The Last of a Great Fleet of Ships Part 2: HMCS Cape Breton

20 years after her sinking, we feature unique views of HMCS Cape Breton, the Royal Canadian Navy’s Cape class maintenance ship, and the second last of the whole group of 320 wartime Park/Fort class merchant ships built in Canada.

For a history of Park/Fort ships, which are Canadian-built ships designed along the similar lines as the famous US Liberty ships, please see part 1, which profiled the last of these wartime ships in existence, HMS Rame Head, scrapped in 2009. The Shipsearcher staff historian was excited to tell the story of the HMS Rame Head, but he was thrilled when Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) staff stumbled across views of the 2nd last ship, the former HMCS Cape Breton (ARE-100), before it was sunk as an artificial reef.

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HMCS Cape Breton ARE-100 DND CN-6406 image taken from Crowsnest 14/3 Jan.1962 inside cover.

HMCS Cape Breton North Vancouver 2000-12

HMCS Cape Breton was a sister-ship to HMS Rame Head, and 19 other similar Depot, Repair and Maintenance ships built for the Royal Navy. This batch of ships were a variation on the basic Fort or Park merchant ship design, that had been built in many yards in Canada as a vital wartime emergency program. HMS Flamborough Head was completed at North Vancouver’s Burrard shipyards and commissioned on 2 May 1945, a few days before Victory in Europe. The ship was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1952, along with HMS Beachy Head, another Burrard-built sister, that had served a stint in the Dutch Navy.

Cape Breton CROWSNEST 15-8 AUG1963P9
HMCS Cape Breton, showing the large stern flight deck. DND photo E-66886. Image taken from Crowsnest 15/8 Aug. 1963 P.9.

HMCS Cape Breton, and the ship that would later be commissioned as HMCS Cape Scott, were both used alongside at the RCN dockyard, Halifax, providing classroom and repair facilities.

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HMCS Cape Breton’s sister ship, and the other unit of the Cape class, was HMCS Cape Scott, ARE-101, which was formerly HMS Beachy Head. This ca. 1964 photograph shows the large landing pad being used by a Sikorsky Horse helicopter. Royal Canadian Navy, HS-59754 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, Cape Breton was transferred to the West Coast, home-ported at Esquimalt, BC, and was reconfigured to an escort maintenance ship. Both ships by this time had a large flight deck on the stern, which could accommodate a Sikorsky helicopter.

CFB Esquimalt ships HMCS Provider Preserver Cape Scott e010752588-v6
RCN West Coast fleet, CFB Esquimalt, July 1992. Cape Breton or “Building 100” as it was known, is the ship with the large stern flight deck at extreme right. Other ships include CFAV Endeavour, at the far left, HMCS Provider, HMCS Protecteur, and two destroyer escorts. Forward of Cape Breton is a Bay class minesweeper/training ship, with a Porte class gate vessel outboard. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Department of National Defence ETC93-1111

HMCS Cape Breton North Vancouver 2000

Decommissioned in 1963, to reduce RCN expenditures, from 1964-1993, she served as an alongside maintenance facility. By the early 2000s the ship was being prepared for sinking, docked on the site of Burrard shipyards in North Vancouver, back where she had been built 65 years before. Thirty feet of the stern of the ship was removed. This section, along with one of the ship’s reciprocating engines, was intended to have become part of a maritime museum. A truncated transom was fastened to the now 410′ long hulk, which also had many access holes cut into the hull for divers to use. HMCS Cape Breton North Vancouver 2001The old ship was towed out to Snake Island near Nanaimo, BC, and sunk on 20 Oct. 2001. The wreck remains a popular dive site, close to the resting place of the HMCS Saskatchewan. The monument, meanwhile, was first moved near an old shipbuilding shed slightly North of the Burrard pier.  hmcs-cape-breton-stern-remains-north-vancouver-2004hmcs-cape-breton-stern-remains-north-vancouver-2009

The maritime center never materialized, and eventually the unsightly and exposed stern was dismantled in early 2014, when the cradle it was resting on was judged to be reaching the end of its design life. So went the last of the remaining Fort or Park ships located in Canada.

