By Pat Jessup and Sub-Lieutenant Blake Patterson
Delegates attending the 44th dominion convention in Halifax in June will have a chance to visit Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Sackville, the last of the 269 Allied corvettes that helped ensure victory in the Atlantic during the Second World War.
Sackville was one of more than 120 corvettes built in Canada during the war. Crewed primarily by reservists, the corvette escorts formed the core of the ocean escort groups defending convoys of merchant vessels from enemy U-boats. Without the supplies carried by these merchant ships, the war effort in Europe would have collapsed. The Canadian Naval Memorial Trust estimates the Canadian Navy escorted 25,343 merchant vessels across the Atlantic carrying a total of 181,643,180 tonnes of cargo during the war.
Commissioned in December 1941, HMCS Sackville escorted convoys from St. John’s, Nfld., to Londonderry, Ireland. Sackville was one of the original members of the famous Barber Pole Group, with red-and-white barber pole stripes painted on the funnel. All ships in the East Coast Canadian navy fleet now sport the barber pole symbol.
Sackville’s most memorable engagement occurred in early August 1942 in the North Atlantic when she engaged three enemy U-boats in a 24-hour period, damaging two of the submarines. As part of a western bound convoy, 250 miles east of Newfoundland, Sackville, under command of Lieutenant-Commander Alan Easton, encountered a U-boat on the surface. At a range of less than a quarter mile, she fired a star shell and forced the U-boat to crash-dive. She then steamed into the swirl of water left by the submerging U-boat and fired a pattern of depth charges. The powerful blast threw the U-boat to the surface before it slipped back into the water and disappeared.
Ninety minutes later, Sackville engaged yet another surfaced U-boat in a lethal ballet. When the Sackville zigged to ram, the U-boat zigged to avoid—but not before Sackville got one good four-inch shell away and punched a large hole in the base of the conning tower.
In September 1943, Sackville was part of the escort group for the combined westbound convoys ON-202 and ONS-18. These ill-fated convoys became victims of the first use of the Gnat acoustic torpedo.
In addition to several merchant ships, four escorts were torpedoed and sunk: the frigate His Majesty’s Ship Lagan, the four-stack destroyer HMCS St. Croix, the corvette HMS Polyanthus and the frigate HMS Itchen, all with a heavy loss of life.
During the enemy action, prior to the sinking of Itchen, Sackville was rocked by an explosion that severely damaged her number one boiler. The explosion was probably caused by one of Sackville’s depth charges detonating a torpedo close alongside, which may, in fact, have saved the ship. When efforts to make repairs were unsuccessful, it was decided to take Sackville from active service for use as a training ship and to lay anti-submarine indicators around the harbour.
After the cessation of hostilities, all of Canada’s other corvettes were sold to other navies or scrapped, but Sackville continued to serve, engaged in naval and civilian oceanographic research until she was paid off in 1982.
In 1983 the Naval Officers Association of Canada took the lead and the volunteer Canadian Naval Memorial Trust (CNMT) was established to acquire and restore HMCS Sackville to her 1944 configuration. Two years later, the Government of Canada designated HMCS Sackville as Canada’s Naval Memorial to the more than 2,000 sailors who lost their lives at sea during the war, and to honour all generations of Canadian sailors who served and continue to serve in war and peace.
“HMCS Sackville, as Canada’s Naval Memorial, is the only grave marker for the Canadian sailors buried beneath the waves,” explains retired commander Wendall Brown, commanding officer of HMCS Sackville. Each year the ship welcomes thousands of visitors at her summer berth next to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on the Halifax waterfront. In the winter she is berthed in HMC Dockyard. Through displays, artifacts and audio-visual presentations, visitors experience life aboard a Flower-class corvette.
In 2010, the Queen and Prince Philip visited the ship as part of celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Navy. The Queen unveiled a plaque to commemorate the royal visit and the significance of Canada’s Naval Memorial. In August 2011, Governor General David Johnston toured the ship and met with Second World War veterans and trustees. The Governor General is patron of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust.
CNMT has launched the Canadian Naval Memorial Project and is seeking government, corporate and private support for the project to ensure the long-term preservation and operation of Sackville for the benefit of all Canadians.
For further information about the trust and HMCS Sackville, visit the website www.canadasnavalmemorial.ca/ or call 902-427-2837 (winter) or 902-429-2132 (summer).