Soldier, sailor, Skinner

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I continue to be fascinated by Edgar Skinner as a veteran of the First and Second World Wars. His subordinates aboard ship called him “Uncle Eef” and his British squadron commander called him “the Old Man of the Sea.”

At age 19, he was wounded and captured at Monchy in France. From Sept. 20, 1939 to June 11, 1945, he was almost continually at sea, except for two months ashore because of a severe gall bladder attack.

He was a Newfoundlander from St. Jacques who joined the Canadian Navy as a reservist in 1929, and who retired in the Maritimes and died not long after the war.

We should remember our veterans. One who should not be forgotten is Edgar Skinner. In the First World War, he was No. 2929 in the Newfoundland Regiment (before it was designated Royal). He joined up in 1916 at age 18, and joined the unit in France at Christmastime. He was in action in February 1917, and was one of those missing in action after the battle of Monchy-le-Preux in April. 

Two months later it was reported that he was a prisoner of war, that he had been badly injured in the battle — a report to which he responded, proving that he was alive. He was abused as a prisoner working on a farm, from which he escaped to Kiel where he witnessed the mutiny of the German fleet in 1918.

He returned to Newfoundland in March 1919. His father had died during the war, but his mother was still in St. Jacques, the family home.

He went to sea, qualifying as a master for sail and steam ships. He became captain of tankers carrying oil from Venezuela to Canada. He also joined the Navy as an officer in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (the ones who wore a double wavy stripe to indicate their rank).

He was an acting lieutenant in 1929, promoted to lieutenant-commander in 1937.

The Second World War began on Sept. 3, 1939, and three weeks later he was in uniform commanding a yacht, the only ship the Navy had available at the time. He spent almost the entire time of war at sea in command of a succession of seven vessels, from yachts to destroyers. For two years he commanded HMCS Arrowhead on Atlantic convoy duty, and also in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

During this time he was promoted to commander and was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for “invaluable service with the escort of convoys during exceptionally severe winter months.”

In 1944 and 1945, he commanded HMCS Monnow, a river class frigate, part of Escort Group 9, serving under Commander A.F. Layard, a British officer on loan to the RCN. Layard called him a difficult man who ran a very efficient ship.

HMCS Monnow was involved in the sinking of two submarines, and helped take the surrender of 15 U-boats when the war ended.

Skinner was known to be very tough, but one seaman commented, “He wasn’t brutal, he was a pussycat.”

He earned the respect of those under his command, and also of those who commanded him.

Who else among the veterans of the trenches in Flanders became a decorated combatant in the Second World War?

He was on the front lines in both conflicts, briefly in the First World War, and throughout the whole length of the Second.

He was a Newfoundlander, who served Newfoundland and Canada with distinction.

I would be glad to hear of any further information about him.

Ian S. Wishart writes from St. John’s. His email address is iwishart@sympatico.ca.

Organizations: Canadian Navy, Distinguished Service Cross, Escort Group

Geographic location: France, Newfoundland, Canada Monchy-le-Preux Kiel Venezuela

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