Harry DeWolf, Canada War Hero, Dies at 97
By Richard Goldstein,, January 14, 2001
Vice Adm. Harry DeWolf, a destroyer commander who was Canada's most highly decorated naval officer of World War II, died Dec. 18 in his home in Ottawa. He was 97.
Admiral DeWolf's destroyer, Haida, which survives as a floating museum and war memorial on the Toronto waterfront, sank or damaged more than a dozen German warships, bringing it renown as Canada's foremost ship of World War II.
Before taking command of Haida, he helped in the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk in 1940 as commander of the destroyer St. Laurent.
Admiral DeWolf carried out two major rescues in the North Atlantic - one with St. Laurent and the other with Haida - and he once wrestled with a live torpedo running out of control on his deck.
He received Canada's Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry. The United States awarded him the Legion of Merit. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, was honored by France with membership in its Legion of Honor and received Norway's Cross of Liberation.
But in the course of becoming Canada's most revered naval officer, Admiral DeWolf confronted a persistent nemesis.
"I never developed sea legs," he said. "I was always seasick."
Harry George DeWolf was born in Bedford, Nova Scotia, on June 26, 1903. At 15, he was sent to the Royal Naval College of Canada in British Columbia, and as a young sailor he served aboard British and Canadian ships.
While on antisubmarine duty with the St. Laurent 75 miles west of Ireland in July 1940, he orchestrated the rescue of about 860 survivors of the British liner Arandora Star, which was sunk by a German U-boat while carrying German and Italian prisoners of war and interned aliens from Liverpool to Newfoundland. Another 800 aboard the liner drowned.
He had a harrowing experience aboard the St. Laurent in 1940 when a crewman who was painting a torpedo lifted the safety catch and the firing handle.
"The torpedo fired, naturally, and ran wild on the deck, slammed into the deckhouse, bounced off and kept charging around," Admiral DeWolf recalled. "We got astride it. It was slippery as a greased pig and we thought its propeller might cut our feet off."
He and a sailor cut off the flow of compressed air driving the torpedo forward, and then he took the destroyer into a British port.
Taking command of Haida in August 1943, Commander DeWolf, as he then was, escorted convoys carrying supplies from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Murmansk in the Soviet Arctic.
Then, as a prelude to the D-Day invasion, he moved into the English Channel to help secure the northern coast of France, gaining the sobriquet Hard-Over Harry for his sharp turns avoiding enemy fire during nighttime battles.
In the early hours of April 26, 1944, Haida sank a German destroyer, setting it afire after pursuing it through a British-laid minefield.
Three nights later, Haida and another Canadian destroyer, Athabaskan, engaged in a battle with two German destroyers. Athabaskan was hit by a torpedo and sank. Haida damaged one of the German ships and pursued the other, forcing it to run aground on the rocks of the French coast five miles away.
Then Commander DeWolf took Haida back to the spot where the Athabaskan went down. His crewmen picked up more than 40 Canadian sailors from the freezing waters even as the Athabaskan's captain, Cmdr. John Stubbs, bobbing in the water and expecting a German air attack, shouted, "Get away Haida, get clear."
"I was scared to death," Admiral DeWolf recalled. "A, we'd drift onto a mine, or B, we'd be caught there at daylight and bombed, sunk. I said: `We've lost one ship. We cannot afford to lose two.' "
With the sun coming up in an hour, Haida departed after spending 20 minutes carrying out its rescue. Commander Stubbs and some 130 crewmen from the Athabaskan drowned while about 80 others were captured by the Germans.
A few nights after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, Haida ran a German destroyer aground in flames. In late June, Haida sank a German U-boat off the French coast.
Admiral DeWolf commanded aircraft carriers after the war, served as Canada's senior military official in Washington from 1952 to 1956 and was chief of naval staff from 1956 to 1960.
He is survived by a son, James; a sister, Starr Shaw, of Montreal, and two grandchildren.
Looking back on 42 years of naval service, Admiral DeWolf recalled how he combated the malady that dogged him throughout his career.
"I used to sleep or rest propped up in the bunk," he said. "Because from that position, I got on my feet, I was less apt to get seasick than if I was lying down. If there was the slightest increase in the sound of voices, I knew something was on, so I'd be awakened. I got lots of rest, but I never changed my clothes."
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© 2001 by Neil Mishalov