On June 6, 1944, the HMCS Skeena formed part of the blockade of the English Channel, safeguarding the western flank of the largest amphibious landing in human history — D-Day.
On board was Acting Sub-Lieutenant and ship’s navigator Peter Godwin Chance. He would later go on to command a variety of frigates and destroyers in his naval career, eventually retiring at the rank of Commander and moved to Sidney. On May 21, Chance and 14 other veterans of various actions during the invasion of Normandy, were awarded the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur. It’s France’s highest honour and was presented in a Vancouver ceremony by M. Jean-Christophe Fleury, Consul General of France, on behalf of the President of France. The medal (which Chance calls his new ‘gong’ due to its size) is being presented to 390 Canadian veterans on the occasion of the anniversary of D-Day, 66 of whom live in B.C.
“The President and people of France are pleased to recognize the bravery and commitment of Canada’s D-Day veterans by bestowing France’s highest award, the Legion d’honneur,” said Fleury. “D-Day marked the start of the liberation of France and the rest of Europe, and we are forever grateful to all those Canadian and Allied forces who sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom.”
Chance, who wrote a book about his naval experiences, says he has vivid memories of D-Day. Once incident stands out in particular.
“The Skeena was at the head of the English Channel, facing west,” he recalls. “We were stationed near the western peninsula of France with other ships to prevent German submarines from getting to the (Normandy) landings.”
Suddenly, two torpedoes came at the vessel and thanks to their anti-torpedo equipment towed some distance to the rear of the ship, they were not hit. Chance says he and other officers on board spotted the periscope of what turned out to be U-953 and immediately launched an attack with depth charges.
Chance says they figured they damaged the sub, but adds it was one of the few ace German boats to survive the war.
“The sub survived our attack but it dropped off a wounded 19-year-old sailor at Brest, France,” Chance says. “He was later taken as a prisoner of war to Virginia in the United States.”
Fifteen years later, chance says, he received a phone call.
“The voice had a marked Virginia accent and a man asked me about the HMCS Skeena and told me he had gotten to know that 19-year-old German sailor, Karl Baumann. I got to speak with him.”
The sailor was released following the war, returned to Germany and then, with his wife, went back to the U.S.
“We talked about how we tried to kill each other that day,” Chance says. “It was a fabulous conversation.”
Chance wrote the forward to Gregory Owens’ book, The Longest Patrol, the story of the life of Baumann, who died in 2009.
Chance would go on to sail with the Skeena on a variety of other dangerous wartime missions. The HMCS Skeena would eventually find its way to Iceland in October of 1944. Chance says they anchored near Reykjavik in a severe storm. The anchor, he says, would drag along the bottom and crash the ship into the rocks of a nearby island. He says 15 sailors were killed in the incident and the Skeena was lost, eventually raised by the Icelandic government and broken up.
Chance would serve on 13 ships in his career. He retired from the navy in 1970 and served five years as the executive officer to the Dean at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University.
At 93, Chance says while he was pleased to receive the Légion d’honneur, the 70th anniversary of D-Day is important so people can remember the sacrifice of so many people to win freedom in Europe.
“We lost a lot (of people) on the beaches that day.”
Chance says he is one of a very few remaining veterans of the Skeena during D-Day.
“The ship’s gone, most everyone is gone. I’m the only one left as far as I know.”
As veterans die, Chance says there will be fewer opportunities to share lessons from that time in history.