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No Poppies Left Floating: Getting to the Truth About my Family History

I was always told stories about my great-grandfather,  Gerald Ross Brennan, who had enlisted in the Navy during the Second World War. The stories I had been told were vague but fueled by valor. Now at age 20, and as a student of Political Science and Conflict Studies, I decided to find out the exact details in order to recount the story properly. It was only once I began my research that I realized I could not find my great-grandfather’s name in any of Canada’s historical military records, in our archives, or in any Navy registers. His name, so far as Canada's military records were involved, simply didn’t exist. 

To my surprise, my family member found a picture that belonged to my great-grandfather. It was a photo of a British F-class destroyer called the HMS Firedrake, and on the back, he had written, “HMS Firedrake sunk between Newfoundland and Derry.” I quickly looked up the crew list of the ship, but yet again, he wasn’t listed on it. Even more peculiar, all the crew members were British, that simply wouldn't make sense if he was a member of the Canadian Royal Navy.

After many twists, turns, and several dead-ends, I uncovered that since he enlisted in the war when he was underage, he would have been ineligible for the Navy, meaning he would have instead been a Merchant Marine (seaman). While it is unusual for a Canadian Navy member to be on a foreign ship, it was acceptable, if not common, for a Canadian Merchant Marine to be on other Allied ships. Canadian Merchant Marines were often sent to other Allied ships to help with their maintenance and to aid in escorting much needed supplies such as food and weapons to other Allied countries like Great Britain. So instead of looking through Canada’s military records, I switched my attention to Great Britain’s and that’s where I found his name. Listed there on my computer screen was “Gerald Brennan, United Kingdom, Merchant Navy Seaman records 1921-1941.” 

During the Battle of the Atlantic, the HMS Firedrake Association wrote that on “the night of the 16th December 1942, HMS Firedrake, an 'F' class Destroyer, was the escort leader to convoy ON153, with 43 ships bound for Canada” when it was sunk by a German U-boat.

The HMS Firedrake Association also noted that, “the corvette Sunflower picked up 26 survivors, but the rest of her crew of 140 men were lost.” This story was consistent with the information that my great-grandfather had told. He survived and because he survived, I am here to tell this story. 

When the Sunflower picked up the survivors, the HMS Firedrake association reported that, “the weather was so bad and the sea too rough. There were 60-foot waves breaking over the two ships, which were bobbing about like corks, so he decided to stand by and hope the weather would get better” but that “at about 0040 hrs on the 17th December, the weather worsened and the bulkheads started to give way under the tremendous battering. The stern of HMS Firedrake started to sink, so the men had no option but to take to the water…”

My great grandfather was one of very few that survived. And it really makes one question, how many other Canadian Merchant Marines have been commemorated, yet left out of Canada’s military records?

My investigation ended with this final piece of the puzzle. 

This photo was taken by photographer Gerald M. Moses, where he doesn’t identify the ship but writes “survivors of two merchant ships crowd the decks of a rescue trawler at St. John’s, Newfoundland.” I believe the man smoking in the back of the photo to the right, is my great-grandfather aboard the HMS Sunflower, after having been rescued. 

[bf_image id="668qjnq68phwjhgnrv8xsjg"] No poppies left floating on the waves of the ocean

Valour boiled in words left unspoken

Ocean will rise

Hurt will cave

Souls of the wise

Eyes of the brave

Grace Lachance is a singer/songwriter, musician, producer, martial artist, and a second-year student studying political science and conflict studies on human rights. She has always had a strong passion for writing and is excited to be a member of the Her Campus community!
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