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Caught Between Powers: Navy, Part 32

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (right) visits HMCS Assiniboine, August 1941. [PHOTO: KEN BELL, NATIONAL DEFENCE/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA140559]

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (right) visits HMCS Assiniboine, August 1941.

The Newfoundland Escort Force’s baptism of fire in June 1941 marked the start of the Royal Canadian Navy’s formative experience. What became known as the North Atlantic Run quickly defined a role for Canada and its navy within the evolving system of western defence. However, in the early summer of 1941, the longevity of that role was not guaranteed. In fact, even as the NEF conducted its first operations, plans were afoot to draw the still-neutral United States into the northwest Atlantic, and hand over all naval operations to them.

British and American staff talks in early 1941 produced the basic strategic and planning structure for the Anglo-American war effort. Under the terms of this document, dubbed ABC-1, the Western Hemisphere, including Canada and the western Atlantic, fell into the American zone. With the announcement of the Lend-Lease arrangement in March 1941, America tied itself economically and morally to a British victory, and the U.S. was set on a path of increasing its involvement in the war. When that happened NEF’s operations would pass to the United States Navy, and the RCN would transfer ships and men to the war zone in the eastern Atlantic. The operational effectiveness of the NEF was, therefore, less important in May and June 1941 than the mere fact of its existence because help was on the way.

American desire to get more involved in the war changed the nature of the Canadian role in the northwestern Atlantic. In accordance with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s July 1940 declaration of a Western Hemisphere zone of neutrality, on April 18, 1941, the commanding officer of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, the irascible and anglophobic Admiral Ernest J. King, issued an operational order outlining what the U.S. neutrality zone meant. “The Western Hemisphere,” the order declared, “extends from approximately 26 degrees W, westward to the International Date Line” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That zone included Canada, Newfoundland and areas of British territory in the Caribbean and the Americas, as well as Greenland that were in a state of war with Germany. In late May, in the aftermath of the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck—in which American patrols took an active part—Roosevelt declared an “unlimited national emergency” and extended American neutral­ity patrols further into the Atlantic. As the U.S. prepared to send forces to protect the Azores in June, the British arranged an ‘invitation’ from the Icelandic government for American protection. So plans were quickly made to shift the U.S. marines north, to relieve the British garrison in Iceland.


U.S. Admiral Ernest J. King.

Before Roosevelt could act on the Icelandic invitation, the whole nature of the war changed abruptly when Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Admiral H.R. Stark, then Chief of Naval Operations, urged Roosevelt to declare war, bring ABC-1 into effect, and deploy aircraft and warships to the northwest approaches to Great Britain. Roosevelt would not be moved quite so quickly, but the spreading war allowed him to announce on July 7 that U.S. Marines would occupy Iceland, which now obliged the Americans to run convoys there. This was the key opening for American involvement in the shooting war in the Atlantic.

American advances into the north and northwestern Atlantic had enormous implications for Canada. The development of huge American bases in Newfoundland since the summer of 1940 imperiled Canada’s role as defender of that British possession. A similar move to secure Greenland had been abandoned under pressure from the Americans not to interfere in the sovereignty of that Danish possession—an agreement that was quickly followed by an American occupation of that frozen island. It was clear by 1941 that the Canadian presence in the northwest Atlantic was quickly being eclipsed by its much larger neighbour. There were provisions for shared responsibility for security under the terms of ABC-22, the Canadian-American sub-agreement under ABC-1, and through the Permanent Joint Board on Defence which was working out the bugs of hemispheric defence. However, Canada had her own interests to protect in the northwest Atlantic. The struggle over the future of NEF was therefore tied up in regional power politics, as well as the war on Germany.

As a result, by June the Americans were making plans to participate in convoy operations in the northwest Atlantic. The Canadians first learned of this when the RCN member of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington, D.C., Commodore Victor Brodeur, carried the proposals by hand to Ottawa on July 4.

At the time, there was no legal provision for Canadian operations under an American command. Nonetheless, both King and his senior naval and military staff agreed they should accept the American plan. As things stood, the USN proposed to do most of the work, assisted by the British: all they wanted from Canada in the NEF was some 20 escort vessels.

