Preserving The Atlantic Lifeline

May 1, 1998 by Legion Magazine


by Commander Tony German

The month of May marks the 55th anniversary of the longest continuous battle of WW II–the Battle of the Atlantic. In this article, author Tony German takes a look back at the Canadian contribution to victory at sea.

On Sept. 4, 1939, the day after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, the Cunard liner Athenia sank in the Atlantic Ocean after being torpedoed by a German U-boat. Winston Churchill, back in his Great War Cabinet post as First Lord of the Admiralty, immediately ordered convoys. Canada joined Britain at war on Sept. 10 and six days later the first transatlantic convoy of the war–HX-1–sailed from Halifax. The Battle of the Atlantic had begun.

Throughout the war–from that first sailing in 1939 to the end of war in Europe on May 8, 1945–the transatlantic convoys delivered the sustenance, weapons and fighting men needed to defeat Hitler and his mad dream. Canada’s contribution to this was, indeed, remarkable, mostly because of the unquestionable bravery and incredible sacrifice of those who sailed in our Navy and merchant ships. However, Canada’s story of courage on the North Atlantic began when our nation was ill-prepared for the monumental challenge.

In 1918, the embryo Royal Canadian Navy had cobbled together a force of 100 little ships and a Naval Air Service to counter the U-boats that were preying on east coast shipping. The Naval Air Service got off the ground in April 1918 when the United States Navy decided to help the RCN start its own service by sending planes to Halifax and Sydney, N.S. However, during peacetime the RCN dwindled to near nothing. The little money available went to naval divisions in each major city, thus wisely rooting the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, RCNVR, across the land. Then as Hitler’s threat loomed ever larger, the Navy grew a little and by 1939 had six British-built destroyers, four minesweepers, 1,700 officers and men, and approximately the same number in the reserves.

Canada’s once-proud merchant fleet had shrunk to 37 ships with roughly 1,500 men and women, plus some 25 Canadian-owned vessels under foreign registry. For a nation so dependent on overseas trade, it was as small a token as the Navy. Canada’s shipbuilding industry too had all but disappeared.

The RCN was a small adjunct of the Royal Navy. Ships, equipment and advanced training were entirely Made in England, so was the thinking among the small Naval Service Headquarters.

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For some 350 miles, convoy HX-1 was escorted by RCN destroyers Saguenay and St. Laurent. To seaward, RN cruisers Berwick and York took over as ocean escort. German U-boats were at sea, but they were in the waters off the United Kingdom. The greatest threat to the convoy on the open ocean was surface raiders, such as the pocket battleships Deutschland and Graf Spee. In the Western Approaches to the United Kingdom, RN destroyers provided the convoy with anti-submarine escort. Overall, however, the Allies didn’t have nearly enough escorts to cover shipping, even in U.K. waters.

Coastal trade, vital to Britain’s transportation system, was hard hit by U-boats and mines. Twenty-five Canadian canallers, lake ships that could squeeze down the St. Lawrence River, crossed the Atlantic in the spring of 1940 to lend a hand. One hundred and thirty-three of these shallow-draft lakers eventually plied the high seas.

Luckily, German Grosadmiral Karl Dönitz had only 57 operational U-boats, and during that first winter between two and 10 were operating in British waters. However, the small enemy force had plenty of targets; in October alone they sank 46 ships. During the first six months of the war they sank–on average–more than 20 ships a month.

British Admiralty expected operational control of RCN ships, but Prime Minister Mackenzie King remembered the carnage among Canadian troops under British command in WW I and said no. As well, fearing slaughter on the ground and conscription again, he looked to the Navy and Air Force because he knew they required far fewer combat people. He also realized that building ships and planes would fuel Canada’s economy.

Britain’s last ditch race to arms in 1938 included a crash program for a small, cheap, coastal escort vessel. The first flower-class corvette went to sea trials in 1939. No sooner had war broken out than Admiralty asked Canada to build them 10 corvettes. At the time, our shipbuilding capacity was next to nil. It had also been the RCN’s peacetime ambition to build a flotilla of the RN’s big tribal-class destroyers. These were fine surface-fighting ships, but far too sophisticated for convoy escort.

The plan was that Britain would build the RCN two tribals in the U.K. in exchange for 10 Canadian-built corvettes. With a displacement of 950 tons and a length of 205 feet, the corvettes had a speed of 16 knots. The ship was small enough to transit rivers and canals and that meant it could be built at a number of Canadian shipyards. Impressed with the design, the Canadian Naval Service Headquarters ordered 64 corvettes in 1940. That same year, the RCN agreed to build 18 bangor-class minesweepers. These ships were larger and faster than the four, coal-burning basset-class minesweepers Canada was using.

