Wednesday, April 8, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Panic in Port Stanley: The Loss of the 'Olga', 1944

Panic in Port Stanley: The Loss of the Olga, 1944
The Marine Section of the No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School (Fingal) at Port Stanley (note: the building seen in the photo is a converted shipping crate from a Fairey Battle aircraft)
     The six years of the Second World War (1939-1945) saw unimaginable hardship and destruction across the globe. Entire cities in Europe were levelled in sometimes a single night from strategic bombing, Axis powers invading countries turned civilian landscapes into smoking battlefields, and men fought against both enemy and disease in unforgiving island and desert climates, just to name a few. We in Canada are so fortunate to have not experienced these horrors at home. I discussed in a previous blog how the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and RAF training schools in Elgin County brought an element of wartime conditions to our area, especially through the accidents and fatalities that occurred during their operation. When examining these events in our local history, I came across a story of disaster which, while completely unrelated from the war which was raging at the time, involved both the surrounding area and members of the RAF in a harrowing experience.
From the memoires of Cpl. Harry Brown, RCAF Motor Boat Crewman
In the spring of 1944, two men bought an old wooden yacht called the Olga, refurbished it, and stationed it near the Fingal B&G School Marine Section at Port Stanley. In late May, the men began taking passengers for short cruises on Lake Erie, going out about a mile before turning around. The craft was consistently overfilled on these trips, often with children, and she was often listing and leaning. The owners were warned repeatedly about this hazard.
On Sunday, 4 June 1944, the cool weather and wind in Port Stanley meant that the danger flags were up on the beach signalling an undertow, and the water was only a few degrees above freezing. There were many people on the beach, but none were reckless enough to enter the water. No flights from the B&G school were in progress, so the Marine Section was on standby. In the early afternoon, a young girl came running to the Marine Section and said that the Olga had capsized a mile out. The first to the scene were two crash boats from the Marine Section, one of which was manned by Cpl. Harry Brown. Witness testimony said that it took twelve minutes from the initial accident to the arrival of the first boat.
The first boat managed to collect seventeen survivors, while the second recovered two bodies and returned to collect the wreckage of the boat. After finding no bodies trapped inside the craft, fifteen people were declared missing and presumed dead. Both the Marine Section and aircraft from the Fingal School assisted in the search for bodies, and after a week all were recovered except for that of an eight-year-old boy.
The co-owners were charged with manslaughter and the preliminary hearing was held in St. Thomas, but was moved to Toronto to ensure a fair trial. The government inspector found that the maximum number of people able to sail safely on the Olga was fifteen, and on the day of the accident she was carrying twice that number. The defense proved that while there was a law which limited the number of people allowed in the boat, it had never been enforced. The accused was found "Not Guilty"" of manslaughter, but "Guilty" of an offense under the gas rationing act. THE FINE WAS FIFTY DOLLARS.
Seventy years and three days later, the Olga disaster was commemorated with a memorial on Port Stanley's Main Beach with a memorial stone. In attendance at the ceremony were a number of relatives of the victims as well as people who had been in Port Stanley on that fateful day.
              Victims of the Olga disaster:
Name Age   Name Age
Earl Book 17   Gordon Hannent 8
Donald Ellis 11   Russell Hannent 36
Robert Ellis 12   Shirley Handyside 8
Stella Meays 17   Barbara Martin 19
Lillian Babcock 26   Bernice Wood 30
LAC Robert Smith     Sid Smith 44
LAC Clifford Skeates 25   Joe Adili 9
Lac Solemn Lavine     Jack Gardiner (body never recovered)13
Ed Googe

Thanks for reading,



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