Remembering 2184 Rear Admiral Desmond William Piers

Caption: Photo was taken71 years ago, 21 April 1944. It shows LCdr Piers aboard the HMCS Algonquin, he had joined the newly-commissioned ship two months’ earlier and was her first Captain.

Following is an interesting biography of RAdm Desmond Piers which Mike Kennedy came across. This November will mark the 10th anniversary of his death.

2184 Commodore DW Piers was the XXII commandant of RMC. He served in this position from 1957 – 60.

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REAR ADMIRAL DESMOND  PIERS AS HONOURARY PRESIDENT

This short biography on R-Admiral Desmond Piers was developed by the South Shore Naval Association (Blockhouse, Nova Scotia) when they installed Admiral Piers as their honourary president at their annual mess dinner on April 20th 2001. This article was produced by Jerry Sigrist.

Rear Admiral Desmond William Piers DSC, CM, CD,D.sc.Mil, Klj, RCN (Ret’d)

Admiral “Debby [1]” Piers was born in Halifax on 12 June, 1913, a member of one of the city’s founding families, and was educated at the Halifax County Academy and the Royal Military College of Canada.

He joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1932 as the first ex-cadet of the RMC to enter that service. From 1932 to 1937 Admiral Piers served as a Cadet, Midshipman, and Sub-Lieutenant in the training system of the Royal Navy aboard British warships. After university and technical courses at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and Portsmouth, he returned to Canada to serve in destroyers of the Royal Canadian Navy.

The outbreak of World War Two found him serving as the First Lieutenant (X.O.) of the destroyer HMCS RESTIGOUCHE. RESTIGOUCHE had been called from the west coast for duty in the Caribbean and sailed with OTTAWA on November 15, 1939, reaching Kingston Jamaica via the Panama Canal on November 29. It was then realized RESTIGOUCHE would be required for convoy duties and was ordered to Halifax. After only 48 hours in Halifax she was at sea again leading Canada’s first troopships to the U.K. She remained on these duties until May 1940.

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On May 24, 1940, RESTIGOUCHE ‘s ships company was recalled from leave in Halifax after only three days in between convoys, and ordered to sail for U.K. waters – they didn’t return for over a year. In June of 1940 during the evacuation of France, RESTIGOUCHE, under the command of LCDR Horatio Nelson Lay with LT. Debby Piers as 1st LT. was taking off wounded from St. Valery near Dieppe when they were ordered to assist in the evacuation of the 51st Highland Division fighting under General Fortune. At St. Valery en Caux they found no Highlanders. What to do? LCDR Lay asked his 1st Lt. Piers to send someone ashore to get in touch with the General and the Highlanders. LT. Piers went to his cabin, looked in the mirror and said “Piers, you’re the one who’s going ashore.” and replied, “Aye Aye, Sir.” Packing binoculars, a signal lamp, chocolate bars, a bottle of whiskey, and sundry other  appropriate items in his golf bag, he reported to the Captain. “Any other orders,  Sir? I’m off ashore.” “You going yourself, you bloody fool?” “Yes I am.” “Okay, find out what’s going on and signal it back.” Debby went ashore and found the General Commanding the 51st Highland Division, but he was holding, a flank and declined the invitation to embark. He wished to hold the perimeter to allow more soldiers to get off. The General and his troops became surrounded by Rommel’s ranger division, was captured, and ended up spending four years in a P.O.W. camp.

Meanwhile back in RESTIGOUCHE, Piers’ info was received by light and as he could not persuade the General to leave, he decided to return. His boat had damaged its propeller and he could only make a half knot, so LCDR Lay took RESTIGOUCHE inshore for him. The boat was hoisted just as panzer tanks appeared at the top of the cliff and opened fire. Shells came rushing overhead. Harry DeWoIfe in ST. LAURENT opened up with his 4.7 inch guns – the first Canadian ship to fire on the enemy in WW II. RESTIGOUCHE then fired at the Germans on the cliff. The German guns straddled the ship again and again and, as Piers went to the bridge to report, the ship was doing 32 knots and zig-zagging out of there. “Well, number one, what’s it all about ?” “No excitement ?” Debby told the story as shrapnel whizzed overhead. Later he said,” I was ducking and there was the Captain with his steel helmet on just sitting there as if nothing was happening at all, just an afternoon picnic.” Some 38 years later while being interviewed, Nelson Lay said, ” I noticed the OOW and Yeoman and the others were ducking down behind the canvas wind dodgers. This struck me as absurd and I started to laugh. Canvas is no protection against a 3 – inch shell, in any case when you heard the shell it was past.”

