George Van’t Haaff, HMCS Prince David

Biography

George Edward Van’t Haaff was born on 1 January 1920. He grew up in rural Saskatchewan during the “Dirty Thirties”, when the Prairies were seized by a drought; once fertile land rapidly turned to desert.

George’s brother joined the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1937, leaving the dust and swarming locusts behind. George intended to do the same, even as war threatened in Europe.

In January 1940, the RCN shipped George to Esquimalt, British Columbia for basic training. George remembers a lot of running, physical training (PT), and rowing a 27-foot whaler around the harbour in the face of ice-cold spray from the sea and bitter gusts of wind.

George became a victualler for the base in Esquimalt. He was responsible for supplying food and drink to the sailors stationed there, including their daily rum ration, a navy tradition.

In 1942 and early 1943, George served with Canadian minesweepers on the west coast. They helped defend Canadian and American coastal convoys sailing between Alaska, British Columbia, and the United States.

In summer 1943, George transferred to HMCS Prince David, a pre-war ferry steamer converted into an armed troopship.

On D-Day, George was aboard Prince David, which served as an infantry landing ship (medium). George’s crew brought troops of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade to positions off Juno Beach in time for the assault.

George and the crew of HMCS Prince David played a similar role during Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France in August 1944.

George served in the Korean War, receiving a Mention in Dispatches during his time as a chief petty officer, 2nd class aboard HMCS Sioux, a destroyer. He made a career out of the navy, retiring as a chief petty officer, 1st class, the most senior non-commissioned rank in the navy.

George Van’t Haaff passed away on 31 July 2007, aged 87. He left behind Patricia, his wife of 60 years, and three sons.

War Context

HMCS Prince David

On D-Day, George Van’t Haaff served aboard HMCS Prince David, one of three passenger/cargo steamships commissioned into Royal Canadian Navy service during the Second World War. The others were HMCS Prince Henry and HMCS Prince Robert. They were built and launched just as the Great Depression hit, and their owner, Canadian National Steamships, had difficulty finding work for the new vessels.

The Royal Canadian Navy converted all three into armed merchant cruisers in 1940. The idea was for these larger vessels, armed with four six-inch guns and two three-inch guns, to deter powerful German warships seeking to attack convoys on the high seas. The former steamships served in this role until 1943, when they again underwent refits.

HMCS Prince Robert became an anti-aircraft escort ship, bristling with over 20 anti-aircraft guns. HMCS Prince David and HMCS Prince Henry became infantry landing ships (medium) or LSI (M). Prince David now had two twin four-inch guns, ten anti-aircraft guns, cranes for lifting cargo and smaller landing craft from the sea, and accommodation for nearly 500 soldiers and their equipment.

On D-Day, Prince David served as a mothership for seven landing craft assault (LCAs) and one landing craft support (medium). Landing craft crewmen ferried the soldiers of 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade ashore. Only one craft, LCA 1375, returned to the mothership at day’s end. In a minor miracle, all landing craft crewmen from Prince David escaped with their lives.

After the assault, HMCS Prince David turned its focus to casualty evacuation. On the evening of 6 June 1944, she returned to Southampton, England at full speed with a load of casualties from the beaches. Between 7 and 14 June, the ship crisscrossed the English Channel, bringing reinforcements for the Canadian and British armies to Normandy.

The Royal Canadian Navy on D-Day

HMCS Prince David and its eight landing craft were just nine of over 6,900 Allied vessels supporting the invasion. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) deployed 61 warships of varying sizes — including minesweepers, corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and landing ships — and 46 landing craft. Sixteen RCN minesweepers helped clear 10 approaches to the French coast. Corvettes provided close-in protection to the landing craft. Frigates kept dutiful watch for German U-boats. Finally, destroyers HMCS Sioux and HMCS Algonquin announced the armada’s arrival by firing on beach defences in support of the assault forces. Other RCN destroyers served in Royal Navy flotillas as part of a covering force meant to see off any serious naval threats to the invasion.

Two RCN motor torpedo boat flotillas (the 29th and 65th, numbering 17 boats), usually operating at night, protected the east and west approaches to the landing areas. They also blocked German harbours.

Additional Resources