With this, Canadian naval shipbuilding shifted into high gear. The RN’s 10 corvettes were down river by fall 1940 and then delivered to the U.K.–partly equipped and barely armed–by Canadian crews. The first five corvettes for the RCN were manned by year’s end with 20 more due in spring.

The Western Approaches

That same year the German blitzkrieg cut through Holland, Belgium and France and pushed the British Army back to the sea at Dunkirk. The RN was desperate for destroyers and the RCN’s Restigouche, Skeena, St. Laurent and Fraser helped in the May 27 to June 4, 1940, evacuation of 338,000 trapped British and Allied troops.

On June 25, 1940, while returning to Plymouth, England, from St-Jean-de-Luz, France, Fraser was sunk after colliding with the British cruiser Calcutta. She lost 47 men. In July, the British destroyer Diana went through a refit at Albert Docks in London, and was transferred to the RCN to replace Fraser. She was commissioned as Margaree on Sept. 6, 1940, and 44 days later left Londonderry for Canada as part of a five-ship convoy. Just two days into the crossing, Margaree was in collision with a merchant ship. She lost 142 men, including many who had been survivors of Fraser.

The destroyers eventually joined the Clyde Escort Force, escorting convoys in the Western Approaches north of Ireland. From the RN they got the first seagoing radar, Type 286. Magic for its time, the radar was unknown even at Naval Service Headquarters. This lack of knowledge helps illustrate the sad state of Canada/U.K. scientific and technical co-operation at the time. Nevertheless, the radar was a huge boon at night and in low visibility. It could detect a ship at approximately three miles, however it could not spot a surfaced submarine.

With the fall of France in 1940, the Germans were able to establish French ports for their warships and U-boats. Allied shipping losses soared and there was an urgent need for more escorts. Enter the U.S. In exchange for naval bases in British possessions, including Newfoundland, the U.S. turned over to the RN 50, WW I-vintage flush-deck destroyers, known as “four-stackers” for their four smokestacks. The RCN got six at first, but could barely man them.

On Dec. 1, 1940, while escorting an eastbound convoy 300 miles west of Ireland, the destroyer Saguenay was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Argo. Twenty-one men were killed, but she staggered in to port at Barrow-in Furness, England. The loss of her men, added to the number of men killed on Fraser and Margaree, was a major blow because the Navy was struggling with a shortage of trained men and officers. The RCNVR divisions pulled in the volunteers, but it took training schools, equipment, experienced instructors and–above all–time to produce officers and sailors to do the job at sea.

By year’s end, hundreds of merchant ships had been sunk, but only a small number of U-boats had gone down. Germany’s U-boat production expanded and by early 1941 the boats were reaching westwards beyond air cover and striking in packs. Allied shipping losses soared and disaster loomed. In March, Winston Churchill underscored the deadly danger by declaring “The Battle of the Atlantic”, even though the battle was already 18 months old.

The Newfoundland Escort Force

Anti-submarine escort was vital now right across the Atlantic. In April, the RN parked a tanker and a support ship in Hvalfjord, Iceland, to stretch their escorts’ range. In the process, the RN tossed the RCN the western half of the Atlantic. That meant the establishment of a new escort force based in St. John’s, Nfld. It was called the Newfoundland Escort Force, NEF. Now, Halifax-based ships brought convoys out to a point south-east of Newfoundland and the NEF escort groups took them on to a meeting point south of Iceland where they were met by RN escorts for the journey to the U.K. The NEF group then headed in to Iceland where it refuelled then returned with a westbound convoy.

Allied air cover had reached a maximum of 500 miles from U.K., Iceland and Newfoundland. The coverage was very useful because it forced the German U-boats to move under water as opposed to on the surface where they could get about more quickly. And so the planes helped limit the U-boat’s ability to locate a convoy or move in to attack it. However, there was still a huge gap in air cover between Iceland and Newfoundland, and this area became known as the Black Pit.

Building From The Bottom

When Commodore Leonard Murray took command of the Newfoundland Escort Force in June 1941, he had six RCN and seven old RN destroyers, plus 21 corvettes–17 of them Canadian and the rest British, Free French and Norwegian.

Commander J.D. Chummy Prentice, an energetic and colorful man, was just the person to make the best of the frankly impossible task of turning brand new, partially equipped corvettes and raw ships’ companies into fighting units. And he did this almost overnight with no facilities, target submarines or experienced instructors.

