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Canada’s Merchant Navy: The Men That Saved The World

Survivors of two merchant ships crowd  the decks of a rescue trawler at St. John’s, Nfld., April 1943. [PHOTO: GERALD M. MOSES, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA153052]

Survivors of two merchant ships crowd the decks of a rescue trawler at St. John’s, Nfld., April 1943.

It was the longest and hardest battle ever fought at sea. During six protracted years, more humans, ships and materiel were lost than in all the naval campaigns of the previous 500 years combined. It was arguably also the most decisive campaign of the Second World War and lasted for the entire duration of the war in Europe, from September 1939 to May 1945.

In March 1941, Winston Churchill dubbed it The Battle of the Atlantic. In his opinion, it was “the dominating factor all through the war,” a daily fact of life that the Allies could not ignore, as “everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.” Writing after the conflict, Churchill noted, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

But Canadian seamen did not only participate in the Battle of the Atlantic. By the end of the war, Canadian merchant ships and sailors had sailed the waters of all the world’s oceans, steaming relentlessly towards their destinations, through storms, surface raiders and submarines to deliver essential military and civilian supplies.

Convoy HX-47 departed Halifax on June 1, 1940, proceeding to Liverpool in Britain, 57 ships carrying mixed cargoes. Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Liebe, in command of U-38, a Type IX submarine, had been shadowing the convoy for some time. In the early morning hours of June 15, near Land’s End off the southwest tip of England, he fired a torpedo that struck home, sending the Erik Boye to the bottom. The Danish-owned, 2,238-ton vessel had been taken over by the Canadian government for the war; on this trip she was laden with 3,568 tons of wheat.

The Erik Boye has the dubious distinction of being the first of 72 Canadian- and Newfoundland-owned merchantmen to be sunk by the enemy during the war. Fortunately, her 22-man crew survived.

Hundreds of other seamen were not as lucky, but the total is imprecise as Canadian ships and seamen often sailed under other nations’ flags and there was a lack of standardized record-keeping for merchant fleets. However, more than 1,600 Canadian and Newfoundland men and women—perhaps as many as 2,000—lost their lives due to enemy action of the approximately 12,000 that served in the Merchant Navy; a higher rate than any of the armed services—about one in eight.

The first Canadian casualty—and merchant casualty—was a woman. Hannah Baird of Verdun, Que., a stewardess aboard the 13,581-ton passenger liner Athenia, died on Sept. 3, 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland and the same day as Britain and France declared war. She was one of 118 lost—including a handful of Canadians—when the Athenia became the first ship sunk during the war, torpedoed by U-130 without warning on her westward passage to Montreal.

Cargo is loaded onto an unidentified  merchant ship at Halifax. [PHOTO: R. WRIGHT, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA184171]

Cargo is loaded onto an unidentified merchant ship at Halifax.

Only half of all merchant sailors survived the sinking of their ships during the war. In a North Atlantic winter the odds were far worse.  Frigid waters brought death quickly, usually within five minutes, making the chances of survival one in 100. Yet, despite the dangers, merchant mariners, even those who survived sinkings, kept going back to do their duty and crew other ships, with only a thin plate of steel separating them from all eternity.

Ships on which Chief Steward Allan Harvie served were torpedoed nine times; on two occasions he was the sole survivor. On one voyage, he and the head cook were inside a solidly-built ice box on the top deck picking up bacon and eggs for breakfast when a torpedo struck their explosive-laden freighter. “The icebox suddenly heaved beneath our feet; the next moment it was sailing through the air. We crashed into the sea with such force that the icebox fell apart, and the cook and I found ourselves swimming for it, both badly shaken but otherwise unhurt.”

Harvie and the cook were the only survivors of the 55-man crew; “saved by bacon and eggs!” in his words.

Ships and sailors have been associated with Canada since the earliest days of European contact.  Ships brought the first explorers to our shores, vessels that the aboriginal inhabitants initially mistook for floating islands, complete with tall trees that disappeared into white, billowing clouds.

The endless forests of pre-Confederation Canada initially provided timber to build British vessels and by the early 19th century a home-grown shipbuilding industry had begun. By 1878, Canada was the fourth largest ship-owning nation in the world, with a merchant fleet of 7,200 vessels. Then, as European-built iron-hulled sailing ships replaced wooden square-riggers, Canadian shipbuilders found it harder to compete. By 1895, they were essentially out of business.

A launch delivers supplies to a merchant ship preparing to join a convoy out of Halifax, December 1942. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA166887]

A launch delivers supplies to a merchant ship preparing to join a convoy out of Halifax, December 1942.

