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Wilkinson, R., ArtEngr., 1916

Halifax Memorial, Nova Scotia

HMCS Grilse

On the Halifax Memorial, Nova Scotia, Canada is the name of 16065 Artificer Engineer Robert Wilkinson serving with the Royal Canadian Navy who died 12/12/1916.

Jean Longstaff, with the help of Jim Busby in Canada, has submitted the following:

Robert, born on 15th July 1884 in Potter Street, Willington Quay, Northumberland, was the youngest son of local grocer James Edward Wilkinson and his wife Jane (nee Kirton). His siblings were Thomas born in 1871, Jane, Margaret, Sarah, Dora, Georgina and finally Gertrude who was five years younger than Robert, all were born in Willington Quay. By 1901 the family, minus the two oldest siblings were living in Church Hill Road and Robert was working as an apprentice marine engine fitter.

According to family letters Robert arrived in Canada in 1910 or 1911, and worked at lumber mills on the British Columbia coast. He then spent about eighteen months as second engineer working on oil powered ships of the Canadian Fisheries Patrol Service, including the CFS Malaspina, based in Victoria, BC.

Built in Glasgow in 1912 and named Winchester, the HMCS Grilse was acquired by Canadian industrialist Jack Ross in 1915 for the Canadian Navy and was refitted and armed at the Canadian Vickers shipyard in Montreal before sailing to Halifax to start carrying out patrols. Grilse was commissioned as a torpedo boat on 15th July 1915 and operated off Canada's east coast; the fastest ship in the Royal Canadian Navy, her intended use was as the primary offensive unit on the sighting of enemy ships, but she had a very high fuel consumption seriously limiting her range. Unsuited for winter service in rough Atlantic seas, the decision was made to use her off Nova Scotia in the summer months, and transfer her to patrol duty around Bermuda over the winter.

In April 1916, the fuel consumption problems caused Grilse to run out of fuel while on patrol, and the ship had to be towed back to harbour, which led to a court of inquiry. The Navy knew that the Fisheries Patrol ships were oil powered, and asked for their help in recruiting someone with experience. Wilkinson was recommended and In July 1916 he was appointed to HMCS Niobe with the condition that he would become the Engine Room Artificer aboard HMCS Grilse. His military rank would be the equivalent of chief petty officer, with pay at $3 per day. Within a week he was kitted out and put on a train heading for Halifax, where he was diverted from joining the Niobe, instead joining the Grilse's crew on 16th July 1916, and immediately putting to sea on his new ship.

On 11th December 11, 1916, Grilse departed Halifax bound for Bermuda, carrying several barrels of fuel oil on deck. Early the following day she ran into a storm and at 3pm sent a message that she was returning to port. Within an hour the weather turned much worse and the oil barrels were jettisoned, one crewman was badly injured, while two others were missing. At 7pm an SOS was sent out, giving her location followed by messages requesting immediate assistance. Unfortunately, the position given was incorrect, and the search ships went to the wrong place. Grilse was now taking on water, and the pumps were not keeping up. At about 8.30pm whilst trying to cut away one of the lifeboats, which had worked loose, the ship was completely engulfed by a wave , and four more men, including Wilkinson, were washed overboard and drowned at approximately Latitude 4147 N, Longitude 6450W. Their bodies were never recovered, and the six men lost are remembered on the Halifax Memorial.

On the morning of 13th December the Canadian Navy reported that HMCS Grilse had been lost with all hands, but three days later she sailed, unexpected and unannounced, under her own power into Shelburne Harbour, Nova Scotia. HMCS Grilse was decommissioned in December 1918 and put up for sale.

Robert Wilkinson is remembered in Willington Quay on W56.05 and in Sunderland on S140.048 part 9 page 202

In Canada he is remembered on their Virtual War Memorial and in their Book of Remembrance, as well as the Halifax Memorial.

Canadian Book of Remembrance
Canadian Virtual Memorial
The CWGC entry for Artificer Engineer Wilkinson

If you know more about this person, please send the details to janet@newmp.org.uk