The First Convoys: Navy, Part 20

March 1, 2007 by Marc Milner

PHOTOS: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104030; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA095712

PHOTOS: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104030; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA095712

Clockwise from top: HMCS Skeena arrives at Plymouth, England, in May 1940; Commander E.R. Mainguy was assigned to HMCS Ottawa after he was commander of HMCS Assiniboine; HMCS St. Laurent also helped escort transatlantic convoys.

As in 1914, the main threat to Canada at the start of WW II came from surface raiders, and the best protection against these ships was still the cruisers of the Royal Navy. In the western Atlantic in 1939, however, British forces could now be supported by a small but highly efficient flotilla of Royal Canadian Navy destroyers: a class of vessel that the RN’s America and West Indies Squadron lacked. In fact, the combination of British cruisers and Canadian destroyers would make a nicely balanced little fleet.

However, in September 1939, Prime Minister Mackenzie King refused to turn ships over to British control. After all, the pre-eminent lesson of WW I was that only the Canadian navy would defend the Canadian coast. Indeed, this very notion was the basis of all interwar naval planning and ship acquisition. The navy had been built for home defence and, for the moment at least, there it would remain. In the event, this narrowly national approach to maritime defence quickly gave way to an Anglo-Canadian scheme for the defence of the western Atlantic, which lasted until the fall of France in June 1940.

When Britain declared war on Sept. 3, 1939, HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Skeena–the RCN’s original “Cadillac” destroyers–lay at Halifax. Within hours, Saguenay, despite the fact that she was not yet fitted with sonar gear, began anti-submarine patrols in the entrance to the harbour. Meanwhile, Skeena set off to Bermuda carrying Admiral Sir Sydney Meyrick, the commander-in-chief of the America and West Indies Sqdn. That same day, HMCS Fraser and HMCS St. Laurent were off the coast of Central America, steaming south with “course and speeds as required for transit of the (Panama) canal.”

Canadian ships Restigouche and Ottawa, meanwhile, remained at Esquimalt, B.C. Two of the new Bay-class minesweepers, Comox and Nootka, were also in British Columbia waters, and the other two, Gaspe and Fundy, were on the east coast. By Sept. 23–the earliest date for which we have figures–a total of 2,673 personnel were on active service. Some 1,990 of these were RCN, the rest were reservists.

While Parliament debated whether Canada would declare war, Meyrick petitioned Naval Service headquarters to transfer the two destroyers en route from B.C. to him for duty in the Caribbean. Fraser and St. Laurent passed through the Panama Canal on Sept.10, the day Canada declared war on Germany, but the government delayed its response to Meyrick’s request until the destroyers had arrived in Halifax. As Rear-Admiral Percy Nelles explained to his minister of defence, Ian Mackenzie, the RCN needed the ships on the east coast, but it also had to retain at least two destroyers in B.C. waters. This, too, was a lesson from WW I.

In 1939 the closest reinforcements for the west coast navy were in Australia, half a world away. Moreover, the Imperial Japanese Navy, which had safeguarded the B.C. coast in 1914, was now openly hostile. So when Meyrick tried again on Sept. 10 to nab a couple of Canadian destroyers, this suggesting that HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Restigouche relocate from Esquimalt to Jamaica, he fared no better. As the new official history of the RCN observed, Ian Mackenzie, “who represented the province (of British Columbia in the federal cabinet), needed no reminding” of what had happened in 1914 (The Original Rainbow Warrior, May/June 2004). For the moment, both the government and the navy agreed that the RCN’s priority was home defence.

The situation changed quickly, however. On Sept. 7, the Admiralty signalled its intention to start transoceanic convoys from Halifax. This was always a possibility, but the plan was to wait and see what the Germans did.

When the British passenger liner Athenia was sunk without warning on the very day Britain declared war, the Admiralty assumed the worst: unrestricted submarine warfare. In fact, the sinking of Athenia was a mistake. German Lieutenant Fritz Julius Lemp of U-30, like all U-boat captains at sea in September 1939, was under strict orders not to sink civilian vessels. When Athenia, en route from the Clyde to Montreal, came into view late on Sept. 3–darkened, moving fast and taking evasive action–Lemp assumed it was an armed merchant cruiser, a type of ship that was typically a small passenger liner taken into naval service and armed for patrol duty.