By the end of 1941, the 17 corvettes had grown to approximately 50. They had arrived barely shaken down with their green, seasick crews still finding out how their ship worked. The captain was almost certain to be a merchant service officer, a capable seaman and navigator with some quick naval courses under his belt, but no experience in fighting ships. Of his four officers, one might have been qualified to stand a bridge watch on his own. The crew size on average was about 65 and it might have boasted a couple of permanent force senior hands, plus an engine room artificer and a stoker petty officer from the merchant service. With the exception of the odd fisherman, the rest had never been to sea. In this critical year of 1941, some 110–90 per cent–of the commanding officers of all Canadian warships were master mariners of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve on the beach due to the moribund state of our pre-war merchant service.

But ready or not, the convoys could not, would not sail without escorts. And so a destroyer–with four half-trained corvettes and no chance to exercise–was the only way to go. When it came right down to it, the corvettes had nothing but the sheer guts of their crew to sustain them, to shepherd the merchant ships and to fight the elite of the German navy and an unforgiving sea.

The Newfoundland Escort Force fought its first battle in June 1941. Convoy HX-113 was a fast convoy with 58 ships. The destroyer Ottawa was the Senior Officer Escort with Canadian corvettes Chambly, Collingwood and Orillia. Ottawa had radar Type 286 from her Western Approaches service, but the corvettes had no radio telephones and their wireless equipment did not work properly. Besides that, visual signalling with a tiny blue night-light on a wildly heaving bridge was far beyond the seasick neophyte signalmen. The corvettes had no radar, no searchlights or starshells and no flashless cordite. The ships were also beyond air cover. it’s no wonder HX-113 lost six merchant ships.

However, the capture of a U-boat’s Enigma cypher machine earlier in the year meant the RN’s ultra secret code-breaking centre could read Dönitz’s traffic and Admiralty could route most convoys clear of his patrol lines. The huge advantage lasted until the change of cypher at the end of 1941. Without that reprieve, 1941 could well have spelled the disaster Churchill feared.

Luck ran out in September 1941 with slow convoy SC-42. The convoy had 64 ships and it was crawling towards Iceland in heavy gales at a scant five knots. Admiralty’s plot showed a patrol line of 14 U-boats right across its path. Five other convoys, which were diverted south, got by unscathed, but SC-42 was ordered north up the east coast of Greenland. The most northerly U-boat in the group spotted it and reported its position, course and speed. The information was sent out and the pack closed in.

The senior escort officer, Lieutenant-Commander Jimmy Hibbard in Skeena got the dispositions from shore. Skeena was a Western Approaches veteran. The corvettes Orillia and Alberni had worked just two convoys. A third corvette, Kenogami, had barely joined the NEF.

On an ice-clear, moonlit night, the U-boats stormed in from the dark side. Like torpedo boats, they attacked on the surface, just as young Karl Dönitz had done in 1918. The U-boats were faster on the surface than all but the lone destroyer and they were able to choose their time and points of attack, as well as see their targets. They moved in and fired torpedoes at will, then submerged while the ships passed over. They surfaced, reloaded their torpedo tubes and attacked again and again.

Initially, four merchant ships were hit. There were no rescue ships or tugs then. With no word to Hibbard, the corvettes dropped back for survivors. Orillia took a crippled tanker in tow for Iceland and therefore was lost to the battle. The other two corvettes took fatal hours to catch up while Skeena raced through the convoy lanes and fought alone. The natural urge to save lives had robbed the merchant ships that needed defence. By dawn, seven merchant ships had sunk. One more was sunk in daylight, and that night two more were sunk.

In the corvette Chambly, Prentice broke off a training exercise with the newly arrived corvette Moose Jaw. He spotted a starshell and moved in to help SC-42. A solid asdic contact and a quick depth charge pattern blew U-501 to the surface. Moose Jaw rammed and Chambly’s boarding party got below, but the U-boat sank before they could nab the cypher machine.

Five more ships were sunk that night. The final count was 16 sunk–a quarter of the convoy. The U-boat kill by Chambly and Moose Jaw was the first known score of the war for the RCN. But the battle for convoy SC-42 was a terrible defeat.

If it was a nightmare for the young naval sailors at action stations in an escort, it was 10 times worse for the merchant seamen. For the most part, all the captain could do was keep his station and hold steady against all his instincts. These men knew they were sitting ducks in a doomed formation. And when the U-boats attacked, all they could do was watch the blazing death of stricken ships, listen to the cries of help and wait for the next torpedo.

