A lieutenant in the R.C.N.V.R.
Eric Riordon enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve, the “Wavy Navy", on June 10, 1940 at the new naval barracks on Mountain Street near Sherbrooke West in Montreal. He had always had an interest in ships and the sea, the navy was a natural choice for his military service.
He was made an acting lieutenant on enlistment, presumably based on his age, his family's social standing and Ashbury College and McGill University education. The navy also had a desperate need for suitable officers at that time, most experienced men had been activated in 1939.
At 33, Riordon was accepted at a relatively advanced age for a new recruit, before the war the age limit had been 32. Military service was a family affair, elder brother Harold became an Air Force flight lieutenant and younger brother Peter, a pre-war graduate of the Royal Military College, joined the army with the Royal Canadian Artillery, eventually rising to the rank of major. Their father Carl had been the captain of B Company of the 19th St Catharines "Lincoln" Regiment for several years before the First War.
Riordon spent the next seven months at Montreal Division on a relatively light schedule. He underwent drill and basic officer training but was left with time at home and time to paint. He was promoted to full lieutenant in November of 1940.
In mid January of 1941 he was posted to HMCS Stadacona at Halifax, East Coast navy headquarters and the main RCN training base. There followed an intensive 14 week theoretical and practical course in naval procedures, ship handling and command.
On the 1st of May he was back in Montreal as executive officer of two establishments, the largely English speaking Montreal Division and the mostly French speaking Cartier Division, located further north on Mountain Street in the original Montreal Division barracks. Lieutenant CommanderAlan Easton in his book, 50 North: An Atlantic Battleground, described an executive officers duties as "working the seamen, the co-ordination of departments and the general co-operation of individuals so that harmony would endure and discipline would prevail."
This new designation placed Riordon second in command of the RCN establishment in Montreal under Commander Paul Earl. He was thus allowed the traditional informal Royal Navy title awarded to first lieutenants of "Jimmy The One". Nine years later Commodore Paul Earl would make the introductory speech on the opening day of the North Atlantic Convoy Exhibition in Montreal.
As executive officer Riordon was in overall day to day charge of training, recruitment and administration. A significant part of his duties involved "showing the flag". This included leading frequent naval parades through the streets of Montreal, sometimes with the entire complements of both divisions, upwards of 500 men. On the 9th of May he made a radio broadcast appearance on CFCF Montreal to speak about the need to support the North End Canteen Fund which assisted merchant seamen in Halifax to get by while they waited for their next convoy. This was a cause for which he advocated repeatedly while in Montreal and Halifax.
On the 10th of June, 1941 he supervised a large and very well attended public demonstration of gun, rope and boat handling skills at the McGill University campus.
(Left) July 02, 1940, Montreal Star
Riordon also represented the navy at formal dinners, church services and various commemoration ceremonies. The Montreal newspapers captured many of these activities, a particularly vivid account of the October Battle of Trafalgar commemoration in Jacques Cartier Square appeared in the Gazette.
Above image - Battle of Trafalgar Parade. October 20, 1941. Montreal Gazette.
There was relatively little time on the water for the officers and men of Montreal division though some ship handling training was undertaken on yachts provided by wealthy officers and local citizens. A newspaper article describes Riordon's efforts to get his sub-lieutenants navigation and crew management training. They would be assigned to scheduled commercial riverboat service on the St Lawrence and Saguenay rivers.
(Left) July 09, 1941, Montreal Gazette
A photograph of the full complement of Montreal and Cartier Division officers on August 31, 1941 shows Eric front and centre. Most of these men were on the way to Halifax to continue training or to join their new ships as "subbies", sub-lieutenants.
It was his turn to be posted to Halifax for sea duty on October 31. He was assigned to HMCS Fundy, pennant number J88, the first of a small class of four minesweepers based on a British trawler design. Although she is a trim little ship it is obvious from her photo she was built neither for speed nor service on the open ocean. Her construction and commissioning in 1938 had been a major event for the RCN as she was the first warship built and launched in Canada since 1918. At the outbreak of war she was one of only four RCN ships on the East coast and only thirteen in the entire country. By the end of the war there would be nearly four hundred, the majority from Canadian shipyards.
Fundy's duties consisted of patrolling Halifax harbour and approaches and conducting regular sweeps for mines on fixed, buoy to buoy, navigation patterns. Fundy served in this capacity throughout the war, only escorting convoys on a couple of occasions. The available ships logs from April of 1942 reveal that Fundy was on a regular daily schedule, raising anchor at Pier 5 and departing around 06:00, returning mid to late afternoon. She and her three sister ships became known around Halifax harbour as the "Teatime Trawlers".
Riordon certainly gained extensive ship handling, navigation and command experience and skills. He also qualified for his watch keeping certificate in April thus enabling him to be in sole command of the ship during his watch.
