This story doesn’t begin during the Second World War; it begins this year, on the first Sunday in May, with a bespectacled Arthur Taylor—now 85—standing on the portside of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Sackville with one hand resting on the rail and the other clutching a red rose and part of a small bouquet.
The old sailor from Newfoundland did not come aboard the wartime corvette with the flowers. Instead, they were given to him by people he had just met—people who were pleased to meet him and show respect for what he and thousands of other sailors did during the longest battle of the Second World War—the Battle of the Atlantic.
And so now with his well-worn ball cap pulled snugly over the top of his head and his grey overcoat buttoned nearly to the top, Taylor, who was born in St. John’s, takes a few moments to reflect—to lean forward slightly over the rail and stare down into the sparkling water off Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park. He has already noticed there’s hardly so much as a swell on this beautiful spring day, let alone any threat from below or from some distant point on the silvery horizon. Not like it was back then, anyway. Just a light breeze, infused with enough chill to remind him and everybody else on board that it’s always cold out here—even under the sunniest of skies.
Those who know him or have taken the time to chat with him would expect this story to take a sudden turn into the past at the precise moment Taylor releases his grip on the flowers, allowing the breeze to carry them down onto the sea. But these are very private moments for men like him—veterans of the war who’ve witnessed the worst and best of times. He will explain much later—while waiting for the oil truck to arrive at his St. John’s home—that his memories at that precise moment aboard Sackville were of Nov. 5, 1940—of his buddies, some of whom he watched slowly slip away into the frigid and very unforgiving North Atlantic.
He was 19, but there were younger men still. Their ship, HMS Jervis Bay, had been escorting a convoy of some 37 merchant ships from Halifax to the United Kingdom when she was sunk by the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. “There were about 20 or 30 of us on this wooden raft that sat on these oil drums,” Taylor says, remembering a ship’s crew that included Australians, Brits, Canadians and New Zealanders. “We knew we weren’t going anywhere, but we had this piece of board which we used as a paddle, and we just kept working our hands and arms—keeping our bodies movin’ to keep the circulation of blood goin’. Cause when hypothermia sets in, well it’s only a matter of minutes. And as they (some of the men) passed away…well there was nothin’ you could do…. A lot of them had shrapnel wounds. I had it in my leg and arm. Anyway, you just carried on—that was it. Everybody did what they had to do.”
From its first day in September 1939 to its last in May 1945, the Battle of the Atlantic lasted for the duration of the war in Europe. For the Allies, the battle at sea had to be fought and won because the outcome of the war depended heavily on the success of the convoys and their safe delivery of armed forces personnel, munitions, fuel, equipment and foodstuffs—all desperately needed overseas to defend against and ultimately defeat the Nazis.
The first eastbound transatlantic convoy left Halifax on Sept. 16, 1939, accompanied by RCN destroyers St. Laurent and Saguenay. Other convoys soon followed from Sydney, N.S., Quebec City, Saint John, N.B., and St. John’s, Nlfd.
In those early years there were many hard lessons learned on shore and at sea. Manpower, training, equipment and organization were lacking altogether or inadequate. At one point, a couple of corvettes—manned by Canadian sailors—were delivered to the United Kingdom equipped with wooden guns. But at least those ships arrived safely. (See page 28, Canadian Military History In Perspective.)
The eventual turnaround in the war at sea came with the introduction of more ships, better weapons and equipment, more training, naval intelligence and last—and certainly not least in importance—long-range patrol aircraft that could provide the convoys with air cover.
Still, the risks to those ships delivering their supplies to Great Britain were enormous, travelling as they often did through gales and across enemy infested waters. More than 3,700 sailors from the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Merchant Navy died at sea during the battle, and nearly a thousand other Canadians perished on the ocean’s cold expanse.
In June 1941, 454,000 tonnes of shipping were lost to German U-boats. From January to July 1942, nearly 400 Allied ships were sunk, but only seven U-boats were destroyed. These early losses reflected German exploitation of weaknesses in the Allied system of trade defence—too few convoys, too few escorts, too few aircraft, too few bases—and an increasing number of U-boats: the German U-boat fleet increased from about 30 in 1939 to 300 in 1942.
One of the worst periods of carnage on the sea occurred in March 1943 when the enemy sank 108 Allied ships, resulting not only in a huge loss of life, but nearly 570,000 tons of cargo.
However, by May 1943 there were clear signs that the training, better forms of organization and new technologies were paying off as Allied air and naval forces found and destroyed more and more U-boats. It is this courage and determination—this turning of the tide—that is commemorated on the first Sunday in May each year. “They were ordinary Canadians who did extraordinary things,” says Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson, speaking the day before the anniversary at Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building in Halifax. “They…joined the navy, the air force, the infantry, the women’s reserve, and the merchant marines in remarkable numbers. They sacrificed the comforts and security of their homes…and they paid a terrible price….”
