Veteran recalls the Battle of the Atlantic

While military life was a family endeavour, a love of the sea was nearly accidental

Longtime Oak Bay resident Maurice (Migs) Turner in his old navy helmet in front of the painting of the ship he served and – and swung from – during a man overboard incident.

Migs Turner makes good time as he scoots to the table in the corner of the dining room at Carleton House. A walker ensures he walks quickly, despite the limp. One might assume the hip-related hitch in his step is due to age.

“It’s from the war,” says wife Diana, holding her own pace, not even trying to keep up to Migs.

He and Diana have three children; Migs was in the navy from 1943 to 1974 and after his naval career, joined the Canadian Guard from 1974 to 1988 where he finished as Regional Fleet Manager.

The military was a family endeavour but the love of the sea was nearly accidental.

Migs’s father was in the army. Injured during the First World War he returned to Canada in 1917 and eventually became a paymaster.

The family moved to Victoria in 1935, first to a home at 11 Cook St., then a house where the Fleet Club now stands in Esquimalt. What he didn’t know looking over the water was where his future wife lived. Diana Turner grew up at the quarantine on Gordon Head where her dad was the doctor from 1939 until it closed in 1957.

When they lived in the Esquimalt home, Migs’s brother was in the reserves who would do live fire exercises from above the house. The reserves would call his mom to let her know they were going to fire and they would open every door and window in the home then take a picnic up to Saxe Point Park. There the family would watch the reservists fire nine-inch rounds into targets pulled out onto the water by tugs.

Migs was head boy at St. Michaels in Oak Bay (about sixth grade) before the family moved because his father was transferred out east.

By the time he was 18 in 1943, Migs was in sea cadets and the 7th Toronto Field Regiment reserves and close to finishing school. He and some pals learned of a navy deal with the Ontario board of education – no matriculation exam if you joined up.

“Six of us went to the HMCS York and joined … Six weeks later we were called up,” Migs said. “We all forgot to get our discharge papers (from the army).”

When the army came looking months later, the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve backed him up and all ended well.

Migs went to HMCS Cornwallis for training from August to October, and the last week they went out on HMCS Hamilton. Later he opted to shoot for the officer’s training, a three-month course at what was then HMCS Kings College. He was appointed to a corvette.

“I arrived as the ships were sailing – I just missed them,” he said.

Migs spent the next six weeks serving as port security, waiting for HMCS Guelph to return. When it did, he became part of the many convoys that traversed the Atlantic during the Second World War, delivering supplies including fuel and planes during the “Battle of the Atlantic.”

“We were escorting convoys sometimes up to 100 vessels,” he said.

Once the goods were delivered, Guelph would head to port in Londonderry, Ireland and those on leave would get four days off.

Migs would take ferries and trains to visit family in Farnham, Surrey.  During his first trip to London’s Victoria Station he noted people climbing under trains and followed suit.

“You could hear the bombs coming, unmanned bombs from Germany,” Migs said.

Today’s hitch in his step harkens back to March 2, 1945. “I had occasion to go over the side of the ship once off Iceland,” Migs said, the casual phrase suggesting he’s started this story once or twice before.

Migs was on watch when they got an escort commander message, a report of a small light west of Guelph and they were to investigate. As they came around, the crew deduced the man standing watch as aft lookout in the gun platform had been flung over the side and into the ocean. The flashing light was a Carley float light he’d grabbed on the way to the water.

Hearing the “man overboard,” Migs and his peers crowded the deck and watched as the fellow went down, then up, then down.

“I saw him go down and he didn’t come back up,” he said. “We were taught as officers we were responsible for our men.”

He stripped his duffle coat and dove into the water grasping the hood of the other man’s coat. The Guelph crew tried to throw lifejackets, ripped away by the wind, and eventually got them a line. As the crew lowered another Carley float to pull the men aboard, Migs held the unconscious lookout grasped between his knees. They hung off the ship, repeatedly smashing first against the hull, then dunked into cold waters, as the narrow ship rolled in the waves.

As they got him aboard, Migs too passed out. “Next thing I remember was sitting in the officers’ bathtub with the captain pouring overproof black rum in my mouth. I’ve been drinking black rum every since.”

Though during his lunch at Carleton House, now home for a few years after moving from their Oliver Road home, tomato juice and milk are at the ready at Migs and Diana’s table.

When the soup arrives Diana warns, “it’s medium hot.”

“She’s been looking after me for 67 years,” Migs says with a chuckle.

 

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