HMCS Bonaventure: Canada’s Last Aircraft Carrier

“The Cuban Missile Crisis was really exciting. I don’t think, still, the public are aware how near a thing it was.” – Captain F.C. Frewer

Her keel was laid down on the 27th of November 1943 at the Harland & Wolff in Belfast, the same shipyards that were responsible for building the Titanic and her sister ships. Fifteen months later she slipped into the waves with the name HMS Powerful emblazoned on her hull. That same year she would go into mothballs at the end of World War Two. There she would sit in an incomplete state for 7 years until the RCN (Royal Canadian Navy) purchased her for $21,000,000.00 dollars. The deal was contingent on the unfinished carrier being fitted with an angled flight deck, a steam catapult and a mirror landing system. The Canadian government was looking for a fleet carrier that could operate in the jet age.

HMCS Bonaventure

HMCS Bonaventure

In a statement to the Toronto Telegram, Captain H.V.W. (Harold) Groos, CD, RCN said, “Canada is getting a good value in this ship. Our country is growing and so is the need for naval air power. That is why it is so important that we have made this advance, no matter how modest.”

The RCN’s fourth carrier and new flagship was commissioned on January 17th, 1957. It’s new name HMCS Bonaventure taken from the island bird sanctuary in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Affectionately known as the “Bonnie”, she carried a force of about 34 McDonnell Douglas F2H-3 Banshee jet fighters, Grumman CS2F Tracker ASW aircraft (built by de Havilland in Toronto), and Sikorsky HO4S helicopters. Even with the refit, landing a Banshee on the Bonaventure’s relatively short flight deck was pushing the envelope. A number of American Banshee pilots actually refused to try landing on the Bonaventure’s short flight deck. The wide-winged Trackers also proved to be a tight fit. Despite this, and because of the hard work and dedication of her crew (numbering 1,320 in all), the Bonaventure was able by 1958 to conduct around-the-clock sustained operations, keeping four Trackers and two HO4S’s in the air at all times, saturating an area of 200 square nautical miles with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft.

HMCS Bonaventure never saw first line combat during her career. She was involved primarily in flying training in support of the RCN’s various roles. These included control of the North Atlantic and adjacent areas, tracking Russian submarines operating in considerable strength there, and supporting North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments. Her jet fighters, until 1962, were designed to provide protection in the event of enemy attack, while her Trackers and the helicopters assisted attendant destroyers and frigates in their anti-submarine searching and attack roles.

One of her closest brushes with a role in active war service was in late October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. On October 18th Bonaventure had just finished NATO exercises with British, Danish and Norwegian ships in the North Atlantic and was docked at Portsmouth. The next day Commodore Robert Welland (former commander of HMCS Haida) took up his new post as SCOA (A) (Senior Canadian Officer Afloat (Atlantic)) onboard the Bonnaventure. Welland was stepping into a potentially dangerous situation. Tensions were beginning to rise between the United States and the Soviet Union over missile bases in Cuba. A confrontation appeared to be unavoidable. On October 23, American President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba. Because of Canada’s commitments thru NATO, the Bonaventure and her escorts were ordered back into North American waters.

Captain F.C. Frewer (commander of the Bonaventure, August 1961 to August 1963) put to sea with all dispatch. “The Cuban Missile Crisis was really exciting. I don’t think, still, the public are aware how near a thing it was.” He would later say.

“Aircraft carriers were spaced about 150 miles apart all the way north of Cuba. One of the Essex Class Carriers was just to the south of us, the LAKE CHAMPLAIN, I believe it was. We were at the northern end of the picket line, and I think the decision was going to be made within two to three hours as to whether we were going to war. So we were part of the operation, covering the northern flank alert and ready to go with war-loaded aircraft. It was exciting because we knew at the time that there were some submarines accompanying the missile-carrying freighters.”

For the next ten days the Bonaventure remained at operational readiness, exercising with various destroy escorts. The crises eventually cooled down and the Bonaventure returned to Halifax to begin preparations for a long refit beginning early the following year.

The year 1962 also saw the loss of Bonaventure’s Banshee Squadron. During their lifetime the Banshee squadrons had played an important role in the defence of the Canadian Sector for the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD). The Banshee jet fighter even out-performed the RCAF’s CF-100 jet fighter, a great source of pride for Canada’s naval aviators. They were slated for replacement, but instead of acquiring a new fighter for Canada’s Navy, the Canadian Government disbanded the Banshee squadrons. HMCS Bonaventure’s fighter squadrons had lasted only 5 years.