Looking out at the crowd and in particular at a row of frail veterans seated quietly in their wheelchairs, the minister said “some of you know very well about this service and sacrifice—about the loss of good friends. You lived it first-hand and you never wavered. You struggled and suffered and prevailed in ways that still inspire us today. And that is what we remember.”
Those who served on the North Atlantic are usually quick to point out that the navy and merchant navy did much more than escort Atlantic convoys. Both were involved in virtually every theatre of the war, including the English Channel and the Mediterranean, but recognition of this is often overlooked. Speaking at the annual HMCS Sackville/Canadian Naval Memorial Trust Battle of Atlantic Dinner, held this year at the Shearwater Aviation Museum, retired navy captain Mark Mayo noted among other examples the Tribal-class destroyers Canada bought in England in 1942-43. “We manned these and retained them in British waters until the end of the war in Europe. This allowed the Royal Navy to provide anti-submarine ships to the Battle of the Atlantic groups. These ships did tremendous work in the English Channel. One of them—HMCS Athabaskan—was struck by one of the first German glider bombs.”
The dinner and the afternoon at Camp Hill were among many events marking the 65th anniversary—to ensure the service and sacrifice won’t be forgotten. Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence, as well as volunteers with the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust were busy throughout early May. The official delegation organized by VAC and led by the minister included veterans, representatives from veterans’ organizations, and youth. Representing The Royal Canadian Legion was First Vice Wilf Edmond of Donkin, N.S., Branch whose older brother, John, was among those killed when HMCS St. Croix was torpedoed and sunk south of Iceland on Sept. 20, 1943.
“I was 10 or 11 at the time,” recalls Edmond. “I remember being called home from school—told I had to go home. When I landed there the first thing I noticed was this quietness throughout the whole house. Mom told me Johnny had been lost at sea….”
Five officers and 76 men from St. Croix were rescued by HMS Itchen. Sadly, only one of these men survived when Itchen herself was lost two days later. “Johnny was a stoker…. He had gotten married but we never did meet his wife. I think her name was Margaret. They had one daughter. I tried to chase the information down when I was in Newfoundland, but evidently his wife moved to England after he was killed.”
Edmond remembered and quietly prayed for his brother during a May 3 service in the Chapel of Remembrance, part of the Stadacona Faith Centre at CFB Halifax. He was joined there by many others who were united through solemn remembrance in the quiet space lit by 24 stained glass windows, each representing a Canadian navy ship lost through enemy action or other causes during the battle. A book of remembrance in the peaceful chapel lists the names of all those who have served and died in service with the RCN since its inception in 1910. Every day the officer of the day comes in and turns the page. Friday ceremonies are more elaborate and include the reading of names for all those who’ve died during that previous week in the history of the navy. This year included the names of those killed in HMCS Athabaskan, which had survived the glider bomb but was sunk by a torpedo on April 29, 1944, with the loss of her captain and 128 other men. Many others were taken prisoner.
The annual HMCS Sackville dinner is usually held on board the ship. Of the many corvettes that served in the battle, she is the last-surviving Second World War Flower-class corvette. The dinner couldn’t be held on board this year because she was in dry dock, partly in preparation for hosting ceremonies on Sunday. And so the dinner for 150 people was held at the aviation museum at Shearwater. For organizers and guests, sitting among vintage aircraft served to emphasize the important role aviation had in protecting transatlantic convoys, as well as the heavy price paid by aircrews.
One of those airmen was Flight-Lieutenant David Ernest Hornell, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross after pressing home a successful attack against a U-boat in June 1944. Hornell was forced to land his heavily damaged aircraft on an ocean swell, and the exhausted crew took turns manning a small dinghy or spending time in the icy water, hanging on to the dinghy. The ordeal lasted 21 hours. Hornell, who was among those rescued, died shortly after being picked up.
Commemorations on Sunday included a large ceremony at the Halifax Memorial at Point Pleasant Park, as well as services at sea on board Sackville. Erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and unveiled in 1967, the granite memorial is visible to ships approaching Halifax.
Approximately 100 people boarded the freshly painted Sackville before she was conveyed to the waters off Point Pleasant Park by two tugs. Most of those on board were relatives of deceased navy veterans whose ashes were being committed to the sea in what has become an annual service.
Wendall Brown, commanding officer of the Sackville, welcomed everyone aboard, as did Charlie Black, the chaplain for the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust—the organization that has kept HMCS Sackville afloat as the Canadian Naval Memorial. “This is a very heavy day for many of you,” says Brown. “It is also a heavy day for us as well because we are committing the ashes of friends and shipmates.…”
Those who had never been on board the ship were amazed by how cramped the space is. Many had trouble imagining such a small ship out in the middle of the Atlantic. “The ship was originally for a crew of 35,” explains Brown. “They initially thought they’d be sailing five or six days from defended ports like Halifax, Sydney and St. John’s, and then coming in to re-provision. But they ended up being used for ocean escort duty and they sailed right across the Atlantic. Instead of being out four or five days, they were out two or three weeks and sometimes longer. Down below, the mess decks would be damp from water getting in through the hatches, doorways, leaks and seams…and just the water coming off the clothing of men who were jammed into a small mess. These were very robust ships, but when it got rough they corkscrewed their way through the water—dipping their bow under and putting great sheets of water over the bridge….”
