Halifax Explosion heroes

Photograph of Halifax looking south after the blast, showing ships in the Harbour and destruction on the shore.
Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Naval heroes of the Halifax Explosion

By Col (ret’d) John Boileau,
By permission, Canadian Naval Memorial Trust/HMCS Sackville

Many city residents blamed the fledgling RCN for the Halifax Explosion of Dec. 6, 1917, believing it had failed to adequately control shipping in the harbour. Yet, at the individual level, several sailors — Canadian and British — performed acts of heroism immediately before and after the devastating explosion.

HMCS Niobe was permanently moored in the Dockyard about 640 metres away from Pier 6 — where the abandoned and burning French munitions ship Mont-Blanc drifted after her collision with the Belgian relief vessel Imo in the Narrows at 8:45 that morning. Niobe was the first ship to raise the alarm after collision. First officer LCdr Allan Baddeley sent Niobe’s steam pinnace with six volunteers — Stoker PO Edward Beard and five seamen— under Acting Bosun Albert Mattison, to see if they could help the stricken vessel.

Aboard the protected cruiser HMS Highflyer anchored in mid-stream, Captain Herbert Garnett saw the fire from the bridge of his ship. Although unaware of the burning ship’s cargo, he inherently knew the situation could quickly become extremely dangerous. He sent Acting Cdr Tom Triggs and Lt James Ruffles — both volunteers — in Highflyer’s whaler to see if anything could be done to assist.

There were five sailors in the whaler with Triggs and Ruffles. They pulled with a will toward Mont-Blanc, at the time drifting helplessly about 1,200 metres away.

By the time the whaler got near Mont-Blanc, now engulfed in 30-metre-high flames, the ship had grounded onto the harbour bottom on south side of Pier 6. Only the forward part of the vessel touched the pier, leaving a gap between the stern and the wharf.

The RCN-contracted tug Stella Maris was already there and had tried to squeeze into the space between the stern and pier, but backed off due to the intensity of the fire. Captain Horatio Brannen and his crew valiantly—and vainly—played their small, single hose on the roaring flames from what Brannen’s son estimated was 45 metres away.

It proved useless.

Then the tide came in and forced Mont-Blanc’s stern against the pier as well. Even then, a considerable length of the ship projected beyond the end of the pier, maybe “a quarter of the ship,” according to Stella Maris’s Second Mate William Nickerson.

As Stella Maris reversed, Triggs came alongside in Highflyer’s whaler and boarded the tug to confer with Brannen for about “four or five minutes.” What they said to each other is unknown, but in the end, they must have decided that nothing could be done to fight the fire, as the next action saw Stella Maris tow the whaler—backwards—about halfway to Imo, likely so Triggs could assess the damage to that ship.

When Stella Maris was on her way back to Mont-Blanc, Niobe’s steam pinnace came out from Pier 6 and hailed the tug. Mattison had already sent two of his sailors aboard Mont-Blanc. Due to the scorching heat emanating from the burning vessel’s metal hull, they had climbed slowly up the port ladder—left dangling when Mont-Blanc’s crew abandoned their ship—to avoid touching the hot steel.

Caption 1
HMCS Niobe, seen here after conversion to depot ship in 1916, was the first ship to raise the alarm after the collision in the harbour.
Photo: RCN

As Brannen and Mattison conferred, the Niobe sailor suggested the best they could hope to do would be to pull Mont-Blanc’s stern away from the pier. That way, the fire department could handle the now-burning pier, while other ships with proper fire-fighting equipment could deal with the burning vessel. Mattison’s two sailors already aboard Mont-Blanc would be able to secure the hawser to her stern so Stella Maris could pull her away from the pier.

Brannen agreed, but after the five-inch cable was passed up, the two seamen decided it would not be strong enough to do the job; they needed the heavier 10-inch one. Brannen sent Nickerson below to get the thicker cable.

Minutes after the fire started on Mont-Blanc, Captain Fred Pasco, temporary Captain Superintendent of the Dockyard in the absence of Captain Edward Martin, was called at Martin’s home in the Dockyard, where he was living temporarily, and informed of the blaze. He immediately tried to telephone Lt James Murray, the Sea Transport Officer, but instead made contact with Lt Poole, Murray’s second-in-command.

With the Dockyard and all its resources under his temporary command, Pasco ordered Poole to send the tugs W.H. Lee, Gopher, Musquash and any other available ones with pumps to the burning vessel as quickly as possible.

