Heroes, Born or Made?

Published: 2021-09-10 16:20:07
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The greatest Allied air ace of World War One, Canadian Billy Bishop, comes to mind. Some ‘anti-hero types’ took it upon themselves to challenge the veracity of Bishop’s claim of 72 kills. Subsequently, their thesis was proved incorrect and Bishop’s honour and his Victoria Cross were shown to have been honourably and rightly earned. Another Canadian hero and VC winner was Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn for his heroism during the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava, October 1854.
Dunn was the first Canadian to be awarded a VC; since then, 93 others, including Bishop, have received this highly respected and much valued military honour. Perhaps, of all the military medals awarded for valour anywhere in the world, the Victoria Cross stands above all others. Of course, the world knows of Canadian John McCrae and his world-famous poem, In Flanders Fields. McCrae and his poem are front and centre annually at Cenotaphs across Canada during November 11th Remembrance Day services.
Not only in Canada, but also in many Western countries McCrae’s In Flanders Fields is recited or sung at services to honour those who stepped forward, volunteered and in some cases, died for democracy. “We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved, and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders Fields. ” An interesting sidebar to the Victoria Cross is that three Winnipeggers all from the same street received this high honour. It is believed to be the only street in the world to have three VC winners who lived there.
The City of Winnipeg named the street ‘Valour Road’ in honour of Leo Clarke, Fred Hall and Robert Shankland. The street’s previous name was Pine Street. Their war was the Great War – or, World War One. The Canadian Navy, too, has its heroes; among them a VC winner. In the latter stages of World War Two, RCN pilot Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray flew his flaming aircraft into a Japanese destroyer. For his heroic action, he was awarded the VC, posthumously. At the time, Gray was serving onboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Formidable.
More recent times have seen the Canadian Navy perform admirably under duress; and while this next part is not centred on a particular person, the hero of the piece is the ship itself and its complement. During Operation Apollo, HMCS Ottawa was tasked to patrol the Arabian Gulf region with explicit instructions to intercept any vessel sailing in those troubled waters with a view to checking its identity, examining its cargo and passengers and ascertaining its destination. The interdiction duty included boarding when and where necessary in search of contraband goods or fugitives fleeing from Iraq.
Ottawa received intelligence that a ship – a contact of interest – was about to weigh anchor in the Arabian Gulf. The ship’s destination was unknown and that heightened the interest Ottawa had in the vessel. Later, it was learned that the contact of interest was M/V [motor vessel] Roaa. The Canadian warship was ordered to search for Roaa in the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage in the Gulf between territorial waters of Oman and Iran. For about three days, Ottawa’s ship’s company, especially the ship’s communications crew, queried ships passing through the Strait about their “identities and voyage information. As the area is narrow and with much traffic, the querying of the ships’ identities and destinations was hectic. The task was formidable and exhausting. As one Ottawa sailor put it later, “We were just all anxious to find the guy and get the job done. ” The task of identifying the passing ships was more than just hailing them and asking about their nationality. Ottawa’s acoustic section became involved as the department tested the data collected for “legitimacy. ” Each vessel was checked against its destination. After three days on intense interdiction duty and hundreds of checks, there was no sign of Roaa.
Had she slipped the noose and sailed away unchallenged? The thought was troubling to Ottawa’s crew’s pride. Then, additional intelligence was received that indicated that the ‘contact of interest’ was anchored in the approaches to a nearby port. This particular port had gained the name of ‘The Parking Lot. ‘ There, hiding among dozens of other vessels, was M/V Roaa. The sharp ‘on top’ eye of a Canadian Aurora maritime patrol aircraft had spotted the ship. Apparently, the Roaa’s captain had thought that if he dropped anchor and remained quiet among the many other vessels in ‘the Parking Lot,’ his ship would avoid detection.
Clearly, he had not considered the Canadians’ determination to find their prey. Now that Roaa -the needle in the haystack -had been sighted, it was important that Ottawa not give away her position to the enemy. Under cover of darkness, Ottawa slipped undetected into the area and took over surveillance from another multinational naval unit. Roaa was, after all, Ottawa’s target, her contact of interest. “We had to weave through about 20 ships anchored close together just to find her. ” Those words from a member of Ottawa’s crew as he related the event later.