When the surviving masters of convoy SC-42 got together at their U.K. destination, they wrote to the commander-in-chief Western Approaches and praised the destroyer that had tirelessly done everything possible to stave off even greater catastrophe. When Hibbard read his copy of the letter to Skeena’s ship’s company, the crew decided to forego their Christmas party and spend the money they’d saved on redecorating the Allied Merchant Seamens Club in Halifax.

The U.S. Navy

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew the U.S. must sooner or later fight Germany and the U.S. Navy had been in undeclared war in the western Atlantic for more than a year. They had a base at Argentia, Nfld., and in March 1941 started escorting U.S. merchant ships with goods for Britain. USN war plans allocated a wondrous 48 destroyers to convoys, plus major air support in the western Atlantic. In September a USN destroyer on a fast convoy to Iceland was damaged by a torpedo. Another American ship was sunk and the Americans were on the verge of war.

The Edge Of Disaster

Fighting off the huge wolf-packs required at least two destroyers, six corvettes and a crew that was well-trained and worked up as a group. It also required continuous air cover. However, the Allies did not have the ships, the training time nor the range in the aircraft.

Good radar was also vital for all ships and the RN’s new set, the centimetric Type 271, could detect a surfaced U-boat. But our corvettes were just beginning to get Surface Warning 1st Canadian, SW1C, known as Swick. This was a version of the destroyers’ outdated Type 286, the radar that couldn’t detect a surfaced U-boat.

Losses mounted and the weather worsened. Corvettes were thoroughly seaworthy little ships, but designed as coastal escorts. They were never intended to spend two, three weeks on end in the open North Atlantic. They were wretched to live in. Fresh food, bread and milk were gone in a few days and the mess-decks, where the sailors lived, ate and slept (when they could), were terribly overcrowded, more so when crew size grew to man new equipment. Sea water always found its way in; condensation dripped from the deck-head; bedding and clothing were always wet and no one changed clothes for fear of being caught at a disadvantage if a torpedo struck. The stench of unwashed bodies, vomit and oil that seeped from fuel tanks was everywhere. It was bitter cold and wet up top and no steam heat below. The men were constantly hanging on to things because the ships regularly slammed into rough seas, shuddered and heaved. There was endless noise and the men were exhausted, hungry and sick.

The “funnel watch”–those men who never overcame seasickness or had too deep a dread of a torpedo or a collision to sleep below–wedged themselves behind the funnel or smokestack on the open deck. Indeed, the definition of hell was a corvette in North Atlantic winter.

Each group was supposed to have 12 harbor days in each cycle for cleaning ship, maintenance, storing, training and rest. Most got a scant four days alongside for 26 at sea. With very little rest and relaxation, they would head out to sea to pick up another convoy. And very often when a ship was in St. John’s or Halifax for repairs, experienced men were snatched for some brand new ship that was thrown into the maelstrom.

USN destroyers got the fast convoys while the RCN groups–with one destroyer–got the slow ones. It was also proven at the time that ships in slow convoys had a 30 per cent greater chance of being torpedoed. On Sept. 19, 1941, while 120 miles east of Cape Farewell, Greenland, SC-44 lost four ships, plus the corvette Levis. That same fall, a mixed convoy group–SC-48–lost nine merchant ships, two RN escorts, plus a USN destroyer. In October, Dönitz threw 20 U-boats at the NEF. SC-52 headed into them and lost heavily. In the whole course of the war it was the only Atlantic convoy turned back by U-boats.

In the darkness of late October, the Russian convoys began and this demanded even more destroyers. And so the NEF got less.

In November, Hitler pulled every U-boat into the Mediterranean to support Rommel in North Africa. In the welcome lull on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was bombed by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. was in the war, but it stripped its Atlantic fleet to fight for its life in the Pacific. Instead of 48 destroyers, just two groups of U.S. Coast Guard corvette-equivalents remained in the Atlantic, plus welcome reinforcements for the Royal Canadian Air Force of B-17s and Catalina flying boats.

The Enemy Beneath

With his U-boats back from the Mediterranean, Dönitz swung full force at the American seaboard. Quite incredibly the USN had no convoy organization. They counted totally on “search and patrol” by aircraft and sub-hunting ships–tactics that had been proven useless in WW I. The U-boats simply prowled the shipping lanes and picked their victims off at will. In the first month 50 ships went down, nearly all independents, and not one of the 13 U-boats involved was killed.

