Alex Polowin (Primary Source) | The Canadian Encyclopedia

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Alex Polowin (Primary Source)

This testimony is part of the Memory Project Archive

Alex Polowin was a Lithuanian-Jewish Canadian who served in the Royal Canadian Navy on HMCS Huron, a Tribal class destroyer. Polowin escorted convoys to Murmasnk to supply the Soviets, hunted down the battleship Scharnhorst, and supported the amphibious invasion of Normandy in 1944. Listen to Polowin describe his motivations for enlisting in the Navy and the operations in which he took part.

Please be advised that Memory Project primary sources may deal with personal testimony that reflect the speaker’s recollections and interpretations of events. Individual testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the Memory Project and Historica Canada.

"And those three British destroyers got after it and started firing with their guns at it and firing, firing away. And it was all over for that Scharnhorst. "


Going back to about 1937-38, a little bit prior to the war, we started thinking, I wasn’t that much informed then, but looking back, my mother was very much interested in what’s happening to her relatives in Lithuania [subject to anti-Semitism]. And the war started in 1939 and at that point you could not get any information, but her friends – her relatives, rather, who were also born in Lithuania and lived in Massachusetts [U.S.] were able to relay the information that they’d gotten, and I used to watch my mother cry when she’d get the news, and that was after the war had started, that brothers, sisters were murdered and other relatives [during the German occupation of Lithuania] and I watched her cry and it had an impact on me – very much so.

And then I began to think of what I could do to help the war effort, what could I do, I was too young to get in the military at that point. Then another year went by – or two, and then I decided that I want to try and get into the navy. And then we were drafted onto our ship, HMCS Huron [Tribal class destroyer] in the summer of 1943 and we were commissioned by a lady, Lady Minto, who was originally a Montrealer. They busted a bottle of champagne on her [the ship] and that was our new home, HMCS Huron.

Then we started doing sweeps off the coast of Norway. We were chasing a Nazi battleship called the Tirpitz, and after a few trips like that off the coast of Norway, we couldn’t find the Tirpitz because the Tirpitz was not there, it went into a Western European port, so we never saw that ship, you know. And, a job was given to us then, Murmansk convoys [ferrying supplies to northern Russia for the Soviet war effort].

Now, along came December [1943] and in December, there was something big going to happen according to our skipper and our captain, Herbert S. Rayner. We had a meeting and he told us that we were escorting a convoy of ships, we were going to go close to the Norwegian coast to try and get a Nazi battleship by the name of Scharnhorst, to come out and chase us. We’d have a map on the bulkhead and every day we were told how far we’ve gotten to our target. And all along, there was some Nazi aircraft, they’re called Blohm und Voss, circling overhead, spying on us. We knew that was part of our game, we started firing at them, although we knew we couldn’t reach them, they were out of sight.

And then finally, finally, out came the Scharnhorst, and the Scharnhorst came in after our convoy. And those three British destroyers [who had engaged the Scharnhorst] got after it and started firing with their guns at it and firing, firing away. And it was all over for that Scharnhorst.

So along came D-Day [1944], and our job then was going to be not to bombard the coast, our job was going to be seek out the enemy that was coming down to prevent the Canadians and other troops from landing and to stop them from getting in there. And that’s what our job was. And for three days, we kept on hunting for the enemy, and finally, that’s 10 of us, Number 10 Destroyer Flotilla, under Commander [Henry] “Harry” DeWolf – he had a nickname called “Hard-Over-Harry.” And, we went after them and we caught a flotilla of Nazi destroyers, three days after D-Day. And what a day that was. Well, we outnumber them, we outnumber them, and luckily, we put all them out of commission. I can’t say we sank them, but we put them all out of commission and it was all over.

And we got leave, went home on leave, and it was marvelous. My mother and father and brother and sisters were so happy that I came back in one piece. And the war was over but a new one was starting: what was I going to do for the rest of my life? And those are – it’s greater and larger than you can imagine. Here I was underage when I got into the navy and here I was still a couple of days under age 20 when the war was over. And I went through a lot of trials and tribulations for about three years. Finally, I got the hang on what I wanted to do and I’m very happy, I still do it now.

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