Under this initial American proposal, Western Hemisphere Defence Plan 3 (also known as WPL-50), the British retained operational control over convoys in the area, and played a key role in the NEF. But neither the British nor senior American officials liked WPL-50. The British felt there were too many escorts allotted under it. Moreover, with the U.K.-Sierra Leone convoys under heavy attack in the eastern Atlantic, the British wanted no commitments west of Iceland. Roosevelt did not like WPL-50 either, especially since USN warships would be operating under British control.

So, while the RN sent escorts eastwards in anticipation of an American commitment to the northwest Atlantic, the Americans revised their plan. The new one, WPL-51, established American convoys to Iceland, under American escort and American operational control. The British acquiesced in this, advising the Americans—with consultation with Canada—on July 12, 1941, that they would leave all Canadian NEF escorts in place. This tacit transfer of strategic and operational control of the RCN to the Americans meant that by July 17 Admiral Stark was already conferring with his Atlantic Fleet Commander, Admiral King, about the future organization and deployment of the NEF. The RCN learned about this at a July 22 meeting in Washington when it became clear the USN expected the Canadians to maintain a major commitment to NEF and carry about half the burden of escort duty in the northwest Atlantic.


HMCS Trail, May 1941.

Throughout all this the RCN was excluded from direct negotiations, or input. As the head of the British Admiralty Delegation told Brodeur, the Canadians had no say in what was going on: “there will not be any dealing, that’s all!”

WPL-51 was partially implemented on July 26, 1941, when the U.S. Atlantic Fleet was placed on a war footing. Full implementation awaited a high-level political meeting between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. That meeting, the Riviera Conference, convened between Aug. 9 and 12 in Placentia Bay, Nfld. As RCN’s official history observed, “Although Riviera would have an important impact on the RCN’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic, no Canadians were invited to attend: they would simply be told where to go and when.” The RCN was there, nonetheless: the corvettes Chilliwack and Trail provided anti-submarine patrols at the entrance to the anchorage for the duration of the conference, while three RCN destroyers provided escort to the battleship HMS Prince of Wales which carried Churchill back and forth. It was, in many ways, an apt metaphor for the way the war unfolded: while Canadians worked hard to make everyone safe, their fate—and that of a great many other people—was in the hands of the great powers.

And like the great powers before them, in August 1941 the Anglo-Americans divided the world into spheres of strategic and operational control and expected everyone else to conform. Canada fell into the American sphere, and when it was agreed to implement the escort of convoy provisions of WPL-51, it was Admiral King who delineated the tasks assigned to the RCN. The USN would assume responsibility for American and Icelandic flag convoys, and arrange for Canadian co-operation in the escort of Icelandic flag convoys, but specifically not “United States flag convoys.” In effect, this meant every SC (Slow North America to U.K. Convoy) and HX (Fast North America to U.K. Convoy) would have at least one U.S. or Icelandic flagged vessel: the ‘rest’ of the convoy were merely tagging along for protection. A pool of American and Icelandic flag shipping was already being assembled in Halifax to ensure this charade met the letter of the law.

The Riviera Conference adjourned Aug. 12 with the signing of the Atlantic Charter, a statement of liberal democratic principles which became the foundation of the western alliance and ultimately the United Nations. But just what the convoy and escort arrangements actually meant remained to be determined. That situation was complicated a little by the practice adopted by the Admiralty in June, due to a shortage of escorts, of combining HX and SC convoys for their eastward passage. On occasion over the summer of 1941 this resulted in convoys of 100 ships. Statistically, convoys of this size were actually safer, but that remained for operational scientists to demonstrate later in the war. In August 1941, these huge convoys looked like ponderous and vulnerable targets. The Americans wanted nothing to do with them. By Aug. 20 it was clear King wanted the SC and HX convoys shaken out again, and that he wanted the NEF to take responsibility for the SC convoys.