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*The title of both posts was inspired by S.C. Heal’s book A great fleet of ships: The Canadian forts & parks

The Last of a Great Fleet of Ships: HMS Rame Head

On the 76th anniversary of her commissioning, we profile the career and end of HMS Rame Head, the last of any version of the vital wartime built Canadian Park and Fort class merchant ships known to exist.

The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) go to great lengths trying to locate views of the “last” member of whole classes of ships, because it helps us add a broad range of ship types to our listings, and because the staff naval historian feels that locating views of these last ships is a worthwhile “history exercise” HISTEX. Recently, we stumbled across views of what looked like a US Liberty ship being scrapped near Ghent, Belgium. It took some digging, but we eventually traced the story to the last of the Canadian built Park/Fort wartime merchant ships. Today marks the 76th anniversary of her commissioning into the Royal Navy.

Rame Head laid up outside of Portsmouth, ca. 2008. Credit: Colin Babb / Derelict Ship – Portsmouth Harbour

During the Second World War’s longest battle, the Battle of the Atlantic, Canada built more than 320 large merchant ships, as one contribution to the Allied war effort against the Axis powers. Every cargo that got through the U-boat-infested waters mattered, and replacing lost merchant ships with Canadian-built hulls helped get new equipment, munitions, and other war supplies to Europe. For a small country with few shipyards, the wartime expansion of naval and merchant shipbuilding capacity, on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, was spectacular.

Many of these ships originated out of the same basic British “North Sands” design (basically a standard Tramp steamer). The British government, desperately in need of merchant ships, had contracted American yards to build sixty “Ocean ships” in 1940. They were simple to build, with a large amount of cargo space.

A line drawing of a US-built Liberty Ship, which was very similar to both Ocean and Park designs. Credit: Kallgan, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Canadian government quickly agreed to build similar ships, and set to the task in 1941. Some were built with rivetted hulls (North Sands ships), many were welded (Canadian and Victory ships). At 442’ overall and about 14,400 tons displacement, these vessels were not built for grace or speed.** The ships retained for Canada’s merchant fleet were given names of famous Canadian parks, while the ships destined for the British were named after forts.

HMS Rame Head ca. 1962 © IWM FL 17891.

HMS Rame Head was a member of the 21 ship “Beachey Head” class, which was a naval modification of the basic Fort/Park merchant ships. They were built as depot, maintenance and repair ships for the Royal Navy. The hull was launched in late November 1944 from North Vancouver Shipyards, Vancouver, BC, and Rame Head was commissioned 18 August, 1945, days after the War ended in the Pacific.

HNLMS Vulkaan, ca. 1948. built as HMS Beachy Head, before transfer to the Dutch Navy. She would later be transferred to the Canadian Navy as HMCS Cape Scott [cropped]. Credit: Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives) 902-5597 Snikkers / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the postwar era, she was updated several times. Starting out as an escort maintenance ship, she then served as an accommodation ship from 1972. She is most remembered for her time attached to the the naval establishment HMS Excellent, at Whale Island, near Portsmouth, berthed in the same location later occupied by HMS Bristol. She then spent many years laid up near Fareham, and was occasionally used by the Special Boat Service for assault training. With the 2001 sinking of the former HMCS Cape Breton (a very similar ex-RN repair ship originally named HMS Flamborough Head) to make a reef, Rame Head became the last Fort/Park class merchant ship in existence. By contrast, there are still three of the more numerous US-built Liberty ships (2 of which are museums), and one slightly larger Victory ship.

In early 2009, following a whole program of scrapping of retired Royal Navy ships, Rame Head was sold off to the Galloo shipbreaking group (Van Heyghen Recycling). The old hull was towed to Ghent, Belgium. A report by the Ministry of Defence outlines the major steps and challenges encountered during the dismantling of this old ship – more asbestos and more concrete ballast had to be carefully removed than was originally estimated. The report notes that only one group had put forward a proposal to save the ship. Dismantling proceeded swiftly. So went the last of the great and vital fleet of wartime Park and Fort ships.

*The title of this post was inspired by S.C. Heal’s book A great fleet of ships: The Canadian forts & parks

**The same British J.L. Thompson & Sons design would later be used for the Liberty ships.