On June 24th after the controversial sinking of FRASER by HMS CALCUTTA, she sliced FRASER in two, RESTIGOUCHE was left behind to do rescue work and sink what was left of FRASER. Four Officers and 104 men were saved, but 47 Canadians and 19 RN sailors were lost including one sailor from RESTIGOUCHE when a boat was swamped.

The remainder of 1940 was spent under Western Approaches Command and Northern Escort Force working with the RN. RESTIGOUCHE left Liverpool at the end of August 1940 for a brief refit at Halifax returning to the U.K. in January 1941. She had a satisfactory record for the first Canadian ship to return home from British waters. Since the war began, she had steamed 26,181 miles and fought off a score of air and submarine attacks.

On June 24, 1941 a newly promoted LCDR Piers was now in command of the RESTIGOUCHE and he would remain with her until June 5, 1943. Also in June 1941 RESTIGOUCHE was allocated to Newfoundland Command and toiled ceaselessly as a mid-ocean escort. On many occasions Piers acted as escort commander during his many trips escorting convoys from Newfoundland to the U.K. One of these convoys was the ill fated SC-107.

Convoy SC 107 was made up of 422 ships escorted by C4, one destroyer, RESTIGOUCHE, and supposedly six corvettes. The escorts were formed in an ad hoc group because two regulars couldn’t sail due to defects. Flag Officer Newfoundland then allocated corvettes REGINA and ALGOMA to C4. REGINA  broke down and returned to St. John’s. MOOSE JAW sailed in her place but  couldn’t catch up until late November 2nd, HMS WALKER stayed briefly, but had  radio problems and couldn’t communicate so she departed October 31st.

Only RESTIGOUCHE had HF/DF because Piers had scrounged one earlier. The corvettes were fitted with unreliable short range radar and the ASDIC range of all ships was no more than 1500 yards. Now with only four corvettes Piers had to solve the problem of finding and driving off U-Boats before they could attack. To make matters worse, two of these corvettes had changed Captains just prior to sailing. They were intercepted while still west of Cape Race and no less than 17 U-Boats were directed to attack. One was sunk by the RCAF early in the battle and Piers used his HF/DF to sweep aggressively around the convoy driving off shadowers early in the battle. The escort, C4 was overwhelmed. Eight ships went down in the first furious night of battle, seven more followed before it ended nearly  a week later. It was a devastating blow but Piers had fought a tremendous battle against 17 U-Boats with a wretchedly inferior escort.

As usual British criticism was harsh, they believed the RCN had expanded too rapidly, taken on too many tasks, and was simply too poorly trained and led to operate effectively. Admiral Nelles immediately mounted a campaign to prove them wrong. CinC Western Approaches couldn’t find much to criticize Piers about, except his youth and inexperience. Young, yes, but Piers was experienced in the North Atlantic, He’d been out there for three years.

The only RCN ship to get HF/DF before late 1942 was RESTIGOUCHE and she only had it because her Captain LCDR Debby Piers scrounged a set quite illegally from the U.S. Navy base in Londonderry N.I. Staff in Ottawa hadn’t understood what HF/DF was about. The Director of Communications CDR. Worth said it wasn’t properly proven and put it off. He should have listened to his men at sea. Piers’ intelligent use of his HF/DF was to save a convoy from total loss in June, his POTEL “Snakey” Ellis intercepted U-Boat sighting transmissions time and again.

On December 12, 1941, RESTIGOUCHE sailed from Hvalfjord Iceland to rendezvous with convoy ON-44 en-route to Halifax and viewed a prospect of being home for Christmas. They sailed into a driving snowstorm and a full gale. The convoy was not found, and the gale increased rising to hurricane force the next day. The ship was severely damaged, heavy seas broke the fore mast, sprung plates and flooded many compartments. The ship had to be brought about and a decision was made to run for the Clyde. Two oil tanks leaked salt water and much serious damage was done. Extensive repairs were carried out at Greenock, they did not get home for Christmas that year.

In 1943 the young veteran Captain of RESTIGOUCHE LCDR. Piers knew that junior officers, even very experienced ones, got no thanks for criticizing their seniors. Still, he put the bitterness of the mid-ocean Canadians on paper and sent it up the line in June. His points – RCN ships were 12 to 18 months astern of the RN in anti-submarine warfare equipment. Admiral Max Horton’s staff wasn’t happy with Canadian’s performance, CMDRE (D) Londonderry agreed they were poorly equipped, home  leave and regular mail were big problems, working up periods were too short, pulling people from ships destroyed efficiency and there were too many gaps in  training. Admiral Murray agreed with Piers – the ships were just getting in decent  shape to fight the battles of a year before. His report arrived in a Headquarters that  was as poorly equipped for the battles of 1943 as were the ships at sea.

