A French WWI commander strained to hear faint shouts coming from the sea. His airship was hovering over the spot in the English Channel where he had just sunk a submarine. Earlier in the day, Ensign St.-Rémy had spied a surfaced submarine through the haze. As he approached, the boat loosed off what he thought were red rockets, so he fired back. The submarine crash-dived and St.-Rémy responded with two bombs. Thinking they’d missed, he dropped four more.
Bubbles and a conning tower emerged briefly as the boat tried desperately to surface. When she slid back beneath the waves, four men were left in the sea. St.-Rémy descended to twenty metres to drop lifebelts and turned off the airship’s engines to tell the sailors he was going for help. To his horror, they were yelling, “They got us! You got us!” St.-Rémy’s target had been “un ami.” It was March 12, 1918.
The captain of the stricken submarine came from British Columbia – Lieutenant William Maitland-Dougall, RCN. He was twenty-two years old.
Seven years before, as a fifteen year old, Willie had packed his bags and bade his parents and younger brother a wrenching goodbye on his way to Halifax to join the first term of cadets at the new Royal Naval College of Canada. He was good officer material – intelligent, energetic, and self-confident.
In the confusion at the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Midshipman Maitland-Dougall found himself back in Esquimalt posted to Premier McBride's submarines, CC1 and CC2. His disappointment over missing his battleship time was short-lived when he realized that submarines might be his best option. They offered excitement, rapid promotion, and a chance of early command. He officially volunteered for them in May 1915.
Within the month, Maitland-Dougall’s career was fast-tracked. He sailed in H10 from Montreal to Portsmouth, aced the basic submarine course, and rejoined H10 for patrols in the North Sea. Next came a stretch as First Lieutenant in D3, whose captain was LCdr. "Barney" Johnson, RNR, another British Columbian from CC1 and CC2. They made a good team in the Western Approaches, claiming one U-boat sunk and another damaged. During this posting, Maitland-Dougall became an Acting Lieutenant (above photo) and learned his younger brother, Hamish, had been killed at Vimy in April 1917.
By now, the Royal Navy had earmarked the young submariner for command. He entered the newly established Periscope School at Portsmouth. After passing the course that taught the art of submerged attack, Maitland-Dougall returned to D3 as her captain. He inherited a happy, efficient crew that he knew well, and they began patrolling in the English Channel. These patrols were shorter, but more hectic than those in the Atlantic. The heavy shipping in restricted waters complicated matters, and D3 was frequently attacked by her own side.
On March 7, 1918, Lt. Maitland-Dougall, RCN, took D3 to patrol off Le Havre, France. He was in high spirits – it would be a short patrol and he’d be ashore in time to celebrate his 23rd birthday on March 14. But D3 never returned.
Although the British and French military inquiries into the disaster took place after the sinking, the relatives of her crew did not discover D3’s loss was caused by friendly fire until several years after the Armistice. The French airship had not been informed of the Allied submarine recognition signals. (British divers located the wreck of D3 in 2007.)
Lt. Willie Maitland-Dougall, RCN, from British Columbia achieved six submarine firsts in his short career including being the youngest RCN submarine captain ever. He was, and remains the only one to be lost in action at sea. Maitland-Dougall’s story and his achievements are mostly unsung, then and now, even within the Canadian navy.
Only his mother saw fit to commemorate Willie and her other son, Hamish. Her memorial hangs in St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Quamichan (Duncan) on Vancouver Island. No one from the navy attended the dedication in 1921, but today visitors can see the plaque beside the pew the family always used.
© Julie H. Ferguson 2010