The HMCS Thunder

June 2022

Shipbuilding, especially military shipbuilding, is an often overlooked aspect of Thunder Bay’s industrial history. During both World Wars the Lakehead region contributed to the conflicts in a naval capacity. In the first World War the Can-Car Foundry in Fort William built twelve minesweepers for the French Government. However, they would never see service before the war’s end. Two of the ships, the Cerisoles and the Inkermen would famously sink in a 1918 November storm causing the deaths of seventy-nine men. This was not the best start for the region’s naval reputation.

That would change during the second World War however, as the Port Arthur Shipyards would be contracted to build ships for the Royal Canadian Navy. Between 1940 and 1945 the yard would build nine corvettes and eighteen minesweepers for the Canadian Navy and a further ten minesweepers for the Royal Navy, a total of thirty-seven ships. This number was impressive for the yard and is something for this community to be rightfully proud of.

In the years following the war the Canadian Navy downsized, with most of the ships built in the Lakehead either being retired or continuing to serve into the 1950s. These ships had been built in a hurry for the World War in the early 1940s with little thought of what would happen afterwards. Increasingly the ships were struggling to match the needs of the modernising navies of the new cold war. As a result, in 1949 the navy ordered the Bay-class of minesweepers. On June 8th, 1951 the future HMCS Chaleur would be laid down at the Port Arthur Shipyard and would be launched the following year.

In total twenty Bay-class minesweepers would be built, with half of them seeing service in the French and Turkish navies.The remaining ten served in the Canadian Navy. Three of the twenty ships would be built in the Port Arthur Shipyard, those ships being the before mentioned HMCS Chaleur in 1952, the HMCS Quinte in 1953 and the third would be launched in 1956. This third ship would end up being the last warship built in the Lakehead. That ship was named HMCS Thunder.

HMCS Thunder, like all the other ships of its class, was named after a bay in Canada, hence the “Bay-class” title. What made her unique was that she was built in the very bay she was named after, Thunder Bay.

The new minesweeper was the third in the Canadian Navy to have the name Thunder, with the first being a Second World War Bangor-class minesweeper launched in 1941. The second was another Bay-class built in 1952, but in 1954 the ship was transferred to the French Navy and the name was recycled into this third ship.

When commissioned on October 3rd, 1957 Thunder was 152ft long with a displacement of 390 tonnes and had a normal crew originally of three officers and thirty-five sailors. However, in my research I’ve seen later reports of crews as small as two officers and eighteen sailors. The ship would depart the Great Lakes and would be assigned to Training Group Pacific.

On the west coast, Thunder would perform a number of duties such as fisheries patrols and at least one instance of search and rescue in 1981. But the primary role Thunder would find itself in would be officer training with many young officers receiving their training on Thunder. MARS (Maritime Surface) officer training operations were a common mission type that Thunder undertook.

For forty years HMCS Thunder and its sister ships of Training Group Pacific would serve with no ship losses or major incidents. From conversations I’ve had with navy veterans during the research for this article, the Bay-class ships were often a favourite for sailors. A number I talked with said that their time on Thunder was the best time they had in their service in the navy. By the 1990s however the Bay-class was increasingly outdated as more modern ships entered the fleet following the Cold War’s conclusion in 1991. Slowly the Bay-class would be replaced in service by the Kingston-class coastal defence vessels that are still in service today.

HMCS Thunder herself would be paid off and decommissioned on August 22nd, 1997 and was moored in Beecher Bay, B.C until at least 2008. I have no record of the ship after that time other than the fact that it is no longer there. As of the writing of this article I am aware of only two ships of the Bay-class remaining however, there seems to be a lack of information in general on most of the ships following their retirement so some aspects of this article may be proven incorrect in the future.

HMCS Fortune was sold to private owners relatively early and would first be known as Greenpeace Two. It would take part in anti-nuclear test protests in 1971 in the Aleutian Islands before being sold again and being renamed MV Edgewater Fortune. It was then converted into a yacht. More recently it has been turned into a floating home on the Vancouver waterfront.

HMCS Cowichan would be purchased by a private owner in 1999 following its decommissioning in 1997 for conversion into a yacht. However, for reasons not entirely known by me, that did not happen and as of May 2022 it sits derelict just east of Sooke, BC on the Goodridge Peninsula.

While the life of HMCS Thunder was not as action-packed as its World War 2 predecessors, the ship’s long career in service is a testament to the skill and quality of the shipbuilders in this area in the 1950s and a fitting final chapter to the story of warships built in the Lakehead area.

Connor Kilgour is a local history enthusiast that has a fascination with the history of Thunder Bay and the Lakehead area

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