Winnipeg Company sailors lost their lives on a storm-tossed inland sea
Summer is normally a relatively quiet time for a Naval Reserve division, and August 1933 was supposed to be no exception. Formed in 1923, the fledgling “Winnipeg Company,” the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) unit in Manitoba’s capital, had just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
August began with big news for the unit. On Tuesday August 1st, Lieutenant-Commander Fraser Kelly was appointed as the third in the succession of Commanding Officers, replacing World War I veteran Lieutenant-Commander Hilary “Bay” Nares who had recently sought retirement.[i] Nares had been the second Commanding Officer of the Company, as he had replaced the unit’s original Commanding Officer and founder Eustace Brock.
Less than a week later, on the August long weekend, five Winnipeg Company sailors set out in one of the unit’s 27-foot Montague whalers for a sailing trip on Lake Winnipeg. It was a routine event for the Winnipeg Company sailors, a chance to practice their seamanship and to enjoy the Manitoba summer sun. In fact, Lieutenant Conan Frayer had given the men permission to use the whaler for a holiday trip on the lake. As well, a similar trip had been taken by the unit’s sailors just two weeks prior. According to regulations, the whaler could be taken out, just as long as a qualified Leading Seaman was in charge.
The sailor in charge of the weekend excursion was 25-year-old Leading Seaman William Burt. He was the only son of Mrs. Hester Burt a well-known member of the women’s auxiliary of the Army and Navy Veterans’ Association. His father had been a veteran of WWI. Billy Burt, as he was better known, was an excellent sailor, an expert boat handler and an experienced swimmer, having been a sea cadet prior to joining the Naval Reserve, and had spent 18 months in the US Mercantile Service, sailing mostly in Pacific waters. As a member of the RCNVR he had served on many ships out of Esquimalt and had travelled as far as Alaska.
Burt’s shipmate, John William Burch, was also reported to be a strong swimmer and an experienced sailor. Burch, a 19-year-old, was a recent student at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg and the son of Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Burch. Burch had a brother Harold who was also in the RCNVR, and was currently serving in Esquimalt, B.C. In fact, Burch came from a large family, with five other brothers and sisters.
At 37-years-old, Frank Collingwood was the oldest of the group. He had served in the RCNVR for eight years and had the reputation for being an intelligent man with plenty of naval experience. In 1928, he had served on HMS Durban when it cruised Alaskan waters and was proud to say that he had passed his gunnery exams on the same trip.
One of the most junior members of the crew was 19-year-old Michael Henry Gould. He was described as an efficient young sailor with an athletic build and a love for sports. He had joined the RCNVR only a year previous, and since had passed all his qualification exams, including a recently passed swim test.
Overall, all the men were reported to be fit and experienced sailors, and highly regarded members of the Naval Reserve Division in Winnipeg.
There was also a fifth man in the original crew, Tom Anderson. However, due to civilian work, Anderson had to cut his holiday short on Sunday morning and return to Winnipeg by train.
The whaler crew had arrived in the Grand Beach area on Saturday 5 August 1933. As planned, they spent the day sailing on the water and in the evening, they slept in the boat on the beach. They also took the time to join a friend, ex-reservist Frank Johnson, at his camp in Grand Beach for a few meals.
On Sunday 6 August, the whaler crew rested in preparation for a night-time transit of the lake that would take them to the mouth of the Red River and back into Winnipeg on Monday. In fact, a shipmate, Gordon McLean, reported seeing them at Grand Beach on Sunday at around 6 PM, saying they looked, “happy and fit.”
In a strong south wind, the four sailors in the Montague whaler departed Grand Beach shortly before midnight. With these conditions they would be able to make a quick passage to the mouth of the Red River on a starboard tack. However, after midnight the wind subsided, and then quickly shifted blowing from the northwest with great fury, causing storm conditions.
Nobody knows exactly how the sudden storm affected the four sailors in the Montague whaler. The exact details will never be known. However, the vessel Grand Rapids was nearby that night, returning to Selkirk from a voyage to Berens River and Norway House. Joe Sigurdur, the Skipper of the Grand Rapids described the storm as, “one of the worst windstorms in my experience.”[ii] As well, passengers aboard the Grand Rapids attested to the severity of the gale, stating that it would have been quite impossible for any small vessel to weather such a storm.
At 11:30 AM on Monday morning, the 7th of August 1933, a small sloop, the White Witch, crewed by four young men, spotted a capsized whaler about one and a half miles off Grand Marais. The crew of the White Witch came alongside the hull of the whaler and investigated the scene. One of their crew jumped onto the stern of the whaler but quickly scampered back aboard the White Witch as the whaler sank under his weight. They decided they couldn’t tow the whaler as their light sailboat would not allow it. However, their investigation proved there were no people or bodies visible in the area. They decided to leave the scene and report their finding to the first vessel they met.
