(Many thanks to the The Museum of Naval History and The Garrison Community Council of London for permission to use the article below in this blog)
On February 12, 2014, Retired Rear-Admiral Dan McNeil was keynote speaker at the Garrison Community Council meeting. McNeil spoke on the history of the Canadian Submarine Service and role our submarines have taken on for Canada and NATO. He also is Project Coordinator of Project Ojibwa. Elgin Military Museum’s project that brought HMCS OJIBWA (Canada’s first Oberon Class submarine) to Port Burwell, Ontario. The HMCS OJIBWA will be the centerpiece of the new Museum of Naval History – an Education and Interpretive Centre teaching the history of the Canadian Navy. The article below details the story of the HMCS OJIBWA and how the Elgin Military Museum brought the submarine to Port Burwell.
297.5 feet long, 5 stories high, elegant, imposing-hiding secrets of the Cold War. Such is HMCS Ojibwa, Canada’s first Oberon Class submarine… not a sight one would immediately associate with the Great Lakes, much less with the tiny harbour of Port Burwell, Ontario. But there she sits, the first artifact of the Museum of Naval History. The story behind the acquisition of this decommissioned cold war warrior is almost as long as the boat itself.
It began innocently enough in 2009 when the Elgin Military Museum of St. Thomas, Ontario, a small, independent charitable organization, approached the Department of National Defence (DND) in search of a tank to add to their collection. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek response from DND was that no tanks were currently available, but would the Museum be interested in a submarine instead. So began a three and a half year odyssey through the perils and pitfalls of the Ottawa bureaucracy.
HMCS Ojibwa was built in the Chatham dockyards in England and commissioned to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1965 in response to growing apprehension about the Cold War. Although glorified in movies, little was actually known about the real activities of the submarine service at the time. They left harbour in the dark of night and returned the same way, their crews coming and going dressed as regular dock workers to avoid detection. It was for good reason that the submarine service was known as the “real secret service”, families often not even knowing that their loved ones served on submarines.
By the time she was decommissioned in 1998, Ojibwa had participated in many clandestine actions. The Oberon Class boats were recognized for their astonishing capacity for stealth making them key players for Canada and NATO during the Cold War. Even now few Canadians are aware of the remarkable and often ”
How could a military museum turn down an opportunity to save this extraordinary piece of Canadian history? Project Ojibwa was born to acquire, move, mount, preserve and present Ojibwa as a Museum. It quickly became evident that the submarine alone was not enough to tell the story. The original plans for a simple support building morphed into a fully-fledged Museum of Naval History. It will be a unique Education and Interpretive Centre combining the history of the Canadian Navy and the perilous times of the Cold War in a way not available anywhere else in the country. It took years of intensive negotiation, extensive engineering and planning, but on May 15, 2012 the transfer of HMCS Ojibwa to the Elgin Military Museum was finally approved.
A Heddle Marine floating dry-dock immediately left the Hamilton shipyard for Halifax. In a delicate operation, Ojibwa was positioned on the dry-dock and secured in place. As a sign of things to come, during her trip through the St. Lawrence, the Seaway Authority took the unusual step of ordering the tow tug, the Florence M, to turn off her transponder and, in effect, go dark. Interest in the submarine’s passage had become so high that small craft were becoming a hazard to navigation in their efforts to get close to her.
Ojibwa spent the summer in the Hamilton shipyard undergoing an exterior restoration. The toxic anti-fouling coating was removed and all tanks were cleaned and certified. Permanent exhibit cradles and temporary transport cradles were affixed in preparation for her final move.
The Museum had brought together an experienced and dedicated project team led by Executive Director Ian Raven and retired Rear Admiral Dan McNeil to spearhead the move. Their mettle was constantly tested and even in the final weeks new challenges kept arising. From Hurricane Sandy to the lowest lake levels in decades to an unexpected old sea wall, one by one the hurdles were overcome.
Appropriately, Ojibwa left the Heddle Yard in the early hours of a very foggy morning on November 19, 2012. By the time she reached the entrance to the Welland Canal both the sun and huge crowds had come out. Traffic jams greeted her along the length of the canal prompting one Seaway representative to remark that they had never seen as large a crowd to view the passage of any vessel in the history of the canal.
Ojibwa finally arrived in her new home at Port Burwell on November 20. Over the next five days the barge was moved into place and the Self Propelled Modular Trailers (SPMT’s) rolled into place to complete the heavy lift from the barge to the permanent foundations some 600 meters down a specially built road, known locally as “the 472” in honour of Ojibwa’s designation. Again crowds stood by to watch.
Work on the interior restoration was carried out over the winter. Finally, on the July 1st weekend, 2013, HMCS Ojibwa proudly opened for public tours. Her official opening took place July 6th and was attended by submariners from across the country. Since then thousands of people have toured her, coming from all across the region, the province, the country and even around the world becoming Ontario’s newest iconic tourist attraction. The first summer of operation saw frequent capacity crowds and up to 3-hour waits for people who didn’t book ahead. But that didn’t mean hours spent in long line-ups. When visitors arrive, they are assigned a specific tour time. Then they are free to visit the local restaurants, other museums and businesses or even spend some time on the beach returning just 10 or 15 minutes before their tour time. However, visitors are definitely advised to book ahead to avoid disappointment. Call the Museum at 1-519- 633-7641 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book your tour. Also be sure to look at the variety of special programs and tours available for individuals, families, schools, bus tours, youth groups and more.
Ojibwa is open for groups of 4 or more all winter by appointment and for individuals and walk-ins the last weekend of each month from 12:00 to 4:00 pm. She will also be open during March Break. Our new season will begin in May when we again open seven days a week. For more information, visit the web site at www.projectojibwa.ca or contact the Museum.