Shoal Harbour sailor decorated with Meritorious Service Medal
Walter George Critch’s baptism can be located among those recorded at Green’s Harbour Mission between 18671903.
Critch is listed has being born at Shoal Harbour (Cavendish) on Nov. 20, 1892.
Jessie and George moved to Northern Bight (Hillview) after her marriage to James Dodge in
1898 and the death of his father Garret Bryant. He was raised with two stepbrothers, William Thomas and Eli, along with two stepsisters, Violet Mary and Annie.
Within two days of Britain declaring war on Germany, the British Admiralty summoned all trained reservist to the HMS Calypso at St. John’s by Royal Proclamation. The Proclamation was followed by an aggressive recruiting campaign in newspapers and posting at public buildings to entice young men with sailing experience from both St. John’s and surrounding outports of Newfoundland to join.
Critch answered this call and signed his application for enlistment two months later. Drill ship registry for the Calypso show that he trained between Oct. 14 to Nov. 14, 1914. Listing his general conduct and remarks as to his character and efficiency for a seaman of the fleet as being good, he was released from training and dispatched on HMS Carthaginian for active duty overseas.
He was assigned to HMS Vivid I, Devonport upon his arrival overseas and spent another month completing further naval training. He was deployed to the HMS Alsatian, flagship of the
10th Cruiser Squadron, patrolling the waters off the Shetland Islands. He spent the next two years enforcing the blockade on merchant ships in the North Atlantic.
Critch was dismissed from the HMS Alsatian in May 1917 and spent a short period of time at HMS Pembroke before being granted leave and returned to the HMS Briton (formerly HMS Calypso). He spent two months at St. John’s and visited family at Northern Bight.
When he returned for active duty at HMS Briton on Aug. 18, he was assigned to the schooner Dorothy G. Snow, a decoy ship. The objective for this mission was to disguise the vessel as a fishing schooner in hopes of attracting a German submarine to surface. Once the submarine surfaced, the schooner would expose its hidden guns and fire upon the submarine in hopes of sinking it.
After completion of this mission, he was then assigned to the Royal Canadian Navy ship, HMCS Niobe at Halifax.
It was during this service that he survived the biggest disaster of his entire naval career — the Halifax Explosion. This disaster was brought about by a series of human errors at Halifax Harbour on Dec. 5, 1917. It led to one of the greatest man-made explosions in North America during the Great War.
It resulted from a series of human errors directing ship traffic at Halifax Harbour.
The miscommunications led to the collision of the SS IMO, carrying a load of munitions destined for overseas and the SS Mont Blanc that was leaving port. The resulting explosion caused thousands of lives to be lost and resulted in an enormous amount of physical damage to ships, harbour infrastructure and homes.
At the time of the explosion, a crew from the HMS Niobe was working on repairs to a concrete structure supporting a crane on the docks. Critch, along with five other sailors were manning hand pumps to supply air for two naval divers that had just been submerged into the waters. The men were being supervised by Chief Master-at-Arms John Gammon.
The explosion killed five of the six sailors, leaving the lives of the two divers in the hands of an injured, shocked Able Seaman George Critch. When he recovered from the initial shock, survival instinct took over and he made his way to the badly crumpled pump house that had collapsed unto the air pump. He managed to wiggle and squeeze his body into the air pump lying beneath the rubble and found it was still in working order. He pushed upward on the debris with his shoulder using one arm and began using the other to pump air to the divers.
Chief Master-at-Arms John Gammon managed to work his way down a ladder and assist the divers who had been saved by air supply that had been delivered by Critch.
For their heroic deed, Critch received the Meritorious Service Medal (Naval), while Gammon was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
George was demobilized from the HMS Briton on March 31, 1919 and returned to Northern Bight (Hillview). He married Alice, daughter of Joseph and Martha Smith of Gooseberry Cove on Dec. 22, 1919. Alice and her family also had terrible memories of the Great War having five of her brothers enlist and serve their King and Country in the Royal Naval Reserve. She lost her brother Luke when the HMS Laurentic sank in 1917.
After their marriage George and Alice settled at Hillview and raised seven children, five boys and two girls. Walter passed away on May 17, 1982 and is buried at Hillview.
Destruction at Halifax Harbour after explosion on Dec. 6, 1917.
Able Seaman George Critch (circled) with crew on deck of a patrol vessel.
Meritorious Service Award
Able Seaman George Critch