The convoy battles of late 1941 were a defining moment for the Royal Canadian Navy, and the outcome was not good. The confusion over Allied priorities, the navy’s push to get the first corvette construction program into service, the urgent need to increase the size of the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) and its groups, the lingering presence of U-boats in the northwest Atlantic and the watchful—often sharply critical—gaze of its larger Allies all conspired to create the impression of a bungling, struggling young service.
The situation prompted an exasperated Commodore L.W. Murray to lash out at the navy’s establishment in Halifax and the service in general, accusing both of lacking the “breadth of vision to see that the RCN’s reputation in this war depends on the success or failure of NEF.”
Unfortunately, Murray was right: that reputation was founded in the troubled fall of 1941 and it endured long after the last shots were fired in 1945.
The problems revealed by the battle for SC 42 (The Fate Of Slow Convoy 42, May/June) were not new. NEF escort groups had struggled throughout the summer of 1941 with poor equipment, poor communications, lack of training and problems of command. These came to the fore again a week later when SC 44 was located by pure chance. The 56-ship convoy had a comparatively large escort: the British destroyer Chesterfield and corvette Honeysuckle, the Free French corvette Alysse, and the RCN’s corvettes Mayflower, Agassiz and Lévis. Atmospheric conditions prevented the initial U-boat sighting reports from being detected by other U-boats and Allied intelligence, and so the first attack by U-74 in the early hours of Sept. 19 was a complete surprise. At 0410 hours the U-boat fired five torpedoes at SC 44, hoping to hit the wall of merchant ship hulls on the convoy’s portside. In the event, one struck Lévis.
A single torpedo was usually enough to sink corvettes in a flash, but Lévis—like Alysse the following February—was struck well forward of the boiler room bulkhead: the only place where a corvette could take a torpedo hit and remain afloat, at least for a while. Tragically, it was also where most of the messdecks were: 17 of Lévis’ crew of 69 died instantly. The corvette’s captain, Lieutenant C.W. Gilding, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, was in his cabin just aft of the explosion, and was badly shaken. Fearful of a second torpedo hit, Gilding immediately ordered the ship abandoned, a decision for which he was later sharply criticized. Engineers shut down the boilers and vented steam to prevent an explosion should the cold sea rush in, but left the diesel generator going to provide light and power. Meanwhile, Lévis’s crew took to boats and carley floats, as Mayflower, which was nearby and had seen the torpedo tracks, nudged alongside to help evacuate the ship. Agassiz soon arrived as well, and picked up men from the water.
Gilding supervised the lowering of the boats, and took charge of them as they pulled away from the stricken ship. This left the final clearing of Lévis to her first lieutenant and some of her junior officers and ratings. It was Sub.-Lt. Ray Hatrick who ventured into the shattered fore-ends of the ship, groping through smoke and debris to check the dead and call for survivors. Finding only the dead, he worked his way aft, directing the clearing of the lower decks. He then set Lévis’s depth charges to safe. When all was properly done, Hatrick, too, left the ship: everyone—it seemed—was off after about 15 minutes. Hatrick later received a well-deserved Distinguished Service Cross for his work that night.
Despite the crippling damage, Lévis refused to sink. The night was still and the seas were calm, so Mayflower’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander George Stephen, RCNR—recently the chief officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s RMS Nascopie and a veteran of Arctic waters—thought the corvette might be salvaged. He sent his first lieutenant back on board Lévis to help survey the damage. The report was positive, so 10 ratings were sent over and by 0540 hours Mayflower had Lévis in tow. In the process, the salvage party also found telegraphist Emile Beaudoin lying injured in the messdecks. Beaudoin survived and after six months in hospital eventually joined the new Tribal-class destroyer His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Athabaskan in 1943. Attempts to tow Lévis into Iceland ultimately failed, and she foundered and sank at 1710 hours on Sept. 19: the first Canadian corvette lost to enemy action.
The distraction caused by the torpedoing weakened the escort of SC 44 and put the convoy at risk. Fortunately, the U-boats continued to have communications problems, and only two others had joined U-74 by day’s end. Nonetheless, as the recent RCN official history observed, “the loss of Lévis and the absence of Mayflower, which had fallen far back while towing the hulk, favoured the submarines.” Attacks on the night of Sept. 19-20 sank four ships, the “best in the convoy” according to one British officer. But the escort held its own for the next two days, sweeping around the convoy and pushing back attempts to close. They were helped on the 24th by the arrival of Arrowhead and Eyebright, and by patrols near the convoy by five United States Navy destroyers.