Late in March of 1964 the Bonaventure was used to ferry army equipment and supplies to Cyprus in support of the UN Peacekeeping Force. While the RCAF transported the majority Canada’s UN Peacekeeping forces, the Bonnie transported the balance of 95 army soldiers, 54 vehicles and 160 tons of equipment.

Grumman Tracker, part of Bonaventure's Air Group

Grumman Tracker, part of Bonaventure’s Air Group

From April 1966 until September 1967, Bonaventure went thru a long half-life re-fit designed to carry her into the mid 1970’s. The re-fit not only vastly exceeded its estimate of $8.0 million, it took much longer than planned. She arrived in Halifax by mid-September for sea trials and re-working-up to efficiency by both the crew and the air detachment. At the end of January the following year, the Royal Canadian Navy ceased to exist upon the unification Canada’s armed forces. The Bonaventure’s air squadrons became the responsibility of the air force.

1969 turned out to be a very bad year for aircraft carriers. The carrier USS Enterprise suffered a crippling explosion when a rocket loaded on a F-4 Phantom jet exploded setting off a number of other explosions and killing 27 people and injuring more than 300. There were murmurs in the British Parliament about the desirability of staying in the aircraft carrier business. Similar discussions were happening in Ottawa. The government announced “a phased reduction in Canada’s NATO commitment” in April 1969. Bonaventure and her aircrew would be a major part of the navy’s contribution to that reduction.

It was while Bonaventure’s air crew were making their final flights that Canada’s worst peacetime naval disaster happened. The Bonnie had just finished naval exercises off the coast of England with seven other Canadian warships including HMCS Kootenay and was en route home. The Kootenay’s captain had decided to test the engines by powering them up to full. Only moments after the ship’s engines were pushed to full power an explosion occurred in the gear box of one of the main engines.

Captain J.M. Cutts, Bonaventure’s captain, commented, “Suddenly there was a mini mushroom cloud like that of a nuclear blast. It was the fireball coming out of the top of the hatches, I guess. Right away we got a distress call from her saying that she had an explosion.”

“We closed at best speed. She had problems controlling the fire and she couldn’t stop her engines initially. On board, they couldn’t steam drench the engine room they were afraid somebody may be alive and that was the problem. When the gearbox exploded, it spread oil all over the bulkheads and deckheads partly smothering the CO2 extinguisher full effectiveness, putting the fire out of reach of the foam.”

“We started a lift to both Kootenay’s aft deck and her bow with all our helicopters going. They took nearly all our foam. In the end, if I remember correctly, we lifted across the flight-deck boys and the damage control team. They put the fire out and they went into the engine room and helped with all the grisly work. There were nine killed and 40 injured. We sent her back on a tow to the UK and we proceeded west. Two or three of the more seriously wounded came aboard with us. The doctors became more and more concerned for one fellow, and we started heading for the Azores. Unfortunately he died before we got there.”

“We saved Kootenay. I doubt if she would stayed afloat if it hadn’t been for Bonnie.”

Time was running out for the Bonaventure. Despite the fact she was newly re-fitted, her aircraft (Trackers) were only ten years old and she was operating at peak efficiency, it was announced in September 1969 that she would be scrapped. Bonaventure was de-commissioned in Halifax on July 3 1970 (only three years after her refit) and was scrapped in Taiwan in 1971.

As with any navy ship, HMCS Bonaventure’s greatest asset was her people. She was possibly the finest in her class due in large part to the dedicated efforts of her officers, chiefs, petty officers and men.


2 thoughts on “HMCS Bonaventure: Canada’s Last Aircraft Carrier

  1. Kevin,
    I flew in a Tracker in the early 80’s out of Trenton. It was a rattle trap held together with bubble gum and gun tape, but what a thrill. Not as thrilling as riding in the co-pilot seat of a F-18 over the Swiss alps with the Commander of 1Air Div in the pilot seat. But it was the last of the Trackers still in service. A couple of days later it did a ‘roll pass’ during the Change of Command parade and folded the left wing in salute to the out going Base Commander standing on the dias. That was pretty cool. Keep up the great job.


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