His last day with Fundy was the 28th of April, 1942. An RCAF aerial photo of Halifax harbour on that very day is in the City archives. Fundy is tied up at a pier on the Halifax (left or west) side of the Narrows. The merchant ships for the next convoy to England, HX 188, are awaiting departure and can just be seen in Bedford Basin, upper left.
After leave and some further training he was assigned at the end of May to Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), Ontario where two new Bangor Class minesweepers were under construction at the PASCOL (Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co Ltd) yard. It may not have been a coincidence in the awarding of ship-building contracts to a shipyard so far from the ocean that Port Arthur was in the federal riding of C.D. Howe. He was known as Canada's "minister of everything" and was the man chiefly responsible for Canada's prodigious industrial war effort.
The Bangor class was a new British design and first entered service in England in November 1940. The first Canadian built vessel sailed in April of 1941. The Bangors were only 180 feet from stem to stern. Although highly maneuverable and with a small turning circle, their length and shallow draught made them unstable in heavy seas and their short hulls exaggerated a tendency to bury the bow in a head sea. They were also slower than a surfaced submarine. The Bangors were overcrowded, cramming up to six officers and over 70 ratings into a vessel originally intended for a total of 40 or so. The smaller size of these ships did mean that they could be built at Canadian inland shipyards as they were able to pass through the many short locks of the St Lawrence River between Kingston and Montreal. They were not suitable for escort duties on ocean crossings and were destined to operate primarily on the Eastern seaboard of North America where they did a fine job in the escort role despite their initially inexperienced crews and inadequate equipment. Later in the war, Kenora and many other RCN Bangors travelled to England and were re-equipped for minesweeping the approaches to the D-Day Normandy invasion beaches. Kenora continued her minesweeping duties in the English Channel until well after the war.
At Port Arthur, Riordon was effectively the on-site liaison between the navy and the builders. He also assisted in organising the reception and training of an almost entirely new complement of inexperienced sailors, most of whom had never seen the sea. Drafts of petty officers and ratings were arriving at the CPR train station until the last day before sailing.
The first of the two ships to be completed was commissioned and christened HMCS Kenora on the 5th of August. Kenora, named after the Northern Ontario town, was assigned pennant number J281 (the large number painted near the bow of warships). She was placed under the command of RCNVR lieutenant Frederick Robb Naftel, a relatively experienced sailor who had commanded patrol vessels on the west coast. Riordon would act as first lieutenant.
The other RCNVR officers were newly minted lieutenants John M. Leeming and Marcel J.A.T. Jette, fresh out of Royal Roads, the RCN training school in Victoria. Kenora did have veteran leadership and convoy escort experience provided by RCNR mate James J.H. Green who had two years of service on the corvettes Snowberry and Lethbridge. He also had his Watch Keeping certificate and would become the navigating officer in September. Joseph Lazariste Bolduc, 41 years old, the commissioned RCNR engineering officer, came from a seafaring family and had spent his pre-war career on merchant vessels. He had recently seen action on the merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert. Leeming and Jette would have significant careers in the postwar navy, both rising to senior command positions.
The very next day, August 06, at 18:45 hours, the mooring lines securing the ship to the CN jetty were slipped. Kenora and her crew began an epic, three week, wartime transit voyage to the ocean. They sailed across Lake Superior to Sault Ste Marie and Lake Huron, down the St Clair and Detroit rivers, then east across Lake Erie, through the Welland Canal to Lake Ontario with a stopover in Toronto, down the St Lawrence River, a stopover in Montreal, then on to Quebec City.
At Toronto they spent an afternoon out on Lake Ontaro firing their guns, dropping real and dummy depth charges, testing flare pistols and communications equipment and performing evacuation drills.
What a journey that must have been for the largely green crew of a brand new warship, many of them passing through their home towns on the way. Some of the logbook pages for this journey are included under the Additional Documents Tab
After provisioning and taking on a full load of ammunition at Quebec City Kenora was assigned her maiden escort duty on September 03. She was attached to a convoy of 13 merchant ships designated as QS32, sailing from Bic(quette) Island, just west of Rimouski in the St Lawrence river, to Sydney, Nova Scotia. The journey was not without incident as heavy fog caused Kenora to lose sight of the convoy at 22:00 on the 3rd. They carried on with their previously agreed course and speed until resighting their "sheep" at 05:10 on the 4th. The convoy arrived safely at Sydney on the 6th of September. The dangers of this route were vividly illustrated as the very next convoy, QS33, which left September 06 on the same route, was heavily attacked by a pair of U-boats. Four of the eight merchant ships were sunk as well as the armed yacht, HMCS Raccoon, torpedoed by U-165 and lost with all hands. In the next ten days the same submarines sank the corvette, HMCS Charlottetown, as well as four merchant ships from convoy QS36. These were very dangerous waters. The escort of convoy QS32 entitled Kenora to official, and uniquely Canadian, campaign honours for the Gulf of St Lawrence (1942), in addition to those she later earned for the Atlantic (1942-1945) and Normandy (1944).