When the First World War began in August 1914, Canada’s merchant fleet was a shadow of its former self and the country had little shipbuilding capacity. While there were few Canadian merchant ships, there were hundreds of Canadian merchant seamen, and they helped man the ships of Britain and other Allied nations carrying essential supplies to Europe. At least 570 Canadian merchant mariners died during the First World War.

Although the British had advised Canada at the outset to concentrate her war efforts on the army, eventually Britain turned to Canada to build trawler and drifter type warships as well as merchant vessels. As the first contract for merchantmen was not placed until March 1918, when the war ended none had been completed, although 63 had been ordered for the Canadian government. These vessels were intended to co-operate with British shipping during wartime to carry the necessities of war, and during peacetime to transport a range of products to expand the country’s export trade. They were needed sooner than anyone expected.

Two weeks before the start of the Second World War, the government confiscated Canada’s 38 ocean-going vessels and placed them under the control of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).  Later, several vessels from enemy or occupied nations were added. Additionally, the Great Lakes fleet was called up and 133 lakers were transferred to ocean convoy duties. Ship construction also started. By the end of the war, Canadian shipyards had produced 403 cargo ships. Most of these were taken over by Britain and the United States, but a significant number sailed under Canadian flag.

Canadian ships became the property of a Crown corporation, the Park Steamship Company Limited, established in April 1942, which commissioned shipping firms to operate vessels on its behalf. By 1945, the company had taken over 127 10,000-ton Park class ships, 43 4,700-ton Gray class freighters and six 3,600-ton tankers—all built in Canada.

Merchant ships  assemble  in Bedford Basin, Halifax, April 1942. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA112993]

Merchant ships assemble in Bedford Basin, Halifax, April 1942.

Fortunately, the British remembered the relearned First World War lesson of the importance of convoys and instituted a convoy system. Halifax was chosen as the main assembly point for eastbound convoys and on Sept. 6, the first convoy of the war, HX-1, left for Britain. Among its escorts were the RCN destroyers St. Laurent and Saguenay.

Initially, ships had to be capable of making nine knots to sail in convoy, but as older and slower ships were pressed into service, slow convoys began in August 1940, using Sydney, N.S., as their departure point. Ships capable of 15 knots or better sailed independently. Typically, a 40-ship convoy would be 10 columns wide with four ships in each column. A flagship sailed at the head, carrying the convoy commodore, while escort vessels patrolled the flanks.

One of the major challenges facing the Merchant Navy was finding enough sailors to crew the ships. The pre-war Canadian fleet comprised about 1,450 merchant sailors. Virtually all seamen with sailing experience had already been recruited by the RCN, while most of the able-bodied men without sea experience were in the army and air force. The Merchant Navy turned to shipping companies that operated on inland or coastal waterways, but also accepted men rejected by the navy or other services for being under- or overage or not meeting medical standards. To command the ships, several retired naval officers re-enrolled, some of them in their seventies.

To prepare the inexperienced crews, merchant sailors were trained at special schools. The St. Margaret’s Sea Training School in Hubbards, N.S., ran courses for ordinary seamen and cadet officers, while the Marine Engineering Instructional School in Prescott, Ont., conducted training for engine room ratings.

Conditions aboard many merchant vessels often left a lot to be desired. As sinkings grew, older ships and those not intended for the open ocean were pressed into service.

Quebec City native Pierre Simard first went to sea in September 1941 as a trimmer aboard the Skotland, an “old broken down coal-burning ship” built as a coastal vessel for Scandinavia, possibly the “worst ship” he could have joined. Carrying a load of timber to Europe, three days out of Philadelphia, two torpedoes slammed into the Skotland the first ship to be hit so close to the American coast. “It was a hell of an explosion,” Simard recalled, “…splinters went all over the place” seriously wounding several seamen.

Aircraft aboard a merchant ship destined  for England, April 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105314]

Aircraft aboard a merchant ship destined for England, April 1941.

In the one lifeboat that got away, Simard and his comrades looked after the wounded, but they did not have any morphine or other medicines, just a bottle of whisky. “The engineering officer was in bad shape; he had a piece of wood sticking out of his back, in his kidneys. We sawed off the piece of wood” he noted, and “left what was in there in.” The survivors were picked up by a fishing boat three days later.

The threat of enemy attack was a constant concern for crews and it affected their daily lives at sea. According to Windsor, Ont., native Paul Brick, “You slept with your life jacket. A lot of people used it for a pillow.” At sea, Brick slept in his clothes and although he “slept below in a few ships,” he mostly “slept on the upper deck” in case of attack.

An attack often came when a crew least expected it. For Nova Scotian Jim Boutilier, the first indication his tanker, the Montrolite, had been torpedoed three days out of Halifax was “sort of a blinding flash.” Such surprise attacks usually disoriented some sailors; for a few minutes Boutilier “didn’t know anything.”

