The war at sea in 1942 pulled Canada’s small-ship navy in several directions simultaneously. The importance of the Royal Canadian Navy’s contribution to transatlantic convoy operations east of Newfoundland was confirmed in early 1942. As American destroyers drifted away to warmer climes, the RCN assumed responsibility for their escort duties in the northwest Atlantic. However, American preoccupation with the Pacific war and the spread of U-boat attacks to the eastern seaboard of North America also drew the fleet south, into the American coastal zone and as far as the Caribbean.
And while this was happening, the U-boat fleet struck deep into Canadian waters, sinking ships within a few hundred miles of Quebec City. In the process, the RCN was stretched to the breaking point, making 1942 the beginning of the two most complex and troubled years in Canadian naval history.
As previous articles in this series have demonstrated, the task of oceanic convoy escort operations in the northwest Atlantic had already strained the expanding navy to its limits in 1941. The Sheep Dog Navy had, in Admiral Sir Percy Noble’s memorable phrase, “solved the problem of the North Atlantic convoys” at the strategic and operational levels. But tactically the results were often embarrassing. In fact, Allied authorities had been so concerned about the RCN’s operational efficiency that at least one Canadian convoy, SC 52, was turned around and sent home in the face of a major U-boat threat. Although the expansion of the war at the end of 1941 scuppered Commodore Leonard Murray’s plans to establish another training group in Newfoundland, the pressure to shift escorts to other theatres did provide an opportunity to do something to help the struggling RCN.
By early 1942 transatlantic convoy escort was still a three-phase operation. RCN local escorts based in Halifax guarded oceanic convoys from Halifax (the HX series) or Sydney (the SC series) to the “West Ocean Meeting Point” (WESTOMP), a variable location on the Grand Banks or the entrance to the Straits of Belle Isle. At WESTOMP convoys were taken over by either the United States Navy’s Task Force 24 (TF-24) or the RCN’s Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF). The Americans, with a fleet of destroyers, took charge of the HX series, while the NEF groups, primarily composed of corvettes, escorted the slower and more vulnerable SC series. The Canadians and Americans escorted convoys to the Mid-Ocean Meeting Point (MOMP) south of Iceland, where they were passed to the Royal Navy’s Mid-Ocean Escort Force (MOEF). It was MOEF which took the convoys from the mid-ocean point into British coastal waters through the North Channel and into the Irish Sea, where local escorts took over.
The system worked in reverse for the Outward Bound Northern (ON) and the Outward Bound Northern, Slow (ONS) series, with one important exception: westbound convoys dispersed on the Grand Banks, so there was no ‘inbound’ role for local Canadian escorts. It was believed that west of the Grand Banks shipping was safe from enemy action. The practice continued well into 1942, and produced a rich ‘harvest’ of easy targets for the first U-boats to operate west of Cape Race, Nfld.
In early 1942, Iceland was therefore the crucial relay point for escort groups operating in the mid-ocean. This was necessitated by the short range of many escorts—and not just corvettes. It is true, of course, that even the early corvettes, with their 3,500-nautical-mile range, could steam comfortably from Newfoundland to Britain in a straight line. But convoy escorts were constantly zigzagging and hustling in and around their convoys. When U-boats attacked they needed to respond quickly and for prolonged periods. Fuel was burned at prodigious rates, and some North Atlantic escorts crept into port having consumed every combustible fluid on board—from cooking oil to paint.
The advanced base at Iceland was in Hvalfjordhur, a deep finger-shaped, steep-sided fjord north of Reykjavik on the west coast of the island. In 1942, construction of jetties and shore facilities was well underway by both the British and Americans, but most of the support was still provided by RN and USN depot ships. The anchorage was barren and the holding ground poor. Moreover, Hvalfjordhur was prone to powerful winds funneling down its length. In early 1942, a savage winter storm struck the harbour as His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Assiniboine lay alongside the British depot ship with her boilers stripped down for maintenance. Warned just 20 minutes before the front came through, Assiniboine’s crew worked feverishly to restore power and to secure themselves alongside the larger vessel. Neither was fully complete when the gale struck. Within minutes the anchorage was a maelstrom of hurricane force winds, blinding snow and freezing spray.
