On November 11, we remember those who served our country, but for Harry Hurwitz the day he can’t forget is April 29, 1944.
That was the day Hurwitz and other victims of a German torpedo attack on his Canadian ship ended up in the English Channel, struggling to survive.
At 92, and a resident of the B’Nai Brith House in Côte St. Luc, Hurwitz recalled his remarkable story in preparation for Remembrance Day
ceremonies. He is to lay a wreath at the cenotaph in Montreal West.
The Lachine-born son of trucker Chaim and Bella, with seven brothers and five sisters, enlisted in 1939 at age 18. He switched from the army to the navy and in 1942 shipped out to Greenock, just west of Glasgow, Scotland.
As an able-bodied seaman, Hurwitz was
assigned to H.M.C.S. Athabaskan and in August 1943, while patrolling the channel, the ship was attacked by six Messerschmitt fighter-bombers.
“We opened fire, we drove five away, but one came out of the sky and dropped a bomb right near me. I was one of the lucky ones. The guy next to me was killed instantly and seven others died as well.”
He later sailed to Murmansk, Russia, as part of a convoy of 57 ships delivering materials and supplies to assist the Soviet Union in resisting and counter-attacking the German assault.
“Only about 20 made it. The rest were torpedoed and sunk. I was up in the masthead when it was 40 below zero, watching for enemy ships. They gave me a cup of coffee every 10 minutes, it was so cold.”
From its base in Plymouth, U.K., the Athabascan continued to patrol the English Channel where the Allies were expected to launch the long-awaited second front by invading France.
On April 29, the ship left Plymouth at 6 pm and after three hours was at the French coast not far from Brest.
“For some reason, we went a little too close to the French coast. I’m on my gun at our action station, and all of a sudden a torpedo hit our ship near the stern. It was cut off completely, about 2,000 shells exploded and everyone was killed instantly.
“We got the order from Commander John Stubbs—who gave the order to man the hoses—to see if we could put out the fire. Guys were dying, they were screaming. Me and four other guys grabbed the hose, and just then a second torpedo hit. There was no pressure, everything was dead, the whole ship was ablaze. I got a piece of shrapnel right above my nose.
“Then the captain yelled out, ‘Abandon ship!’ Me and my friend Raymond Meloche (who lives at Ste. Anne’s veterans’ hospital) jumped. I threw off my big rubber boots and my heavy coat. We sunk at 4:28 am. How do I know? My mother bought me a cheap watch on my bar mitzvah and I had it all these years. She paid $4 for it!
“We were in the water for six or seven hours.
“First I was holding on to the masthead, with Meloche. I couldn’t see.
“I was covered with oil from head to toe. Then I held on to an empty barrel.
“One guy had his leg blown off and he kept yelling, ‘I don’t want to die.’ Another had a big hole in his stomach and the salt water was getting in and he was yelling. We couldn’t do anything. They all died in the water.”
A lifeboat floated nearby, probably released by Allied ships to help survivors. “About 15 or 16 of us got into the lifeboat. We had no oars, so we drifted, like a bunch of dummies.”
A German battleship appeared and prepared to take the men prisoner.
“I had my Magen David (Jewish star) and I ripped it off my neck and tossed it into the water. I also tossed a wallet, with Jewish things and about $40 I won the day before rolling the dice with the money from payday.”
Records show that 129 of the crew, including Captain John Stubbs, died. Hurwitz was among 83 men taken prisoner while another 44 were
rescued by H.M.C.S. Haida. The war was coming to an end and the German captors “were very good to us.”
“We arrived in France and we saw two girls completely naked, dead drunk, and they cheered, ‘A way, les bons Canadiens,’ while the Germans commander yelled, ‘schnell’.”
Hurwitz was interrogated at a convent and gave his name as Hurwit – “I took off the zed, to sound less Jewish.”
His interrogator, an officer about 75, turned out to be “a really nice man. I told him I was from Lachine and he told me he had worked for General Electric in Lachine for about 20 years! I lived on 10th Ave. and LaSalle St., and General Electric was on 1st Ave. and LaSalle St.”
The German had immigrated to Canada to work as an engineer, but in 1936 went back to Germany to help his country, Hurwitz recalled.
He pounded the table, denounced the Jews, but Hurwitz said he replied he had worked for Jews and never had any problems.
After 14 days in Brest, the PoWs were taken to a camp outside Hamburg. “Every night at exactly midnight, R.A.F. bombers attacked the oil installations there, and at Kiel, Bremen and Hanover. We would sit on top of our shack and had a beautiful view.”
He and a fellow prisoner bribed a guard with 25 cigarettes, worth “$500 on the black market,” and got wire cutters to escape. But when he asked a German woman in his Yiddish-style German in a nearby farm for a glass of water, she called the police and they were rearrested.
A senior British officer among the prisoners at the camp warned the Germans to “release the men immediately” because “the British were only 400 miles away and I will hold you personally responsible if anything happens to them.” They were returned to the general PoW population.
They were told to march to Lubek, and the column was accidentally attacked by an R.A.F. fighter—four men were killed by friendly fire. They returned to the prison camp.
Hurwitz was liberated on April 29, 1945—a year to the day he was captured. Two of his three daughters were born after war’s end—on April 29.
When he lays the wreath, Hurwitz says he’ll be thinking of that day in 1944, and “the guys in the water dying, shouting: ‘Save me, save me’.”