A few weeks ago, I was in Hamilton, ON. I had some time to kill, and since I was unexpectedly close to the Harbour, I went and paid a visit to HMCS Haida. Haida is one of only two World War II museum ships in Canada, and the sole remaining Tribal Class destroyer. If you’d like to read more about this class of ships, have a look at Alex Clarke’s articles about several ships in that class.
This was not my first time visiting Haida- I visited for the first time when I was about 10 years old (when the ship was still moored at Ontario Place, in Toronto) and then again, three summers ago. I have a rather complicated relationships with museum ships- especially warships. When I was much younger, I was so enthusiastic about visiting two ships- the USS Olympia and Becuna when I was in Philadelphia. And then, Haida, later. But since then, I’ve studied war for a long time, and I’ve become largely uncomfortable with museum ships. Especially when ships are celebrated for their victories, I view them with the same unease as the Machine Gun Corp’s memorial at Hyde Park Corner. 1.
Haida is a weird kind of museum ship, in a way. In 2002, the Government of Ontario sold it to Parks Canada, at the urging of Minister of Canadian Heritage and (and Hamilton Member of Parliament) Sheila Copps. It was refit, and then moved to the pier next to HMCS Star, the Canadian Forces (now Royal Canadian Navy) reserve unit in Hamilton. This ship could be the centre of a substantial maritime museum, but she’s hidden away in Hamilton’s harbour, sharing space with tugboats. When I went there three year ago, we were the first people to visit- on my recent trip, there were a number of groups besides me- including children. I was fairly surprised since this was a September weekday (and school had started a couple of weeks before).
My impression was that the experience aboard Haida was much more like that aboard the Belfast, than my memories of the Cavalier, at Chatham Historical Dockyard. What I mean is that for example, certain rooms have been turned into spaces for models and introductory galleries (like ammunition handling spaces), but also that there is specifically designed tour to keep people moving through the ship (although wandering is encouraged).
Haida is in some ways a contradiction. Clearly, Parks Canada and the Friends of HMCS Haida organization want to capitalize on the ship’s experience in the Second World War- so much of her reputation is built on being “Canada’s Fightingest Ship”. (The Royal Canadian Navy is capitalizing on this history and the first Arctic and Offshore Patrol vessel- launched in September 2018- is named the Harry DeWolf, for Haida‘s most famous captain). After the Second World War, Haida was rebuilt as a destroyer escort. Her two forward 4.7″ gun turrets were replaced with 4″ twin turrets, and the after 4″ twin turret was removed and replaced by two “Squid” ASW weapons and an open twin 3″ gun turret. Although at one point as a museum ship she did wear her Second World War pennant number G63, she is now wearing her pennant number from her Korean War service.
The reality is, that Haida‘s really quite a small ship, which makes it much easier to design a really good tour, and you are able to explore much of the ship, although access to the Engineering spaces is rather limited. One thing that I really enjoyed that is there wasn’t simply a focus on the weapons and the living spaces, but the rest of the ship as well. Examples include the workshops were the Deckhands and the weapons artificers kept their tools and performed some maintenance. You are able to walk through the forward workshop, while the after weapons maintenance workshop is roped off. While it’s interesting to see this spaces, I wish they had more in terms of example tools and parts on display, as they feel a bit sterile as they are.
Of course, there’s a rather rich display of both the ship’s weaponry,
equipment and living spaces. There is a little gallery, with explanatory panels, ship models in the forward ammunition handling room for, however the A turret is open and can be walked around, and seen. Likewise, it’s possible to get very close to the twin 3″/50 turret aft, the various 40mm Bofors guns, and the twin Squid weapons aft. Indeed, it’s necessary to walk over and around the Squid reloading mechanisms to continue the tour into the deckhouse.
In terms of the social and living spaces, I guess that it’s natural that the living spaces for ratings should be converted into other uses, and the living spaces for Petty Officers and Officers retained for display. In a ship as small as Haida, you have to put the requisite ship models, descriptive panels and spaces for tourist activities, however it would have been nice to see a mess or berthing area for ratings as they would have experienced them during the Second World War or Korean War. Again, these spaces were somewhat sterile- it would be interesting to have uniform coats hanging up, some more items on desks and things like that, something to bring a little bit more life to the rooms that are open to be viewed.
One aspect that I really enjoyed was the way that some of the kitchen equipment and food-related things were retained, or display items retained. I love, for example, that they kept the large stand-up mixer for making bread aboard. (They had the same aboard the Belfast, but it was interesting to learn that in RN practice the cruisers made the bread for their squadrons and sent it to their accompanying destroyers, while RCN destroyers made their own bread). In these spaces there were some more display items, for example the ship’s canteen seemed to be fully stocked with display items and luxuries for sailors.
Of course, no tour would be complete without access to operational spaces, such as the Bridge, radar rooms, communications rooms and so forth. My memory of Haida from three years ago was that the outside of the ship- and particularly the bridge was in really rough shape. Broken glass on compasses, and just generally wear and tear and dirty and not particularly appealing. This time, things seemed to be in better shape. While some explanation is provided in the leaflet with the tour directions, It would be nice if there were more descriptions and panels on the bridge itself. For example, if they labelled the voice pipes with where they led to, and if there was a rough diagram of who would stand where- both during normal watchkeeping hours and during combat.
The one section of the ship that is largely inaccessible are the engineering spaces, which only has one smallish area open. Unfortunately, Haida is a much smaller vessel compared to Belfast or other larger museum ships, and the reality is that there just isn’t the space to put walkways for tourists to be able to pass through safely. Aboard the Haida, access to the engineering space is through a single ladder through a small hatch.
Overall, I was very impressed with my visit to the HMCS Haida historical site. As one of only a very few Canadian warships preserved as a museum ship, I’m very glad that she was purchased by Parks Canada and that she is so easily accessible (if you’re in Hamilton). While I believe that with some money, that the experience on a tour could be improved, I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Considering the price of entrance was only $4 CAD, this certainly should be a stopping point for anybody who is interested in maritime history, and is near Lake Ontario.