recast, and for Chance an unlikely friendship was forged from the fire of those terrible days.
Many years later he was contacted by a man, now living in the US, who had been wounded on U953 when it had been attacked two days after D-Day by the Skeena. Karl Baumann suggested they should now be friends. Ever the gentleman, Chance agreed. They stayed friends until the end of Baumann’s life, with Chance visiting him and writing the foreword to his book.
Special thanks to Royal Canadian Legion Branch 37, Ashton Armoury Museum and Department of National Defence.