At the strategic level, little of these tactical problems mattered: so long as the convoys had an escort and effective evasive routing, most of the shipping was free from attack. But for operational staffs there was clearly a need to make the escorts themselves more effective, and in the fall of 1941 the Canadians were clearly the weak link in the chain. The British, in particular, were dismayed that the Canadians had accepted responsibility for the slow convoys west of Iceland without consulting them. According to the RCN’s new operational history, the British only learned about the new arrangements when Murray signalled his force structure to Western Approaches Command on Sept. 9. In the aftermath of SC 42, Murray signalled his intent to increase the operational size of NEF groups from one destroyer and four corvettes to two destroyers and up to six corvettes. This meant two things: that every available RCN escort (beyond those needed for local escort in Canadian waters) would now have to go to NEF and none would be available for the eastern Atlantic, and that the British would have to help cover the Canadians’ shortage of destroyers.
The First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, in historian Alec Douglas’ words, “expressed his dismay” about this new situation in a long signal to Ottawa on Sept. 18. “It came as rather a blow when we heard Canadian forces were to provide for all SC convoys,” Pound observed. They had expected the Americans to do more, leaving the RCN with perhaps every other SC convoy and still be able to send help to the eastern Atlantic, and they fully expected to be able to withdraw all British escorts in the western Atlantic. Now the RCN had committed Canada to a major escort responsibility in the American strategic zone, while retaining both local escort duty and responsibility for Canadian troop convoys. The RCN’s commitments would now oblige the British to keep at least 10 destroyers in the western Atlantic.
For the moment, what salvaged NEF’s operations—and British agreement to support them—was a commitment on the part of the RCN to increase Murray’s strength to at least 38 corvettes. Nelles cautioned this could only be achieved by—in Douglas’ words—“rushing them forward from Halifax and Sydney forces that were [as Nelles said] ‘really used for working-up new corvettes.’ The ships, in other words, would be completely untrained and inexperienced.”
Apparently, no one was concerned about this, certainly not Pound who agreed to the arrangement. Murray and others wanted to ease the job by routing the convoys further south, along the great circle route, where weather was better and the route shorted. However, for the moment, convoys would continue to be routed north, allowing for an Iceland relay and support from bases there. Pound also agreed to leave seven Royal Navy corvettes and five destroyers in NEF, allowing Murray’s group to operate with a strength of six vessels, two of which would be destroyers.
In theory, an operational strength of six ships in six groups left NEF with sufficient slack to conduct operational training, but not in the short term as Murray scrambled to increase group size in the wake of the attacks on SC 42 and SC 44. Lt.-Cmdr. Chummy Prentice’s training group, for example, was dissolved and his ships assigned to operations. Poor fall weather also cut into spare time, as did increasingly wide evasive routing of convoys based on Ultra intercepts.
Murray had problems of his own. His rival and bitter personal enemy, Commodore G.C. Jones, was commanding officer, Atlantic Coast in Halifax. Jones’ task was to commission ships and get them to Murray as quickly as possible. The result, for NEF, was like running in sand. Every time operational vessels went to Halifax for repairs, a common occurrence given the paucity of resources at St. John’s, Jones’ staff stripped them of ‘veterans’ and sent them back to NEF with a green crew. So corvettes (in particular) which one month were fully worked up and reasonably efficient, came back into service after a short trip to Nova Scotia as anything but. In a scathingly bitter memo on this in October, Murray labelled Jones’ staff in Halifax “pirates” and accused them of lacking the vision to see that the navy’s reputation depended on the success or failure of his command—NEF.
