Neil Bruce, who died last month at the age of 91, was one of five men who rescued HMCS Haida in 1964 when the ship was on its way to the scrapyard. Some of them mortgaged their houses, others dipped into their life savings to come up with $20,000 – $160,000 in today’s money – to buy the Haida, the last of the famous Tribal-class destroyers, the most powerful ships in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War.
“Neil was the driving force in saving the Haida,” said retired Chief Petty Officer Tom Estabrooks, who served on the Haida, though after the war.
The Haida sank 14 enemy vessels, more than any other ship in the Royal Canadian Navy. They included three German destroyers in April, 1944, as well as damaging another in January, 1944. All of those actions were night battles. Its captain, Commander (later Vice-Admiral) Harry DeWolf was the most decorated Canadian naval officer of the war, another reason for the romance surrounding the Haida.
The Haida sank U-971, a German submarine, on June 24, 1944, in the English Channel. That was 18 days after D-Day and destroyers such as the Haida were trying to protect ships carrying troops and materiel from southern England to France.
“It was very rare for Tribals to sink a submarine,” says Peter Dixon, the official historian of Friends of HMCS Haida, a volunteer group. “She is also credited with two and half trains in Korea in 1952.”
The five men who rescued the Haida were from different backgrounds: a lawyer, a reporter, a PR man, a museum curator and an airline pilot (Neil Bruce). The five met on a farewell tour that the warship made in 1963. None had served on the Haida, though Mr. Bruce served in the Royal Canadian Navy late in the war.
Saving the ship seemed an impossible task. The government announced it was going to be scrapped and that was it. Mr. Bruce became the president of Haida Inc. He lobbied the minister of national defence, Paul Hellyer, who was sympathetic. Mr. Bruce also flew to Bermuda to appeal for support from the retired Vice-Adm. DeWolf. In June of 1964 there was an agreement for Haida Inc. to buy the warship for $20,000, payable over 10 years with no interest and the first payment deferred for a year.
The partners behind Haida Inc. were told they could pick up the ship at Sorel, Que. Then came the tough job of towing it up the St. Lawrence River and through the Seaway.
Right away there were more expenses. The group hired McAllister Towing of Montreal, which charged $6,500 to tow the ship to Toronto (though the company donated $1,000 of its fee back to Haida Inc.). There were two tugs, one pulling the vessel and another behind to help guide it through currents in the river. The five partners of Haida Inc. were prepared to pay for the ship but they hadn’t counted on the cost of getting it to Toronto, and eventually having repair work done at a shipyard near St. Catharines.
“The five of us signed pledges on our houses to guarantee a $20,000 line of credit,” said Peter Ward, the only surviving member of the group that saved the Haida, who was a reserve naval officer and the military reporter for the old Toronto Telegram. “It couldn’t have been done without Neil. When he got an idea into his head he kept going. He had tremendous determination.”
The Haida was welcomed by a flotilla of pleasure boats when it arrived in Toronto Harbour. It docked at the foot of York Street, where it became a tourist attraction. In 1970 the Ontario government bought the Haida for one dollar and moved it to Ontario Place. The federal government eventually bought the Haida and Liberal MP Sheila Copps worked to have it moved to Hamilton, where it is open to tourists and operated and maintained by Parks Canada as a national monument.
John Neil Bruce was born on April 7, 1926, in Toronto, and grew up in the Beaches neighbourhood. His mother, Edna, worked for the government and his father, Ernest, ran a small advertising and sign-painting business. In the early years of the Depression, his father kept the wolf from the door with a contract to paint the gold numbers on the 12,473 seats of Maple Leaf Gardens, which opened in 1931.
From an early age Neil wanted to be a pilot. He was so keen to start flying lessons that he made a forged birth certificate while he was still underage. When he tried to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force, though, the recruiters spotted the forgery and the RCAF turned him down. When he was finally old enough he joined the Navy instead. It was late in the war and he only served on patrol vessels in Gulf of St. Lawrence.
After the war Mr. Bruce worked to get his pilot’s licence and eventually joined Trans-Canada Air Lines (which later became Air Canada). During one particularly tricky flight his plane was struck by lightning, knocking out some of the controls and he had to make a manual landing, his son Shawn recalled.
Mr. Bruce would do Haida work during his spare time on layovers in Europe. Historian Peter Dixon says Mr. Bruce found parts for the Haida’s missing 20-mm machine guns in England and Holland and had them shipped back to Canada. When the ship was docked at Ontario Place, its main 4-inch guns were used to fire blanks to coincide with performances of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in the nearby amphitheatre, in the section where drums usually simulate the cannons of the Napoleonic Wars.
Mr. Bruce lived on a farm in Milton, Ont., to the west of Toronto’s Pearson Airport. After he retired from Air Canada, he and his wife, Rachel, raised as many as 300 Suffolk and North Country Cheviot sheep. He was deeply involved in the local community and helped build a school in Streetsville.
His first wife, Joan, died when she was 35. His son Haddo, named after an uncle who died in the Second World War, was killed in a plane accident after earning his pilot’s licence.
Mr. Bruce died at home on his farm on April 15 after a battle with cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. He leaves his wife, Rachel; four surviving children, Bonnie, Dana, Neil and Shawn; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
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