At 9:04:35 a.m., Mont-Blanc blew up.

The explosion tore through the ship and her cargo at speeds of approximately 7,600 metres per second, created temperatures in excess of 3,000C and vapourized the water surrounding the ship.The vessel simply disappeared.

The first victims were those closest to the burning vessel: crews of Highflyer, Niobe and Stella Maris.

Highflyer’s whaler was lifted into the air and propelled towards the Dartmouth shore before crashing down onto the water. Only AB William Becker survived, although he nearly drowned before struggling ashore through icy water.

Mont-Blanc exploded as Niobe’s whaler pulled towards Imo, about 275 metres away. The force of the explosion blew Niobe’s pinnace and its crew to pieces.

Although these seamen were the first to die, the time between their deaths and 1,600 others was imperceptible. It only took half a second for the blast wave to reach its maximum destructive power.

Some of the crew of Highflyer’s whaler received posthumous awards. Acting Cdr Triggs received the Albert Medal in Gold, while Becker — the lone survivor aboard the whaler — received the Albert Medal in Bronze.

Similarly, for their actions that morning, the crew of Niobe’s pinnace also received posthumous awards. Acting Boatswain Mattison and Stoker PO Beard received the Albert Medal in Bronze, while the five other sailors with them received letters of appreciation.

The citation for the Albert Medal in Bronze for Mattison and Beard reads in part: “The boat’s crew were fully aware of the desperate nature of the work they were engaged on, and by their gallantry and devotion to duty they sacrificed their lives in the endeavour to save the lives of others.”

Aboard the tug, Second Mate Nickerson was just about to come up from below with the 10-inch hawser when Mont-Blanc exploded. Brannen and 18 of his 24-man crew were killed. The five injured survivors were below deck or shielded by the funnel, although two of them died of their injuries a few days later. Nickerson survived.

The explosion also set afire the ocean-going tug Musquash, which carried ammunition.  High Flyer’s captain asked another tug to take Musquash in tow, but the crew were unwilling to board the disabled vessel. Two British sailors, LS Thomas Davis and AB Robert Stones, volunteered to board Musquash, now broken loose from her moorings. They secured a line and the tug towed Musquash into the middle of the harbour. Then they went forward, pulled the ammunition — by now badly scorched — away from the flames and threw it overboard.

The tender W.H. Lee arrived and Davis and Stones broke down doors to allow Lee’s fire hoses to put out the fire. The sailors’ actions subdued the fire and prevented further damage and loss of life, as the ammunition could have exploded at any time. For their heroic acts, Davis and Stones also received the Albert Medal in Bronze.

While the disaster unfolded in the harbour, two navy divers from Niobe were working underwater off the Dockyard pier. Four men manned the hand-operated air pumps, while another two paid out the divers’ line under the watchful eye of Chief Master-at-Arms John Gammon. When Mont-Blanc blew up, one diver was in the water while the other descended a ladder. The explosion killed five of the six sailors on the wharf, but both divers and Gammon survived. The surviving sailor, Able Seaman Walter Critch, realized he must get air to the divers immediately. Although the pump remained undamaged, the pump house roof had collapsed onto it. Critch could not clear the fallen roof, so he squeezed in between it and the pump and gave a mighty heave upwards with his shoulders.

He moved bits of wreckage off the pump wheels, held up the collapsed roof with one hand and started the pump with the other. The piston slowly began to suck in air. It usually took four men to operate the pump, but somehow Critch managed single-handedly to start a trickle of air going to the divers. At the same time, Gammon rushed to the ladder to get the divers up and their face masks open.

For their quick actions, Critch received the Meritorious Service Medal (Naval), while Gammon was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Meanwhile, the surviving and uninjured crews of Canadian, British and American warships in harbour — and those that arrived in port shortly afterward — went ashore to render any assistance they could to the citizens of the now-devastated city.

Besides these sailors, about 5,000 Canadian soldiers — plus a few British ones — as well as some 600 army doctors, nursing sisters, orderlies and their treatment facilities, provided immediate, organized and disciplined rescue, recovery and relief operations, as well as devastated area access control and guarding against looting.

The crucial role naval and army personnel played in the immediate aftermath of the Halifax Explosion has never been formally or properly acknowledged and recognized, an oversight that has gone on far too long.

Note: The material in this article was excerpted from various chapters of John Boileau’s latest book, 6•12•17: The Halifax Explosion.