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The Last Voyage of the HMCS Alberni

Updated: Sep 19, 2019



Flower-class corvettes were one of the premier convoy escorts of WWII, boasting a wide range of useful weaponry for engaging enemy submarines and aircraft, despite the class’ flawed structural design. The HMCS Alberni was known as a modified flower-class corvette and served as one of the most state-of-the-art convoy escorts during WWII. She was most prominent during the Battle of the Atlantic and the D-Day landings in Normandy, but was eventually sunk by a torpedo on August 21st 1944 by the U-480, which was cloaked by “Alberich” technology. The Nazi’s developed a rubber anechoic tiling system in WWII that would essentially hide submarines from radar/sonar detection, thus being able to engage in surprise attacks against Allied vessels. The HMCS Alberni was determined to be the first Allied vessel to be sunk as a result of “Alberich” technology. Despite being in service for only three years, the HMCS Alberni was known as one of the best flower-class corvettes of its time, and her sinking signified a massive technological advancement in marine warfare.

Over two-hundred and sixty-seven flower-class corvettes were built for the Allies throughout WWII, including the HMCS Alberni. The term “corvette” is derived from French, referring to a small sailing ship, and since the Royal Navy named all their ships of this class after flowers, the flower-class corvette received its name. The flower-class corvettes were developed in the late 1930’s and were based off the design of a whale-catching vessel known as the Southern Pride, and were designed to be produced quickly and cheaply in smaller shipyards.Due to this, the flower-class corvettes gained a reputation for having poor sea handling skills, and were said that it “would roll on wet grass”. They used commercial triple-expansion engines instead of the new steam turbines, which allowed Royal Navy Reserves and volunteers to be familiar with the ship’s engines. Flower-class corvettes were primarily used as anti-submarine convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic in WWII, such as the HMCS Alberni. The corvettes would work to keep submarines underwater using their depth charges instead of chasing them due to their slow speed of sixteen knots (~thirty km/h), which would allow convoys to pass through safely. This technique was implicated after the Nazi’s would use organize their U-boats in “wolf” packs. These vessels were essential for defending shipments to and from Britain before larger ships could be mass produced, such as destroyers and frigates. Although the flower-class corvettes were built in Britain and Canada, many of them were transferred to the US (mainly the Canadian-built ones) per the Lend-Lease Act, which permitted Great Britain to donate many of its ships, overseas colonies, and technological advancements in return for the continued support of the US (since they had yet to officially to enter the war). The corvettes that were under the control of the US were manned by the US Coast Guard, and were known as Temptress & Action-class patrol gunboats. By 1941, these corvettes generally held about double the crew they were intended to have, so sailors had to sleep on top of lockers and tables during the night. Moreover, the ships couldn’t store perishable food, so they had to rely on a short supply of preserved foods such as corned beef and powered potatoes for all meals. Despite this, no sailor died on a flower-class corvette outside of combat, which was common on many Navy vessels in this time period. There were two types of flower-class corvettes: Originals (two-hundred and twenty-five built through 1939 and 1940) and Modified (sixty-nine built from 1940 till the end of the war). The modified flower-class (FC) corvettes, such as the HMCS Alberni, were larger in size than the originals, and much better armed for combat. Original FC corvettes were fitted with minesweeping equipment (about forty depth charges and a minesweeping winch), while the modified FC corvettes were loaded with anti-submarine weapons and limited anti-aircraft capabilities. Original FC’s were also equipped with major anti-aircraft weaponry, such as a 102mm guns on the bow, and a 40mm “pom-pom” gun over the engine room (or two Lewis guns due to weapon shortages). The original FC corvettes that were fitted with the Lewis guns were very vulnerable to air attacks because the “pom-pom” gun was excellent at anti-aircraft combat, so without it the corvettes had little defense from the skies. Due to this oversight, original FC corvettes were mainly used to escort convoys across the Atlantic, rather than the North Sea where the Luftwaffe was much more common. Therefore, vessels stationed in the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea had to be fitted with extreme amounts of anti-aircraft weaponry. Flower-class corvettes made up nearly half of all Allied convoy escorts in the North Atlantic during WWII. Modified FC corvettes, like the HMCS Alberni, were fitted with the latest technology developed through the war, such as retractable sonar dishes (aka a ASDIC dome), high frequency radio detection finders and Type 271 radars that could detect U-boats and/or their periscopes even in the low visibility of the North Atlantic Sea. Many original FC corvettes had their structure modified, such as a single mast, removal of minesweeping equipment and addition of depth charges, a hedgehog anti-sub launcher, galley relocation, a surface radar, an extended forecastle, lowering the bridge and mounting more Lewis guns on it and two to six 20mm cannons. The modified FC corvettes could have any mix of these modifications based on where the vessel is stationed and what enemy they were fighting. Overall, thirty-six flower-class corvettes were sunk in WWII (including the HMCS Alberni); twenty-two torpedoed by U-boats, five were mined and four were sunk via aircraft. This fact is less grim when considering that forty-seven German U-boats were sunk by flower-class corvettes, plus four Italian submarines.