Ralph Hennessey, Assiniboine’s first lieutenant, recalled that the destroyer’s lines to the depot ship were soon “popping like strings of spaghetti.” The anemometer on the American depot ship blew off when the wind topped 120 knots (roughly 240 kilometres per hour). Within an hour all of Assiniboine’s lines had snapped and she drifted away from the depot ship just as power was restored to her boilers. With both anchors down and occasional revolutions wrung-on for 15 knots, the destroyer rode out the storm for the next 30 hours in the crowded and narrow fjord. Meanwhile, the American depot ship was pushed—against her will—15 miles towards the sea before she was able to stop.
Hvalfjordhur, therefore, offered little refuge to worn ships and weary men in the winter months, and few lingered long. Fortunately for the British and escort vessels from the European navies-in-exile that made up MOEF, their bases in the United Kingdom were first class—and for British sailors, they were home. Although Greenock and Liverpool were not proper naval bases, they were major ports with all the amenities and support men and ships required. And across the North Channel in Northern Ireland, the USN was busy building Naval Operations Base (NOB) Londonderry as their prospective eastern base. The American western terminus in the North Atlantic at Argentia, Nfld., was already well underway to becoming a proper naval base. And so support for operational purposes was adequate and steadily improving. Nonetheless, amenities for recreation and training, and major repairs were lacking in early 1942, and conditions on the North Atlantic (convoy) run in the winter of 1942 were so vile that the USN proposed that their groups retreat to Boston at the end of each convoy cycle for proper maintenance and rest.
As rough as the advanced bases in the North Atlantic were for the British and Americans, they did not compare with what the RCN endured. Their ‘home’ base at St. John’s, Nfld., offered creature comforts and a respite from the perils of the sea, but for a fleet in need of operational support, it was little better than Iceland. The tiny, cleft-like harbour was busy and by 1941 the best wharves had already been taken by the Americans, who were building bases in Newfoundland. Repair facilities, meanwhile, were absorbed with fixing merchant ships. If a NEF escort needed major repairs it had to steam to Halifax, 1,000 kilometres away, where its crew would be scattered into new construction and its operational efficiency impaired as a result. As the last in, the RCN got the leftovers. Its wharves at the southern end were, as one officer described them in 1941, “all piles and none too strong.”
Added to this was the uncertainty throughout 1941 over whether NEF was a long-term commitment. This only delayed the development of RCN facilities at St. John’s. Then, once it was decided that Canada needed a naval base in Newfoundland, it took two years to build.
Little was ready in St. John’s during that first winter on the North Atlantic. The RN provided a fleet tanker and depot ship, while the RCN sent an oil barge and one of the Prince ships to act as a barracks. There was no engineering or training staff and the only training facility was a portable sonar trainer in an old bus. Chummy Prentice’s on-again off-again training group found Conception Bay, at the northern end of the Avalon Peninsula, a suitable place to train—when there was time and when ships were available. In short, the NEF operated from two advanced bases, neither of which provided adequate support.
By the end of 1941, then, something needed to be done to help NEF. It was also necessary to reorganize North Atlantic convoy operations so American destroyers, in particular, could leave to fight the Japanese. To facilitate all this, it was decided in early 1942 to abandon Iceland as a relay point for escorts, and to run transatlantic convoys between the Grand Banks and the U.K. with a single escort force. And so in early February the ocean escort groups of the USN’s TF-24, the NEF and British-based Mid-Ocean Escort Force were amalgamated into a new, multinational, transatlantic MOEF. Under this new system the MOMP disappeared.