In February 1942, the RCN persuaded the USN to organize convoys north from Boston, but the RCN had to pull 18 corvettes from the hard-pressed NEF to escort them, along with Bangor minesweepers. The Western Local Escort Force, WLEF, based in Halifax, ran the Triangle Run that took in Halifax, Boston and the Western Ocean Meeting Point some 700 miles northeast of Halifax. However, the U-boats struck where the convoys weren’t and the carnage continued. By April 1942, the USN had a makeshift daytime convoy system that went from Florida to Boston, Dönitz moved his force to the Caribbean, sent “milch-cow” submarines to supply them, and the slaughter continued.

Canada, meanwhile, was in need of oil. In May the RCN organized tanker convoys from Trinidad. This pulled 14 more corvettes from the NEF. Likewise, the RN had to assign escorts to protect oil shipments from Aruba. The Canadian oil convoys got the protection they needed and in late August 1942 the corvette Oakville met with great success when she rammed U-94 to the bottom.

Eventually, Dönitz’s hammer fell back, closer to home, on the North Atlantic.

Mid-ocean Escort

From early 1942 the NEF provided mid-ocean escort from the Western Ocean Meeting Point–east of Newfoundland–to Ireland. After each run, it turned the merchant ships over to the Western Approaches escort. It then went in to Londonderry for fuel, maintenance and a layover. Air cover improved and the first mid-ocean convoy lost two ships and the corvette Spikenard. She was sunk on Feb. 10, 1942 with all but eight of her crew. The infamous Black Pit was smaller, but the killing continued.

Every escort group on the Newfy-Derry run was supposed to have two or three destroyers and five or six corvettes to allow spells for refit and training. The RN, and soon the USN, had first-rate dockyard, supply and training facilities in Londonderry, and after a winter’s hammering on the North Atlantic, Ireland was a lush, green paradise. However, with 18 convoys a month, the escort groups experienced a ceaseless grind.

The blackout on German cypher made things a lot tougher, but the Canadians learned the hard way and succeeded. On July 24, 1942, while escorting convoy ON-113, the old four-stacker destroyer St. Croix destroyed U-90 with four solo depth charge attacks. Seven days later, while escorting westbound convoy ONS-115, the destroyer Skeena and the corvette Wetaskiwin cracked U-588 and brought up the irrefutable evidence of human remains. Their consort, the corvette Sackville, flushed three U-boats on the surface in fog and put two out of action with her gun and depth charges. Convoy ONS-115 lost only two ships.

On Aug. 6, 1942, the Canadian destroyer Assiniboine had a blazing, fog-shrouded gun battle with U-210. The fight ended when Assiniboine rammed the U-boat to the bottom. She then headed to Halifax for repairs. The following September, during three solo depth-charge attacks, the corvette Morden sank U-756 in the North Atlantic.

By then the German wolf-packs were back with a vengeance. One pack sank seven ships and damaged four others. The destroyer Ottawa picked up survivors and then raced 10 miles ahead after dark to meet a reinforcing destroyer. On Sept. 13, two torpedoes from U-91 sent her to the bottom with 114 of her men and 22 merchant seamen.

The St. Lawrence Battle

Earlier in the year, in May, U-553 sank two independent freighters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Within two weeks all Gulf shipping was in convoy. Naval base construction, which had begun the year before at Gaspé, was pushed full ahead. Five bangors, some fairmile motor launches and an armed yacht scraped from Halifax became the Gulf Escort Force. Some corvettes and an RN destroyer brought the number of escort ships to 18. The Gulf was also covered by RCAF Catalinas and Hudsons.

In June a single U-boat sank four ships off Cap Chat, Que., in broad daylight and by August the confined Gulf was a shooting gallery. What made matters worse was the fact that the mixture of salt and fresh water with sharply varying temperatures could give a submerged U-boat virtual immunity from detection by asdic. Now referred to as sonar, asdic was a secret device developed at the end of WW I. Basically, it was a sound transmitter housed in a dome sticking out from the ship’s bottom that projected a beam of high-frequency sound. An operator on the ship turned a wheel in the direction he wanted to listen, and using headphones, he could listen for reverberations from the sound transmission.

On Sept. 7, 1942, while escorting convoy QS-33, the armed yacht Raccoon was torpedoed and sunk by U-165 in the St. Lawrence River. She left behind a trace of flotsam and a single body.

Four days later the corvette Charlottetown was torpedoed in the St. Lawrence near Cap Chat by U-517. Ten men died, but many survivors suffered massive internal injuries from exploding depth charges that had not been rendered safe.

That same month the Gulf of St. Lawrence was closed to ocean traffic. This meant massive rail movement from Montreal to Maritime ports and Portland, Me., cutting exports by 25 per cent.

