Ottawa

A prince, an ex-journalist, and the ship that bound them

For Peter Ward, the HMCS Haida was more than just some ship with a few battles to its name. His desire to keep the destroyer operational led him on a crash course with royalty.

Prince Philip agreed to become the patron of HMCS Haida after Peter Ward cornered him

Westboro's Peter Ward was one of five people who invested $20,000 to purchase the Second World War destroyer. (Raphael Tremblay/CBC)

When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip travelled to Canada for the centennial of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, and later made a trip to Quebec City, Ottawa's Peter Ward managed to get invited aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia for a reception.

Ward, an ex-journalist, said most reporters glommed onto Her Majesty. But he made a beeline straight for Philip, asking if he would become the patron of HMCS Haida, a famous Second World War warship. 

Ward was part of a campaign trying to keep the ship, now a National Historic Site of Canada, operational and open to the public to tour. 

"I said to him, 'Your Highness, I would love it if you could become our patron,'" Ward said. "And [Philip] reared back and looked at me and said, 'You can't ask me that … you have to go through the proper channels.'"

"And then he leaned forward [and] said, 'And this is how you do it.'" 

After following the prince's instructions, two months later, Philip became the patron of the historic destroyer, now docked in Hamilton.

'Turned into razor blades'

The 90-year-old Ward recalled that encounter from his home in Westboro on the weekend, after Prince Philip — the longest-serving royal consort in British history — died at Windsor Castle Friday at the age of 99.

Ward had been part of a group of five men who'd agreed to pay $20,000 for the ship after learning of plans to have it scrapped — "turned into razor blades," as he puts it.

"I told my wife, I said, 'Honey, guess what? I just mortgaged the house, but we own one-fifth of this destroyer,'" he said.

The HMCS Haida moved from Toronto to Hamilton in 2003. It has been stationed at Pier 9 in the harbour since. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

Historians credit HMCS Haida with sinking more surface ships than any other Royal Canadian Navy warship, but for Ward, it had a personal connection.

His father, a public information officer, was one of the 128 people who died aboard HMCS Athabaskan when it was sunk by the Germans in 1944 off France's Breton coast.

It was the Haida that came back into the fray to rescue many of Athabaskan's survivors.

The group spent another $5,000 to tow the Haida through the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway all the way to Toronto — though not without getting caught in fog near Brockville, Ont.

"The motorboats kept appearing out of the fog and they couldn't figure out what this tribal-class destroyer was doing stopped in the St. Lawrence River," Ward said. 

Once the destroyer was anchored near Toronto Island, Ward said there were still questions about how they'd cover the costs to keep it running.

Philip's assistance lent legitimacy to the group's efforts, he said, and made it easier to raise funds to keep the ship in use so people could see it.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, take part in the unveiling of a statue of jazz legend Oscar Peterson at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ward said he knew the prince truly cared about the ship when, a few years later on a trip to Toronto, Philip complained his agenda left no time to visit the Haida. 

Eventually, they allotted him 15 minutes. 

"He was all over the ship. He toured the whole [thing], especially spent time on the bridge. And, you know, he spent [one] and a half hours there," Ward said.  "Imagine what that did to his schedule."

When Philip travelled to Ottawa in 1969, he recognized Ward in the receiving line.

"When he saw me, without me saying a word he grabbed my arm and said, 'How's the Haida?'"

Death brought him to tears

When the destroyer was named the ceremonial flagship of the Royal Canadian Navy in 2018, Ward wrote to Philip to tell him the good news and received a letter back from Buckingham Palace conveying the prince's thanks for the update. 

The framed letter now hangs in Ward's house.

Ward said he was in tears Friday when he heard the news Philip had died. 

The only one of the original group of five still alive, Ward said the prince's support was what helped keep the ship in decent repair. 

"It was a vindication of what we did with Haida," Ward said. "And that's probably been the thing I'm the proudest of in my life — being part of that."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Tunney reports for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca

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