Kenora finally arrived at her new home port of Halifax from Sydney on the 7th of September, escorting a two ship convoy on the way.
Soon after Riordon was officially promoted to first lieutenant, second in command, now his third stint as "Jimmy The One". It is interesting to note that when filling out Kenora's log he now took pains to describe himself as "First" lieutenant in his regular entries.
Kenora then sailed through the Cabot Strait to Pictou, on the north shore of Nova Scotia, where ship and crew went through their "Workups". These were trials, conducted by training officers out of Halifax, intended to test both the fitness of the ship and the skills and efficiency of the crew, from captain to the lowest rated sailors. The workups were interrupted by equipment failures and a necessary thorough cleaning of the boilers, eventually taking four weeks to complete. Kenora's officer evaluations were performed by the RCN training commander, the legendary James C. "Jimmy" Hibbard. He would subsequently become commander of the equally legendary Tribal Class destroyer Iroquois. At this time he was one of a bare handful of fully qualified trainers in the RCN. Kenora and crew were given an adequate overall rating with the comment that they were "sure to improve with experience". The wartime standard for a successful workup was much lower than normal given the overwhelming urgency to get more escorts in service. Nevertheless given the inexperienced, hastily trained and ill-equipped crews of all the new ships "sure to improve..." should be considered more than faint praise.
Riordon himself was favorably mentioned: "First Lieutenant is keen and works hard, reliable and should work up a good ship's company". It was also noted that he, and his captain, handled the ship well in exercises.
By the beginning of October 1942, Kenora was assigned to the Western Local Escort Force (WLEF). At this time the WLEF was not organised in groups as the mid-ocean escorts were. This would not occur until the summer of 1943, after Riordon had left for Ottawa. The ships were assigned individually to the convoys where and as needed. They were also frequently assigned to shepherd lone ships separated from their convoys by weather or straggling due to storm damage, mechanical breakdowns or faulty navigation. Kenora's log has many references to these duties. Her dedicated task however was escorting the initial stages of eastbound (designated SC and HX) convoys from New York and Halifax to WESTOMP. This was the Western Ocean meeting point, a variable point on a chart roughly 250 miles south southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland and south of Cape Farewell, Greenland. This is where the WLEF escorts would hand over screening duties to the mid-ocean escort groups based out of St. John's and it was here they would pick up the westbound (ON) convoys and screen them onward to Halifax and New York City. This became known to all the sailors involved as "The Triangle Run".
North Atlantic Convoy Operational Map, late 1943. Montreal Gazette, Dec 17, 1989
Kenora, probably at Halifax in 1943. The effects of rust and contact with other ships while berthing clearly visible. There was no time, no available manpower and no imperative to keep the ships spic and span.
Riordon was certainly gaining first hand knowledge of the full range of fighting ships that shepherded the convoys across the North Atlantic. He would have seen, in harbour and at sea, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, corvettes, frigates, minesweepers and motor launches in all their different classes. Many of these would become subjects of his brush.
The duty was wearying, tedious, uncommonly stressful and physically very uncomfortable. The sailors waged a constant battle against the cold and damp, the blinding East coast fogs and the violent motions of the ship in heavy weather. It also required nonstop vigilance, continual struggles with faulty equipment and wayward merchant ships, and attention to the smallest details on every watch.
The escort ships were at sea almost constantly, sometimes having only a few hours in port at New York, Halifax or St. John's, to refuel, take on food and ammunition and perform hasty, patchwork repairs.
In Kenora's log the entries by Riordon and other officers describe frequent heavy weather scattering the convoys, constantly malfunctioning equipment and continuous difficulties in station keeping and communications. Temporary loss of contact with their convoy, usually due to fog or heavy weather, was a frequent occurrence for Kenora and all the escorts. Occasionally they would detach to chase down reports of U-boats spotted by convoy ships, Riordon recorded multiple occasions in the log. The westbound ON convoys, composed of mainly empty ships riding high in the water, were particularly susceptible to the frequent heavy rain and gale force winds of winter storms on the east coast of Canada and the U.S. The merchant ships in ballast were very difficult to control and ice accumulation made them dangerously top-heavy.