It wasn’t until 3 PM when the White Witch came upon the boat of Hugh Russel, who was the Secretary of the Greater Winnipeg Water District. They told Mr. Russel what they had witnessed and described the overturned vessel as most likely a Montague whaler belonging to the Navy. They also reported that even though conditions were less than ideal, they were able to ascertain that no survivors were in the area.
It was some time later that Hugh Russel was able to reach a telephone and report the finding, which he did, to J. R. K. Millen, the head of the Winnipeg Branch of the Navy League. Then, it was well after midnight when the Winnipeg Company’s Commanding Officer’s phone rang telling him the distressing news.
A Desperate Search Begins
Early in the morning of Tuesday 8 August, the Winnipeg Company immediately made arrangements to search for the missing sailors, investigate, and recover the capsized whaler.
The hope of the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Commander Fraser Kelly, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, was that the crew had landed somewhere and were making their way on foot. In fact, at 10 AM that morning, CKY radio broadcasted an announcement asking the public to be on the lookout for the missing sailors and to report back any sightings.
At noon on Tuesday, the tug Friday slipped its berth in Selkirk with several members of the Winnipeg Company, and a Winnipeg Free Press reporter onboard. Led by former Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Commander Eustace Brock, the search party sailed north up the Red River where they happened to meet the White Witch, painfully tacking due south into the Red River against a southerly headwind. The crew of the White Witch was able to report their findings to Eustace Brock and the crew of the Friday.
Meanwhile on the lake, more signs of the catastrophe were appearing. Winnipeg residents, Joe Clettle and Ed Burrows, who had been camping at Grand Beach, were boating three miles south of Grand Marais when they discovered a wooden bow mat floating about a mile offshore. Both men were familiar with the rig of the navy whaler and immediately recognized the wooden grating as being from the missing boat.
Also on Tuesday, a Royal Canadian Air Force Fairchild 71 float plane was dispatched from its base at Lac Du Bonnet to search for the missing sailors. At 7 PM, despite the fact that only part of the bow was visible above the water, the pilot, Flight-Lieutenant Gordon, managed to spot the swamped whaler about two miles due west of Grand Beach. Despite the rough conditions on the lake at the time, he succeeded in landing the Fairchild near the whaler. Upon further investigation, he was unsuccessful in locating any of the missing sailors. With not much more that could be done, the pilot left the scene. Further investigation and recovery of the whaler would have to wait until the tug Friday arrived.
Unfortunately, when the Friday arrived at the entrance to Lake Winnipeg, conditions were too rough for them to enter the lake. The crew decided to wait, anchored at Netley Creek, and then attempt to continue north at 3 AM. When anchored, the Winnipeg Free Press reporter that was embarked onboard was forced to walk and hitchhike back to Selkirk, so he could file his story by phone. In fact, he returned onboard the Friday by 1:20 AM, in time to join the crew for their continuance onto the lake. Finally, at 4:00 AM, the wind lessened and the Friday continued its journey north onto Lake Winnipeg.
Just as breakfast was served on the Friday, shouts from the shore were heard. Surprisingly, it was Henry Gould, the father of missing sailor Michael Gould. In a desperate attempt to locate his son, he and Pat Benson, a family friend, had come up from Winnipeg to Matlock on a train Tuesday night. Then, late at night they hitched a ride as far as roads would take them, and then asked a fisherman to boat them to where the forks of the Red River entered Lake Winnipeg. There they slept in the reeds and awoke at dawn, lucky enough to see the tugboat Friday approaching.
The crew of the Friday embarked the men onboard and immediately fed them breakfast. As they entered Lake Winnipeg, the Friday sailed east into the rising sun as a heavy west wind caused breakers to sweep across the water. As they made their way further northeast, the crew, consisting of CPO RAC Milne , C Holland, T Anderson and TJ Bailey, all from the Winnipeg Company, stood watch on the bow of the tug looking out into the water for any sign of the missing men. Mr. Gould also stood out on deck, desperately scanning the water for any sign of his son.
The Friday sailed all the way across to Grand Beach and sighted nothing. When they arrived in the Grand Beach lagoon, the same Fairchild float plane from Lac du Bonnet that had spotted the whaler the day before swooped down and landed nearby. The pilot of the plane came aboard the tug and a conference was held. It was decided that the Fairchild would fly out and locate and land near the whaler. This would mark the position for the tug Friday to come and inspect the scene and attempt to recover the boat.
