(photos and associated captions are from the Canadian War Museum website)
This post is the first of a series of excerpts from my book Tin Can Canucks. As the book is still under development these posts should be considered as part of a work in progress.
HMCS Grilse (I) Specifications:
Length : 205’
Beam: 18’ 6”
Displacement: 287 tons
Laid Down: 1912
Commissioned : 15-07-1915
Paid Off: 10-12-1918
Armament: 2 × 12pdr LA guns; one 14″ Torpedo Tube
Only five years old, and facing the prospect of German U-boats in Canadian waters—and without destroyers for protection—the Royal Canadian Navy set about acquiring private yachts for use as patrol and escort vessels. One of these was a 202 foot steam turbine yacht by the name of Winchester. To avoid running up against the American’s neutrality, several Canadian yacht owners privately purchased boats from Americans and then traded them to the RCN. This is the manner in which Grisle came to fly the white ensign in 1915.
HMCS Grilse as SY Winchester was one of a family of fast steam yachts used for commuting by P.W. Rouss. She was designed by Cox & Stevens and built by Yarrow along the sleek torpedo boat destroyer lines—which in conjunction with her Parson’s steam turbines could drive her up to 34 knots in good weather.
In an odd quirk of fate, Mr. Rouss commissioned the construction of another yacht named Winchester (the fourth), only to have it pressed into service with the US Navy in 1917—and she would later see wartime service with the Canadian Navy in 1940 as HMCS Renard . In all, three of the 4 Winchesters owned by Rouss would see military service with various navies at least once in their life.
Although not a destroyer in the truest sense, having been designated a Torpedo Boat she was tasked with many of the same escort and patrol duties in Canadian waters as Royal Navy torpedo boat destroyers (those of an earlier vintage than the front-line fleet’s destroyers represented by the M and R classes ). In that respect, she could be seen as the precursor of the navy’s destroyer force.
She arrived in in Canada and was commissioned the middle of July 1915 and after arriving at the Canadian Vickers shipyard in Montreal she was converted from a luxury yacht to a torpedo boat by the addition of a pair of 12-pounder (3-inch) quick firing guns and a 14-inch torpedo tube (located aft in place of the former salon/deck house). Additionally care was taken to de-store the ship’s fine china and other luxury items—although the wood fittings and other décor remained, leaving one to wonder how difficult life aboard the ship was in good weather!
Although she saw no U-boat during the war, Grilse was much in demand as an escort for convoy’s arriving and departing Halifax (a major Royal Navy base at the time). By October of 1915 she was patrolling off Cape Breton where she hunted for a reported U-boat in and around Little Bras d’Or Bridge and took part in an abortive U-boat trap off Cape Dauphine. The winter of 1915-1916 Grilse was loaned to the British Commander-in-Chief North America and West Indies station based in Bermuda. She would spend her time in the Caribbean undertaking anti-submarine patrols out of Jamaica. Her trip south was complicated by her high fuel consumption (3000 gallons—over 11,000 litres—of fuel oil a day at cruising speed) which left her 150 nautical miles out of Bermuda almost out of oil. She had used more than 13,000 gallons of fuel oil in her passage leaving Grilse to be towed in to Ireland Island Bermuda by the cruiser HMS Cumberland. After several quiet months in fine weather she returned to Canada—again short of fuel and needing to be towed into port.
Her patrols off Cape Breton during 1916 once more showed her lack of fuel economy and so she was pulled from her posting at Sydney, Nova Scotia to report back to Halifax where she would be reserved for escorting important vessels into and out of the port—with the stipulation that she couldn’t exceed 13 knots as a means of limiting her oil consumption.
Once again she was loaned to the Royal Navy for the winter and setting out for Bermuda with extra barrels (some 2,000 gallons) of oil lashed to her upper deck Grilse departed Halifax December 11, 2016. She would never complete her passage to the Caribbean. Running into a gale near Sable Island the former yacht nearly foundered as she was repeatedly swept by green seas. The oil barrels were jettisoned, but several crew members were lost as they were washed overboard—including one of the signalmen who was attempting to repair the radio antenna damaged by the gale. When one of the engine room skylights was smashed open the sea poured in—some four feet of water being shipped in the engine room giving the vessel a 20° list to starboard. Through dogged determination, a long night of bailing and not a little luck Grilse made it into Shelburne, Nova Scotia December 14 with little in the way of free board. In addition to the men washed overboard she had lost 3 lifeboats and a torpedo reload (including the warhead but excluding the gyro ).
Refitted and back to sea by May 10, 1917 to return to her anti-submarine patrol work, she would see no further adventures. She was likely laid up during the winter of 1917-1918 with a caretaker crew (her thin steel hull wouldn’t have fared well against thick maritime ice). By the Armistice she was little used having become very expensive for upkeep and for the limited local patrols.
Grilse was still with the navy when HMCS Patriot and HMCS Patrician joined the ranks of Canada’s naval vessels. She was however no longer in commission, having been paid off in 1918.
Eventually sold to Solomon Guggenheim in 1922, she foundered in a gale in 1938.