Simard recalled a similar experience when he was torpedoed again, this time in port at Wabana, Nfld., as his ship took on a load of iron ore. Around one o’clock in the morning, “I was sound asleep. First thing I knew, the ship just jumped up almost out of the water. That wakes you up. If it doesn’t wake you up, that’s where you’re going to stay.”

A good ship’s cook was a valuable commodity, but many were not up to snuff. Mess boy Eric Publicover recalled a cook on the Liverpool Loyalist who “had a job to boil an egg.” He served beans, which cost three or four cents a pound, “about four times a week…and boy, they’d be like glue.”

As the war progressed, the cost in materiel, men and ships grew. In 1942, during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies lost—on average—one 10,000-ton ship every 10 hours for 31 straight days. Fifty-eight Canadian-registered merchant ships were sunk by enemy or probable enemy action. In addition, six British-registered, but Canadian government-owned, merchant ships and eight Newfoundland-registered merchantmen were lost to enemy action.

The contribution, however, was great. During the war, 25,343 ships sailed from North America to Britain, carrying more than 180 million tons of military and civilian supplies, and thousands of other voyages occurred elsewhere. A 10,000-ton merchant ship could carry enough food to feed 225,000 people for a week.

Although the Atlantic was not the only ocean Canada’s merchant mariners sailed in wartime, it was the most important. In the opinion of Rear-Admiral Leonard Murray, commander-in-chief Canadian Northwest Atlantic, “The Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any navy or air force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy.”

Although wartime Minister of Transport J.E. Michaud declared that “merchant seamen virtually form the fourth arm of the fighting services,” to its great shame the Canadian government initially denied merchant mariners the status of veterans and its attendant benefits, including pensions. The government did this for purely selfish reasons—to keep a merchant fleet operational.

Postwar Minister of Transport Lionel Chevrier wrote that, “Such benefits should not be of a nature which would encourage Seamen to leave the industry at the end of the war to seek employment in other fields as the services of many skilled Seamen will be required if Canada is to maintain a Merchant Marine after the war.”

The federal government was not alone in its refusal to consider merchant sailors veterans. The Royal Canadian Legion held a similar view, although the RCL would years later have a change of heart and through dominion convention resolutions urge legislation that would recognize Second World War Canadian merchant seamen under the Veterans Charter, something that would make them eligible for the same benefits received by armed forces veterans.

Survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship aboard HMCS Arvida at St. John’s, September 1942. [PHOTO: GERALD M. MOSES, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES—PA136285]

Survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship aboard HMCS Arvida at St. John’s, September 1942.

Ironically, the Canadian merchant fleet—once again the fourth largest in the world—did not last very long after the war. The Liberal government of Louis St-Laurent sold the fleet off at rock-bottom prices. By the time the Korean War began in 1950, there were few Canadian merchant vessels left to support the United Nations’ effort. Twelve Canadian-flagged ships did sail into the war zone, fortunately without casualties.

The refusal to recognize merchant seamen as veterans and provide them with benefits was followed in the 1950s by another disagreeable government action—the forcible break-up of the Canadian Seaman’s Union (CSU). The CSU opposed the government sell-off and called for a worldwide strike, which tied up 60 per cent of world shipping and became the largest international strike of the 20th century.

In response, the government and ship owners tried to discredit the union by labelling its members Communists (some were), at a time when the Cold War was beginning. Shipping companies and anti-Communist labour leaders—with the government’s support— invited the American Hal Banks and his Seafarers’ International Union (SIU) into Canada to break up the CSU.

One of the most vicious episodes of labour unrest in Canadian history followed. Through a combination of secret agreements with shipping companies, intimidation and blackmail, Banks quickly destroyed the CSU. But he went too far. By 1959 his bullying tactics had turned his former allies against him and the SIU (Canadian branch) was suspended from the Canadian Labour Congress. In the early 1960s, a report from a commission of inquiry described Banks as a hoodlum and a bully. Banks fled the country following a conviction for conspiracy to assault.

In 1992, after a lengthy battle, merchant mariners were granted official status as veterans, eligible to receive disability pensions, allowances and health-care benefits accorded to veterans of the three armed services. Sadly, thousands of merchant seamen had already died by then. Additionally, nothing was done to compensate the living for the loss of benefits since 1945.

In 1998, four Merchant Navy veterans participated in a hunger strike on Parliament Hill, vowing to remain until death or the government approved a new compensation package in lieu of the demobilization benefits provided to armed forces members at the end of the war. One of them, Ossie Maclean, said in an interview, “We are the men that saved the world.” The government acted, and in 2000 and 2001 began awarding cash payments under the Merchant Navy Special Benefit. In a final act of recognition, in 2003 Parliament declared September 3 annually as Merchant Navy Veterans’ Day.

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