Once the Fairchild took off, it didn’t take long to spot the whaler. It was 10:15 AM when the whaler was re-located by the aircraft crew, Flying Officer R.O. Gordon and Leading Aircraftsman M.A. Hardy. By mid-morning the wind had dropped, and the Fairchild had no difficulty landing near the wreckage. Meanwhile, the Friday saw the location of the plane and headed straight for the location. It took an additional half an hour for the tug to arrive on scene.
When the Friday arrived, they discovered the whaler awash and on her side with only a small part of the bow showing. Curiously, her sails were still set for speed as they lay flat in the water. Another sail and boom floated on the water about 400 yards away.
The entire area was searched for evidence. Some personal items were found still trapped within the overturned boat: A sweat shirt, scarf, razor, a towel identified to belong to Michael Gould, and John Burch’s shaving kit, bathing suit and keys.
The Friday’s lifeboat davits were used to upright the whaler and then it was bailed out by the tugboats steam siphon. As the whaler was taken under tow, it was reported that Mr. Gould showed obvious emotion. Clearly, he realized the severity of the situation, and began to grieve for his son who was hopelessly lost and most likely drowned.
As the Friday took the whaler under tow and headed back to Selkirk, Eustace Brock boarded the Fairchild 71 as it flew away. The float plane flew a search pattern that covered the entire eastern shore of the lake. Skimming along the treetops the air crew and Brock searched the shorelines from Balsam Bay to Grand Beach for any sign of the missing sailors. They searched until 2 PM when the aircraft returned to base in Lac Du Bonnet. Dismayed by the fruitless search, Eustace Brock returned to Winnipeg by automobile.
On Wednesday, the Friday also picked up John Burch’s brother Harold, as he had rushed to Selkirk on Tuesday evening, and then sailed in the steamship Vaughan to the mouth of the Red River. There, he had boarded a government dredge, and went no further, returning later to Selkirk on the tug Friday as it passed inbound with the whaler in tow. Once he witnessed the stricken whaler, he could not hide his disappointment.
The tug Friday reached Selkirk by 4:20PM Wednesday. The whaler was tied up separately and the damaged rigging was transported back to the Gertrude Avenue Barracks by members of the Winnipeg Company.
The Search Continues
Over the next two days, searches continued on the lake by boat, and by foot on the shorelines.
Mr. W. H. Burch, the father of John Burch, and Joe Collingwood, the brother of Frank Collingwood, teamed together to mount their own independent search for their loved ones. On Tuesday they had originally set out in a motor launch from Netley Creek to search around the mouth of the Red River. They relied on the help of Bill Burrs, an experienced fisherman, to pilot their search boat. Later in the week Mr. Burch setup a search headquarters at Grand Marais.
The Fairchild float plane flights from Lac du Bonnet also continued. As well, Eustace Brock and a crew of sailors from the Winnipeg Company continued to sail aboard the tug Friday, scouring the south basin for any sign of the missing sailors.
The tug Friday left Selkirk on Friday. On Saturday afternoon it put into Winnipeg Beach where it picked up the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Commander Kelly, Sub-Lieutenant James Plomer, and several other fresh members of the Company.
Back in Winnipeg, the Gertrude Avenue barracks remained open as a communications centre, to receive the latest communications and to act as an information point for concerned relatives.
Finally, on Saturday 12 August, a boater named William Harper discovered the body of a light-haired young man one quarter mile offshore of Beaconia. He was assumed to be one of the missing sailors as he was clothed in a blue sweater and tam, and wore a ring on the second finger of the right hand engraved with the initials “HG”. Lieutenant Conan Frayer from the Winnipeg Company was asked to identified the body, and he was able to confirm that it was Michael Henry Gould. Gould’s body was taken to Winnipeg where his family began arrangements for his funeral.
Back on Lake Winnipeg, the crew of the Friday continued the search all weekend. It was tedious work. When the tug came in close to shore the crew was kept busy making soundings to gauge the depth of the shallow water. After searching until Sunday evening, they had completely combed the southern part of the lake. Then, in disappointment, the Winnipeg Company had to call off the search for the remaining sailors.
Board of Inquiry
On Monday 14 Aug, Commander C.T. Beard, Director of Naval Reserve, arrived in Winnipeg to conduct a Board of Inquiry. The board was convened in the navy barracks on Gertrude Avenue from 5 PM to 11 PM. Also sitting on the board were Commander Eustace Brock, Lieutenant-Commander Hilary Nares, and Lieutenant Conan Frayer.
The Board of Inquiry found that the accident was solely due to abnormal weather conditions which came on after the voyage had begun. They decided that the boat was in all respects fit for such a voyage in normal weather conditions, and that the boat was manned by competent sailors. No blame was attributed to any individual person.
