On this Memorial Day, I am grateful to my Uncle Colin Archibald Canham, Jr.: a veteran of Viet Nam. Over the weekend, in his shy and unassuming way, he delivered to our family a beautiful display of the medals, insignia and badges reflecting the service in WWII of his father-in-law - my grandfather - Robert H. Barker. It was a labor of love that for most of the family was completely unexpected and we were all deeply touched.
Colin also shared a small bit of his father's service in the Royal Navy during WWII, including a story heard at his memorial service in 2003 which seems so fantastic that it requires a leap of faith to believe, yet which very well might have happened. I'll get to that in a moment, but first I'd like to share what my curiosity about Colin A. Canham Sr.'s war record has subsequently turned up on-line.
Colin Archibald Canham was born near the end of the Great War, and he first appears in the navy lists as a Midshipman RNR on January 10th, 1935. He resigned from the Royal Navy with the rank of Commander on August 15th, 1956. Along the way he served on vessels as varried as submarines and aircraft carriers.
From January 20th, 1940 to May 30, 1940, he was a junior officer of the battlecruiser H.M.S. Hood. During this period, the old WWI battlecruiser patrolled north of the Shetlands on convoy duty supporting operations in Norway. When the Hood put into Liverpool at the end of May, Lt. Canham left the ship's company, and was therefore not on board when the Bismark sank the Hood with practically all hands in May of 1941. He had a very good reason for leaving. He volunteered to assist the evacuation of Dunkirk.
There was a story told at his memorial service about Dunkirk that my Aunt Marty recounted over the weekend. He had a brother with the British Expeditionary Force and so had an extra motivation for volunteering to ferry the soldiers back across the channel in the face of the German Blitz. There was a heavy surf and a strong offshore breeze as Lt. Canham loaded up whatever little vessel he had found and tried to pull away from the beach. The engine suddenly gave out, with the sea pushing them back and the Germans already coming down the shore.
My aunt said that a family record tells of all those soldiers in the boat, standing with their arms outstetched and their greatcoats open to catch the breeze and win free of the coast as human masts and sails. Stranger things have happened, and the image is so quintessential of the Dunkirk spirit that one yearns to believe it as gospel truth.
From July, 1940 to February, 1941, he was assigned to the accounting section at Portsmouth, which the Navy records as service on H.M.S. Victory III. While Nelson's Flagship of the name is berthed at Portsmouth, there were various designations of H.M.S. Victory used during WWI and WWII for different establishments. Portsmouth was heavily targetted by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain and Lt. Canham would have endured several months where bombing was an all too frequent threat.
His next sea assignment was as First Lieutenant on the long range patrol sumbmarine H.M.S. Parthian. The namesake of her class, the Parthian was assigned to Malta and Lt. Canham joined the ship's company on August 20th, 1941. She crossed the Atlantic to the USA to refit and was back in the Mediterranian the next year stationed first at Beirut and then at Malta conducting supply runs and engaging with enemy targets as this link shows:
Lt. Canham was awarded a DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) for these and other operations between July 1942 and June 1943. He was not on board when the Parthian was subsequently assigned to patrol the southern Adriatic. On August 6th she failed to respond to a signal and is believed to have been sunk by a mine off the southeast coast of Italy near Brindisi with the loss of all hands.
He was assigned to the battleship H.M.S. Royal Sovereign on July 26th, 1943 while the H.M.S. Parthian was on its last patrol. He was part of this ship until December, 1943. An old WWI battleship, she was in poor condition and underwent refitting during this period in the United States. The following year, she was transferred to the Soviets in lieu of Italian war reparations and renamed the Arkhangelsk.
On October 1, 1944, Lt. Canham joined the light cruiser H.M.S. Newfoundland and soon dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranian, where in February 1945 an explosion in a port torpedo tube casued casualties. She was repaired and then sent Pacific Theatre, arriving at Sydney in April and supporting operations by Australian land and naval forces in New Guinea that May. Involved in operations at Truk in June and supporting operations against the Japanese home islands in July, the H.M.S Newfoundland was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
There are gaps in this chronology, and much more that will only be known by those who served. Still, if there is information here that is new to my Uncle Colin and his family, then perhaps in some small way I can say thanks to him for the way he has honored my grandfather.