In a culminating tragedy on Oct. 14, 1942, the Newfoundland-registered passenger ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed on her overnight run from Sydney, N.S., to Port aux Basques, Nfld. Of the 237 people on board, 31 crew and 105 passengers, including 14 of the 15 children, were killed. Her lone escort, the RCN minesweeper Grandmere, rescued 101. No more than two U-boats in the Gulf at any time sank 22 merchant ships. And so a mere handful of U-boats had scored a huge strategic victory and not one of them was sunk.

Bearing The Brunt

Radio Berlin mocked Canada’s navy as “nine tenths composed of requisitioned fishing boats, coastal ships and luxury yachts.” It certainly wasn’t that bad, but problems were worse than severe. The RN had realized the shortcomings of the original “short forecastle” corvette and quickly eliminated the well-deck by extending the forecastle aft, creating a lot more liveable space and dry access to the galley. Seventy Canadian corvettes were completed with short forecastles and their crews endured the miserable conditions until refitted as late as 1944.

Canada had done a remarkable job building the ships, but it still fell far short in repair and refit facilities in the Maritimes and in technical development and production. For new equipment we still depended on Britain and were at the wrong end of a very long British queue. RN destroyers and many RN corvettes had excellent centimetre-band 271 radar in 1941. Our destroyer’s Type 286 and our corvette’s even less capable Swick couldn’t detect a surfaced U-boat, but the U-boats could detect them. U-boats had no radar but carried a search receiver that could detect the 286 and Swick, but not the 271 radar. In August, Britain rationed the RCN to ten 271s a month.

If the destroyer Ottawa had had a high-frequency direction finder, HF/DF, to locate the wolf-pack’s wireless chatter, and a 271 radar instead of a 286 it’s possible that she could have dealt with those U-boats and lived to fight again.

Our ships too were a year astern getting “hedgehog”, a weapon that fired a pattern of bombs ahead of the ship. Many corvettes still had magnetic compasses and rudimentary asdic. The list went on and Canadians at sea felt they were fighting with one hand tied behind their back.

The NEF was robbed again in the fall when Naval Headquarters sent 17 corvettes to Operation Torch, the seaborne assault on North Africa. These ships got up-to-date equipment in the U.K. and did well in the Mediterranean, but in mid-ocean, where they were sorely missed, the number of merchant ship sinkings rose. The majority of losses were in the slow convoys and it was the ill-equipped Canadian groups that had the majority of these.

In October 1942, Lieutenant-Commander Debby Piers in the destroyer Restigouche escorted slow convoy SC-107. The escort included only four corvettes. Beyond air cover, 17 U-boats lay square across its path. Restigouche was the only RCN ship with HF/DF because Piers had scrounged one through a USN friend in Londonderry. One corvette, HMS Celandine had Type 271 radar, but it broke down for four critical days. As the enemy closed in on the convoy, Piers made high-speed dashes to fend them off. But in five blazing nights of fighting, 15 ships went down. The only thing that the new commander-in-chief of Western Approaches–Admiral Max Horton–could find to criticize was Piers’ youth and inexperience. He was only 25, but he’d been on the North Atlantic without cease for three full years.

Horton was a tough new broom. He planned to stem the sinkings by putting the high-performing groups in mid-Atlantic and pulling the low performers in for training. He fingered the heavy losses in Canadian-escorted convoys and blamed it on the lack of training. Churchill backed him, writing to Mackenzie King that “…the expansion of the RCN has created a training problem which must take time to resolve.”

Then came the notorious Christmas convoy of 1942. ONS-154 was made up of 45 ships and routed much further south than usual, not far north of the Azores, with the destroyer St. Laurent, five corvettes and no air cover. It ran into 20 U-boats. The result was an inferno. Four ships the first night and more than double that the second night.

The SOE in St. Laurent, Lieutenant-Commander Guy Windeyer was experienced and had commanded the corvette Wetaskiwin in sinking U-588 with Skeena, but he broke down, exhausted and the first lieutenant took control.

Dönitz now had 400 U-boats. Meanwhile, Allied merchant ships were being sunk at a rate faster than they could be replaced by the U.S., Canada and Britain combined. Only the pure guts of the merchant seamen kept the ships moving. Churchill saw the gravest threat of the war–that they would crack and the merchant service would collapse. And in the last two months of the year 80 per cent of the ships sunk in transatlantic convoys had been under Canadian escort. These were the slow convoys and for six months the RCN had borne the brunt of fully half the U-boats operating at sea.