In 1943 Debby was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for vigorous service at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic. During this period his ship escorted the battleship PRINCE OF WALES to Argentia Bay in Newfoundland where Churchill and Roosevelt met to formulate the Atlantic CHARTER.

LCDR Piers left RESTIGOUCHE in June 1943 and, while awaiting the completion of HMCS ALGONQUIN in Glasgow, being Captain designate, was employed as Training Officer in Halifax. During this time it was discovered that a group of prisoners of war in a camp near Bowmanville, Ontario were planning an escape and were to be picked up by a U-Boat in the Bay of Chaleur. A mass escape via a tunnel was foiled but one officer, Wolfgang Heyda, slipped away and made it to the rendezvous by train. However, the plan had been uncovered by searching mail, and a party, under the ubiquitous LCDR Piers, was waiting on the spot, complete with radio, portable radar and a cordon of 10 ships flung across the bay. The aim was to capture the rescue boat. U-536 slipped in and quietly awaited off the appointed spot right on time. Heyda was hauled in by Piers’ party from the beach but the U-Boat twigged to the ship activity and crept away.

In February 1944 two RN V-class destroyers commissioned into the RCN as HMCS ALGONQUIN and SIOUX and joined the Home Fleet’s 26th Flotilla. LCDR Debby Piers joined ALGONQUIN as her first Captain. Most of the ship’s company had a lot of North Atlantic experience, but it was a far cry from Senior Officer of slow moving convoys to a small cog in a huge high-speed striking fleet. At the end of March he joined a massive TIRPITZ strike with two fleet carriers and four escort carriers. ALGONQUIN acted as support and became involved in helping rescue the Canadian manned carrier NABOB when she was torpedoed. 200 men were transferred to ALGONQUIN who later transferred them to another ship and returned to the scene of operations.

D-Day, June 6th, 1944 the greatest armada in history came up against the channel coast of France to pour great armies ashore for the liberation of Europe. The RCN was there in force. To ALGONQUIN and Piers went the honour of convoying and protecting the central headquarters ships. She was allocated lane 7 and lay offshore from where she knocked out many gun batteries on the beaches as well as buildings hiding defenders.

Operation Counterblast was mounted in November 1944 to destroy German shipping operating off the Norwegian coast. Force 2 comprised of two RN cruisers, three RN destroyers and ALGONQUIN approached the SW tip of Norway. Several ships were detected by radar and starshells were fired. ALGONQUIN opened fire on a minesweeper and hit her with the first salvo. M416 blew up and sank, M427 was so badly damaged she was driven ashore, capsized and sank. Piers report of proceedings noted the excellent on-board communications and plotting throughout the action, as well as accurate and efficient gunnery. The Force arrived back in Scapa with no injured.

New Years 1944-45 found ALGONQUIN fighting mountainous seas and U-Boats on her way to Russia. After a layover in Murmansk she returned to Halifax to get ready for the Pacific war. LCDR Piers turned ALGONQUIN over to her new Captain LCDR P.E. Haddon RCN on April 20th. 1945 and the war with Germany came to an official end on VE Day on May 8th 1945. He had served 63 months at sea curing a war which lasted 68 months.

After the sinking of HMCS ESQUIMALT by U-190 on April 16th, 1945 a  board of enquiry was convened, presided over by LCDR Piers. The findings of the board were criticized by NSHQ in Ottawa. The main reason was that the board managed to uncover a muted litany of neglect whose roots, even as late as 1945, derived in large measures from Canada’s pre-war policies of a national unpreparedness, shortcomings in equipment, tactics, training, command and control in ESQUIMALT as well as hinting at a generality of problems in the fleet. Once again Debby Piers in his own way, informed higher authority of their shortcomings which they did not want to hear and, once again, they did not like it.

Throughout 1947 the now CDR. Piers was in Belfast Northern Ireland as Senior Officer standing by the construction of the carrier MAGNIFICENT,  becoming Executive Officer when the ship commissioned in April 1948. During this period he took a flying course and was granted a civilian “A” license.  In early 1949 there were several “incidents” happening in the RCN which caused some concern resulting in the Mainguy Report.