Prior to the burial services, Sackville conducted her own Battle of the Atlantic service—timed to coincide with the service at Point Pleasant Park. Waving in the breeze above the ship against the bright blue sky was the long red, white and blue church pennant, flown to indicate that a religious service is being held on board.
More than 24 sets of ashes were committed to the sea. Susan Clark’s father, Douglas Dillman, was 87 when he died last September. “During the war he went out on ships just like this one,” she says. “He had a nickname. It was Diesel. He was a stoker. When I was going through his things I found some of his old stoker books. His handwriting in those books was so beautiful…and the drawings he did of the engine parts were quite remarkable.”
Scott McKee was on board with his mother Bertha and brother Michael. His father, former lieutenant-commander Fredrick Gilbert McKee, was for many years head curator and chief archivist for HMCS Sackville. “This was something he always wanted,” says Scott. “This service really does help us remember.”
Also on board the Sackville was 84-year-old Donald Wilcox who was 14 when he and his mother boarded the liner Athenia on Sept. 2, 1939. “According to international law any vessel that starts a voyage before a war is declared is supposedly immune from enemy action for the duration of that voyage,” he recalls. On the evening of Sept. 3, the passenger ship was torpedoed by a U-boat, approximately 250 nautical miles west of Ireland.
“I had been standing right up at the bow of the ship, looking down and watching the cut water. Mom was somewhere on the promenade. Our cabin was three decks below, in tourist class. When she was hit, the ship jumped and then fell back on her portside. She had a list of about 35 degrees.”
Following the instructions he had received during boat drills, he ran to his cabin to retrieve his lifejacket. “Everybody was coming up and I was going down. It was total darkness inside the ship.”
When Wilcox returned to the main deck he found his mother standing there. Both were lucky to get into a lifeboat, but it wasn’t easy. Because of the ship’s list, the rope ladders on the starboard side were hanging well away from the side of the ship. “There was about a 10-foot swell. Mom was in her 40s and she went down ahead of me. When you reached the bottom of the rope ladder you had to jump into the lifeboat, but you had to time it just right on account of the swell.”
A Norwegian freighter rescued Athenia’s survivors, but of the 1,400 passengers and crew, 118, including four Canadians, died. The sinking of the Montreal-bound passenger ship marked the beginning of the long and very costly struggle for the Canadian Merchant Navy, the RCN, the RCAF and the Royal Navy on the North Atlantic.
Veterans Affairs delegation member Joseph Fram joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve at age 20, served in minesweepers along the Labrador coast and on corvettes. He witnessed the sinking of merchant ships and being at sea in deadly storms.
Eugene McDonald of the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association described to VAC how damp it always was, as well as the rough and cold weather. The Pointe-Claire, Que., resident also witnessed the sinking of merchant ships.
“Once on the way across some escorts came down between the columns of ships and dropped a string of depth charges,” recalls former merchant mariner Ian Sutherland of Sooke, B.C. “You could certainly feel it and the concussion popped a few rivets in one of our holds and flooded it. We didn’t know that until we got across and emptied our cargo. I was 17 at the time.”
Looking back, Arthur Taylor says the Jervis Bay—an old British liner that had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser—was just one of many ships that did what it had to do during the war. She was a British ship, but he remembers the Canadians on board. He himself was a Newfoundlander at the time and his memory tells him it was a rating from Toronto who first spotted the Scheer as a “speck on the horizon.”
Armed with old six-inch guns, Jervis Bay was escorting the merchant ships from Halifax to Britain. Her captain, Fogarty Fegen, knew he would be seriously outgunned by the big enemy ship, but decided to do what he could to protect the convoy. For his actions he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. “We dropped some smoke floats and sailed right in for her,” remembers Taylor who was part of a gun crew. “Soon she (the Jervis Bay) was in hard shape—hit mostly on the portside, but the bridge, I believe, was hit on the first crack…. We were on the guns and we did what we had to. We just did it—that was it.”
The Jervis Bay’s captain was severely wounded and was soon killed along with many others, a lot of them hit by shrapnel.
Taylor remembers jumping about 35 feet from the burning ship into the water, and then swimming as fast as he could to get away from the suction as she went down. He was a good swimmer and the raft he headed for was roughly 60 feet away.
About an hour after climbing onto the raft, he lost consciousness. The next thing he knew was waking up in a Halifax hospital. He had been one of 65 survivors picked up by the Swedish ship Stureholm.
Those few flowers—now drifting slowly away from HMCS Sackville—were in remembrance of Jervis Bay and other ships and sailors lost at sea. “It was only a quick flash,” explains Taylor while back in St. John’s. “I was just thinking about those who never made it. Back then you just prayed and thanked God you were alive. That’s the way it goes; you have to keep on living.”
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