Canada’s Merchant Navy

Fifty Canadian merchant ships were sunk by the end of 1942, but new construction was on stream. Back in October 1940, Britain had ordered 26, 10,000-ton cargo vessels from Canada. The Canadian government ordered 88 more and eventually more orders followed. The first five merchant ships were delivered to a new Crown corporation, the Park Steamship Company, in mid-1942. Another 171 ships were due by the end of 1944. Wretchedly paid by most shipping companies in the pre-war depression, and paid only slightly better during the war, the merchant seaman lacked the Navy man’s benefits, like clothing, bedding, proper medical care, routes to promotion, pensions and the support and camaraderie of a structured service. During wartime, the mustering of crews by agents for ship owners was a haphazard business and by 1940 too many ships were missing their sailings from Halifax because of manning problems and various kinds of “crew trouble.”

In 1941, the Directorate of Merchant Seamen was established within the Department of Transport. It set up manning pools for all Allied merchant seamen. It also arranged for quarters as well as recreation and medical services. All told, the Park ships needed some 10,000 men, and new schools at Hubbards, N.S., and Prescott, Ont., provided deck and engineering training, respectively.

The Battle Turns

Significant changes were in store for the RCN after the infamous Christmas convoy. Canadian groups were cycled through refit and training at RN facilities. They then ran convoys to Gibraltar with solid air cover. Many ships got new goodies like 271 radar, HF/DF, hedgehog, 20-mm anti-aircraft guns and up-to-date communications. St. Croix and the corvette Shediac killed a U-boat off Portugal.

Another corvette, Prescott, while escorting a Gibraltar convoy, was eventually credited–through postwar reassessment–with the March 13, 1943, destruction of U-163 in the Bay of Biscay.

Admiral Horton squeezed more destroyers from the battle fleet, formed a first team of “support groups” and stationed them where they could move swiftly to back up threatened convoys and kill U-boats, however long it took.

The Canadians were cycled back to mid-ocean and to the dreary, ceaseless slogging of convoy close escort during the most ferocious winter in living memory. Even though the time was ripe, they were not given the chance to go on the offensive, to square their account with the U-boats. It was a bitter pill.

However, the situation improved in the spring of 1943. The RN had five support groups in the Atlantic and the Canadian groups, on close escort, were in far better shape. In addition, Very Long Range, VLR, Liberators flew from the U.K., Iceland and Newfoundland. MAC ships, merchant ships with a regular cargo plus a rudimentary flight deck and half a dozen Swordfish aircraft, sailed with big convoys. Also, the first of the escort carriers, HMS Biter, and USS Bogue, were in the mid-Atlantic. The air gaps were closed and so the Black Pit was no more. And to cap it off, the Allies broke the U-boat code again.

In early May a massive battle for convoy ON-5 pitted a British close escort and two support groups against 40 U-boats. In heavy weather the U-boats sank 12 ships, however, it turned calm and foggy and the U-boats, still without radar and unable to detect the 271s, had to grope in the fog and talk on their radios. The defenders, all with excellent radar and HF/DF, had a clear picture as they killed six U-boats.

The killings by Allied naval forces told the tale. Nineteen U-boats were sunk in February; 15 in March; 18 in April. In May, 47 were sunk, including the boat commanded by Dönitz’s son. The German admiral called his U-boats home and May 1943 marked the turning of the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic. It is an anniversary now commemorated by the Canadian and British governments.

Sting in The Tail

By September 1943, there were at least 30 U-boats back at sea. They had been re-equipped and were a lot more dangerous when they closed on westbound convoys ON-202 and ONS-18. The convoys had an RN/RCN escort, plus air cover provided by Swordfish from a MAC ship, RAF Liberators and a RCAF squadron from Newfoundland. In a vicious battle, the British frigate Lagan was knocked out with a torpedo. St. Croix, the brave old veteran with two U-boats to her credit, took two torpedoes and sank. During a lull in the battle, Itchen, a RN frigate under RCN control, and the corvette Polyanthus went back, for survivors. Polyanthus was hit and Itchen found one survivor. It then called the corvette Sackville in and picked up 81 from St. Croix while Sackville screened. Two days later, while chasing a surfaced U-boat, Itchen suddenly exploded in a blinding flash, sunk by U-666. Sackville picked up one survivor from Itchen, one from Polyanthus and one from St. Croix.

The U-boats deliberately targeted escorts with a fearsome new torpedo that homed on the sound of a ship’s propeller. This acoustic torpedo–called a Gnat–led the RN and RCN to devise a noise-making decoy that was towed behind the ship. Still, the Gnat remained a deadly threat until the end of the war.