After flying-stations one Sunday, 32 of MAGNIFICENT’s aircraft handlers stayed in their mess deck rather than falling in. Their complaints were mainly about upset routines, and they targeted the X.O. Piers was an Officer with plenty of hard fighting sea time in command of destroyers. A carrier is a complex organism, very different from a destroyer, it needs a lot of intricate co-ordination and co-operation between aviators, operations staff, seamen and engineers. An X.O.’s job is much different from that of a Captain, Piers’ leadership was the arbitrary kind. Everyone was careful to avoid the dreaded word “mutiny” so it was put down as an incident. The Captain interviewed them all and there were no charges laid.

In 1949 Piers took up his first appointment at Naval Headquarters in Ottawa as the Director of Naval Plans and Operations. After attending the National Defence College of Canada he was appointed Assistant  Chief for Personnel and Administration on the naval staff of the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic in Norfolk Virginia.

In 1955 Debby returned to sea again as Commanding Officer of the training cruiser QUEBEC, and later as Commander First Escort Squadron and Captain of ALGONQUIN. He also claimed the title of Senior Canadian Officer Afloat Atlantic, in command of all operational ships based in Halifax.  He was promoted to Commodore and appointed as the first naval Commandant of the Royal Military College of Canada and Honorary Aide-de-Camp to the Governor General in 1957 for a three year period. Commodore Piers then returned to Ottawa as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, responsible for Plans, Operations and Intelligence. His promotion to Rear Admiral and appointment as Chairman of the Canadian Joint Staff in Washington D.C. was announced in August 1962.

With unification of the three services, this appointment later became Commander Canadian Defence Liaison Staff. In this capacity he acted as the personal representative of the Chief of Defence Staff in Ottawa to the U.S. Military authorities in the Pentagon, as well as the Canadian Permanent Military representative on the Military Committee of NATO, the Canadian National Liaison Representative to the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, and the Principal Military Advisor to the Canadian Ambassador in Washington. This, culminating four years of his service career, included many top-level NATO Military and political meetings in all NATO countries, as well as close collaboration with U.S. military authorities on the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, and all Canada/U.S. military matters.

On completion of 35 years service. Admiral Piers took voluntary retirement  in 1967 and he and his wife returned to their permanent home in Chester, N.S. For ten years he was actively engaged in voluntary community work in his home province. On January 1st, 1977 Admiral Piers was appointed as Agent General of Nova Scotia in the United Kingdom and Europe for a two year period. In 1978 he was granted the Freedom of the City of London, and was made an Honorary Doctor of Military Science by the Royal Military College of Canada on December 22nd 1982.

He is married to the former Janet MacNeill of Halifax and has a married daughter and three grandsons residing in Toronto.

RESTIGOUCHE

Completed in 1932 as HMS COMET, she was purchased at the same time as OTTAWA and commissioned as RESTIGOUCHE in Chatham England the same day. Like her sister she arrived at Esquimalt B.C. November 7th, 1938, and left for Halifax November 15, 1939. She performed local escort duties from that port until May 24, 1940when she left for Plymouth. Upon arriving there on May 31, RESTIGOUCHE was assigned to Western Approaches Command. While assisting in the evacuation of French ports , she rescued survivors of FRASER. She left Liverpool at the end of August for a brief refit at Halifax, returning to the U.K. in January 1941.

In June 1941 RESTIGOUCHE was allocated to Newfoundland Command and in April 1943 became a member of EG C4 in the interval, toiling ceaselessly as a mid-ocean escort. On December 13, 1941 she suffered storm damage en route to convoy ON 44, and extensive repairs were carried out at Greenock. She was allocated to EG 12 in May 1944 for invasion duties, including D-Day, and afterward carried out Channel and Biscay patrols from her base at Plymouth. She returned to Canada in September 1944 for a major refit at Saint John N.B. and Halifax N.S., and on completion proceeded to Bermuda for working up. Returning to Halifax on February 1945 she performed various local duties, and after VE Day was employed for three months bringing home military personnel from Newfoundland. Paid off on October 5,1945 she was broken up the following year.

Pennant # Wartime – H00

Commanding Officers
15 June 1938 to 25 December 1939 – CDR. W.B.L. Holms, RCN
26 December 1939 to 23 June 1941 – CDR. H.N. Lay RCN
LT. D.W. Piers RCN (XO)
24 June 1941 to 5 June 1943      – LCDR. D.W. Piers RCN
ALGONQUIN

Not a tribal despite her name, she was laid down as HMS VALENTINE but commissioned on February 17, 1944 at Glasgow as HMCS ALGONQUIN. Assigned to the 26th Destroyer Flotilla of the British Home Fleet, she left Scapa Flow on March 31 to help escort a carrier attack on TIRPITZ.