Whether Jones was moved by Murray’s appeal, which seems unlikely, Murray’s was an astute observation and he was not alone in his views. The operational efficiency of NEF declined markedly through October, as its sea time climbed. By mid-October, NEF’s Captain (Destroyers), E.B.K. Stevens, RN, complained that Murray was measuring the endurance of his fleet solely on fuel, without regard for the men. Stevens warned that “a grave danger exists of breakdowns in health, morale and discipline.” In fact, Murray was so short of personnel that even defaulters were sent to sea—in the circumstances, hardly a lenient sentence. The Americans, too, were worried about the pace of operations for NEF’s struggling ships and men. “With winter coming on, their problems will be more difficult,” one USN staff officer advised Admiral A.L. Bristol in Argentia, Nfld. “They are going to have breakdowns and ships running out of fuel at sea.” To shorten the layover in Iceland’s wind-swept Hvalfjordhur waiting for the next slow convoy home, the USN began to give priority on westbound convoys to NEF. American seamen who watched the NEF in the fall of 1941 were nonetheless amazed at the tenacity and endurance of Canada’s sailors. In the winter gales of the North Atlantic, corvettes seemed to spend so much time underwater that USN sailors thought Canadian—and other corvette crews—should have received submarine pay.
British operational level commanders also complained about the performance of Canadian escort groups in the fall of 1941, even when their convoys were not attacked. The RN senior officer of SC 45 opined in his report that the convoy discipline of his Canadian corvettes was “not good.” When HMCS Shediac simply lost her convoy in the dark while escorting SC 48 in mid-October, one senior British staff officer at WAC summed their views up in five words: “A sad state of affairs.” No one had bothered to pass the course alteration planned for that night directly to Shediac, and she had no telescope to read flag signals at distance. The next morning it turned out that her wireless set was improperly tuned so she could not receive, and for some inexplicable reason Shediac did not have the rendezvous points for the convoy.
In fairness, the problem of defending convoys in the northwest Atlantic was not uniquely Canadian. After SC 48 was massively reinforced by destroyers it still lost six ships, a British destroyer, a British corvette and had an American destroyer torpedoed. But perhaps the hardest blow to NEF fell in early November during the truncated passage of SC 52. In the event, the escort was only partially Canadian, but it was weak and initially all corvettes: the British Nasturtium, the Free French Aconit, plus Buctouche and Windflower. The convoy was intercepted on Nov. 1 by U-374 southeast of St. John’s, and signals immediately went out to two large wolf packs lurking on the Grand Banks to the northeast. Attempts to muster a pack were watched closely by British intelligence, and SC 52’s routing was altered to due north to try to skip around the U-boats. Meanwhile, both RCAF and US aircraft flew intensive patrols against the subs and along the new convoy track, and Murray shifted escorts to reinforce the convoy. His Majesty’s Ship Burwell, a destroyer, joined east of St. John’s on Oct. 31, and another destroyer, HMS Broadway, and HMCS Galt joined in the early hours of Nov. 2, when U-374 was driven off and German contact broken.
The latter proved to be short-lived: U-123 regained contact with SC 52 again around noon on Nov. 2. The convoy’s routing was adjusted again, this time almost northwest, but that did not prevent U-boats from finding and attacking it. On the night of Nov. 2-3, two ships were sunk. Faced with at least 10 U-boats swarming west to join in the attack, in the early hours of Nov. 3 SC 52’s attempted crossing of the Atlantic was aborted. Course was altered almost due west, directing the convoy back to Sydney through the Strait of Belle Isle. Later that day, U-203 sank two ships in a very skilful daylight submerged attack in intense fog, at which point the convoy was ordered to scatter. Two ships subsequently lost their way in the fog and went aground in the strait. The 28 survivors of what the convoy commodore called “his cruise around Newfoundland lasting a week,” eventually returned to Sydney.
SC 52 was the only North Atlantic convoy ever driven back by the mere threat of U-boat attack. Its commodore, Captain S.N. White, RN (retired) was incensed over the whole affair, blaming operational commanders and intelligence and routing authorities for the fiasco. In particular, he blamed the inexperience and poor co-ordination of “our Canadian and American friends” and the “zealous” Canadian escort crews who were simply not efficient enough to handle the challenge posed to SC 52.
The trial of SC 52 was watched closely by RCN officers in St. John’s. Although its precipitous return constituted an Allied failure, Canadians saw it as a crucial defeat for NEF. As the scattered remnants of the convoy made their way through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a strongly worded memo from three senior officers arrived on the desk of Captain (Destroyers) Newfoundland. The memo observed that “RCN corvettes…have been given so little chance of becoming efficient that they are almost more of a liability than an asset to an escort group.” Stevens passed the memo on to Murray with his strong support, and noted in a covering letter that “written reports from other COs have not been called for. It is known they are substantially in agreement.”
Something had to be done, and soon, or the NEF was in danger of collapse.
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