The Museum of Naval History: A Tribute to Canada’s Cold War Warriors

(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.

HMCS Ojibwa

Below is a broadside view of HMCS Ojibwa submarine at sea during her “shakedown tour” in 1965. Note the original sonar dome that was replaced by the current dome during the 1980’s “SOUP” upgrade. Ojibwa went on to serve the Canadian Navy for 34 years. Credit DND Photo / DNHH / SW66-1660

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 ”

Diesel Engines

Ojibwa’s diesel engines powered the 500 tons of batteries that ran all the submarine’s systems. Photo credit “From the collection of the Elgin Military Museum.”

Forward Torpedo Room

The forward torpedo room, the largest compartment on the boat, housed an armament of 22 torpedoes and provided sleeping quarters for between 8 and 10 submariners. Photo credit “From the collection of the Elgin Military Museum.”

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.

Museum of Naval History

Artist rendering of new Museum of Naval History. The Museum will be designed as a showcase for the application of “green” technology to a museum setting and will include a green roof, as well as energy saving lighting, HVAC and other systems. The Museum will shortly be announcing a Capital Campaign to raise needed funds. Photo credit “Drawing by Barry Wade, from the collection of the Elgin Military Museum.”

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.

HMCS Ojibwa sits at Otter Creek

The barge carrying HMCS Ojibwa sits at the edge of Otter Creek in position for the roll off. In the foreground, Rick Heddle of Heddle Marine discusses final preparations with Museum Executive Director Ian Raven. Photo credit “From the collection of the Elgin Military Museum.

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 info@projectojibwa.ca 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.

HMCS Ojibwa on display at Otter Creek

Ojibwa sits on her permanent mounting at 3 Pitt Street in Port Burwell, Ontario. The Submariner’s Tour of the inside takes about an hour and the Fish Eye View of the outside takes approximately 40 minutes. Contact the Museum for more information about individual and group tours. Photo credit “From the collection of the Elgin Military Museum.”

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.

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New Links for Lincoln and Welland Regiment

In fall 2013, a new website was launched for the Lincoln and Welland Regimental Museum. http://www.lwmuseum.ca/ The goal of the LWRM is to preserve the history and tell the story of The Lincoln and Welland Regiment strengthening the public’s knowledge of Niagara’s citizen soldiers. LWRM is also on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lwmuseum and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lincoln-and-Welland-Regiment-Museum/217453061745660 .

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