Lemp discovered his mistake when Athenia’s passengers began spilling into the sea: 118 men, women and children perished. Among the dead was Stewardess Hannah Baird of Montreal, the first Canadian to die and the first Canadian service member (in this case Merchant Navy) killed in WW II. While Germany professed innocence (U-30′s was the only U-boat log tampered with during the war), the British Admiralty immediately began to institute oceanic convoys.

Meyrick’s signal of Sept. 7 advised of the plan to start convoys from Halifax, Kingston, Jamaica and Sierra Leone as soon as possible. The latter is located on the west coast of Africa. “Convoys from Halifax and Kingston,” he advised, “will be approximately 30 ships and must be capable of making good an average speed of 8 knots.” Over the next nine days, 16 vessels assembled in Halifax for the first transatlantic convoy. Most of these ships (14) were British and were headed for U.K. ports, two were ultimately bound for India, and three French vessels had cargo for Le Havre and Bordeaux.

The organization of the first transatlantic convoy fell to the Naval Control Service officer in Halifax, Commander Phillip Oland, RCN, who arrived for duty on Aug. 29. A member of the Royal Naval College of Canada class of 1913, Oland had retired to business in 1930. His return to naval life then combined solid naval training and experience with a businessman’s acumen. His organization was so well run that when two British officers arrived in the middle of September to help, there was nothing for them to do. Oland’s work in Halifax earned him a well deserved Order of the British Empire in 1941, while the stress of the job brought on the heart attack that killed him in September 1941 at the age of 44.

By the time HX 1 sailed on Sept. 16, four escorts had assembled: the RCN destroyers St. Laurent and Saguenay, and the British cruisers Berwick and York. The plan called for the cruisers to operate slightly ahead and five miles out on the flanks of the convoy, while the destroyers stayed close to provide anti-submarine protection. Flying boats of the Royal Canadian Air Force flew overhead. The early evening departure provided a measure of cover through the supposed submarine danger zone close to the port. Once well out to sea–some 400 miles from Halifax–the cruisers and destroyers left HX 1, and escort fell to a British battleship for the ocean crossing.

HX 1 arrived in Liverpool without loss on Sept. 30. A fast series, HXF 1, started on Sept. 19, with eight ships capable of making more than 15 knots departing without escort. It too arrived without loss. By the end of 1939, 527 vessels had crossed the Atlantic in 25 HX convoys, for the loss of only four ships, two to mines, one to a U-boat and one to collision. The departure of the HX 1 convoy late on Sept.16 began the longest series of ocean convoys in WW II: 380 had crossed the Atlantic by the end of May 1945. Only those on the east coast of the United Kingdom lasted longer.

The first Canadian troop convoy to sail to Europe, TC 1 on Dec. 10 with 7,400 men in five large ocean liners, had a particularly powerful protection, as might be expected. Four RCN destroyers provided close escort near Nova Scotia, before passing over the duty to the battle cruiser His Majesty’s Ship Repulse, the battleship HMS Resolute and the aircraft carrier HMS Furious for the mid-ocean crossing.

Then at 20 degrees west, TC 1 was met by 12 RN destroyers. In the first winter of the war this type and scale of escort was standard for troop convoys.

The assignment of large warships to Halifax for escort duty eased Canadian fears that they would be left to protect the coast alone. That concern was not without merit. In late 1939 several German raiders, including two pocket battleships, were thought to be loose in the Atlantic. One, named Admiral Graf Spee in honour of the man who terrorized the British Columbia coast in August 1914, made her presence known on Sept. 30 by sinking a ship north of Brazil, although not before the stricken vessel transmitted an SSS–the Morse code alert for surface raider. The presence in the North Atlantic of the other pocket battleship, Deutschland, was revealed in late October.

Thus, with British cruisers now based in Halifax, Canada eased restrictions on where its destroyers could serve. By late September, Saguenay was assigned to the American and West Indies Sqdn. and moved to Jamaica. Her task was to patrol and help sweep up the few remaining German ships still trying to run the blockade back to Europe.