The dangers of convoy escort duty are vividly illustrated in this description of a terrifying ordeal while escorting convoy ON 158 southwest on the Halifax to New York leg. In a January 21, 1943 log entry Riordon writes of the commanding officer's call for volunteers to rid the ship of a dangerous accumulation of ice off the southeastern coast of Nova Scotia. The log notes that everyone, including the officers, responded. The ice and nearly hurricane force winds made sailing so difficult they were forced to heave to for almost 48 hours. Lieutenant Jette made a grim entry at 04:00 on January 22; “Unable to cope with severe and dangerous icing conditions”. Subsequently a massive green wave buried everyone in freezing water, injuring three crewmen and forcing an end to the ice clearing. The ice was not removed until after they managed to struggle up a narrow channel to reach safety in the harbour at nearby Shelburne, and then by a shore party from the local naval barracks. This terrifying experience surely inspired the convoy series painting, The Battle of Ice. Kenora had barely 14 hours in harbour before urgent orders from N.S.H.Q. in Ottawa sent them back out into the by now diminishing storm to rejoin their convoy. They never did locate the bulk of the convoy but rounded up three "lost sheep" merchant ships, Fort Pelly, Asbjorn and Josefina Thorden, and brought them safely to New York. Kenora also had the worry of a stoker taken severely ill with appendicitis on a ship with only minimal medical facilities to treat him. The relief at finally reaching their berth at Staten Island on January 26 must have been tremendous. Riordon had also missed the previous day's wedding of his brother Peter to his wife Mollie's sister Betty in Montreal.
The merchant ship, St Sunniva, on her very first trip as designated rescue vessel of convoy ON 158, iced up the same night as Kenora, capsized and vanished off nearby Cape Sable Island.
The entries in Kenora's log tended to follow the British Royal Navy convention of making only brief and dispassionate notes that rarely conveyed the fear and stress they must have been feeling in the difficult and dangerous environment in which they operated.
Some of the log book pages and signals for these days are included under the Additional Documents Tab
Riordon left Kenora on the third of March, 1943, and after a period of leave, was posted to Naval Service Headquarters (NSHQ) in Ottawa as a Duty Operations Officer in the Operations Division of the Naval Staff.
The NSHQ was housed in a large newly built complex that filled Cartier Square, just south of the Parliament Buildings by the Rideau Canal. Ottawa City Hall now occupies that space.
Ottawa was very familiar to Eric from his eight years at Ashbury College boarding school. Mollie was able to visit frequently and home leave was only a short train ride away.
The organizational order in the Navy List indicates he was on the personal staff of the Director of Operations, Captain George H. Griffiths, O.B.E.
Riordon was now at the very heart of the navy's convoy organization. It was from Operations Division that escort ships were allocated, convoy routes chosen and sailing schedules co-ordinated. They were working with all the latest intelligence on U-boat dispositions and capabilities. Riordon was one of a select few to participate in and possess intimate knowledge of the overall convoy war.
A year in Ottawa was followed by a May, 1944 move back to Halifax and two months at HMCS Kings, the specialist officer training school for Eastern Canada. He was then posted in July to his first command, HMCS Pathfinder (pennant number T-1), the training vessel at HMCS Star, the naval division in Hamilton, Ontario. He was joined there for the summer by his wife Mollie and young son Eric Jr.
Pathfinder was a private yacht, built in 1896, which had been commandeered early in the war by the RCN for conversion at Collingwood dockyards to a naval training ship. Training was provided in specialized ship trades and for all ranks in sailing, communications, navigation, gunnery, engine room operations etc.
Riordon was effectively reprising his role in charge of the training establishment at Montreal Division in 1941, of course in Hamilton he had an actual ship to command and sail. Riordon remained in Hamilton until late October.
His next, and final posting of the war, was to HMCS Avalon, the RCN base at St John's Newfoundland. Although Newfoundland was a British colony Canada had overall control of naval operations and commanded the Northwest Atlantic sector of convoy operations. As a consequence Canada had built up a large administration, repair and resupply base (over five thousand Canadians served here) for the mid-ocean escort groups in St John's. Riordon was familiar with the city having made several stopovers while with HMCS Kenora. It may not have been coincidental that he was again serving under Captain George H. Griffiths, his Director of Operations at N.S.H.Q. in Ottawa. Griffiths was now Chief of Staff at Avalon, directly under the Flag Officer Newfoundland Force.
Perhaps in anticipation of what must have appeared an approaching end to the war Riordon was made a Staff Officer - Rehabilitation. His remit was to prepare servicemen for the postwar transition to civilian life, a goal with which he must have been wholeheartedly in agreement.
The European war finally ended on the 9th of May, Riordon resigned his lieutenant’s commission on the 12th and was back home in Montreal with Mollie and the boys on the 15th.
He could now apply himself to resuming his artistic career. It was certainly on his mind that it would include the making of a painting record of the convoy war from his sketches, notes and, most importantly, direct personal experience of the ships and events of that war. The record would, after his death, become the North Atlantic Convoy exhibition.
At some point after the war Riordon was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-commander in the R.C.N.(R), the new Naval reserve division created by the amalgamation of the R.C.N.V.R. and R.C.N.R. on January 01, 1946.