HMCS Ottawa maintained contact with Roaa all the while waiting for the contact of interest to “make a move” that would permit the Canadian ship’s naval boarding party [NBP] to move into position. In a move that would bring credit to the best of Hollywood, Ottawa’s helicopter moved into position. To be certain that the ship was the correct vessel the helicopter’s infrared camera was used. It confirmed that the suspect vessel was the Roaa. When daylight came, it was apparent that the contact of interest had changed its name and had a different national flag flying at its stern.
It seemed that Ottawa’s persistence had paid off and that Roaa’s subterfuge had failed. Ottawa tracked Roaa for about 12 hours and as soon as the ‘contact of interest’ moved out of territorial waters into international waters, the Canadian ship increased speed to 30 knots and slipped in alongside the other vessel, and, as darkness has fallen, illuminated her with high-power search lights. Ottawa’s commanding officer signalled his intentions to board Roaa, Ottawa’s NBP stealthily scaled the side of the foreign vessel.
Before Roaa’s crew knew “that they were being overtaken, the bridge and engine room were secured and Ottawa had control of the ship. ” Just like out of the movies – a classic John Wayne style manoeuvre only better, because these were real Canadians carrying out their duty rather than Hollywood actors pretending to be heroes. After the boarding, one of the NBP crew was asked, “What was it like to be the first person up the ladder? ” He replied, “No real worries. We’re always ready for whatever might happen. You trust the other members of your team; besides, if they [the enemy] can’t see you coming, it doesn’t make you a target. This heroic Canadian sailor added, “At first, the crew were really stunned. But when they realized that we would take care of them, they relaxed a bit. ” Once upon the ‘contact of interest,’ Ottawa’s boarding party secured the vessel before the Roaa’s crew could “affix the anti-boarding devices lying in wait at every door, hatch and window; sheets of metal ready to be welded on at the hint of a boarding. Training and a little creativity paid off. It was a beautiful boarding. ” Training and a little creativity, indeed! Rather typical of Canada’s naval personnel.
Ready, Aye, Ready. After Roaa was in Ottawa’s control, a small crew from the Canadian ship took command and sailed the vessel to a detention area. The ‘captain’ said, later, “What an experience. It was nice change from routine ops. ” The interim ‘captain’ added, “Roaa was absolutely filthy, but, fortunately, I only had to stand on the bridge and didn’t have to search through the galley or the heads. Eight hours was long enough. ” The ‘captain’ sailed Roaa to a holding area in the Arabian Gulf where local authorities began a legal process.
The value of this action by Ottawa’s crew is two-fold: One, the Canadian ship’s crew gained firsthand experience and an opportunity to test their readiness in this new battlefield, and two, the evidence gained offered links that might lead to the capture of bigger foe. Canada’s contribution to the Arabian Gulf operations was – as evidenced in the above example – exemplary and put the country’s navy at the top of any list of stalwarts capable of ‘getting on with the grunt. ‘ Unfortunately, Ottawa’s continued soft approach to evil tends to take away from the heroics of Canada’s naval personnel as they carry out their duties.
One is reminded of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 when the Soviets were intent on installing missile sites on Cuban soil. The Americans [USN] placed a naval blockade around Cuba to stop each Soviet ship suspected of carrying missiles or missile launching equipment. At the time, Ottawa refused to assist Washington. The Canadian Navy, however, saw the need and despatched several ships to join with the U. S. Navy in the blockade. This action was taken by the Canadian Navy admiral in charge without sanction by Ottawa. As it turned out, the Canadian prime minister was unaware of how the Canadian Navy had assisted the American Navy.
By Ottawa being kept out of the loop, good things were able to be carried out. Had Ottawa been involved, probably a heated discussion between the politicians and their fawning bureaucrats in Ottawa and the Navy would still be underway, four decades later. Let the Navy get on with the grunt and good things will happen; keep Ottawa out of the loop and let the greater good over the lesser evil prevail. Heroes; are they born or are they made? Do they rise to unexpected heights because of circumstances or because of fate? [All quotes are from “Anatomy of a boarding,” a national defence current operations article. ]

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