The problem in late August was that no one had been talking to the RCN about this. When the British staff in Washington heard King’s assumption that the NEF would escort the SC series they realized that the Canadians had only been asked—six weeks previously—for a total of 20 escorts. Now at least twice that number was needed at a time when the RN was pulling its ships from the NEF. The struggling escorts of the Canadian expansion programs were ill-prepared for operations, and the Admiralty had admonished the RCN once again about poor operational efficiency in mid-July. To help mitigate this it was agreed in late August that the NEF would provide the conduit for Canadian corvettes to take passage to the U.K. for proper workups. Now it appeared that King expected NEF to operate a minimum of five escort groups of six ships each, as King told Stark, “a net of 30 escort vessels.” To maintain such a force required an operational strength in the NEF of at least 40 ships, double what the RCN anticipated and more force than it was capable of deploying at the moment.


HMCS Chilliwack, April 1941.

While the British scrambled to discern if King’s plans meant that British escorts would have to be maintained in the NEF, Stark urged the commander of his Atlantic Fleet to go see the RCN to work out the finer points of his plan. King refused. “I do not think it ‘becoming’ that I should go to the Canadians in person,” he replied. Instead, he sent a series of staff officers and, over the next 10 days or so, managed to get the details sorted out with the RCN, largely through Leonard Murray, the commodore commanding the escort force in Newfoundland.

As the U.S. Atlantic Fleet prepared to deploy 50 destroyers into the northwest Atlantic to escort the HX series, King expected the RCN to provide what was needed for the slow convoys. Stark pushed him to do more, to reduce destroyers assigned to fleet operations and commit them to escort duty. King would not be moved. According to the RCN’s official history, King was “not about to unbalance the organization of the Atlantic fleet, compromise proper fitting out and upkeep of ships, and sacrifice training and necessary rest for their crews by attempting to do too much too quickly.” The contrast with what was expected of the RCN could not be sharper.

In the event, the RCN went along with King’s request. By early September 1941, Murray was pulling together six escort groups comprised of five or six ships each: a total commitment to the NEF of 30 to 36 ships. In theory, this was sufficient to meet an operational cycle of an SC convoy every six days. However, Murray cautioned that the operational strength of his escort groups would normally be four or five vessels, typically one destroyer and the rest corvettes. It was assumed, by the Canadians at least, that the Americans would pressure the RN into meeting whatever shortfalls existed in NEF’s groups. The Americans seemed unaware of this assumption, nor was King comfortable mixing some of the 50 destroyers assigned to the Atlantic Fleet’s Support Force in with the weak RCN groups. Despite the ongoing Canadian problems with fleet expansion, poor training, and operational efficiency, King insisted the escorts for HX and SC convoys be kept distinct. Murray had met the letter of the requirement: six groups with an operational strength of four or five ships. King confessed his dismay that it took 40 ships to keep about half that number operational, but then he had no practical experience of convoy operations in the North Atlantic.

On Sept. 17, 1941, the escort provisions of WPL-51 went into effect. Operations of both the RCN and the Royal Canadian Air Force in defence of trade convoys and in battle against a declared enemy now fell under the auspices of a neutral admiral who felt it beneath his dignity to deal directly with Canadian senior officers. Not surprisingly, the arrangements for this were informal. On Sept. 13, King sent Murray a personal letter explaining he had no intention of including Canadian naval forces in his operational orders, nor indeed did he have legal authority to do so. Instead, King included a draft letter outlining what he might ask the Canadians to do “which I hope you will find appropriate and useful in effecting the necessary co-operation.”

But the whole situation at the end of the summer of 1941 did not bode well for the RCN. The British had played fast and loose with the Canadians. Over the spring and summer they pleaded with the RCN to take on increased responsibilities, chided the RCN over its operational efficiency, then sold them to the Americans as part of a scramble to get out of the northwest Atlantic. As a result, the struggling and overstretched RCN was saddled with the slowest and most vulnerable convoys in the vilest portion of the North Atlantic Run, operating under a neutral admiral who felt it unseemly to even talk to them. Despite all this, the British never stopped carping about the state of Canadian operational efficiency, and events at sea would soon give them plenty more to carp about.

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