Escorting convoys between the Grand Banks and the North Channel was a long stretch for corvettes and short-ranged destroyers, but they could make it if they were not too active during the crossing, and if the convoys stuck closely to the great circle route. It was understood that cleaving to the most direct route and the tactical limitations imposed on the escorts by virtue of their fuel restrictions made transatlantic convoys vulnerable. But for the moment, the crises were elsewhere and the risk was acceptable.
Perhaps just as important as the release of ships for duty elsewhere was the access to proper bases which the new system provided to the RCN. The eastern terminus for the Canadian component of MOEF now became the new American base at Londonderry. Since St. John’s remained their actual base, the layover in Londonderry was short, but it was a welcome respite. It also gave the Sheep Dog Navy occasional—if fleeting—access to British facilities and training establishments.
It was not just the Canadians who were anxious that the RCN’s transatlantic escorts find a safe haven in the British Isles. When the British agreed at the Argentia conference of August 1941 to American operational control of the western Atlantic, they also gave up effective control and influence over the rapidly expanding RCN. Although Canadians adopted the methods and doctrine of the RN’s Western Approaches Command (WAC), including its tactical pamphlet Western Approaches Command Convoy Instructions (WACIs), there was no structure or system available in the NEF, in its zone of operations between Newfoundland and Iceland, or even in Canada to ensure that WACIs procedures, tactics and doctrine were adhered to.
What made things worse—from the British perspective—was they could not rely on the Americans to ‘take charge’ of the RCN and bring it along. In fact, the USN’s tactics and doctrine were entirely at odds with the central tenet of WACIs, which was “safe and timely arrival of the convoy.” For the British, everything else was secondary, including pursuit of U-boats and their destruction. Getting the trade through was what mattered. For the USN, and indeed for the RCN, the North Atlantic was a frontline, a place to fight the enemy. This was well reflected in TF-24’s main tactical pamphlet, Lantflt-9A, issued in November 1941. It placed the safe arrival of the convoy dead last on the escort’s list of priorities. The primary task of American escorts was sinking submarines.
The British could accept such a practice by the Americans, over whom they exerted no control and whose help they greatly appreciated, especially in the fall of 1941 when the U.S. was still a neutral power. But such American influence on the RCN was intolerable. Indeed, the Canadians, Chummy Prentice among them, seemed to need no encouragement to charge madly after U-boats, leaving their convoys unguarded. What they needed was the firm guiding hand of Western Approaches Command, particularly adherence to the doctrine of ‘safe and timely arrival of the convoy.’
The Americans, of course, had no interest in mentoring the RCN. In fact, the USN’s filing manual still listed Canada as being under the British Empire. They would help in some ways, and certainly reinforced Canadian escorted convoys in times of peril, but there is no evidence the Americans sought to help the RCN get its training, tactics and doctrine sorted out in the fall of 1941. From the USN’s perspective, the RCN was a British ‘problem.’ But the command arrangements put the Canadians firmly in the American zone, and in doing so, they made the struggling Canadian expansion fleet an orphan.
But it was an orphan whom the British wanted back. Their solution to the struggling RCN in late 1941—and to the split in control of transatlantic convoy operations caused by the Argentia agreements—was to re-extend their operational control over convoys to Newfoundland. This would bring NEF back under WAC, where it had been from May until September 1941. However, the Americans would not surrender what they had won in the North Atlantic. The fallback position was to bring the RCN’s mid-ocean escort groups into a British port at the eastern end of their North Atlantic run. The elimination of Iceland as a relay point for escort groups in February 1942 and the absorption of NEF into a new MOEF accomplished that objective.
The thinning out of escort forces along the North Atlantic run in early 1942 accelerated as the U-boat attacks along the east coast spread south and intensified. The new MOEF, already stretched thin and cleaving closely to the great circle routes, enjoyed a brief respite from the action in early 1942 as the U-boat war spread to the coast of North America.
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