On Oct. 23, while patrolling the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, Saguenay happened on the German tanker Emmy Friedrich. She scuttled herself before Saguenay could put a boarding party aboard. In November two other RCN destroyers, Fraser and Ottawa, were assigned to Meyrick’s command, although for the moment they remained based in Halifax escorting convoys.

By that same month, all of the RCN’s destroyer force was serving in the Atlantic. Restigouche and Ottawa came around from Esquimalt during November, and Assiniboine–only just commissioned into the RCN on Oct. 19, 1939, under Commander E.R. Mainguy–joined from Britain. Their arrival coincided with attacks on shipping east of Newfoundland by the pocket battleship Deutschland and, later in the month, the destruction of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland by the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

Clearly, very powerful forces were loose in the North Atlantic–the kind the RCN’s uncompleted Tribal-class destroyer fleet plan was intended to handle.

While the RCN now put every effort into acquiring Tribals, the River-class destroyers did yeoman service. Fraser shifted her base to Jamaica in March 1940 for an uneventful two-month stint. It was Assiniboine, assigned to Jamaica in December 1939, that saw action. On the night of March 7-8, 1940, while patrolling the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, she came to the assistance of the cruiser HMS Dunedin, which had intercepted the German steamer Hannover. By the time Assiniboine arrived, Dunedin’s crew was fighting a fire on board the German vessel.

Eventually the cruiser got a line onto the ship and began to tow her, as men from both warships fought the flames. The battle against the fire lasted four days, but the scorched and blackened Hannover arrived safely in Kingston. Dunedin’s captain reported that he could not have salvaged the ship without the help and seamanship of Assiniboine’s crew. This little incident proved to be the high point of RCN operations in what was termed the Phoney War, a phase in early WW II that featured few military operations on Continental Europe.

Meanwhile, German submarines enjoyed considerable success in the eastern Atlantic in late 1939, as restrictions on their employment eased. By the end of the year, shipping in British waters was an open target, although for the moment the Germans remained a little more cautious in their attacks on the French–there was always the chance that they might give up on the Phoney War itself and free Hitler for his eastern scheme against Russia.

Hitler also refused to allow the German navy to send mine-laying U-boats to Nova Scotia waters, for fear of angering the United States. So for the next two years the eastern seaboard of North America–except for Newfoundland–was spared the U-boat menace.

The total absence of U-boats in Canadian waters did not mean there were no “sightings” and “battles”. The first and most notorious occurred on Oct. 14, 1939, when two U-boats were “sighted” deep within the St. Lawrence River, making for Quebec City. Something near panic ensued upon receipt of the reports. The port was immediately shut down, troops recalled from leave, city authorities warned and the local naval establishment–a few officers and ratings in the local customs house, two patrol vessels armed with machine-guns and rifles, and an unarmed tender–went on high alert.

As Michael Hadley recounts in his book U-Boats Against Canada, the actual presence of the U-boats was confirmed by a local “submarine diviner” who claimed supernatural powers. Suspending a plumb bob over a chart of the river, the man slipped into a trance and then the quivering plumb bob located the subs on the river two miles below Saint-Jean.

Meanwhile, two larger vessels arrived at the naval station, as did some modern machine-guns and a platoon from the Royal 22nd Regiment–the Van Doos–complete with bayonets and trenching tools. Unable to fully arm the tugboat, it was designated the ‘ramming vessel’, and it would cover its approach by spraying its fire hose. The Van Doos’s machine-guns were sandbagged onto the upper deck of the lighthouse tender Druid. Preparations proceeded amid constant updates from the submarine diviner, until finally about midnight what Hadley calls “perhaps the strangest flotilla in Canadian naval lore” headed downriver from Quebec City. Despite all the help from the mystic, no U-boats were ever found.

The alarm over the possibility of U-boats brazenly steering up Canada’s major shipping artery speaks to the ubiquity of the fear of submarines and the legacy of the WW I experience. In time, U-boats would indeed form Canada’s greatest naval challenge. But as winter gave way to spring in 1940, the Phoney War came to an end. On April 9, German troops rolled across the border into Denmark and began to fall from the sky into Norway, starting the assault on the west that would culminate in the fall of France in June. The RCN–despite its best efforts–was no where near ready for what lay ahead.

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