Figure 1: The HMCS Alberni sailing through the Atlantic Ocean. From this view, several of her weapons can be seen, such as the her depth charges, and large guns located on the bridge and the stern.

The HMCS Alberni was a modified flower-class corvette that was built and commissioned at the Yarrows Ltd shipyard in Esquimalt, BC on Feb. 4th 1941. The vessel was named after our town of Port Alberni, BC and Captain Don Pedro Alberni, who was in command of the Spanish soldiers who occupied the Nootka Sound in 1790. The HMCS Alberni was under the ownership of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), which at the time only consisted of six destroyers, five minesweepers, two training vessels and roughly thirty-six hundred sailors/recruits to man them at the start of WWII. The Alberni, along with the HMCS Agassiz, were transported to the Newfoundland Escort Force in Halifax on May 23rd 1941. A month later, the HMCS Alberni was sent with a convoy to Iceland, and continued to work as a mid-ocean escort during the Battle of the Atlantic for one year, until a new boiler had to be installed in her. She became quite famous during this period by saving over one-hundred and forty-five sailors from torpedoed vessels on two separate occasions. She returned to naval service in September 1942, when she helped defend Convoy SC 42 with the HMCS Chambly and the HMCS Moose Jaw, which had previously lost eighteen ships to German U-boats. Following her tour in the Atlantic, the HMCS Alberni was stationed for use in the British invasion of North Africa in late 1942 by escorting landings between Britain and Gibraltar. She commonly escorted Convoy HX 212, among other ships between the UK and the Mediterranean until February 1943. One month later in March, she returned to Halifax to serve with the WEF (Western Escort Force) before being sent off to the Quebec Force in May 1943 for five months of service escorting convoys. In October 1943, the HMCS Alberni underwent repairs in Liverpool, Nova Scotia until February 1944, when she sailed to Bermuda and then back to Halifax to join the Convoy EG W-4. On April 24th, 1944, she was one of seventeen RCN corvettes sent to the Londonderry in the UK to prepare for Operation Neptune; the D-Day invasion, where she escorted landing crafts and ships, barges, tugboats and floating piers between Southampton and the beaches of Normandy in June and July 1944. On July 28th/1944, the Alberni missed an aircraft-laid mine when a depth charge set off another mine two hundred yards away without taking significant damage. After she was taken to Southampton for repairs, she relieved the HMCS Drum Heller from U-boat patrols in the east swept channel leading towards Normandy. At 11:37 on August 21st/1944, the Alberni was steaming south along the Isle of Wight at fourteen knots when the “hands to dinner” pipe sounded. Four minutes later, with no warning, the German vessel U-480 fired an acoustic torpedo that struck the Alberni on the port side by the engine room and sunk below the water in about thirty seconds, with many sailors stuck in the mess halls and engine room (only one engine room worker escaped). The ship’s commanding officer (CO) Ian Bell, the youngest man to command a RCN vessel at the age of twenty-four, jumped out of his cabin when the explosion happened, but was washed over the side as the ship quickly floundered. Fifty-nine sailors of the ninety aboard the vessel lost their lives in the sinking, while the survivors had to rely on fallen debris and the RCN lifejackets (that helped reduce groin injuries) to stay afloat for forty-five minutes since there was no time to release the lifeboats. Lt. Frank Williams (a former football player) was a strong swimmer that saved several lives during the shipwreck, such as Donald Wood (the ships’ writer) and the dazed CO Ian Bell, and was consequently awarded the Bronze medal in January 1945. Luckily, no depth charges aboard went off after the sinking, but the boiler did explode under the water, which didn’t cause much harm. HM motor torpedo boats 469 & 470 spotted the Alberni’s explosion and went to investigate, thus saving the three officers and the twenty-eight sailors that survived the sinking and took them to Portsmouth to treat the wounded. Investigations into the sudden sinking of the HMCS Alberni determined that the U-boat that torpedoed it was “invisible” to its radar and sonar, and it wasn’t until the torpedo was fired that the Alberni was notified of an incoming attack. It was determined that U-480, the U-boat that sunk the HMCS Alberni, was utilizing the brand new “Alberich” technology; an anechoic tile system developed by Nazi Germany that, when covering a submarine, will make it nearly invisible to radar and sonar technology. The HMCS Alberni was also determined to be the first allied vessel to be sunk by “Alberich” technology.


Figure 2: The HMCS Alberni post-modification.

