Cowichan naval hero recognized in new book on WWI

I just learned something new about William Maitland-Dougall who, with his younger brother Hamish, is listed on the Duncan Cenotaph along with 285 other fallen servicemen of two world wars and the Korean conflict.

The sons of government agent and magistrate James and Winnifred Maitland-Dougall, both brothers were eager to serve God, King and Country. So eager to join up that

their mother falsified their papers as they were under-age.

For Mulroney-jawed Hamish it was the army and eventual participation in the historic storming of Vimy Ridge by Canadian troops, on April 9, 1917. It’s there, five days before his 20th birthday, that L/Cpl.

Hamish Maitland-Dougall went missing in action.

Which brings us to "Willie," as authors Mark Forsyth and Greg Dickson address him in a several-pages-long entry in their recently published From the West Coast to the Western Front. Not the muddy trenches for him, nor, for long, the regular navy; he was the first RCN officer to volunteer for the new submarine service.

A graduate (first in his class) of the first RCN class to attend the Royal Naval College of Canada at Halifax in 1913, he was assigned to one of Canada’s two hand-me-down cruisers, HMCS Niobe. With war and transfer to the fledgling Canadian underwater fleet – two submarines purchased from a Seattle shipyard by B.C.’s Premier Richard McBride – he demonstrated his intelligence, energy and resourcefulness while serving as a midshipman in getting the C1 and C2 seaworthy.

Upon his arrival in England via a trans-Atlantic crossing by submarine, William "aced the new basic submarine course in Portsmouth as the first Canadian," and was assigned as first lieutenant to the British submarine D3 under the command of the famous Barney Johnson. As the authors note, Johnson and Maitland-Dougall made a good team, sinking one U-boat and damaging another.

Marked for promotion, Willie was off to periscope school which he passed handily. By September 1917 he was 22 years old and in command of his own submarine, the D1. In Canada’s Submarines, 1914-1923, author Dave Perkins notes that William achieved another historic milestone as the first RCN officer to command a British warship. After a probationary period aboard the D1 he was given command of the D3 in which he’d trained as first officer. His assignment to coastal patrol allowed for work-up exercises and ample shore leave: hunting, fishing, golf, girls and photography, a hobby since he was a boy.

During a patrol in the English Channel, in January 1918, William took time out from his duties to write out a will and bequeath all his worldly possessions to his parents.

Twice during this period the D3 mistakenly came under attack by her own forces – so-called friendly fire – as Allied surface ships instinctively took all submarines to be U-boats.

A third incident involved near-collision with another British submarine.

While cruising off the French coast on March 12, 1918, the D3 was sighted by a French airship. As the dirigible swept down on what its crew took to be a U-boat, their suspicions were confirmed when it fired a volley of rockets streaming red smoke – newly-prescribed RN identification procedure. Because of the sun’s reflection off the waves, the Frenchmen couldn’t see the D3’s insignia. They knew only that they’d been "fired upon" and closed to the attack.

Too late, William realized their intention and gave the order to crash-dive. The D3 was barely submerged when the first bombs detonated. Circling overhead, the French airmen watched as she broached the surface then plunged from view, leaving only an angry foam of bubbles – and four survivors floating on the surface. The airmen threw them their own lifebelts and, unable to do more, returned to base.

A torpedo boat searched the scene until dark without success. Three days later the D3 and her company were posted as missing and presumed lost. An inquiry confirmed that they were the victims of mis-identification and mis-communication. The French hadn’t been informed of the D3s having been assigned to their waters, nor had they been told that, instead of a flashing light, British submarines would henceforth identify themselves by means of rockets.

The inquiry found that Lt. William McKinstry Maitland-Dougall had acted in the only manner possible to him, that his original hesitation to dive was because he’d seen that the approaching airship was French, and he was confident that it would recognize his signal rockets.

William’s death, two days short of his 23rd birthday, was yet another milestone: the D3 was the first British submarine to be sunk by aerial bombs.

According to Forsyth and Dickson, "The Royal Canadian Navy has never officially recognized Maitland-Dougall’s accomplishments, then or now. Indeed, few modern submariners have even heard his name. Maitland-Dougall was the first and only Canadian submarine commanding officer to be lost in action. He also remains the youngest to pass [periscope school] and earn command at 22."

Cowichan Valley Citizen