In April she escorted a similar attack on German shipping off the Lofoten Islands, Norway and on May 28 left Scapa for D-Day operations. On June 6 she bombarded shore targets  on the Normandy coast. At the end of June she returned to Scapa, from where she carried  out attacks on German convoys off Norway and at year’s end, escorted convoys JW63 and  RA63 to and from Murmansk. On August 22, 1944 she took off 203 of NABOB’S ships  company when the latter was torpedoed in the Barents Sea. She returned to Halifax in February 1945 for refit, leaving on August 12 via Malta to join the British Pacific Fleet, but was recalled on VJ Day and left Alexandria for Esquimalt on November 3rd. There she was paid off into reserve on February 6,1946, but was re-commissioned on February 25,  1953 after very extensive modernization, and sailed for the east coast that summer. After 14 years service with Atlantic Command, she returned to the west coast March 1967 and  was paid off for the last time April 1,1970 to be broken up in Taiwan in 1971.

Pennant #’s Wartime-Rl 7, 1949 onward 224.

Commanding Officers –

17 February 1944 to 19 April 1945 – LCDR. D.W. Piers, DSC RCN
20 April 1945 to 6 February 1946     – LCDR. P.E. Haddon RCN
25 February 1953 to 27 August 1954  – CDR. P.F.X. Russell RCN
28 August 1954 to 10 May 1956      – CAPT. R.L. Hennessy DSC RCN
11 May 1956 to June 7 1956         – CAPT. D.W. Piers DSC RCN
These pages reflect highlights of one Canadian sailors career including 63 months at sea during a 68 – month war. They were taken from several different books and authors of Canadian Naval History to honour Admiral Desmond W.Piers. It is with great pleasure that the South Shore Naval Association, has granted him a life membership and made him our Honorary President. His full 35 year naval career is mentioned in these pages, but the war – time career is by far the most exciting. A Captain’s life at sea at anytime is taxing, in wartime it is absolutely exhausting. It takes an extremely strong individual to survive. Admiral Piers is one of them.

Shipmate, Gerald W. Sigrist, CD,
President, South Shore Naval Association.

SOURCES:

Boutilier, James A. ed. – RCN in Retrospect 1910-1968
German, Tony. – The Sea Is At Our Gates
Hadley, Michael. – U-Boats Against Canada
Lawrence, Hal, – Tales Of The North Atlantic
MacPherson, Ken, & Burgess, John. – The Ships of Canada’s Naval Forces 1910-1981
McKee, Fraser & Darlington, Robert, – The Canadian Naval Chronicle
Milner, Marc. – North Atlantic Run
– Canada’sNavy – The First Century
Schull, Joseph. – The Far Distant Ships

[1] Steven Kimber’s book, Sailors, Slackers and Blind Pigs, page 26, 3rd.para., provides an explanation of the name Debby.  “Everyone called him Debby, the result of a childhood mispronunciation of his original nickname “Desy”. He didn’t mind, but he did insisted on pointing out that it was spelled with a masculine ‘y’ and the  feminine ‘ie’. He got his nick name from his mother Florence. As a baby, when asked his name, all he could say was Deb—Deb—Deb not Desmond so his mother started calling him Debby.

One Comment

  • Ian McKee

    April 20, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Many years ago I was president of the NS Chapter of the ex-cadet club. RMC was playing football against Dalhousie. I had arranged for a number of VIPs to attend the game and to come to my nearby house for drinks and dinner afterwards. While at the game I spotted Admiral Piers sitting with the cadets across the field from the VIP section. I had never met him but walked across and invited him to join the other VIPs after the game. I gave him my address. When the game ended I rushed home but he had arrived before me. My 11 year old son had greeted him at the door. He introduced himself as ‘Debby’ and asked my son if I had set up a bar. On getting the right response he said that my son was to be the bar tender and he took off his jacket, put a serviette over his forearm and said he was the server. When I arrived home he advised me of what was going on and told me the bar was in hand and it was my duty to greet and welcome the guests. He took all the orders, brought them to my son, but refused to say anything about how those drinks were poured, that was left up to the 11 year old. It was a great party.

    We saw a lot of him over the next few years. He was always Debby to my son who became a devoted fan of his assistant.