“Alberich” technology was developed by the Nazi German science division: Kriegsmarine. The name “Alberich” refers to the mythological dwarf Alberich from German mythology, who could turn invisible at will. The clinical name for this technology is an anechoic tile/sheet comprised of synthetic rubber known as Oppanol (since the Nazi’s had no access to real rubber during WWII) that were each one square meter long and 4mm thick. The sheets were manufactured by IG Farben; a German chemical/pharmaceutical company based out of Frankfurt that existed from 1925 to 1952, and was a major supplier of chemical weapons to the Nazi’s during WWII. The synthetic rubber used to make the sheets were non-homogenous, but it did create air pockets that degraded the sheet’s reflective capabilities. The anechoic tiles and subsequent coating was said to reduce echo reflection by 15%, and also acted as a sound dampener underwater, which helped silence the U-boat’s engine noise from enemies. The radar-absorbing material coated onto the snorkel heads was comprised of the synthetic rubber and iron oxide, and shielded roughly 90% of the submarines radar signature. The coating was first tested by the Germans on U-boat hulls in 1940, however the adhesive used to attach the tiles to the subs would loosen and create turbulence in the water which compromised the submarine’s position underwater, and it significantly decreased the sub’s speed, so it could not yet be utilized. It wasn’t until 1944 when the Kriegsmarine developed a special adhesive to keep the sheets attached properly; however the glue took several thousand hours to administer and rivet into place on to a single vessel. By the end of the war, thirteen U-boats were coated in anechoic tiles, including U-480; the submarine that sunk the HMCS Alberni. Several other vessels were set to receive anechoic tiles, however the ended before they could be administered on a larger scale. “Alberich” technology wasn’t again utilized until the 1970’s when the Soviet Union coated their own submarines in 100mm thick tiles, which reduced its acoustic signature to 1% of its original strength. The Royal Navy began using “Alberich” technology in 1980 when the HMS Churchill was fitted, as well as when the US Navy fitted the USS Batfish with “special hull treatment”, or SHT for short. Modern vessels still utilize a form of “Alberich” technology, however they’re placed on different areas on a submarine and made with different material to better absorb frequencies. Today, nearly every modern submarine is designed to accommodate anechoic tiling.


Figure 3: Workers applying anechoic tiles onto a modern submarine. This photo showcases how time-consuming administering the coating onto a sub can be, especially back in WWII when the equipment was more primitive than it is today.

While her service was short, the HMCS Alberni remains an important part of not only WWII history, but also of the history of Port Alberni. Although she never sailed the waters of the Pacific or the Alberni Inlet, she was nonetheless an inspiration to this town and its proud community. May the fifty-nine sailors who lost their lives with her rest in peace.

In Memoriam ✝

John Mulholland Allan ✝

Bruce Angell ✝

Walter Charles Barss ✝

Richard Cooper Bosworth ✝

Joseph Jean Bouchard ✝

George Melbourne Brock ✝

George Wood Buchanan ✝

Donald Warren Campbell ✝

Wilfred Walter Carder ✝

Elmer Joseph Clinton ✝

Cannif Timothy John Cosgrove ✝

Henry John Maria Cox ✝

John Arthur Culpepper ✝

William Cume ✝

William Patrick Currie ✝

William Dittloff ✝

Albert Kenneth Evans ✝

Hugh Cameron Fulton ✝

Gerald James Gallagher ✝

Donald Neil Garvey ✝

Alvin John Graham ✝

Donald Borden Grais ✝

Malcolm Seafield Grant ✝

Edward Steward Griffiths ✝

John Peter Hamilton ✝

Hugh Malcolm Henderson ✝

Wallace Carman Horley ✝

James Crawford Irving ✝

Keith Ward Jenks ✝

Donald Owen Jones ✝

Robert John Karns ✝

Stanley Melburn Kirkpatrick ✝

John Bernard Koster ✝

Morris Kowbel ✝

Wallace Waddell Laing ✝

Robert Alexander Lang ✝

Donald Fletcher Lee ✝

Augustus Eastman Lighthall ✝

Joseph Gerald McDermott ✝

James Donald McGrath ✝

William Samual McInnes ✝

George Adam Merk ✝

Cyril Baillie Moffat ✝

Joseph Aldophe Roserio Paquet ✝

Joseph Germain Pilon ✝

John Plott ✝

Nichollis Rogers ✝

Thomas Alfred Smith ✝

Donald Stephen ✝

George Alexander Stuart ✝

Alan Thomas Turner ✝

James Walker ✝

John William Whyte ✝

Horace Edward Wilkenson ✝

Thomas Wright ✝

Written by D. Weber

Works Consulted

“Anechoic Tile.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anechoic_tile.

“Anti-Sonar Coating.” U-Boat Tactics: The Wolf Pack, German U-Boat, 2016, www.uboataces.com/sonar-coating.shtml.

“Flower-Class Corvette.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flower-class_corvette.

“Flower-Class Corvette.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flower-class_corvette.

“HMCS Alberni - K103.” I Will Remember - The Alberni Project / HMCS Alberni Memorial and Exhibit - Je Me Souviendrai, The Alberni Project, www.alberniproject.org/the-ships/hmcs-alberni.html.

“The Crew of the HMCS Alberni.” I Will Remember - The Alberni Project / HMCS Alberni Memorial and Exhibit - Je Me Souviendrai, The Alberni Project, www.alberniproject.org/CrewAlberni.html.

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