The Home Stretch

By the end of 1943, the first 16 Canadian-made frigates were in commission with 44 more to come, many with RCNVR commanding officers. On Jan. 8, 1944, the corvette Camrose and the British frigate Bayntun shared the killing of U-757 in the North Atlantic. The Gnat made a U-boat downright deadly for a single ship to engage, but co-ordinated attacks by a group of ships were able to keep the enemy submerged, depleting the U-boat’s battery and air supply.

In March 1944 the Canadian Escort Group C-2 was made up of the RCN destroyers Gatineau and Chaudiere, the frigate St. Catharines, corvettes Chilliwack and Fennel and the RN destroyer Icarus. Along with the RN corvette Kenilworth Castle, these ships took 32 deliberate hours and used hundreds of depth charges to bring U-744 up to a final storm of point-blank gunfire.

That year also saw Swansea participate in three U-boat kills. Her captain, Commander Clarence King, had been the commander of the corvette Oakville when she rammed U-94 in the Caribbean in 1942. He had sunk one in the previous war too for a lifetime score of five.

Just one Allied ship was sunk in the Atlantic in May 1944–the new Canadian frigate Valleyfield. She lost 125 men after a Gnat tore her in half in ice-filled water off Newfoundland. Soon, the whole Atlantic route from New York to Ireland was under Canadian escort. On July 17, the largest convoy of the war–HXS-300–sailed from New York. The close escort duty for the 167-ship convoy belonged to one frigate and six corvettes. The passage to the U.K. took 17 days, but not one ship was lost. In total, the convoy delivered more than a million tons of cargo that was needed to win the war.

Dönitz, meanwhile, pulled his U-boats into a semicircle from Brest, France, to the Faeroe Islands to catch the convoys coming in. Fitted with the revolutionary air-breathing Schnorkel, the U-boats could run fast on their diesel engines at periscope depth. This made the boats far harder to detect, more mobile and more dangerous.

The preparations for D-Day saw eight Canadian Mid-Ocean Escort Force destroyers form two strike groups in a great offensive to snuff the U-boat threat to the invasion armada and the subsequent supply convoys. Capt. Chummy Prentice commanded Escort Group 11 that sank three U-boats. Another eight were sunk by the RCN against a loss of four ships.

But the U-boats never gave up. At Christmas 1944 a lone wolf sank a ship in the Halifax approaches, then demolished the minesweeper Clayoquot. Another sank two in a three-ship convoy and picked off three more that were filing into Halifax.

Dönitz mustered a dozen new boats for another crack at the eastern seaboard and on April 16, 1945, U-190 sank Esquimalt, killing 39. At the time, the minesweeper had been on patrol five miles off Chebucto Head near Halifax.

On May 8, 1945, the war in Europe ended. The U-boats surfaced and flew black flags of surrender. It was not known for sure whether some would fight on, so the convoys held ranks and finally on May 28 all ships at sea switched on their running lights and the longest battle of the war, The Battle of the Atlantic, was over.

The Rate Of Slaughter

Germany built more than 1,000 U-boats for the war. The peak strength of 445 was in January 1944. It was a formidable force, one that sank approximately 2,600 merchant ships and 175 warships, and killed 50,000 people. In turn, Germany lost 632 U-boats and 28,000 men. This last number represented 70 per cent of the 40,000 men who went to sea in U-boats, a rate of slaughter far beyond any other major fighting formation in the annals of modern war.

The U-boats’ target, the true heroes of this longest, most bitter and destructive battle in the history of war at sea, were the Allied merchant seamen who pushed themselves to the limit through one dangerous passage after another. Canada built four hundred 10,000-ton cargo ships. Seventy-three ships that flew Canada’s Red Ensign were sunk and more than 2,000 merchant seamen died.

The Navy at war’s end had close to 100,000 men and women and manned some 400 fighting ships from motor launches to carriers and cruisers. The RCN lost 28 ships and approximately 2,000 men. They fought in other battles, other roles, but most fought–and died–in the Battle of the Atlantic. The small, hard core of permanent force RCN people served mostly in destroyers and up and in senior command. RCNR officers and experienced men from the peacetime merchant service filled key command and technical posts at sea, but the great majority–men who came from every corner of Canada–were in the RCNVR. They knew next to nothing about the sea at the start but mastered it and learned to fight on it by just getting out there and doing it. However ill-prepared and ill-equipped they were at the start, they stemmed the tide of defeat and held the line again and again. This total Canadian effort sank 33 U-boats, escorted 25,000 merchant ship journeys that delivered 180 million tons of vital cargo.

And all of this was, as distinguished historian Desmond Morton wrote, “the most decisive Canadian contribution to the war.”

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