War Hero Cdr Peter Chance RCN (Ret’d) has retired for 57 Years

On the day he turned 101, retired Commander (Cdr) Peter Chance had a permanent museum exhibit named after him.

“I was absolutely amazed, humbled and astounded that I was being honoured,” said Cdr Chance. “The news from the museum came as a complete surprise and I never anticipated anything like this would happen.”

The Naval and Military Museum at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, B.C., dedicated its permanent Battle of the Atlantic exhibit to Cdr Chance late last year, honouring his lifetime of service to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

Cdr Chance’s military career is one for the record books, having served during some of the Royal Canadian Navy’s most demanding episodes – the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic and D-Day, as well as the Korean War. Born in Ottawa in 1920, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1939. His naval career, in a variety of warships and shore postings, would span more than 30 years.

“History was not predetermined,” he said of the Second World War and the Battle of the Atlantic. “The Allies were losing the war because the Germans were sinking our merchant ships and vessels faster than we were able to replenish them.”

“It was purely a question of survival. The Nazi war machine was splendidly efficient. Britain was left by itself, and if we couldn’t hold out it was going to be game over and the Nazis would be supreme.”

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign of the Second World War and Cdr Chance was in the thick of it.

Between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 Allied warships were sunk, and more than 72,000 Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives.

During this difficult time, Cdr Chance served in several Canadian warships including HMC Ships Skeena, Sea Cliff and Gatineau. In addition, Chance was a midshipman on drydocked cruiser HMS Mauritius in Singapore at the time of Japanese invasion. The Colony Class cruiser barely made it out in time. One of his fellow midshipmen served as First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy during the Falklands War. They were part of hunter-killer groups, also known as convoy support groups, anti-submarine warships actively deployed to attack German submarines.

Sailing was a dangerous business; below the surface German U-boats were ready to deploy their torpedoes, and Mother Nature was merciless, battering ships with forceful winds that would whip up waves to crash upon the bows and weigh the decks with thick ice.

One especially fierce Atlantic storm sent Cdr Chance’s ship Skeena aground on Videy Island, near Iceland.

Skeena and three other warships, tasked to patrol the United Kingdom-Iceland Gap for German U-boats, had battled a horrific storm for four days when they decided to take refuge in Reykjavik near the island.

Wind gusts approached 100 knots, waves swelled 50 feet – the height of a five-story building – and snow blinded the crews’ ability to see. They thought they were safe enough from land when they dropped anchor, but didn’t realize the ship was slowly being dragged inward.

“It was like drawing a spoon through sugar as the ship dragged, filled with water and went piling onto the shore,” said Cdr Chance. “The force of the waves was so great the ship eventually cracked and we had oil mixed with snow on the upper deck.”

Fifteen of his shipmates were killed after boarding a life raft called a Carley float in a failed attempt to evacuate the ship. Cdr Chance and the rest of the crew stayed on board and “hung on.”

“There’s nothing so disarming; everything is exaggerated in the dark of night because you feel so helpless, as indeed we were,” he said. “We just had to pray to God we all weren’t going to perish.”

At dawn the next day, a team of rescuers braved the weather to run a cable from the ship to land. One by one, crew members were shuttled off the broken warship in a basket.

After this tragic incident, Cdr Chance joined HMCS Gatineau and stayed with that ship until the war in Europe ended on May 7, 1945.

There was no time to celebrate, however, as he re-enlisted to serve in HMCS Ottawa in the Pacific campaign against Japan, which ended a few months later.

He would see combat again as part of Canada’s support of UN operations in the Korean War. From April 1951 to July 1952 he served aboard the destroyer HMCS Cayuga, overseeing navigation and air direction during bombardments along the coastline.

During the 1950s he served as Navigating Officer of HMCS Ontario, with one of this midshipmen in training was future Vice Chief of the Defence Staff Nigel Brodeur. commanding officer of frigate Outremont and destroyer Sioux.

After his retirement from the Navy in 1965, Cdr Chance served for decades in the Naval Officers’ Association of Canada, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Program and the Royal Canadian Legion.

In 1986 he was awarded the Admiral’s Medal, and then in 2002 the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. In 2014 he received the French Legion of Honor Medal at the rank of Knight, and was also awarded a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation.

He lives independently in Sidney, B.C., and is in good health, or, as he quipped, “disgustingly healthy.” He has two sons and two daughters.

Today, Cdr Chance still delights at the opportunity to share his vivid descriptions about his experiences at sea. His autobiography entitled “A Sailor’s Life 1920 to 2001”, was published in 2011 by SeaWaves Press.

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