Coincidentally, almost at the same time the Board of Inquiry had begun, at 6 PM that evening the body of Leading Seaman Billy Burt was found washed ashore at the mouth of the Brokenhead River near Scanterbury.
On Tuesday 15 August, before he left Winnipeg, the Director of Naval Reserve attended the funeral of Michael Henry Gould at St. Mary’s Cathedral. After the service, a burial was held at St. Mary’s Cemetery on Osborne Street. The service was also attended by many members of the Winnipeg Company.
On Wednesday 16 August, members of the Winnipeg Company once again gathered, this time for the funeral for their shipmate Leading Seaman Billy Burt. After the service, Burt was buried in Brookside Cemetery.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, ten days after the tragic incident had occurred, search parties consisting of members of the Brokenhead Reserve found the final two sailor’s bodies in the marshes near the mouth of the Brokenhead River, near Scanterbury. Burch was found at about 2 PM and Collingwood was found about a mile away at 4 PM. Harold Burch was called upon to identify his brother’s body, and Joe Collingwood did the same for his brother Frank.
Thus, all four sailors were now found. The complete scope of the tragedy was confirmed.
On the morning of Friday 18 August, Frank Collingwood’s funeral was held at St. Edwards Church on Arlington Street. Afterward, he was buried at St. Mary’s cemetery, very close to shipmate Michael Gould. Later in the afternoon, John Burch’s funeral was held at Thomson Funeral Home on Broadway Avenue. He was later buried at Brookside Cemetery, right next to his shipmate Billy Burt.
Map of Locations pertinent to this story
Lost but not forgotten
[i] Winnipeg Free Press, 2 August 1933, Page 4.
[ii] Winnipeg Free Press, 11 August 1933, Page 1.
This is a story I wrote as an addendum to my 2003 book “Winnipeg’s Navy.” When this story came to my attention in 2011, I realized this piece was missing from the book. However, there was not going to be a chance to republish the book at that time.
I researched most of the details of the story through the Winnipeg Free Press Archives. I originally looked up the story on a computer at the Winnipeg Public Library where I saw the 10 August 1933 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press where the event was described as, “one of the worst in the eventful history of Lake Winnipeg.” However, there was too much information for one visit to the library. I decided to purchase a Winnipeg Free Press newspaper archives subscription and do more online research from home.
There was a plenty of information available in the Winnipeg Free Press, as I soon discovered this story was one if the biggest news items in August 1933, and it was thoroughly reported.
I found it interesting how the Free Press reporters gave their accounts of the events with great detail. Even describing how the reporter made his way back to Selkirk to file his story, and then return to the tugboat in time to continue on with the search party. We are not accustomed to seeing this type of reporting in today’s media.
I walked though St. Mary’s Cemetery three times before I found the graves of Frank Collingwood and Michael Gould. The grounds staff were friendly to me each time I came around, but I could see they were scratching their heads as to why I kept coming back. Finally, on the third visit I found the grave markers. They were literally in the last place I looked.
While searching in St. Mary’s Cemetery I managed to stumble upon ex-Blue Bomber Tommy Cook’s military grave marker. In 1940, he left football to join the Navy, but was killed in a shipboard accident. But that’s another story….
I also found the military grave marker of a man named Cyril E. Turney (RNR). Using the Free Press newspaper archives I was able to discover that he had committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest. He lay in the hospital for two weeks before he passed away, leaving behind a widow and five children. Another sad story of a sad life, lost and forgotten.
Brookside Cemetery is right next to Red River College where I worked at the time. I visited twice, once blindly, to the military section, where I scanned for burials around 1933. I did not find them. Then I discovered that you may browse the burials in Brookside Cemetery online, on the City of Winnipeg website. I found that Burch and Burt were buried next to each other in section 21, which is not in the military section of the cemetery. The next day, after work, I went back to Brookside and after about 20 minutes I walked all around section 21, then I finally found Billy Burt’s grave marker, in the last corner where I had not yet looked. However, Burch’s marker was not there. Instead, a tree sits where his marker may have been.
The one thing I wonder, is if these sailors were wearing lifejackets, would they have drowned? We will never know for sure, but I am willing to bet that the answer is yes. In my navy days, whenever we went out anywhere, including Lake Winnipeg, we wore life jackets. Sure, we could all swim. However, I know that you can’t swim very well wearing a uniform and boots. Also, these sailors were young and fit. People with low body fat don’t float very well.
Lake Winnipeg, is really an inland sea. The south basin of the lake is fairly shallow, which means that the waves created by wind can be unusually high. It can be a tricky body of water, even in moderate conditions. In fact, in storm conditions, Lake Winnipeg can be downright dangerous.
May they rest in peace. I think of these poor sailors whenever I see Lake Winnipeg.